Monday, 16 April 2007

Windhoek and Namib-Naukluft

I can barely say Namibia, and now I'm here. It's a great place to visit, and even for someone from empty New Zealand, this country gives new meaning to the word "underpopulated". It's around the same size as NZ, but has around 2m people - less than half our population. And it shows. So far we've seen vast empty savannah and desert, one small town and the capital Windhoek, which seems about the size of Lower Hutt.

Our first experience of Namibia was a tad uncomfortable - the bus from Cape Town dropped us off at Keetmanshoop at midnight, and the rather fabulously named Shutzen Haus weren't there to collect us, nor did they answer their phone. We asked the Wimpy/service station staff if we could pitch our tent on their patch of lawn, when they told us there was a campground at the back - saved!

We had stopped in Keetmans hoping to be able to rent a car and drive to the Fish River Canyon. We were always unsure as to how this would work out as we hadn't been able to find out anything prior, and sure enough Louis, the only car rental agency in town, was on holiday and unable to help us. Hmmm. We booked a train ticket to Windhoek for that night, and set about exploring. This didn't take too long - the internet was down, so that was no diversion; it was getting hot and dusty so we decided to have lunch. Found a Hungarian restaurant that served far, so confusing. Got some money out at the bank. Did some grocery shopping and found, finally (after looking all over Cape Town) some gas for our cooking stove. Not an entirely wasted day after all.

At 6pm we were back at the station to board our overnight train - we were in business class, for the exhorbitant sum of about $26 NZ each for the 12 hour trip. The seats were great, they showed a couple of movies, and we slept well, arriving in Windhoek more or less on time.

Businnes class, Namibia-style.

We got a cab to the information centre, and there found the most useful and competent person we have met on the entire trip. Maria answered all our questions, gave us information, arranged a rental car for us and let us leave our bags at her office while we went off and had a well-earned breakfast. We spent a couple of hours poking around the city, and then picked up the rental car and headed off to Naukluft - the mountains on the edge of the Namib desert. My impeccable map-reading soon had us heading away from them, and we stopped at a guest farm before it got dark (and before we went too far in the wrong direction!). There was a Dutch couple also camping there, and we had an enjoyable evening chatting with them over a bottle of cheap SA red.
Typical driving in Namibia - they boast the world´s best dirt roads, and they probably are. The wild ostriches are just an extra.

Next day we got ourselves back on track and out to Naukluft proper - and began walking the Olive Trail about 10am. It's only 10km, and scheduled to take 4 hours, though we thought we'd do it in about 3. No, actually. It was a much tougher walk than we had realised, much of it over huge river boulders, through fantastic gorges with cactus and quiver trees clinging to the sides. I was on the lookout for the elusive mountain zebras, but while we saw quite a lot of evidence that they had been around, we didn't see any animals. The highlight (?) of the walk was the landmark "rock pool with chain" where you had to hang onto a chain, high above a stagnant pond in a narrow rocky chasm, and find footholds to get you round the cliff face. I did it, but not without a moment or two of doubt.

Brilliant scenery, but hard going.

Our stop for this night was the Namibian Wildlife Resort campsite at Sesriem, the closest camping to Sossusvlei - the amazing sand dunes and lake pans of the desert. The campsite is government run, and I believe we may have been given the worst site in the whole place - we had to drive to the loo it was so far away, and had only a broken park bench and a dirty braai as facilities. Ah well. But, we did see, as we were tucking into our noodles, a circling jackal. He wandered away, obviously disappointed that we weren't cooking anything more to his liking.
We were up the next morning at 5am, so as to see the dunes at sunrise ... and for a change it was actually worth it. We were halfway up the climb, when the sun came up, sharpening all the shadows, and changing the colour of the sand and the vegetation. It's a really beautiful spot; the dunes are massive and seem to go on forever. We hiked out to Dead Vlei, an old lake pan with dead trees, so photogenic that even my pictures look fabulous.

Our Saturday night was spent at the Gecko Desert Lodge, just us and the stars - and what stars. We had a great campsite here, with our own bathroom and outdoor kitchen - luxury! And got to eat breakfast in the morning entertained by a jackal stalking a herd of springbok. Perfect.

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