I love animals and want to go to Africa, but it just seems impossible.
Well the first step to getting over the idea that it’s plain impossible to go to Africa is that it’s not as exotic as you might think… well, sort of. I mean it certainly is still exotic and far-flung, with an air of danger and romance thrown in? Sure. But is it so different that nothing will be like home and you’ll feel lost and out of your element and home-sick while 10,000km from your home? Nope, probably not. And for those who aren’t regular globe trotters living the nomad life, that is great news.
You see, Africa was colonized by many different European countries and they’ve all left their mark. The Romans and Greeks conquered much of Northern Africa at various times, and you can even find examples of this in fusion cuisine such as Italian/Ethiopian restaurants in America. The Dutch and the English both colonized South Africa, they speak Portuguese in Angola because that’s who came in and colonized (same with Brazil), the West of Africa was largely colonized by France (they even had some of America if you remember – Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Quebec, Montreal, etc.), and the country we’re focusing on – Namibia – was colonized by Germans. “Now, that’s all well and great”, you’re thinking, “but what the hell does this have to do with me?”. Simple – lots of Europeans already visit countries where their ancestors colonized. They speak the language and often know somebody. So while Africa is in general still vast and untamed, you can definitely get a bratwurst and a lager during your trip through Namibia. Sure, you can always eat some gazelle or zebra too to make it more thrilling, but if you feel homesick and want something familiar, you can definitely find it.
Now that that’s covered, you might be surprised to find out how easy it is to get there. There are lots of direct flights from New York to Capetown and Johannesburg, and from there it’s no problem flying to Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek. There are lots of traditional, European-style hotels there and the US dollar is pretty much accepted everywhere. Namibia’s government is also tied to South Africa’s so they’re a bit more stable than the average African country. Namibia even has a good road system and it’s highway signs and directions were installed with all the accuracy and effectiveness the Germans could muster, which is saying something. All in all, Namibia is possibly the perfect place to explore Africa and its wonders.
Okay I can get there, but what about the rebels?
Well believe it or not, not every country in Africa is war-torn and in constant civil war with rebels driving down every street threatening you with AK-47s or lions on leashes. I know this might shatter your world view, but some countries are pretty well run. The biggest thing for Namibia is its previous Apartheid government it shared with South Africa, but that of course has been officially over for a while now, and instead of bitter resentment it seems like everyone there is just happy to have it be done. Sure some countries are better left un-seen for the casual traveler, but Namibia is plenty safe.
Now, that being said, Namibia is also vast and sparsely populated. So while it’s safe on a human level, the countryside and animals can be dangerous. However because of this, everyone is always on the lookout for each other. I don’t think I ever pulled over to check a map where someone that passed didn’t stop to make sure I was okay. It’s just the way it is out there – you have to look out for each other.
So why should I go to Namibia when I’ve never even heard of the place?
Good question! Let me tell you a little bit about my trip there.
After landing at Windhoek’s Eros airport, I got a rental cell phone, found my ride to the rental car depot and took off. Rental cars are really a good option in Namibia. They don’t have much public transit and the roads are generally in good condition. So I had a shiny Toyota Corolla waiting to take me on my safari dreams when I arrived. I know, I know – a Corolla isn’t exactly what you think of when you think safari in Africa. But what can I say, I was by myself and smaller cars are cheaper. Plus this thing was a bit beefier than a North American corolla. Trust me, the car is probably more up to the challenge of driving in Namibia than you are. Case in point, it survived my crash no problem. I mean it wasn’t a huge crash, but still. Side note: crashing your car into the employee’s break table before you even leave the rental car lot is not a great way to instill trust in a rental car company. Damn the driver’s seat being on the right and shifting with the left!
Cars are to Namibians as horses were to cowboys in the American West. Once you’re out in the country, you basically live and die by your car, so be good to it. You’ll be with it a lot too – the roads are well kept but they’re still not an interstate freeway system. Think of how driving is in Ireland and you’ll get the picture. Budget more time than you think it’ll take to get some where and be sure to pick up some maps at the rental car office.
Don’t be surprised if you see lots of guys in official Jeep or Mercedes shirts hanging around, or cars with black-out tape all over them. Namibia is where many car companies test prototypes for heat and rough roads, and has some of the best off-roading trails in the world to give SUVs a proper workout. See what I’m saying about cars and Namibia? They just go together.
After checking out downtown Windhoek and stocking up on supplies at a local grocery store, I went to bed early to get a jump heading on heading out to the country and on traffic. I didn’t want anyone around while I was learning to drive on the left. I was off to Sossusvlei in the South to see a real, honest-to-God desert. Taking B1 out of town, you’ll see lots of hills and ravines, boulders the size of houses strewn here and there – definitely a feast for the eyes. But the turn-off to C24 is where the real fun starts. Honestly this road could be the newest stage of the World Rally Championships. It’s a dirt road that makes the best wooden roller-coaster jealous of all its zips and zags. It runs through the Naukluft mountains, whose terrain looks like a crumpled up piece of paper. There was even one hill steep enough (though only about 30ft hight) that I couldn’t get up in 1st gear! I had to reverse and try again with more of a running start. Fun driving, but you’re definitely ready for a rest when you get to solitaire.
When you head to Sossusvlei, be sure to head there as early as you can in the morning for two reasons. First, because the sun hitting the sand dunes at an acute angle makes for some very dramatic and beautiful lighting. Second, cause you’ll want to climb those dunes and hike the vleis before it gets scorching hot outside. Miss either of these and you’ll truly be disappointed.
Sossusvlei is just one of many vleis in the area. I took the desert ferry over to them and saw Dead vlei, Sossusvlei and many smaller vleis. The vleis, by the way, are pans of dried dirt and rock. There is so little rainfall and so much evaporation that it sucks all the moisture out of the ground until it is much more like fired ceramics or bricks. Almost nothing can grow in them and they are mostly barren wasteland surrounded by towering (up to 1,000ft) sand dunes. Very forbidding, very deadly, and very beautiful.
After a day in the desert and relaxing the night away with French travelers staying at the same guest farm as I, it was time to move on to someplace cooler. Swakopmund is a tourist town in Namibia for exactly the opposite reason Florida and S. California are for North Americans – it’s cold there. At least it is compared to the scorching deserts around it, and not only is it cold, it’s also wet. A current of freezing water from Antarctica makes it’s way north along the coast of South Africa and Namibia. It finally warms a bit and rises up outside of Swakopmund, cooling the air around it making an air conditioner for the whole city. When the cool air hits the hot desert air blowing in, it makes prodigous amounts of fog. All this adds up to quite an array of land and sea life, and makes Swakopmund not only a destination for its temperature, but also for it’s ecology and a booming adventure scene to explore and have fun in all the area offers.
For a great apres-adventure beer, head to the authentic German Brewhaus. Wurst of every shape and size, beer flowing down waterfalls into 5 liter glasses served with a side of leiderhosen and a polka band for every table! Okay, it might not be that German, but this is definitely the real deal. Come for the beer, enjoy the food and love the live music provided by drunken over-landers.
Sounds fun, but if I’m going all the way to Africa, I’m going to see some big animals!
Oh come on, you really want it all don’t you? And I suppose you want 5-star dinners with that, and private airplane rides over the most exciting areas of the country as well? Well you’re in luck. You can have all of that if you want, and Etosha is the name of the game when it’s time to Safari in Namibia.
Etosha is a monstrous salt-pan in the north of the country, with an even larger national park surrounding it. It’s well known for game viewing in the dry winter, when animals come in droves to the man-made watering holes. In the summer, it becomes a birders paradise as the pan floods and thousands of birds (including large flocks of flamingoes) come to wade.
I gave myself a bit of a treat and stayed at a luxury lodge just outside of the park.
Cell signal isn’t strong in the north so I wasn’t able to ask for more specific directions as I got close. Torrential downpour made the roads thick with mud and the Corolla was having some trouble on the dirt when I finally found the turn off for the lodge. As I was trying to communicate with some locals who spoke no English and couldn’t fathom what I was doing in the country in a 4×2, and VW minibus comes tearing down the road and through the gateway, followed by a military vehicle. A huge old German in fatigues gets out, slowly starts smoking a cigarette and methodically – almost strategically – gives directions to the bewildered VW denizens, his help, and myself at the same time. “You’re looking for Nauanaua?” he asks, using The Force like he’s Darth Vader. “I work for Nauanaua…I will get you there. Park behind the fence”, he says, motioning to the electrified and razor-wired fence he just drove through. And just as I’m stepping into the car, happy to get out of the rain, “No wait! You cannot park in there. There are elephants in there… KABOOM Lightning strike! holy crap I’m in Jurassic-freaking-Park!! After the terrified Germans and I get into the military vehicle, it’s a leisurely ride uphill through waist-deep mud, often sideways, always with all differentials locked, fogged-over windshield and constant water dripping on us through the roof. We made small talk about wether we just got kidnapped by a Survivalist or not, and if we’d all be eaten by the elephants. However once at Nauanaua, all fears were put to rest. The lovely wife of the old German in fatigues (together, they’re the owners) welcomed us with open arms and fruity drinks. Ahhh, what a way to turn a rough day completely around! Here’s to Africa.
Once you’ve made it into Etosha, the world seems to open up a bit. There are long roads going out in all directions, and slow-motion driving becomes the name of the game. Take your time, go slow and try to spot animals out in the distance and wait for them to come closer. Remember that the animals are in charge – if they’re blocking your path on the road, wait for them to clear. Being patient will often get you better photo ops as well.
You can camp inside the park, and I’d recommend it for maximum safari time. There are four camps with both hotels and campgrounds, and all have illuminated watering holes for game viewing. The animals are most active at night, so this can be a great opportunity. You can also go on guided safari through the camps or any of the lodges surrounding Etosha, which can be a good option since they often know the park and animals intimately.
After the big safari experience, it was once again to Windhoek for one last night before winging my way back to America. Now this is where getting a GPS with my car would’ve been very handy. I drove all over the downtown area for over two and a half hours trying to find the rental car lot. I had a detailed map of Windhoek and their address, but the two just never seemed to jive with the reality of the streets. And up to this point finding someone who spoke decent English wasn’t hard, but of course this time every business I stopped at for directions it was German, Afrikaans, or bust. Eventually I found it, they were all happy (surprised?) to see that I made it back in one piece, and got my shuttle to the hotel.
And what a hotel it was! I wanted to spend my last night at The Heinitzburg, an old German-built castle perched on a hill high above the city (and the only Relais & Châteaux hotel in the country), indulging in luxury after my solo-safari experience but alas, it was not to be. I had to “make due” with the Executive Suite at the Olive Grove instead. Simply wonderful accommodations and staff – sure it was a bit more pricey than the rest, but every once in a while you have to splurge, right? Especially on the last night of your African adventure, and I hope you do the same.
Want to see the places mentioned in the article for yourself? Then check out my vacation guide on Namibia for all the details.
Have you been on an awesome African safari? Tell everyone all about it!