Vast, Resilient, Stunning Namibia!

Ocean First   Jul 05, 2022

Our journey began in the capital city of Windhoek where we enjoyed two restful nights to get caught up from lengthy travel. We stayed at a lovely hotel in town, enjoyed a guided tour of the city and learned about Namibia's complicated history. It was very insightful to have an understanding of the background and various tribes prior to heading out to the backcountry. The majority of the land in Namibia is protected in the form of national parks giving the wildlife plenty of room to move about.

After a day and a half of acclimating to a new time zone it was time to start our adventure! Namibia is a big country and rather than spend a great deal of time transiting via road travel we opted to charter a private Cessna to get in between the lodges. Our itinerary had us staying at four different lodges and flying in between, which not only saved us time, but allowed us to view the scenery from the air. The roads in the backcountry can be a bit rough and slow-going so flying was definitely the right call.

Our first stop was Ongava Lodge outside of Etosha National Park. Ongava is a private, 74,000-acre game reserve that provides sanctuary to a wide variety of animals. The reserve is adjacent to Etosha National Park, an almost 5 million acre protected area teeming with life. The combination of both Ongava and Etosha results in one of the most spectacular safari destinations in Africa!

Namibia has an arid climate and the animals have adapted to water scarcity and long dry spells. The Etosha Salt Pan is a classic example of this harsh and seemingly desolate landscape. Covering almost a quarter of the entire park, the salt pan is a huge expanse of white that is visible from space. The word "etosha" means "great white place" and once you have seen it, you'll understand that it is a very fitting description. The salt pan is fed by two rivers and in years of heavy rain, parts of the pan fill to a depth of 10cm. This is an important breeding ground for flamingos and white pelicans during the rainy season.

Watering holes fed by either naturally occurring springs or man-made holes dot the landscape. These watering holes are important water sources for a large variety of animals including elephants, giraffe, oryx, springbok, zebra, wildebeest, lions, eland, and the occasional cheetah and leopard. Perhaps the most famous resident of Ongava and Etosha are the white and black rhinoceros. Namibia is home to the most stable populations of black rhinos in Africa and both species seem to thrive here. It is amazing to be driving along on a game drive and be completely surprised to see a rhino right next to the road! They are enormous animals but unless they move you may very well miss them entirely. Our superb guide, Pascale, stopped and explained everything, from the impressive black rhino to the glorious lavender-capped roller.

After a long morning in the safari vehicle, we would return to the lodge for a delicious and decadent lunch. The food was amazing, fresh and plentiful. Our mornings began with early (630am-7am) departures and it was chilly in the morning! June is winter in Namibia and the typical temperature was in the low 40s, quickly warming up to 85-90F as the sun rose. We were bundled up and then taking layers off each hour it seemed. Dinners were spectacular with a large watering hole at the edge of the bush. On our last evening at Ongava we were gifted by a visit of two elephants and six rhinos. This was after a day of lion sightings and even more rhinos. Amazing!

We departed Ongava and continued to our next lodge, Hoanib Valley Camp. Do not let the word "camp" fool you. This lodge is incredible and nestled in a protected enclave just outside of the Hoanib riverbed. This is a high desert region in the Kaokoland region in northwestern Namibia. At first glance the area looks desolate: scrubby trees, rocks and rubble, sparse mountains, and wide-open spaces. Once we settled in the land came alive and we realized it was full of life. Our game drives took us up the dry riverbed in search of giraffe and elephants primarily. The water table is surprisingly high so even though the riverbed itself was dry the trees along the bed were lush and green. We immediately spotted numerous giraffes grazing in on the trees. We also came across several ostrich trotting along the riverbed; ostrich must be one of my favorite animals as they are awkward yet graceful at the same time. Seeing an ostrich accelerate to full speed is quite the spectacle!

As we approached the end of our first trek up the riverbed our guide, Nicky, brought us to a Himba village that was an extraordinary experience for the whole group. There were five women in the village and several children; the man of the family was off on walkabout somewhere. These women are stunning. They still follow their age-old traditions and attire using a mix of butterfat and ochre pigment to cover their skin and coat their hair. It was truly amazing and humbling to see how these women survived in such a harsh environment. After we spent a few dollars on souvenirs the ladies sang and danced for us. It was nothing short of fantastic!

On a different game drive we drove far up the Hoanib river bed to a camp called Elephant Song. The riverbed was so lush here! We saw numerous giraffe and heard a troop of baboons deep in the bush. On our departure we encountered a small family of desert elephants, including a baby! Our guide was an expert tracker and recognized the footprints of the elephants along with their fresh dung. Once again, unless these animals move it is very easy to miss them entirely.

Our day was made complete with an amazing discovery of a pride of desert lions, snoozing in the shade. These lions will migrate all the way to the shore, crossing sand dunes and subjecting themselves to a difficult trek. Nature is amazing and incredibly resilient. We were hot and thirsty by the end of our excursion and luckily for us the camp staff had arranged lunch along the riverbed. This is pure decadence at it's best: cold beer, delicious food, and great company. There is no such thing as roughing it on a proper safari!

Although it was difficult to leave, our next stop beckoned us: to the ocean we go! Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is famous for treacherous reefs, confusing ocean currents, and dense fog that blankets the shoreline. As the name implies there are shipwrecks all along the coast, many of which settled on land. We had to time our arrival very carefully so that our pilot could land. If the fog bank obscured the airstrip we would have to turn back! Luckily for us the landing zone was clear and we were off on a new adventure. The Skeleton Coast covers 500km of the coastline and extends 40km east into the desert. It is absolutely beautiful here. The contrast of the ocean meeting the desert landscape really needs to be seen to be believed. Huge white sand dunes stretch for miles inland with several rivers meeting their end into the Altantic Ocean. It is daunting to imagine oryx, lions, elephant, giraffe and other animals making their journey from the riverbeds all the way to the shore, crossing the sand dunes along the way.

Our home for the next couple of days was an incredible place called Shipwreck Lodge. This is a designer’s dream. The attention to detail is exquisite with each pillow, drape, and lights providing a bit of intrigue. It was chilly here as the air was damp from the fog, a refreshing change from our previous locations. Upon arrival we settled in and then it was time to rumble! We secured ATVs and were off to terrorize the sand dunes and ideally not get stuck in the sand. It was a blast! After expending all that adrenaline, we were surprised with a sundowner (cocktail hour) at a small oasis frequented by many of the locals: oryx, springbok, black-backed jackals, and many more. Sundowners are an African specialty and so welcome after a long day. Although we were not in a malaria zone gin & tonics were the way to go as they are “medicinal” and delicious!

The game drive promised to be fantastic with a cruise up the Hoarusib River to spot elephants, giraffe, oryx, and maybe even desert lions. There was water in the riverbed here but as our guide, Bravo, explained, the animals always know how to find water. The water table is very high, so a little digging often produces water. If that doesn’t work there are numerous plants that have a high moisture content to ensure survival. Bravo is a superb guide and taught us a lot about animal tracks and the ubiquitous dung found along our drive. What looked like fresh tracks and dung to us was really several days old. We did manage to finally find an enormous elephant that was happily grazing right along the riverbed. Once again, until this guy moved, we were not going to see it. This is really incredible given that the foliage was not that dense and the animal is huge.

As we returned to camp we were surprised by an absolutely scrumptious lunch set up right on the beach. We had spectacular weather this day and after lunch enjoyed a lovely stroll along the ocean. This was a time for reflection at our good fortune to be in this amazing place, especially with how challenging travel is these days.

Our final destination was the high Namib desert and red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. We departed the Skeleton Coast with a glorious flight along the shore, spotting numerous shipwrecks along the way. As we approached the Namib desert the landscape changed dramatically from white sand to red sand. The red sand dunes are iconic Namibia and one of the most popular stops for visitors. The final lodge was Kulala Desert Lodge and was equally amazing to our previous accommodation. The high desert means chilly nights and hot days with very little if any cloud cover.

As a proper finale to our epic Namibia safari we treated ourselves to a hot air balloon ride over the Namib desert. This was nothing short of incredible! Waking up at 4am is not easy, especially when it is 36F out! Brrr! We set off and were treated to one of the most beautiful vistas many of us had ever seen. There was a rare fog bank blanketing the desert, resulting in an eerie and moody view. The guides were very excited about this event as it is quite unusual. Our balloon glided quietly as the desert woke up and started to get active. We encountered four male ostrich making their way, oblivious to our presence. It was magical to witness the sun rising over the desert and once again we were reminded of our good fortune! The balloon ride finished with a robust and delicious breakfast complete with champagne and fresh orange juice. This, my friends, is living.

A visit to the famed red sand dunes of Sossusvlei capped off our superb safari experience. We had a terrific guide, Rachel, who explained the natural history of the region and guided us on a moderate walk through the dunes. Although the dunes shift to a degree, they tend to maintain the same shape and size over time. Our trek took us to Deadvlei, a small salt pan at the base of two large dunes. Although the vision of dead trees might seem macabre, the stark beauty of the area quickly replaces any feeling of harshness. The red color is a result of the high iron content in the sand and the consequent oxidation process. These are the highest sand dunes in the world with the highest being Dune 7, about 1275 feet high. Oryx, springbok, ostrich and jackals thrive here!

This epic adventure had to come to an end at some point. As with all expeditions the combination of spectacular scenery, fascinating cultural encounters, striking animals, great friends and cold beer elevate the experience from great to exceptional. This is what it means to travel. We challenge our comfort zone and live robustly, joyously. Namibia is beautiful and was made even better by the intrepid adventurers who made the journey.

Until the next adventure!

- Amy Christopher