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Published: November 19th 2007
The view from the summit of Dune 45
Welcome to Namibia - our first African experience. This was getting away from it in the truest sense of the description. We’ve been to emptiness before - outback Australia and the deserts of the Western USA - but Namibia is the king of the destinations if you want to be away from everybody else.
Windhoek International Airport is only international in the sense of you can fly overseas. There didn’t appear to be too many formalities awaiting us as we landed from Frankfurt early one morning in the Namibian spring. We were taken into the centre of Windhoek to collect a few provisions - more of the city another time - and headed out to a campsite at the Dan Viljoen National Park in the hills above the city. A few of the group exchanged some money, but we were already armed with our South African Rand which is exchanged pretty much everywhere on an equal basis. We set up camp and headed out with the group for a short bush walk. Is this going to be OK? Yes, no big cats around here and just a few antelope of varying species. The day was pleasantly warm
and bright, but the night was freezing - life in the tent had begun. It turned out to be the altitude that was the cause of the temperature drop, but we were assured it would get warmer and it didn’t rain at this time of the year in Namibia. Doesn’t rain, eh??
We had an early start in the morning, heading south for a place called Sesriem. Namibia is four times the size of Britain, but has a population of just 2 million - less than a big city back home and then most of them live in a central strip between the Namib and Kalahari deserts or up near the northern borders with Angola and Botswana. It seemed as though we drove for hours - no we did drive for hours - without seeing more than a few vehicles. They were mostly Landcruisers operating in pairs for fear of getting stuck or suffering mechanical difficulty, although there were a few of the fool hardy who seemed convinced that a normal 2WD hire car was the just the job to tackle the world’s oldest desert. The Europeans as a rule don’t quite get the concept of African space, Namib
Desert style - the home of the road to nowhere!
We drove for the whole day, heading south through the most stunning desert scenery all of it on a par with the most photographed areas of Arizona or Western Australia. We loved it! We camped at Sesriem - some fixed accommodation and some camp sites - most of which were pre-booked by the overland tour groups, so just pitching up and chancing it is not recommended if you’re planning to visit in season. The campsite had a shop, fuel and football pitch - they appeared to be working on the grass. The memories of the night at Sesriem were centred on the stars - this has to be one of the world’s great stargazing venues with not a light in sight for hundreds of miles to pollute the upward view. It had been a long day and the next was to be even longer. We were up at 4 a.m. or some unearthly hour - the plan being along with everybody else to get in amongst the dunes ready for the sunrise.
The dunes of Sossusvlei are what people come here for and whilst the emptiness described earlier
is pretty much guaranteed elsewhere in Namibia, you won’t find it around here near sunrise. The dunes of constantly shifting sand run nearly 400 miles along the coast and stretch up to 80 miles inland. It's an effective barrier to all, except for a stretch of road that fingers for about 50+ miles into mirage of sand. The gate near Sesriem is locked and the general game plan at the start of everyday is to hit the big dunes to watch the sunrise.
We were second through the gate, leaving the stoney desolation that had been the previous day behind and disappearing west into the huge red dunes that rise up from either side. They’re big and constantly moving - so tall and immense, it’s almost impossible to describe them. The strange thing in this area of desolation where there must be thousands of sand dunes - all the most perfect untouched shapes - is that everybody is going to Dune 45. Is it really the 45th Dune? I seem to remember it’s not the biggest! There is no sign, but Dune 45 is impossible to miss. You recognise it from the cluster of overland vehicles at its base.
Anyway, don’t let that take anything away from the magical experience that you feel at the top when the sunrises - just make sure you’ve done your training first, because it ain’t easy climbing up there to that perfect ridgeline at the top. The view is stunning - orange dunes for miles in every direction and beautiful shadows on the ripples in the sand.
The dunes are constantly on the move - driven along by the wind and would swallow the road access if not for the flow of the seasonal Tsauchab River. If there is enough rain in the mountains to the east, the River will flow towards the sea. Well that is the theory except of course it never gets that far and it hits the wall of sand a long way before it reaches the sea. A group of small lakes form, the dry season comes and evaporation does the rest.
After a champagne brekkie at the base of the Dune 45 - well it's a special place - we set off beyond the road into the deep sand to Dead Vlei. This is the end of the line - the dead trees stand in
amongst the shades of sand and the blazing sun. It’s easy to think that there is no water and no life here, but occasionally the mist rolls in from the ocean to the west and on the high points of the dunes you will see hundreds of black beetles arching their backs skyward to catch the dew. We retreated to camp before the heat took over, before spending the afternoon at Sesriem Canyon and part of our evening with our cans of Windhoek Lager sat on top of another dune watching the sunset. Once you’ve seen these dunes, you can’t get enough!
After Sossusvlei we headed north, skirting the edge of the sand sea on a six-hour drive on some of the roughest gravel roads. It was a long day, punctuated with photo shots of a moonscape of yet more emptiness and an apple pie stop at a place called Solitaire. It’s aptly named - population varying around 15 - but the apple pie is good! It’s quite a shock then to land in Germany, where civilisation resumes near Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. We had lunch near the flamingo reserve at Walvis Bay, which is now the main port
of the country.
When Namibia was German South West Afrika between 1884 until 1915, Swakopmund was a key arrival point. A third of white Namibians still speak the lingo and the architecture and just about everything else about the place has a Germanic feel to it. They have Lutheran churches and shops selling bratwurst and a brewery producing Hansa Lager. It was strange after all that sand to see a pier, a harbour, neat little streets with pavements and flower gardens. The climate was temperate after the extremes of the desert, there was a gentle sea breeze blowing and by all accounts, half of Windhoek decamps here when the going gets really hot inland. We visited the museum and watched the dolphins playing in the harbour, whilst some ventured into the world of sandboarding.
The desert is infectious mind, so after a day of rest we were off in a small plane back over the landscape we had come from. The true scale and patterns of the dunes are only visible from the air and all unfolds as we flew back inland to Sesriem, before heading over Dune 45 et al en route to the sea. Namibian coastal
water is by all accounts good for fish and not so good for ships. Welcome to the Skeleton Coast - sand and more sand and shipwrecks.
We headed back to Swakopmund, where the dish of the day was Springbok - highly recommended and a lot less tough than kudu!
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