Namibia. I have wanted to visit this country since my friend CG traveled there during her posting to Angola. All I knew is that Namibia is home to large sand dunes . That sounded sufficiently cool. Fast forward a decade and my daughter and I are living in southern Africa. Another friend is posted to Namibia. She once noted on Facebook that she had received a notice to stay indoors as a leopard had been spotted in her neighborhood in Windhoek. That sounded terribly exotic; we only have the occasional hyena in Lilongwe.
We landed at the Windhoek airport close to 10 PM. Our hotel shuttle driver was waiting. On the 30 minute drive into town, even in the darkness, it became quickly apparent we were no longer in Kansas, er, in Malawi anymore. The drive from the airport in Windhoek is similar to that in Lilongwe, approximately half an hour, and a distance from the city limits. But that is where the similarities end. The paved road was better, clean, smooth, nicely painted. We stopped at a police checkpoint, it had a well-crafted metal dome, it was well lit. That means electricity. Police checkpoints in Malawi are much cruder – no cover, wooden beams placed over oil drums. As we approached Windhoek we saw sidewalks; we saw them because there were working street lights, working traffic lights. It was hard not to already feel impressed with Namibia. And then to feel a wee bit silly that I found sidewalks and streetlights so remarkable.
The next morning we headed out on a free guided walking tour recommended by my friend MB. There is not much to draw visitors in Windhoek, but the few tourist sites are located near one another. We could have walked to them on our own, but our student guide gave us a plethora of information in the 90 minute tour. We stopped first Windhoek’s most iconic landmark, the Christ Church, a 100+ year old German Lutheran church built during the German colonial period. The clock, bells, and part of the roof were brought in from Germany; the stained glass windows a gift from Emperor Wilheim II. Inside is a plaque inscribed with the names of German and military casualties during the colonial wars.
We then crossed the street to the Parliament building, built orginally as the headquarters for the German colonial administrative offices, and its gardens. We then headed a short way up the road, at the corner of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street, to the Independence Memorial Museum. The building is jarring. Modern, yes, but also leaning on eyesore. No surprise then that it was built by a North Korean firm in the socialist-realist style. The bronze statue of Namibia’s first President was also made by North Korea. Behind the museum we ended the tour in the currently closed Alte Feste, once the headquarters of the imperial German military, in front of which stands the Genocide statue (also gifted by North Korea) representing the brutal extermination and punishment of Herero and Namaqua people during the 1904-1907 Namibia-German war, and how the indigenous people of Namibia overcame repression. We left the tour there and headed to the museum, which while informative, most certainly had that same socialist-realist vibe. We swung by the kudu statue and then headed back to the hotel.
On the way back we had to pass the craft market. On our approach I suddenly saw a group of five extraordinarily dressed women pass in front of us. Tall, lithe, dressed in only a goat hide skirt covered with a sarong like material; their bare arms and chests covered in leather and bronze jewelry, their feet in gladiator-like sandals. Their skin and hair shown a deep bronze terracotta color for the otjize paste (made of butter fat and ochre) they use to protect themselves in the harsh desert climate. I gasped audibly and blurtered out “you are beautiful.” They immediately turned to me, gave me stunning smiles, and one wrapped her arm around mine to walk with us. The Himba people are known for their incredible friendliness. Once they had set up their stand C purchased one of their bracelets and they allowed me to take a photo.
My friend MB got off work at the Embassy and picked us up so we would head to lunch. She then helped me to purchase a SIM card so that I would not be left completely without phone or data while traveling around one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Then we picked up the rental car and stocked up on bottled water, apples, and snacks.
The following day it was time to begin our Namibia road trip. Now, back in Malawi, having finished the Namibian vacation, knowing we survived the drives is so different from before it began. Back when I was planning the trip I thought most about doing the driving. I wanted the freedom driving ourselves would bring. C and I have gone on a few day group bus trips. They have been convenient and sometimes fun. But there have been those, like the one to the Cape of Good Hope, where we were too much at the mercy of other tourists who had their own agenda at the expense of everyone else. I did not want to do that for a whole trip. Yet I am a single parent, who has limited (my diplomatic way of saying non-existent) car repair skills, traveling with a 7-year old long distances in a country I have never been to. I have traveled to many places, I am intrepid, but honestly, the driving had me a tad worried.
Heading north from Windhoek toward Etosha National Park though, I had nothing to worry about. It was a long four hour drive but on the most beautifully tarred road. There was not much to see along the way, a few times we saw warthogs and baboons, but mostly miles and miles of green shrubs, every once in awhile a town that we could drive through in minutes.
After over four hours of driving we arrived at our lodging, the Etosha Safari Camp. We had a little cabin a short one minute drive from the main building. From outside it was functional, plain, but inside it was bright, modern, and whimsical. We had a sweet queen sized bed below a same-sized loft. C loved the bathroom the best.
We spent the next two days driving around Etosha National Park. Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible, stark beauty of Africa’s oldest national park. The biggest feature of the park is a massive salt pan that can be seen from space. Most of the park is savannah woodlands but near the pan, where we visited, its sandy grassland or very low scrub. Because of this one can see animals far in the distance. We saw many animals, mostly springbok, oryx, and ostrich, but could also drive for twenty minutes without seeing an animal or another vehicle.
We drove for two hours the first day, five hours the second. Long times in the car, but it was not boring. I bought C a checklist book so she could mark off the animals we saw and she had her tablet and a few toys. Lucky finds were the lion cubs and later lionesses, kudu at a watering hole, and wildebeest. We would have loved to see more predators but we were not that lucky.
Fortunately, I planned for us to visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 45 minutes outside of Otijwarongo, about two hours south of the Andersson Gate at Etosha. C LOVES cheetahs and Namibia is one of the best places to see them as the country hosts the largest concentration of this magnificent wild cat. In Namibia there are about 3,500 cheetahs; compare this to the 16 recently reintroduced to Malawi. At the facility visitors can observe their resident cheetahs, who cannot be released into the wild, see feeding time, and take drives into the enclosure. We also stayed the night at the Cheetah View Lodge where we could watch the sunset and then rise over the beautiful Waterberg Pleateau. It was so peaceful.