Windhoek, Namibia to Skeleton Coast (Terrace Bay), Namibia
10.07.2010 - 16.07.2010
Today I spent some time visiting the sites here in Windhoek.
First stop after buffet breakfast at the hostel (nice... for sure got my money's worth!), went over to the Alte Feste old fort.
Dating from the 1800's and Windhoek's oldest surviving building, had a pretty decent display of artifacts, dating from the time of the town's founding.
Passed by landmark Christus Kirche from the early 20th c.,
then over to the Owela museum, which I really really enjoyed. Very informative and colorful displays on Namibia's natural and cultural history,
with information on the endangered animals here. Later, I met up with one potential travel mate, Marie-Line from France, and planning to meet a few others tomorrow to help share the 4x4 costs.
Hard to believe, but I'm about to watch the FINAL game of the World Cup, and quite likely the last soccer match for a while. After 6.5 months with the Africa's Cup of Nations, then European League Championships, then World Cup, its going to be weird not having a match to look forward to. Well, its just the same, as I'm head out to the Namib desert for 9 days beginning tomorrow. Today I met up with Marie-Line, and the other travelers - Alf from USA, and Berbel and Mika from the Netherlands, to organize hiring a 4x4 together. The only problem, as we soon discovered, was all rental car companies were sold out until the end of the month! Being a Sunday, we weren't expecting to resolve the issue today but got lucky with a phone call to someone who knew someone who worked at a car rental place that had one 4x4 left. We high-tailed it to the place, the woman Bettina was nice enough to come in on her day off to reserve the vehicle for us. Tomorrow, we're off to see the "real" Namibia.
Day one of the tour got off to a semi-hectic start. The group agreed yesterday to meet in central Windhoek at NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts), agency where the national park camp site reservations must be made (a completely inconvenient policy, considering we had to provide arrival dates at each site for the entire 9 nights), at 08:00. Well, the Dutch girls and myself were right on time, Alf about 10 minutes late and Marie-Line showing up at 08:30. OK, a little late start not so bad - except for the fact that we had to still pick up the 4x4, Dutch girls needed to buy a tent, Alf had to check out of the hostel, I needed to get money from the ATM that worked yesterday but for some reason not today. This was on top of getting online to rebook a future flight due to the original reservation on a German-based consolidator website not understanding my English follow-up email and canceling the reservation, plus reconfirm at South African Airways office for my next flight immediately upon returning from the desert, due to American-based consolidator website's inability with providing me a reservation code... whew! Well, we loaded up the pickup truck (to the gills),
made it out of Windhoek and into the vast arid Namib desert, off paved road onto gravel where I drove pretty fast to make it here to Sesriem just before the gate closed at sunset. Just wrestled with the whipping wind to set up Alf's tent I'm sharing with (2 person design, but seems a bit small with his 6'7'' frame). Now, heading over to cook some dinner before turning in.
Up at the crack of dawn this morning (before dawn, technically) and drove over to Soussusvlei - vast area of mammoth sand dunes. Got there to watch an incredible sunrise: the first major dune, #45, was already filled with loads of tourists that climbed up the soft sand to the top for views of the morning light filling up the landscape.
Myself, I ran up, and down, for the first 5 minutes
and then, after becoming entirely too winded, decided to wait for Alf and more casually walk up to the top.
Absolutely breathtaking views of the dunes, with the colors changing as the sun rose higher.
As the winds picked up, often times had to deal with piles of sand blowing into my camera, eyes, mouth, nose, etc.
So, Alf and I headed back down to meet the rest of the group. We put the truck in 4WD, and headed onto Deadvlei where we parked and had breakfast - joined by some hungry and completely unintimidated birds.
Deadvlei was more desolate desert of dunes and dead trees.
The contrast in colors here were also amazing - fire-red sand, cobalt-blue skies, emerald-green shrubs, and pale-white mud ground.
After getting the truck un-stuck from the sand dune (not even 5 minutes after Marie-Line's began driving), we headed back to camp site to pack up the tents then made our way over to Sesriem Canyon for a hike around. More incredible views here - enormous boulders teetering on the edge of the canyon walls.
We spent a good amount of time here - actually losing one another for a while in the several km-long canyon - then, driving out in the endless stretches of flat desert,
made our way over here to Swakopmund, checked-in to a campsite and now off to bed.
Today was just a bit crazy. Up early this morning, the crew drove down through Walvis Bay toward Sandwich Harbour; had a bit of difficulty in actually finding it. We took the road south to the salt flats,
saw the turn-off to Sandwich Harbour, but only saw some worn-looking paths, no continuing "road". Back to the salt mines and after getting some directional help with a hand-drawn map, back to the turn-off and paths. Did a little dune driving, requiring 4WD (and a bit of nerves!).
After a while, made it past "the border" fence and onto the beach. Lowered the tire pressure, drove onward until we came up to the narrow strip of sand flanked on one side by near-vertical dunes, and the other by the Atlantic Ocean.
The trick of passing through this ~5 km or so stretch is to understand when the tide is low enough to cross. Trickier than it sounds, as you need to drive close enough to the water on the harder wet sand, obviously not too close, but not so far away as to get stuck in the softer dry sand toward the dune. We got out and assessed the situation,
felt it was good enough to go for it, so I punched it and made it safely (and fairly easily) to the harbor.
What an amazing place - huge dunes overlooking a harbor filled with hundreds of pelicans, flamingos and other types of birds I couldn't name. Only 100 m or so away, a lone jackal roamed around, occasionally stopping to look at me, but then carried on in search of food.
I climbed up the dunes for a better view,
the rest of the group probably had enough from Soussusvlei so stayed on the ground below.
After a bit longer of looking at sea shells, dead crabs,
and birds we were ready to head back through the pass - only, no Marie-Line. We waited around 20 minutes with no sign of her, and started to mark the sand to measure the tide... it wasn't looking good, waves passing over and erasing the markers as the tide kept approaching. Finally we spot her, but she's wandering around back and forth, not returning. So I honk to remind her we're not interested in spending the night! She eventually wanders to the truck, mentions she was searching for her phone that she dropped somewhere in the harbor - great. Well, phone or no phone, we knew that the timing was cutting it close with the tide, so we all agreed to head back. I roll along ok for maybe the first couple kms, then got into some very soft sand. I was looking further on down the strip and, although not entirely certain, but the water appeared very close to the dune wall. Then.... we got stuck. I tried reversing a bit, but the tires started to dig into the sand. The group jumped out and began digging around the tires, and I'm watching the waves come up right next to the truck - yikes. I yell out the window for them to hurry up, this was no drill! I try not to panic, and eyeing the sand closer to the water, figure that was going to be the only chance so tell them to push from behind, and as the next wave receded into the ocean, I gunned it forward and swung around, hugging the next upcoming wave and accelerating safely back toward the harbor. The group followed behind, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. For now. We began again marking the tide, figuring high tide will come soon and then begin to recede. In the mean-time, went back to try and find Marie-Line's phone. Some time later a couple big desert safari Land Rovers pull up, filled with tourists busily snapping photos. One of the drivers tells me we better get moving back through the strip, high tide's coming in. I explain the tide's already too high to pass through, so we'd have to wait it out. Well, come to find high tide wasn't due for another 1.5 hours, so we'd have to wait until around 18:30, then drive back through the small dunes in the dark... not a great thought, but the only other option would be to drive over the large dunes and go around the strip. "How much experience do you have dune driving?", he asks me. I tell him I've ridden over humps way back in 2000 on Frasier Island, but certainly not the virtual mountains he's pointing to. Then he and 2 others check out the engine, discuss the size and determine it could handle the big dunes - they believe. My question was, who's driving?? Fortunately, although only 2 tour vehicles were there, it so happened there was an extra tour representative in one of the vehicles, sitting in the passenger seat. He has dune driving experience, but they were quick to point out they'd assume no liability for any damages to our rental... well, of course I'm wondering exactly what could happen (roll over? stuck? both??), but the alternatives - trying again to go through the strip before high tide (no way), or wait out the tide and try to make our way back in the dark, was a lose-lose situation. So, I hand over the keys. As the pickup needed the least amount of weight possible, the rest of our crew loads into one of the tour vehicles with empty seats (another lucky break), and I hop in with "Paolo" and we take off. Of course, the 2 tour groups paid for 1/2 day dune driving so we weren't able to just head straight back to the main road; rather, we followed the much-more-suitable-for-dune-driving vehicles leading the way. I remember some tense moments riding through the Khor Al-Adaid in Qatar, but those were small hills compared to these mountains and I was downright scared - as we skirted down the steep slopes, holding my breath for a minute at a time... but it didn't stop me from snapping photos!
Maybe an hour or so we're driving up and down dunes that I'm sure this rental pickup has never seen before.
Paolo had the engine screaming for most of the time, and once there was such a vertical dune that I felt the running boards actually rest momentarily on the peak before teeter-tottering forward and down the slope. We could hear the sand rumbling under the truck because of the tire friction - sounded like an avalanche. The man certainly knew what he was doing! And the bonus part - in addition to receiving a free dune ride (normally costing somewhere around N$850), Paolo was giving me tips on how to dune drive. When we finally finished, we stopped off to test physics in the quicksand area,
then the crew joined back up. Following the tour operators out to the main road, they apparently wanted to see if I paid attention to the lessons - they rode up a real dune. Certainly not as big as the ones just driven on, but pretty damn big nonetheless! Making it up to the top, the two tour vehicles then showboated a bit by reversing down the other side of the dune... alas, no lessons on that one, so I settled on heading down driving forward. Back on the paved road (with a non-functioning air compressor, we weren't able to re-inflate tires)
passed by Walvis Bay filled with flamingos as the sun was setting - very nice.
Returned to Swakopmund, and now meeting up at a bar to buy Paolo all the drinks he wants!
A fair bit of drinking has commenced here in the hostel campground's kitchen - thanks to Alf purchasing two bottles of liquor and handing out shots to unsuspecting backpackers who wandered into the kitchen, not giving them the choice to refuse ("Hey man, rules are rules"). This morning I got up and booked a sandboarding tour - figuring since I hadn't been snowboarding in a long time (3 seasons I think?), may as well go ahead and sign up for a good substitute! They used real snowboards, so the equipment at least was familiar (minus the snow hat, gloves, pants, jacket, 2 sweatshirts, etc.). It took a couple runs (sand is much softer to fall on than icy Vermont mountains, I discovered), but I got the hang of it and was soon carving down the dune.
Actually, it was more difficult to go slow, as you tend to just sink. After a few more runs I took a shot at the lay-down version of sandboarding, used for the inexperienced snowboarders. Actually, it was kind of misleading as it wasn't really sandboarding, but rather sand-sledding. Well, novice tool or not, these things were flying down the slope... it was actually scarier to ride this than the sandboard! Head-front, laying face down - your face mere inches from the sand at 73 km/h (they had a speed gun... the fastest run of the day was a girl who was clocked at 76). After safely making the runs (slight elbow burn was the extent of my injuries), we had lunch - deli sandwiches and beers, all you can eat and drink. Needless to say, with me there, there weren't leftovers. Back here in Swakopmund, wandered around the heavily German-influenced town a bit.
Back at the hostel, the crew met up at a beach bar for sundowners before heading back here to the hostel campsite and continued with the cocktails.
Skeleton Coast (Terrace Bay), Namibia
We're in a desolate stretch of northern Namibia named "The Skeleton Coast", dubbed so by early Portuguese sailors who traveled down this perpetually foggy coastline, causing many shipwrecks. And if the crew didn't go down with the ship, the outlook was not any more favorable on land - hundreds and hundreds of km's of sand, nothing else. This morning we left Swakopmund and headed north, stopped for photos of our first shipwreck view - certainly this mostly intact boat was not from the Portuguese in the 16th c.
Continuing up the coast, stopped in Cape Cross. There was a small cemetery where the first Portuguese explorers to visit this area were buried,
but the main attraction were the thousands of Cape Fur Seals in the area - very funny personalities and sounds from them, but also a most putrid smell - I don't remember it being that bad in the Galapagos!
We spotted a jackal who just took out one of the seals - I ignored the sign telling visitors to remain on the walkway and moved up on the beach for a better view.
We continued up to the Skeleton Coast proper,
stopping off at another shipwreck - much older, but not sure from what era.
Then onto Terrace Bay to our campsite. This place is about as remote as it gets. I'm not sure where the workers actually live, but they obviously stay here at the camp while working as it is a long long drive to the next town of any size. We were assigned the private VIP house, and - despite the abundance of cockroaches - was very plush. We each had our own room, I called dibs on the "Flagship" with king-size bed, ocean view and private bathroom... definitely one of the nicest places I've stayed in on my travels (better than Alf's tent for sure!). Now, enjoying the beautiful sunset while munching on popcorn and drinking a beer - nice!