The past week in Namibia has been fascinating, fast-paced, and challenging on many levels – scorching hot temperatures, sand dunes, strong wind, and amazing desert people, plants, insects, and animals!
Jokingly, Namibian locals call the undulating movement of a safari truck over the rough terrain and sand dunes an “African Massage”. There is so much territory to cover, we’re moving, moving every day with constant change and so many new places and things to see and learn. Some days I wake up and can’t remember where I am.
Unlike solo travel where you set your own pace, being part of a safari group is an altogether different experience. We added two more safari members yesterday – Carlos and Teresa from Lisbon Portugal. They are big fun. The group had dinner together last night in Swakopmund at popular Tug Restaurant and laughed so loud some of the other dinner guests were staring at us. The group is off early tomorrow morning headed inland for Khorixas.
Namibia has extremely interesting history – too much to write about in a travel blog. However, one historical fact is that Germans have major involvement in the country and continue to make up a large part of the population today. In the late 1800s, Namibia was a German colony called German South-West Africa.
After World War I, the League of Nations mandated South Africa as Namibia’s administrator. Following World War II, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly started a Trusteeship bringing former German colonies back to Namibia under UN control. Legal arguments about control of Namibia officially ended in October 1966 when South-West Africa (Namibia) came under the direct responsibility of the UN.
Today there is still strong German influence and history in Namibia. German businesses are everywhere and throughout the desert you see old rusty German trucks and cars deserted after the war.
The Namibian War of Independence lasted from 1966 to 1990. It was a guerrilla war where Namibian nationalists and others fought against the apartheid government of South Africa. Namibia won independence in 1990.
The Orange River
Early on our third day of safari we traveled from South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains through the Northern Cape and Namaqualand. Big blue skies and incredible scenery accompanied us throughout the very hot day. Temperatures were in the 100s but it was pleasant inside the safari vehicle with its wide windows allowing ample circulation.
We stopped in Springbok to gather last-minute supplies and continued on to the border where we left South Africa behind and entered Namibia. I dread border crossings but the Namibian crossing was uneventful and we arrived at our safari cabanas overlooking the Orange River in time for a swim before dinner.
The Orange River creates a natural divide between South Africa and Namibia. It’s the longest river in South Africa and was called the Nu Gariep (Great River) by the native Nama people. Dutch explorer, Colonel Robert Gordon, named it the Orange River in honor of William of Orange. A popular local belief is that the river was simply named because of its orange color.
Before merging with the Atlantic Ocean, the Orange River flows from the Drakensberg Mountains in Lesotho west through South Africa to Alexander Bay.The landscapes along the river are dramatic and beautiful, including rough mountainous terrain and never-ending fields of sand dunes. The river doesn’t run through major cities but it plays a crucial role in South Africa’s economy by providing water for irrigation and hydroelectric power.
The Orange River is responsible for diamond deposits along the coast of Namibia. “For millions of years this river acted as a transportation system that took diamonds from volcanic pipes within Kimberley South Africa out into the ocean. From there, currents carried the diamonds north where the surf caught them and deposited them in the Namib dune fields.”
The scenery we passed reminded me of the Chilean Atacama.
Fish River Canyon
We left our cabanas early again and passed on a canoe trip down the Orange River. The area is experiencing severe drought and the water levels are low. Instead, we headed north for an early hike along the rim of Fish River Canyon.
Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in the southern hemisphere, only second to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Temperatures climb into the 100s, making an early morning start essential.
We enjoyed incredible canyon vistas throughout the hike while our guide, Boyd, provided insight into history of the native people and area. Namibia is an excellent area for solar energy generation. Its climate and terrain lend themselves to the up-and-coming industry and could give Namibia’s economy a needed boost.
“The canyon was not carved out by water erosion of the Fish River. The beginnings of the canyon started about 500 million years ago when a fracture of the earth’s crust resulted in the collapse of the valley bottom forming a broad valley running north-south. Southward moving glaciers deepened the canyon with more faults and erosion adding to the effect. It was about 50 million years ago when the Fish River started to cut its way along the valley floor. The fault accounts for the gorge-like channel and hot sulfurous springs in the area.”
The area is home to a variety of large animals, including herds of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, small groups of kudu, oryx, and smaller antelope like springbok, impala, and klipspringer. Since baboons live in the hills surrounding our lodge, guests must keep their windows and doors closed to prevent unexpected visits.
Some species of birds in the area include black eagles, rock kestrel, rock pigeon, and yellow-rumped eremomela. In the canyon herons, cormorants, and kingfishers fish in the river. Another interesting bird is the kori bustard, Africa’s largest flying bird.
We also saw ostrich in the open plains above the canyon. It’s possible to hike down into the canyon – considered one of Africa’s toughest hikes. The five-day, self-guided hike occurs only when it’s cool (May – September).
After the hike around the Fish River Canyon rim we enjoyed lunch overlooking the canyon and then made our way back to the lodge – Ai-Ais pronounced ‘eye-ice’ – for the night and a soak in the hot springs at the resort. The outdoor pool was too hot for swimming but the two indoor pools were fantastic.
The oasis area surrounding the lodge was exquisite with a variety of desert-like trees and vegetation. I spent some time sitting by the outdoor pool enjoying the vistas and birds. The area is great for rejuvenating the body and soul. It has mellow vibes.
Ai-Ais means ‘burning water’ in Nama, referring to the sulfurous thermal hot water springs at the bottom of the mountains at Fish River Canyon’s southern end. It’s been some time since I experienced such a dry climate. The heat is extreme but it’s a comforting environment. The hot springs were used by German military troops as a base camp during the Nama Uprising.
The next day we headed to Namib-Naukluft National Park, one of Namibia’s greatest geographic wonders. At 19,300 sq. miles it’s one of the largest parks in Africa. The Sossusvlei desert region has enormous sand dunes and surreal scenery.
Animals that live in the park include snakes, geckos, strange insects, hyenas, gemsbok, and jackals. The cool ocean mists that come from the Atlantic and occasional rainfall sustain most of the Park’s life. Fog is brought in by the winds that also aid in constructing the Park’s gigantic sand dunes. The orange hue indicates the age and the amount of iron deposits in the sand. The color changes over time when the iron oxidizes.
The Namib-Naukluft’s Dunes are the highest in the world. Famous Dune 45 peaks at over 170 meters (560 ft.). The Park includes Sossusvlei, an enormous clay pan in the center of the Namib Desert renowned for its tall, red dunes that create a massive sea of sand.
The Park assigns each dune a number creating an easier navigation system for travelers. “Big Daddy” is the name of the tallest dune. This magnificent dune is between Sossusvlei and Deadvlei and at 325 meters (1,067 feet) it dwarfs the other dunes.
By coincidence, Dune 45 is 45 kilometers (27 miles) from Sesriem Canyon. Sesriem means ‘open space’ in Nama. The ‘Namib’ name progressed, eventually forming ‘Namibia’ meaning the ‘land of open spaces’. Sesriem Canyon was created by the forces of the Tsauchab River which chiseled the canyon out of grainy rock throughout the past 2 million years.
During the uncommon rainfalls in the Naukluft Mountains, the Tsauchab River evolved into a rapidly strong current of water. Over the years the canyon became what it is today – one kilometer long and about 300 meters (1,000 ft.) wide.
“The water that pools in certain areas of the canyon quenches the thirst of a wide choice of wildlife who have adapted to living in extraordinarily dry settings. Sesriem is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘six belts’ and was named after the early explorers and settlers who fastened six belts together to lower buckets down into the canyon to retrieve fresh water.”
We began our day with a hike up Dune 45. It’s necessary to start early as hiking the dunes after 12:00 pm is very difficult because of the heat. I made the climb and found hiking in the red sand a challenge. Later we hiked in Sesriem Canyon.
One of the most ancient deserts in the world, the ancient Namib stretches over an area of about 35,000 miles along Namibia’s Atlantic Ocean west coast. The Desert is known as the second oldest desert in the world (beaten only by Chile’s Atacama).
The desolate Namib receives less than ten millimeters (less than half an inch) of rain per year and is almost completely barren. The Namib’s vivid scarlet dunes are some of the tallest in the world reaching heights of over 3000 meters (9,800 ft.). Unbelievably a wide choice of fauna and flora including extraordinarily unusual species of plants and animals survive only in the Namib.
That evening I joined four Dutch tourists from another lodge for a sunset flight over the dunes in a small airplane – five-seater plus pilot. The vistas were unbelievable but it was difficult to get good photos and not sure I identified many dunes. Nevertheless it was a great experience. The young pilot provided some narrative on the landscapes below but the cockpit noise made it difficult to hear him.
More as time and Internet access permit….