My Top Africa Pick: Namibia

Namibia is a large, sparsely populated country in Southern Africa dominated by dry desert landscapes and scrublands. It is also one of the most underrated tourist destinations on earth with sites of incomparable natural beauty and interest.

Namibia first came under my radar when I was eleven years old. I picked up a book off the shelf called 1000 Places to See Before You Die and flipped to a random page. I landed on the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, a place that sounded mysterious and unknown to me. I wondered whether I’d ever truly manage to visit Namibia before I died.

I am very glad that I did!

Background

Namibia was colonized by the German Empire beginning in the late nineteenth century, during which time it endured slavery, genocide, and ruthless exploitation. During the second world war, it was invaded and conquered by South Africa, which installed an apartheid policy of racial separation

In 1990, South Africa withdrew from Namibia after a protracted guerrilla war for independence and economic and political pressures applied by the United Nations.

Today’s Namibia is a peaceful and prosperous multicultural society with one of the highest standards of living in Africa.

Namibia allows for a very different Africa experience than what you might expect from neighboring countries. It is very safe and peaceful and well-equipped with modern infrastructure likes paved roads and electricity. Vast swaths of the country are empty and uninhabited.

The Capital

After three days of hitchhiking from Cape Town, South Africa, I arrived in Windhoek. Windhoek (German for “windy corner”) is the country’s economic, political and cultural heart and the jumping-off point for most trips around Namibia.

Colonial-era Christuskirsch is Windhoek’s single iconic landmark. It’s not much to look at but then again Windhoek is not a city of attractions.

My host in Windhoek was 29-year-old Lando, a Namibian of Angolan background who owns his own graphic design company. Lando recently moved back to, Katatura, the township in which he was raised, which has a very colorful reputation.

“People like to talk about Katatura – they will tell you bad things – but it’s all nonsense. Katatura is fine,” Lando said as the taxi pulled into a neighborhood that I was not at all expecting.

After I settled into his comfortable newly constructed home, I tried to go out to explore Katatura, but he stopped me. “You can’t go out there! You’ll get robbed,” he warned.

The next morning Lando took me along to Katatura Arts College where he teaches. There I met talented young people doing exciting things in sculpture, painting, fashion, design, radio, and television.

Lando introduced me to his students, who were assembling all sorts of interesting digital media products.

Later that night, being the troll that he is, Lando took me to Spur, an American-themed steakhouse with flamboyant culturally questionable decor and waitresses wearing cowboy hats.

As an American abroad, I was amused. And the waitresses were amused to see me, a real American. Needless to say, this place would be under a lot of scrutiny in the US (and perhaps rightfully so).

North Korea was commissioned to design and build a series of controversial state monuments and buildings, including the Namibia Independence Museum. The museum’s outlandish tripod structure, poor craftsmanship, and socialist realist art all point to its DPRK origin.

The museum is more confusing than it is informative with exhibits providing minimal context, omitting critical details, and appearing out of chronological order. Leave it to North Korea to narrate your history!

Nobody knows how or why North Korea was awarded the tender to construct this museum along with a myriad of other national monuments.

The Saga Begins

Seeing Namibia simply isn’t possible without private transport unless you book a tour, so I connected with other independent travelers looking to carpool via Facebook. The four of us, complete strangers, committed to spend two weeks exploring the country together because we had no other choice.

We became a reluctant family unit headed by Alyssa, 25, an urban planing student from Australia, who we nicknamed “mom” because she did most of the driving and cooking and was the more responsible and dutiful character among us. I nicknamed Alice, 28, a social worker from San Francisco, “grunge sister” because we always sat in the back together comparing the holes in our clothes. Andreas, 21, a carpenter from Sweden, was the sulky teenager of the family who liked to do his own thing and eventually lashed out at me for constantly referring to him as “honey bear.”

Amazing Rocks (?)

I have to admit I was totally against visiting Spitzkoppe. Why would we drive so many hours just to see a big pile of rocks?

But when we got there and watched the sunset over the bald granite peaks, I realized I was wrong. This place is something special.

There was just one problem. When we began setting up our tents, I realized I had left the poles in Windhoek. Where was I going to sleep my whole trip? Alice and Andreas bickered over who would have to share their tent with me.

I survived to the next morning, despite the bitter cold, thanks to one park attendant who overheard our conversation and offered to let me sleep inside a chalet at no extra cost. Night one without a tent was over.

The others wanted to climb the rocks. I was firmly against it (to see what?), but majority rules.

And as before, they were right. It was worth the climb. So the lesson, folks, is to travel with people that will get your lazy ass to the right places.

If you climb up Spitzkoppe, there are some impressive cave drawings to see dating back up to 4,000 years ago.

The drawings indicated in which direction big game was to be found. A buffalo drawing facing south, for example, signified buffalo herds were encountered to the south.

Waterberg Plateau

The Waterberg Plateau is another place I got dragged to. Waterberg (German for “water mountain“) is a well-forested plateau hosting a wide breadth of mammal and bird species, notably the critically endangered black rhino.

I didn’t see any rhinos because the rhino drive was out of my budget, but I  did see quails, leopard geckos, mongooses, and dik-diks.

Wildlife of Etosha

Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premiere spot for wildlife spotting.  During the dry season, the animals gather in close concentration around the watering hole allowing for rich  multi-species sightings. Well… in theory.

In recent years, Namibia has suffered such a severe dry spell that the watering holes disappear entirely. We encountered no sign of the promised wetlands, save for a single puddle huddled with thirsty springboks and mountains zebras.

But something magical did happen at the beginning of our time in Etosha. A herd of the famed white desert elephants came thrashing out of the bush and spilled into the roadway. 

These elephants are a different species from their savanna-dwelling cousins and specifically adapted to survive in dry arid conditions. They are only found in small pockets of Namibia and Mali.

Damaraland

On our way to the Skeleton Coast, we drove through a region called Damaraland that often resembled the surface of another planet.

Skeleton Coast

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast got its name from all the discarded whale and seal skeletons tossed ashore by whalers and sealers. Nowadays, the region is better known for the many shipwrecks that have run aground thanks to its turbulent waters and dense fog.

We were zipping down the coastline when I spotted the ruins of some metal structure partially submerged in the sand. We pulled over to check it out.

I assumed it was a shipwreck and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to piece together the disparate parts of the ship.

Later I found out that it’s a collapsed oil rig that was abandoned in the early 1970s.

A bit later we did spot an actual shipwreck. It was the World War II era ruins of the SS Dunkin, which was transporting munitions to allied forces when it ran aground along the Skeleton Coast.

This whale skull is just one of the many discarded whale and seal bones that litter the beaches of the Skeleton Coast (hence the name of the coastline).

Cape Cross is known for its boistrous colony of Cape Fur seals, the population of which has rebounded since approaching the brink of extinction at the turn of the century.

The seal colony is known for its stench, produced by a combination of seal excrement and rotting pup carcasses. Alice and Elyssa could not bear the smell and fled back to the car soon after arrival. Personally, I didn’t mind

A funny thing happened the night before I visited the seals. Around 3:45 AM, I was sleeping in my tent when I felt someone touch my head. I pealed the entrance flap and there was a jackal looking back at me eye-to-eye. He sniffed my face curiously. I noticed he had been chewing on my phone charger. I shooed him away when started to pee on my stuff and went back to sleep.

The next morning, Alice spotted my timid jackal friend prowling the nearby seal colony. Jackals, I am told, are good at recognizing faces.

I pointed at him, and the moment I did, he took off running. I would like to think he recognized me.

Swanky Town

Namibia’s second city, Swakopmond, is a quaint beach town with colonial German architecture in pastel colors.

My host in Swakomond was a quirky but sweet 23-year-old year old Afrikaans guy named Werner. He accepted my last minute couchsurfing request and took the next day off of work to help me find a new tent.

Werner took me to a diner for lunch and then ordered several rounds of hard drinks. “It’s 1 PM!” I protested. “Who drinks at 1 PM on a work day?” He insisted it was okay because “it’s Friday” and “it’s what locals do.”

The Empty Quarter

Sossuvlei is Namibia’s undisputed pièce de résistance. It was the surreal desert landscapes of Sossuvlei that motviated me most to visit the country and left me with the greatest lasting impression.

I’m not going to tell you about Dune 45 or Big Daddy like the other Namibia blogs will because who cares? Those are just dunes with names. Go for whichever looks cool. Don’t worry about the famous tourist-infested dunes. Namibia is about being alone.

That sand dune in the background is the tallest sand dune in the world. Notice the foot path leading up the ridge.

Once you climb onto the ridge, you get a panoramic view of the salt pan in the basin below,

Ok, you see those black lines down there on in the salt pan? That’s what I was after all along. That’s Deadvlei. Deadvlei is the reason I came to Namibia.

Deadvlei (Afrikaans for”dead lake”) is a salt pan dotted with dead trees that formed after an ancient lake was cut off from its source river by encroaching sand dunes. The trees died 600-700 years ago, but the dry conditions prevented them from decomposing. Their skeletons were scorched black by the overbearing sun.

In 1909, German artillery captain ‘Baron’ von Wolfe constructed a pseudo-medieval castle in the middle of the desert as a private residence for he and his American wife.

The couple had only lived in the castle for four years before Von Wolfe enlisted in World War I, despite his old age, and died in the battlefield. His wife moved back to New Jersey leaving the castle abandoned.

The Missing Town of Garub

Many towns that appear on the map in Southern Namibia do not actually exist. For example, Google Maps says there should be a town called Garub here. Instead, we found just this one creepy abandoned house.

This rusting abandoned train platform was the only other structure in Garub.

Definitely haunted, eh? There was a newish looking sign along the road that said ‘Welcome to Garub.” The Namibian Transport Ministry must have a good sense of humor.

From what little information I could find on the internet, it seems Garub might have been bombed into oblivion by the Germans after South Africa captured the town in World War I.

Lil’ Lüdy

A small costal town of roughly 12,000 inhabitants, Lüderitz is the oldest European settlement in Namibia. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias first landed at the site in 1491, and a German whaling colony sprung up in the area in the late 1880s. Over the last few decades, the town has declined in population and importance

I’ve got nothing remarkable to report about Lüderitz. Mostly I was just glad to have phone signal and modern comforts after weeks in the wilderness.

Desert Ghost Town

Just a few kilometers outside Lüderitz is an abandoned mining town partially submerged by the sands of the Namib Desert.

The town sprung up practically over night during the diamond rush of 1914 and flourished over the following decades. When the diamond reserves ran dry in 1950s, the town was abandoned allowing the desert sands to reclaim the town.

It takes several hours to explore the whole town. My crew wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about Kolmanscop as I was so they yanked be back before I was half done.

Coming Full Circle

I ended up ditching the crew and hitchhiking back to Windhoek on my own because I didn’t feel like driving to the Fish River Canyon. When I arrived in the the capital, a pushy Israeli guy on the street named Avi persuaded me into eating at his new falafel restaurant, which had just opened a day earlier. Indeed, true to his promise, the falafel was the best I ever had.

Avi and his Namibian girlfriend, Ida, kindly invited me to stay in their home. They live in Eros, Namibia’s equivalent to Beverly Hills. Each evening I would meet Avi and Ida at their restaurant and help them clean up before we all rode home together to Eros.

I came to Namibia with high expectations, and I feel the country has certainly lived up to them. Namibia isn’t a country many people know or hear about outside Southern Africa, so I hope this piece has inspired you to consider a trip to there or at least learn more about it.

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