Namibia – Tales from December 2020 to January 2021
I have to be honest so much has happened during 2021 that I haven’t even been able to blog. But this year I was able to learn a lot from life and my travels again and I look forward to sharing it in this and future blog posts.
So at the end of December I made the decision to leave Europe and travel to Africa for an indefinite period of time. I just wanted to stay in Africa for a very long period and really explore the continent, even with the goal of finding a place to live for a while. I hadn’t traveled much in Africa before and since it has more than 50 countries, its diversity and beauty are its biggest draws.
Travel Route in Namibia
Before the trip, I thought up a travel route that went something like following: Etosha National Park: 2-3 days of wildlife watching. There is no public transport in the park, so you either have to take part in an organized tour or you need your own vehicle.
Lüderitz: Surreal relic from the colonial era – a Bavarian village on the windswept Atlantic coast of the Namib Desert. I wanted to see the Diamond Hill with its ‘rock church’. The Lüderitz Museum illustrates the history of the town and the life of the region’s early settlers.
Fish River Canyon: Canyon that is 160 km long and up to 27 km wide. The main information office for the area is located at Hobas on the north side of the park. With its picnic areas, camping facilities and hiking trails, the place offers good infrastructure and is at the same time a perfect base for excursions to the most beautiful viewpoints.
Go on day trips, either in the north at Hobas or in the south at Ai-Ais. This place also has one of the most pleasant hot springs in the country. In Ai-Ais there is a campsite, rooms and bungalows. There is no public transport to the canyon itself.
Sesriem Canyon: One day hike.
Swakopmund: Urban city with a lot of culture and backpacker vibes; I wanted to do sandboarding there.
Namib Naukluft Nationalpark
Sossuvslei: Famous dune fields. The constantly changing dunes of the Namib Desert are one of the biggest highlights of Namibia.
Deadvlei: Small pan surrounded by dunes in the Namib Sand Sea. The Deadvlei is part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and similar to the nearby Sossusvlei.
I visited all those great places, except Fish River Canyon, because the rented car got stuck in mud, but more on that later.
History of Namibia
I know that a lot of people are not interested in history, but as someone who was born in Germany; Namibian history is a bit delicate and very important to me.
Precolonial History of Namibia
Namibia’s history seems to be recent; however this is partly due to the fact that pre-colonial history was never written down according to the colonial powers, strange huh? Archaeological evidence shows that people inhabited Namibia at least 25,000 years ago, and today Namibia is a diverse country of hunters, gatherers and many different cultural groups.
Namibia History: The Scramble for Africa
Four tribes I heard about during my trip through Namibia are the Bushmen, San people, Herero and Nama (sadly famous due to the genocide to the Hereros and Namas during the German colonial period).
Also, something you might have seen on TV is the paste called Otjize made from butter, dar and ocher, which Himba women put on their skin to protect themselves from the rough desert climate in Namibia.
Europeans in Namibia
A Portuguese guy called Diogo Cao passing by Namibia stopped briefly at the Skeleton Coast in 1485. Lüderitz and the famous Walvis Bay were the two famous stops of sailor Barholomeu Dias who stopped at Walvis Bay and Luderitz on his way around the Cape of Good Hope.
In the late 18th century, the Dutch authority took control of Walvis Bay (the name is obviously Dutch huh?). When the United Kingdom took control of Cape Colony in 1797 they also took over Walvis Bay (pretty popular I guess).
Later when the land around got annexed by the British, the Dutch were escaping to Cape Colony to the south and the Germans proclaimed the establishment of German South West Africa by Chancellor Bismarck in 1884 (this is an epiphany – now I understand why so many people talked to me in Afrikaans).
During the First World War, the South African forces gained control of German South West Africa. Namibia gained in a guerilla war independence from South Africa in 1989. To this day, Germany and Namibia have strong diplomatic ties.
First impression of Namibia and Windhoek
After the somewhat unfortunate course of events during my trip in Tanzania, I didn’t know exactly what to expect in Namibia. But my first impressions of Windhoek were that it was a beautiful city, very organized and smooth traffic. Nobody disturbs you – unfortunately that happened to me quite often when I traveled around Ethiopia and Tanzania.
To put it into a nutshell, Windhoek is a good starting point to rent a 4×4 car and from which to explore Namibia. Namibia is seriously a great entry-level country if you have never been to Africa. Just think of around 2 million inhabitants in an area that is about twice the size of Germany – Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the whole world.
New Year in Swakopmund
If you are really homesick for Germany, Swakopmund is almost the embodiment of the German colonial era of Namibia. Even in Windhoek there is the world-famous “Joe’s Beerhouse” where you feel more or less like in Bavaria.
Eventually my friend Felix and I ate German cuisine at the Swakopmund Brauhaus restaurant for New Year in Swakopmund (I can’t tell apart Pap from Kenyan Ugali, besides the different name. I wasn’t really convinced by Namibian cuisine).
Germans Committed Genocide in Namibia
Swakopmund is beautiful, and I stayed there for a few days. In the morning I often ran on the beach, went for different walks on a daily basis, and visited the museum (which I highly recommend because it exhibits the German colonial time in Namibia). Honestly, I have to admit that I find it very strange how positively Namibia seems to process German colonial times, even though the Germans committed genocide against the Namas and Hereros.
Sandboarding Into 2021
Of course, I immediately went sandboarding for the New Year. The Namibians usually barbeque on the beach at this time, which I thought somewhat funny, but it is one of their leisure activities.
I visited Walvis Bay to see the flamingos. I soaked up all the sunrays and since we were in the southern hemisphere I was happy to have such great temperate and warm weather compared to the cold European winter.
Sandboarding is just splendidly fun; I recommend it to everyone who is fond of sports like skateboarding, surfing or snowboarding. I made a good friend right away: Arun, my Indian friend who has lived in Namibia for few years and works for a supermarket chain called Choppies, which is commonly seen in southern Africa. Of course it is not surprising that all Choppies in South Africa or Botswana I encountered reminded me of him.
The day we met at sandboarding he offered to host me at his place in Windhoek once returning. I immediately accepted the offer and stayed with Arun for a couple of days in Windhoek at the end of my Namibia trip watching some Bollywood movies together in the evening, haha.
Etosha National Park
Africa… One often thinks of wild animals. A self-drive to one of the national parks is a MUST in Namibia. Etosha National Park is unique because it is famous for the salt pan called Etosha Pan (pretty creative name, huh?). Which you can even see from space!
It’s worth it if you have a car with a tent on the roof to camp like the Toyota Hilux. Gas and kitchen appliances with a refrigerator are included in the rental, so all you have to do is buy food and spend a few days in the national park.
Listening to the elephants and hyenas in the evening, I think… that’s life, and I am very grateful to be able to experience it all. Seeing the Milky Way gives me a feeling of the insignificance of human beings on earth but at the same time also the feeling of appreciation. I try to capture moments here and now as they are, because they will never be the same again.
I wished to see rhinos since I hadn’t seen any in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania… and boom! At least 5 different rhinos were spotted on my independent drive through the national park. You have to be lucky of course, but a bit of positive optimism and strong belief never hurts.
Climate Change & Protection of Rhinos
As you know, one can never be so sure of how things will go looking ahead to the seriousness of climate change in Africa. Many animals find less and less food due to severe drought within the past few years, and in the long run they will try to move on to places where humans reside, which is happening in Botswana already.
It is great that visitors in Etosha are not allowed to write down on the sighting board where they spotted rhinos in order to protect them from poachers not to find them (a kg of a horn of a rhino is sadly worth 65.000 USD on the Chinese black market). Nowadays they are very much threatened with extinction.
Wild camping under the stars, Sesriem Canyon and Moon Valley
When I think of Namibia, I will always remember romantic wild camping under the clear stars in the middle of the vast, barren landscape of Namibia. The Milky Way, cooking on the gas stove in darkness with nothing more than a headlamp on, waking up with the first sun, the sunrays on your face, and living more and more in the moment instead of worrying about the unstoppable future.
On my road trip I visited the impressive Sesriem Canyon, which is around five million years old. It is approximately a kilometer long and up to 30 meters deep, mostly made of sedimentary rock.
I stopped by the nearby Moon Valley, an expansive lunar-like landscape. The name is even the same as that of the Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert.
Namib Naukluft National Park
Sossuvlei and the infinitely large sand dunes of Namibia
Anyone who knows a bit about the geography and geology of Africa, when they think of Namibia will conjure up images of large sand dunes. So do I!
How incredible it is to drive through the Namib Naukluft National Park and witness the beauty of sand dunes with all their different names on the boards.
I love the desert, from Atacama to Wadi Rum in Jordan; deserts always hold something mystical and mysterious in my opinion…
You can drive for hours in this national park and not stop being amazed. I am fascinated by the fact that no matter how much a person could try to leave a footprint of them in the sand, it will constantly change anyway and no imprint can be left. While new sand is constantly being deposited by the wind on the windward side of the dune, the sand slips on the leeward side of the dune ridge, so the leeward side of the dune is always the steeper.
Climbing Big Mama Dune
“Big Daddy” is one of the highest sand dunes in the world, so of course I couldn’t resist at least conquering “Big Mama” dune. Even in the afternoon heat, climbing a 245m dune is a fun and slightly exhausting adventure. Beware: it is quite a sporting achievement to climb this soft and slippery sand – the ascent to the dune ridge can really be a challenge, especially in extreme heat. But at the top you will be rewarded with a wonderful view of the surrounding area – a wide view of the sand dunes and pans surrounding the dunes.
Salvador Dali in Dead Vlei
Dune 45 is the most popular dune to watch the spectacular sunrise in the desert. Between the dunes there are the so-called “vleis” meaning pans or shallow lakes, which take you into a completely surreal, bizarre world. Deadvlei is only 6 kilometers from Sossusvlei. If you want, you can also hike from Sossusvlei to Deadvlei in about 1-2 hours. It feels like being in a surreal Salvador Dali painting (one of my favorite surrealist painters).
Dead Vlei looks totally bizarre with all the dead camel thorn trees. The slowly-desiccating and sun-scorched trees have a strong contrast to the light clay soil of the pan, the orange tangerine dunes and blue sky around them. If you are still traveling with your own car, you should definitely visit the Hidden Vlei, which is off the beaten track and more difficult to reach.
Life in the dessert: Welwitschia Mirabilis
The plant which fascinated me most on my trip in Namibia is Welwitschia Mirabilis, endemic to the Namib Desert within Namibia and Angola.
Welwitschia Mirabilis is known as one of the oldest living plants on this planet and can thus be called a ‘living fossil’. This incredible plant can live up to 2,000 years and only produces two leaves during its long life! The leaves grow continuously (yes you read it right – continuously) and can be up to 6 meters long. With increasing age, the leaves tear open again and again, simulating several leaves (reincarnation in its pure form I guess).
The camel thorn trees in the Namib dessert are also important sources of shade. Its yellow flowers bloom from July to November and are an important source of nutrition for insects.
Regardless of all this, I was searching for a delicacy mushroom and wanted to try it: Termitomyces schimperi. The fungus grows on termite mounds and is only found on the high hills of central and northern Namibia, where the average rainfall is 350 mm or more. But I couldn’t find or taste it on this trip – maybe on the next one.
Lüderitz and the history of diamonds in Kolmannskuppe
Lüderitz is a Namibian port city on the Lüderitz Bay. I did not explore much of Lüderitz but used it as a base to visit the ‘rock church’ of Lüderitz, the Bartholomeu Diaz Point of the Lüderitz peninsula, where the wind almost blew me away. I reckon Lüderitz is German narrow-mindedness manifested in a city which is an old relic from the German colonial era.
Highlight near Lüderitz: The ghost town Kolmannskuppe, aka Kolmanskop. The place is about ten kilometers east of the port city of Lüderitz in the Tsau-ǁKhaeb restricted area. What fascinates me again and again wherever I travel, be it in Chernobyl to the ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala, is that nature always takes back everything that humans had wrested from her.
This is also the case with Kolmanskop. The houses are dilapidated and the sand piles meters high in the ruins. Now a museum has been set up, but you can only gain entry with guided tours. Entry is strictly controlled as diamonds are still being mined in the restricted area and smuggling needs to be prevented.
In the Kolmannskuppe Museum and during the guided tours, you can learn a lot about spectacular diamond smuggling attempts, among other stuff. I still recall a story which gave me goosebumps: one of the diamond miners had actually inflicted a wound in the back of his skull to hide one of the diamonds, over which the skin healed over time until he could leave the diamond mines at Kolmanskop. Too bad that he got caught before he left. I had a queasy feeling walking through all the old and abandoned buildings and ghost towns – it’s really not my cup of tea.
A little adventure is always a great story to share
Rental car stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere – YAY!
On the way to the Fish River Canyon, Google Maps suggested a strange shortcut. Listen to your logical brain next time Hong, even though I don’t think this reminder works. It’s just dumb if you don’t read anywhere that there is construction work going on and the road is dangerously muddy due to rainy season. Well what can you do? I think life would be too boring anyway without experiencing an adventure on a road trip.
Of course, the 4×4 Toyota Hilux got unsalvageably stuck in the mud. So what next? Shoveling the mud didn’t help, nor did a flat piece of wood that I tied to one of the drive wheels, then accelerating the car to free it. I still see it in a positive light because I saw a beautiful sunset that day. The disadvantage was that it was getting dark and I was in the middle of nowhere. Should I spend the night in the car and hope someone passes by in the morning to help? In the middle of nowhere?
I actually doubt it.
Luckily I still had phone reception. So I called the emergency number of the car rental company, who then contacted the nearest towing service in the next township.
Fortunately, a man came before the darkness enveloped. We were able to pull the car out of the mud with tension belt and rope. Kind of missed curfew time but luckily we weren’t stopped by the police. Yes, there was a curfew in Namibia during Covid which everyone adhered to.
My backpacker’s daily budget was completely exceeded, but better than sleeping in the middle of nowhere in the cold, right?
Lesson from the misère: stay calm and enjoy the sunset. Then come up with a list of solutions. And finally, just laugh about it – it could always be worse.
Namibia brings my soul an indescribable, wonderful peace. The loneliness made me reflect; Nobody got on my nerves and so I will always keep Namibia among my great memories. I apologize about the delay of this post. In upcoming blog posts you can read a lot more about my trip around Africa in 2021.