Phil Clisby recounts a recent(ish) self-drive trip around Namibia, accompanied by his soon-to-be-wife and two-year-old son. In part one, he journeys from Windhoek to Sossusvlei via Erongo and Swakopmund
It’s hot. And I’m sweating profusely, despite the air con. A complete contrast to the freezing December weather we left behind in the UK; our winter coats thrown into the depths of the boot of our 4WD, to be left unseen for the next two weeks.
We drive out of Windhoek, heading for the wilderness of Erongo. After a couple of hours easy travelling on smooth tarmac we turn off the highway on to gravel, for our first experience of off-roading. We soon get the hang of it, skipping across the surface at a good lick, so as not to feel every bump and divot.
After 10km of dust flying in our wake – having belatedly remembered to close all the windows first – we reach the entrance to Erongo Wilderness Lodge. A sign informs us that the lodge is 800m up a very steep hill.
We take a deep breath, engage 4WD, slam our trusty steed into first gear and make our way up the slope at a speed that resembles that of a 180-year-old tortoise; the vehicle rocking as if we are on a boat, as we crawl up the somewhat uneven track.
On the rocks
The lodge is nestled between granite boulders in a secluded valley encircled by mountains. The view across the escarpment is, to use a cliché, breathtaking.
Our guide, Coolious, I’m delighted to discover is a fellow Chelsea fan. Even though he lives and works among this enchanting landscape, he tells me that, “spiritually, I live at Stamford Bridge”. He has already secured himself a sizeable tip.
He takes a group of us for a sundowner walk up a nearby hill. I marvel at the orange and blue Agama lizards that whip around the rocks, wondering why their colour scheme is so conspicuous. Surely it makes them a sitting duck (or should that be lizard) for predators. Then again, they are faster than Usain Bolt. Apparently the brighter the colour of the male, the more dominant – or randy – he is.
We tread carefully, avoiding the plethora of rock hyrax droppings. But their waste doesn’t go to, er, waste – hyrax poo tea is used as a cure for stomach cramps. I take Coolious’ word for it.
As dusk falls, there is a cacophony of snorts and a fear-inducing sound of scurrying. “What the hell is that? ” I scream silently. And then a flood of rock hyrax appears. They jump from rock to rock, then disappear from sight, some playing hide and seek, some keeping a watchful distance as if they are spying on us.
Coolious tries to teach us his clicking language. The local tongue involves four clicks, whereas the Bushmen use eight, a version that Coolious doesn’t understand, “especially if they’ve had a few drinks”, he laughs.
He then recalls how his grandfather used to hunt. “He would leave out bowls of wine, which the hyrax were a bit partial to,” says Coolious. “He then returned around eight hours later when they were rolling drunk and bashed them over the head with a walking stick.” You can’t beat those traditional hunting methods.
The next day, we set off on a self-guided walk, but my two-year-old son is still discombobulated from the long journey and the heat, so I run back to get his buggy. Unfortunately the track soon turns to sand, and our pushchair doesn’t have four-wheel drive. It’s heavy going, so we cut our losses and return to our verandah to soak up the noises of the wilderness and the seemingly endless view: the perfect place to chill.
The following morning we are up early for a walk with Coolious. We spot lovebirds in a tree, follow some baboons for a while and watch klipspringer bounding over the rocks. The klipspringers are a tidy bunch – they even have their own designated toilet area, whereas baboons crap where they like. There was baboon poo everywhere – a primate-made minefield for the unwary walker.
We chance across porcupine, baboon, kudu and snake (yikes) tracks – thankfully, we don’t follow the latter. When Coolious was young, he tells us, he stepped on some porcupine spikes and couldn’t walk for the next four days.
The porcupine is a tough nut, regularly breaking into the lodge’s bins, using their spines to break through the plastic surround. “They can also dig through or under anything,” he adds. It’s a thorny problem.
Sea and soap
We depart Erongo and head to Swakopmund, on the coast. The last stretch takes us through a white stone desert, the vegetation all but gone. We drive with our headlights on so other cars can see us through the heat shimmers.
Swakopmund is cooler (in both senses of the word) and we begin to acclimatise. We relax at the beach, building sandcastles and paddling in the sea. But not for long – the Atlantic is freezing.
We stroll around town in the evening and happen upon a huge Christmas tree outside a German sausage restaurant. It seems so out of place on such a balmy night. It’s strange to be experiencing Christmas in the sun. The restaurant, itself, is a prime example of the Germanic influence that remains in this former colony.
They are recording a South African soap opera at our hotel. We sneak a look at the filming and discover our room neighbour, who we’ve been exchanging pleasantries with, is one of the stars. I’m sure it’s enjoyed by millions, but it’s no Coronation Street.
We head into town, taking in the striking German architecture and spot a polite notice on the side of one building: “If your dog pisses on my wall, I will cut off its dick. Thank you.”
Mountains of sand
We drive out to Walvis Bay, passing many dunes on the way. A helpful sign informs us that there is ‘Sand’ in the area. Who’d have thought?
We take the gravel road to Sesriem, the gateway to the sand dune desert of Sossusvlei – a hugely enjoyable and very scenic drive. We stop for a break at Solitaire – a proper ‘one-Moose town’. There’s not a lot here, as the name would suggest – a couple of buildings, a petrol pump and some car parts, as far as I can see – but Solitaire is renowned as being home to Percy ‘Moose’ McGregor, a Scottish adventurer and baker of an infamous apple pie, which draws people to this tiny stopover point. The pie is indeed tasty.
We arrive at Sossus Dune Lodge in the late afternoon. Wow! A line of rondavels overlook the plains and, of course, the dunes. Springbok bounce metres from our verandah, while a bright orange sunset above the now silhouetted dunes is just sublime.
The alarm rudely awakes us. It’s 4am… 4am! We drive through the dark – narrowly avoiding several antelope and a hare, who runs out in front of us – towards Sossusvlei. The route is, unsurprisingly, sandy, and we get stuck a couple of times, managing to reverse out and carry on our way. We’re getting quite good at this 4WD lark now.
We are the first to arrive at Sossusvlei, and have the place to ourselves for a while, as the sun rises. The red sands stretch out before us, creating mountains in the desert. We follow the curve of the dunes with our eyes. Antelope play nearby. There’s even, unexpectedly, a sizeable waterhole, which has attracted several buck and some birdlife.
We climb the nearest dune, following the narrow ridge as it curves upwards. It’s hard going, especially as I am now carrying a toddler. The sweat drips down my back. I abort my route about halfway up, as the ridge becomes very narrow with steep slopes falling away on each side. Instead, I take the low road, leaving the boy to play on the slopes with his mum, before scrambling to the top – past a scorpion – on all fours. Panting heavily, I sit for a while. Huge red dunes to the right of me, eerie, hazy yellow ones to the left. The sun playing tricks with my mind, as it reflects off the surface.
Getting down was much easier, and takes just two minutes: sliding and tumbling in the sand, much to my son’s amusement.
We drive on to Dead Vlei. Trekking up another huge curving dune before plummeting down into the cauldron of petrified trees – a forest frozen in time, surrounded by the biggest dunes I’ve ever seen. The one known as ‘Big Daddy’ towers above them all. Again, I have the place to myself for a while. It’s just surreal.
Back at the lodge, the receptionist, Sonja, takes me to one side, and tells me our ‘VIP’ sunset nature drive will be with some members of the Ministry of Tourism. As if that wasn’t enough good news, on our return we will be whisked away for a private dinner, where (apparently) I will be proposing.
I have no idea where she gets this from (we’re already engaged), but in for a penny in for a pound, and I go with the flow.
“Do I want Champagne,” she asks. “No, Windhoek Lager will be fine,” I reply. She gives me a look, as if to say, “What sort of man are you?”
After dark, we are driven into the Sesriem Canyon for our ‘special dinner’, to be greeted by a walkway of lanterns that takes us to a table for three set up in the middle of the canyon, with a cot next to it should the boy fall asleep. Not to mention, the ‘Environmentally friendly basket’ containing a roll of toilet paper and some mozzie repellent that has also been supplied.
Executive chef Quinton and his three assistants cook us a gorgeous four-course meal in their mobile outdoor kitchen. Quinton chats to us throughout the meal – not really giving me any time to fake a proposal. A jackal wanders through the ‘restaurant’, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
Yet another surreal experience that Namibia has thrown up. There were plenty more to follow.
To be continued…