The day began with a medium-length journey as we departed the granite landscapes of Spitzkoppe. (It was seven and a half hours, but at this point we’d had much longer drives so it didn’t feel too tedious). Today’s destination was Swakopmund; “mund” means mouth in German and this coastal city is situated at the mouth of the River Swakop. Established by German colonists in 1892, I did think some of the city’s buildings had a rural German feel.
We drove through Swakopmund’s township of Mondesa, one of the biggest townships in Namibia. As with others we had seen, their dark past goes back to the apartheid era and even now unemployment rates are high and the schools are very basic. However, Mondesa is also a thriving community with an ever-growing population, which will hopefully flourish as the income generated from township tours goes directly to its residents.
For the next two nights we would be staying in a dormitory, which was an extremely welcome break from camping, with the idea of a bed feeling luxurious! After checking in, a few of us walked to the beach and explored the city centre.
I remember spotting a sign that said ‘To the white horse the zebra said: “I am white too” and to the black horse: “I am really black”‘. This is a Namibian proverb and perhaps its meaning is that one does not have to define themselves based on the colour of their skin.
The following morning I opted to go sandboarding in the Namib Desert. We were picked up in an off-road vehicle and driven to an area replete with sand dunes. There were two options available; stand-up boarding or lie-down boarding. I chose to partake in the lie-down boarding because I had no prior experience with snowboarding or skating and we were told that lie-down boarding offered the ultimate adrenaline buzz, as one zooms headfirst down the sandy slopes, reaching possible speeds of up to 80 km per hour.
I must admit, walking up sand dunes was no easy feat for me and every time I took a step it seemed that the sand pushed me back down again. I definitely began to question my fitness level by the time we reached the top of our first dune! However, now it was time to start boarding back down and this was a much more exciting prospect. We took it in turns and the instructors timed us to see who could propel themselves the fastest down the slopes (despite my best effort, I was not the winner). After each slide down, we had to climb up another dune and regardless of the effort needed for the upward treks (and there were six of them), it was definitely worth it. Though mostly solo, we completed one of our rides in pairs, where we sat on our boards and the person at the back steered. Hilariously, my boarding partner and I ended up sliding right off the board and landing face first in the sand. Luckily, we laughed about it and put on a great show for everybody else! The morning ended with a well-deserved lunch-with-a-view once we had descended the final dune. I thoroughly enjoyed this activity and would definitely recommend it to anybody visiting this area of Namibia.
After showering off the sand (though I’m pretty sure traces of sand stayed with me for weeks afterwards!), two of us went for a walk around the town, exploring some shops, sampling some homemade ice cream and observing two of the local churches.
That evening we had dinner at Swakopmund’s Lighthouse; though it now houses a restaurant as well, it dates back to 1902 and is still in operation as a lighthouse today.
The subsequent day, after a lovely excursion in Swakopmund, where we had enjoyed our relaxing break from the chores of camping, we headed back on the road for a further seven hours. En route, we saw a fantastic flamboyance of flamingos.
A toilet break at a very modern mall signalled the end of luxury for the time being, as we reached the sparse plains of the Namib Desert once more. It would be back to “bushy bushy” before we knew it (as mentioned previously, this is using nature’s lavatory).
Our next stop was at Kuiseb Canyon, which supposedly looks just like the surface of the moon.
We then crossed the famous Tropic of Capricorn. This is an invisible line of latitude encircling the Earth to the south of the equator and passing through 10 countries, including Namibia. Unlike the Tropic of Cancer (which is the latitude line to the north of the equator), the Tropic of Capricorn passes mainly through water, with the exception of Africa.
As we continued on our bumpy drive through the oldest desert in the world (at 55 million years old), Wellington informed us that the Namib Desert receives very little rainfall, but when it does rain it pours.
We arrived into our campsite, just outside the Namib-Naukluft National Park where we would be spending the following day, and put our rain-covers on our tents just in case. I remember seeing a smiling mouth shape in the sand, signifying the home of a scorpion, and praying I wouldn’t see its inhabitant. When packing away our tent the ensuing morning, my campmate and I did spot a scorpion, so we were happy to be leaving this particular area!
Today we were up early to catch the sunrise at the top of Dune 45. Named for its 45 km proximity to Sesrium Gate (the main access point to the National Park), it is the most photographed sand dune in the world due to its fascinating shape and easy accessibility. Just when I thought my sand dune climbing days were behind me, here I was again trekking up the 85 metres of Dune 45! Luckily, the panoramic views at the top were entirely worth it and I gazed in wonderment at Sossusvlei (the salt and clay pan consisting of seemingly endless sand dunes) far below.
We were informed that the sand here is five million years old and is red in colour due to its high contents of iron oxide. These red hues coupled with the desolate feel of our surroundings gave us the sense that we were on Mars!
We ate breakfast at the bottom of the dune, with fantastic views of the sandy plains and then we visited Deadvlei.
Translating to mean “dead marsh”, Deadvlei is a white clay pan which was formed when the Tsauchab River flooded after a particularly heavy rainfall. Temporary shallow pools of water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. However, the climate then changed and drought hit the area because the sand dunes blocked the river’s water. The trees could not survive the drought, but they also couldn’t erode because there was not enough water for this process. Therefore the dead trees’ skeletons are still visible, though they died 600-700 years ago. They are now black in colour because of the intense heat from the sun.
One of the few places in the area that holds water all year round is the Sesriem Canyon. Interestingly, the early Afrikaans explorers named the canyon Six (“ses”) Leather Straps (“riem”) because they had to use these to lower their bucket far enough to fetch water from the canyon below. We witnessed the stunning layers of conglomerate rock formations that make up the canyon, but couldn’t ignore the putrid smell coming from the water!
After a long but very interesting day exploring the national park, dinner was a traditional southern African dish of meat, vegetables and pap (a type of cornmeal porridge which we had previously tried in Eastern Africa, where they instead call it ugali).
Our penultimate day in Namibia began with a 10 hour drive to Fish River Canyon. The largest canyon in Africa and one of the most visited tourist attractions in Namibia, this canyon is around 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and has depths of almost 550 metres. We enjoyed observing and walking around part of the canyon, finishing in time to view sunset from one of the highest points.
Tomorrow we would be checking out of Namibia and entering South Africa, our final country on this incredible 40-day tour. But tonight, we were enjoying each other’s company for one of the last times and celebrating the lovely landscapes we were fortunate enough to be in.
Watch this space for next week’s blog!