25 July – 3 August 2010, Namibia
On the second day of our overland tour we crossed the border into Namibia. Our first stop was Fish River Canyon, the world’s second largest canyon after the Grand Canyon. The canyon is certainly beautiful but I don’t think we had adequate time to truly appreciate its grandeur. Jason and I could have spent a couple days exploring the area and hiking through the canyon’s interior but our group only had a few hours to walk along the rim. This was just the first of many places on our overland itinerary where we felt we had insufficient time. Granted, we signed up for the tour knowing this would be the case given the vast distances we planned to cover; approximately 3,000 miles in three weeks. Despite our desire to see more of the canyon we pushed on to Namib Naukluft Park, home of the world’s oldest desert and highest sand dunes. Like many of the park’s visitors, we rose early and climbed Dune 45 to watch the sunrise. Standing over 500 feet tall, the climb was strenuous but well worth it as we were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding area. While in the park we also visited Dead Vlei, a dried lake bed in the middle of the desert. According to our guide it was cut off from the flow of the Tsauchab River approximately 500 years ago. Climbing to the top of a small sand dune Dead Vlei appeared unexpectedly before us. Stark white and peppered with ancient acacia trees, it contrasts sharply with the surrounding red dunes.
Leaving the desert and our camping equipment behind for a few days, we headed west to Swakopmund, a small town on the Atlantic coast. As we drove out of the Namib Desert, Swakopmund unfolded like a mirage in front of us. One minute we were surrounded by nothing but sand and the next we were driving down palm tree-lined streets filled with cafes and homes. Swakopmund is dubbed Namibia’s adrenaline capital and many of our travel companions entertained themselves with activities such as quad biking, sky diving and deep sea fishing. In an attempt to maintain our budget, Jason and I found other ways to pass the time. After spending so many hours sitting on the truck, I especially enjoyed running along the beach promenade and wandering through the city’s historic area. Namibia was once a German colony known as German South-West Africa and this past is reflected in the city’s architecture. The historic buildings have been maintained and preserved so well that it was easy to forget we were in southern Africa and not Germany.
The highlight of our time in Namibia was a visit to Etosha National Park. Etosha is one of Africa’s largest parks and is home to 114 mammal species and 340 different types of birds. During the dry season, Etosha’s animals and birds are dependent on about 30 waterholes, some natural and others fed artificially from boreholes. These waterholes are accessible by road and are excellent places to observe wildlife. Our group spent two days driving through Etosha and saw large numbers of springbok, gemsbok, zebra, giraffes, rhinos and elephants. Many of these animals were spotted congregating around the waterholes. I was especially entertained by the large numbers of elephants drawing water up into their trunks and then shooting it into their mouths. One of Etosha’s best features is its floodlit waterholes situated next to each of the park’s campgrounds. These waterholes are accessible 24 hours a day and campers can spend as much time as they want watching the animals as they come to drink. Both nights in Etosha we made it back to the campsite just before sunset and arrived at the waterhole in time to see a large herd of elephants on the horizon. Despite their size and numbers their approach was virtually silent.
During our nine days in Namibia, we were blown away by the landscape and wildlife. Namibia is a vast desert yet interspersed amongst the emptiness are spectacular sand dunes, one of the world’s largest canyons, a modern town filled with German architecture and a national park teeming with incredible wildlife. I was initially disappointed that we spent very little time in Namibia interacting with the local people and learning about Namibian culture. Looking back though, I realize that I may not have learned a lot about Namibian culture but I did learn a lot about Africa. Most importantly I learned that there is no stereotypical Africa. Namibia in particular defies the stereotypes that many people have about Africa. Not only does it have the second-lowest population density of any country in the world but the infrastructure is good, roads are well-maintained and safe water flows directly out of the tap. Namibia set a high bar for the remainder of the countries on our African itinerary.