In December we flew to Windhoek, Namibia, on KLM’s new flight route which stops over in Luanda, Angola. The idea was to do a week-long roadtrip down to Cape Town, where we would spend Christmas. To get around Namibia it’s definitely best to have a car, as it’s a big country and the distances between sights are vast. Renting a car gives you the freedom to plan your route as you like, and if you want to drive south, it’s possible to return the car at Cape Town international airport with some companies.
My Namibian family gave me some good tips for driving on the dirt roads.
- let a little bit of air out of the tires, as that way they are less likely to burst
- don’t be fooled by the fact that the dirt roads are good dirt roads and drive too fast, because you may just hit a bad spot and lose control. 80km/hr should be the maximum, and on some roads you will need to drive more slowly.
- avoid driving at night, since there can be animals on the road, and a big animal like a kudu can destroy your car
Since we only had about a week and would be driving west and then south, we didn’t manage to see the north of Namibia on this trip, but we managed to fit in a lot of the best sights in the centre and south. Here’s how our one-week itinerary looked:
Day 1: Windhoek. We arrived in Windhoek (the capital), where we checked into our B&B and were then picked up by some family, who took us on a sightseeing tour of Windhoek and then treated us to a braai (barbecue) at night. It was great to see them again and be filled in on all the news.
Day 2: Windhoek to Swakopmund. The road trip began. Our aim for the day was to drive from Windhoek to Swakopmund, a coastal town. We stopped for a while at the Daan Viljoen nature reserve. As it was very hot, most of the animals were hiding, but we did see a few buck and wildebeest, and it was fun to walk around in the bush.
Continuing on our drive, we had a lunch break in Okahandja, where we enjoyed watching colourful lizards running around. Here we stocked up on biltong (a dried, spiced meat) and droewors (dried, spiced sausage) for the road trip and visited the huge craft market, where we had to learn the bargaining culture because everyone was quoting ridiculously high prices. I would say we lost the bargaining game, but it was an interesting cultural experience and we got better at it as we went along. Other things we saw along the way: baboons, warthogs and towering termite mounds.
We arrived in Swakopmund around 5 or 6pm and were surprised that it was a little bit chilly. By the sea it is much cooler than inland, and they also get a lot of mist. We went for a short walk on the beach and then had dinner.
Day 3: Swakopmund and around. We had booked the Sand and Rock tour with Charly’s desert tours, which was a combination of the Living Desert tour in the morning and the Namib desert tour in the afternoon. In the Living Desert tour, they took us (and some others) in a jeep to the sand dunes, where our guide scouted around to look for some of the little desert creatures to show us. Did you know that as well as the famous Big Five (African elephant, African lion, Cape Buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros) there is also a Little five ( Namaqua chameleon, the Sidewinder snake, the Shovel-snouted lizard, the Dancing white lady spider and the Palmato gecko)?
The afternoon section of the tour was a visit to the Moon valley, a rocky desert landscape where hundreds of years old Welwitschia plants grow. In the evening we had a fresh fish dinner in Swakopmund.
Day 4: Swakopmund to Desert Camp lodge. Our aim was to head to the famous red dunes of Namibia, so we started driving south to the Desert Camp lodge, which is near the Sesriem gate of the national park. After a quick stop at the port town of Walvis Bay, our trip took us past beautiful desert scenery, and we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn along the way. We stopped for a break at Solitaire; unfortunately we were too late for lunch but they also have a bakery and it was nice to get out of the car for a bit and sit in the shade drinking Stoney’s ginger beer (non-alchoholic), which is really the best thirst quencher on a hot day. The desert scenery on this drive was simply fantastic – we hopped out of the car many times to take photos.
We arrived at the Desert Camp lodge in the afternoon, immediately noticing a few gemsbok wandering around. The accommodation itself is permanent tent-like constructions, which look amazing standing in the middle of the desert, especially in the light of the full moon we had that evening. You can pre-order food and wood for a braai, which we did, and rent out a picnic box which has all the cutlery and plates in it. It was an amazing afternoon and evening. First we went for a walk around a rocky koppie (a small hill), coming across a gemsbok on the way, and then we headed off to relax and watch the sunset by the pool, enjoying a drink from the bar. After the sun went down, all the gemsbok started heading for the watering hole, and it was fun to watch them walking to and fro. Eventually, as the full moon came up, we went back to our tent structure to make the braai on the balcony. It was such a beautiful evening it was hard to force ourselves to go to bed as we had to get up early the next morning to head for the dunes. We really would have loved to spend an extra night here.
Day 5: Soussusvlei dunes. Most people set off to Soussvlei at first light, to get there before it is too hot and see the dunes in the morning light. We left a little later than intended but still got there relatively early, when it was still cool. We’d loved the dunes in Swakopmund already and had expected these ones to be just as amazing, but they were even more beautiful than we had imagined, glowing pink in the morning light, and we kept pulling over to take photos.
From a certain point you can only take a shuttle bus to the dunes. We took the challenge and climbed to the top of Big Daddy, a seemingly never-ending mountain of sand that is 325m high.
After the hard slog, we ran down into Deadvlei, a blindingly white expanse of dried clay from a former oasis, where dark, long-dead acacia trees stand in stark contrast to the white clay and orange dunes. It is a very surreal landscape.
After leaving the dunes, we had lunch and visited Sesriem canyon before heading onto our next night’s stop, Bethanie, a small town or village located at a convenient distance in between Soussusvlei and Aus, our next stop. The drive to Bethanie was very beautiful, as we passed mountains and farms with goats and water pumps. The sky was an amazing colour due to rain in some areas, and we also saw several dust devils on our trip – rotating columns of wind that pull up the dust and look a bit like twisters, although they are much less powerful. Another exciting experience was stopping at a small town/village for a snack and finding ourselves in a garden with hundreds of butterflies, which were settling around small leaks in the hosepipe or on newly watered ground, wherever there was a little moisture. And at some point we drove for hours without seeing another car.
Day 6: The wild horses of Aus and Lüderitz. In the morning we headed off in the direction of Aus, a small town about 125km east of Lüderitz. Aus is famous for the wild horses that live in the area, descendants of horses belonging to some of the German colonists. An artificial watering hole has been set up at a distance from a hide, and you can sit and watch the horses and gemsbok drinking together and coming and going.
From Aus we headed to Lüderitz, a coastal town that was founded by German colonists. It is remarkable to see the German-style half-timbered buildings in the middle of a desert. In 1909, diamonds were discovered in the area, and there was a diamond rush that made the town become prosperous. The nearby mining settlement of Kolmanskop, now a ghost town, was established.
We spent the afternoon exploring a bit of the coast around Lüderitz, where the water is a deep aquamarine blue. There are plenty of flamingos to be seen, and we also saw lots of springboks in the area. We also visited the town museum, which was open in the afternoon, and went to watch the sunset at Agate beach, so named because of all the agate stones that wash up on the shore. In the evening we went to a pub-style restaurant where I had a very delicious sosatie (pieces of meat on a skewer). The guesthouse we stayed in was simply beautiful, and we were sad to see that it is now for sale, as perhaps the new owners will not keep it as a guesthouse.
Day 7: Kolmanskop and Ai-Ais. In the morning we did a tour of Kolmanskop, the former diamond mining settlement that was abandoned and is now being overtaken by the desert sands. 5 million carats of diamonds were mined in the first 6 years of mining here, and the settlement became extremely prosperous. During the tour we learnt all about life in the town, and the diamond mining there, including some fascinating stories of how various people tried to smuggle diamonds out of the town. The entry fee, including the tour, was 75 Namibian dollars, and after the tour you are free to wander around the houses and take photographs.
After visiting Kolmanskop, we set off for our next stop, the hot springs resort of Ai-Ais. This was the endpoint of the Fish river canyon hiking tour that I did some years ago, and so I had fond memories of it. It was great to be back, and we took a little walk to the end of the hiking trail, where we spotted a group of baboons hanging out (these naughty baboons apparently raid the campsite regularly, but we were staying in a room). After dinner, we went for a swim in the outdoor thermal pool; a super relaxing way to end the day.
Day 8: The Fish river canyon and border crossing to South Africa. Our last day in Namibia, which was a little bit sad, but on the other hand we’d soon be in Cape Town and I could see my family again and spend Christmas there. After a relaxing breakfast at Ai-Ais we took a drive to the Fish River Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world. It was funny to see it from above, remembering how we’d been living down below in it for five days. At the time of our trip, Namibia hadn’t had rain for ages, so it was very dry. Shortly after we left the rains started, and it was a very good year for rain, so I’m sure the canyon looks completely different now.
It was tempting to linger at the canyon, but we had a lot of kilometres ahead of us that day. We crossed into South Africa and headed south, arriving fairly late in Citrusdal as we’d forgotten to take into account that some time would be needed for the border crossing paperwork and passport stamping.
Day 9: Cape Town. After a nice breakfast at the guesthouse, we set off for Cape Town. After a few hours driving, we arrived at Cape Town international and returned the car. The dramatic landscapes of Namibia were far behind, but the memories will last forever!