We leave South Africa in the far north west of the country by crossing the Orange River between Alexander Bay and Oranjemund. Here the river reaches the sea after its long and winding path. It’s source is in the Drakensberg mountains in the east of South Africa then it travels through Lesotho as the Senq River before returning to South Africa and crossing the country. In times past it collected diamonds from the remnants of old volcanoes along the way and deposited them into the ocean to be washed up the coast. A section of the coast south of the border, as well as a stretch along the south bank of the river plus large expanses of country north of the border is now sperrgebiet, or forbidden country, with entry strictly regulated and enforced by armed guards. It is all controlled by the diamond mines and the government. As well as passing through immigration and customs when we cross the border we also need a permit to travel along the road next to the river to reach the other side of the mining land. All the formalities are simple and the only delay we strike is the time spent chatting to the guy providing the transit permit who is keen to share his experience as a tour guide and give us information about places to visit and what we can expect along the way.
The road along the river is far better than we expected, half had been recently tarred and the remainder is also in reasonable condition. The land is dry and rugged with frequent signs of the mining activity and the river is brown and wide with patches of trees providing the only signs of vegetation. For all that it’s a compelling and fascinating drive. On one occasion we spot a line of Oryx walking along the skyline at the top of a massive mine dump. By the time we reach the end of the mining area it’s early afternoon, a long trip to end up just across the river from the camp in the Richtersveld National Park where we spent last night. If the punt across the river had been operating we could have crossed the border here and saved considerable time but then we would have missed an interesting drive.
We continue along the river passing through the bottom section of the Ai-Ais/Fish River National Park and then turn north to drive to the camp site at Ai-Ais. This area is at the bottom of the Fish River Canyon and the main attractions are the hot springs and the spas. We like visiting hot springs, great for aching muscles, but it’s hot and we’re tired after a long drive so we are looking forward to a refreshing dip in the swimming pool instead. The water is not quite what we were hoping for though, it’s filled from the hot springs as well and although it’s nowhere near as hot as the 65° spa it’s in the high twenties. Even so once we have got used to the warmer than expected temperature we feel refreshed and far more relaxed so the minerals in the water have worked well.
It’s a hot night at the bottom of the canyon with no breeze so we’re happy to move to the main Fish River Canyon camp ground at Hobas the next day. Arriving before lunch we have our choice of sites and pick a spot with plenty of shade before driving out mid afternoon for our first look at the canyon from the rim. The Canyon is 10km from the camp and we visit several view points. Our first stop isn’t even at one of the designated view points but when we leave the car and approach the edge we are both speechless at the grandeur spread in front of us. The edge drops steeply away, almost vertical in some spots and the river meanders 270 metres below us in great sweeping horseshoe bends almost forming islands and greatly increasing the distance hikers must walk to complete the gruelling 85km five day hike from here to Ai-Ais. There are no hikers at present as permits for the hike are only issued in the cooler and drier months. In the middle of the day the colours are mainly shades of brown and grey but late afternoon and early morning show a much wider spectrum of colours. To add to the drama of our first visit storm clouds have formed and thunder crashes around us. Squalls of rain are seen at spots in the distance but at times it appears the water evaporates before it hits the ground. There is so much static electricity in the air that moving a pointed finger through the air produces crackles and sparks and our hair is standing on end. The same thing happens when Paul takes a panaorama shot with the phone and we wonder wether that can really be good for the phone.
We stay at Hobas for two nights which provides the opportunity for two pre-sunrise visits and two late afternoon sessions at various places along the eastern rim of the canyon. In the afternoons we take in the various views before settling in one spot for sunset drinks and nibbles and of course more photography. During the heat of the day we keep cool by sheltering in the shade of our camp and taking dips in the pool.
From Hobas we take the scenic route into Keetmanshoop to do a little shopping. The town is almost deserted and most shops are closed as it is the afternoon of Independence Day, 27 years since the country ceased being South West Africa, a protectorate of South Africa. We find one supermarket open and the staff are dressed in traditional clothes of the area with elaborate bright pink skirts or dresses.
From there we drive west along the highway toward the coast. We’re headed for the town of Luderitz but it’s too far to reach today so we call into a couple of places in search of a shaded camp site. It’s very hot and the sites have little or no shade so we keep driving until after 5.00pm when the worst of the heat has passed and we stop in a roadside rest stop at the top of a pass. The views are great and by dark the traffic has ceased so we have a peaceful night.
In the morning we make an early start so we can start our crossing of the Namib desert with the sun rising behind us. What a wonderful way to start the day. We reach the tiny town of Aus before breakfast but nothing is open so we eat at another rest stop just past the town. Before long we are entering the sperrgebiet, from here until we reach the outskirts of Luderitz more than 100 km away we are not allowed to leave the road. Rest stops with shelters provide the only shade and the small amount of vegetation we had been seeing disappears so the surrounding country is either long stretches of sand and sand dunes with distant hills or jagged collections of rocky mounds. It sounds bleak but it’s also beautiful in its own way.
Luderitz is a small town built within rocky outcrops on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s heritage is German, diamonds and seafood and apart from the drama of its location between the desert and the ocean it is well worth a visit to see the grand colonial buildings and the colourful art deco houses. After touring around the town to see the sights, not a long tour as the town is small, we search for a place with good coffee and find a delightful garden café opposite the waterfront which makes ok coffee, very good bread rolls and amazing baked cheesecake. Hunger pangs alleviated we drive to the lighthouse in front of the town which is built on a rocky outcrop and is surrounded by a camping area. It’s rocky, is exposed to the frequent strong winds and has little shade but apart from that the location is perfect.
We end up spending five nights here and while the wind became a little tiresome the area provides plenty of photographic opportunities including Flamingos, Gemsbok/Oryx and Springbok close to town, another lighthouse 22km away at Diaz Point, little bays along the peninsula south of town and lots of well preserved and colourful art nouveau buildings in the town. Fellow travellers Jared and Jen from the US arrived shortly after us and after comparing travel plans we realised we would be visiting a lot of the same places. They are also planning on spending three months in Namibia so our paths are bound to keep crossing. We join them to watch the sun set over the bay on a couple of evenings and to enjoy a meal at an excellent seafood restaurant in the town.
About 10km inland from Luderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. This was the major company town for diamond mining until the 1950s when richer finds were discovered at Oranjemund and the headquarters were shifted and the town deserted. It is within the sperrgebiet but permits are easily arranged and it is a popular tourist destination in the area as well as offering numerous photographic opportunities. The usual permit allows entry only between 9.00am and 1.00pm but photographic permits provide access from sunrise to sunset. Naturally Paul is there before sunrise then returns to camp so we can both visit during the usual hours and he returns a third time for sunset shots very pleased with what he has seen and photographed during his visits.
An informative tour is included as part of the permit and then we wander on our own through buildings in various stages of decay with sand drifting in and around. In its heyday the town had a casino and bowling alley as well as a theatre for shows by visiting performers, including opera singers. Some of the houses are very grand although the view through the windows to the bleak desert outside would have provided a stark contrast to the opulence inside. Now the bright desert sunlight filters through broken slats on to the faded wallpaper and sandy floorboards.
Leaving Luderitz we fill our freezer with fish and squid from one of the seafood processing plants. We retrace our road through the Namib desert to Aus smiling at the sight of the still under construction railway line disappearing into a sand dune and reappearing a hundred metres later at the other side of the relentless shifting sand. Dozers are parked beside the road near large dunes to help in the never ending job of keeping the road clear. Once the railway is in use they will need to work doubly hard.
From Aus we turn north along some dusty tracks through wonderful scenery. The roads are far better than expected, occasional soft or rough patches but generally very easy going. Hills and mountains with vastly different colours surround us as we drive through the valley. Some are sand dunes and they range from deep orange to white and the rocky hills could be red, black, brown, pink or mauve.
We turn off the road into a ranch which offers camping and follow the track to the base of the hills. At the homestead we are directed to the camp site a few kilometres away. A young Dutch couple are already camped there but there is heaps of room so we soon set up near a shady tree and braai to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and evening. Jared and Jen arrive soon after us and claim the next tree before joining us to share the braai and to watch the colours change in the wide open view in front of us and then the sky fill with stars.
The light in the morning is wonderful and as the hills behind us block the early morning sun the temperature remains mild longer than usual so we are in no hurry to get back on the road. When we eventually make a move we continue or journey through the beautiful valley. After a reasonably long, for us, drive we reach Sesriem where we hope to spend a few nights. We have been told the campsite in the national park must be pre-booked as it is very popular but we are lucky enough to get one of two available sites. Lots of the sites have good shade but ours is pretty bleak with just a small tree but we’re not planning on spending much time at the camp and we are just happy to have got a site at all. Our tree does have a large Social Weavers nest in it. These can vary in size and the largest are conglomerations of hundreds of nests in one giant mass which looks somewhat like thatching.
From the camp we can drive to Sossusvlei which is right in the Namib desert with massive dunes which display their most intense colours at sunrise and sunset. The drive takes almost an hour and the internal control gate is not opened until 6.00am, an hour before the sun rises but if we had to camp outside the park we would not be able to start the drive until 7.00am and we would miss the most spectacular part of the day.
We’re in the park for three nights and the days fall into a pattern. Up in the dark at 5.30am and lining up at the control gate by 5.50. A quick drive for 60km on the paved road to the 2wd car park then a much slower 5km drive through deep soft sand to the final car park. Photography and a stroll to enjoy the colours and views and quietness of the desert calm fill in the next hour or so then we sit in the shade for a leisurely breakfast and coffee loving the atmosphere of this amazing place. We had planned on some walking to a couple of other vleis (low lying flat areas sometimes marshy but in these cases almost always dry and surrounded by dunes) but by the time we have had our breakfast the day is far too hot for us to enjoy a walk.
By the time we return to camp the morning has nearly finished and as we plan to go out again we have just a few hours to eat lunch, take a swim in the pool and to do some reading or download photos before we get ready for our next outing. Our evening destinations include some of the dunes on the road out to Sossusvlei or the lookout closest to camp near Elim Dune. After we have watched the sun set, around 7.00pm, we have an hour to watch the remaining light and to get back to camp before the control gate is closed. Then it’s time to prepare dinner before we fall into bed so we can repeat the same thing the next day.
After a wonderful but exhausting three days we leave Sesriem to start our journey towards Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We’re not planning on arriving there for four or five days so we plan to stop in a couple of places along the way. We call into several camping and accommodation places but aren’t happy with any of them so we stop for a break in a cafe in one of the tiny settlements along the way.
It’s home week when we walk into the café. Two German girls we had been speaking to at Sesriem greet us from one table and we join Jared and Jen at the next table. They have also been looking for a spot to camp on the way to Windhoek so we join forces in our search. Two more camps are rated unsatisfactory and then a third of the way up the very steep Spreetshoogte Pass we turn off the road and find three sites carved out of the hillside. Two are camp sites with their own private shower and toilet with a verandah in front and the other is a cabin with beds for four. The view is outstanding and we’re keen to stay but wondering how we get in touch with the owner when he drives in to greet us.
Hugh has two ranches on the valley floor and saw us drive in. He shows us how everything operates, provides us with some extra firewood and takes orders for some braai packs to be delivered the next day. When they arrive they are accompanied by some complimentary corn bread Hugh’s wife baked, delicious. Life on the edge is wonderful, the views are mesmerising and the verandah provides shade, there is water and our solar panels provide power so we’re all happy to stay five nights before we need to head into the city. Paul manages a couple of days of photo processing but then fridge and battery problems consume most of the power we generate so he has to restrict his computer use.
One of our major activities is cricket. Chasing huge crickets away, bowling stones at them and jumping when they crawl on us. They’re always around at this time of the year and none of us have ever seen any as large or relentless as these. Our flip flops make good cricket bats and we send them flying to clear our work and sitting areas.
Finally we’re ready to head into the city. The rest of the pass has to be climbed and we are concerned about our towing ability. The land cruiser will get anywhere we want but the power is low so on gradients as steep as these we need low range 4wd. That’s not usually a problem but they have paved the road up the pass and there are a couple of very tight turns and it is not good to use 4wd in these circumstances. Jared offers to tow our trailer up and save us a 100km detour so we travel together across to the highway and into Windhoek.
We’re all in the Elisenheim Guest Farm camping area 10km north of the city and staying for a week. We’re having more problems with our gear box which are being fixed by Toyota (under warranty we hope) as well as other chores and Jared and Jen also have work to do before we head back out of town. In the meantime we’re enjoying the peace of the country mixed with comfort of an excellent restaurant and the early morning wake up of the naughty Baboons. We’re not sure yet when we’ll get the car back but we’ll keep you posted on our future adventures.
PS, we picked up the car late Wednesday afternoon and left Windhoek Thursday morning so we could get out of town before Easter. We’re heading for the coast at Swakopmund but it will be very busy over Easter so we’re detouring through some of the mountains slightly north of there on our way. Hoping you are all having or have had a lovely holiday break.