A good story can also start on Christmas day. I spent Christmas eve at the unusually quiet Munich airport, waiting for my flight out to Johannesburg and then onwards to Windhoek in Namibia. Thomas was waiting for me at the other end of the world.
Windhoek airport is small and straightforward, located 40km out of town. Windhoek on Christmas day is a quiet city, some people sitting at a park, guards at every ATM. Anyway, let’s pick up supplies, refuel, and get out of town.
Traveling in Namibia will involve a combination of driving on asphalt, salt roads, gravel or off-road tracks. We rented a 4×4 Toyota with an 80L diesel tank with road-tires in semi-ok conditions from Hertz the first time around, and then quickly learned on the way that it would be more fun, reliable and also necessary to rent more robust gear. Anyhow we managed the entire trip without any major incidents, and saw a lot of animals on the way, like vultures, oryx, springbok, kudus, baboons, ostriches etc. There are also cattle herds and sheep/goats just on the side of the road. We camped with our own tents on the ground, and the first nights I was a bit concerned with possible wild animal encounters while I am sleeping, like lions and elephants that pass by sometimes at the Brandberg West camp.
The next time we went to ASCO car hire and rented a decked-out 4×4 Hilux with 80L+60L tanks, off-road tires, water tank, shovel/axe/tools, complete with (luxury) camping gear like a fridge, and also a roof-top tent. In a convoy of 3 cars, 6 friends went off on an African adventure.
Etosha national park is a must-visit when in Namibia. In my opinion, it is a good opener for the African adventure, meeting the endemic animals in their mostly natural habitat, but still in a controlled environment with lots other people around, jurassic-park style. The summer months is the rainy season while winter is the dry period. Although in the last few years Namibia is suffering from drought, sporadic rainfall occurs here and there. The effect of this can be clearly seen by the accessibility to animals at the popular waterholes in the park. It is more difficult to observe animals at waterholes in the summer months as they move further north of the park to enjoy natural waterholes created by the rainfall, while in the dry winter animals spend more time at the artificial waterholes and even close to the roads. The Etosha pan is a salt pan depression of about 5000km2. It is practically uninhabited due to its hypersaline conditions and only microbes adapted to extreme conditions can be found there.
Waterberg Wilderness nature reserve can be considered the next step for an amateur animal observer. It is located southeast of Otjiwarongo, and is a great plateau region. I was told by a local guide, that the animals on the plateau were brought there by helicopter, and they cannot leave the plateau because there is no accessible way down. The animals present are mostly endangered species now protected from poaching and also predation. The plateau is a national park and you can explore it only with a guide. The foothills of Waterberg is the site of the Battle of Waterberg the turn of the last century, where the Herero lost the war to the German troops. Presently at these foothills, with a guide you can do game tracking in the bush, learning about animal tracks and droppings, behaviours and tendencies, and also observing the animals without sitting in a car.
Palmwag concession in Damaraland is a magical and peaceful place. We entered the concession at the Hoanib River gate near Sesfontein and camped at the Elephant Song campsite the first night, alone under the stars, wild animals around. With our 4x4s we drove on the Hoanib riverbed until the turnoff to follow Crowther’s trail to go south, and then found Campsite 3 for the next night. We saw wild animals like giraffes, antilopes, lots of different birds, ostriches, and lion tracks on the way. We even found a rhino at an oasis. There are very little people in the concession, and you really experience isolation and quiet there. Life was so simple, wake up to the sun, sleep when its dark, simple eat and drink, being independent and needing very little. Sitting around the fire with friends under the stars, the serenity of the moment is forever captured in me.
The Spitzkoppe group of granite is located about 30km from Usakos. There are camping areas in the area and you can enjoy the stone formations at any time of the hour. But beware, there are lizards, scorpions and snakes poking around there. We made a day visit there, and scrambled up the rocks wherever we could.
The Kunene River separates Namibia and Angola. There is actually water running through, and beware, crocodiles are present, maybe for border security? Along the river on the Namibian side there is a 4×4 track/new gravel highway under construction that links Ruacana Falls/dam area to the Epupa falls. Up north there the area is green although desolate for the sparsely located people in the area. Very distinct Baobab trees can be found alongside the river. We passed some Himba villages on the way, with children running to the road as they hear our cars pass, hands out asking for sweeties. Some have cattle, they like crossing the road so we have to be careful driving.
Back to the desert and on to the sand dunes in the Dorab national park near Swakopmund. There we took part in the Living Desert tour where our guides convinced us that the desert is actually an ecosystem full of life. You just have to know where to look. The little 5 include geckos, skinks, chameleons, white spiders, and sidewinder snakes. They are either tunneling in the sand or hiding in a bush. The desert is a rich source of minerals, like magnetite which blackens the top of some sand dunes, as well as silica and quartz. Per sand dune, there is a hard side where the the wind is blowing, and the soft side where the drop is. At the foot of the drop is often where the elementary foods like seeds from elsewhere are found. They support the lower food chain animals, and sustains a whole ecosystem that include larger predator animals.
Swakopmund compared to Opuwo provides a sense of the disparity due to colonial presence. Swakopmund is a coastal city in Erongo established by primarily German colonists and even today you can see German street signs, building names, and hear German spoken on the streets. There are many little shops and businesses, as well as large supermarkets and a large range of accommodation, from hostels and guesthouses to resort hotels. Opuwo is a small city in the Kunene region with farming as the primary industry. It is largely operated by native Namibians and I was told that Herero, Himba, and another 3 tribes live in the area. And sometimes when they have to interact, the communication involves a mixture of common words and hand gestures.
In Swakopmund, we met up with Hank the pilot (also NASA doctor) who took us on a flight in the region to see the gravel flats, sand dunes, the Kuiseb riverbed and coastline. We started at the small airport just outside of town, and the plane took off on a gravel strip.
Saving the best for last in this article, Skeleton Coast Park. It is located in the Northwest coastline of Namibia, where shipwrecks, whale bones and seal skeletons can be found. The cold Benguela current is the reason for the dense ocean fog found most of the time, which explains the shipwrecks. Wind blowing from the warm inland to the cold sea makes it so that the rainfall does not reach the land, leaving a arid desert coastal area. The Benguela current brings cold, nutrient rich water to fuel the coastal ecosystem, starting with phytoplankton, more fish, seal colonies, hyenas and other predators. Fishing is a very popular activity here.
The vast deserts of Skeleton Coast park are home to desert-adapted animals such as lions, rhinos, elephants etc. Dr. Philip Stander is a dedicated expert for desert lions. He tracks and follow the activity of different prides of lions, and also educate the public about the precarious situation of their declining numbers and promote understanding with local people to protect these predatory animals. It was a great pleasure to meet him and to learn not to see each lion as just a lion there, but also to understand their interaction with each other and with their environment, and how human interference on any of these few lions can have dire consequences to the entire population in the region. (As a reference, please watch Vanishing Kings) Did you know that the roaming territory for a desert-adapted animal may be 10 times larger than their “normal” counterpart? They conserve water better, and have different strategies to find food.
The main reason for going to Skeleton Coast park this time was because of Namibia race by RacingthePlanet that took place May 2016. An ultramarathon event spanning an entire week, 250km through the desert, with more than 200 competitors and about 100 staff (local team, drivers, media, medics, volunteers, management) Thomas was the course director, which means he designed the course and everyone followed his flags and direction to know where to go. I volunteered with the organization, stationed at checkpoints to support, sweeping the flags after the last competitor, helping out with getting sand off the computer tablets for the cybertent, and speaking all the languages I knew to answer questions for people coming from different countries. It was great fun, I met some fantastic people, and I liked living out of touch where you worry about what is directly in front of you and just taking care of the basics. After the event, we returned to Torra Bay (central point of the race) at the end of our roadtrip to see its vast emptiness after all the 300 people of our camp are gone, and tipped our toes into the Atlantic to bid it farewell, for a while.