Apart from the roads within Etosha and then the long stretch from Khorixas to Henties Bay, much of the Northwards trip was on fair to good asphalt, from here it’s gravel all the way to the South African border at Vioolsdrift, apart that is, from the short stretch from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay. That’s what this trip is all about, experiencing the enormous open spaces of Namibia on gravel.
After almost 4000 km through the interior of Namibia and scorching heat, arriving at the coast at Henties Bay was quite a relief. A cold sea mist was rolling in, giving the entire town and coast a slightly eerie vibe. We didn’t hang around other than a drive through the town, which was pretty quiet, I believe it was a weekend (writing this post quite some time later). We did take a walk on the beach, actually feeling the cool sand underfoot was quite pleasant after the intense heat so far. The distance from Henties Bay to Swakopmund is around 70km, on a hard packed gravel road, so we made good progress, finding the time to stop at a wreck along the way.
I love Swakopmund, let’s get that straight, this was my first visit and I was super impressed. Yes, maybe I was a little bushwhacked by that stage, but it’s still a wonderful little city, like a small piece of Europe in the African desert. The streets are clean, bustling shops and restaurants and pubs with a great beachfront. We had lunch at the Lighthouse Pub and Grill, frankly it was a disaster, the food was cold, the order was completely wrong and the waiter useless, but the beer was cold and the view from the window out over the beachfront was awesome. We chose badly, but there are some really great looking spots to eat, with plenty of variety.
The city has a fair bit of history, having been founded in 1892 as the main harbour for the German colony. It also has a sad history as the scene of an internment camp for local Herero prisoners during the early 20th century Herero rebellion. Notable historic structures are the long steel jetty that was originally built in 1905, and the lighthouse first built in 1902 and rebuilt in 1910, after the original was washed away by a storm (Wikipedia). There is a cool looking restaurant on the jetty, pity we didn’t choose that one instead.
Desert Breeze Lodge Swakopmund
After some days of hard driving & living in tents and basic self catering chalets we treated ourselves to a night of luxury at the Desert Breeze Lodge, a short way out of the city and overlooking some of the most spectacular desert dunes that you could ever hope to see. The room that we were allocated was incredible, it seems that no expense has been spared in the building of this hotel. A gripe could be that there is no dinner served in the hotel restaurant, only breakfast, so a drive (short as it is) into town is needed if you want to eat dinner. If that happens after enjoying a few beers watching the sun set over the dunes, then you have a problem driving into town, and it is a bit too far to walk.
Dunes of Swakopmund
But this place is about it’s awesome location, all that other stuff seems so trivial when looking out over the dunes. Sunset and sunrise are equally spectacular, the colours of the sand changes by the minute. We took a long walk onto the dunes early the next morning, something that has to be experienced to be understood, words simply aren’t enough, the photos will have to do the talking.
Swakopmund to Solitaire
It’s a short hop on a good asphalt road from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, with the Atlantic Ocean on the right and desert dunes on the left, from there the road charges back to gravel and heads inland. As you leave the coast, so the temperature begins to rise again, the terrain also changes from barren desert to grasslands and becomes more mountainous. This is the Namib Naukluft National Park, which stretches all the way down to Sossusvlei and beyond. The road is spectacular and is constantly changing, descending down into the Kuiseb River Canyon and then back up again. Namibia had experienced good rains the previous summer, so where during dry years, there is barren desert, we experienced lush grasslands and a good flow of water in some of the rivers. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn again, this time heading South, patches of red dune begin to emerge again from the grass as you approach Solitaire.
Solitaire must be one of the weirdest, most interesting and awesome places on the planet, I kid you not, it belongs in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Kilometres from anywhere that might called “civilization” in the traditional sense of the word, here literally in the middle of nowhere is an oasis of coolness. The general dealer that looks as though it came right out of 1950’s small town America, the old cars dotted around the place, the cactus plants, the thatched lapa, cool music & both locals and travellers chilling around the bar, cold beer and awesome venison burgers, the place is just so different. If you have the chance stop at Solitaire then go, you won’t regret it. There is accommodation available but we had to drag ourselves away after the 3rd beer, not a good idea to drive on those gravel roads under the influence and anyway we still had quite a distance to travel to our next stop, Sossusvlei.
Sossusvlei and Sesriem
If you have one place on your bucket list, do yourself a favour and make it Sossusvlei, this place is absolutely awesome and unique, there is no place like it in the world. This is where the Tsauchab River finally gives up on it’s effort to reach the ocean and disappears into the bone dry sand of the Namib Desert. Occasionally in very wet years the river floods and the pans fill with water, when that happens photographers from as far afield as Cape Town and even Europe make the long trip to capture the spectacle. Most years though the pans are bone dry, with the white clay contrasting with the red sand of the dunes, it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most photographed places in Africa.
We stayed at the Sossusvlei Lodge, just outside the entrance to the national park. Gates open at 6am, at that time there is quite a queue of cars waiting to make the 60km drive, along a good tarred road, to the parking area, after that point a 4×4 vehicle is needed to go further into the dunes proper. The National Parks has several vehicles available to take visitors into the dunes, so an offroad vehicle isn’t essential to reach Sossusvlei, but it does give you freedom to go where and when you want to.
An early morning start is pretty much essential if you plan on climbing the dunes, it gets extremely hot during the day, even in the winter months, and it’s the best light for photography. We climbed a dune called Big Daddy, it’s 325 metres high and has spectacular views from the top, going down is easy, just slide down into Deadvlei on your backside, good fun. Deadvlei is an awesome sight, ancient petrified acacia trees dotted around the white sand floor of the pan contrast with the high red dunes surrounding the pan. It’s around a 1km walk back to the parking area from Deadvlei, definitely take water, it’s thirsty work, then grab a cold beer from your cooler box when you get back to your vehicle, you will have earned it.
There are picnic spots under some acacia trees and very rudimentary toilets, if you can avoid using those I recommend it. You might be joined by a Jackal looking for scraps, supposedly he or she shouldn’t be fed, but I suspect most people do feed them.
If time allows a visit to Sesriem Canyon in the early evening is worthwhile, it’s a narrow canyon cut into the rock by the river on it’s unsuccessful journey to the ocean.
Sossusvlei to The Fish River Canyon
It’s a good day’s drive along some very lonely gravel roads to the Fish River Canyon Lodge, but such an experience through beautiful country with the opportunity to stop off at unique places like Helmeringhausen along the way. We opted to stay on the little visited Western side of the Fish River Canyon, most tourist facilities are on the easy to reach (relatively speaking) Eastern rim, the Fish River Canyon Lodge is only reachable by a 4 wheel drive vehicle along what seems like an interminably long track.
The Fish River Lodge is so strangely and awesomely luxurious in the real, actual middle of nowhere. The chalets are perched on the rim of the canyon with views that are out of this world (no really, they really are out of this world), comfortable beds with quality linen and an outside shower with a view. The food is really five star, I don’t know how they do it in such a remote place, but they do. Watching the sunset from the deck with it’s infinity pool, replenishes the soul. We dragged ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn the next day to watch and photograph the sun rising over the canyon, words aren’t enough, the photos will have to do the talking.
Fish River Canyon to The South African Border
The last stretch of our road trip through Namibia was possibly through the most remote region we had yet travelled through, we drove for over 200km without seeing another car or person, just the odd goat or springbok. The D463 might be labelled as a main (though gravel) road on the maps and GPS but much of it had been washed away when we went though, requiring a 4×4 to get through. Eventually we hit the C13 to Rosh Pinah, along the only bit of asphalt in days, before again going onto gravel as we descended into the Orange River valley. It’s an awesome stretch of road and we were actually surprised at the amount of traffic, but maybe we were just spoiled by that time. The road follows the Orange River through incredibly dry terrain and eventually crosses the Fish River, just above where it joins the Orange.
A fairly strange sight is the sudden appearance of fields of green grape vines at Aussenkehr, incongruous in an environment that wouldn’t look out of place on Mars, just goes to show how water brings life. From there it’s not far to the main B1 road and the South African border at Noordoewer and then a day’s drive along the N7 back to Cape Town and home.
This trip was one that I’m still getting a kick out of, would I do it again tomorrow, Hell Yeah!