First stop Windhoek. We spent one night in the quirky Heinitzberg Hotel, which was built as a castle in the early 1900’s. Perched on a ridge overlooking the city, their Garden Terrace is a perfect spot for sundowners.
As capital cities go, Windhoek is small and navigable. You can’t miss the postcard-pretty Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church) on a roundabout.
Windhoek was just a staging point for the rest of our trip and although I’m sure there is far more to write about, we basically drove around, checked out the church, stocked up on supplies for our journey the next day, let the kids have a swim and enjoyed the expansive views across the city from the hotel terrace.
Top Tip Windhoek: Even if you’re not staying there, do go for a sundowner at Hotel Henitzburg.The following morning we had a most-of-the-day road trip from Windhoek to the Namibrand Nature Reserve. Keep your eyes peeled as the ever changing scenery along the way is a major part of the experience. Be sure to stop at the Tropic of Capricorn sign for an obligatory travel photo opportunity. I remember learning about the equator and tropics at school and thinking that these were mythical far off places that I was unlikely ever to visit and so crossing this invisible line resulted in me yelling to my confused husband to please pull over and turn around because I need to go and take pictures.
Small dust tornadoes and a distant rainstorm accompanied the changing landscape.
Namibrand Nature Reserve
Our accommodation was a stilted canvas lodge, linked to the main concourse area by raised wooden walkways. Every morning our footsteps from the night before had been swept clean by the desert winds and in the middle of the day we would find oryx seeking shade beneath our cabin.
The only air conditioning was the desert wind blowing through the one side that, bar mosquito nets, we kept rolled open to the elements. Views stretched for miles with not a blighted sign of humanity in sight, watching the sunrise from our cabin was breathtaking.
We barely noticed the other guests for the duration of our stay – bliss. Hopefully the other guests barely noticed our rowdy children, feral and rolling in the sand.
While staying in Namibrand we went on desert safaris, quite different to the bush safaris we have experienced previously. Apart from the multitude of sharp horned oryx, we saw little obvious wild life. And yet, there is a surprising amount of tenacious plant, bug and animal life in the desert if you know just where and how to look.
We had an education on Acacia trees and their many properties and were introduced to a number of smaller desert inhabitants. Our ranger tracked a Dancing White Lady Spider (confusingly it was a male specimen) by following minute indentations in the sand to a hole similar in diameter to a McDonald’s drinking straw. He used a stalk of hardy desert grass to protect the structure of the burrow entrance and carefully scooped away the sand around it with his bare hands.
Mid-scooping, he suddenly leapt backwards as he had accidentally chanced upon an unfriendly scorpion with a nasty sting. It ran around a bit, poised for attack and then moved along and the scooping resumed. Our patience paid off as the large spider shot out and started scampering towards our naked toes, vulnerable in sandals.We also took a desert walk with a San bushman. Each time he found something of interest he would halt and speak first softly in the hypnotic clicks of his language and then translate his tales into English. He pointed out various animal tracks, demonstrated oryx poo spitting and no, we didn’t have a go. He also explained how ostrich eggs were prized possessions among bushmen, ideal for storing water and how they bury caches of these water filled eggs and remember how to find them by using trees and mountains as coordinates in a vast and barren landscape.
Our entire stay in the desert was fascinating and soul cleansing. The kids meanwhile primarily enjoyed playing in the sand.
The Namibrand Nature Reserve must not be confused with neighbouring Namib-Naukluft National Park. As the crow flies on a map they are cosy neighbours, however, they are separate concessions and to travel from one to the other, you must first exit the desert, rejoin the main gravel road and drive along it to the entrance and then reenter the desert. Why would you want to bother with all that extra driving? Well, the Namib-Naukluft National Park is where you need to go to visit Sossusvlei, home of the ancient and photogenic red dunes, reportedly the oldest in the world.
Not to let the small geographical hiccup deter us, we got up at 4am one morning so that we could be en route by 4.30, aiming to be at the red dunes early enough to climb one before the heat became overwhelming. Climbing a dune is hot and thirsty work and if you’re prone to vertigo, it’s best not to look down as you ascend the knife ridge of the dune, sand falling away alarmingly steeply either side of your slim path. Once you’re at the top though and you’ve taken your fill of pictures, you have the unfettered joy of running down.
The unfettered joy of running down, unless of course you realise half way that your prescription glasses have fallen of your shirt and been eaten by the dune and spend the next half hour trying unsuccessfully to find them. Yes, my darling husband had to wear prescription sunglasses at all times for the remainder of our trip. It lead to some strange looks at dinner when he sat looking like a mafioso as he tried to read the menu. It could have been worse, it could have been the hire car keys and judging by the lost property enquiries at the Sossusvlei gate,we would not have been the first, nor the last to make such a catastrophic error.
Top Tip Sossusvlei: If you are a keen photographer, consider staying at Sossus Dune Lodge, it is the only accommodation located inside the national park and visitors are allowed to set off to the Sossusvlei dunes before the gates open to the rest of the general public and return later than them, this has to be THE place to stay to get the ultimate sunrise and sunset photographs.
Nestled in the heart of the red dunes, is the Dead Vlei. It is extremely photogenic and worth the sweaty hike (it’s only around 1k from the carpark, but if you’ve already climbed a dune and temperatures are still rising, it’s hard work ploughing through the sand). The ancient skeletal acacia trees (either 100s or 1000s of years old depending on who you talk to) contrast starkly with the white of the salt pan in which they are marooned, they are then framed by the rust red backdrop of dunes and contrasted further with cloudless cerulean sky.
Part II of this post, Sossusvlei to Swakopmund is in the works and will be posted shortly.
Any questions so far?