SETTING THE SCENE
I first heard of Namibia when I was watching the world-famous sprinter Frankie Fredricks line up alongside Michael Johnson in the 200M final event during the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. Many years later I saw a picture of the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei, especially Deadvlei (the trees contrasted against the white bedrock with the red dunes in the backdrop) and I was simply blown away by the beauty. I had to see it for myself! When I recently found out that some close friends had recently moved to Namibia, I knew the time was right for me to visit and complete all the countries in Southern Africa (on that same trip I went to Lesotho by flying into Johannesburg and driving to Lesotho). When I got there, I was super excited to embark on this Journey to the Fabled Red Dunes of Namibia.
I also had plans to trek up the coast to see the Skeleton coast (littered by the many ships that ran aground, as well as the dunes that run right up into the ocean at Sandwich Harbor), but sadly I never made it (read on to find out why) so that will be left for another trip. Regardless, the dunes were the ultimate prize and that became the mission. Here is the journey…
LOCAL INSIGHTS: My good friends Arti and Dennis had recently moved to Windhoek (the capital of Namibia) so they provided some incredible insights of the country before I got there in terms of planning. This was especially key when my travel buddy had to drop out last minute because he tested positive for COVID before he departed. They gave me insights on places to stay, areas to prioritize and advise on things to do.
VISA: Thankfully in Namibia you can get a visa on arrival in the port of entry for U.S. citizens, so I was covered!
COVID PROTOCOLS: Remember when omicron swept the world in late November 2021. Well the first case was in Namibia and this led to a ban on all travel to and from Southern Africa including Namibia, South Africa and Lesotho. I had wanted to see those countries and was thankful that the ban was removed in early January. In Namibia you just need a PCR test taken 72 hours before arrival (which does make it a little trickier than 72 hours before departure especially for those who are traveling far distances).
DATA PLAN: T-Mobile for some reason did not provide coverage in Namibia so I had the option of purchasing a local SIM card for very little (thankfully my phone is unlocked so I could do that). I decided not to since I really wanted to unplug on this trip and just use the pre-downloaded maps off Google to get me around without use of data.
ACCOMMODATIONS: My accommodations varied greatly. Other then staying in the comforts of my friend’s house in Windhoek, I decided to stay at a campsite in the middle of nowhere (Bushman’s campsite about 15kms from Solitaire) and then get another lodge (Sossus Dune Lodge) in the national park in Sesriem so I could have early access to the Sossusvlei (if you are inside the park area you can head out to the dunes as early as 430AM while those outside have to wait I believe until 530AM). While it was expensive, relatively speaking, it was worth the access. I then had planned to stay in a small pension in Swakopmund then return to Windhoek. Note: There are tons of lodge options all over Namibia. That is the way to go. And they are each very unique. Also there are camping options which you can get with the 4×4 rental. Many people chose to camp, though I would not recommend it during heavy rainy seasons.
FLIGHTS: I took a direct flight from South Africa to Namibia on Airlink which was affordable. I believe they have 2 or 3 flight options a day from Johannesburg.
I arrived in Windhoek at noon and got through COVID and custom procedures quite quickly. I got cash from an airport ATM (oddly enough it dispensed South African Rand since it is pegged to the Namibian Dollar so it can be used interchangeably. Another vistage of South Africa’s occupation for most of the 20th century). As I exited the airport I was super happy to have arrived in Country 146 and the second of the Final50 destinations!
My friend sent me a taxi to the airport to get me and we embarked on the 45 minute drive to the capital (not sure why the airport was built so far away from the city).
After getting to my friend’s place I laid low and just caught up with them and they were nice enough to make me a local braai (BBQ), offering up some delicious springbok (a popular game meat).
I then called it a night since I was finally acclimated (over the jet lag) but in dire need of good sleep.
After getting the 4×4, I was on my way. First stop was a local supermarket to stock up on dried foods that I can eat during the course of the trip since I knew restaurants were not as readily available.
I decided to take a more scenic route for the drive south, most of which was on gravel but it was not as bad as I was to find out the next day. And boy was it scenic. Incredible topography and incredibly serene. I don’t know what came over me but that drive just mellowed me out in so many ways. I really needed it especially since doing the adventure alone was both stressful but exhilarating at the same time.
I think one thing that really made that drive and the drive the next day so memorable too was listening to an incredible audio book that I had just started while driving in South Africa. The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, follows the story of the meeting between Rumi and Shams Tibrizi, two sufis that change the way we see love. I know it sounds sappy, but it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment, on that drive, in that country, on that trip. Since I was starting my own adventure with Final50 in terms of the vlog and these blogs, I have been trying to make sense of my travels and how I am now, more than ever, better able to maximize the destination to make it a life experience (the motto of the Final50 project). But this rule really stood out for me and I want to share it with you:
“No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you will travel the whole wide world and beyond.” – Rule 9
It felt so right to hear this because oftentimes when you travel, you discover new things about yourself that you didn’t know. By pushing your limits of comfort, meeting new people, exploring things you have never seen/done, you start to change as a person, especially from within. If you are open to change within you will learn so much from the world around you and vice versa.
Sorry I digress, but that needed to be said. After a few hours of travel I finally got to my first destination, Bushman’s campsite. My friends knew the owner, he goes by the name Bushman (apparently he gave up a cush job, threw away his shoes and moved to the desert to live there with his family), and recommended the spot. I loved it. Middle of nowhere with incredible backdrops. While it was not filmed here, the recent version of the movie Mad Max was filmed largely in Namibia with similar backdrops!
Now what’s amazing about this spot on a cloudless sky and when the moon is full you can see something truly remarkable known simply as a ‘moon rising’ when you literally see the moon emerge from the horizon! And if there is a new moon and again its a cloudless sky, you can stargaze in one of the world’s clearest skies, since there is almost no light pollution. My luck the sky was beyond clouded so I could see neither.
Nevertheless, I wanted to at least catch some sort of sunset so I went for a walk and BAM I got caught in a rainstorm. It was such a rarity in the area. I had to duck into a cave for almost 30 mins (missed the sunset) to avoid getting drenched and in the end I had to just gun it back to the hotel since it was getting dark and apparently there are all kinds of nocturnal creepy crawlies out there!!
There was no food at the campsite since omicron really did a number on tourists so I ate some of my dry foods and called it an early night at 930PM. I have to say unplugging and being secluded was perfect to reset.
I woke up early around 5AM and eventually went for an early morning stroll (too cloudy again for a proper sunrise). Then I left the camp around 7AM. First stop was only 10kms from the campsite, which I accidentally saw on a map (though I was first told about it by another friend who had gone to Namibia) and that is the Tropic of Capricorn. The tropic lies on the 23.5-degree latitude south of the equator line. I had gone to the equator line in Uganda a few years back so wanted to make the stop while in Namibia.
I then drove to a really cool little town called Solitaire. This is going to have a lot of significance later on! Anyway, Solitaire is modeled to resemble a typical Route 66, old western motel/pit stop towns in the U.S. (circa 1950s) and its honestly awesome. The town only has a lodge, gas station, tire shop, cafeteria/coffee shop, and general store.
They also serve up this incredible apple cake/pie that definitely hit the spot for breakfast.
After gassing up I decided to drive to the Namibrand reserve desert area. The reserve was created by J.A. Brückner in 1984, who had bought a series of sheep farms in the area and consolidated it into a reserve that spans over 170,000 acres. Many of the super expensive lodges in the area give a percentage of their revenue to conservation of the area. The target was just to drive through to see the geography and take in the tranquility. I had planned to rush through the south, but when my travel buddy couldn’t make it, I decided to extend this part of the trip and make it the focus of the destination. I am glad I did because it just zenned me out completely up to that point.
I first stopped at the Kwessi Lodge, which was built just before COVID. But it is super nice and the staff exceptional (especially Beau). They took me on a tour of the premises and I was able to even see oryx (the national animal of Namibia) super up close in a water trough they had created for the animals. Definitely worth checking out and staying here if you are in the area!
I was then told by Beau that if I had the time to drive to the city of Maltahohae because due to the rains there was a very rare occurrence of Sandhf lilies blooming in the desert that only lasts a week or two. And oddly enough my friend told me how they too had heard of it from people years ago. So I called an audible and decided to go there, 2+ hours away. Hey that’s why traveling is all about, right!?
En route though I got my first taste of driving into huge water puddles, and frankly it was not fun. I mean figuring out which collection of water you could drive over and which you can get stuck, in the middle of nowhere, with no phone reception, and all alone is not fun at all. So after 1.45 hours of drive and with only 20kms to the town I came across a huge water puddle on the C19 and decided there is no way I could cross it even in 4×4 mode. So I decided to try another bypass road which again had an even large water pools making the road an impassable swamp. Crap! Today was just not the say to see the bloom.
On the way back I was able to stop and help a local family pump the tire of their horse-drawn cart (I had just learned how to use a tire compressor using the battery of the car to inflate/deflate tires, so I was able to put it into use!).
It was getting a little late and I knew I had a long drive to Sesriem to my lodge, so I decided to make it back before nightfall especially with the sky looking like it was really going to rain hard.
I got to the Souss Dune Lodge and checked in. The lodge is one of only a few in the park and its nicely designed. Its operated by Namibian Wilderness Resorts (NWR) and has most everything you need, with a solid restaurant. However, service and telephones had been down for a few days because of the rain so I could not check on anything for the next part of the trip. I still had time to drive a few kilometers away to make it to the Elim dune to see an incredible sunset before it started raining.
That night, I had a game dinner of oryx (I know, I was just admiring their beauty earlier in the day) and called it early since I was going to be up at 410AM to make it to the sunset.
I was out the door by 435AM and heading to Sossusvlei. It’s a 60km drive to the actual dunes and my goal was to climb the famed Big Daddy dune by sunrise. The timing was critical since the sun was rising at 625AM and it turns out you need about 1-1.5 hours to make it to the top. Now it was pitch black outside as I was driving over the last 7kms through the sand (I did not need to deflate the tires since the tires and the sand were still cold) but it was harder than hell trying to see where I was going and driving on loose sand.
I finally got where Big Daddy was located according to the GPS and decided it would be best to climb the dune barefoot since its soft sand.
I started climbing at around 610AM and wow it was no joke! I was trying to get higher and higher with each step you take, you end up taking one back because you sink in the sand. I tried to stick to the crest of the dune but I was super exhausted. Thankfully, close to the peak I stopped to see the sunrise and take it all in.
By the time I reached the peak around 643AM I was the only person I felt in the world, just me and the vast limitless desert with dunes as far as the eye could see. A slight desert breeze and a cloudy sky kept things mysterious yet ominous, serene yet powerful.
I stayed there for about an hour before I started seeing the next group of hikers start up the dune. What happened next was AWESOME! I decided to run down Big Daddy as fast as I could into Deadvlei, which can take someone a few minutes to do! So I strapped on my GoPro and went down as fast as I could. Exhausted, I almost fell on the way down — I think the slope angle is 45+ degrees! What an exhilarating feeling taking moon size leaps as if there is no gravity!
I got to the famed Deadvlei, and for a while I was all alone walking between the dead trees in this dry river bed, taking it all in. Magical. Even though the color contrasts were not as pronounced as they would be on a sunny day, the mystery and aura was incredibly striking! This is one of the oldest deserts in the world. Humbling is the force of nature and longevity of our planet.
After taking some pictures I decided to do my traditional run, right there and then, barefoot through the riverbed and between the dunes!
I drove out and did one last stop at Dune 45 so I could get a better angle of the whole river bed of the national park. And of course I ran down the dune again lol!
The drive back was fine since the road to Sossusvlei is paved but we got a riverbed crossing, and I got worried crossing it. So I got out as I had been told, crossed it to see that the water was below the knees.
Even though it was right at the knees, I held back until I saw a 4×4 rip right through it. So I followed suit and bam was back in business! My destination was Swapkop back via Solitaire on the C19 so I had about 4-5 hours of driving.
The road conditions on the C19 again were pretty poor since a lot of the gravel road was pot marked by water puddles, uneven surface, rocks, other debris from all the rain. Now this is where things went straight to S**T!
I got to the final crossing before getting to Solitaire (about 10kms from the town). It was a riverbed crossing I had easily crossed the day before. But when I got there, there was definitely more water. I remembered that two cars that were 5 mins ahead of me on the road were no longer visible so I assumed they crossed. Also I saw no detour signs, no warning signs and when I got out to inspect the crossing at least initially I thought it would be passable. So I got back in my car, waited a bit to make sure nothing changed, and slowly crept into the waterway. But as I entered the water surged from all the flooding upstream and my car was pushed deeper into the waterway and next thing you know the car was overpowered by the surge and I was floating in the middle of the waterway. The car got stuck and I was able to get out of the passenger side window and cross the river. I’ll save you the details but it was not something I would want anyone to experience.
I was able to eventually flag someone down who called for help in Solitaire and was given a ride back to the town to figure out a plan. Unfortunately the water level at the crossing, especially from the other side (my vantage point on the side I entered was slightly obstructed by branches) prevented us from towing it out that day. We would have to wait until the water levels went down.
There I was back in Solitaire for the night (the lodge there is actually really nice), hoping that the water would die down by the next day so I could get the car out. Of course the skies just opened up again and it started pouring!
I was like there is no way the river will go down. So filled with anxiety and with the electricity going out around 10PM I was left with little choice but to try to sleep. And so I did. Grateful to God I was not hurt. I remember listening to the Forty Rules of Love, which said:
“It is easy to be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.” – Rule 7
That couldn’t be more true for my situation.
I woke up to the news that even though it had rained all night, the river had gone down!! Don’t ask, I have no idea where the water went since about 3 inches came down just that night. The owner of the lodge had a bunch of different machines, one of which was an excavator/tractor and we used that to get the car out. What luck, thank God!
I then had to get a tow truck to tow me 5 hours back to the capital. I used the time to learn more about Namibia from the driver, Rudolph, who told me that he loved his country because of how peaceful it is.
Since Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 (formerly it was South West Africa), it had remained relatively peaceful under the majority rule of the SWAPO party. Yep always learning new things even on bizarre occasions! After making a police/accident report en route back to Windhoek, and dropping the car off with the agency, I finally got home. My friends were incredibly kind by welcoming me back with a home cooked meal.
In retrospect so much could have gone wrong, it could have been so much worse. But I have to believe that if you are a good person, with good intentions God will be compassionate and help you even when everything around seems so dire. AlhamidAllah.
On my final day my friends took me on a game drive in a local reserve, Okapuka Reserve, just outside of Windhoek. I couldn’t wait to see the animals, especially the rhinos which I have never seen outside of a zoo.
I then did a walk around Windhoek. I passed the city’s famous church (most Namibians are Lutherans because of former German occupation).
And the parliament.
As well as the Namibian Independence Museum that was built by a North Korean firm.
Finally I walked by the fortress (Alte Feste), one of the oldest buildings in Windhoek built by the German occupiers and now the National Museum of Namibia.
After saying good-bye to my friends, I drove to the airport and departed back to Los Angeles via Frankfurt.
For those who were wondering what I had planned for the rest of the journey, here it is: I was planning to stay in Swakopmund and take a tour of Sandwich Harbor the next morning. Then drive along the Skeleton coast stopping at Henties Bay to see the Zelia shipwreck, then to Cape Cross to see the seals. Had I had even more time, I would have maybe gone on a journey to see the Eduard Bohlen wreck in the middle of the desert south of Walvis Bay, then drive north to see Spitzkoppe for some incredible rock formations. And if I had even more time I would have gone way way south to Lüderitz and Fish Canyon (one of the largest canyons in the world). Basically there is SO much to see in this beautiful land.
But nevertheless this Namibia trip really moved me. It stood as a testament to Final50 motto: Make the Destination a Life Experience. Sometimes you can’t intentionally create life experience, they just happen to you. How you react and what you learn really becomes a life experience that will help you grow from within.
The beauty of Namibia’s deserts were truly mind blowing and courtesy of the people unforgettable. I still remember the police officer who personally walked me out of the station saying to me “Don’t let this accident affect your impression of our country. Please come back and visit us.” He’s right and God willing I will. So much to be grateful for. And who knew I would get such life lessons from just one destination.
VOIP CALLS: If you don’t have cellular data I would highly recommend that you download a VoIP service like MagicJack (about $3.99 per month) or Google Voice (free) so you can make toll free calls to the U.S. especially for logistical issues (you can also make paid calls but you should put credit on your VoIP provider). This helped me for example when I needed to call my insurance provider.
AUDIBLE: On long drives download an audible. If you listen to the right one, the audiobook will be later inextricably tied by memory to the travel destination and can certainly enhance the experience overall. I remember how this was very much the case when I listened to Shantaram while driving all over the southwest of the U.S. and more recently listening to the Forty Rules of Love while driving into the deserts of Namibia.
PORTABLE COOLER: On long drives in more remote areas you may not have a chance to get food so its good to have dry (non-perishable) food with you alongside bottles of water. This can easily be placed in a portable, foldable cooler (like a cooler bag) where you can store the food and keep it cool for the majority of the day.
If you made it this far, you are hopefully loving my Final50 journey. Make sure to check out the blog from this southern African trip to the Kingdom in the Sky, Lesotho.
Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next journey!