Desert Homestead is beautiful and like all of our lodges and campsites in Namibia, the hosts are extremely friendly and hospitable, especially the barman/waiter/trail guide and all round host, Andrew. The food and wine is superb and the lodge is very comfortable – a great place to relax into our trip. The big attraction down here is Sosusvlei, an elliptical clay pan in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, surrounded by the world’s biggest sand dunes.
We’re up early and on the road to the Sesriem gate into the National Park. Then it’s 37 miles of tarmac road and 4 miles of sand to Sossusvlei. On the way we pass the 80 metre high Dune 45 (it’s 45 kilometres from the gate). We stop and climb slowly to the summit where we’re rewarded with sightings of beautiful big oryx and dainty springbok antelope, pacing along the orange dunes.
At the end of the tarmac road there’s a carpark known as “2×4 parking” – any non-4WD vehicle must stop there. But we’re in a 4X4 right? So I engage the diff lock and away we go. The desert sand is soft and deep, we swing wildly through it, and within minutes Sputnik is buried almost up to the hubs, wheels spinning ineffectually at best and digging us in deeper at worst. Eventually, we get out and look at our trapped vehicle, thinking that if we look long and hard enough, it will extract itself. Fortunately these dunes are a popular route to Sossusvlei, busy with big off road vehicles ferrying people from the 2X4 parking. One of them stops, the African driver climbs down and walks around the stricken Sputnik. He tells me to let the air out of the tyres so that there’s a distinct bulge, increasing traction. Then, using a shovel he starts, somewhat counterintuitively, to fill the holes around the tyres and then rock the van back and forth to get more sand underneath. A Dutch couple give us a hand. He attaches a tow rope to the front and instructs me, when the rope is taut, to engage first gear and, using the clutch, ensure the wheels don’t spin. Slowly, we’re driven and pulled onto firmer sand where we park up and pay our saviour to drive us the remaining few miles to Sossusvlei. It’s been good to get an early understanding of the van’s capabilities and my limitations as an off-road driver – a salient lesson in a safe place with rescue at hand.
The flat Sossusvlei pan is a remarkable phenomenon where, without reference points, distances are strangely condensed or lengthened. More impressive to me is the nearby surreal Deadvlei, another clay pan that used to be an oasis with several camelthorn trees. The river that watered the oasis has changed its course and the pan is interspersed by blackened, dead camelthorn trees, in stark contrast to the white salty floor of the pan, the intense orange of the dunes and the azure sky. It’s a weird and wonderful landscape. Nearby are another couple of enormous dunes, Big Mama and Big Daddy. We give our driver a decent tip and, back in Sputnik, we follow him out of the dunes, when I discover that, where there are clear, deep-rutted tracks in the sand, I mustn’t fight the steering wheel – just relax and let the vehicle steer itself. I can’t wait to do this again.
Another four hour drive today, northwest, past the unattractive Walvis Bay, Namibia’s only natural deep water harbour, to the small town of Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. Such was Walvis Bay’s geographic importance that the British held onto it as part of South Africa, not permitting it to be incorporated in German South West Africa. It was not ceded back to independent Namibia until 1994.
I have bizarre recollections of Namibia from the Eighties. The German colonial architecture, the mostly Germanic street names – Goring Strasse in Windhoek and in Swakopmund: Mosely Avenue, Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, Louis Botha Strasse, Bismarck Strasse. Now they’ve all been changed to honour African heroes and leaders. On a Saturday night in 1988, we found ourselves in a typical Bavarian beer stube, complete with beer steins, lederhosen and raucous German folk songs. A bizarre find indeed, over 7,000 miles from Munich.
Swakopmund is often shrouded in fog, formed when moisture laden air is rapidly cooled by the very cold upwelling Benguela current that runs north along Namibia’s coast. Much of the unique life in the desert depends on the frequency of this moisture laden fog which forms on up to 120 days a year. And today is one of those days. It’s cold and grey so we seek out a warm restaurant for lunch. The Tug Restaurant is built around an old Glaswegian tugboat. We order Walvis Bay oysters and Bloody Marys after which Jo submerges her feet into the South Atlantic – her verdict – bloody freezing. But she’s rewarded for her plucky dip with an up close view of a small pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming along the coast.
We’re heading north along the 300 mile long Skeleton Coast, so named because of the huge numbers of stranded whales that have died here and whose skeletons litter the sands. It’s also, because of the fog, the world’s biggest ship cemetery. We’re only driving about 70 miles to Cape Cross and the Cape Cross Seal Reserve: home to one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world. During the breeding season there are nearly a quarter of a million seals here. You can smell it before you see it. The sight, sounds and smells are overwhelming. The adult males are scarred monsters either asleep or looking for a fight or a shag. Abandoned or crushed and decaying, dead pups litter the beach. The stench is of rotting fish, flesh and faeces. With a backdrop of crashing waves, the grunts, growls and screams meld into an ear-splittingly evil chorus. It’s great stuff.
A few miles further north is an old wreck of a cargo ship rusting on the beach. When we stop to take a look, we’re approached by a couple of Africans selling colourful semi precious stones. Jo likes rocks but she’s not that keen to haggle. But these guys are pleasantly persistent. I persuade Jo to haggle with them so she makes an absurdly low offer which elicits much laughter. We say thank you and walk away but they possibly haven’t seen any likely customers for days so they’re on our case with extravagant claims as to the rarity and value of their stones. Jo sticks to her pitiful offer – I’m impressed – but I quietly predicted that she’d be a natural at this game, she haggles with me all the time. The African’s next tack is to play to Jo’s feminine sensibilities, they have parents, wives and children to feed. Jo’s offer moves up and, with much smiling and shaking of hands, the deal is sealed.
It is the afternoon of day five of our Namibian road trip and it’s time we slept overnight in Sputnik. We’re driving inland, east to Spitzkoppe Rest Camp in the spectacular Spitzkoppe Mountains. Characterised by 700 million year old bald ochre granite boulders, it is a region seldom visited, almost a secret. It’s a special place with an unmistakable aura. It’s very dry here, real desert country.
To enter the camp, which is hidden inside a canyon of enormous house sized boulders, we pay a small entrance fee to a native woman at a small shack. The money goes to the local community. Camping spaces are roughly demarcated but the place is colossal and empty. The soaring height of the surrounding mountains are not evident until one walks away from the van and looks up.
We drink gins and tonic in the setting sun. Tiny weaver birds, swifts, and crickets as big as wrens flash about us. The colours are wonderful, especially the vivid blue sky against the ochre boulders. The light is shifting fast, the rocks transitioning from crimson to burnt sienna to pale yellow as the sun descends. Shadows shorten and expand. Now in the last few rays, it’s suddenly cold. After the rapid sunset, in the absence of any light pollution, the stars are phenomenal and the stillness is absolute. The milky way is so clear, like a blanket, a grey cloud of stars, with barely any dark sky. It’s quite fantastic.
We light the barbeque and cook oryx steaks (very mild, like beef) which we eat with salad and Amarula. Illuminated by the light of a decent torch we walk amongst the boulders and meet a friendly and happy African security guard. There’s an assortment of animal noises out there. We don’t know what they are. I suspect they’re harmless but, coming from Sussex, England, we really don’t know what they are. So rather than linger in the dark we snuggle into Sputnik, which despite it’s austerity, is very comfortable.
Tuesday morning; Spitzkoppe Restcamp. This place must surely be the highlight of our journey through Namibia – but it’s only day six. This morning, after an outside shower and breakfast we climb some of those massive smooth ochre boulders. Despite the desert conditions there are rock pools and dozens of small rodent-like creatures scampering about. They are Dassies or more properly Rock Hyraxes, whose closest relative is the elephant. Had we known that Spitzkoppe was so enchanting we’d have planned to stay longer but we have reservations elsewhere and must move on. Jo makes a note of our pitch: 9B, just for future reference. “For when we return,” says Jo.
Today we’ll drive three hours north, mostly on gravel, to Aabadi Mountain Camp, a campsite that’s described as basic, but fun. There are now ‘beware elephant’ signs on the road, troops of baboons and roaming ostriches. We stop at a cluster of huts occupied by women of the Himba tribe. They are beautiful: their skin and hair adorned with a cream made from butter, various plant elixirs, and bright red volcanic ochre rock. They are remarkable too, the last semi nomadic people of Namibia, largely eschewing the trappings of the modern world, respecting and living according to the traditions of their ancestors. Jo buys a couple of bracelets and we share some of our fruit with them. They’re very happy to have photographs taken of themselves and their children.
Driving in Southern Africa is a liberating experience. The roads, especially the tarmac ones, are in terrific condition, and the ever changing vistas and colours we see as we drive are incredible. A road roller coasters into a distant red mountain range, through which it curls to expose huge valleys and more mountains. The landscape is of an enormous scale and devoid of humanity. I’m humbled by the majesty of it all, and I can’t wipe the grin off my face. By mid afternoon we are at Aabadi Mountain Camp and ready to seek out desert elephants.