Two weeks and over 5,000 kilometers later, I recently finished a two-week road trip around Namibia. It was an epic adventure in a stark and beautiful, but rarely visited, desert country. My companions for this trip were Jen (American) and Russell (Australian), friends from my stay at Once Backpackers in Cape Town several weeks ago.
Namibia lies on the Atlantic coast of southern Africa. The country had a turbulent history during its years as a German colony (known then, creatively, as South West Africa) and then as an administrative territory of South Africa’s apartheid government.
Guerrilla movements began fighting for independence as early as 1966, yet the country did not achieve independence until 1990. The intervening years have seen the country become one of the more safe and stable countries in this part of the continent.
Namibia’s small population (around 2,000,000 people primarily clustered near the northern border with Angola) and massive land area mean that it remains largely untouched. As a result, the country boasts a wide range of wildlife to complement it’s stunning desert scenery.
We began in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital and most populous city (~250,000). We arrived two days before we were scheduled to pick up our truck. Following a night at BackPacker Unite, we spent a day taking care of last minute logistical details and visiting the few tourist attractions in the city, such as the Chrstuskirche, Zoo Park, the excellent Museum of Namibia, and the underwhelming Gallery of Namibia.
The next morning we made our way back out to the airport to take possession of our 4×4 from the Britz rental agency.
The Nissan Double Cab pickup was decked out with all the bells and whistles we’d need for a true African safari. It included, in addition to 4×4 capabilities, a second fuel tank, two spare tires, an air compressor, a fridge, folding table, four camp chairs, pair of roof-mounted two-person tents, 4 sets of pillows, blankets and towels, a propane tank with stove attachment, and ample cooking equipment.
All in all, a decidedly sweet set up. We hopped in and turned south to start the adventure.
Keetmanshoop is little more than a blip that is the last point of civilization before heading into the remote desert one the way to the nature reserves in the deep south. It’s only notable here because of an experience that highlighted one of the harsher realities of traveling in least developed countries (LDCs), especially those in Africa.
We had just stopped in town to hit the grocery store when a man approached us to beg. This is not all that rare in Namibia, although I found it less common than in parts of South Africa and other places around the world.
What was significant was that the man was bleeding profusely from a massive wound above his eye. Blood dripped down his face and had by now completely covered his arms and his light-colored shirt. He tottered outside my driver’s window, barely able to remain upright, pleading for small change.
Jen and Russ snuck quickly out the passenger side to complete our errands. I remained seated. The man remained rooted outside my window. Minutes ticked by.
As he entreated me to give him money, I was forced to contend with the bleak realities of life for many people in the LDCs. Poverty is rampant, unemployment is outrageous (near 50% in Namibia according to some statistics), and, as in too many other African countries, HIV/AIDS is highly prevalent (affecting approximately 25% of Namibians).
The man ultimately gave up and staggered onto the sidewalk to try his luck with the passers-by.
We finished our errands and left town, discussing the unsettling incident as we drove. Russell noted that he had had very similar experience, complete with dripping blood, the day before we were shopping at a store in the main commercial district back in Windhoek. In his case, the incident had occurred inside the store at the checkout counter.
Fish River Canyon
We camped just outside the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld National Park boundary and entered first thing in the morning to visit the viewpoints over Fish River Canyon. The canyon is one of the largest in the world and is up to 550 meter deeps while reaching 27 kilometers wide and nearly 160 km long.
The canyon is also the home of one of the best hikes in southern Africa. The Fish River Canyon Trail is a 3-4 day hike along the bottom of the canyon. Beginning in Ai-Ais, the trail works its way 85 km until it reaches Hobas. From what I’ve read, it makes for a fantastic, if hot and dry, hike.
Our schedule was tight, though, so I had to save that one for my next visit.
We worked our way out of Ai-Ais and back on to one of the few paved roads in Namibia. Turning west, we headed toward Namib-Naukluft National Park and the Namib desert, a 1,500 kilometer stretch along the Namibian coast that is the country’s namesake. The unique coastal fog desert is the oldest on earth and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We turned north and left the pavement again for what would prove to many days. At the direction of the rental agency, we’d kept our tires at the same pressure (35 psi) as we had on the paved road. Not a good idea.
Our first (and only) flat tire of the trip waylaid us not an hour later. Fortunately, we were equipped with a spare tire (two, actually) and a barely adequate amount of elbow grease and know-how. We were on the road again an hour and half later, armed with caution and significantly lower tire pressure (25 psi).
We reached the gate to the Namib-Naukluft National Park that afternoon. The national park is world renowned for its epic scenery and its copper colored dunes, which are some of the tallest in the world.
Park rules require all visitors to leave the park between sunset and sunrise. We had just enough time before sunset to dash in and see Sossusvlei, one of the park’s main attractions, before heading back to camp at Sesriem Restcamp, a campground just inside the park gate run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts.
Rising early the next morning, we made a pre-dawn drive back to Sossusvlei and then shifted into 4×4 mode for the short off-road drive to Deadvlei, a spectacular long-dried oasis with preserved remains of dozens of 500-year old acacia trees. You’re probably familiar with Deadvlei from the excellent Planet Earth documentary series or its many appearances in National Geographic.
We spent the long morning exploring the dry oasis and climbing around the massive dunes. We wrapped up the fun with an exhilarating sprint from the top of the Big Daddy dune, one of the tallest in the world, to the surface of the dry basin.
That’s the end of Part 1. I’ll post about the rest of the Namibia road trip soon.