Published: September 22nd 2007August 15th 2007
Let me get the most FAQd (FAdQ?) question from my near, dear, not-so-near, and not-so-dear first - Namibia? Why Namibia? I am tempted to quote Mallory and say "Because it's there", but considering that several countries are "there", and that I didn't disappear in Namibia for my body to be found 75 years later, I will resort to one of the following, and the reader may choose what (s)he likes best. I do not offer any guarantee of the truth, though I do suspect that it might well be c. below :-)
a. I have always wanted to visit ex-German colonies, and there really aren't too many of them around, given Germany's historical disinterest in colonization.
b. Africa sounded cool, (literally, as we are talking southern hemisphere in July here), and Namibia's official language is English. (rather strange for an ex-German colony, huh?)
c. I like being asked the question under discussion right now. I've gotten so used to it over the past few years - why Bhutan? why Cambodia? why Mongolia? why Sumatra?...of course sometimes the interrogative used is "Where???"
Arrival and Windhoek
Waiting for the flight to board at Cape Town Airport, the most
The Last Mughal Emperor...
...had nothing to do with Windhoek. But I didn't want the Kalahari pics in this section.
useful thing we learnt was how to pronounce "Windhoek" (and I am not telling you). And on the plane, the moment the pilot announced that we had crossed the border between South Africa and Namibia, we kept craning our necks out of the window (or rather, would have if there hadn't been the window getting in the way!) trying to spot a "gravel" road on the earth 30,000 feet below...without much success, one must admit! Why this interest in gravel roads? What is a gravel road? The genteel reader will get the answers to these questions in due course...
Nothing - not the earnest mastication of Lonely Planet over several months prior to this trip, not the voracious perusal of travelogues and travel blogs - could have prepared us for Windhoek International Airport. Yes, we knew it was supposed to be in the middle of nowhere, but NOwhere? Right upto the point of landing, there was absolutely no sign of "civilization" around. And then suddenly, guess what, we're landing! Given that there's really not much more between it and Windhoek city, it seemed rather strange that those who built it chose to go so far away to find a
halfway through a prolonged sunset watched from the patio of our cottage...
We found our pre-arranged airport pick-up waiting for us - what was rather disconcerting was that just a few minutes after setting off, he asked us where we were staying in Windhoek - "uh uh, excuse me, aren't they supposed to have sent you??" - apparently his boss at the taxi company had just sent him to the airport with a placard bearing our names, but no other information! Didn't turn out to be much of an issue anyway, and within less than an hour we were being welcomed by the effusive Rolf at the lovely Terra Africa
. I do not intend to provide a detailed accommodation review here, maybe someday there will be one on a site more suited to that objective, but let me just say that looking back, we would probably have saved time and money by picking up a rental car directly from the airport and bypassing Windhoek altogether, but the warmth and hospitality that we found with Rolf and his family made the stay well worth it. In fact, the quality of the hospitality industry in Namibia was everywhere very very high - and coming from someone used to the high standards
Into the Kalahari
but alas, not for long...
in India and South East Asia, that is saying rather a lot.
The Edge of the Kalahari
Picked up our rental car in the late morning, and after a rather longish stop at a mall (yes, there's no escaping from malls, even in Windhoek!) to pick up some South African wine (half of which we carried back to South Africa!) and some relatively unimportant provisions such as food and water, we were on the way to our destination 300 Km or so away. After some moments of confusion getting on to the expressway - not being able to figure out what exactly one is supposed to do at what we later learnt was a no traffic light first-in first-out four-way stop, we were on a most wonderful road - absolutely smooth with hardly any other cars on it. We were expecting a gravel road for the last 40 Km, and were in a sort of perverse way looking forward to our first encounter with one - but were to be disappointed. The district road leading off from the expressway was sealed and tarred and even smoother! The last 2 km or so leading from the main gate of
The gravel road
(the benign version). The malign version requires unreasonable shutter speeds.
the Kalahari Anib Lodge
was undoubtedly rough - but it wasn't exactly a road...and the roughness was really caused by my assuming it was a gravel road and experimenting with different speeds of progression on it - which were mostly too fast - and ending up overshooting the actual entrance and finally emerging from the car shaken, stirred, and confronted with the disapproving glare of the German matron in charge of vilkommen ze new guests, no to mention those of the Gods of Physics...
The Kalahari Anib claims to be on the "edge" of the Kalahari and it really is! It's amazing how one can be in a totally different world just 40 km away from a busy expressway (ok,ok,"busy" is an overstatement - cars arrive in a Poisson process with a mean of 1 per hour). Watching the sun go down slowly far away in the Kalahari was an experience straight out of the Africa of Discovery Channel and National Geographic. As was the only too short walk into the desert the next morning - unfortunately we were constrained by a 400 km journey ahead and a fear of the still unseen gravel road and therefore turned back
after an hour or so.
A word, many, must be said about the dinner at the Kalahari Anib Lodge. They really take it seriously. The quality of every course of course was of the highest standard - especially the springbok pie - but what made it memorable was the sense of ceremony- starting with the announcement of the menu in English, German, and a Namibian language, to the chef wearing his chef's hat and apron (and other clothes too, of course) going around from table to table and introducing himself ("hello. I am the chef" - wow, we'd never have guessed!) - if we lived in Windhoek we'd probably seriously consider driving down the three hours once in a while just for the dinner...
The Fish River Canyon and the Gondwana Canon Park
At last, the gravel road! Almost 200 kms of it... Was still a bit of a "disappointment" though, as it hardly turned out to be as threatening as we had been warned...this was just a road without tar on it (so?), and virtually no traffic, except for the odd ostrich or antelope crossing the road. I've never quite figured out this rather total ineptitude
won't you walk with me in my garden...?
in non-human mobile life forms (and some human life forms too, one must admit) when it comes to the simple matter of crossing a road on which there is hardly any traffic. One would think that over the hundred years or so that automobiles have been in existence, they would have figured it out. But no, no such luck. Of all the animals attempting road crossing that I have seen, the ostrich stands out. A typical ostrich sees your car coming from 50 meters away, but still keeps walking towards the road at a leisurely pace. It crosses the road at the same leisurely pace with an ostrich-like walk even though the car is rushing towards it. And it's only after it has finished
crossing the road and is perfectly safe, does the ostrich start running - a la Forrest Gump, at a speed particularly impressive for its size, and shows no signs of stopping. I hope they turn around when they reach the coast, a la Forrest Gump...
The Canon Lodge
has tried its best to blend in with the environment. A truly amazing environment - open spaces punctuated by naturally created surreal rockpiles and bits
of unexpected green, with the mountains everywhere in the distance. Our cottage itself was so cozy and beautiful that it was hard to tear ourselves away and go anywhere - now over the trip this became a consistent problem in Namibia, and later in Cape Town as well - the places to stay were so wonderfully conceived, designed and executed, so peaceful, comfortable and relaxing, that they competed by themselves with the beautiful country around us for our time.
We opted for the lodge's organized trip to the Fish River Canyon, which turned out not to be such a good idea. The canyon itself is well worth flying and driving miles to see, but there really is no need to join a group tour if you have a rental car. Besides, the trip was designed to pander to the stereotyped view of African Safaris - honestly, I don't see the point of driving miles on dusty roads in an open vehicle with the chilly wind blowing at 80 Km/hr. The canyon has four designated viewpoints - one can spend hours at any of them just letting the gaze wander and drifting into a fantasy world, imagining one's self being
a character from the Lord of the Rings walking the inhospitable depths on a noble mission - it is actually possible to climb down into the canyon and hike all the way upto Ai-Ais in a 4-5 day walk - surely next time....
We'd seen just a little bit of the marvellous sunset from the comfort of our cottage balcony on the day we arrived, and though it held so much promise, we gambled on the "guided sunset walk" organized by the lodge the next evening. Bad gamble. The sun was more or less eclipsed by the thirty or so heads trying to watch it set (how on earth did 30
heads land up in a concentrated space in Namibia?) and in irritation decided to set not-so-spectacularly.
We'd planned to spend time near Aus just to break the long journey from the Fish River Canyon to the Namib Desert, but it would have been well worth a much longer stay - to do some of the longer walks in what Lonely Planet appropriately describes as the "magical" mountainscapes around the Klein Aus Vista
. And needless to say, the inn itself was magical. If we were
miles to go, but we must sleep..
to come back, we'd be hard pressed to choose between the "Desert Horse" inn where we stayed, the more exclusive "Eagle's Nest" chalets, and the lovely campsites nestled in the crook of the mountains right next to the starting point for the walking trails. We didn't even get around to visiting the primary attraction - the feral horses of Aus - so much to do (and not do!), and so little time....
Aus was the first place in Namibia where we encountered someone curious to know where we were from - elsewhere in the world where this question has been asked, the reaction to the answer has typically been either "You must be in IT", or "I love Bollywood", or "How do you make curry?", but here the Namibian gentleman in question, after a rather long surprised pause, exclaimed - "I have seen Indians before, but only on TV!"...
Into the Namib!
This was why we came (ok, now I've given it away - we are suckers for deserts, and desserts as well!)...and now we were going to get there! Good things in life don't come easy, and we were also faced with the most challenging driving
Kulala Desert Lodge
our humble abode, designed for the hot day but unfortunately not for the freezing night...
on the whole trip. The gravel roads, which we had previously dismissed as benign, showed their malign colours at last. Gravel? No way, these were rocks! Fist-sized rocks, strategically placed to threaten the cream of the crop as far as tyres and suspensions are concerned. And to add injury to insult, deep corrugations in the road, making driving at anything less than 80 Km/hr (at which speed the tyres sort of "fly" over the corrugations) seem like being inside a vibrator. Magically, nothing went wrong. It would have been interesting if something had - with no life around except for the occasional zebra (a species not particularly renowned for automobile repair skills), no cellphone signals, and just a printout from a website on "how to change a flat tyre" as support, we'd probably have had occasion to dig into atleast some of the immense safety stock of water and food that we'd picked up in Windhoek and had been carrying around ever since.
On the advice of our hosts at the last point where we had hob-nobbed with humans, we took the scenic route. Now, "scenic" is of course a redundant adjective in Namibia, especially when applied to the
the most touristy spot in Namibia
noun "route" - the only difference between routes is probably in their length. It was a lovely drive though ( NOT lovely DRIVING, but definitely a lovely DRIVE) - with an unbelievable spectrum of landscapes for such a relatively short distance, and the high point was arguably the weaver bird nest in the middle of nowhere (now that is again bordering on the redundant - most of Namibia is in the middle of nowhere).
We finally reached the Kulala Desert Lodge
with bones and vehicle undamaged, and as evidence of growing skills in dealing with ambiguity, having travelled ony 3 Km more than necessary inspite of misleading signage. I will try and avoid redundancy this time and say nothing about how lovely the lodge is. But I have to take the risk of being redundant and say something about the service. In a country where, as I have remarked before, the service standard is Gold, here it was Platinum. I don't know of anywhere else in the world where a busy hotel manager would personally spend more than an hour in coming up with and executing an ingenious solution to charging a guest's camera battery in the absence of
so that's where the other tourists were...
the right sort of power outlet or plug adaptor - thanks Jaco, we will remain eternally grateful!
We'd chosen to stay at the Kulala inspite of the order-of-magnitude difference in its tariff compared to that of other options because it has a private entrance to the Namib-Naukluft National Park, meaning that one can wake up relatively late and still catch the sunrise over the dunes - but we're not sure anymore if it really makes a difference whether you have to wake up at 5 am with the temperature at -5C, or at 3 am with the temperature at -8C. For those who insist on thinking in Fahrenheit, I refuse to translate - but let me assure you that both temperatures mean "very very cold", particularly when there is no heating - and considering that the dwelling units were probably designed by an engineer who had read up on the desert heat of the day but had never quite got to the chapter about the desert at night...
At the end of the day, or rather, at the beginning of the day, the sunrise in the most "touristy" spot in Namibia (read that as about 65 people spread
over a few square kilometers and over three dimensions, mostly embarked on a quest to reach the ever-shifting summit of Dune 45 ) was arguably the most beautiful we have ever seen (not that we've seen the sun rise all that much!). The redness of the undulating dunes in every direction together with the surreal blue of the sky could make one mistake this for somewhere on Mars - only the occasional tree (yes, tree!) brings one back to earth...
After the "touristy" sunrise, we did some more "touristy" things such as climbing the "Big Daddy" dune up its gentler slope and then running down its steeper slope ("running" is the closest word that I can find to describe the actual process, which takes you into the realm of special and general relativity - you travel at tremendous speeds with translations in three dimensions, and the sand yielding beneath your feet gives you an inkling of what those space-time distortions described in books are really about, and finally emerge convinced that one of the first German colonists to reach Namibia must have been a certain Albert Einstein) to reach the surreal "Dead Vlei", where dead trees have remained
preserved for centuries, undisturbed by wind, water, and other such forces. We finally reached Sossusvlei via a very sandy 4WD track, and there our guide from the Kulala spread out a sumptuous picnic brunch, which we brunched upon in the company of several of our fellow species attracted by the prospect of a lazy meal (we followed advise not to feed them - everywhere in Namibia they take the ecological impact of tourism and development very seriously). Strangely, I think that inspite of all the wonders of nature and all the adventure on the day, the memory that I will always look back upon and smile is that of the British woman in our group fulfilling my long-cherished fantasy - by responding, when asked by our guide, in the middle of the desert, what we'd like to drink, with "Do you think I could get a cup of tea?" :-)
A word of advice to those contemplating a trip to these parts of Namibia - the infrastructure here is probably the best in the country - excellent sealed tar road, good road signs, well-marked walking trails, a 4WD shuttle from the 2WD car park, and distances are relatively small
- so if you have a rental car, use it.
The Rostock Mountains
Another dreamless sleep, and we were prepared for the exciting prospect of having to drive only a little over a 100 Km (for those who still think in miles, I refuse to translate - but take my word for it that its even less numerically in miles) to a rest stop at the Rostock Ritz
(no relation of its more famous namesake, and much cheaper and much better). We didn't have the time to do more than two short walks in the area, and as usual, how we wished we had planned to stay longer. The landscape immediately surrounding the lodge can best be described as something out of the sci-fi movies of the 70's. Imagine huge sheets of solid rock, each just a few centimeters thick, piled one upon the other to upto a height of about half -a -mile (ok,I used "mile", but that was just for aesthetics - sounds better than saying 800 meters) . Imagine a giant equipped with a huge saw then slicing through these sheets at several places in random, much like an impatient and not particularly skilled kid
where the desert meets the sea..
(giant kid!) cutting a birthday cake. Imagine someone flying over the remains and dropping balloons filled with glue and returning when the glue had dried fusing the sliced sheets together and then dropping fragile crystal balls of different pastel shades over the same area. In the end, you have the walking trail behind the water tank of the Rostock Ritz. And it's been this way for millenia, apparently....
We ran into a herd of mountain zebras (I wonder if that's the right collective -sounds rather tame compared to prides of lions and flights of geese) on one of our walks - but if you asked any of them, they'd probably remember it as running into a couple of Indians (not seen before, not even on TV). Whenever we walked, they would stop and stare at us collectively and in fascination, and the moment we would stop, they'd behave as if word had got around that mountain zebra eaters from a faraway land had been spotted in the district! And I have this feeling that they shot a few pictures of us while we were not looking...
Water in Unlikely Places
Our original itinerary, proposed by the
travel organizer who had helped with the accommodation and rental car bookings, had us going on to Swakopmund ("Germany in an unexpected place") and then on to Etosha in the North to see the big five and the not so big fifty-five roaming freely. We scandalized the travel organizer by stating that we'd rather spend 3 nights in Swakopmund's poorer cousin Walvis Bay, 30 km to the south, and then head back to Windhoek skipping Etosha altogether. Our rationale was simple - we'd rather see Germany in an expected place (such as Germany?) and we're not crazy enough about animals to rush an already rushed itinerary even more. We did pass through Swakopmund on the way to Windhoek later, and were pretty convinced that we hadn't missed much. As for Etosha - it probably merits inclusion in a separate future trip dedicated to Northern Namibia.
Namibia showed us yet again how it can continue to surprise even after several days on the road - the relatively short (200 Km) distance between the Rostock Ritz and Walvis Bay led us into dramatically different scenery, including two mountain passes on stretches of which we were teased with all-too-brief appearances of tarred,
sealed road. But in general, the gravel roads on this stretch were closer to the benign variety seen at the start of the trip. Back into the Namib in the home stretch, and driving through sand and wasteland, it seemed incredibly difficult to believe that we were less than 50 Km from Walvis Bay, which is a coastal
town, on no less a coast than that of the mighty Atlantic. And then, we emerged from a brief sandstorm to be confronted with the sight of the majestic and angry Atlantic thundering on the left, challenging the arid desert on the right! While inside the car, we were insulated from the substance of the challenge, but as we got out of it to enter our hotel, we got right into its path - and almost had the clothes blown off from our bodies by the violent wind.
Walvis Bay is quiet, very quiet. There are people, after all this is Namibia's second largest city - but you don't see them much. Whatever action there was seemed to be concentrated around our hotel ( the Pelican Bay Hotel
and the Raft bar/restaurant next door. We were pretty much resigned to the
prospect of shuffling between the two for meals - but fortunately, both turned out to be excellent! (advice from a local about the Raft - "Do try the seafood, but not the meat. The owners are British, they don't know meat." Though not quite convinced that nationality of the owners had much to do with the skills of the cook, we decided to follow the advice - will never know if we missed out on something, but the tenderloin steak at the Pelican Bay was the best steak I have ever had)
Quiet, very quiet - but how the three days rushed by...
day 1 : TV! Not something one would normally look forward to, but this was after more than a week incommunicado. It was nice to confirm that Singapore still existed and to be able to watch cricket live from England at a normal time of the day. Of course, what wasn't so nice was the comprehension that a substantial portion of our book value had been eliminated by the stock-market crashes, but the spirit of joie de vivre brought on by the holiday allowed us to even dismiss that, or at least, not brood on
it! It was also great to be able to eat seafood again, and I had been looking forward to the juicy Walvis Bay oysters which will soon be a rarity and/or priced out of the market as export to China picks up...
day 2 : sea-kayaking with Jeanne Meintjes
in the Walvis Bay lagoon. The journey upto the embarkation point was as much of an experience as the kayaking itself - within a few kms we were on a mysterious road running between the lagoon on one side and lagoon overflow on the other - with thousands of birds in and around both - lesser and greater flamingos, pelicans, cormorants, fishing around and generally doing bird-stuff. The last 10 Km stretch was on the sand, heading towards an ancient lighthouse (still functional, but no longer manned) shrouded in mist. One couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Kayaking. After Jeanne had made sure that we were securely strapped in and had figured out what to do with the oars and the pedals, we rowed towards a huge colony of seals. The cacophony as we got closer drowned out the roar of the Atlantic, and just as we
waiting for the ship...
were worrying about the likelihood of some of the 300 Kg adult bull seals swimming over for a chat, we were taken by surprise by a baby seal , and then another, and then yet another - emerging suddenly from the water, grinning at us, then diving under the kayak and re-emerging on the other side while splashing water on us and grinning diabolically all the while! Unfortunately, because of the weather conditions we couldn't get out as far as we'd have liked to but still it's unlikely that any kayaking experience in future (such as off the East Coast Park in Singapore!) can beat this....
day 3 : the best of the best. If I were forced to choose among the so many wonderful experiences we had in Namibia and pick out one to recommend to somebody who has just a day in the country, I would unhesitatingly choose the Sandwich Harbour off-road 4X4 trip guided by Fanie du Preez (firstname.lastname@example.org), who runs Kuiseb Delta Adventures
. Fanie should be declared a state asset. His knowledge of the area, the way he takes care of you - more like a friend than a customer, and his excellent 4WD
the Topnaar people have built a whole way of life around this fruit found in the desert...
driving skills combine to deliver an experience non pareil. So much that you almost forget the unforgettable - the unexpectedness of the immense sand dunes colliding with the raging ocean, the lengths to which life will go to manifest itself, the persistence of humans (the Topnaar tribe) who in this day and age can base their entire lives around a fruit and have not much use for money, and above all, the driving home of the fact that nature is far more powerful than us humans in the long term, and that we fiddle with it at our peril....
Back to "Civilization"...well, almost!
350 Km with no gravel...now this was going to be a new experience! We'd almost grown intimate with gravel roads - but it was the sort of intimacy that comes from being forced to live together, so we weren't exactly going to be heartbroken. This journey was markedly different - there were actually reasonably sized towns
every 60-70 Km or so, and there were stretches were the landscape was surpisingly boring.
We arrived at the Okapuka Lodge
about 30 Km from Windhoek - with its main gate on a busy (by Namibian standards) highway,
it didn't look like holding much promise, but once the dirt road leading into the heart of the lodge had been traversed, it was a different world altogether. The lodge is actually a pretty sizeable private game reserve - and I'm glad at not having let a natural tendency to dismiss "touristy" activities get in the way of watching the lion feeding (and not just feeding, as you will see from the pictures!)It was back to Windhoek International Airport for the flight to Cape Town in the morning - and while the 4 day break in Cape Town was amazing in itself, that's a tale for another day....
One shouldn't really complain about free web services, but a problem with travelblog is that it allows no control over the positioning of pictures. I've tried very hard to get the pictures in the write-up close to their context, and those that I gave up on but still wanted to share are to be found below.
There are more photos below