Namibia (The Great African Road Trip)

It’s thrilling––and humbling––to see African wildlife on their home turf where they truly are born free. And it’s equally thrilling to be able to watch them when you’re the only human there. Such was the case in 2012 on my way to the Dolomite camp in the then-recently opened and seldom-visited western section of Namibia’s Etosha National Park, a wildlife park noted for self-drive safaris in a country noted for its self-drive adventures. I turned left at the sign pointing to the Duineveld waterhole and came upon an Animal Planet moment with giraffes, oryx, warthogs, wildebeest, and ostriches gathered at or near the waterhole several hundred feet from where I parked. A score of elephants and a couple score more of zebras were spread out across the grassy plain beyond. I was the only person for miles around, and when I arrived the entire menagerie seemed to stop what they were doing and looked at this unexpected visitor as if to say, “May we help you?”

I was awestruck and felt a great sense of appreciation that I was at that very spot at that very moment. I took it all in and snapped some photos, none of which could do justice to this majestic panorama. But as glorious as that moment was, I felt like an interloper and, perhaps, a little uneasy being the lone person among a conclave of wildlife in a wild setting. I thanked the animals for letting me share their corner of the world for a brief time, and I drove off toward camp with an incredible sense of exhilaration.

Located in southwestern Africa, Namibia is a vast, variegated place of big sky, big land, and big contrasts. And for many Americans, it seems to be a big unknown. Europeans, particularly Germans, whose country was Namibia’s colonial overlord at the turn of the last century, dominated the hotel sign-in lists and the conversation in bars and restaurants during my two weeks in the country. But Namibia’s off-the-beaten track feel, at least for Yanks, is part of its charm. As are its many notable highlights ranging from ancient deserts, towering sand dunes and one of the continent’s best wildlife parks to the country’s brooding Atlantic coast, its traditional African villages and the tastiest apple strudel and bratwurst this side of Germany.

The backdrop to all of this is lots of elbow room requiring hours of driving to get from here to there. Twice the size of California but with an estimated population of just 2.2 million, Namibia is among the planet’s most sparsely-populated countries. To appreciate Namibia is to revel in both the journey and the destination because the two are inseparable here. And thanks to the country’s highway system––much of it gravel and most of it in good shape––and its stable social and political systems that make it a safe place to ramble, Namibia is tailor-made for one of the planet’s great road trip adventures.

THE HIMBA
I had planned my solo, two-week trek through Namibia with the help of ATI Holidays, a company based in the capital, Windhoek, that can be reached toll-free from the U.S. They arranged for delivery of my Diahatsu Terios four-wheel drive vehicle and provided a map that highlighted all of my destinations and the best roads to reach them. The also gave me a loaner cell phone with all of the numbers of my lodging facilities pre-set, and a cooler with ice pack for my travels.

Windhoek, a bustling, sprawling city of more than 300,000 people, is centrally located and travelers can begin their sojourn from there in any of the cardinal directions. I went north toward Etosha, a four hour-plus drive along asphalt roads and lots of very tall termite mounds ranging in height from what looked to be three feet to eight feet tall. Some were built against tree trunks while others doted fields and resembled cairns found on hiking trail summits.

After two-and-a-half days of self-drive safaris at Etosha, I ventured another couple of hours north to near the Angola border to the desolate, desiccated Kaokoveld region noted both for rugged off-road adventure and for the Himba people, a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe that hews to a traditional lifestyle of animal herding.

The striking look of Himba women make them one of Namibia’s iconic images––they wear only animal skin skirts and cover their bare-breasted bodies with a mixture of ground ochre and butter fat that protects them from the sun and gives them a reddish tint. They braid their hair with the ochre and butter fat mixture for a coif that resembles mud encased dreadlocks.

Himba women make their semi-nude rounds in Windhoek and sell their craftwork at sidewalk markets, creating a jarring juxtaposition of traditional versus modern. If one wants to meet a Himba woman, they can do so there without having to venture into their homeland in Namibia’s northwest corner, an area prominently featured in tourism brochures as the Himba Land region.

I was intrigued by the opportunity to visit a native village, but felt conflicted because I feared it was voyeuristic tourism. The Himba lifestyle was on the ropes after a severe drought in the 1980s killed most of their cattle, but their herds and their culture have rebounded strongly and Himba tourism is thriving. It’s probably no coincidence that the roads from Etosha to Opuwo, the dusty gateway town to the Himba region, are paved.

Some Himba villages welcome tourists; others don’t. A guide is a must, and through my lodging at the unprepossessing Ohakane Lodge in Opuwo I arranged a tour with Matí, a Himba who says he still spends time herding in his native village but mostly lives in Opuwo doing tourism and conservation work, and wearing throughly western-style clothes.

As part of the deal, we went to the local grocery store where I gave him $200 Namibian dollars (about US$25) to go on a shopping spree for a goodwill package for the village I was to visit. He loaded the cart with a 20-kilogram sack of maize, five one-pound bags of sugar, four tea boxes, four loaves of bread and a package of salt.

VILLAGE LIFE
We drove 21 kilometers west from Opuwo to the village of Otutati along a road of hard pack gravel and intermittent soft patches of sand. Along the way, Matí told me a little about himself, such as he thinks he was born in 1964 or 1965. “I asked my parents, but they don’t know for sure,” he said.

Matí described his own ordeal regarding the Himba coming-of-age ritual performed at the age of 12 of knocking out the four bottom front teeth, which make them resemble the cattle that are central to their culture and livelihood. “I refused, I ran away,” he said of the day they came to knock out his teeth. “My older sister already had her teeth out, and she called me a coward.”

But he relented, and he said they took him near the central part of his village where the holy fire was located, stuck a piece of wood in his mouth and chipped away at it with a stone. “The teeth came out no problem,” Matí said, adding they drained the blood and used the leaf of the mopane tree (pronounce mo-pa-nee, with the accent on the second syllable) tree to help heal the wound.

“After a week, it was okay,” Matí said. He noted that mopane leaves are used to heal wounds and ease stomach aches, and can be used as a whistle for herding animals. To demonstrate the latter, he told me to stop my vehicle. He got out and walked around a bit till he found a mopane leaf, which he put vertically between his upper front teeth. He blew in one key that he said is used to call the cattle in front, and then blew at a higher pitch to call cattle that are further away. He then blew a melodic rhythm meant for goats.

We continued our journey, and a short while later he told me to turn right onto a twin-track sandy trail, which led us to the village of 20 or so round huts made of dung, clay and water and topped with conical roofs of mopane poles. There were also several separate rectangular kitchen structures made of mopane poles, and pens for cattle and goats. Matí gave the food to the village headman as a courtesy gift that greased the skids for my visit. The men of the village were taking the animals out to pasture as Matí and I arrived, leaving behind the women, children and baby goats.

Matí was my interpreter as he took me through the village, and along the way my camera and I were like a magnet that attracted the children. I spoke to the women doing their morning chores. Several women were making butter, a process that involves putting milk into a gourd tied to a leather strap hanging from a horizontal pole in a doorway. They swing it back and forth repeatedly. One woman pulled out the dipstick from her gourd and gave me a taste. It was curdy, and tasted like buttermilk.

I asked her how long it takes to make butter. She looked up at the spotless sky and said when the sun goes from there (as she pointed to a place in the sky) to there (pointing to another place in the sky). They don’t have clocks.

The women asked if I was married and where I lived and how many days walking distance would it be from my home to their village. I asked them about their lives, what mattered to them and if they were happy. They said they were happy, though one woman said she was worried that her oldest daughter, a youngster who looked about 10 years old and stood nearby wearing school clothes even though the next school session wasn’t to start for another week, was going to abandon the traditional Himba way of life.

Himba girl (non-traditional attire)

The girl had a very discerning face and immediately struck me as a sharp young lady who probably was destined for a life beyond the village. Through my interpreter, she said was learning math, English and other subjects in school. She said she wanted to be a teacher.

ROAD TO SWAKOPMUND
A long two-day drive and seemingly a million miles away lies Swakopmund, Namibia’s seaside resort town along its central Atlantic coast. The scenery between Opuwo and Swakopmund presented different flavors of emptiness, yet much of it intriguing. Gravel roads took me past copper-colored hills and a few ramshackle settlements of cattle herders in the Damaraland region; over stunning passes through rugged brown mountains; and along a bleak, dun-colored sand-and-gravel plain where the sheer monotony was hypnotically absorbing.

Most stretches of Namibia’s far-flung, remote road system are in good shape, and in some places you can safely travel at 50 miles per hour (and maybe up to 60 mph) on hardpack gravel. Other sections of rough corduroy-like road surfaces require driving in third gear. You shouldn’t drive Namibia’s dark, lonely roads at night (my vehicle rental agreement said they wouldn’t cover any damage incurred while driving after dark outside of towns or cities). Long periods of driving on gravel roads makes one really appreciate the beauty of paved highways.

Indeed, driving for long stretches in Namibia can be draining, what with the sometimes rough road conditions and the ever-present dust of the gravel roads. I made it a point of closing my windows whenever I saw vehicles coming in the other direction to block out the dust trails left in their passing wake, and to close my windows when I knew I was coming to a stop because the dust trails I created would blow back toward the front. But automobiles aren’t hermetically sealed, and dust always finds its way into your vehicle to some degree no matter how much you try to keep it out.

Most of the few people I passed along the road were westerners in their rented four-wheel drive vehicles, save for the occasional site of Herero women dressed in their traditional colorful, billowy Victorian-era dresses with matching colored hats meant to resemble cattle horns, who rushed to the roadside to flag down the infrequent passerby to sell them dolls of Herero women in miniature.

Sometimes they were joined by bare-breasted Himba woman, who seemed to serve no purpose other than to entice westerners––‘Oh look, a naked woman!’––to stop and buy souvenirs. I waved to them but continued on my journey without stopping.

A TOUCH OF GERMANY
Swakopmund is a quirky place with German place names and Bavarian-style architecture that blends with the clean––if not generic––Western-style buildings filled with shops, offices, eateries and cafés in the lively downtown.The orangy Namib Desert meets the blue Atlantic Ocean on the southern end of town, and in recent years Swakopmund has reinvented itself as Namibia’s so-called adventure capital by promoting activities such as quadbiking and sandboarding in the desert, skydiving, camelback riding and kayak-based marine safaris.

I went on a two-hour quadbiking romp among the large dunes south of town, which was thrilling. But what I liked best about Swakopmund were the clouds and the food. After a week of warm, relentless sun––even if it was the comfortable late-May sun of the southern hemisphere’s early winter––it was nice to see clouds, experience coastal fog and feel cool sea breezes.

And Swakopmund has a surprisingly good restaurant scene. That includes the conviviality and four different schnitzels at Kücki’s Pub, as well as the fresh seafood at The Tug, a converted tugboat on pilings perched over the breakers that’s a great place for a sundowner cocktail. At the Brauhaus, I ordered a liter glass of Erdinger Weissbier and a plate of bratwurst, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. The bratwurst was juicy and flavorful, and it was the best German food I ever ate. For dessert, I stopped at Café Anton at the Hotel Schweizerhaus for apple strudel and coffee.

The country’s German connection stems from its colonial past. For a roughly 30-year period that bracketed the turn of the last century Namibia was as a colony called German South West Africa. That era was marked by episodes of violent suppression against the Herero and Nama people. South Africa took control from Germany during World War I and imposed an apartheid-type system before Namibia’s gained independence in 1990.

Despite a tumultuous past, post-independent Namibia by-and-large has been stable and prosperous by African standards, though it has been plagued by unequal wealth distribution and hard hit by HIV/AIDS.

I visited the large public market located near Swakopmund’s beach where vendors sold African art. I bought some wood carvings from a vendor named David. We started talking about life in Namibia and were joined by a couple of nearby vendors, Jona and Stanford. They live in the township settlement of Swakopmund that is a vestige of the apartheid era, and spoke frankly about the country’s shortcomings and challenges. But as with similar discussions I had with both black and white Namibians (admittedly, a very small sample), they were hopeful for Namibia’s future and confident it would avoid the turmoil experienced by fellow southern African nation Zimbabwe.

I thought about my conversation with David and his friends the next day during my five-hour drive southeast to Namib-Naukluft Park, billed as one of the world’s largest national parks and home to the famed Sossusvlei sand dunes. As I spent more time in Namibia, I got a sense that it’s a young nation trying to define itself on its own terms.

And for Americans, for whom Namibia largely remains an unknown quantity, it’s a country that can be discovered and enjoyed on its own terms. The driving within Namibia is long, but the rewards at the end of the journey are worth it.

 

Namibia Tourist Information

Driving in Namibia
Major car rental agencies are located at Windhoek’s main airport. I booked my trip through Windhoek-based ATI Holidays (U.S. toll free 1-888-333-3876, http://www.infotour-africa.com). They arranged lodging and vehicle rental, and provided maps and a cell phone with numbers pre-dialed with all of my lodging destinations.

Gas stations are few and far between in Namibia. The rule of thumb is to top off the tank whenever you come upon a filling station, but that’s not necessary when your travels during a particular day take you to several towns of decent size that have filling stations. That said, gas stations can close and/or run out of gas at any time.

The map provided by ATI that laid out my itinerary included all of the gas stations known to be open along the route of my two-week journey. That was very helpful but not entirely foolproof because one of the few gas stations listed on the four-hour drive from Sossus Dune Lodge in Namib-Naukluft Park back to Windhoek at the end of my trip had, unbeknownst to ATI, recently closed. And to make a long story short, I almost got royally screwed because of that closed pit stop.

The moral of the story: Don’t get too cute with managing your gas mileage, never assume a filling station will have fuel and fill the tank to the brim whenever you do get gas.

Etosha National Park
The five tourist camps in Etosha National Park are operated by the government entity Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators. I spent two nights at a waterhole chalet at the Okaukuejo camp, which has one of Etosha’s best waterholes. I also stayed one night at Dolomite, a more isolated and exclusive camp atop a craggy cliff in the park’s less-frequented western section.
http://www.nwr.com.na

Restaurants
Swakopmund Brauhaus — Excellent German food served in an atmosphere that if you didn’t know better you’d swear you were in Germanic Europe, not Africa.
The Arcade, 22 Sam Nujoma Drive, Swakopmund.
http://www.swakopmundbrauhaus.com

The Tug — Fabulous seafood restaurant built around a former working tugboat. Nice Atlantic Ocean views. At the jetty promenade, Swakopmund.
http://www.the-tug.com

Joe’s Beer House — Legendary eatery where game steaks sizzle on the grill, and where the bustle in the array of different types of dining areas––some under the African sky––creates a Middle East bazaar-like atmosphere. Both the food and the scene are worth checking out.
160 Nelson Mandela Avenue, Windhoek
http://www.joesbeerhouse.com

nice — A quiet, yet sleek and refined atmosphere where students from the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education practice the arts of cooking, serving and beverage management. Delicious meals with a Namibian flair.
2 Mozart Street, Windhoek
http://www.nice.com.na/restaurant.htm

Lodging
Hansa Hotel — Swanky lodging in the heart of town.
3 Hendrik Witbooi Street, Swakopmund
www.hansahotel.com.na

Sossus Dune Lodge — An exclusive resort within Namib-Naukluft Park comprised of elevated bungalows with sweeping views of towering sand dunes, mountains and savannah. The resort’s location within the park enables guests to be positioned at the dunes at sunrise when the light is most stunning (people staying outside the park must wait to enter the park at sunrise, and it’s a 40-mile drive to the Sossusvlei dunes). As with Etosha, this facility is operated by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, and reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators.

General Info
Namibia Tourism Board, http://www.namibiatourism.com.na

 

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