Published: March 20th 2005March 20th 2005
South Namibia - Swakopmund to Orange River
We left Swakopmund heading South along the coast, with the cold sea air blasting through the back of the truck, then turned inland heading towards Sesriem, gateway to the Sossusvlei sand dunes, amongst the largest in the world.
After some hours we passed through the gateway to the Namib-Naukluft park, an alien army of folded rocks marching into the distance to besiege the mountainous citadels on the horizon (jeez, what do they put into this cheap supermarket plonk?). After passing through this band of blasted barren sentinels we emerged into the desert proper, jagged peaks emerging from a sandy sea.
After pitching camp the rest of the group drove off to Sesriem Canyon, whilst I took the opportunity for a wander through the nearby desert at Sunset. The size of the nearby dunes was deceptive, and after an hours walking I still hadn’t reached them, even though it looked as if they were almost next to the campsite. However the flat sandy plain in itself was interesting enough. In the distance I saw impalas and oryx, both alert, clearly aware of my presence. I was conscious of the possibility of hyenas
and, after reading in Etosha that a pack of them can take down a female lion, I was at times nervous. This fear was allayed after talking to an expert researcher into hyena behaviour a few days later at Luderitz - there is very little chance of them attacking, or even encountering, a human in such circumstances, but at the time the prospect stayed at the back of my mind.
Next morning we were up before dawn to climb Dune 45, on the way to Sossusvlei. Sossusvlei is a small area within the Namib dune sea, an area of dunes stretching 300km in length along the coast and 140km inland. These are some of the oldest and largest dunes in the world (~30m years old, 300m+ in height). As seems to happen to me when I go with Exodus to deserts, we encountered flash flooding (very rare). Last time, in Morocco, I watched a small rental car get washed into the Sahara, bobbing off into the sand. Again the torrent was enough to stop small sedans, whilst Land Cruisers and other 4x4’s made it through. Our good old truck, Rhino, did with ease but a small car park of
2WD’s built up over the course of the morning. It did cross my mind that if the water had risen further then we might get stuck down this beautiful cul-de-sac, but we were self-sufficient so there was little risk.
Climbing a 300m+ high sand dune is always going to be hard work, and it was, but the view from the top was worthwhile. We were on one side of a large valley, maybe a kilometre across, perhaps more, flanked on each side by a sand dunes ridge around 300m in height. Dune fingers reach into the valley at roughly 1km intervals, Dune 45 being 45km from Sesriem, and also the 45th sand dune (apparently).
We returned for breakfast by the dune, admirably prepared by our crew, and then headed off to Sossusvlei proper. Kim, Pokerface and myself decided the rather expensive 4WD taxi trip to Deadvlei was worth it, and so we went.
Comprising a small bowl surrounded by the highest dunes in the area, Deadvlei could well have been put on earth as the practical question in the Composition Section of a Photography exam. The flat floor is comprised of bright white crust which is dotted
with the desiccated skeletons of ancient trees, starved of the moisture needed to rot and decay, and hence preserved in this incongruous copse of arboreal cadavers. The challenge for the photographer is to find a combination of shapes, lighting, shadows, colour and texture that makes the picture both interesting geographically and appealing in it’s own right as an image. I tried many combinations, and also cheated a little by taking the opportunity to get Kim to pose provocatively on the branches of one of the larger trees - this image made it into the trip’s “Geeks Calender : Science with Beauty” - but perhaps best remains off the internet, although it is very tasteful, honest. Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are fantastic locations for photography, but as with all landscape photography you need to be there in the right light, having had the time to research locations thoroughly. This we couldn’t do, and for non-photographers, the place, whilst stunning, is likely to lose its appeal relatively quickly (particularly in the burning noon sun).
[BTW, Vlei means “shallow water pond”]
That afternoon we continued our drive South through the desert to the next main road on the town of Aus, then
in the morning drove 150km west, past the feral horses of the Namib, to the ghost town of Kolmanskop. In 1908 this area of Namibia experienced a diamond rush, and almost overnight the town of Kolmanskop sprang up. Over 1000kg of diamonds were extracted until the supply greatly diminished around 1918. At the same time a greater concentration of diamonds was found further south, and Kolmanskop became a ghost town, overrun by sand dunes and tourists - another bizarre photographic location. The whole area south of the Aus-Luderitz road is a restricted diamond area, in which the inadvertent trespasser will advertently be shot, or so the rumour goes.
A pleasant morning was spent crawling through sand-blocked doorways into sand-filled rooms, and at lunchtime we rolled into the small harbour/fishing town of Luederitz. Whilst it is not as cosmetically pretty as Swakopmund, our campsite at Shark Point at the end of the harbour provided stunning sea views, and as you can see from the photos, there are clearly some very nice domains in residence
The harbour area itself is developed enough to have a few wine bars looking out to the trawlers and the rocks. After learning much more
about the habits of hyenas from Ms Wiesal of the Brown Hyena Research Project
,then watching playful seals and drifting box jellyfish in the harbour, we stumbled across the rest of our party indulging in some cheapish South African wine on a pleasant terrace with a sea view. Joining in seemed to be the decent thing to do, and like a crystal forming the group slowly grew to include nearly all the members of the truck, missing only one passenger and the two drivers. What we didn’t know was that there was a hidden agenda in play, and we became collateral damage in another example of the fashionable pre-emptive strike doctrine. By the end of the evening emotions were running high, the truck casualty list was increasing significantly, and for the first time on the trip we established bragging rights as “overland scum.” But through it all Pokerface kept his eye on the ball.
After necessary medical repairs the next morning we headed back up to Aus, stopping briefly at the old railway line blocked by sand dunes and the old station amidst the dunes, where I dug out the truck umbrella, a magazine and a make-believe bowler hat to
Wandering alone through the desert
strike commuter poses for the truck paparazzi. After passing the feral horses again (they really are rather beautiful, if not indigenous) we continued our way south to Fish River Canyon, arriving in time to spend sunset at a Canyon overlook. This is the second largest canyon in the world (160km long, depth up to 550m), and is visually very similar to the Grand Canyon, except it is not as red. In fact it is quite brown. All over. Making interesting photography quite difficult, even at sunset.
Or sunrise, when we had breakfast on the Canyon edge. But putting the camera aside it is a dramatic and awesome place, and is likely to take your breath away (particularly if you haven’t been to the Grand Canyon in the U.S).
A morning’s drive through more dramatic scenery following the Canyon southwest we took a lunchtime stop at Ai-Ais (“burning water”) springs resort. I took a short hike up into the hills to the West of the resort to see if I could spot anything for the camera. Whilst there was mountainous scenery all around the uniform greyness of the rock meant that there was little colour anywhere to be seen
- so I spent some minutes trying to make something from a lone splinter protruding cairn-like from the rocky-carpet covering these unwelcoming hills.
By mid-afternoon we were at the South African border, sad to say goodbye to Namibia and somewhat unprepared to launch into the busy South African Easter Holidays.
There are more photos below