Windhoek is the capital of Namibia and the most densely populated part of the country but it is still a small city. Lots of international tourists visit Namibia and with good reason because there are many wonderful places to visit and unique experiences in this desert country. Most people will start in the capital or at least visit it and Windhoek is fairly well set up to meet their needs. We arrive in Windhoek with a list of repairs and things to do including re-fixing the gearbox (which we thought had been ‘fixed’ by Toyota in Knysna, South Africa), purchasing various camping items, repairing the screen onPaul’s iPad and changing the wheel bearings on the trailer. It takes lots of phone calls and emails to Toyota to finally get their agreement that they would cover the costs of the repair under warranty from the previous work and plenty of running around to find the bits and pieces we need and work progresses in ‘Africa time’. We have to hire a car so that we can get around while the Landcruiser is being repaired but, in the end, we hardly use it at all. Eventually however our gearbox is repaired … again … and although we haven’t had the opportunity to get all the other jobs done or to do a great deal of sight seeing we are keen to get out of the city before the Easter break slows down all work and traps us for an extra four or five days.
In the meantime mother nature has had a good time and sent a couple of heavy rainstorms across the area. The first formed a temporary lake around our camp site at Elisenheim and briefly caused a flow in the previously dry river bed we had to cross to reach the camp. The sun returned the next day and we ventured out long enough to return our rental car, visit a local bar and dry out our mats but then the rain returned even more strongly. This time a dam located up river fills up and a substantial amount of water is released so we watch the river in front of us rise from a fast knee deep flow to a racing waist deep torrent in less than fifteen minutes. Luckily it drops almost as quickly and we are able to safely venture through it the next day. Elisenheim has proved to be an inspired choice as a place to stay on the outskirts of Windhoek. It is in the bush, but only ten kilometres from the city. The German owners cater to ‘Overlanders’ like us and those who visit regularly and park their own vehicles at Elisenheim while they are back in Europe working. We meet German, Dutch, Italian and Swiss people during our week there. They have their own workshop which Jared uses to change the oil in his Jeep. The restaurant can deliver fresh brochen (bread rolls) to your camp site each morning if you so wish.
We are still traveling with Jared and Jen and we are headed for Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast west of Windhoek. As we are leaving on Easter Thursday and the coast is a very popular destination over the holiday period we decide to take a round about route via three mountain ranges over the long weekend. We reach the small town of Omaruru on our first night and are very happy with our camp by the river. It looks an interesting town but when we drive through in the morning everything is closed, not surprising as it is Good Friday. A short distance west we enter the Erongo Mountain conservancy which is a collection of ranches that have formed a wildlife conservation zone. There is one campsite along the way but not surprisingly it is fully booked so we continue our journey enjoying the scenery and the magnificent mountains surrounding us.
By the time we emerge from the range we are into desert country and by the time we reach the town of Uis the land is parched and it looks a very tough place to live. Our campsite for the night is more upmarket than we are used to with each site having a shade shelter high enough to park under, a dining table and chairs, a kitchen bench and sink and an attached shower and toilet. There is also a pool which is very welcome on such a hot day. The next day we travel on towards the Brandberg. We stop along the way to enjoy the view and then we come across a Pajero which has broken down. A small mob of people are standing around drinking beer in the hot sun. We stop to see if we can help and introduce ourselves to the family from Windhoek who are showing a visitor from the US around. Jared and Jen (who hail from Oregon in the Pacific North West) quickly get chatting. We find out that the problem with the vehicle is a loose spark plug! Jared and Paul dig out some tools and it is quickly fixed. Soon after we head further west around the southern edge of the Brandberg. We see lots and lots of Welwitschia plants as we get further out into the desert.
The Brandberg, or Fire Mountain, is a massive pink granite mountain rising from the flat plains surrounding it. It is named for the colours which light up is western face as the sun sets. We spend the next two days driving around the mountains with an overnight bush camp on the western side. The evening light was fabulous and Paul also took advantage of the pre-sunrise light from the top of the hill behind our camp to capture some more of the magic of this place. All of the driving was enjoyable with the drive along the north face the most memorable as we drove along the sandy bed of the Ugab River and then followed the track in and out of valleys which promised more great stops for overnight bush camps.
Instead of spending another night here however we headed south toward Spitzkoppe, another dramatic but smaller group of mountains. It’s late in the afternoon when we arrive at the national park gate and pay our entrance and camping fees. Sites are spread around the base of Spitzkoppe and the neighbouring Pondoks which are enormous granite domes. This is a very popular camping area so we’ve left our visit until almost the end of Easter but it’s still very busy and we end up on an overflow site for the night and move to a delightful spot nestled between huge rocks for the next two nights. It’s a perfect spot to camp, or if would have been if an aggressive scorpion hadn’t decided to sting Jen on the toe while she was cooking dinner. Ouch, very, very ouch!
We can walk or drive ourselves to some of the interesting rock formations around Spitzkoppe but a large area of the park can only be visited with a guide which we arrange to do during the afternoon for a two hour tour. Our guide directs us to several sites with San rock art and tells us the stories about the art and life in the area when the paintings were made. After our tour in the park he takes us to the local village shebeen (bar) and we get a taste of village life – and he gets a lift home.
Now that Easter is over we head to the coast. The main tourist town is Swakopmund but a heavy mist frequently envelops the town until 11 or 12 am each morning so we camp at Sophiadale, a small settlement ten kilometres east. Orange dunes rise along the river which is lined by green trees, it may be desert here but market gardens and vegetable tunnels show that good use is made of the water flowing west from the Namib escarpment. Sophiadale is a pleasant campground. There is no grass but at least we have shade and Paul has an area where he can work which is important as we will be here for at least a week. We didn’t get the opportunity to get a few jobs done while we were in Windhoek because we were without our car. We’ve had some electrical problems with both the car and trailer but a nearby auto electrician is able to fix some incorrect wiring in the car and diagnose a faulty battery in the trailer which is easily replaced. We also need the wheel bearings on the trailer replaced so we book that job in to be done on the day we are leaving to avoid having to pack it all up twice.
Our sightseeing includes exploring the old German built town which has a colonial feel and lots of interesting buildings. Sunset over the Atlantic ocean provides a great view but warm clothing is a must as the temperature drops sharply at this time of year. It is also a great place to do some major food shopping as this will be our last opportunity for quite a while. We visit most of the camping shops in town and spend a morning looking around the art galleries, curio shops and bookshops.
The Dorob and the Namib Naukluft National Parks lie to the east of the coast and we could easily spend days exploring these but we settle for a half day drive. The landscape is barren and very stark but fascinating. Lichen cover huge areas and you need to get out and pour a little water on them to appreciate their colour. They survive on moisture from the mists which roll in from the ocean. The most amazing plant is the Welwitschia which can be up to 2,000 years old and which send tap roots deep into the desert in search of underground water as well as utilising the moisture from the mists. A huge specimen we see is more than 1,500 years old, amazing. On our return journey we have lunch at the farm and oasis of Goanikontes which dates from 1848 and which was used as a hideout by German soldiers during World War One. After lunch Paul briefly leaves his seat and one of the farm pets jumps on his seat to see if the crumpled serviette might be worth eating.
Another day we drive 30km south of Swakopmund along the coast to the town of Walvis Bay. The town itself is not very inspiring, it was a British colony rather than German and the architecture is predictably bland but the geography provides far more interest. It is a natural harbour and we drive south of the town to the salt works across a well made road past flamingos gathered in the lagoon. From here we decrease our tyre pressure and turn back north on the other side of the lagoon. We plow through the sand until we reach the lighthouse, now an upmarket resort although apparently empty at present. After a picnic lunch by the waters edge we return to Walvis Bay and then to Sophiadale via the inland route which takes us past huge sand dunes.
Our final excursion in this area is the most thrilling. We need a permit to visit Sandwich Harbour, 56km south of Walvis Bay and a guide is also highly recommended so we arrange both in Swakopmund. On the day of our visit we meet our guide in Swakopmund at 7.00am. For the journey south he travels with Jared and Jen and they take the lead. We quickly pass through Walvis Bay and turn inland at the salt works where the track gets far more interesting. Sometimes we are driving along dirt tracks between scrubby bushes and other time we are in soft sand skirting sand dunes and struggling to maintain our momentum. Jared and Jen have less power under the bonnet of their US Jeep but it’s been heavily customised and they have plenty of torque and very wide tyres which means they manage the track well but a few times we need to backtrack and pick a path along the edge rather than over a dune. The other vehicles which handle the tracks well are the donkey carts, not with the usual two donkeys we have seen elsewhere but with four abreast, their version of a 4×4 we think!
After an exciting drive we return to the coast just north of Sandwich Harbour and keep heading south along the beach. We certainly needed the guide to get to this spot as several times the correct track was not at all obvious and there are no signposts out here. The tide is on its way in and soon this section of the beach will be underwater and there are too many very high and soft dunes inland to make any other route possible. The lagoon at Sandwich Harbour at the end of the drive is used by tens of thousands of migratory birds at certain times of the year but we’re not here at the right time so we settle for enjoying the sand and ocean and the sight of the dunes cascading down to the sea. Our guide suggests we stop for just a short time so we can return before the high tide but we’re not in a hurry and have a picnic lunch to share with him so we take it easy for a few hours until the tide has reached its peak and begun to drop. While we are there we enjoy the sight of a few dolphins cruising by a short distance from the shore.
A couple of hours after high tide we begin our return journey. Because the tide is dropping we have the option of returning along the beach most of the way. It will save time and because it will be late by the time we get back to Swakopmund we head north along the base of the sand dunes just a few metres from the sea. Sometimes the sand is still too wet and soft so we need to find our way a short distance inland but eventually we approach the salt works from the southern end and our guide directs us through the confusing maze of roads surrounding the pans. Finally we’re back on bitumen, we reinflate our tyres and make it back to Swakopmund by 6.00 pm, 11 hours after we left.
Our sightseeing is done, fridges and storage drawers are stacked and most of our chores completed so it’s time to set out on the next leg of our trek. We pack up early and drop our trailer in to have the wheel bearings replaced. It should be finished by lunchtime and Jared and Jen have a replacement part for their trailer to collect mid morning so we should all be ready to go early afternoon. Not quite, when we arrive to collect the trailer they have discovered the brake pads need replacing or relining. There is no business in the area who has the pads in stock but they know a business in Walvis Bay who will reline the pads this afternoon if we take them there so it’s off to spend an afternoon sitting in the sun by the bay while we wait for the job to be done. By the time we return to Swakopmund with the relined brake pads it is nearly knock off time at the repair place so we leave the trailer there to be collected in the morning and spend the night in the roof top tent at a cold, misty and bleak camping area just north of town. We’re not holding up Jared and Jen though, their part hadn’t arrived as expected but finally arrives on the late afternoon bus from Windhoek so we are all finally ready to go by mid morning, less than a day after planned. Now we are ready for our trek into the remote north west. It will be good to be away from towns for a while!