As the day grows older, the heat becomes more oppressive with surface temperatures reaching as high as seventy degrees Celsius. Thankfully, the winds continue to blow, and the air hardly reaches much beyond forty. Dusty clouds swirl behind the car and every so often blow in gusts through the vents coating everything in a fine film of light beige grains. The road constantly dips through soft sand pockets and sometimes rather hard potholes. Road signs warn that they will fill with water – when, it’s hard to imagine, as everything in sight is dry, dry, dry. I stop the car to listen to the silence, and to walk in the emptiness that seems to inhabit the desert. There is nakedness. There is simplicity. There is almost no smell. The silence and the emptiness is all an illusion, as insects, reptiles, plants, birds, and animals of all kinds secretly make this unique ecosystem their home. Mostly they make their presence known at night when most sensible creatures would dare to move, but ostriches and certain bugs are clearly not among them. Humans also make their mark. Telephone polls holding electrical currents stretch into eternity and in a few places, 4 x 4 tracks endlessly crisscross the sand.
At times, people are inspired to go somewhere because of family heritage, a television show they’ve seen, or because someone told them about the wonderful time they had there and showed some pictures. My original aspiration to go to the Namib Desert began with a book written by a Salt Spring Island author. The book I picked up at the Fulford Harbour General Store was called The East Wind, and chronicled a story set during the infamous easterly winds that blow the sands from the desert back towards the sea. As someone who lives in a rainforest, and has only spent a few months in Canada’s desert regions, I have a fascination with the arid landscapes called desert. Tibet is a desert, so is Nevada, and most of Namibia contains the oldest desert in the world. But what makes the Namib Desert so unique are its dunes.
I’m here at Solitaire in the middle of nowhere. There are a few tin bungalows, the half flat that I’m staying in, some lodge rooms, and a gas station slash general shop. For miles and miles around – there’s f-all else. Here in Solitaire on my last full day in Namibia, the birds have been getting louder and louder since before 5 a.m. I get up and pull the curtains. It doesn’t look like much of a sunrise, so I go back to bed and try to get some more sleep. The plan doesn’t really work. I snooze for an hour and then get up.
The drive to Sossusvlei is by my understanding 80 kms away. Actually, Sesriem is 80 kms and Sossusvlei is another 65. Even though I’ve left at 7:30, the heat just keeps on coming. I’m reminded of a quote from my little brother, who is a newly proud papa. He recollected moments of his trip through the American West: “open the window and feel the sensation of a massive hair dryer turned on high.” By 9:15, I feel that sensation.
After numerous stops to take pictures and then register at the park office, the road becomes the worst excuse for blacktop that I have seen in Namibia. At first, the potholes are spread across the road in patches, making me feel pleased that I had some experience driving go-karts. First drive on the left, then the right, then left – now right – now left again – no right – kur-bump!!! There goes another mudguard. Then the road seems fine, except for a six-inch drop across the entire road surface that comes out of nowhere. Local safari outfits have carved a parallel track in the sand on either side of the main road. Eventually, after stopping at a few different dunes, I come to the 2 x 4 parking and grab a shuttle to the 4 x 4 park. My shuttle driver, Joseph, is originally Damari – a member of the Namibian tribe that talks using clicks as part of their language. He is coloured (as opposed to being black) and we talk about oppression under apartheid rule and post independence in Namibia, life in the townships, and what constitutes a good salary in Namibia. Soon enough, we are at the 4 x 4 park. Joseph demands a rhyme in order to remember what time to come back. “I have no clock, so why don’t I just give you a knock! Okay. That’s lame. Just come back at two o’clock”.
At high noon, I head for the Dead Vlei. Due to my complete lack of research, I don’t really know what it is. As far as I can tell, it’s just a slog through some sand in the heat of the day to nowhere. I feel like calling out “Water! Water!” but then remember that I have plenty in my backpack. I come to some white patches and hard ground in the desert, and think I’m there. Then I notice that some footprints carry on up a hill. So soldiering on through the sand in the heat, I climb to the top of the ridge. “Wow – this is worth it! Good finish Namibia!”
Before me is a dead lake. Pretty much dead for over 200 years, although it did fill with water briefly a few years ago. Dead Vlei looks like a frozen winter wonderland, surrounded by the hottest, most arid landscape on the planet. Nature continues to amaze.
Two and a half weeks earlier, I had arrived in Namibia. My first impressions were this place is HOT – and dry – but it can’t last. Heavy cloud threatened to add moisture in abundance to brown grassy foothills dotted with low growing shrubs and scraggly, barren trees. After a police roadblock, small mountains that seemed to be following us at a distance began creeping closer to the road as we approached the capital city. Windhoek (pronounced vindhawk) is located approximately 30 kms from the country’s international airport. I’m sharing a taxi with a woman who works for DeBeers diamonds – the company responsible for administrating massive tracts of land here that are “restricted diamond areas”. She’s a pleasant white-collar worker who splits her time between Cape Town and Windhoek, flying back and forth several times a month.
I booked into the Chameleon guesthouse, lured by pictures on the internet showing a sparkling blue pool and stories of a friendly atmosphere. The atmosphere is certainly friendly, the rooms huge and spotless, but the pool is a murky green with a neglected looking hose snaking across the surface. The staff help me find a car rental as I’ve decided to ‘self-drive’ myself around the country – one of only three options for traveling in Namibia – the others being on a bike of course, or on a guided safari tour. It’s a better option to rent a 4×4 or camper 4×4, but the price is around 950 Namibian dollars/day or $200 US.
Namibia’s paved highways are flat and empty roads where it’s easy to ignore your increasing speed. It’s a potentially treacherous situation as wildlife is abundant and prone to crossing the road without warning. On the way to Etosha National Park, 450 kms north of Windhoek, two families of baboons decide to make their way from one side to the other. Baboons look rather big and particularly fierce when viewed from the seat of Volkswagen Polo. Road signs warn of Kudu antelope and warthogs, but none are seen –just baboons. After a few hours on the road, I’m checking into a room at Okakuajo rest camp. Okakuajo has accommodation for everyone from VIP’s to tent safari groups, and it does have a sparkling blue pool.
First stop: Etosha – all about wildlife.
The dirt roads of Etosha all go off the main dirt road that connects the three rest camps. You can try Eland or Rhino Drive, or make your way down countless nameless detours that pass potential waterholes where wildlife congregate in the dry season. It’s wet season in January, so animals disperse throughout the park and are harder to find. Some visitors at this time of year leave disappointed at not seeing some of the big five wildlife attractions: elephant, lion, water buffalo (which I think should be replaced by the giraffe), leopard, and rhino. On the other hand, this time of year has most of the animals rearing their young. Baby Springbok antelope, little Zebras, lion cubs, young Wildebeest and Oryx – even baby elephants and rhinos are out there waiting to be discovered by shutterbugs perched high above the brush in their custom safari trucks.
At Okakuajo, the second vehicle leaving the camp after the gates open at sunrise is a blue VW with a very keen wildlife aficionado for its driver. Driving along the wet roads, I do my best to avoid the large ponds of water, taking it slow and peering through the brush for animals. I’m ‘wondering where the lions are.’ Springboks peer at me as I slow the car to a halt. I’m amused by the babies as they spring away as fast as their little legs will move them, while the adults give me a glance or two and go back to their grazing. The young Zebras react pretty much the same. Wildebeests always strike me as kind of crazy looking – like mad cows. If they get a little skittish, they buck around in the air and then sprint a few meters before stopping to take a look. Occasionally they shake their heads and snort, repeating as much as they deem necessary. After a few hours, a couple in a pick-up truck wave me down and tell me there are some male lions sleeping in the grass one kilometer down the road. Sure enough, this is ‘where the lion sleeps tonight’. There are two just 5 meters from the road. Looking completely content, one is lying down well camouflaged; the other looks around to the road, and then goes back to licking its paws and cleaning itself.
Continuing east through the park, there are large numbers of Zebras and Springbok. Oryx, or Gemsbok, and Wildebeest are less common, but still abundant. It’s the lions, the giraffe, and the elephants that are more difficult to find. Then, just outside the centre rest camp of Halali, five more young lions are have been spotted sitting about a 100 meters from the road. You almost can’t see them, as their coats blend into the dry looking soil. But they’re there, and one appears to be cleaning blood from its coat. Perhaps, they’ve just sampled some wild game for breakfast. With the best part of the day coming to an end, and after some coffee and a toasted sandwich at the Halali Camp, I return to Okakuajo for some rest.
That evening, the waterhole at Okakuajo sees some zebras, a jackal or two, and a giraffe that almost makes it to the waters edge before being annoyed away by the jackal. Its rare in this season that animals even bother coming to the floodlighted waterholes, but a few nights later, a baby rhino and its mother were reported to have come for a drink. June is supposed to be the best month for waterhole wildlife viewing. You can just crack open a cool drink and sit there while a parade of animals appear day and night.
The following morning, I wait until after breakfast before venturing out of the camp. Today, I’d like to see some ostrich, some elephants, more lions, and I would especially like to see some giraffes. There’s something about giraffes that amaze me. They are timid and shy, but at the same time can fiercely pound something to death with their hooves. It’s a massive effort for them to take a drink of water, and they almost disappear when foraging for food. There is elegance to their movement as they seemingly float across the surface of the earth. They’re huge, they’re tall, they’re weird, and I really, really like them. I don’t see giraffes that day, but I thoroughly enjoy watching all the other wildlife in the park.
On the way home to Okakuajo, I decide to try the Oliphantsveld route with the hope of seeing elephants. I’ve been down the road four times without seeing anything except a lot of the huge poop that is unmistakably elephant. I’m on the way back from the waterhole and there crossing the road are just over a dozen wild elephants. A pond of water on the road provides them with an opportunity for something to drink whilst they snack on some of the roadside trees. There is no doubt about which one is the matriarchal head of this family. She’s a big old dame and seems a little bit bossy to the other elephants. “Hurry along now!” she seems to say, as both the babies, the young ones, and the old heed her calls. Within fifteen minutes, they have disappeared into the forest.
Later on the next day, I’m driving in the south of the park and haven’t seen any other cars for a while. Lots of antelope and zebras are around, but not much else. In the distance, I see three giraffes distinctly making their way away from me. Then the road I’m driving down miraculously begins to curve around so it is directly in the giraffes’ intended path. I stop, turning off the engine. The giraffes stop and eye me for a while. Then slowly, they resume their course, passing both in front and behind me as I sit in awe.
It is all over in about ten minutes, reminding me how temporary and coincidental our meeting has been.
After staying in Okakuajo for three nights, I drive to Namutoni, on the far side of the park. Around midday, I’m driving down the main road, and a bus driver flashes his lights at me while pointing back behind him. I take this as a sign that something must be ahead. Sure enough, there are four lions lying under a tree, just a few meters from the road. It’s scary being that close to them. My windows are rolled down for taking pictures and video, and I have a flash that one could take offence at my proximity and leap through the window. Nothing of the sort happens. They lie there sleeping, licking, and at one point, one of them rolls over. It’s both exciting and boring in the same moment. Close to Namutoni, I see almost twenty more giraffe, including a group of seven, and a large number of ostriches. In Namutoni, I check into an old German fort room with the bathroom outside. On my way to the room, almost five-dozen mongooses come screaming and chattering across the lawn. Then inside the courtyard, a warthog that is truly the ugliest of all creatures stands nursing its equally ugly warthoglets. I’ve invented that word for now. At Namutoni, the sky is full of lighting, creating one of the most spectacular downpours later in the evening.
A woman who works for the Ministry of Environment and a young schoolboy need a ride to Okakuajo the next day, so off we go in the rental VW that has acquired the uncomfortable habit of stalling out, probably due to the rain. At one point in the drive, we come upon an endangered black rhino browsing near the road. All too quickly it runs into the brush. After our stop in Halali, I pull up to the same tree where I saw the lions on the way to Namutoni, and sure enough, they are there again. We are a little frightened to be there so close to them, but pleased at the same time.
The next days are spent viewing more wildlife before heading via the petrified forest and a couple of stuck-in-time German towns, for Namibia’s most famous attraction, the oldest desert in the world known simply as The Namib. So old, you may feel like you’ve been there before.