Namibia under the stars
Namibia was one of those countries that I had often heard mentioned but it had not featured on my travel list as an excursion to embark on separately instead of being an add on to a trip to South Africa. This tour, however, captured my imagination and so I decided to sign up for such adventurous travel!
Namibia conjured up images to me of being surrounded by vast amounts of desert in very arid conditions with the prospect of viewing wildlife in a national park, so I was excited to experience the adventure unfolding whilst embarking on this trip covering a huge breadth of the country. It was also to be an adventure from another perspective for me as it mainly consisted of camping as accommodation and so it involved a special purchase of a 3-4 season sleeping bag for the occasion! Fortunately, as I was joining a group tour, the camping adventure was one that I shared with many!
Walking across the tarmac on the airfield from the aeroplane to the airport terminal, as I landed in Namibia, provided me with an insight into the warm but breezy climate that was typical during my stay in July and August during this winter season, as Namibia is within the southern hemisphere, which unsurprisingly felt to be on a par with the peak temperatures from our British summers!
The first stop on the itinerary was a fleeting visit to the capital Windhoek where I was certainly impressed by the greenery on display at the Arrebusch Lodge. Ideally, a table and chairs placed outside the sleeping accommodation lent to the relaxed atmosphere experienced at the lodge alongside the perfectly landscaped grounds. By night, I was struck by how clear the sky seemed although, the temperature plummeted rather dramatically after sunset necessitating additional clothing layers to be worn! The lodge seemed to be well placed to venture into the surrounding desert subsequently!
Such venture within the desert was rewarded with a trip to Moose’s Bakery in Solitaire which is renowned for its apple pie. Whilst I did not have the opportunity to sample such dessert, I would recommend the beet salad with its almond decorations! The exterior of the bakery with its surrounding desert was reminiscent of many a Western film and the ramshackled cars, which appeared to be abandoned amongst the cacti, provided many a photo opportunity!
A sunrise visit to the Namib desert with a 5.45am departure time awaited and so I was certainly fortunate to have a flashlight on my mobile phone at that time in the morning! It seems that Namibia, following its independence in 1990, was named after such desert! The scenery is completely breathtaking but very remote with a population of only approximately two million in Namibia! I certainly felt that I deserved my breakfast that morning after joining the line of people making the ascent up to the plateau of the iconic Dune 45 which bears such name as it is 45km from the connecting road between the Sesriem gate and Sossusvlei! It will be remembered as one of the memorable moments of the trip due to the intense orange colour of the sand and the fact that the climb occurred in the midst of a sand storm which proved to be somewhat challenging but was an important element of the overall sense of adventure during the trip! Viewing the sunrise was extremely captivating and it felt as though it would not be unreasonable to remain seated on the dune for a few hours admiring the surroundings as day broke across a spectacular panoramic view! I did resist the urge however to run down the slope of the dune into the wind thereafter!
A visit to the remarkable Deadvlei will certainly be imprinted on my mind as one of my favourite destinations on the trip as not only is it eerily beautiful in structure, with dead Acacia trees in a pan, but the contrast in the colours of the bright blue sky, orange dunes and the brown barks of the dead trees was striking! It was fascinating walking around the pan observing the contortions of the shells of the trees that remain!
Visiting the Sesriem canyon thereafter provided a respite from the afternoon heat and it was interesting to explore the rock formations within the canyon and its sandy floor.
An unusual feature at the lunch buffet at the Sossusvlei Lodge thereafter was that of peppermint cake and so I opted to sample a portion as it was quite the novelty for me!
As usual for the trip there was the inevitable race to arrive at the accommodation before sunset, which tended to fall at approximately 6pm! It did mean that an increased amount of efficiency in erecting the tents was quickly gained! I do recall, however, just how bright and clear the night sky seemed in Solitaire so much so that the constellations of the Southern Cross and the Milky Way could be observed without binoculars or a telescope!
Another highlight of the area was a drive within the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre to track cheetahs! The biologist explained that the cheetahs, of which approximately 5-6 had been spotted within the visit, were able to recognise the designated trucks for their food and as a result had fortunately not surrounded the truck used for our tour!
En route to Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast, the dividing line of The Tropic of Capricorn is indicated by a sign! It certainly created a good photo opportunity! Plus, the surrounding scenery of desert and canyons provided a scenic landscape for the long drive! Along such route, quiver trees were spotted, which are a symbol of southern Namibia; the branches of such trees are rather unique and it appears that they were used to hold quivers historically, hence the name! I found the waxy texture of the trees to be quite fascinating to the touch!
It was such a shock to the system to be surrounded by the crashing ocean waves around the Skeleton Coast after being in the midst of the desert for the preceding days and so I certainly gravitated towards the water and felt compelled to capture its force in more photographs! Lunch, provided the perfect opportunity to do so with a planned stop at Walvis Bay. The Raft restaurant didn’t disappoint in terms of location at that stage of the journey as it is located at the end of a pier reminiscent of some of the UK seaside resorts! A walk thereafter further along the coast and a lagoon was an ideal moment to spot a few flamingos which tended to be black and white in colour rather than the pink variety we are accustomed to but were elegant nonetheless!
I was certainly struck by the German inspired architecture on the roads to Swakopmund which contributed to the European influence felt within the area with a cooler climate to match! So, it only seemed apt to eat at a German inspired restaurant that evening which was Kuki’s! Indeed, authentic German fare such as chicken schnitzel could be ordered!
Swakopmund is renowned for being a destination to partake in outdoor pursuits such as sand boarding however there is equally a town centre in which one could while away a few hours at a konditorei! Equally, if a bit more culture is sought then Swakopmund does not disappoint as the Swakopmund museum offers a collection of railway memorabilia on display and even a replicate painting of the White Lady as a precursor to a trip to Brandberg where one can view such painting within the caves! As the weather proved to be rather misty, at that time, a museum visit was welcomed! Prior to reaching the lighthouse, in the town centre, the Old Post Coffee Shop captured my attention with its interesting décor combined with the fact that it had only been open for a month and so I couldn’t resist popping in!
In keeping with the authentic German/ alpine theme, a trip to the German brewhouse was also in order. Live music definitely kept the crowd entertained there with the band accompanied intermittently by a pair of ‘frauleins’ both bearing the name of Heidi! I was surprised by the fact that the beverages available did not seem to be the German brands that would typically be found in Europe but there were South African equivalents instead! Moving away from the German cuisine on one occasion, the pizzas at the Secret Garden Bistro were sampled. Its location is indeed rather secret as it is nestled on a seemingly, quiet residential road to confuse hungry diners! However, another bistro opposite the restaurant provides an indication that there are eateries on such road! The coastal theme at the Secret Garden bistro is certainly a draw to the restaurant which is a short distance away from the town’s main restaurant hub. The pizza and salad combination were a winning dish after days of hearty German cuisine! I would recommend wandering off the well trodden paths on the main roads in Swakopmund to visit the Secret Garden bistro.
The visit to the coast unfortunately came to an end but the departure was rewarded by a clear, sunny day to rival the previous mist encountered! As such, the drive along the Skeleton Coast comprised a captivating combination of panoramic views with sandy landscapes on the border of the Atlantic Ocean. For me, the highlight of such coastal drive was stumbling across a shipwreck en route to Henties Bay. The composition of the Zeila shipwreck seemed to resemble a painting by one of the Dutch masters and so despite being subjected to the desert’s version of hailstones I was keen to photograph such a memorably beautiful setting!
Escaping from the mini sandstorm and continuing the coastal drive en route to Damaraland, in the direction of Brandberg Mountain, provided an opportunity to stop at the charming Cactus and Coffee café in Uis. The café’s name is certainly apt with a cacti garden centre on its grounds! It provides a calm oasis in the middle of such desert and is even complete with an outdoor swimming pool in the garden! I would absolutely recommend stopping for a visit en route to visiting the Brandberg Mountain! Uis was formerly a mining town where copper and tin were mined and despite being surrounded by barren land there were some white hills in the distance adding to its unique landscape.
Brandberg itself provided diverse and contrasting views with flowers observed growing in the parched grass conditions! Apparently, there had been a slight drought in the area with no rainfall since the preceding March! It was fascinating to hear part of the introductory talk, in one of the indigenous languages of the area, which explained that the renowned White Lady rock painting, also known as the Medicine Man, was created in the mountainous caves approximately 5000 years ago! There is now a guided system in place to visit such painting if you are planning to visit the area.
Given that the Brandberg mountain is Namibia’s highest mountain, the hike to the summit took approximately one hour and so good walking shoes are in order! A late afternoon visit to view the painting is recommended not only as it is a quieter visiting period but also due to the reward of spectacular sunset views through the rocks!
However, it did result in the inevitable race to return to the accommodation before nightfall to indulge in the final rays of daylight. On this occasion we were forewarned not to leave the area at night as there had been many sightings of elephants prowling nearby! All of which added to the sense of adventure, but we were rewarded with some traditional German fare of chicken schnitzel at the White Lady lodge for dinner in that instance! I must admit that I had become rather partial to the local Hunter’s cider accompanying such cuisine! The staff at the lodge were that evening’s source of entertainment as they sang their way through some traditional songs. It still felt like such a striking contrast however, in returning to such arid conditions after being exposed to the sea and the coast earlier that day!
Moving on to the next destination on the itinerary involved a stop at Khorixas where a craft centre can be found. Several of the Herero people appeared at such centre selling traditional items at some of the many stalls located! Such centre is an ideal destination en route to the Vingerklip stone and a stop for lunch at Damara Mopane Lodge provided an idyllic destination for a break with its relaxing décor and paintings.
A previous explanation about the Vingerklip monument had revealed that the word ‘klip’ meant stone and so I certainly felt prepared to climb up to its peak! I must admit to being rather impressed by this imposing rock formation which resembled a canyon with a ‘finger’ erected at the top! The surrounding flora at the bottom of the monument, dried due to the arid atmosphere, added to its beauty.
The opportunity presented itself a bit later at Sophienhof Lodge to view the feeding of the porcupines by night. The porcupines were a lot larger than I anticipated and despite the darkness an impala could be seen in the distance, which was added to the list of wildlife spotted during the trip!
The remoteness of the area meant that the morning birdsong reverberated across a large surface area and whilst the weather was sunny and fairly warm by our standards, given that it was the Namibian winter time, the locals were dressed in coats and hats and so I did feel out of place from time to time in my summer outfits!
The journey to Etosha national park, for a three night stay, however, presented a variety of landscapes which included green trees amongst the parched grass! We were certainly keen to maximise the viewing opportunities whilst on the game drives, and so the roof of the truck remained opened, upon which we could climb! We were not disappointed as zebra and springboks were observed, by the stunning waterhole, upon entering the park, as well as elephants. Other wildlife such as lions and oryx were spotted on later drives. The roads are quite bumpy and dusty and as such it may be preferable to join one of the tours on offer in the park rather than attempting to drive independently.
Climbing the lookout tower, in Okaukeujo, near the ecological centre provided a good vantage point from which an impressive panorama could be observed of all sections of the park. I found the sunset views from the tower to be particularly mesmerising.
Equally, night drives are an option to observe the nocturnal wildlife but I opted not to participate on this occasion having been on night safaris previously. However, the night time views by the waterhole were remarkable as an alternative, due to the spotlight, with a herd of elephants walking past and giraffes and rhinos were also spotted. It appeared that there was a definite pecking order at the waterhole as the elephants ensured they were the first to drink!
One of the highlights of the trip whilst on a drive on this side of the park was the observation of a sleeping lion camouflaged by the grass unbeknownst to the nearby springboks and ostriches at the waterhole. Many vehicles including our truck and a camera crew silently stopped on the perimeter to observe the behaviour of the wildlife at such point. Gradually, the springboks instinctively detected the presence of the big cat and ran in opposite directions rapidly however an ostrich was completely oblivious to the presence of the lion and was gingerly moving closer. I was silently hoping that the ostrich would be aware, sooner rather than later, of the location of the sleeping lion, but it was certainly fascinating watching the dynamics of the wildlife within their natural habitat! The ostrich sauntered past the lion, which was a very tense moment, but fortunately at that stage its movement did not distract the lion from its slumber!
Traversing the western side of the game reserve for a game drive, we were rewarded with sightings of oryx, zebra, springbok and subsequently elephants appeared. The excitement was certainly mounting and so I was pleased that I had remembered to bring a pair of binoculars for the drives! These certainly were useful when some reticulated giraffes were spotted! I recall that the terrain on this side of the park differed somewhat with panoramas of golden grassy fields interspersed with vegetation.
The return to the waterhole previously visited was a delight as it is such a tranquil, calm spot where I could imagine myself whiling away an afternoon observing the wildlife that appeared! I was certainly not disappointed as impala, springboks and a variety of birds were in the vicinity of the waterhole to quench their thirst. The surrounding scenery was so diverse and mesmerising that I found it difficult to imagine that its entire beauty could be captured fully within photographs! Again, the binoculars were very helpful with such observation!
Another opportunity arose unexpectedly to observe the behaviour of another big cat in the wild, which on this occasion was a cheetah with its cubs. Timing was of the essence however, as some of the cheetahs were dispersing by the time our truck stopped! Unfortunately, the mother was separated from her cubs at such stage and so we waited patiently and remained silently watching as the events materialised. It appeared that the cubs were disturbed from eating their prey which seemed to be a springbok, given that the injured body of a springbok could be viewed in the distance! As the minutes passed, we were duly rewarded with a re-union as the mother cheetah returned to locate her cubs and together they returned to their prey.
It was another race thereafter to return inside the gates of the park before sunset! Only the official tours operated by the national park are permitted to venture outside the gates after sunset. Fortunately, herds of elephants returned to the waterhole by night which certainly made for spectacular viewing! I must admit that I could envisage being part of a wildlife documentary at such point as the sense of euphoria increased with more sightings of the different wildlife!
Rustlings at night time outside the tents were common as we had been forewarned that jackals prowled the area and quite often elephants could be heard in the wee hours of the morning; indeed it was believed that an elephant had been spotted early one morning grazing outside our designated camping area! It was, however, delightful to view the elephants at daytime playing by the waterhole before we transferred to reside at the opposite section of Etosha.
Wildebeest and red hartebeest were amongst the different species spotted on the other side of Etosha and I noted that the terrain was remarkably different with a few pans interspersed en route. Indeed, one of the pans was particularly idyllic and similar to an oasis in the midst of the desert. The renowned Etosha pan is a beautiful white salt pan on which ostriches were spotted at that time. It is an ideal location for a break whilst travelling between the two sections of the park towards the Namutoni area.
The landscape within the Namutoni area differed to the other side of the park due to the surrounding parched grass and a pan’s edge. Fortunately a fort is located within this section, although its central courtyard was rather quiet with many restaurants closed, which may have been due to travelling during low season. Inevitably, there was a race to return within the gates by sunset which provided the opportunity to climb the impressive fort walls to observe the sun setting over the horizon; this was an enthralling moment!
Whilst a waterhole was also present at this side of the park, it did not compare to the atmospheric Okaukuejo waterhole and indeed there were no animals to be found during our visit! The night sky did not seem quite as clear because of the descending clouds, which made star gazing by the waterhole challenging!
Travelling south, the next stop on the itinerary was Waterberg Plateau. Prior to departing Etosha, a drive by two of the waterholes resulted in waterhogs and kudus being spotted! A lion could also be observed in the distance and this sighting was certainly a memorable end to staying at Etosha. This journey involved a stop at a small, former copper mining town known as Tsumeb. One of the roads in that area seemed reminiscent to me of a Formula One racing track with the stripes on the road and the flags on display! Equally, it appeared that a multitude of construction was underway within the area and remnants of a railway were visible.
Passing through the town of Otjiwarongo, the German influence was apparent in the konditorei within the supermarkets and I must remark that the cakes looked scrumptious! One of its churches also seemed to be constructed in the Germanic style of architecture, to continue such theme, and indeed, one of the names of the surrounding streets was called Bahnhof Strasse!
I immediately noticed the change in scenery en route to Waterberg with its verdant landscapes and an abundance of rock formations and hills on display. It was noticeably cooler in temperature in such area as well. One of the bonuses in the Waterberg area is the availability of walking trails on which to embark. Armed with a map, we attempted the shortest circuit by Waterberg plateau which was supposed to be half an hour in duration. However, the route was slightly longer than anticipated and it did involve climbing through some uneven, rocky and steep pathways. However, the opportunity to stretch the limbs after being subjected to many long drives over the course of the trip was extremely welcomed!
The hike up to the summit at Waterberg Plateau commenced at 8.30am and was led by our tour guide following a route which was rather steep in places! The gaps between some of the rocks, when making the ascent, required a large ballerinaesque leap to be made on my part and, indeed, I lost my grasp of a rock at one stage but I was fortunately and timely rescued by a travelling companion on the tour; I was very pleased to have worn my walking boots at such point to avoid any subsequent injuries! The panoramic view rewarded such efforts as it was extremely picturesque with spectacular, vibrant colours adorning the rock edges which were reminiscent of oil paintings.
One part of the plateau known as the Mountain View provided a good vantage point to observe the stunning vistas. The route to such view was not easy to locate due to a lack of signage but there are arrows and footprints on posts indicating the direction, which are visible if climbing during the day! The descent however involved a circular, undulating route with a few streams and muddy paths along the way.
A German military cemetery is also within the vicinity to commemorate the Battle of Waterberg in which the Herero tribe fought against the German army in a bid to reject colonialism. It can therefore be visited following a hike on Waterberg Plateau. There are a few rocky pathways leading down to the memorials within the cemetery which provide an ideal opportunity to observe more of the surrounding flora.
When travelling from Waterberg to Windhoek, a craft market at Okahandja can be visited which specialises in wood carvings. Jewellery and table mats are amongst the items to be found but be prepared to barter as the original price quoted will be the most expensive starting point given by the merchant!
The scenery en route to Windhoek from Okahandja comprised a sparse number of trees embedded within the golden Savannah like parched grass. Giraffes were spotted grazing in the grass and so it felt as though I was re-living the safari period, whilst at Etosha!
After days of being in the wilderness, returning to city dwelling in Windhoek and a greater population of people initially felt unusual. The re-adjustment occurred quickly however, as it was blissful to return to hotel accommodation, with the promise of a good night’s sleep, a hot shower and European plugs to charge the mobile phones! The question soon arose however as to the venue to visit for the final dinner of the trip!
Joe’s Beerhouse was the chosen location for dinner and even from its exterior it seemed to be convivial but quirky. To me, the interior resembled a German bierhalle and indeed Jägermeister was heavily promoted! It was a busy Friday night but the service was still attentive and my dessert of crêpes with strawberries in red wine with an Amarula cream and ice cream had a myriad of flavours and is thoroughly recommended as it was very delicious! I was also keen to eat a local dish on my final night in Namibia and was pleased, despite the German influence, that the local fish Kingklip fillet featured on the menu.
Residing at the Utopia Boutique Hotel was a relaxing way to end the trip not least due to the opportunity to use a power shower after scrambling up mountains earlier in the day, suffering from cuts and scratches as a result! There were at least two outdoor pools on the grounds, which must be a welcome respite in the Namibian summer time! A pretty flower garden features on the grounds and provided a pleasant area for a stroll; it would certainly be a good, idyllic setting for those Instagrammable photos! It did remind me of the pergola on Hampstead Heath because of the similarity of flowers growing against pillars.
Even the breakfast room at the hotel was a cosy, well designed room with interesting artefacts on display!
En route to the airport, once departing Klein Windhoek, the scenery comprised of houses in bright, pastel colours embracing the Germanic architectural style. Beyond the town, the landscape consisted of hills and the parched grass with Savannah like settings provided a sense of familiarity after spending time in the more remote locations on the trip. All that seemed to remain for me to accomplish within my final moments in Namibia, at the airport, was to purchase a Namibian souvenir thereby spending my remaining Namibian dollars as the currency cannot be taken out of the country!