While on a business trip a few years ago, my Mom had the opportunity to visit Namibia whose surreal landscapes left her awestruck. I listened intently, mesmerized as she shared about her experience driving through the Skeleton Coast, detailing what it felt like to witness the meeting point where the staggering sand dunes of the Namib Desert juxtaposed against the piercing blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a description that struck a major chord within me. After securing a killer deal on a flight late last year, my opportunity to visit finally came. Elated, I spent several hours combing through every blog, forum, and article online hoping to absorb as much information on the country as I could. Thanks to my research I found that, like all African countries, Namibia is extremely diverse – boasting a rich cultural history and a plethora of contrasting landscapes made up of deeply colored deserts and sand dunes, vast plains, massive salt pans, boulder-like hills and pristine beaches. Not to mention its friendly people, astounding night skies, and expansive wildlife.
Even though I was excited, my biggest concern about going was the distance. Who wants to spend more time in transit to a country than actually experiencing it? Getting to Namibia would be an adventure in and of itself. Atlanta to NYC: 2 hours. NYC to Johannesburg: 16 hours and 30 minutes. Johannesburg to Windhoek: 2 hours. Bringing my total flight time to a whopping 20 hours and 30 minutes. And that’s just one way. Once I factored in my very limited paid time off (woes of having a corporate day job), I began to doubt if going through with the trip made any sense. How would I possibly see and experience all that I hoped to in such a short amount of time?
Determined to see those landscapes my Mom spent years telling me about, I decided I was up for the challenge and would simply jam-pack all that I could into the ten days I would be there.
Though I had to quickly accept that Etosha National Park (a wildlife utopia and home to several threatened and endangered species) was completely out of the question, I was happy to set my sights on exploring Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and maybe, just maybe, Kolmanskop. So in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, I opted for a self-drive as opposed to a guided tour. While I’m not against guided tours, I am against the idea of traveling with large groups of people; especially when we’d all be cramped closely together in a small space for long periods of time. I guess you can blame it on my introversion? In my mind, a self-drive would give me the privacy and freedom to move through each city at my own pace without the social demands that traveling with a crowd would present. I knew my choice to venture out independently would be challenging, but it would be worth it if only to afford me the flexibility of changing or rerouting my itinerary at any given time. Win/win, right? Not particularly.
Through all my research, I became aware of quite a few things: it would be fairly easy to rent a car from the airport in Windhoek, I would have to drive on the opposite side of the road (steering wheels are on the right side in Namibia), and I was prepared to be extremely cautious when driving on the gravel roads outside of major cities. What I didn't realize, however, was that most cars in Namibia are manual (which I have absolutely no experience with) and how unrealistic it was to think I would be able to safely drive long distances while still suffering from jet-lag; a major oversight that seems quite silly in hindsight. It wasn't until I actually arrived in Windhoek that I came to my senses and accepted that I would need to either hire a driver or succumb to a guided tour. Lucky for my sister and I, one of the Hertz reps took pity on our unfortunate situation and suggested we hire an independent driver, Thomas Mpande for the job. What a relief! Thomas would not only become our driver, but also our guide, friend, and the most integral resource for us throughout our stay. Finally sorted, we were able to start our Namibian journey.
Our drive was filled with unique photographic opportunities and the lonely winding desert roads we drove along were the charm that made the long distances between each destination masterful. What a delight it was to have a front row seat to watch as all sorts of wildlife casually went about their daily rituals. To see the Namib’s shifting sands, mountains and gravel plains extend the entire length of the horizon, right from the comfort of our car, was a sight for sore eyes. As I saw and experienced one iconic landscape after the other, it was difficult not to feel like I was living within one of the many magazines and coffee table books I’d read beforehand.
When planning my trip, I noticed there was a plethora of hotels available to choose from, but because I don’t particularly enjoy staying in hotels (I find them somewhat impersonal and generally too expensive), I chose to stay at camp sites and lodges instead. A decision I'm very happy I made because they ended up fitting my budget much better, while also providing me with better opportunities to connect with locals in more organic ways.
- Windhoek Game Camp (read a more detailed description of my experience here) was my introduction to what to expect from accommodations in Namibia. A tough act to follow, I would highly recommend spending at least one night at this exceptional family owned establishment for a great glamping experience and an opportunity to interact closely with the wild, yet social giraffes that live on the property. Be sure to stop by a grocery store beforehand and stock up on food because you will be expected to prepare your own meals – though they’ll be kind enough to gift you a bottle of champagne upon check-in (at least they did for me).. I was very happy to find they had their priorities in order, lol.
- Staying at Namib Naukluft Lodge was an experience unlike any other. Though a ways outside of the actual Namib-Naukluft National Park (where major attractions like Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are located), staying at this lodge is one I would recommend mainly because we had the choice to experience both a “Soft Adventure” camping experience and a moderately luxurious one. Perfectly isolated, the lodge granted me the opportunity to sleep directly under the powerful magnification of the crisp desert sky. With no pollution and endless unobstructed stargazing views, I woke up at one point during the night and was lucky enough to catch a shooting star – a moment I will not soon forget. While in the standard rooms more centrally located on the property, I would wake each morning to the sound of chirping weaver birds nearby and watch as springbok, baboons, oryx, and kudu roamed in the distance as I ate my breakfast. UT's pretty safe to say it all felt very dream-like.
- If you couldn't already tell, I'm a big fan of places that are slightly isolated. Desert Breeze was no different, located just outside of Swakopmund city. What attracted me most to this particular place was the promise of remarkable views. Overlooking nothing but the exceptional sand dunes nearby, this lodge is sure to deliver a unique and peaceful environment paired well with modern and comfortable décor. After spending the day exploring the beaches and desert, this place is suited perfectly to unwind in solitude.
Overall, driving through Namibia was one of my most memorable trips to date, leaving me just as awestruck as my mother had been years before. Despite never making it to Kolmanskop, I was able to visit all the other cities on my wish list. I couldn't think of a better way to spend ten days - even if that means I'm now left to eat Top ramen noodles and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for the next few weeks while my bank account recovers.
P.S. – Choosing to shoot most of my trip on my manual camera was a major risk. What a relief it was to see how the images turned out once I was back home and the film was developed. I can’t begin to imagine how devastating it would have been to be go all the way to Namibia only to come back and be stuck with black blobs of nothingness as memories instead. I’d like to think my risk paid off :)
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