After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast. Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town. On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift. Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet. I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform? There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time. Along the way we chatted. The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break. She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system. This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.
We dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest. This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected. As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.
Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly. Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly. However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund! We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).
The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve. Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485. The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!
The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross. Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country. Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color. Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert. However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks. As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.
Seals as far as the eye could see! Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves. The parking lot was surrounded. The smell…was, um, frangrant. We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance. Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk. In fact, towards the end two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement. When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me. I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.
Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue. We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty. Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag. C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”
Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town. Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride. Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own. He trusted me and C did a great job. But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own. Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field. The whole experience completely made C’s morning.
We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year. We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season. Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour. With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand. They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.
There was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.
It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint. Ugh. There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint. And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists! Another score for Namibia.
After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.
Miles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization. No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars. It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary. This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me. I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios. There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).
At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire. Well, town might be a bit of a stretch. Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei. The population is probably less than 100 souls. The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars. We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson. The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.
We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose. This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast. But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical. We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45. There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down. Whew. Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child. The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that. No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.
Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei. Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand. Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.
We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.
Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes. I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath. C never seems to need to catch hers. We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness. I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car. Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor. He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family. Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon. Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.
We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass. For a good two hours we passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan. Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.
Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer. It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country. It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.