Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dune Buggy

It took us 14 hours to hitch-hike from Maun to Windhoek, a journey of around 800km with little or no public transport along the way. We arrived after dark, therefore the culture shock that is Namibia was delayed until the following morning. Part of the shock is generated by the sheer weirdness of Namibia, Windhoek being one of the most bizarre examples. Its a city crammed with German colonial architecture in the middle of dry and barren desert. The spires from the cities churches puncture the deep blue sky and the surrounding mountains add to the feeling that this city is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other part of the shock comes from the fact that Namibia is a developed country, at least much more developed than any other country we have visited since arriving in Africa. Botswana gave us a few hints of what was to come but still the streets were dusty and the pavements potholed, buildings looking on the verge of falling down wedged between luxury lodges and on every street corner a rusted, abandoned minibus. Once in Namibia all of this was replaced by a glossy veneer, shining in the sun.

Due to Namibia having an even lower population density than Botswana there are next to no public transport options in Namibia. We realised that trying to hitch to the isolated spots of natural beauty the country is famous for would result in heat stroke, hypothermia and massive dust inhalation. We decided to hire a car for a week. The advantage of this is the ease with which we could travel between the sights and sites and also the freedom to stop whenever we wanted to take a photo, eat a sandwich or go to the toilet. The disadvantage of course is that the opportunity to observe peoples way of life at close hand is lost. However we suspected that Namibia (and South Africa) would less revealing and rewarding in any case. Hiring a car may also have affected what we looked for, and found, and as a result the composition of this post might also be different from usual.

We left Windhoek along one of Namibias half-a-dozen tarmac roads and headed for the Atlantic coast town of Swakopmund. In under two months we had travelled from Africa's Indian Ocean coast to the Atlantic Ocean coast, a small trip hidden within a much larger journey. We drove through nothing, but unlike in Botswana this nothingness was fascinating, the scenes and colours changing every few kilometres. We arrived in Swakopmund and headed along the hard, salt, coastal road and found a place to camp by a fisherman's hut on the beach.

The next day we returned to explore Swakopmund. One of the former 'German South West Africa' strongholds, the influence is still very much evident today. Walking between the opulent German colonial buildings and passing schools full of blonde haired, blue eyed kids made me feel a bit sick. It didn't feel like a German town but rather like the town a group of Germans would build trying to recreate a German town. I imagined that Margate or Great Yarmouth could have looked like this had Hitler had his way (of course they wouldn't as both were very much in existence by then but you get my point). I should add that I have no issue with Germany or Germans at all, in fact I would much rather spend my time with Germans than a bunch of boorish Brits. That is the point however, the people living in Swakopmund speaking, eating, drinking, living German, listening to German radio, with their kids learning in German are not German! The question is.. what are they?

Immediately after leaving Swakopmund our spirits lifted. The road between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay is lined with sand dunes that seem to crumble straight into the sea. It took ages to cover the 35km because we kept stopping to take photos and climb dunes. Walvis Bay was a British trading port before the Germans arrived so was spared the architecture overhaul by general British disinterest and is just something resembling a caravan park, but no weird feelings either. The most interesting part of Walvis Bay was around the salt mine, out on the Pelican Point sand spit. The presence of high levels of sodium has created a spectacularly coloured landscape and attracted huge flocks of pelicans and flamingoes.

Leaving Walvis Bay meant a 200km drive along gravel roads in the arresting deserted landscape of the Namib-Nauklauft National Park, the views constantly changing, from desert to mountains to canyons and back to desert and mountains again. Hmm, driving a small Hyundai around a sparsely populated yet stunningly beautiful country on poorly maintained gravel roads. Sound familiar? You could be forgiven for thinking we were back in Iceland again, in fact there are many similarities between the countries and I reckon if Iceland had 40°C summers then it would end up looking like Namibia sooner or later. We camped on the edge of the Kuiseb canyon, technically illegal but we hadn't seen a park official, or anyone else, for over four hours to direct us to a camp site.

Almost as essential a stop when visiting Namibia as Sossusvlei is Moose's Bakery in the isolated one-horse town of Solitaire, aptly named! Moose looks more like he should be tearing up Namibia's dirt trails on a Harley rather than baking exquisite apple strudels and cheese-cakes, but that's exactly what he is doing, to the delight of all visitors, most of whom made a significant detour just to pass by.

Part of the Namib-Nauklauft National Park are the Nauklauft Moutains. There are two one-day treks within the park and we hiked both of them. The entrance to the park and the camping fees were very good value, further proof that the more developed a country, the better value it becomes.

The 10km 'Olive Trail' afforded amazing views of the surrounding landscape before descending into an orange canyon where the beauty was brought much closer. No evidence of olives though so the origin of the name remains a mystery. The canyon was teeming with Rock Hyrax, also known as Dassies, small animals that are supposedly the closest living mammal to elephants but resemble more a rabbits distant cousin.

The 17km 'Waterkloof Trail was less rewarding as much of it involved stumbling over a rocky dry river bed with just a few crystal clear pools for distraction before climbing up over a cacti-laden pass. This provided our soles (and souls) a brief respite from the rocks before descending back to the river and to the camp-site.

Probably the most famous image of Namibia for many people is the orange sea of sand dunes at Sossusvlei, and this was our next stop. All of a sudden we were surrounded by other tourists and, after struggling along over the gravel roads the last 65km to the dunes was pristine tarmac. The popularity of Sossusvlei is more than justified, the towering dunes (some up to 350m high) look postcard perfect especially in the early morning when one half is still covered in shade. So perfect in fact that they do not look natural. The Oryx grazing under the dunes amidst the leafless trees provide the scene for a thousand photos.

We managed to get a lift the last 5km from the car park to the dunes themselves before walking into, around and all over them. Although Sossusvlei is highly visited, at least by Namibian standards, there is enough room for everyone and the shape of the landscape manages to create a feeling of isolation. And, almost as importantly, it was possible to take photos that looked 'untouched'.

There is only so much time that can be spent in the desert in the heat of the day however. The sensation of the sand searing the soles of your feet whilst the sun slowly boils your brain sends everyone scuttling for the shade eventually. Back at our car we realised we still had over two days of car hire left to use and nowhere to go. We decided to head further south to Fish River Canyon. We had intended to stop here on the way to Cape Town but now we decided to drive there instead.

It took us a few hours to reach tarmac again and a few hours more heading along dead straight roads south to Keetmanshop. Close to Keetmanshop are several large 'stands' of kokorboom, Namibias most famous tree, also known as the quiver tree. The English name derived from the use of the wood by San hunters. Also close by is a field of weird and wonderful rock formations called 'Giants Playground'. These provided us with an excuse to stop and stretch our legs for a while before heading on through some more flyblown one-horse towns to Fish River Canyon. The facts themselves are fairly impressive – one of the largest canyons in the world (guess what the largest is... wrong, it's not the Grand Canyon), the second most visited tourist site in Namibia and the largest canyon in Africa. The view are even more incredible – you cannot see any evidence of the canyon until you are right on top of it and then it seems to extend into the distance and over the edge of the world. Fish River Canyon is the location for one of Africa's most famous treks, the 5 day trip from end to end, although (un)fortunately the trek is off-limits during the summer months due to the lack of water en route and the danger of flash flooding. So we couldn't walk through it.

Travelling through rural Namibia it became evident the effect of such a limited gene pool, I harboured suspicions of inbreeding, although this is always a hazard in such sparsely populated places, you only have to wander around Great Yarmouth on a market day to work that out! I would add however that the local people seemed less friendly, but less lazy, than in Botswana, which is perhaps a legacy of years of South African rule. With Cape Town our next destination we are bound to find out.

All that remained was a 500km drive back to Windhoek to drop the car off and prepare to catch a bus a few days back down that same long, and never winding, road.