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A perfect holiday destination?

Namibia Introduction


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Ballooning over the Namib Desert

The first trip I ever wrote about on Virtual Tourist was the one we took to Namibia in 2004, about a year before joining that community. My reviews were sketchy as I hadn’t then got into the habit of keeping a proper record as I travelled, apart from jotting down a few notes about the photos I took. So this retrospective blog will be equally sketchy, I suspect, but hopefully still of interest to a few readers and an interesting small slice of my travel history for me.

Here’s how I introduced that long-ago VT page:

In a lot of ways this is just about the perfect holiday destination. The scenery is spectacular, especially if like me you love deserts; the wildlife is interesting (though probably not on a par with the classic safari destinations); there are some truly wonderful places to stay, the food is good and the wine excellent, and everywhere you go the welcome is friendly.

Getting around

One of the joys of a holiday in Namibia is that you can drive yourself - perfect if, like us, you prefer to be able to stop when, where and for as long as you please. And you don't need a four-wheel drive for most of the main roads. Be careful though - most roads are gravel not tar and it's very easy to skid and spin the car, as we found out!

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On the road in Namibia
~ Chris with our hire car

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On the road in Namibia
~ local style

Where to stay

There's a good choice of accommodation, and although camping is popular it isn't the only way to see this wonderful country. If you feel like a bit of luxury you can find it in the amazing lodges (Huab and Okonjima were our favourites), if you prefer something more simple there are little pensions or the state-run places in Etosha, and for ‘camping’ with a difference you could try sleeping out under the stars at one of the desert lodges like Kulala!

Wonderful wildlife

Although it's not such an obvious destination for wildlife as maybe Kenya or Tanzania, there's still plenty to be found. Etosha National Park has elephants, rhino, wildebeest and loads of zebra! If you're lucky (unfortunately we weren't!) you may see the elusive desert elephants further north, but for us the wildlife highlight was seeing the cheetahs at Okonjima.

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Zebra, Etosha National Park

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Kudo near Huab Lodge

Friendly people

We met lots of great people on our travels - running hotels (like Jan and Susi at Huab, Sam in Swakopmund and others), our fellow tourists and also some really excellent guides such as Francis who took us on a great tour of Sossusvlei.

Our route

Namibia is a big country and the gravel roads mean that you can’t cover large distances, so you need to plan your route carefully to fit in everything you most want to see, especially if like us your time is limited. We had only two weeks, so had to make some tough decisions about what not to see as well as what we would fit in. With that amount of time you can realistically see either the northern half, or the southern half, or as we decided to do, focus on a band in the centre.

This meant that Fish Canyon in the south, and the Caprivi Strip in the north were off our list. Regretfully we eliminated the Skeleton Coast too, on grounds of cost – that, and the Caprivi Strip, are still very definitely on the list for a return visit!

So what route did we follow? Starting from Windhoek we drove south to the Kalahari and then west to the Namib Desert and Sesriem. Then north and west again to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. From there further north up the coast and then inland to Damaraland and beyond to Etosha. Finally, we drove back south to Windhoek.

This route filled the two weeks comfortably. With a little more time, and hindsight, I would have split the drive from Sesriem to Swakopmund into two days as it was long and tiring on those roads, and I would have tried to fit in an extra day in Swakopmund so we could have done one of the flights over the Skeleton Coast (by the time we arrived the next day’s tours were booked up, and we had to leave the following day). But on the whole this route worked well for us given that we had limited time and money.

We pre-booked our car hire and all accommodation through a specialist tour agency here in the UK, Sunvil, and were provided with a good map which marked all the fuel stations in the country (an essential item if driving there) and tips on safe driving on the mainly gravel roads.

In the following pages I’ll cover all of the places mentioned above and more, and share some of my favourite photos of the landscapes and wildlife of this beautiful country, which I summed up back then as:

A visual feast: red sand, blue sky and the brightest stars you'll ever see

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The dunes of Soussevlei, and a Bottle Tree at Huab Lodge

We visited Namibia as we were transitioning from 35 mm photography to digital, and I took photos in both formats. Unfortunately, despite turning the house upside down, we haven’t been able to find our slides from that trip (every other trip but not that one!) so I have only a limited number of photos of some of the places we visited to share here. I do have a few slides on my hard drive, which I previously scanned for my Virtual Tourist page, so I know they must be somewhere in the house. They will probably turn up in an unlikely corner just as I finish all my blog entries

We flew to Windhoek from London via Johannesburg, so I’ll pick up the story in my next entry with our arrival in Namibia …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:06 Archived in Namibia Tagged trees desert road_trip wildlife hotel cars roads africa safari zebra namibia photography national_park Comments (22)

Learning to drive in Namibia!

Namibia Day One


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Eningu Clay House Lodge

We landed at Windhoek’s small airport around midday and after clearing all the formalities and collecting our luggage we made our way to the car hire desk. Once our paperwork was checked we were escorted to the parking area. After taking advice from the tour company we had decided on a 2WD rather than 4WD vehicle – although we’d be driving on gravel roads for most of this trip we were assured all the ones on our route were manageable in a 2WD and as we had no experience of 4WD we felt trying to learn here would be the harder and potentially riskier option.

Before leaving we took our time checking the car thoroughly, as we’d been warned that we could be penalised for damage not already logged – damage that was all too likely on those gravel roads. We pointed out a few additional scratches not marked on the hire company’s record sheet and then signed for the car – it was time to hit the road!

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Welcome to Eningu Clay House Lodge

Chris had kindly ‘volunteered’ to do all the driving on this trip, so I was navigator. We had opted to spend our first night in a lodge that was relatively near the airport – around 70 kilometres away. For the first couple of these we were on tarmac but very soon we had to turn south on our first gravel road.

Fortunately there was very little traffic (as we were to find pretty much everywhere) so we could take our time, mindful of the advice we’d been given. The main points of this were to stick to under 50 kph and not to do anything (brake, change direction) too suddenly.

Just fifteen minutes into our drive we spotted a kudu – another reminder, if we’d needed it, that we were driving somewhere very different from home and needed to stay alert not only because of the road surfaces but also the very real risk of encountering animals on the roads. There are very few fences here, and the quietness of the roads means that animals are likely to regard them as a simple extension of their usual territory.

Eningu Clay House Lodge

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Our bungalow

We arrived at our destination unscathed after just over an hour’s driving and were immediately taken by the property. The rooms are in individual adobe buildings in attractive grounds on the edge of the Kalahari Desert which the lodge’s website describes accurately as ‘vast camel thorn savannah’.

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Inside our room

There was plenty of time left of the day to enjoy our surroundings. At our host Stephanie’s suggestion we went for a walk in the bush, accompanied by the lodge’s friendly Labrador dog Shaka. The walk led to a small lookout tower with views of the surrounding land.

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Chris in the grounds

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Chris with Shaka, and cacti in the grounds

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Toucan in the grounds

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Me at the lookout tower

When we got back I braved the small unheated swimming pool which was pretty chilly despite the heat of the day (it gets very cold here at night as we were soon to see) but very refreshing.

In the evening we had a delicious dinner served to us and the two other guests in front of a welcome open fire.

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A much-needed warm fire

After dinner we all went outside and Stephanie led us up onto the flat roof of the main building where there was a good telescope. Living in a city I was astounded by the number and brilliance of the stars – it was my first time star-gazing in such an unpolluted environment and I’d never seen anything quite as spectacular! We saw some of the brightest shooting stars I'd ever seen, and found three of Jupiter's moons through the telescope.

But July is winter in Namibia and here in the desert the nights are freezing, so after our time up on the roof we thoroughly enjoyed a glass of the local brandy in front of the fire, and were happy on returning to our room to find a hot water bottle in the bed. What a great start to our Namibian adventures!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:38 Archived in Namibia Tagged birds night desert road_trip hotel roads africa dogs namibia cacti kalahari Comments (14)

The Kalahari Desert

Namibia Day Two


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Cactus at Anib Lodge

Our first full day driving in Namibia! After a good breakfast at the Eningu Clay House Lodge we loaded up the car and headed south.

We spent the morning on the road, taking it easy and enjoying the scenery, and arrived at our destination in time for a late lunch.

Anib Lodge

Our base for the night was this comfortable family-run hotel near Mariental in the Kalahari Desert. I say ‘family-run’ because it was at that time, although checking their website they seem since to have been taken over by a larger company. Not much seems to have changed however, except that maybe they have more rooms these days.

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Our bungalow

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Another cactus

We enjoyed a light lunch sitting by the swimming pool but I don’t remember that I had a dip, unusually for me! Instead we relaxed for a while in the pretty grounds, where I enjoyed taking photos of the large sculptural cacti until it was time to depart on the sundowner outing we had pre-booked.

Sunset in the Kalahari

We wrapped up warmly for this trip as we knew it would get cold as soon as the sun set, and even before then it was cool in the lodge’s open jeep. The plan was to watch the sunset from the nearby dunes but first we stopped to photograph a tree with several Sociable Weavers’ nests.

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Sociable weavers' nests

These birds are endemic to southern Africa and unlike other birds build large community nests. These nests are the biggest built by any bird and can house over a hundred pairs of birds. Each pair of birds has its own chamber within the nest, rather like a human apartment block. The size of the nest means that the chambers stay relatively cool during the heat of the day, and warm in the cold Kalahari nights.

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Kalahari view

Then it was time to head for the dunes. The Kalahari is perhaps more properly regarded as a semi desert, so the dunes aren’t pure ridges of sand but rather are dotted with scrub, camel thorns (acacias) and grasses. Our jeep driver parked at the top of one of them and we and the other guests got out to enjoy the views. We were served with a glass of Glühwein (the hotel was run by an Austrian couple) to keep us warm as we watched the sun set over the Kalahari which gradually started to take on an orange glow.

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Kalahari sundowners

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Chris with the jeep

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On the dunes

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Kalahari sunset

Then we climbed back into the jeep and snuggled under the provided blanket for the return to the lodge, as already the temperature had dropped below freezing.

Later dinner was served in the cosy dining room ‘family style’, that is, we were seated with other guests rather than at a table for two. This led to plenty of swapping of travellers’ tales – we got chatting to a Swiss couple near the end of their trip who gave us several good tips and ideas of places to go. The dinner was absolutely excellent and was accompanied by good wine (included in the accommodation costs). Our Austrian hosts’ love of good food, wine and schnapps was very evident, as we were to discover after dinner when we sat at the cosy bar and chatted with the landlord about our own favourite Austrian wines. A lovely way to end the day!

Posted by ToonSarah 05:19 Archived in Namibia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds desert sunset road_trip hotel africa namibia cacti kalahari Comments (13)

From the Kalahari to the Namib

Namibia Days Three, Four and a bit of Five


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On the road

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In Mariental
(taken by Chris)

After our overnight stay at Anib Lodge we faced our longest drive of the trip so far, but by now we were getting more used to the road conditions here – or rather, Chris was getting more used to them, as it was he who was doing all the driving. My role as navigator was much easier as there are relatively few roads in Namibia and therefore relatively few junctions! My most important task, therefore, was identifying on the map where we could refuel – petrol (gas) stations are also relatively few in number, and we were pleased that our map indicated where these were. Our car had one of those in-built computers that estimate how many more miles you can drive on what you have in the tank which, although not 100% reliable, was a reassuring extra. In any case, the advice was to top up whenever you have the chance, even if the tank isn’t even close to being empty, so our first stop this morning was in the town of Mariental just half an hour into our drive. While there we took the opportunity for a short stroll and a few photos.

Then we headed west, gradually leaving the scrub of the Kalahari behind and driving the long straight roads through a barren landscape towards Namibia’s other main desert region, the Namib-Naukluft. We stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere to take some photos, with not another car in sight.

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On the road to the Namib Desert

The total distance was about 300 kilometres / 190 miles, but it took a lot longer than a similar distance would on roads at home, as even the recommended 50 mph speed limit was too fast for many stretches of these gravel roads. And although a saloon 2WD is fine on the somewhat better maintained roads that we stuck to, you do have to take care. It’s all too easy to skid and spin the car, as we were to find out in a few days’ time!

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Nearing the Namib-Naukluft National Park

As we approached our destination we started to see larger sand dunes on the horizon. The Namib-Naukluft National Park is home to the world’s highest dunes, although it would be tomorrow before we would see the highest of them all.

Kulala Desert Lodge

We reached our base for the next two nights in the late afternoon. Kulala Desert Lodge is located at the foot of the famous Sossusvlei Dunes and has its own entrance to the National Park so you can get in there early and be ahead of the crowds – something we were to benefit from tomorrow. For now it was too late in the day to do much more than settle into our room and explore our immediate surroundings.

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Our room at Kulala Desert Lodge

The rooms here are really special – thatched and canvas tents, built on a wooden platform, with an adobe ‘extension’. You sleep in the canvas part, while the adobe section at the back houses the bathroom facilities. That section has a flat roof which you can climb up to for wider views. If you ask, they will make your bed up on the roof and you can sleep under the stars. We chickened out as the nights were really cold, something I now regret as it would have been quite an experience.

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Me on our roof

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Chris on our roof

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View from our roof

Even in the day time the roof affords lovely views of the desert, although you can’t see the red dunes from the lodge.

We watched the sun set over a rather distant waterhole from the terrace of the main lodge building while enjoying a beer. Then it was time for dinner but we found the food here rather ordinary compared to what we enjoyed in most places on this trip. Still, the bar was cosy with a log fire and so was our tent!

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Sunset over the waterhole

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Sunset over the waterhole

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In the bar

In the Namib-Naukluft National Park

We were up early the next morning for a day exploring the national park. We had expected to be in a small group but were lucky enough to have our excellent guide, Francis, to ourselves.

Leaving very early, and taking advantage of Kulala’s private entrance, Francis was able to make sure we got to the best photo stops ahead of the tour groups, so we had a great day out.

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Sossusvlei

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The Namib-Naukluft National Park encompasses the desert environment of the Namib and the Naukluft mountain range, hence its name. Here we were very definitely in the desert part!

Dead Vlei

The most famous area of the Namib Desert is Sossusvlei, a clay pan surrounded by huge sand dunes, and the most famous area of Sossusvlei is the part known as Dead Vlei, so that was where we headed first. Francis parked the jeep and we walked across several dunes.

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On the way to Dead Vlei

As we came over the top of the last dune Dead Vlei was spread before us, an amazing sight! As a photographer I absolutely loved it - the contrast between the white dried-up clay, stark black trees and surrounding red dunes is out of this world!

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First view of Dead Vlei
~ the people on the far left give a sense of scale, and were the only other ones here for most of our time here

Dead Vlei, a mix of English and Afrikaans, means ‘dead marsh’, and the name describes it perfectly. It was created long ago after a period of rainfall, when the nearby Tsauchab river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools. These allowed camel thorn trees to grow, but when the climate changed, drought hit the area, and sand dunes developed around the pan, blocking the river from watering the area. Without water the trees died, probably about 600-700 years ago. Their skeletons remain, blackened by the sun but not decaying as the air is so dry. They look like the ghosts of trees long gone.

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Dead Vlei

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In Dead Vlei

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We spent a long while taking photos here and soaking up the atmosphere, with only a few other people around, but as more started to arrive we left, walking back across the dunes to where we had left the jeep, in the shade of some still-living trees. Here Francis set up a picnic brunch, provided by the lodge – cold meats, salad, fruit, yoghurt, soft drinks, coffee.

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Soussevlei Picnic

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Francis and Chris at our picnic site

Dune 45

After a leisurely meal we helped Francis pack up the picnic things and he then drove us back the way we had come. We stopped at Dune 45 – so-named because it lies 45 kilometres past the Sesriem gate on the way to Sossusvlei. It is one of the tallest dunes in the area, although not as high as Big Daddy, the dune that towers above Dead Vlei (seen in my ‘On the way to Dead Vlei’ photo above). That is the highest dune in the Sossusvlei area, about 325 metres, although there is an even higher dune elsewhere in the Namib, Dune 7, which is 383 metres tall.

Climbing Big Daddy is a popular challenge but one that requires the best part of a day. Dune 45 is ‘just’ 80 metres high and it is the most popular dune for visitors to climb, but not this visitor! I decided to leave that to Chris and stayed below taking photos.

Just think – these dunes are composed of sands five million years old, blown here from the Kalahari.

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Dune 45

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View from Dune 45
(taken by Chris)
~ I am down there somewhere!

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At the foot of Dune 45

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Near Dune 45

Once Chris returned from his climb, which he proclaimed worth the effort it took, we headed back to the lodge for what was left of the afternoon and a leisurely evening, as we would have an early start tomorrow.

Ballooning in the Namib Desert

This was not the first time we had the chance to go in a hot air balloon, as we had tried it once previously quite near home, in Oxfordshire. But the green fields of the Thames Valley are a far cry from the deserts of Namibia and we anticipated that this would be a very special experience – as indeed it was.

We were picked up from the lodge a bit before sunrise and given warm blankets to tuck around ourselves as we drove to the launch site a few miles away, along with a couple of other guests. Once there we watched as the balloon was inflated, enjoying the warmth that came from the flames. Desert nights here are very chilly, especially in winter!

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Nearly ready!

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Wrapped up warmly while waiting for our balloon to be ready

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Inflating the balloon

Once the balloon was ready we all climbed aboard and we took off, floating above the dunes as the sun rose over them. This was the perfect time of day for photos – not only was the red hue of the sands at its deepest but the low sun gave each dune a defined edge.

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Ballooning at Sossusvlei

Our pilot gave us a wonderful ride – at times dropping so low that the basket just caressed the top of a dune, at others climbing high so we could get a sense of the scale of the Sossusvlei landscape. At one point we passed above our lodge, at others there were a few deer below us, seeming unaware of our passing.

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Flying low over the dunes

After an hour or so we landed smoothly in a peaceful hollow between the dunes. The balloon was deflated, and breakfast served, with champagne and some exotic Namibian specialities such as smoked kudu. Our pilot opened the champagne bottles rather dramatically with a machete and gave me one of the bottle necks with the cork still wedged in it, which unfortunately has long since been mislaid.

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Opening the champagne

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Our champagne breakfast after ballooning

All too soon though it was time to return to the lodge - perhaps just as well as we had another long drive ahead of us today … but that’s a story best left to my next entry.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:26 Archived in Namibia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises desert road_trip views hotel roads balloon africa namibia dunes sossusvlei dead_vlei Comments (16)

By the sea in Namibia

Namibia Days Five and Six


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

It was time to leave the desert behind us, for now at least, and head towards the coast. After our early morning balloon ride (see my previous entry) we checked out of Kulala Desert Lodge and hit the road north.

Solitaire

We stopped for petrol, refreshments and a toilet break at the evocatively-named Solitaire, which although being marked on every map is little more than a roadside café and low-key lodge.

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Shop/cafe in Solitaire

We found this a good place to take photos as a change from all that scenery, fantastic though it was. There were some beat-up old cars, children happy to pose for us, and a blackboard on the wall providing a news bulletin service. The only problem was that the news of Marlon Brando's death was over a week out of date!

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In Solitaire
(car photo by Chris)

The road to Walvis Bay

From Solitaire it was a long largely empty drive first north and then west to Walvis Bay. It was a relatively good stretch of gravel road and unnoticed by either of us our speed was increasing. Suddenly Chris spotted a larger-than-most stone in his path and swerved to avoid it – the one thing you should never do, but a natural reaction in the circumstances. Next thing we knew the car was spinning wildly and all we could see was flying gravel. Luckily (but not unusually in Namibia) there were no other cars around for us to hit, and equally luckily all four wheels stayed on the road. We’d be warned that on average one tourist car a day is flipped on its side, and for a while there I was sure we were going to be that day’s statistic!

After that the journey proceeded without incident. We passed through Walvis Bay without stopping, as time was getting on, and joined one of the country’s rare tarmac roads north along the coast.

Swakopmund

As we approached Swakopmund there were dunes beside the road and suddenly also many more people. Signs advertised dune buggy rides and dune-boarding. Driving into the town was a bit of a culture shock after several days in the Kalahari and Namib Deserts, made more surreal by the Germanic style of architecture here. The town was founded in 1892 as the main port for what was then German South West Africa and German influences can be seen in many street names, a German daily newspaper, while the German language is still spoken by some residents.

Our accommodation for the next two nights was at Sam's Giardino in a quiet street on the outskirts of town. This struck us as a little touch of the Swiss Alps in the middle of the African desert! It is built in the style of a Swiss chalet and was run (and still is, it seems) by Sam, a colourful Swiss ex-pat.

We settled into our comfortable room and relaxed for a while in the secluded garden where we met the ‘real’ manager of the hotel, Dr. Einstein. A Bernese Mountain Dog, with his own small chalet in the garden, it was pretty clear that he was the real boss around here!

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Chris and Dr. Einstein in the garden

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Postcard of Dr. Einstein

The one downside of this otherwise comfortable and friendly hotel was that it was a little further out of the town centre than we had expected – not too far to walk perhaps, but we didn't fancy doing that at night so were obliged to take the car when we went out to dinner, meaning that Chris, as driver, couldn’t really enjoy a drink. But on our return to the hotel after our meal we were able to buy a Schnapps from Sam and we drank this in the cosy bar area while he proudly showed us his photo album. Like that of any proud father it was full of baby photos - of Dr. Einstein!

Walvis Bay

The following day we had hoped to take a sightseeing flight over the Skeleton Coast, but by the time we arrived yesterday the next day’s tours were booked up, so we needed a change of plan. Walvis Bay had looked interesting as we passed through yesterday, so we decided to backtrack and check it out.

Walvis Bay means Bay of Whales in Afrikaans. It is the only natural harbour of any size along the Namibian coast, and with a rich supply of plankton amassing in its waters it was a magnet large numbers of southern right whales, and they in turn for whalers. Whaling was of course stopped some time ago, but fishing is still a major industry here, as is fish processing.

But we were here not to see fish but flamingos, which like the whales before them are drawn here by the bay’s rich waters.

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Flamingos at Walvis Bay

They were a bit far away from the shore to get good photos (we didn’t have very good zoom lenses back then) but we took some anyway, and then had a leisurely lunch in a café by the harbour before driving back to Swakopmund.

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Chris in the cafe at Walvis Bay

There we had a walk around town and came across an informal craft market in a car park behind the shopping centre, with the stall-holders’ wares spread out on cloths on the ground. Here we bought a wooden mask – we knew it was very likely made not here in Namibia but imported from elsewhere in Africa (probably Zimbabwe), but we liked it and decided not to let that detail put us off our purchase. The mask still hangs in our hallway, the first of several we have collected from different places on our travels.

We also bought a small picture made entirely of sand in a craft shop, Meerkat, which today hangs on our kitchen wall alongside many other holiday souvenirs.

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Wooden masks
~ the left-hand one is the one bought here in Swakopmund, the one on the right was bought a few years ago in the Gambia

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Sand picture

We spent the evening in Kücki’s Pub, a Swakopmund institution – part pub, part German Gasthof. Then it was ‘home’ to Sam’s and a final evening here before we set off on the next stage of our Namibian adventure!

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Beer mat and business card from Kücki’s Pub

Posted by ToonSarah 07:08 Archived in Namibia Tagged birds road_trip hotel shopping roads pubs africa dogs namibia flamingos crafts swakopmund Comments (15)

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