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Dunes in Sossusvlei National Park, viewed from a hot air balloon at sunrise

Namibia: Land of Neverending Color

Story and photos by Cindy-Lou Dale

Namibia, the land of never-ending color, rock formations and haunting emptiness, is a vast and barren region in the south western corner of the African continent -- wedged between Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa in the south and to the west is the foreboding Atlantic Ocean. Remarkably, only two million people call this place home.

The many faces of Namibia weave an equally wonderful tapestry, threaded by a dozen cultural groups, including the Wambo, who comprise nearly half the population; the Herero, historically a nomadic pastoralist people; and the San bushmen, hunter-gatherers by tradition.

There are also a number of Namibians of European decent, reflecting the land’s occupation by Germany and South Africa before independence in 1990.

Namibia contains one of the oldest deserts in the world; the largest canyon, second only to the Grand Canyon; and is also home to the world’s highest dunes, towering over their nearest rivals in Arabia.

First German Settlement

I started my Namibian experience in the south at the remote and immensely appealing hamlet of Luderitz, a tiny fishing village forgotten by time.

The barren beauty of the desert landscape offsets the colonial architecture, revealing its Bavarian history as the first German settlement in South West Africa, the name Namibia was formerly known by.

Luderitz was initially a trading post and a fishing port, then the first diamonds were found in a small town nearly and Luderitz enjoyed a swift rush of riches. Now, after the depletion of diamonds, Luderitz again finds itself shrouded in solitude between the encroaching tangerine colored dunes and the inhospitable South Atlantic Ocean attacking its shores.

My first notion of Luderitz was that of a slightly run-down, middle aged lady. Its appeal comes from the various selections of brightly colored colonial homes, churches with tall spires and buildings complete with steeples, gables and bow windows.

Reclaimed by the Namib Sands

Heading a few miles out Luderitz, towards the ghost town of Kolmanskop, I became mesmerized by the sand blowing over the road, it made for difficult driving conditions as I could not see where the desert began or the road ended. Once home to several hundred wealthy colonists who lived in grandness, Kolmanskop is now abandoned. The numerous grand and elegant dwellings which remain are now eroded by the winds and are steadily being shrouded and eaten into by the Namib sands.

Horned adder as Sossusvlei National Park

Further south and some distance inland is the spectacular Fish River Canyon. At its base, the Fish River twists and turns, its clear water tumbling over rocks. In the early morning you can hear the bark of baboons echo around the rocks and small buck dart up gullies.

Wild life teems in the area -- kudu, leopard and mountain zebra, whose tracks you may come across, but seldom see, secret themselves away from humans. From the top of the canyon the view can only be described as breathtaking. There are no shops or kiosks, only a bench in the shade. You may find your camera unable to do justice to this natural magnificence.

Ballooning at Sunrise

From the Fish River I traveled north and found the famed dunes of Sossusvlei, home to the world’s highest dunes. Viewed from a hot air balloon at sunrise, I could see why this country was considered a photographer’s dream as around me, and beyond the horizon rose immense apricot colored dunes.

Below I saw a lone antelope making its way up a dune, when he reached the summit he tossed his head then stabbed at the sky with gigantic horns. As I passed overhead, he looked up, snorting defiantly at my intrusion.

Zebra at water hole

Further north is Namibia’s summer capital, the old coastal town of Swakopmund -- one of the most otherworldly spots in the country. Approaching the town at sunrise I witnessed the arrival of the morning fog, born out of the sea. It washed over the beach then rolled along the sleepy town’s roads, first obscuring the gutters, then the sidewalks, finally blurring the buildings themselves.

The mist had a distinctive seagull smell about it and my line of sight was shortened, which made my heart uneasy when all I could see was the Bavarian spires and the only sound was the constant boom of the sea. But the sun soon dissolved the fog and revealed a town whose architecture was an unusual Bohemian and Bavarian mix.

I was captivated by its people though – a melting pot of young, old, rich, poor, artists, miners, fishermen, and Herero women dressed in their everyday clothing of Victorian dresses. Swakopmund is a little corner of old Bavaria wedged between a barren wilderness and an inhospitable coastline.

Seals and Flamingos

Oryx near Skeleton Coast

North of Swakopmund are the golden dunes of the Skeleton Coast, home to an immense seal colony, flocks of flamingos and skeletal shipwrecks -- the strong currents, treacherous fog and shifting underwater sandbanks marooned many early explorers. Most of these relics are strewn along the misty, unending stretch of coast – a gripping sight and spectacular photography.

I treated myself to a few days of luxury at the Serra Cafema Camp, located in the extreme north of Namibia, bordering Angola. Sipping champagne and languishing in my private pool I contemplated the sunset, rugged mountains and sand dunes about me and felt certain this had to rank as one of life’s ultimate indulgences.

Serra Cafema is built on an island of Albida trees and overlooks the Kunene River -- home to Africa’s rarest bird, the Cinderella Waxbill. This peaceful and spacious rustic camp is one of the most remote in Southern Africa and has a Himba settlement nearby, allowing interaction with some of the last nomadic tribes in Africa -- an unforgettable cultural experience.

A Boat Ride Down the Kunene

The next morning, at breakfast, the camp’s guide, Moses, advised the small Japanese tourist group and me that we would all be going for a boat ride down the Kunene to watch crocodiles basking on the river banks. Knowing the perils which lay ahead I took the sensible precaution of aestheticizing myself with several glasses of red wine, a suggestion I shared with my fellow travelers, who were all unusually subdued when climbing into the boat.

Shipwreck at Skeleton Coast
I felt certain we were all quietly aware that this very morning we would all meet our certain deaths. All with the exception of Moses, who clearly feared nothing. By the time we returned to camp I was almost calm. The Japanese tourists, now exhilarated, continued with numerous activities – quad biking on the dunes and a 4x4 safari game drive. I opted for recovering next to the pool.

A Memorable Flight

The following evening I boarded a light aircraft bound for Gobabis, which is on Namibia’s eastern border with Botswana. The flight itself was without incident but a perplexing problem arose when the pilot could not find the runway on which to land. He was convinced someone had forgotten to switch on the runway lights before going home. After numerous fly by’s an alarm sounded, soon followed by an audible “oh-oh”, which was by no means comforting as the alarm indicated a fuel shortage.

A moment later the pilot shrieked and announced that he had found the runway. He tilted the plane so steeply that I sometimes still sit upright in bed at 3am thinking about it. I was again comfortably certainty that I was going to die and then, I saw the runway. The plane landed hard and felt as if it was broad-siding.

Himba village daycare center

For a long and frightening moment I felt certain the plane would disintegrate, but the pilot held it together. After a small eternity we came to a stop just outside of a hanger and that was where I made a silent promise, a promise that however many years were left to me and wherever my travels took me, the only way I would ever be killed by a light aircraft is if one fell on me.

Working in the Wild

Still feeling a little weak, I slowly walked towards the chauffeur and vehicle parked adjacent to the hangar, sent for me by the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary. Harnas is the only sanctuary of its kind in Africa and runs a working guest program, which was especially designed to fulfill most eco-tourists dreams of working in the wild. Harnas is located on 100 square miles of land as has been fenced by its international patron, Angelina Jolie, who has a house on the sanctuary’s land.

In the morning a San-bushman guided me to the waterhole where we silently observed numerous wild animals converge to the waters edge. He told me of the animals the sanctuary saves, rehabilitates and then releases back into the wild. We walked past the nursery and I watched in amazement as one of the working guests bottle fed a frisky lion cub.

People Watching

My last day in Namibia was spent in its cosmopolitan capital city, Windhoek. This is a city that has successfully combined innovative modern constructions with old German colonial architecture. The town centre is a pedestrianized walkway with shops and market stalls. Several sidewalk cafes in this area make for great ‘people watching’.

In fact, I found there to be such diversity I could easily have sat there all day. As capital cities go, this is one of the safest and most relaxed in Southern Africa and a perfect place to start or finish a Namibian holiday.

I left Namibia with a little sand in my pocket and a full appreciation for her beauty. There much more to experience and many places to see but for this middle-aged traveler with now somewhat frayed nerves, I needed to head home. This was an extreme vacation I would definitely repeat.

Did you know?

• Namibia was the first country in the world to incorporate the protection of the environment into its constitution; some 14% of the land is protected, including virtually the entire Namib Desert coastal strip.
• The capital city has a world-wide unique water treatment plant which recycles domestic wastewater into drinking water.

Climate

Namibia has a sub-tropical desert climate -- low rainfall and huge temperature fluctuations between day and night. During the dry season, which runs broadly from April to October, the skies are blue with rarely a cloud in sight. However, I do suggest you avoid August – this is the season of desert storm winds, which is a wall of wind, no visibility, hotter than summer for four days continuously. In November the rains start to build but tend not to fall until early December. Then, through the rainy period there will typically be a downpour for around an hour on some days, before the skies clear again. The atmosphere is clear and the desert blooms.

Wildlife

Namibia has wild game all over the country. In the desert areas it is widely dispersed, whilst around the permanent water sources such as in Etosha and the Caprivi, game concentrations are high. Predators are well represented with lion, spotted hyena and leopard.

Cheetah thinks I'm getting too close.
Cheetahs are thriving and Namibia has an estimated 40% of Africa's cheetah population. Elephant occur in hundred strong herds in the Caprivi and Etosha whilst Damaraland has populations of the desert-adapted elephant and black rhino. Giraffe, wildebeest, impala, springbok and gemsbok are common whilst you may need to search for eland, brown hyena and bat eared foxes.

Namibia's birds will not disappoint, with many endemic species such as the Ruppell's korhaan and the dune lark. The coast sees flocks of greater and lesser flamingos and white pelicans all year, while, during the rains Namibia's birds are swelled with an influx of Palearctic and intra-African migrants.

Visas and Other Documents

• U.S. Passport must be valid 3 months beyond intended stay
• Tickets and Documents for return or onward travel
• No Visa Required for stay up to 3 months
• Vaccinations - International Certificate of Vaccination for Yellow Fever required if arriving from infected area within 5 days

Clothing and Personal Care

Skincare:
• It is recommended that you wear sun block at all times.
• Bring a hat and sunglasses – Namibia has sunshine throughout the year.

Clothing:
• As Namibia has hot days and cool nights, warm clothing is necessary no matter what part of Namibia is visited.
• When visiting during the summer it is advisable to pack cotton clothing.

Electric:
• Points for electric shavers (current 250VAC) are available at most hotels, resorts and the airport.

Diseases:
• Northern Namibia is a Malaria-endemic zone.
• Travelers must have the necessary medication/prophylaxis, insect repellent lotions or sprays.
• It is advisable to sleep under a mosquito net at night when visiting Northern Namibia.
• If windows and doors are not screened with mosquito netting, keep them closed.
• Extreme caution should be exercised when considering bathing in African rivers. Most carry Bilharzias patho-gene and harbor crocodiles and hippos.

Photographers:
• Keep film in a cool box, especially while traveling.
• It is advisable to have all lenses fitted with UV filters due to harsh light.

Security:
• When traveling by road, keep your vehicle locked at all times.
• Visible articles of value should be locked in a safe place and kept out of sight so as not to tempt petty thieves.
• Be aware of handbag snatchers and pick pockets.

Road travel:
• Traffic in Namibia is drives on the left side, as in the United Kingdom.
• Distances and speed are measures in kilometers.
• Gas stations are available throughout Namibia and are located approximately 200 miles apart. However, they do not accept credit cards as form of payment for gas. Ensure that you have cash (Namibian Dollars or South African Rand).
• The distances in the desert are always double what you bargained for. Off the motorway most roads are gravel and as such dangerous to negotiate above 35 mph.
• It is advisable not to drive at night as wild animals become more active at sunset/sunrise.
• Switch on your vehicles headlights to be more visible in dusty conditions on the road.
• Permits must be obtained when traveling to National Parks or Game Reserves.

Water:
• Water is Namibia’s scarcest commodity.
• Tourists can contribute positively to water-saving efforts by using the shower.
• It is illegal to wash a car using a hosepipe. Use a bucket of water and a cloth instead.
• Minimize on leaving water running while shaving, brushing teeth or washing hands.
• Namibia’s tap water is drinkable.
• When traveling by road ensure you have adequate drinking water.

Activities and Tours

While individual travel is a great way to go, it will likely require extensive planning and bookings from six to twelve months in advance. Just turning up in the country, renting a vehicle, and setting out will likely end in great frustration, or worse; organized tours generally offer good value for money and relieve the burden of accommodation bookings as they are pre-arranged, lightening the load of other travel logistics.

TYPES OF SAFARI TOURS

The word safari means more than game drives. It encompasses virtually any adventure outing. Generally, a safari takes one of the following three forms, and varies in length from a few days to several months:

Mobile:
One or two night stays in temporary or permanent camps with basic facilities, traveling in 12-25 seat buses, catering mainly to budget travelers.

Mobile Permanent:
Short stays in various camps and lodges, often groups of 6-12 traveling in minibuses or Land Rovers, a mid-range target.

Permanent:
Stays in permanently tented sites or lodges, a base from which to explore the surrounding area by day, aimed at those with a need for daily creature comforts.

© Cindy-Lou Dale 2005

Cindy-Lou Dale




Cindy-Lou Dale is an award-winning writer and photo journalist with bases in Brussels and London. Visit her website, cindyloudale.com.


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Read more stories by Cindy-Lou Dale:

Namibia's Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary: Noah's Ark in the Desert


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Visit our Cindy-Lou Dale Page with links to all her stories

 

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