10 days & 3500 km in Namibia

I’ve already said it, I have a pretty poor knowledge of where most places are located on our planet, and Namibia was until recently one of them.

The only quality that saves me from being an ignorant fool is that I am a curious ignorant fool, so that’s okay, I guess, isn’t it?

What fascinates me – and also makes me very sad and angry – when I go somewhere is to know where those countries come from in terms of history, and in Africa generally it inevitably means colonisation.

Namibia is no exception to the rule, except that it is a former German colony with a British twist via its South African dominion status at the time.

Obviously, most of the country being desert or semi-desert, the problem doesn’t show immediately but here and there you have a sense of it and there is no way you cannot notice the architecture when you arrive in Swakopmund. This beach resort is a clear example of German colonial architecture and I don’t know if it does it to other people but I felt quite depressed about it because it does feel very strange to be in Namibia for hundreds of kilometres and suddenly reach a German town, such a complete opposite of what Namibia should look like for the Namibian people in their own country.

It is part of their history obviously and it is life but you just wonder what some cities (or absence of them) would look like had it not been for the Germans. I’m not saying it would be differently better or worse, I’m just saying that colonisation stripped millions of people and hundreds of countries from the possibility to be the actors of their own identity.

End rant.

Looking on the bright side of things, since independence was gained from South Africa in 1990 Namibia has successfully completed the transition from white minority apartheid rule to parliamentary democracy and on the German side, Germany formally apologised for the Namibian genocide in 2004. Namibia nowadays enjoys high political, economic and social stability and has become a prime destination in Africa.

A few facts and numbers (thank you, Wikipedia!):

+At 825,615 km2 (318,772 sq mi), Namibia is the world’s thirty-fourth largest country (after Venezuela).

+The Namib Desert is considered to be the oldest desert in the world.

+Namibia’s Coastal Desert is one of the oldest deserts in the world. Its sand dunes, created by the strong onshore winds, are the highest in the world.

+Being situated between the Namib and the Kalahari deserts, Namibia has the least rainfall of any country in sub-Saharan Africa.

+Namibia has the second-lowest population density of any sovereign country, after Mongolia, with under 3 people per km2.

+Providing 25% of Namibia’s revenue, mining is the single most important contributor to the economy. Namibia is the fourth largest exporter of non-fuel minerals in Africa and the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium.

+Tourism is a major contributor (14.5%) to Namibia’s GDP, creating tens of thousands of jobs (18.2% of all employment) directly or indirectly and servicing over a million tourists per year.

+Although arable land accounts for only 1% of Namibia, nearly half of the population is employed in agriculture.

+Even though per capita GDP is five times the per capita GDP of Africa’s poorest countries, the majority of Namibia’s people live in rural areas and exist on a subsistence way of life.

+Namibia has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, due in part to the fact that there is an urban economy and a more rural cash-less economy.

+Namibia is one of few countries in the world to specifically address conservation and protection of natural resources in its constitution. Article 95 states, “The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting international policies aimed at the following: maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes, and biological diversity of Namibia, and utilisation of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.”

Let’s have a look at the map.

namibia

Namibia is a southern African country whose western border is the Atlantic Ocean with Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. Zimbabwe is not too far, with just 200 metres separating the two countries via the Zambezi River.

That was a freaking long introduction, sorry about that.

So the trip now!

We arrived in Windhoek on the Friday night, went to a lodge to sleep and went straight to the car rental agency after an early breakfast the following day. We were only in Namibia for 11 nights and had planned a lot to see (strangely enough!) so there was no time to lose.

After a video that seems to be like an hour long (but was probably 15 minutes) about car safety, the dangers of speeding and the potential hazards we could meet on the different types of roads of Namibia – did I mention that speeding was dangerous -, we got in the car, went to the supermarket for a bit of food and stuff shopping and hit the road. We knew the first day would only be about driving down south to Aus so that’s just what we (when I say “we”, that means Henry) just did.

We arrived just in time for welcome drinks and a plouf in the pool at our amazing first lodge Klein Aus Vista. We then had oryx roast for dinner and headed to our “rooms” for the two nights we were staying there. Our accommodation was about 7 kilometres away from the main lodge in their private property in the desert, hidden behind a big rocky mountain, with wild horses and oryx aplenty grazing around. We stayed in 2 Eagle’s Nest chalets, built into rounded granite boulders with a rugged mountain as a backdrop. The surroundings were stunning and oh so peaceful. It was the perfect beginning to our trip. On our second night at the chalets we had a brai while we watched the sunset so life was pretty good.

The next day we headed to Kolmanskop. Kolmanskop is the reason why it took me so long to organise this trip because everyone had advised me against it: we were only staying 10 days, it was too short to do it, the drive would be too long, there were so many other/better things to do and places to see, blah blah blah . But I can be very stubborn and so Kolmanskop had to be.

It is a ghost town which used to be a German mining village at the beginning of the 20th century. The town declined after World War I when the diamond-field slowly exhausted and was ultimately abandoned in 1954.

The amenities and institutions there used to include a hospital, a ballroom, a power station, a school for over 40 German kids, a skittle-alley, a theatre and sport-hall, a casino, a poker room, 2 brothels, an ice factory, a saltwater swimming pool and the first X-ray station in the southern hemisphere (not for broken bones but rather to check if employees had not nicked a few diamonds), as well as the first tram in Africa.

They had to import 1000 tons of fresh water, transported in barrels from Cape Town every month.

They used to import champagne from Rheims for their fine dinner parties. They had opera singers shipped all the way from Germany for special occasions…

We are in the middle of the desert, in Southern Africa, in the early 20th century, so all of this is pretty impressive.

At its peak, over 1000 people worked there. The miners’ job consisted of literally crawling on the floor with a nylon mesh mask on the mouth (to prevent them from swallowing some on the way) in search of the scattered diamonds. At the end of their 2-year contract (with not one day off), employees had to endure a quarantine period where they basically had to shit on a nylon meshed toilet to check if they hadn’t tried smuggling diamonds! How lovely… I am sure you can see a little obsessive leitmotiv here.

That’s for the story. For the rest, the place is beautiful and eery. An amazing playground for little ones as well as grown-ups. The houses are still standing but are all sanded in. The light comes in and plays with the different windows and cracks on the walls and ceilings. I could have stayed there for hours taking photos!

We then went to Lüderitz for lunch and had the biggest crayfish ever. The harbour town has the same weird feel as Swakopmund that I mentioned earlier but it is a charming little town.

After 2 nights in Aus, we had to start our drive back up north, first in the direction of Sossusvlei. We took a gravel road as we wanted to go on the scenic route. That’s when, after a few hundred kilometres, I thought to myself that I would probably never want to live in Namibia! As a city girl, the idea that my next neighbour is probably a 2-hour drive away from me is rather terrifying. I know some people do love the peace and quiet but Namibia takes the concept to a whole new level. I mean, even villages (after 200 kilometres of not seeing a single soul, car, house, donkey) consist of 2 to 3 houses standing at an intersection… As much as I sometimes complain about my neighbour putting the volume of his television too loud, I am not sure this country would be good for me and my sanity. So remember when/if you go there that when you ask a resident how far somewhere is and the answer is “not far”, consider it being at least a hundred kilometres as that is really close by in Namibian standards.

Anyhow, on our way to Sossusvlei, I will spare you the number of corpses and decomposed bodies of animals along the way but apart from those, the landscapes were beautiful and so diverse. Constantly changing colours and shapes. And so many huge nests defying gravity in the trees!

That’s how busy it looked on the way to Sossusvlei…

What with random facts, on the way, we stopped at Duwisib Castle to take a break and see this original castle literally built in the middle of nowhere. A German baron decided that a castle would be the best summer house he could think of at the beginning of the 20th century… Including crenellated towers, a patio with a fountain and a bar in the basement, Duwisib Castle is a surreal break in the middle of a long and lonely day of driving.

For our special “dunes day”, we decided to start with Dead Vlei. Its name means “dead marsh” and is a dry white clay pan in a valley between the dunes, located near the more famous salt pan of Sossusvlei, inside the Namib-Naukluft Park. The trees died because there was no longer enough water to survive. The remaining skeletons of the trees are black and mega dry, though not petrified. The remaining plants around adapted to survive off very little water (Namibia is the driest country in Sub-Saharan Africa) and morning mist.

The surprise for me was that I naively thought that the place was rather small and that the dunes were just there and bam it would be done. But it is actually a huge place and the dunes stretch one after the other, with names like Elim Dune, Dune 45 and Big Daddy, on over 70 kilometres. Dune 45 should have given me a hint as it is so called because you have to drive 45 km to reach it… Oh well (Sometimes, I don’t read the guide book, can you believe it?!)… Some dunes can be as high as 300-400 metres so that day was definitely my sports day.

After our dune overdose, we headed north west toward Swakopmund which was our next destination. We saw tons of baboons crossing the road (they were everywhere to be honest), vultures and mountain zebras in the Naukluft. We crossed the tropic of capricorn (but couldn’t be bothered to stop to get a picture of the sign).

We reached Swakopmund via Walvis Bay. The road between the 2 has its charm given that you have the ocean on your left and dunes on your right. But the ocean is filled with petrol tankers and huge platforms floating in the distance which gives a weird futuristic vibe to the décor. With its 100,000 inhabitants, it is also the Dubaï of Southern Africa with its luxury compound of square minimalist bunker-type houses right next to each other on a spit of land along the ocean, made known by the late couple Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie when they decided to give birth to their first biological child in Namibia and stayed in Langstrand for the whole period. The ocean being freezing cold and the water too rough to swim in anyway, I don’t get it but hey, each to their own.

I mentioned Swakopmund in my introduction. Beach resort. Weird German architecture and South African people mix. South African kids arriving in posh restaurants barefoot because apparently they are not used to shoes (I was told some SA schools do not require them to enter their premises!! – To their defence, I have to say that I heard with my own ears some South African parents asking their kids to put shoes on when the kids wanted to look for scorpions in the desert and took our kids along, so there are limits to their love of barefootedness). My photos unfortunately do not show any piece of architecture because it was, well, a city and not that exotic to me. Imagine what a small town in Germany would look like but, well, in Africa…

Walvis Bay is the departure point for the catamaran trips that take you to see the seals and oyster farms. So we went back there the next morning.

We were the last group to board one of the many catamarans booked that day so we basically were a small group of 10 with the food on board for 20. It was an oyster and fish feast! And champagne or rather sparkling wine was served from the very early hours of 9:30-10… The explanation on oyster culture was so interesting for a French girl like me (who happens to love oysters) because the way they do it in namibia is very different from the way we do it in France. It is much quicker in Namibia as they put the oysters unattached in boxes in deep sea (and wash them every 6 weeks) so they grow twice as fast as their French counterparts which are dependent on tides. Unfortunately for me, they seem to be exclusively milky and it’s a variety I don’t like much so I mostly ate the cooked ones.

Apart from the fact that our group included a bunch of highly racist Russian people who had lived in Namibia for the past 13 years, the trip was lovely.

When we returned to the main land, we drove to Walvis Bay lagoon to contemplate the flamingoes. There were hundreds of them.

We left Swakopmund to carry on to our next destination on a very foggy morning. The atmosphere and landscape around gave a sense of pending apocalypse. The only missing elements around were the zombies coming from the desert to kill us all.

In the Brandberg region on the way to Twyfelfontein, we never saw so many cars on the road! Maybe like 20! So busy 😉 And proper trees for picnic breaks (big enough for a bit of shade, joy!). Apart from that, there was nothing around, not a soul… except a little boy on a donkey cart in the middle of nowhere and later on 2 women selling gems and mineral stones along the road at a crossroad. And one small house. That’s it.

We arrived at Twyfelfontein in the scorching hours of the afternoon and had to motivate the kids to get out of the car and walk in the heat while they were like “haven’t you always told us that we should always avoid walking in the sun?” “where is the shade?”… We’ve always told them that walking in the sun was not a very smart thing to do so a battle of persuasion ensued but I’m happy to say that we won it.

For your general knowledge, about 6000 years ago, the bushmen living there carved some stones in Twyfelfontein in order to tell their fellowmen about their stories and the things they had seen. Wildebeest, giraffes, rhinos, lions, seals, flamingoes, ostriches are the animals you can see there, to name a few… Meaning that they went all the way to the coast – on foot!!, saw seals and stuff and came back to engrave the rocks there.

The place was a place of worship and a site to conduct shamanist rituals. Shamanism was a very important aspect of their life and you can see it in some of the engravings where the animals have 5 claws representing the 5 fingers of each hand of the human beings that the animals were supposed to have been too.

Twyfelfontein was declared Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007 as one of the largest concentrations of rock petroglyphs in Africa.

After our little walk in the sun, we carried on to Vingerklip Lodge. A friend of ours had strongly recommended it, and oh was she right. The place is stunning, luscious vegetation, giraffes and baboons in the nature all around and has 2 swimming pools and a restaurant on the top of a mountain!

Vingerklip takes its name after the finger-shaped rock formation standing in the middle of the property.

We are almost reaching the end of our trip now – thus the end of this post, alleluia.

After a week in the country, the time had finally arrived to go to Etosha National Park. We managed to get a photo with a Himba woman in traditional attire just before entering the park. We had seen a few of them selling arts and crafts in touristic places but had never managed (or dared) to get close and have a chat. The one who accepted to take the photo with us was so defiant but managed to relax and smile while the photo was taken by her friend. What a woman she was. Very intimidating.

About the park, our expectations were high, our dreams unrealistic, or apparently so. We wanted elephants, herds of giraffes and rhinos, lions and cheetahs… and we saw tiny ferret-looking rodents, weird-looking walking birds, a couple of giraffes, a few more zebras and gnus, many springboks and hartebeests, one baby hyena, 2 rhinos and zero elephants. 7-hour drive for not one elephant… How extremely disappointing. I know animals are not guaranteed but still I want a refund.

There was water everywhere so waterholes were a bit pointless, plus the weather was very stormy and rainy, with lots of lightning in the distance so the animals could have been hiding somewhere, who knows… I would definitely hide.

Okay, I need to be honest here and admit that we saw a lioness chilling next to her dead gnu, but it was quite far, like far enough for my camera to be a pain. Speaking of which, it is the first time I had to ask my faithful sidekick to turn the engine off so I could take pictures as the vibrations were interfering with my camera focus… Weird.

Our last visit was the Cheetah Conservation Fund on the way back to Windhoek. It is a non-profit organisation looking after cheetahs that were used as pet cheetahs or that got injured by predators or by farmers. Sometimes they take orphaned cubs in too after their mother gets killed. Cheetahs are beautiful animals, very slender and majestuous. It was pretty cool to get close to them.

We learned all sorts of interesting things about them and about the prevention work they do with farmers and shepherd dogs that they happen to ship all the way from Turkey! The world is full of surprises!

The road to go the CCF was gorgeous. Beautiful shades of blue above us, green in the fields and terracotta colour on the termite moulds. Tons of them! And goats, cows and warthogs roaming free.

Our last night in Namibia was in an amazing place, again, where we took the time to remember our trip and count our blessings as we realised that this country had been very special indeed, even though lacking in elephants…

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Thank you Carole and Isabelle for helping me organise this trip!

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