Many years ago I had watched a documentary entitled "The Shifting Sands of Namib" and was hooked on the striking landscape of the Namib Desert. With a trip to southern Africa planned for June, 2006, I had to include a few days at the dunes.
Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, is a sizable country, about twice the size of California. Five days is woefully inadequate amount of time to visit this striking, welcoming nation. But by limiting our wish list of sites, our five-day exploration left us with plenty of beautiful memories and a desire to return to see the many sites we had missed.
Our self-drive trip began with a night in Windhoek at the Windhoek Country Club Resort, a lovely place, but a bit upscale. We headed out early the next morning for a drive to the Sossusvlei/Sesriem area in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Driving in Namibia is easy once one adjusts to driving on the left. (Our Budget rental car was also a manual transmission; if you are unfamiliar with this, ask for an automatic). The pavement ended in Rehoboth, but the gravel roads posed no problem. Beautiful scrub tree landscapes lined the road and occasionally we would spot birds and animals that sent us screeching to a halt.
We located Kulala Desert Lodge and found it to be a lovely oasis on the rock-strewn bank of the dry Tsauchab River, overlooking the red dunes of the national park to the west. Our tent was elevated on a wooden platform with adobe walls and thatched roof. On the same platform was our son's adjoining tent. Both structures offered ensuite bathrooms with showers, and ladder access to the rooftop landing. Arrangements can be made to have sleeping bags placed on one's rooftop for a night under the stars.
While we used Kulala's guides to transport us into and around the park dunes, there is an advantage to staying within the park that we were unable to take: campers here, and guests at the Sossusvlei Lodge have access to the dunes before first light, so those fabulous sunrise and sunset photos can be yours for the taking. Kulala's guides do have a private, shortcut gate by which they can enter the park at sunrise, but the drive to the dunes still takes 10 or 15 precious minutes.
Climbing to the top of Dune 45 was a remarkable experience. The sand presents a challenging walking surface, but the beauty of the landscape below makes each upward step worthwhile.
Driving further into the park one reaches a point where those in two-wheel drive vehicles must park and either walk or await a shuttle. The vleis - pans or depressions in the landscape that have held or occasionally hold water - are found at the end of the drive: Hidden Vlei, Dead Vlei, Nara Vlei and Sossusvlei. Of these, Dead Vlei presents the opportunity for striking photos.
While at Kulala we also made a visit to Sesriem Canyon, near the official gateway to the park (where you can purchase gas and permits for entry into the park.) Here the Tsauchab River cuts a deep crevice in the sandstone, providing an interesting trail for a short hike.
We had little more than one full day in this area, just time enough for the highlights. Then we began our drive on the C14 to Walvis Bay. The landscape changes as we moved on our northward route were subtle but beautiful. The grassy savannas with rocky outcrops around Sesriem gave way to barren rock fields which grew into scrubby undulating hills around Thr Gaub River. Continuing westward on the C14 across the northern section of the Namib-Naukluft Park, the sand dunes eventually return, but without the red colors of the Sossusvlei area.
Walvis Bay lacks the old world charm of its neighbor Swakopmund (20 kilometers to the north) but is nevertheless a fine place to stay. I had anticipated the Bay to be a haven for birdlife, a place for walks in the sand with the sea lapping at our bare feet. Rather, paved sidewalks border the water in town, and industry claims much of the waterfront.
Our base of operations for our two nights in Walvis Bay was the Lagoon Lodge, located right on the Bay. This proved to be a lovely 6-room B&B with fine hosts and pleasant rooms, especially fine for dog-lovers.
I was less than enthusiastic about a proposed 3-hour motorboat tour of the bay with Mola Mola, but within minutes of boarding the boat was thoroughly entertained and educated about the activity and residents of Walvis Bay. There were about 14 guests onboard, and our guide, Wally, was quite a character. The mix of tourists on the boat made for interesting conversations.
For those - like me - eager for a walk along the beach, drive north on the main highway to Swakopmund. Turnouts all along the highway lead to beach parking, where you can experience the dunes litterally running into the sea.
We sampled the local pizza parlors in Walvis Bay and found Crazy Mamas to be adequate, and Harry Peppars to be fabulous!
Across the main highway from Long Beach (or "Langstrand") – made famous by serving as the home away from home for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – is Dare Devil Adventure, where quad-bikes can be rented for guided tours through the dunes. This is a must for those who wish to experience the dunes while having a blast. The bikes are automatic transmission vehicles and easy to operate. Goggles are provided. While we never ventured far from the ocean on our one-hour tour, we immediately felt swallowed by the immensity of the landscape upon cresting the first dune.
Our final day in Namibia was spent with a quick, drive-through look around picturesque Swakopmund. Then we began the paved-road trip back to Windhoek via the B1 and B2 highways. A stop at the open-air curio stands in Okahandja allowed us to pick up a few souvenirs before heading to the airport for our flight out. The Skeleton Coast, Etosha National Park and Fish River Canyon are still on our wish list of Namibian sites to visit, but our memories of the shifting sands of Namib will remain.