Thursday, 10 April 2014

Namibian Deserts

After tearing myself away from the party life in Livingstone, I spent a lovely 18hr bus journey to Windhoek in Namibia. After a minor issue at the Namibia border where, because the stamp at the Zambian border had very little ink, I climbed back on the Intercape bus for the next 14 hours to Windhoek.

After arriving at Chameleon backpackers, and sampling their brilliant breakfast, I set off to explore the city. I always like to walk around a city to find my feet and my bearings. What I noticed in Windhoek is that there is not that much to do. It's a pretty, clean and easy city to explore on foot but it is mostly a base to sort out your other Namibian travels. And that was my aim. Having read up on Namibia I knew that without your own transport, you are limited to taking organised tours to see much of the sights. Namibia basically has two main roads that public transport runs on, one north to south and one east to west. And so I began to investigate the options for tours. Luckily, having talked to some amazing Swiss girls, they happened to have a Toyota Hiliux and were leaving the next morning for Sossusvlei and had a spare seat for me. Cue racing to Namibian Wildlife Resorts to book my camping space and permit to enter the national park, and then a race to the supermarket for beer and chicken for a braai. And the next morning at 6:30 we were off.

Namibia is full of empty space, I mean FULL of it. It is the country with the second lowest population density, after Mongolia, with a population density of 2.54/km2 (source) so most of our 6 hour drive to Sesriem was spent as the only car on a gravel road with nothing but vast open spaces around. Beautiful vast open spaces mind. After arriving at 1pm, we put up the tent and headed straight for the pool, a welcome addition to the campsite for the 40 degree heat in the desert. That evening we climbed Elim dune to watch sunset. Permits for NWR parks are valid for 24 hours from when you purchase the permit which meant we could enter the park for sunset and then spend the next day there without any additional cost. In my experience, not many parks do this. So we set off with the obligatory beers to watch sunset over the desert.

Now if you want to make it to the very top of Elim dune, don't do it like we did and leave 30mins before sunset and then drive past the turn off (hint, it is right inside the park gate) for about 5km before realising that we had passed it and then turn around and have to race up a sand dune! Of course it was worth it as you watch the sands change to a vivid red before you and you see the expanse of the Namib-Nankluft National Park. 

The Sesriem Campsite is based inside the park boundaries. This has a major advantage that you get to set off one hour earlier than others who have camped outside the park boundaries. There are 2 gates to the park, one before the campsite and one after. The gate after the campsite opens one hour before sunrise while the one before the campsite opens at sunrise. This means that if you want to watch the sunrise over the dunes, you have to stay at Sesriem campsite. So the next morning we were up at 5am to leave as the gate opened at 5:20. After some rally type driving from Susana, we arrived at Dune 45 with plenty of time to climb and watch the sunrise. Now climbing sand dunes is no easy feat. This sand dune is 170m high, after 5mins my calves were screaming. Only the thought of being able to sit down and watch the sunrise over this awe inspiring landscape kept me going. Once I reached the flat peak and sat to view the sunrise I was convinced it was all worth it. Watching the sunrise over the horizon and seeing the landscape change from light red, to deep red and to orange and realising that this is not something everyone gets to see made me grateful. It is moments like this that make the sleepless nights in hostels, the long bus journeys and the loneliness you can experience on the road worth it. The world is truly a beautiful place and I am blessed to be seeing the best that the African continent has to offer. 

As soon as the sun rose, the tour group who shared sunrise with us trodded down the dune and the 4 of us were alone on the top for 30mins. Glorious! 
After running down the dune (the best way to get down), I waited for the girls at the bottom by emptying my hiking boots and socks of sand, two nice piles a few inches tall, before driving to Sossusvlei. The last 6km before you get to Sossusvlei is 4WD only, the nice tarmac finishes and it's a sand road. If you only have a 2WD, not to worry, there are regular shuttles into the Sossusvlei area (some even led by John Deeres!). At this stage the sun had well and truly risen and the heat was rising. A pale person like myself would sizzle and burn in this environment and so I held everyone up to cover myself head to toe in factor 30 and then we began the 15min walk to Dead Vlei. When you first start researching Namibia and things to do in Namibia, you see photos of Dead Vlei. This is a clay pan that used to be fed by a river until the river changed course and the water dried up. This causes the acacia trees to die (giving the pan it's name). The contrasts in colour here are amazing. The white of the clay pan, fringed with the vivid red of the sand dunes, dotted with the black silhouettes of the dead acacia trees and all framed by an unbroken blue sky. 

 At this stage it was well and truly too hot to be out in the full heat of the day so we went back to the campsite for a swim and to start a braai. Once again the sunset was something to behold with the colours lighting up the landscape and once night fell, the stars were like nothing I've ever seen. With no light pollution and only the sound of crickets as a backdrop, I lay on the ground and stared at the stars for some time, trying to pick out the constellations and trying to remember the rudimentary astronomy I had read before and really just enjoying the quietness before once again retiring to my faithful tent and being soothed to sleep by the sounds of nature.

The next morning we set off for Swakopmund, some 400km north. About 140km from Sesriem is a tiny town called Solitare, famous for it's bakery and the apple pie. The famous Moose who founded the bakery had passed away only the month before and there was a somber air around the bakery. The apple pie however is still delicious and it is a nice stop off to or from Sesriem.

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