Although the Kalahari, with its short bush (and shorter bushmen), has been a place of interest to me for years, it is the unique pictures of the Namib desert, which I had never heard of before, that made me finally plan that trip to Namibia. People who questioned the very existence of the country made me feel slightly better about my ignorance of the oldest desert in the World with its interesting features such as the towering sand dunes, not to be confused with its rust-colored mountains and the picturesque salt and clay pans. Don’t let me sell Namibia short, it has other interesting things to offer, but the Namib desert sure makes it unique.
I love having free days to explore a new place by myself on these otherwise tightly packed trips and thanks to flight cancellations, we (me and my six other girlfriends) ended up having just that — an extra day in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. We used that wisely (ironically by packing it tightly with activities) by taking a late evening city stroll and feeding on exotic meats like kudu and springbok, before feeding regular meats to exotic animals the next morning (the activity named “carnivore feeding” applies to both here). The carnivores that got fed included baboons, lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, and leopards, but the most interesting encounter was with the lion king himself — he lunged at us with full force but a few picture enthusiasts kept clicking away without backing off. We got to meet the rest of the tour group back at the hotel before driving to Otjiwarongo for an overnight stay.
Interestingly, some termite mounds in the Otjiwarongo area are as tall (probably high-rise condos in termite realty) as the houses in Himba village we got to visit the next morning. This indigenous village had bare-breasted women cooking their afternoon meal of maize porridge and young kids running around butt naked curiously touching our clothes, cellphones, and water bottles. Men and older boys are usually away tending to their herds. Himba women have their bodies and hair covered in a thick ochre paste mixed with herbs that are meant to keep their bodies safe from heat and insect bites. The whole visit left me feeling a little raw.
Etosha National Park is arid compared to the green Serengeti savannah, but there is no dearth of wildlife here. Watching elephant herds at the water hole and a rhino up close were my net new experiences. The blue wildebeests of Etosha have slightly prettier features but pale in numbers compared to their Serengeti cousins. Our safari at Etosha ended successfully with us getting to see all the big 5, thanks to our front-row animal spotters (they claimed they qualify as professionals). You cannot walk away from Etosha without bringing up the numerous salt pans in the park which allow only certain species of grasses to grow.
We had a quick stopover at the Petrified Forest, which felt longer because of how hot it was, where we got to learn about the process that fossilized trees in this forest several million years ago. Welwitschia, endemic to the Namib desert are found in this area and interestingly they have male and female parts on separate plants. The strange-looking plant has an extensive near-surface root system that allows it to absorb and store surface water quickly, a much-needed feature in the very dry Damaraland. Nestled along the mountainside, our hotel that night had a Martian feel to it, and we ended up having a sari photoshoot with the dramatic boulders.
Rock formations and ancient engravings at Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage site, kept us occupied the next morning and we ended up taking a million more pictures. We set off to Swakopmund but were able to fit in some trinket shopping on the way. The vendor ladies from the Herero tribe influenced by German settlers wear long dresses and horned headgear to respect cows. We paid to take pictures with the ladies in their colorful outfits. Another quick stop was at the Skeleton coast, the beaches of which have several shipwrecks, thanks to the dense fog coming from the Namib desert.
Buttboarding the Dunes
Swakopmund is a coastal tourist city with heavy German influence. This was supposed to be a free day, and some of us ended up paying a visit to the nearby snake park for a lethal kiss from a four-meter-long black mamba (safely through a glass partition), but all of us opted to go on this crazy 4×4 dune driving tour alongside the Atlantic coast. Going up and down the towering dunes right next to the ocean gives you a thrill that no rollercoaster can match. We also realized here that buttboarding the dunes is also an option (no, we didn’t have boards so you can imagine how that went). Later when we were talking about our favorite activities on the trip, I put this one at the top.
It was a treat to see pink flamingos feeding on pink shrimp in the pink salt lake in Walvis Bay before setting off to Sossusvlei, the pictures of which inspired me to travel to Namibia. The drive through the Naukluft mountains offered some spectacular views but also some free Namibian massages, thanks to the bumpy and windy roads. My excitement was building as we continued our drive deeper into the desert, but I was also getting nervous about our dwindling water supplies. Passed through the Tropic of Capricorn to get to our desert accommodations in Sossusvlei, complete with an infinity pool, isolated cabins (love) and “domestic yet aggressive” warthogs that roam the facilities freely and attack innocent passers-by (no love).
The most physically challenging day of the trip started with a climb of Dune 45 (yes, who gives names when there are so many) along its narrow and steep spine with drifting sand in your face. The dune is 180 meters tall and is supposed to be easy to climb, but my legs were trembling from the wind (and my newly-developed fear of heights even on soft sand). Much deserved second sari shoot happened at the foot of Dune 45.
The best part of Sossusvlei, the second reason why I am in Namibia, Deadvlei is next. While some girls decided to stay back owing to the unrelenting heat, I wanted to get to Deadvlei, alive or dead, with no water to carry. Deadvlei is a white clay pan with 900-year-old dead trees that do not decompose because of the dry climate (at this point, I was wondering if people with no water bottles would). The big daddy of all dunes, 325 meters tall, is named Big Daddy and is right next to Deadvlei and I noticed the patterns in the sand that some creative climbers made coming down the dune (they had to climb up Big Daddy for that, no?). It took all my might to take a few pictures without perishing in the deadly heat. It wouldn’t be too bad, however, to be dead here forever. Anyway, Deadvlei tick, tick, TICK!!
Counting stars that night, some of them shooting like it’s nobody’s business, from the roof of our cabin, with some of my favorite people, was rated one of the best activities of the trip by those same people. I see they are biased but I had to agree with them. As we were driving back to Windhoek the next day, we made plans to have a reunion later this year. Shopping opportunities in Windhoek did very little to lift my spirits up, but I had to tell myself that all good things must come to an end (came a long way from throwing tantrums on the floor). I have regrets about things we could not accommodate, like the bushmen I couldn’t meet and Epupu Falls I couldn’t see, but no regrets about what we could. Namibia is truly unique!!
Padma Nadella is an IT professional who lives in Eagan, Minnesota with her husband and 15-year-old son. She manages a Facebook group for Minnesotans to collaborate on events and activities related to health and fitness. The group now has over two thousand members. Jack of all trades, she enjoys playing volleyball, traveling the world, and entertaining mostly but dabbles in everything else.