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Travel tale from Janine: Overland through Namibia

 

A few years ago, in fact more than a few years ago, when I was busy with my career, we were allowed to take six weeks of holiday over the Christmas period. I was a single mum and the stress of work, plus looking after my young son 24/7 took its toll and I was more than ready for a break.

Luckily, same son was invited to spend the time with his dad in the Cape which gave me the freedom to do and go wherever I wanted. It was a heady feeling, where in the world should I go?

 

Although I’d lived in Southern Africa all of my life, there were places I’d never visited, so I decided to look into doing an overland trip with a company specialising in taking small groups camping for four weeks around Namibia.

It was at a time of transition; South West Africa as it had been called was originally a German Protectorate until it was occupied by South Africa and governed under the League of Nations. They had recently gained independence and after elections, changed their name to Namibia. (Otherwise known as the Land God Made in Anger – or, less poetically, the Gates of Hell!) The United Nations were still there when we travelled through, observing the elections and making sure they had been fair and free.

After packing the basics I joined our group in the parking lot of a local Johannesburg shopping mall, met our guide and found we would be 15 strangers travelling in a Mercedes Unimog, a huge ugly beast with sides that opened, hard seats and canvas blinds, which broke down as we left the lot, before we had even reached the main road!
 

“Little did we know this was only the beginning of our future troubles with that vehicle”

This incident was an ice breaker and gave us time to chat to our fellow travellers and start to get to know each other. Because I was alone, I had been partnered with another woman called Carol. We were a mixed bunch, a couple of Germans, several Brits including one, Maureen, who was to become a lifelong friend. There was a Canadian woman who had been working as a volunteer teacher in Lesotho, plus an Austrian father and daughter – he was an engineer, which was lucky for us as time went on!

Eventually we got on our way and started the first part of our long journey from South Africa to Windhoek – the capital city of Namibia.

We spent the first night at the Ai-Aise Resort, part of the Fish River Canyon, which is the largest canyon in Africa, with a gigantic ravine totalling 100 miles long and in places almost 550 metres deep. What I remember most about it though was the heat!

Although it wasn’t as bad as the 50°C it can get to in the height of summer in the bottom of the canyon, it was stinking hot! So much so that we didn’t bother to put up our tents that night, just lay out in the open on top of sleeping bags trying not to be eaten alive by mosquitoes.

We eventually reached Windhoek without further incidence and after staying overnight in a camping ground outside of the city we began our trek north-west toward the red sand-dunes of the Namib Desert. The roads were gravel and not well maintained, so it was always dusty and being December, HOT! Although as with most desert areas the temperature dropped at night and we were actually glad of our sleeping bags.

Campfire supper
Campfire supper

The Safari Company had a good scheme which worked well. Two of us would be responsible for dinner, breakfast and lunch, with the next two taking over once that was complete. It meant everyone had a turn to sit back and relax while someone else did the work. As well as our guide John, we had a local Namibian man who was responsible for gathering wood for the campfire, organising supplies (a lot of which we brought with us), baking our daily bread and generally looking after us. We had all paid an extra food kitty which covered our meals and alcohol in the evenings. We were also each of us responsible for putting up and dismantling our own tents. It was very much a team effort which actually brought us all together; very necessary in this huge unforgiving land should anything have gone wrong. Which it did!

Stuck in the mud
Stuck in the mud

Two days into our journey towards Sossusvlei (home of the famous red dunes of Namibia, rising up to 300 metres high in the heart of the desert, which by the way is one of the world’s oldest deserts), our ugly beast of a truck got stuck in thick sucking mud and the more John tried to drive it out the deeper in it went! That was when the expertise of our resident engineer came to play. He worked out a way of using bits of wood and sacking to get traction on the wheels and after unloading almost everything to lighten the beast and with much pushing and shoving and getting covered in mud we did actually manage to get out.

Making tea
Making tea

What jubilation! It was an occasion to make tea over the little gas stove. Tea had been something I became addicted to in the desert, for some reason the hot beverage actually slaked my thirst and was hugely comforting. I think the others got heartily sick of me shouting “teeeea” every time we stopped for lunch.

Everything we ate was cooked over a fire, which was kept burning all night to keep predators away! Although not much of a problem, there were lion, elephant and black rhino to be found but they tended to steer clear of humans, luckily for us. Although, I did wonder why our guides slept on the roof of the beast rather than in tents like the rest of us!
 

“I did wonder why our guides slept on the roof of the beast rather than in tents like the rest of us!”

The Oryx (known as a Gemsbok in South Africa) is a beautiful antelope specially adapted to survive in the harsh environ of the desert. Seeing them silhouetted on the dunes was a truly wondrous sight!

Oryx
Oryx

Image by Marko Samastur on flickr

Leaving the Sossusvlei area, we made our way to the little coastal town of Swakopmund. The roads here were a lot better, actually tarred, which, after the bone jarring gravel roads we had traversed, was a relief and now at least we weren’t constantly covered in dust. That night we stayed in chalets; what bliss to sleep on actual beds and have a hot shower. This camping lark really made you appreciate the important things in life!

We then made our way along the notorious Skeleton Coast – so named because of the many shipwrecks studding the coast. Signs warning us not to get out of our vehicle were numerous due to the diamond mining taking place along that route. This diamond mining area, located in the Namib Desert stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to about 100 km inland, from the Orange River, on the border with South Africa in the south, to 72 km north of Lüderitz. It covers an area of 26,000 square km. With over $1 billion worth of annual diamond production, Namibia is the world’s sixth largest diamond mining area by value.

Moon landscape Namibia
Moon landscape Namibia

Twenty miles after Swakapmund is an area known as the moon landscape or the Welwitchia Plains, so different from anything we had experienced up to now; it certainly gave a realistic impression of a lunar type terrain.

Welwitchia plant
Welwitchia plant

Image by Princesa-do-Namibe on flickr

The peculiar-looking Welwitchia plant, after which this area is named, is endemic to Namibia, loved as food by animals and forms part of the Namibian coat of arms. It stands for ‘endurance, survival in hostile environment and for the perseverance against all odds.’

e certainly saw plenty of game as we drove and when we camped. At the one site we were woken in the early hours by the spine chilling sounds of lion at the kill. It was enough to set your hair on end especially as there was only a very thin piece of blue plastic between us and them. Luckily though, they were too busy eating their fill of whatever poor beast they had killed. We came across the pride the next day lying in the shade with very full bellies.

“This evil-looking creature, after thinking about it, and deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble, eventually decided to move off into the bushes!”

On the road, elephants had the right of way and no matter how long it may take, you sit and wait for them to meander to wherever they may be going. In one of the camping sites, many miles from anywhere resembling civilisation I had a close encounter with a snake. On my way back to my tent from the ablution block, a huge black snake was blocking my path. I stopped dead still and yelled for John. Being a child of Africa I knew not to run, move a muscle or even breathe, because snakes pick up the vibrations and are likely to strike if they feel threatened. This evil-looking creature, after thinking about it, and deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble, eventually decided to move off into the bushes! The two guides went to look for it and when John came back, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You don’t know how lucky you were. That was a black mamba and had you been attacked there is no way we could have got help in time. You did the right thing by not panicking and standing still!”

Yet another time going to the showers in the late evening, on my way back I saw the spoor of a lion that had crossed the very path I had walked on earlier!

So many wondrous memories. There was Duwisib Castle, built by a wealthy German Baron for his wife. Sadly he was killed in the First World War and his wife left for America never to return, leaving the castle and all of its contents and dreams behind. Kolmanskop, a ghost town, was once a thriving community of miners and their families during the diamond rush, now abandoned and derelict with the buildings gradually being swallowed by sand.

Etoshe Game Reserve, near the border with Angola, is one of the best Game parks in Namibia, covering a total area of 8,600 sq miles. The waterhole we visited late at night was floodlit and we were able to watch the amazing sight of a lion mating in true Technicolor!

Although I can’t remember the total distance we covered, it was in the region of +5000 kms or over 3000 miles, probably as much as most people in the UK drive in a year!

Unfortunately, after I had treated one of our group, a young British man who came down with a virus, he very kindly passed it to me! I became really ill during the return drive and was hospitalised in Windhoek. Luckily I was cared for by some kind missionaries who arranged for me to be flown home to South Africa. (Thank goodness for travel insurance!) It meant that I missed out on the trip to the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, but perhaps one day I will visit this amazing country again (in comfort this time!) and see all I might have not have seen the first time around.

Just as an aside: after the Namibia experience, for the next two years, I went on similar overland trips through Botswana and then Zimbabwe with the same company, Karibu Africa Safaris, who are still in existence today.

Read Janine’s Inspirational Women Travellers interview

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