After finishing up in Tanzania, it was time to move on to southern Africa. We’d already been to South Africa and Zimbabwe a few years ago for our honeymoon, so we opted to visit new places this time around: Namibia and Botswana. We used a tour operator (we ended up sort of hating him but more on that later) to help us organize and book a 20 day self-drive trip split between the two countries. This post will focus on the Namibian half for the sake of keeping it a reasonable length, the next post will focus on Botswana. [NOTE: I’m making a point of mentioning our hotels at each stop because 1) it helps draw a map of our route and 2) most of our hotels were quite nice and we’d fully recommend them.]
Day 239: Three flights and two layovers later, hello Namibia!
As I briefly mentioned at the end of the last post, traveling between African countries, even between big cities in each country, isn’t necessarily easy or cheap. There don’t appear to be ANY direct flights between Dar es Salaam and Windhoek, so a layover was unavoidable. I’m not sure if it was the time of year or just bad luck, but even the 1 layover flights were way too expensive–and there wasn’t anything that was strictly oneworld operated (something we try to stick to for the sake of earning miles consistently under the same accounts). In the end, we settled on a 2 layover route (stops in Malawi and Johannesburg) for the undeniably cheap price of €497 (TOTAL). 🤗 I at least managed to find a lemon tart in the J-burg airport–dessert fixes everything. We landed in Windhoek after dark, so we headed straight for our hotel (Olive Grove Guesthouse) and passed out soon enough.
Day 240: Are we in Namibia or Germany?
After a quick breakfast, the first task of the day was to pick up our car for the trip. Per the recommendation of our tour operator, we went with a big 4×4 2-door Isuzu with a closed truck bed and 2 spare tires. In retrospect, the only thing I would change is making sure we got a car with a snorkel, but that’s because of the issues we encountered in Botswana…more on that disaster later. The truck was stick shift so poor Ben was in charge of driving the entire time–doable but would certainly be nicer with two drivers to share the responsibility. [He had grand plans to teach me while on this leg of the trip…he managed to get me in the driver’s seat once and after I figured out how to get the car to drive 3 feet, I considered it a success and quit while I was ahead.]
We had to sign all kinds of waivers probably pledging our life in exchange for the truck should anything happen, and on the road we went. First stop was the grocery store to stock up for the trip–while most hotels would be providing breakfast and/or dinner, we would have to handle lunch on our own most days and were expected to be in the middle of the desert, so on-the-go non-perishables were top priority. Shopping in a foreign country is always an interesting adventure (from not recognizing most brands to not being able to even read the ingredients) and Namibia was no different, but mostly because as I walked around the store I thought to myself, “Are we in Namibia or Germany?” Maybe you knew but I sure didn’t: apparently Namibia was once upon a time a German colony (from the 1880s until the end of WWI, after which it was controlled by South Africa, which was part of the British Commonwealth). Despite the fact that it hasn’t been controlled by Germany in a long time, Namibia still has a very heavy German influence and it’s easily noticed in simple places like the supermarket, where half of what you see has a German name or is a German brand. All very interesting and unexpected. In the end, we left with a good haul of food that should last us a while and off we went.
It was a 4.5 hour drive to our first stop: Sossus Dune Lodge. The drive itself was pretty uneventful, though the landscape and views were really interesting.
We made it to the hotel in the later afternoon, just enough time to settle in before dinner and enjoy the sunset. I’ve spent very little time in the desert throughout my life and it was sort of surreal to be in such a dry, (mostly) flat terrain with essentially nothing to see and no one around except for your fellow hotel guests for miles and miles.
With basically zero light pollution, this might be the most perfect place in the world for stargazing. It’s not something I’m prone to wax poetic about, but the clarity of the stars and milky way was a bit mind blowing.
Day 241: My Mount Everest
We got up at an ungodly hour the next morning so we could reach Sossusvlei before it’s so hot that you’d probably pass out trying to climb the dunes. It was a tad freaky to be driving when it was so pitch black and there’s risk of animals popping out of nowhere, but it was totally worth it (the sun really does become unbearable later in the morning). We made it to the dune area just after sunrise and picked a reasonably tall one to climb (not Big Daddy since quite honestly we couldn’t figure out which one it was…I mean really, how am I supposed to tell sand piles apart?). Right before we got started, I thought I’d check out the bathroom since it’s not like I can pop a squat on the sand dune if I get the urge to pee…I regretted that decision immediately:
I suddenly didn’t need to pee. My advice? Pee ANYWHERE else.
And onto the dune climbing we went! We had asked an employee at the hotel how long she thought it would take the climb and she said it took her about an hour, admitting that she wasn’t particularly fit. That felt like a solid goal for me to aim for and it’s pretty accurate to how long it actually took me (maybe just 10 minutes less, mostly because I felt like I needed to catch up to Ben). Ben, of course, was faster than me–it took him around 30 minutes. I won’t sugarcoat it: climbing one of those dunes is a form of torture. It’s hot as hell (even though the sun has only been out for maybe an hour), there are zero clouds to protect you, you sink further into the sand with every step you take so you basically feel like you’re not moving, AND walking along the dune’s spine (the recommended approach) is NOT easy–you’re constantly balancing yourself to make sure you don’t topple over to the side. But…was it worth it? (Regrettably) Yes. First off, you feel like a boss once you get to the top (after you stop hyperventilating). Second, the view is pretty damn spectacular.
We sat up there for a little while, partially so I could regain my breath, partially so we could enjoy the view we’d worked so hard for. But ultimately we needed to head down pretty soon to avoid getting heatstroke. Everyone says that coming down is the best part and I guess it was fun, but I was so scared about toppling face down that I didn’t run down the dune to get the real rush of it. Oh well. It took a little while to get down and get the splinters out of our feet but eventually we were on our way out (as tons of people were arriving and all I could think was–you’re all gonna pass out from the heat, GOOD LUCK). We did notice a funny little phenomenon (funny only because it didn’t happen to us!): stuck non-4×4 cars everywhere. Once you’re off the main road to Sossusvlei, there’s still a ways to go until the dunes, so you can either wait for the 4×4 shuttles that run regularly or you can drive your own car. But beware! If your car isn’t a proper 4 wheel drive, you will most certainly get VERY stuck and be forced to abandon your car on the spot until someone can pull you out later. Not so fun!
Up next: Solitaire Desert Farm. This was a much shorter drive, only a couple of hours, so we weren’t in a rush. We arrived around midday and had plenty of time for some tanning and pool time (I use the term “pool time” loosely since I never got in the pool–the water was arctic cold and I was afraid I’d go into shock if I went in). Solitaire itself is a teeny little town without much to do but it’s apparently the only place to stop for food and gas between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay (our next stop) so it’s often a required stop between the two destinations. What do I remember about Solitaire besides the cheetahs (next day)? This rain chart:
As we were still in the middle of nowhere, the lack of light pollution meant another gorgeous night sky:
Day 242: Cheetah time!
Aside from being a good pitstop for food and gas along your route, Solitaire is also known for their cheetah sanctuary. The story behind this place is a bit sad, but the animals are well taken care of and the money from tours they provide ultimately goes towards food for the cheetahs, so it’s a worthy cause. From what I remember, the background goes as follows: many years ago, a local man ended up killing a wild cheetah that was in the area and killing his livestock. That cheetah had a baby with her, so the man kept the baby cheetah as a pet and raised her. While adorable, that poor cheetah never learned how to hunt or live on her own, so by default she has to remain in captivity for the rest of her life or she’ll die soon after being released–killed by drought or starvation or perhaps attacked by another animal. This man decided it would be a lovely idea to let her breed and she ended up pregnant…later birthing 7 pups in a single litter. In the wild, the vast majority of these pups would have died–sad but necessary, as one mom simply can’t take care of 7 pups. In captivity, all of these kiddos have survived. 😳 Well, I’m not sure if it was before she gave birth or after, but the Namibian government (I think?) ended up taking the cheetahs away from this guy and started this conservation center to keep them safe. Because the pups were born to a mama with zero skills (harsh but true), they also aren’t the brightest of hunters and thus have to be kept in captivity for their lifetime as well. All of them have thankfully been sterilized (or they would have just mated with each other! The genetic ramifications are scary to consider.) and they’ll live out their lives being fed and taken care of until they die of natural causes. It’s not fun to think of these beautiful creatures in captivity, but really it’s what’s best for them–to let them out to fend for themselves would be cruel. While the story is a tad depressing, these pictures sure aren’t:
After a cat filled morning, we headed off to our next stop: Atlantic Villa Guesthouse in Swakopmund. The drive out there was another long one (~3.5 hours) and the end was sort of jarring when you’re looking around and it’s all very dry desert and then BOOM–there’s the ocean! I’ve never seen anything like that and it was a bit disorienting at first, but very cool. We had a relaxing dinner at an oceanfront restaurant and then a quiet night in.
Day 243: Who knew seals were so stinky?
After an early breakfast, we headed to Walvis Bay (just 20 minutes south along the coast) for a boat tour. We went with Laramon Tours per our tour operator’s recommendation and we’d recommend them as well. The weather was gloomy and it was cold out, but we had a great time anyway. The seals and pelicans in the area know that the captains will give them food if they stop by for a little show and tell, so we had more than one furry/feathered friend pay us a visit. Very cute and had a few good laughs.
A nice relaxing day finished off with some yummy Indian food for dinner and a crappy movie on TV. What else can you ask for?
Day 244: Abandoned ships, ancient drawings, and petrified trees
Our next stop was Ugab Terrace Lodge, with a few stops along the way. First up: a short drive along the Skeleton Coast for some shipwrecks. [Beware: when you stop for these, there’s likely going to be a group of locals nearby waiting for tourists to sell stuff to. If you’ve got spare food or water, it’s not a bad idea to share with them.]
Next up: Twyfelfontein. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to rock drawings/carvings that are thousands of years old. It involves a proper walking tour with a guide (can’t remember how much but it’s pretty cheap), and it takes about 1 hour at a leisurely pace. There’s not too much clarity on how exactly the drawings were used, but the assumption is that they were a form of communication between tribes that lived in the area thousands of years ago, as most of the drawings depict animals from the area and other relevant figures.
Next stop was the Petrified Forest, home to now-petrified tree trunks that are 280 MILLION YEARS OLD…in other words, older than dinosaurs. Insane! This is again a relatively cheap and quick guided tour so that the guide can point out things you’d surely miss while just ambling around the desert.
When we finally got to our hotel for the night, the views did not disappoint:
And it wasn’t long before some pouring rain made its way over…
Day 245: Sally eats it. HARD.
After a quick breakfast, we got on the road for the relatively short drive to Etosha Safari Camp, our next hotel. It’s just outside of the Anderson Gate to Etosha National Park, on the west side of the park. After arriving, we had a quick lunch and then headed to the park for a self-drive afternoon safari, figuring we’d catch at least some animals–and indeed we did!
Something to note about this park is that it was quite muddy–it had been raining quite a bit, so there were deep puddles and thick mud everywhere. We weren’t worried–we had a 4×4. But, within 45 minutes or so, we ran into a small SUV that took an ill-advised route and found themselves very much stuck in a big mud pile. Being the good samaritans that we are, we decided to help, and fortunately a couple of other cars stopped too. While Ben and another guy or two talked about the best way to pull the car out, I decided to get out of the car for a stretch (a terrible idea given that we were in a national park and could probably get eaten by a lion but it felt stupid to sit in the car).
Suddenly, I took one step back and I was DOWN. HARD. Like a true moron, I didn’t look where I was stepping, AND I was wearing my completely worn-down Birkenstocks, so I stepped right on the edge of a muddy puddle and went face forward faster than you could say “oh shit”. Now, falling is usually just embarrassing, painful for the ego, but not so much for the body. This time? I thought I was going to die. With the way the hole was shaped (and its size), I fell hard enough and deep enough that I actually fell ON my torso, with my right-side ribs catching a lot of my weight. I couldn’t breathe for like 30 seconds and the pain was so sharp that I was convinced I had a real injury. What’s happening around me during all of this (mind you, it was all of like 1 minute)? Everyone just stared…confused and shocked and unsure of how to help. I’ll stop describing now and let pictures tell the story (because of course, we had the GoPro running on the dashboard so it was all caught on glorious time lapse).
And my embarrassment wouldn’t be complete without a GIF:
While the others worked on getting the other car dislodged, I focused on 1) breathing and 2) trying to get the worst of the mud off of my clothes with our bottled water supply so I wouldn’t stain the car seats. The shoes were a lost cause and went in the trunk for an attempt to salvage them later. Eventually we did get the other car dislodged, but mind you, the Brits (of course they were Brits) NEVER GOT OUT OF THEIR CAR THE ENTIRE TIME. After we freed them from their stupidity (I don’t know WHAT they were thinking taking that muddy road), they drove away with a meek thanks as I tried to remove caked mud from my pants. That’s the last time I do something nice for someone.
Needless to say, we left the park. Why tempt fate with more opportunities for disaster? We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening washing our clothes and shoes, and dinner involved MANY alcoholic beverages to heal my bruised ribs. There were not enough mojitos in the world.
Day 246: Etosha, take 2
Our next hotel was Mushara Bush Camp, not far outside the eastern side (Vin Lindequist Gate) of Etosha. The best way from point A to point B was through the park, plus I was determined to erase the previous day’s shambly events. Fortunately, take two went off without a hitch, though it was a tad sad on the animal front. Perhaps we’re spoiled (and to be fair, I think the recent rains meant animals weren’t motivated to come out and show off), but Etosha was a real disappointment. The park supposedly has some of the biggest elephants in the world but of course we didn’t see any–just my luck 😭
Given the lack of excitement, the drive through the park went pretty quickly and we made it to the hotel well before sunset. It was a really nice one!
A fancy yummy dinner and a couple of drinks later, we headed back to our room to hide from the mosquitos under our bed netting.
Day 247: The puddles begin…
Next stop: Fiume Lodge. [This was one of our less favorite hotels–not bad, just not as nice as most of the others and a bit cramped. But, if you’ve got to stop for a night in the area, it’s good enough.] It was only a 2.5 hour drive, so we made some stops along the way. First up was Otjikoto Lake, a natural sinkhole lake. The really interesting thing about this lake is that it was used as a dumping ground by the Germans during WWI before their surrender, and while some of the goodies (read: weapons, cannons, etc) have been recovered and are on display, some items are still down there–and of course crazy people can dive down for a look if they want.
The second brief stop was the Hoba meteorite near Grootfontein. It’s unclear when the meteorite struck Earth, but its impressiveness comes from its size–at 60 tonnes, it’s the largest known single-piece meteorite. They bothered to uncover it but they’ve not bothered to move it…it IS heavy after all.
With no more stops along the way, we finished up the drive to Fiume Lodge. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of “the death puddles”–large (long AND wide), dark, muddy puddles of completely unknown depth…maybe it’s a couple of insignificant inches, maybe it’s a few drown-worthy feet. You won’t know ’til you try it! Woo! It’s an adventure, right?! No. Not an adventure. We had NO clue how many more of these we’d see along our trip, especially in Botswana, and I’m pretty sure we both aged a few extra years in those few days. I know it sounds dramatic, but if too much water goes over the hood and into the engine, the car dies. The end. And we’re in the middle of NOWHERE. So needless to say, this was nerve-wracking. [In theory, our tour operator should have warned us about this and better prepared us. He didn’t. It’s why he’s on my permanent shit list.]
Days 248-249: Relaxation, finally!
An early breakfast to start the day and onto a loooong drive–about 5 hours–to Mobola Lodge. Given the length of the drive, we didn’t have time for pitstops except for a grocery run in Rundu, the largest town in the area and pretty much the only place to find food. Since our next hotel was self-catering (i.e. the rooms have kitchens and we feed ourselves), this was a necessary stop. It took way longer than it should have because we spent too much time trying to navigate around the city to a good grocery store, but it got done. We also got a car wash while we were in town because we’d been mocked at the last random police checkpoint for having a completely vile car…whoops. Not our fault though! Blame the mud!
It was nice to get to stay at the same hotel for two consecutive nights again, so we decided to take it VERY easy and spend time away from the car. There were some small national parks nearby but we figured we’d be seeing enough animals in the coming days that it was ok to skip them… #spoiled. In retrospect, it’s probably good that we did skip them because this area gets more rain than western/southern Namibia and everything after this was a muddy mess, so we probably would have been cursing the mud had we tried to drive anywhere.
Day 250: FYI, Caprivi Game Park isn’t really a game park.
For our last full day in Namibia, we needed to make our way to Caprivi Mutoya Lodge, which meant driving through the Caprivi Game Park strip. Like an idiot, I assumed this was a real national park, where you’d be able to take side roads and do some animal viewing…nope. The only way to drive in this area is along the main road, and it’s a paved highway with zero space to stop (and signs indicating that you SHOULDN’T stop). So, our plan to take animal viewing breaks along the way died and poor Ben was stuck with a boring 4 hour drive. So that it wouldn’t be a total waste, I found a nearby national park at the Caprivi strip with viewing routes called Mudumu National Park–it was only a slight detour and had decent reviews online. Why not, right? We stopped by the main office to pay the small fee for entry, and the ranger/guide there gave us a map and warned us of roads that may be out of commission due to flooding. We were optimistic with the routes she gave us but ultimately soon discovered that it was a flooded, muddy disaster. We kept hitting giant death puddles and still had the balls to drive through when in reality, we should have backed away and out of there. Fortunately we made it out alive without drowning the car, but we barely saw anything while we were there, so I’m pretty sure it’s not worth the trouble during that time of year–maybe less miserable when it’s less wet? Who knows. We were WAY over it after about an hour and just headed for the hotel.
It was a quiet night (there weren’t too many other guests) and we went to bed soon after dinner to avoid the mosquito madness (now that we were near the river, they were everywhere!).
Day 251, part 1: Hallelujah Botswana!
The next morning we got to appreciate the hotel views a bit:
And also spent way too much time thinking about this poor bird that apparently flew RIGHT into a concrete wall and, needless to say, died soon thereafter:
A quick breakfast and then we were on our way to Botswana–finally! We needed to make our way to Kasane, and the best route was to go via the land border in Ngoma. This was our second land border on the trip (first one was between Kenya and Tanzania) but the first one that we did on our own. As is logical, the first step is to stop at the Namibian border control post to officially exit the country and get your exit stamp, and then you get back in your car, drive a few hundred feet, and stop at the Botswanan border control post. This time you’ve got to stand in line, pay some fees, and get your entry stamp, but ultimately it’s pretty simple and quick. We finished up and jumped back in the car to head for Kasane and as SOON as we get back on the road–literally IMMEDIATELY–this is what we saw:
And if an elephant family crossing the road isn’t a good omen, I don’t know what is.
Next time: the Botswanan half of our self-drive (semi-insane) adventure!