In September and October 2017 my wife, Tibby, and I did a forty-four-day 6,500 km trip from Cape Town, through Namibia and back to Cape Town. In 1975 when I was a trainee accountant, I got a one-year secondment from the Durban office to the Windhoek office. Tibby joined me there and we travelled extensively in Namibia (then South West Africa). Tibby had not returned to the country so this was partly a trip down memory lane.
Day 1 Cape Town to Algeria, Cederberg Mountains 225km
We left our Cape Town holiday home on 17th September 2017 at about 13h00 and had an easy run to the Cape Nature camp, Algeria, in the Cederberg Mountains where we had rented a self-catering cottage for the night. The cottage was relatively new with a lovely view of the mountains which looked magnificent as the sun set behind us. A lovely way to start the trip.
Day 2 Algeria to Sendelingsdrift, Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park 833km
This was a long day of driving, mainly on good tar roads and finally on a good gravel road. We stopped for lunch at the Springbok Lodge and Restaurant which has probably had the same décor and menu for the last fifty years. During the flower season this is the place to go to find out where the flowering fields are. We checked into our self-catering cottage for two nights and had a braai overlooking the Orange River.
Day 3 Richtersveld 200km
The Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is in both South Africa and Namibia and sits astride the Orange River. This is one of the collection of Arid parks of SA National Parks. We spent the day exploring the park. We backtracked to the ARTP & RNP Gate and then travelled via Helskloof Pass and Gannakouriep Wilderness Camp to have a picnic lunch at Kokerboomkloof. We returned via Maerpoort, Akkedis, Halfmens and Swartpoort Passes. This is a stony, rocky desert of a park which is quite spectacular.
Days 4 and 5 Sendelingsdrift to Fish River Lodge 200km
We started the day by crossing the Orange River into Namibia on the two car pont.
A relatively easy drive, mainly of gravel roads brought us to Fish River Lodge for two nights. The Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in Africa, and features a gigantic ravine, in total about 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and in places almost 550 meters deep. The Fish River is the longest interior river in Namibia. It cuts deep into the plateau, which is today dry, stony and sparsely covered with hardy drought-resistant plants. The river flows intermittently, usually flooding in late summer; the rest of the year it becomes a chain of long narrow pools. All the public viewing points of the canyon are located on the eastern side. The Fish River Lodge is located on the western side. They run 4×4 trips down to the base of the canyon which take all day. I had participated in this expedition on a previous visit, but we did not do it this time. Instead we relaxed and enjoyed the views.
Day 6 Fish River Lodge to Luderitz 347km
The highlight of the day was the visit to Kolmanskop, ten kilometres before Luderitz. Kolmanskop is a ghost town. In 1908, a diamond was found this area. German miners began arriving, and soon after the German Empire declared a large area as a “Sperrgebiet”, starting to exploit the diamond field. Driven by the enormous wealth of the first diamond miners, the residents built the village in the architectural style of a German town, with amenities and institutions including a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, skittle-alley, theatre and sport-hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere, as well as the first tram in Africa. It had a railway link to Lüderitz.
The town started to decline after World War II when the diamond-field started to deplete. Hastening the town’s demise was the discovery in 1928 of the richest diamond-bearing deposits ever known, on the beach terraces 270 km south of Kolmanskop, near the Orange River. Many of the town’s inhabitants joined the rush to the south, leaving their homes and possessions behind. The new diamond finds merely required scouting the beaches as opposed to more difficult mining. The town was ultimately abandoned in 1956. We hugely enjoyed walking around the village.
Luderitz, itself, has little of interest for the tourist. In the evening we met up with the group that we would be travelling with for the next six days.
Days 7 -12 Luderitz via the desert to Walvis Bay 670km
The Namib-Naukluft National Park is 50,000 square kilometres in size and is the third largest game park in Africa, being just a little smaller than Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. It is two and half times the size of the Kruger Park. It extends for 600 km along the coast from Luderitz to Swakopmund. The current boundaries were created in 1986 when existing parks were added to parts of the ‘Sperrgebiet’, a diamond mining area controlled by De Beers. Wikipedia describes the park as follows ‘The region is characterised by high, isolated inselbergs and koppies (the Afrikaans term for rocky outcrops), made up of dramatic blood red granites, rich in feldspars and sandstone. The easternmost part of the park covers the Naukluft Mountains. More moisture comes in as a fog off the Atlantic Ocean than falls as rain, with the average 106 millimetres of rainfall per year concentrated in the months of February and April.
The winds that bring in the fog are also responsible for creating the park’s towering sand dunes, whose burnt orange colour is a sign of their age. The orange colour develops over time as iron in the sand is oxidized, like rusty metal – the older the dune, the brighter the colour. These dunes are the tallest in the world, in places rising more than 300 meters above the desert floor. The dunes taper off near the coast, and lagoons, wetlands, and mudflats located along the shore attract hundreds of thousands of birds. ‘Namib’ means “open space”, and the Namib Desert gave its name to form Namibia – “land of open spaces”.’ Access to the parts of the park that we were travelling in is by special permit or concession. We joined a group organised by the company, Live the Journey, who hold a concession to lead groups in the Park.
Our group was led by Len and he was assisted by two helpers (or sweepers) in the rearmost vehicle. There were ten guest vehicles mostly containing two people each. Besides us, there were seven vehicles from South Africa and two rental vehicles from Windhoek containing two German couples and the adult grandson of one of the couples. The South Africans were principally Afrikaans but as the language of the tour was English, they all kindly agreed to speak English. Radios had been fitted into all our vehicles so we could take instructions from Len and speak to the group.
Over the course of the six days we stayed within about twenty kilometres of the coast. About half the time we were in sand dunes and the rest of the time in flatter desert and along the beach. The prevailing wind is from the south, so the southerly slopes of the dunes are long whereas the northerly slopes are generally steep. We quickly got our first training in how to drive in the dunes. We had deflated our tyres to 0.8 bar. In most cases driving up the southerly slope was easy. We would then line up at the summit and one by one we would slowly drive over the ridge (scary because one lost sight of the route ahead) and then as the vehicle tipped to a 45⁰ angle we would allow gravity to pull us down the slope. A curious thing is the deep sound created by the sand collapsing around the wheels. It is important to keep the vehicle facing forwards. There is a danger that if the rear of the vehicle starts to pull sideways the vehicle might roll. If the rear starts to pull sideways the driver needs to slightly accelerate to pull the vehicle straight. Vehicles descended at different rates and occasionally would get stuck in the sand at the bottom, so it was important not to proceed down a dune until one of sweepers gave the go ahead. Alternatively, Len would be facing the dune from a distance away and would give the all clear by radio as he watched the vehicles descend. Once we cleared the bottom of the dune we would normally also advise, over the radio, that we were clear.
The dunes are often in waves so, at times, the vehicles might be spread out over a few kilometres which might include three dunes one after another. Inevitably most people got stuck in the sand at one time or another. The sweepers would then arrive and give the driver instructions on how to move the vehicle forward. If that did not work quickly, they would attach a tow rope to the stranded vehicle and pull it out.
At night we camped in the dunes, a glorious experience. There was plenty of space for everyone to achieve privacy. The crew would establish a kitchen, a fire and a shower tent. Wonderful food was served around the fire. If one wanted a shower you would pour your water into a bucket which one of the crew would heat with an element powered by a car battery. The shower tent was 2m x 2m so plenty of space to get undressed. A small pump would pump the water through a shower rose with the water running away into the sand. What a difference that shower made. The night skies were full of stars. One night we stayed in a fishing camp.
Except for two fishing camps all signs of human activities related to diamond miners. Live the Journey have a good explanation on their website which goes as follows:
‘The discovery of diamonds in 1908 around Kolmanskuppe resulted in an uncontrollable diamond rush forcing the Government to establish the “Sperrgebiet” between 26-degrees south and the southern border stretching 100-kilometers inland. Prospectors were forced to turn northwards beyond the Sperrgebiet. This resulted in the discovery of diamonds at Spencer Bay in December 1908 and between Meob and the Conception Bay area (Diamond area no 2). A total of 5000 diamond claims were registered in 1909 and hopeful prospectors tried their luck at Saddle Hill and Spencer Bay and via Swakopmund and Sandwich Harbour southwards towards Meob Bay. However, the small yields of diamonds from these claims resulted in only a few prospectors in the long term being successful.
Transporting of supplies and mine equipment was effected mainly from Swakopmund by ship and the cutter Viking via Sandwich Harbour, Conception Bay and Meob Bay. Various shipping casualties occurred, such as when the Eduard Bohlen intending to off-load mining equipment, was lost at Conception Bay (1909). In the area between Conception Bay and Meob Bay the mining settlements of Holsatia, Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger were established. No form of engine-driven transport was available during the first 15 years. One sample of an ox wagon fitted with special wide iron bands to make transportation in sandy areas is visible north off Grillenberger. This wagon and surfboats at Meob Bay are examples of pre-World War I historical relics depicting the immense difficult pioneering days in those inhospitable desert conditions.
During 1912/1913 a light railway from Conception Bay to Conception Water and an 80-kilometer pipeline linking the settlements were constructed. It is not totally clear as how many prefabricated buildings were erected at the various settlements and only the foundations of some of these are today still visible. Operations were suspended during the First World War which was the death knell for mining in the area. The small diamonds left in the tailings of earlier workers made production uneconomic, although some optimistic miners were still active after the war.
Saddle Hill became well known in Namibian diamond operations through the efforts of the remarkable Mose Kahan. The unsinkable Mose was born in Konigsberg, Prussia and after emigrating to South Africa he became involved in prospecting and mining. His application for a concession in Diamond area no 2 was successful and he named his claims Saddle Hill, Ophir and Atlantis. To reach his claims with food and mining supplies, Kahan had to make his way through shifting dunes with transport available in those years, which was a hazardous undertaking. After World War II Kahan bought some Ford “stompneus” lorries from surplus war stock, fitting them with Dakota DC3 aircraft tyres. With these low-pressure aircraft tyres, he was able to bring supplies and equipment to Saddle Hill. However, one of these lorries, nicknamed Suzie, had unfortunately to be abandoned in the dunes, today still awaiting the return of a repair crew. Likewise, a Bulldozer, pulling trailers with supplies and equipment close to the Uri Haugab Mountains.’
We saw Suzie on Day 7 and the bulldozer on Day 8 of our trip.
On day 10 we visited the settlements of Holsatia, Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger.
On Day 11 we visited the Eduard Bohlen and Shawnee shipwrecks.
On Day 11 we also travelled along Langewand which is an area where the dunes fall straight into the sea at high tide but there is a beach that can be traversed at low tide. The dates of all these trips are set to ensure that group reaches Langewand during the low tide.
On the second day out of Luderitz (Day 8 of our trip), the engine of one of the rented Land Cruisers blew up. We shared the passengers and luggage between the other vehicles. Len got on his satellite phone to the rental company and gave them the coordinates of the vehicle and said ‘your clients would like a replacement vehicle’. Twenty-seven hours later when we arrived at the fishing camp, the replacement vehicle was there. The rental company had arranged with Len’s colleagues in Walvis Bay to be guided, by the fastest route, to the fishing camp. They had also arranged for Len’s colleagues in Luderitz to recover the vehicle. I know that if I ever rent a 4×4 in Namibia I will use the rental company ‘Africa on Wheels’.
On the last night we camped near Sandwich Harbour and the next day arrived in Walvis Bay late morning. This trip was a very different experience which was well done by Live the Journey. We stayed that night in the very comfortable Strand Hotel in Swakopmund.
Days 13 and 14 Swakopmund
We lived in Windhoek for almost a year in 1975 and had visited Swakopmund a few times in that period. We were now delighted to find that Café Anton was still serving beautiful cakes.
We took a two-hour flight in a small plane on a route over Kuiseb Canyon, Sossusvlei (which we visited later in our trip), the settlements of Holsatia, Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger, the Eduard Bohlen and Shawnee shipwrecks, Langewand and Sandwich Harbour. It was a delight to see the route we had taken from the air.
Days 15 and 16 Swakopmund via Terrace Bay to Wilderness Damaraland Camp 600km
The road north from Swakopmund runs parallel to the coast. In 1975 we would drive down from Windhoek on a Friday night in our VW Combi Panel Van and turn up this road. We would then leave the road and cross the desert towards the sea. We would proceed cautiously, listening for the waves and if we judged it correctly, we would park at the top of a dune with a beautiful view of the sea when we woke up. We followed this road through Henties Bay and Torra Bay to Terrace Bay in the Skeleton Coast National Park. This is as far as the public can go without a special permit. We found Terrace Bay to have been a mining village now converted to a camp for anglers. There are scars on the landscape from mining, the accommodation was extremely basic, and the weather was miserable. We were miserable.
Things picked up the next day when we backtracked for 60km and then turned inland to the luxury Damaraland Camp run by Wilderness. Our friend, Trish Chambers, from Sydney, Australia joined us, while husband, Steve, tasted wines in the Cape, for his business.
Day 17 Wilderness Damaraland Camp
The area around the camp is very arid but not far away is a riverbed with no visible water but green vegetation. There are about 200 desert adapted elephants in the deserts of Namibia and one herd roams in the area in a 30km radius from the camp. This day we were lucky because they were near the camp in the riverbed. We found a male and then a mother and a juvenile but could not find the main herd. We were about to head back to camp when we took a side route and came across a beautiful site. With the main herd of female elephants was a baby that looked it had been born in the last hour. It still had its umbilical cord attached, the mother had blood on her back legs and the afterbirth was on the ground nearby. We did not have long to look at the baby because the herd moved to create a protective cordon around it.
Days 18 – 20 Wilderness Damaraland Camp to Wilderness Serra Cafema Camp 70km
We transferred to the Wilderness Air hub near their Doro Nowas camp and, with Trish, boarded a six-seater plane for a one-hour flight over the desert to Wilderness Serra Cafema Camp. The camp is located on the Kunene River a little way outside the Skeleton Coast National Park. This is a magnificent location mixing the green of the river area with the barren desert. We did boat trips and game drives and quadbike rides. We saw oryx, zebra and a few other antelope and magnificent scenery and a lovely sunset and hugely enjoyed being there.
Days 21 – 23 Wilderness Hoanib Camp
We flew back to Doro Nowas, said farewell to Trish, and then flew an hour to Hoanib Camp. Wilderness has created a magnificent camp in the desert near to the boundary of the Skeleton Coast National Park. There are eight rooms about 50 metres apart either side of a communal area. The rooms are prefabricated cubes with the advantages of insulation, air conditioning and good plumbing and are then covered with a stylish tent cover. Difficult to describe. Rather look at the photo.
At a nearby water hole we watched a herd of desert adapted elephants drink and play.
We then located a lioness and her niece at an oryx kill that they had done earlier in the day. We returned to this pair a few times in our stay as they were so interesting to watch. There is a lion researcher in the area who has collared many of the lions in the area and he is very aware of their lives and deaths. Unfortunately, they often roam to far and get killed by villagers.
On the second full day of our stay we did a five-hour drive through the Skeleton Coast National Park, down the dry Hoanib River, to Mowe Bay on the coast. We came across another herd of elephants with a youngster who was particularly funny to watch.
We entered a dune area and visited an oasis before reaching the sea where we saw a huge colony of seals. A lot of black backed jackals were scavenging what they could with an eye on any pups that strayed too far. There was also a brown hyena looking for food for her pups. We later met the hyena researcher who described the hard life facing brown hyenas in this area.
We then drove down the beach and came across a lunch table set out on the beach waiting for us. What a delight. The final joy was after lunch when we were taken to an airstrip to be flown back to camp thus saving the guests the need to do the five-hour trip back by vehicle.
We reluctantly flew back to Doro Nowas, picked up our vehicle and drove the short distance to Twyfelfontein. Twyfelfontein is a site of ancient rock engravings. The site has been inhabited for 6,000 years, first by hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders. Both ethnic groups used it as a place of worship and a site to conduct shamanist rituals. In the process of these rituals at least 2,500 items of rock carvings have been created, as well as a few rock paintings. Displaying one of the largest concentrations of rock petroglyphs in Africa, UNESCO approved Twyfelfontein as Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007. We appreciated some of the clearer engravings but did not give the site our full attention as we made the mistake of arriving there at 14h00 in blazing sun with a temperature of 40⁰C. We escaped to the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge nearby.
Day 25 Twyfelfontein to Huab Lodge 200km
We drove to Huab Lodge, north of Khorixas, and did a sunset walk, which was pleasant but not worth the drive to get there.
Day 26 Huab Lodge to Okonjima Nature Reserve 350km
Okonjima Nature Reserve is a rehabilitation centre for leopards and cheetah. I am opposed to animal rehabilitation centres because I feel that they rescue animals that would have died in the wild, often are a vanity project for the owner or manager and seldom result in the animals being fully released in the wild. The animals at Okonjima have been released into the bush, but are all collared. We were taken to a mother leopard and two juveniles eating a kill. It was interesting to see that they ate one by one with the dominant juvenile eating first.
The next morning, we walked up to three cheetahs that were clearly very habituated to humans. While I disagree with the principle of such habituation it does mean one can get very good photos.
Days 27 – 29 Okonjima to Windhoek 350km
In Windhoek we went looking for the flat where we lived in 1975, but the city has grown so much we could not find it. We found little of interest in the city so did a little shopping and had our laundry done.
Days 30 – 31 Windhoek to Sossusvlei 400km
We drove south west to Sossusvlei over the pretty Gamsberg Pass. Sossusvlei is a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes, located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It is also used to describe the general area of dunes which includes Big Daddy Dune which is 325 metres high. We had flown over this area and Big Daddy on our flight from Swakopmund.
There is a 45km road from the gate of the Park to Big Daddy. The best way to see the dunes is to enter the Park as the gates open at sunrise and drive with the rising sun behind you. People make the mistake, as I did the first time, of rushing along the road to get to Big Daddy. It is far more rewarding to take your time over the drive and appreciate the beauty of the sun and shadows on the dunes. So, we took our time and enjoyed the view.
The tar road ends 5km from Big Daddy and the Park offers shuttle trailers pulled by tractors for that last distance. The braver souls, with 4×4 vehicles and good sand driving skills proceed in their own vehicles. I did the latter and quickly got stuck in the sand. A second vehicle tried to pull me out and got stuck as well. An experienced guide then stopped, deflated our tyres (why did I not do this when I know the theory?) and drove our vehicles out.
We continued our way and marvelled at Big Daddy.
When we returned on the road the sun was higher, there were less shadows on the dunes, and we were pleased that we had seen them earlier.
Day 32 Sossusvlei to Fish River Canyon 650km
For a second day running we were up before sunrise, this time to do a balloon trip. There were two balloons travelling together, each with about ten passengers. The dunes beneath us were magnificent. We dropped lower and watched an oryx on a slope at our level. This was magical. After an hour we braced ourselves for a landing, which we expected to be the basket being dragged along the ground by the deflating balloon. The wind was slight, our pilot was an expert and he landed the balloon upright on his trailer, with last minute helping hands from his ground crew. Breakfast and champagne awaited us.
A long drive on good gravel roads brought us to the Naute Reservoir close to the Fish River Canyon. We were returning to the site of a great happening. In the early days of January 1976, when Tibby and I were on our way from a holiday in Cape Town to our then home in Windhoek we stopped for a picnic lunch at Naute Reservoir. We were at a decision point in our relationship, where we would go our separate ways unless there was a convincing reason to stay together. I had been wrestling with this conundrum over our holiday and during the morning I came to my decision. I asked her to marry me. She hesitated and then accepted. We were married five weeks later on 14th February (St Valentine’s Day) and have now been happily married for forty-four years.
A short drive brought us to a late lunch at the Canyon Roadhouse which has a collection of old vehicles.
We then checked into and relaxed at the nearby Canyon Lodge.
Day 33 Fish River Canyon viewing site to Felix Unite Provenance Camp on the Orange River 200km
We were now on the eastern side of the Fish River Canyon, so we went to the public viewing site and marvelled again at the immensity of the canyon.
A few hours later we checked into the Felix Unite Provenance Camp on the Orange River.
Days 34 – 37 Kayaking down the Orange River 70km
We had signed up to a four-day kayaking trip down the Orange River organised by Felix Unite.
The Orange rises in the Drakensberg mountains along the border between South Africa and Lesotho, about 193 km west of the Indian Ocean and at an altitude of over 3,000 m. It flows for 2,200 km across the continent to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay. The other big South African river, the Vaal, is a tributary.
We had a small group of two guides, each with their own kayak, and two brothers. The low guest numbers allowed one of the guides to take two sleeping stretchers on his kayak while we carried two camping chairs on ours. Over the three days we travelled 70 kms in about sixteen hours. We paddled for about one hour against a very strong headwind, paddled lightly for about nine hours and drifted for about six hours.
There was often vegetation on the riverbank, but we were travelling through the desert with spectacular sights and amazing rock formations. The temperature during the day was about 30⁰C so it was a delight to be able dip in the river.
At night we camped on the riverbank. We had no tents but lay on our camp beds looking at the stars. The guides kept a fire going until late at night. They also produced the most magnificent meals.
Over the three days we dropped only about 70 metres in elevation in total but descended through about thirty rapids, some of which were merely an acceleration of speed, but others were big enough to have their own names like Rocky Horror, Stairway to Heaven, Roller Coaster, Washing Machine and then the two biggest, Andries’ Test which was the test for Sjambok (a sjambok is the Afrikaans name for leather whip used for beating a person!) When going through these rapids Tibby, sitting in front of me, would see that we were approaching a rock and give me an instruction to steer the kayak left or right. All my life I have been slow witted and it takes me longer than most people to respond to an instruction. As a result, we bounced off more rocks than we should have.
I was probably responsible for our troubles in the Sjambok rapids. Tibby and I entered the Sjambok behind the guide, lost control, faced backwards and then capsized. We had been instructed, if that happened, to swim for the left-hand shore but we had our kayak between us and the shore. We were being swept down the rapid towards rocks when the second guide ran into the water and caught hold of us. The photo shows us approaching Sjambok, apparently very competently. There are no photos of what followed. Two hours later we capsized again on a lesser rapid. We were not wearing our safety jackets and Tibby bashed herself on a rock and incurred a suspected cracked rib!
Cracked ribs aside, this was a special experience. On the fourth day we were picked up and transported back to base camp where we recuperated that night.
Days 38 – 42 Orange River to Bushmanskloof 600km
Bushmanskloof is a luxury lodge in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape in South Africa. My Aunt Rose joined us there from Cape Town. We relaxed, enjoyed the scenery, did some tame game drives, swam and ate and ate.
Day 43 Bushmanskloof to Tulbagh 200km
We took the back road through Wupperthal and Ceres to Tulbagh. Part of this road requires a high clearance vehicle and a lot of the road winds through the mountains. It is gravel most of the way and a delight. That night my cousin, Daan and his wife, Hannalie, from Ceres, joined us for a long dinner catching up with shared stories.
Day 44 Tulbagh to Cape Town 120km
It was an easy drive home to Cape Town after a wonderful trip.
I drive a three litre, diesel 2010 Toyota Fortuner which I bought in 2014 with 76,000 km on the clock. At the beginning of this trip it had done 135,000 km. We travelled 6,570km, consuming 1,010 litres at a cost of R12,000 and an average consumption of 6.5 kms per litre.