I recently took two weeks off to do our Explore Namibia Budget Camping Safari. Lead by two expert guides, our group of nine overlanders was in for a visual feast. We travelled from Windhoek up to Etosha, southwest through Damaraland to Swakopmund and southeast into the Namib Desert, before heading north again back to Windhoek. From game viewing at Africat and Etosha to the dramatic scenery of Damaraland, on to Swakopmund and the grand finale of the Namib desert, this is what I experienced on my travels.
Wildlife Wonders First - Up-Close with the Big Cats
Our trip started with an overnight stop at AfriCat where we got ridiculously close-up to a few cheetahs and a habituated leopard. Here the Big Cats have become unnaturally accustomed to humans and their trappings, enabling us to photograph them eating and napping in the intense heat, without the need for zoom lenses.
We were given a tour of the visitors' centre and an overview of the conservation efforts carried out here. The programs seem well run, carrying out respectable research and valuable rescue operations. Injured, orphaned or threatened animals are brought here from farms in the Okonjima area and cared for at Okonjima Nature Reserve. The rescued cats tend to remain in the relatively large enclosures for life. The cheetahs and leopards are fed carcasses and they are regularly darted for research and monitoring.
Though for me it was difficult to imagine these majestic big cats in confinement for the rest of their lives, it was an incredible opportunity to see the cats so close up in this safe haven.
On to Wild Etosha
From AfriCat we headed further north to Etosha, which completely exceeded my expectations. For me, the most exciting part of this Namibia safari was the game viewing extravaganza at Etosha Park. We saw countless African animals of all kinds on our game drives, frequently getting a close look at them, especially at the life-sustaining waterholes strewn across the otherwise dry habitat surrounding Etosha Pan. From tiny dik-dik and steenbok to massive elephant bulls and hefty rhinos – we saw a cornucopia of African wildlife over only a handful of game drives in our safari truck.
Because we visited in mid-October, the rains were yet to come and the park was ultra dry and dusty. The wildlife was compelled to cluster at the manmade and fed watering holes – a harsh reality for competing animals but excellent conditions for game viewing.
On the game drives our guide, Sam, was clearly experienced and very skilled at finding and spotting wildlife, which really shaped our game viewing experience. He seemed to know exactly where to go and when to catch the wildlife action. Thanks to his knowledge and extra effort it felt like we saw the best of the bush life in Etosha.
We got to watch a few herds of elephants with calves bathing, drinking and hanging out at the watering holes - a real highlight, especially at dusk when the light was spectacular.
Other highlights included watching a pair of exhausted lions mating (also at sunset), two rhino sightings and scenes of numerous giraffes awkwardly negotiating the water’s edge.
We saw a few baby animals (springbok, zebra and others), but not many as the herbivores only calve after the rains, according to our guide. Herds of zebras, impalas, springbok and wildebeest were part of the show and we also saw plenty of steenbok, dik-dik, oryx (also called gemsbok) and ostriches. Whilst not as plentiful we also spotted some kudu and hartebeest, along with a scavenging hyena or two.
The birdlife was also surprisingly impressive for such an arid environment, ranging from kori bustard to pale chanting goshawk.
Tips for Etosha:
- Take binoculars, even if you have a camera with a great zoom lens – it really improves your wildlife viewing.
- Keep hydrated and stay out of the sun as much as possible. I overheated quickly on the first day, which was draining and resulted in a headache. The sun baked down on us, even inside the truck with its large windows. A sunhat, sunglasses, drinking water and sunblock are all musts.
- Get out into the bush early. We had a fantastic group of people - everyone was up and ready to set off on the early morning drives on time. We managed to catch a lion returning from its nocturnal hunt full-bellied, along with other wildlife stirring in the cool(er) morning hours.
Reluctantly leaving Etosha’s menagerie of wild creatures behind we drove into the rugged Kunene region of northwestern Namibia. This is the most sparsely populated region of Namibia, which is itself one of the least densely populated countries in the world. With a population of fewer than 2.5 million people, it is said that Namibia is home to more seals than people. The sheer scale of the uninhabited space is astounding.
The acute absence of activity and the openness of the terrain hits you repeatedly. It's a good place to catch up with yourself and step out of modern civilization.
We found ourselves surrounded by gritty expanses devoid of human development, yet brimming with geological wonders. Travelling through miles and miles of seemingly endless, ever-changing landscapes featuring remarkable shapes and formations of rock, gravel and sand. The scenery consisted mostly of thirsty open plains, wide valleys and low hills stingily sprinkled with hardy plant life.
Our next camp was tucked away between the granite boulders and low mopane trees of Kaokoland. This secluded campsite falls within the Khorixas community conservancy area, encompassing a few simple abodes sprinkled across the orange sands, miles removed from urbanity.
The second leg of our drive through Kunene took us into the remote Damaraland area of southern Kunene. And again the geological imagination boggled - a rock lovers paradise. Traversing Grootberg Pass we headed for Twyfelfontein and on to our camp in the area. Mounds of rocky earth rise up in endless shapes and variations along the way - unassuming hills topped with rocks, massive mountains laced with diagonal rock strata and sleeping flat-topped ranges lazing across the horizon.
Twyfelfontein was an interesting spot. A rocky, arid valley marked by over 2500 San rock engravings, dating back as far as 6000 thousand years ago.
The camp near Twyfelfontein was nestled at the base of time-sculpted boulders towering over semi-desert plains where the famous free-ranging black rhino of Kunene are occasionally seen.
The sunset was sublime and the g&t's added an extra glow to the happy faces of our group of seven women and two (is it lucky?) men.
We had a fantastic group of people. It is luck of the draw and on this trip, I was fortunate to travel with an incredible bunch of people. We even had two 'mad' scientists (actually a wonderfully fun husband and wife pair of immunologists), two inspiring retired Canadian nurses and Swiss doctor who turned out to be half mountain goat when it came to galloping down sand dunes.
From Damaraland, we went on to spend two nights in the comfort of a clean and well-equipped guesthouse in Swakopmund town. Swakopmund is a pleasant and uncharacteristically orderly town by African standards. All of Namibia’s towns and cities were in fact surprisingly clean and tidy.
The jetty offers a pretty perch for sunset and the boulevard makes for a nice stroll. Swakopmund has some quaint shops, charming coffee shops and a well-stocked craft market. Those who went recommended the gemstone museum shop. For me, the most beguiling aspect of the town was its unusual locale, caught between sleepy sand dunes and the inhospitable Atlantic Ocean.
On our free day in Swakopmund, I did the boat cruise from Walvis Bay which was worth it just for the pelicans and dolphins. We were also dive bombed by seagulls and got to see more seals and some other seabirds. Oysters and champagne were served onboard which was a lovely treat and the local guide told us a bit about the marine life and the area.
The Namib Desert
Last, but not least, we headed into the Namib Desert, stopping at the Walvis Bay lagoon along the way to see the birds.
Leaving the coast we traversed gravel plains and rocky mountain passes, dipping down into dry riverbeds. Our route took us via Kuiseb Canyon, famed as the place where two German geologists lived with their dog for over two years during World War II.
We also stopped to take a closer look at the glittering rocks embedded with dazzling silver particles and towering succulents.
At the end of the day, we climb the dunes near our desert camp for our first taste of red dune panoramas and Namib scenery.
Next morning, it was up before the crack of dawn for our explorations in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. First stop – Dune 45, for the sunrise exodus up the most photographed and trudged-upon sand dune in Namibia.
Eight of our party of nine made it up said postcard-perfect dune and witnessed daybreak over the undulating ochre dunes and vast, sandy plains of the Namib. It was breathtaking – both the exertion of climbing and the dizzyingly pretty desert scenery.
After breakfast at the base of the dune, we rushed on to the vleis in an attempt to beat some of the hordes of other visitors.
We arrived to a packed parking lot with a surreal sandstorm whipping up around us. The sandstorm enveloped us, shrouding everything in a veil of pale grit like thick smoke. Despite the challenges of keeping sand out of your eyes, ears, mouth and nose the sandstorm made for a mesmerizing experience, arresting time and overpowering the senses.
We pushed through the misty upheaval of sands to Deadvlei. Stepping onto the vlei felt like entering another realm of existence, a silent vortex frozen in time. We walked amongst the dead tree stumps and branches crooked and gnarled, defying the elements as they stand on in lonely communion.
Gusts of wind intermittently sent blasts of sand and small stones flying across the vlei in snaking dry rivers – the only defence; to turn your back and brace until the wind dropped again for a short reprieve.
The Namib was simply spectacular. I could have spent days wandering around in the achingly quiet sea of sand dunes, soaking up the quiet scenes and the magnitude of the empty spaces.
Note to campers in the desert: zip your tent up properly (flaps and all) before you leave in the morning to keep the sand out and prevent the wind from blowing your tent down/away.
Our final day ended with a sunset walk and sundowners at Sesriem Canyon with a troop of baboons hovering across the chasm from us. The light was spellbinding as it filtered down into the narrow, rocky gorge – a magical finale to our magnificent journey through Namibia.
Tips for the trip:
Take a lightweight scarf or sarong to keep the sun off your skin and keep sand out of your nose. The truck is not air-conditioned and the windows need to be kept slightly open to maintain air-flow and prevent the dust from billowing up inside the vehicle.
I needed a bandana to stop my hair from buffeting my eyes and face constantly in the blustery truck. Thankfully one of the kind Canadians onboard let me use her headband for a stretch and it did the trick.
I took a pillow with me and although I felt a little silly with it, I was glad as it made the long drives more comfortable and allowed me to nap.
A bit of entertainment/distraction is welcome along the way so take a book (roads are bumpy though), Kindle, iPad, headphones or smartphone.
My biggest mistake on the trip was not enabling my data roaming beforehand which lead to a saga on the road, involving multiple lost sim cards and panicked loved ones. Bad form. Do yourself a favour and make sure that your roaming is activated and that you can use your phone in Namibia. You can also buy a cheap, local sim card in Windhoek before the trip departs.
The Himba village was the only activity that I did not enjoy and would recommend that you skip this one if possible. Be warned that you may be advised to leave a disproportionately generous tip at the end of the “tour”, which lead to group pressure to comply in our case.
The market stallholders can be very persistent and manipulative, so stand your ground and don’t be afraid to bargain as the prices start out drastically inflated, but the sellers are generally negotiable and approaching with a smile goes a long way! Most of the handcrafted curios and woodcarvings being sold in the markets appear to be mass-produced and factory made so don’t be fooled. Many of the salespeople and their goods, charming though they may be, are not even Namibian.
A few notes about the tour guides and tour company:
I definitely recommend this trip and the supplier that runs it. They were well organized and clearly experienced. The guide and cook were unflappable and very good at handling a group of tourists out of their comfort zones. The guide briefed us before activities, in digestible chunks, and offered interesting snippets of information along the way. He was always willing and able to answer questions. The cook was excellent and very pleasant but unfortunately did serve the vegetarian (me) a non-vegetarian meal along the way. I did point it out to him so hopefully, it won’t be a mistake repeated.
The equipment was generally in very good condition and the tents were spacious.
The vehicle was relatively spacious and comfortable, and most importantly proved reliable. The guide was extremely familiar with the roads, destinations and vehicle, inspiring complete confidence. It was a massive relief to tackle very rough roads in these deserted areas with an experienced team.
All in all the guides were professional and a pleasure to travel with. In addition to feeling safe and at ease, in good hands, I felt fortunate to have the two of them showing us their remarkable country.