Surf, Dunes and a Castle


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Africa » Namibia
September 18th 2010
Published: September 29th 2010
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We have spent most of the week in Swakopmund, a lovely city with a distinctive German vibe. The city lies on the edge of the desert with sand dunes nearly reclaiming the houses that have been built there. It is much cooler here which after the heat of the desert is really refreshing. Nothing like a few days in a proper bed, some nice food and wine and good company to feel ready to go again.

Swakopmund was a great place to be based while exploring some of the surrounding areas. We headed to Spitzkoppe which is described as the Matterhorn of Africa and it is certainly a very bizarre formation of rocks. It rises 1728m from the plains of south Damaraland and is one of Namibia's most recognisable landmarks. Next to Spitzkoppe are the equally impressive Pandoks, rising abruptly from the plain, comprising of enormous granite domes.

Following this we then went to Henties Bay on the Skeleton Coast, a barren and inhospitable place but it is amazing how many people actually live here and put up with the cool Atlantic air and fierce wind that must batter this part of the coast every day. From there it was about 50km to Cape Cross and the famous Cape Cross fur seal - about 80,000 of them to be exact. Literally thousands of seals were diving and frolicking in the waves while thousands more dried themselves in the sun. They make a terrible noise - something like a barking sheep (if that's possible) and they fought with each other baring their teeth and snorting. It really was an incredible sight not to mention highly smelly. The males weigh in between 180-380kg and rule the roost over the much smaller female, they seem to nearly smother the females as they barge through.

The Skeleton Coast is rough and incredibly windy with the Namib Desert reaching the shore. It is not surprising that the Portuguese named the area “The Sands of Hell” if a ship was washed ashore, the fate of the crew was obvious.

Longing to find a ship wreck surrounded in low lying sea mist that is probably more characteristic of the isolated northern part of the coast, I settled for what looked like a recent ship wreck just out of Henties Bay. Strangely the weather was clear and sunny, none of the usual mist that this area is notable for.

Just down the road from Swakopmund is Walvis Bay, Namibia's second largest city. It definitely did not have the charm of Swakopmund being an industrial port town but it is home to a large population of flamingoes, pelicans and other sea birds which congregate in the shallow lagoon and around the salt works.

We met a lovely couple from Papamoa (NZ) who we spent a couple of days with. We had heard reports of a beer-fest in Walvis Bay that could rival Munich's Oktoberfest. It was a laugh to say the least. It was held at a sports club and seemed like an excuse for the local football team to have a fund raising event, but there were plenty of overweight drunk German men in traditional dress to remind us of our great time in Munich a couple of years ago. The local brew was cheap and there were plenty of bratwurst and pretzels to go round.

Late in the afternoon we headed off to Solitaire, a lonely tiny settlement scattered with a couple of tourist lodges and a petrol station but it had a lovely feel about it. We spent a night at Solitaire Guest Farm which was gorgeous and a good option for visiting Sesriem and Sossusvlei the following day instead of staying inside the national park which is really expensive.

Sesriem and Sossusvlei are in the Naukluft National Park, apparently one of the oldest and driest ecosystems on earth. The 32,000-sq-km sand sea covers much of the region with some dunes over 300m high. Driving through the park we headed straight to Sossusvlei, a large ephemeral pan set amid red dunes that tower up to 200m above the valley floor. The pan in this area is completely dry at this time of year and a sparkling white contrasting with the very red dunes. It is amazing to think that this area is completely transformed when the Tsauchab River has gathered enough volume to flood the pan and turn it into a huge waterhole surrounded by green trees. The road stops 65km into the park; to get to Sossuvlei which is another 5km down the road you either need a 4WD or you can pay a small fortune (the equivalent of £10 per person) for a shuttle ride. We opted to walk, it was a hot slog but it gave us a true appreciation of the desert scenery.

Arriving at Sossusvlei we then climbed a high sand dune to overlook the pan - the low, open dry landscape among the lonely dunes was spectacular. Heading back towards the park entrance we stopped at the most photographed dune - Dune 45 which was over 150m tall and exquisitely carved by the wind.

We then ended up at Hammerstein Lodge and Game Reserve for the night. The owners have a couple of orphan cheetahs and while we were cooking dinner, the cheetahs prowled along the edge of the fence where the camp-site was. It was strange to be sitting there having dinner while they walked around. While accepting that the orphaned cheetahs cannot fend for themselves otherwise, it still saddens me a little to see them fenced in, particularly when we watched them stalk a springbok that was loitering near their enclosure only to hit the fence.

At the tiny town of Maltahohe, on route to Duwisib Castle, we had a great lunch in a little café at the petrol station of all places. The owners were lovely and every tourist that comes through writes their names on the wall with where they are from. There were thousands of names scribbled all over the walls and ceiling and of course we added ours. One guy had cycled all the way from South Korea, some 44,000km, an incredible achievement.

Our next stop was Duwisib Castle; a huge European castle smack-bang in the middle of the desert. It was built in 1909 by Baron Captain Hans Heinrich Wolf. The stone for the castle was quarried locally and remarkably the outside of the castle is in great condition. Much of the raw materials was imported from Germany and transported by ox wagons 330km from Luderitz. Given that the castle was built in under two years this was no mean feat. The baron was killed in WWI at the Battle of Somme and the baroness never returned to Namibia.

Unfortunately that is where the excitement ends. It costs £6 to enter the castle to look at the “museum” which to be honest was awfully overpriced and a pretty disappointing display. Most of the 22 rooms were either empty or used by the Namibian Wildlife Resort (they purchased the castle as a national monument) or they contained a couple of old tables and beds, with some paintings that were so in need of restoration that they had been overtaken by bugs. The interior is in need of some serious restoration with the only really impressive area being the beautifully crafted entrance room with its huge chandelier dangling over two delicately carved regal looking chairs.

Unfortunately we thought the area had more to offer and we pre-paid for the camp-site through NWR in Windhoek. In keeping with the theme, the camp site was not quite what we expected and we could not get a refund. For anyone going to Namibia we have found that NWR camp sites (with the exception of Etosha) are not nearly as nice as some of the luxury lodges that you pass on your trip that allow camping at a better price.

With only a week left in Namibia, we are heading to Luderitz and hopefully will get a peak into Sperrgebiet National Park - the famous diamond area.


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