Wow. Wow. WOW!!
Namibia has been everything I'd hoped for and far surpassed my already inflated expectations. Our week there was amazing. Our travel partners have been great, the hotels have been wonderful, the food has been excellent, and the experiences superlative. Where do I begin?
Perhaps with the fact that Namibia is vast and empty. We drove for hours without seeing other vehicles, settlements, or people. And in the name of full disclosure, we left behind paved roads once we started south from Swakopmund. For 4 straight days it was hours of dusty bumping along between the sights and stops. But honestly, that is part of Namibia's charm - emptiness, remoteness. It truly costs something to get to the highlights, and the the rewards far outstrip the costs.
I was exhausted by my 38+ hour journey to Africa but excited to be here. The drive from the capital Windhoek to our fist destination Swakopmund was pleasant with dramatic scenery, some impressive termite mounds, and our first dramatic African sunset. In my first encounters with Namibians I found them reserved but very friendly and accommodating. Our first African dinner was a preview of things to come. Lots of choices, well seasoned and prepared, and a great value. The style of cooking, like the overall feel of Namibia, is very European and western - a surprise to me. Everything is clean, the streets are wide and well maintained, everyone speaks English (but also Africaans and German) plus many native languages.
Swakopmund is the "Adventure Capital" of Namibia. So activities were on the agenda this first day. In the morning we organized a Quadbike tour of the nearby sand dunes. We road all over the dunes, stopping once in a while to learn about life in the desert. It was really fun. One of the highlights was a chameleon - the guide held it against various backgrounds so it would change colors right before our eyes! Then he held a beetle about 6 inches away and, like lightning, the chameleon shot out it's tongue and snagged it like a sticky harpoon.
Another lizard was very tiny, but brightly colored and we learned it glows in the dark at night. When dropped back on the sand, it wriggled quickly back under the sand, disappearing in a half second. The tiny sidewinder snake captured had the same burrowing trick. After 3+ hours of zipping about our little "biker" gang returned to town for lunch.
In the afternoon those who had signed up took the scenic flight I had arranged. It was wonderful and we saw beautiful mountains, the giant orange-red sand dunes of Sosssusvlei, canyons, and a spectacular stretch of coast line from the air. It was amazing to see the massive and varied sand dunes (white now instead of red) marching down right to the seashore. Sometimes the ended abruptly in tiny "Dover-like" cliffs, but in other places the dunes themselves extended like fat fingers right into the Atlantic. Great salt making pans, seal colonies, and a couple of shipwrecks added interesting elements to the coastal views. But my overall impression was the vastness, inaccessibility, wildness, and emptiness of the country as mentioned above. It was a perspective not available in any other way.
The next day was primarily a travel day. But we periodically stopped to see Springbocks, Oryx, Jackels, and Gemsbocks along the way. The Oryx are the most striking, with long, arching, very lethal-looking horns and an attractive mix of brown bodies and white faces with accenting black marking. The scenery was varied, beautiful, and interesting - which made the long drive quite pleasant. We got to Hammerstein Lodge about 4:30PM. It is like an oasis of civilization with trees that shade a pleasant patio area, a swimming pool, and a couple of picnic pavilions. Additionally, they have some big fenced pens with animals to see up close. Those already mentioned, plus a beautiful young leopard and two cheetahs. The leopard acted just like our tabby at home, flirting with the group and then moving away when it suited her. But we were warned not to approach. For a special treat we were allowed to go INTO the cage with cheetahs. They are almost tame. You can't pet them but you can get pretty close. At first the were lying on the ground and one was purring away - just like our Mango at home. Somehow the experience of these caged animals was superior to a zoo visit at home. For starters, we got much closer and then seeing them in their native habitat, even a fenced portion, seemed more genuine.
At dinner that night we had a buffet with lots of choices. In addition to beef and chicken dishes, there was a goulash made with Oryx meat - delicious. The second night there were Springbock steaks as well as Zebra and Kudu dishes - we're not in Kansas anymore Todo. Each evening the whole kitchen staff came out with drums and symbols and sang and danced for us - it wasn't hokey or silly. They were really good, the music was very engaging, and they seemed to be having a genuinely good time performing.
Day 4 was spectacular and my personal highlight for Namibia. We got up very early and drove about 90 minutes to get to Sossusvlei - with the highest sand dunes in the world (up to 3300 ft high). But it is not the size alone that makes them impressive - they march in rows for miles on end and the sand itself is red! VERY dramatic in the early morning sun. The sun makes the red sand glow orange on the east sides, contrasted in stark relief by the black shadows on the western flanks. The contrast is so acute, it looks like a razor's edge between the black and orange.
Some of the "separator" lines were strait but others undulated like a snake. Both impressive! We hiked in to Deadvlei, an area where the trees have all died, but remain in place, black and petrified by the desert sun. They are quite striking as black silhouettes backed by the glowing red sand in the early sun. Many people chose to climb the surrounding dunes. They look like a chain of ants moving up the ridge. After LOTS of photographs, we headed back for one last stop. There is a tiny canyon called Sesriem. You don't see it until you arrive right at the edge.
Its not big but very dramatic. The conglomerate stone walls twist and wind to a tiny pool of water at one end, to which we hiked. If reminded me of the end of the 3rd Indiana Jones movie where he rides through the very narrow wadi defile on the way to find the Holy Grail. Our holy grail was the photographic wonders of Sossusflei. As an additional bonus, this area is one of the darkest places on earth. It has actually been designated by the United Nations as a Dark Sky Preserve. So at the very end of the day, after dinner, I walked away from the compound a few hundred yards and looked up into the moonless sky - the milky way looked just that, a broad band of milky white that swathed across the entire length of the night sky. Individual stars burned like bright signal beacons. I don't believe I've ever seen a night sky so electric! It was an impressive sight, very nearly equaling the drama of the morning at Sossusflei.
Needless to say, Swakopmund and Sossusflei have provided a fitting and rewarding start to our Nambia adventure.