After the rush to get everything done on the trailer and get out of South Africa before our visas expired, getting into Namibia was a huge weight off our minds. Couple that with the country’s sparse population and laid back attitude, and we were in heaven. The total population of Namibia is about 2 million people; less people than live in the city we had called home, Portland, OR, while it’s land area is about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. With such a small population spread over such a large area, most of the roads are gravel outside of cities. And the Roads Department has a fantastic plan for maintaining these. They send out two man teams on a road-grader which pulls its own mobile tool and parts storage trailer! The crew grades the roads in their assigned area, carrying out their own maintenance and camp in tents each night next to their equipment. Their job seems thankless but we appreciate the smooth gravel tracks, so we made sure to slow down and wave at each crew we passed.
We drove from the border to the Fish River Canyon, where we camped at the Fish River Canyon Road House. A wonderful Lodge with beautiful campsites. The extra benefit for us was their restaurant, since we had managed to forget any sort of cooking fuel when we stopped for groceries! We stayed two nights, spending most our time unpacking the boxes we packed into the Jeep and putting away clothes, spare parts, excess toiletries, and linens. We essentially moved out of storage and in to the trailer. In so doing, we discovered that even for a 3 year trip, we had packed too many clothes. After a day and a half, we were moved out of boxes and duffel bags. Other than having to rely on the restaurant for almost all of our meals, we were pretty satisfied with ourselves when we pulled out of camp and headed for the viewpoint of The Canyon. Fish River Canyon is billed as Namibia’s version of The Grand Canyon, and it fits that bill beautifully. While less deep than The Grand Canyon, it is no less dramatic or beautiful. A stunning display of the erosive power of water in a dry land. We enjoyed the view, read a bit of the history at the viewpoint, ate our lunch, and headed down the road to find a town where we could buy gas (propane), charcoal briquettes, and/or wood so we could start cooking our own food.
The nearest town, Keetmanshoop, was about three hours away. Along the way, we saw some wildlife, oryx, springbok, and ostrich. The countryside is rocky desert, so seeing as many of these animals as we did speaks to their ability to survive the harsh terrain. Along the way, we turned a corner to see acres and acres of palm trees and grapes being farmed in the desert. At this farm we found the Naute Kristall Distillery. We stopped for a taste and a tour, where we learned that the farm we saw is a state run farm growing table grapes, pomegranates, and prickly pear cactus. The date farm is privately owned by an Ethiopian company. The distillery makes schnapps from the prickly pear, pomegranate, and dates, a brandy using the dates, and a gin made from all Namibian ingredients. The date brandy, which they call Dandy, is fermented and distilled dates, with dates added after distillation, and it is delicious! We bought a bottle of Dandy and headed to Keetmanshoop. We camped at a guest farm just outside of town. This cattle farm has about a dozen rooms around a pool, and a similar number of camp sites with their own braai (BBQ pit) and a handful of bathrooms shared by the campers. All hot water is solar heated. They also have a pair of rescued cheetahs, with the daily feedings open to the guests. As the owner feeds them, he educates the guests on cheetah behavior and life. The whole time, we got to be in the pen with him and the animals. One walked right by us, within arms length, after it was done eating! The owner also has a warthog that they keep at the house as a pet. It played with the dogs and their grandchildren chase it around the yard. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the warthog. They also manage a forest of quiver trees, a tall succulent that looks like an aloe on steroids.
The next day, we went into town to find a propane vendor and a local SIM card for our phone. Just before dinner, a German couple came over looking for help with their rental vehicle, they couldn’t get their roof top tent to open properly. We were able to help them get it sorted out and we chatted a bit. We discovered that our bottle of Dandy didn’t fit into our liquor cabinet, so we offered some to our new German friends. They shared their dinner and we got to know each other better. During dinner, we watched clouds build and rain fall all around us. Then, it started to fall on the campground. We ran for cover, finishing dinner under the cover of the dishwashing area, outside the bathrooms. It rained hard, puddles turning into ponds, ponds flowing into each other, turning into streams. After nearly an hour, we saw the owner’s truck come through the campground; he was out checking on the guests in the extreme weather. He said that it had rained nearly an inch so far! That is a lot of rain for the desert area where this camp is. It was time for us to call it a night, only to find that our trailer leaked, dripping right onto the bed! We found a way to contain the water and spent the night on the the dry part of the bed. The next day, we headed west, for the port town of Luderitz.
The drive to Luderitz took us through varying desert scenery. The landscape is stark and beautiful, with ranges of rocky mountainsides, wide valleys covered with sparse wispy grass, and vast plains of nothing. When I say nothing, I mean not a tree, shrub, bush, blade of grass, rock outcropping, nor structure to be seen to the horizon in any direction, save for the road. It is almost as if we were driving across Mars. I found it fascinating, Jen found it disconcerting. It eventually turns to wind blown sand dunes, signaling that the Atlantic coast, and Luderitz, is near. You know the wind is serious when you see the bull dozer and road grader parked along the paved road. They are called on often enough to clear the sand off the highway. Just prior to Luderitz, we drove by an abandon town sitting in the dunes. It was hard to imagine what could have caused people to abandon such beautiful homes. We learned later that this town was Kolmanskop, an old diamond mining town. As it is on the property of an active diamond mine, we could only see the town as part of a tour, so we signed up for the 11:00 AM tour the next day. We then headed to the local campground, Shark Island.
Shark Island is run by the Namibian government, and it is right in town. It doesn’t feel like it though, because it is on the tip of the peninsula that forms the harbor. We had water almost all around us and watched ships come in and out of the harbor from camp. Another benefit of this location is the cool temperatures, driven by the cold Atlantic Ocean current flowing north from Antarctica. It also brought incessant wind, but it was tolerable. We set up camp and worked on getting our bed and bedding dry from the rain the night before. We met our neighbors, a couple of Australians, Paul and Julie. We learned that they are on a similar trip, though the length of Africa and beyond. They are retired and have already been traveling for years in Australia. Paul is a passionate, and excellent, photographer that travels with his own photo processing computer (check out his photos here). They have their Land Cruiser set up with the battery capacity to operate the computer for a couple of days with no outside power. They seemed nice, and were heading a similar direction as we were for the next few weeks (see where they’ve been here).We shared sunset drinks and snacks a few nights with them, and even went on the same Kolmanskop tour they did.
At Kolmanskop, we learned that in 1908, a German railway worker found diamonds in the sand. A mining company was quickly formed and set up operations, calling the town Kolmanskop, after the freight driver who had abandon his or wagon in the area during a sandstorm. The diamonds mined were, and still are, small diamonds blown by the wind from the mouth of the Orange River, which empties to the south, on the border of South Africa and Namibia (then German South West Africa). We later bumped into the mine manager as he had rented out the house at the foot of the lighthouse at the campground for a weekend with his family, and he let us know that the diamonds they mine are .2-.3 carat. The Kolmanskop mine was highly productive and profitable, the little town had a hospital, an ice maker and refrigeration system for the butcher shop and other shops, and a store that could, and would, order anything from anywhere in the world. The social hall had a restaurant, gymnasium, bowling alley, and concert hall. It also had a cigar lounge (and bar) for the men and a champagne bar for the ladies. The town employed a social director that booked plays and singers from Europe and America. It even had it’s own mass transit system, a small mule pulled rail road leading from the married employee’s houses to the shops and back, so the women didn’t have to walk from home to the stores. The distance this train covered was probably 400 yards, round trip! Single men lived in a dormitory, and the big houses we could see on our drive into town were for the Mine Manager, Accountant, Doctor, Social Manager, School Teacher, and Mine Engineer. These are in such good condition (except for the School Teacher’s house) due to the extremely dry weather, that we were able to go up to the second story of all of them. The Teacher’s house has so much sand in it that the dune is the only thing holding it up, so they don’t let people inside. Sand has blown into most of the buildings, making a tour of them somewhat strange as I had to duck through full sized doorways and stayed out of some rooms because I couldn’t stand up without hitting the ceiling. Despite the sand intrusion, much of the detail is still visible, such as stenciling on the walls of the homes, cooling system used in the butchery, and ovens in the bakery. Kolmanskop was one of the first towns in the world to get electricity, which speaks to the richness of the diamond mine. When bigger diamonds were found at the mouth of the Orange river (1-3 carats according to the current mine manager) the company moved more and more resources and people to that find. Eventually, in the 1950s the town was abandoned when the last two inhabitants, and the doctor, moved away. It was a fantastic trip back in time, and a surreal visual experience to see the dunes taking over the buildings.
While backing out of a parking spot at the grocery store, the hazard of a left hand drive car in a right hand driving country popped up. I was so focused on not backing into traffic that I didn’t see a Toyota in the far lane, and he didn’t see me either, as we were both in each other’s passenger side blind spot. I got to buy him a new tail light lens, with no damage to the Jeep. Lesson learned, and reasonably cheaply, we picked up our laundry and headed back to camp. The rest of the day was spent putting away groceries and cleaning the Jeep. We had unpacked all the big items into the trailer, but it needed a full unload to blow the dust out of it. Paul and Julie invited us to join them for sundowners and we learned that they were heading next to Sossussvlei, a sand dune filled valley on the edge of the Namib Desert dune fields. We looked at a map together and compared notes on places to camp on the way. The next day, as we left town, we stopped at a local fishing company and bought 5 lbs of frozen kingklip, an ugly but tasty fish common in the south Atlantic. We ended up that day at the same campground as the Australians, a beautiful spot under a shade tree in the red sand with a magnificent view of the valley opening to the west of us.
The next morning, we headed through the mountains towards the Sossussvlei area. Along the way, we drove through a private game conservancy where we saw oryx and springbok. We also spotted horses, which we thought was a little weird that they would let horses run wild with the game, until we saw one closer to the road. They weren’t horses, they were zebra! Our mistake gave us a laugh as we stopped to watch them play and “fight”. Zebra are pretty active, unlike the antelope we had seen so far. We had decided that staying in the Sossussvlei National Park was more expensive than we wanted, so we opted for a campground along a riverbed outside the park. They gave us a nice well shaded camp site, with a shower heated by donkey. This is a wood fired water heater, which are common throughout Southern Africa. Here, we were introduced to the largest crickets we had ever seen, easily as big as a large clove of garlic, with legs! We got up early the next morning to go to Sossussvlei. The dunes are huge and you can climb to the top of many of them. We opted for a short hike, half mile each way, to Deadvlei, a grove of dead trees that is hundreds of years old. The trunks are still standing strong and not rotted due to the extremely dry climate. That day, it was about 100° F. At the top of the dune overlooking Deadvlei, Jen got too hot and didn’t feel good. She stopped under a bush overlooking Deadvlei while I walked down into the grove to check it out. We made sure Jen drank lots of water on the way back to the Jeep, and ran the AC on the way out of the valley to get her cooled down. Upon returning to camp after our trip to Sossussvlei, we learned the drawbacks to a well shaded campsite. We rely on solar panels to keep our trailer batteries charged when we are camping in one spot more than overnight. That is to say, we rely on them to keep our fridge and freezer running. Our camp site did not make this easy, and we learned to pick future campsites with some sun.
On our way north the next day, we drove through the Namib-Naukluft Mountain Zebra National Park. We didn’t see any zebra, but we did enjoy the green gorges, where we saw baboons crossing the road. At the little “town” of Solitaire, we stopped for fuel and a light lunch. Again, we ran into Paul and Julie, and decided to travel together. We were both headed to Windhoek, the capitol city, but had a few days before our appointments in town. Just as we started up Spreetshoogte Pass, we found a small campground. This turned out to be a rustic and beautiful campsite with a fantastic view of the valley to the west, complete with magnificent sunsets. We loved the location and view so much that we put up with incessant crickets, bigger than the first ones we had seen. They are curious and crawl on anything, but don’t bite, sting, or otherwise hurt people. However, it is creepy to find one on your toes or climbing onto your shoulder from the back of your chair. In our five days spent at this site, we learned to keep watch for them and flick them away before they climbed on us. We looked forward to each sunset view, and got to know Paul and Julie even better. Jen even cooked bread in the Dutch Oven, much to everyone’s delight. Leaving camp, we drove up the pass, paved with what we know as patio pavers, and headed to Windhoek. We found a good campground and set up a base camp for the next week or so.
So far, we have found Namibia a wonderful place. The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, and we had no problems finding good places to stay, most with hot showers! We are settling into our trailer and life on the road. Traveling with Paul and Julie, who have had more time traveling in this manner has taught us a lot about making long term travel easier, and more fun. They taught us the value of a table cloth, because “we aren’t camping, we’re living on the road!”