7 days across the desert
I wrote this journal just after celebrating your birthday and spending the better part of a month on the road throughout rural southern Africa permanently attached to your hip. You've been the best "adventurer in crime" and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to explore the edge of the world times over with you. I’ll be honest that I was a bit apprehensive going into this one knowing I'd be spending more than four thousand kilometers in a car with only you, but we came out even stronger than ever. In retrospect, I'm still a little flabbergasted that we didn't strangle each other at multiple times throughout the journey, but somehow we're both still sitting here.
You’ve been such a hugely exciting (and often educational) value add to my life. I’m not sure this post can truly explain how much I appreciate you as my best friend, sounding board, mentor, and wanderlust partner, but you really are a special one. So happy to be here to celebrate the birth of such a cool cucumber who always shares the food, puts up with my Google Maps incompetency, patiently accepts my innumerable requests for photos, and laughs off my idiosyncrasies with a smile (I promise I’ll leave the safari bag back home next time).
I look forward to many more days of laughter as you continue to mock my frequently ill-thought out life plans, and racking up more air miles together than most flight attendants.
So here's to you Bagus, and a little reminder of our adventures....
MAY 1 – Car time: 6 hours
Arriving in Namibia's capital of Windhoek - population 230K - Benji went down to the car rental shop to collect our transportation for the week. Little did I know that he'd booked us a 4x4 off-roading monster truck with a two-man tent fixed to the top that expands into a camping bonanza (we literally slept on the roof all week!). I knew he had spent some time preparing for this adventure, but I had no clue he was so committed to our camping experience! While I'll admit I was a little skeptical about the comfort (and safety) in this foreign African nation surrounded by some of the most threatening wild animals on earth, it ended up being one of the coolest sleeping arrangements I’ve ever experienced. And, since I really didn’t have a choice in the matter, I set aside my irrational fears of becoming a lion’s dinner and we set out for Etosha National Park, a 5 hour drive due north of the capital.
While there are only two million people domiciled in Namibia, they are scattered across an expanse of bushland and desert more than three times the size of the entire United Kingdom, making it the second most densely populated independent nation on the planet. So our ambitious objective of touring the main attractions meant close to 40 hours in the car, and that's still missing nearly half the countryside. Though based on feedback from fellow explorers, the vistas are so diverse it would be a tragedy to miss any of the landscapes.
So off we went, with a goal of driving through all of the Central Plateau, the Namib Desert, the Great Escarpment, the Bushveld, and the Kalahari Desert - astask which meant being car bound for north of 3300 kilometers. We had big plans to share the driving responsibilities here, but once Benji handed over the driving reins for a brief while and realized that my skills on the left side of the road made being a passenger acutely more stressful than just doing it himself, we negotiated a new driving schedule. He was even so consumed with monitoring my driving skills that we took a wrong turn and ended up 150 kilometers east of our intended trek, on the farthest side of the park.
As a result of our off-roading, we landed ourselves at the eastern gate of Namuntoni just before dusk, but unfortunately since they don’t permit driving in the dark here due to the high likelihood of an animal jumping out into the car, we were resigned to a camp just on the perimeter of the reserve grounds. The grounds were far less primitive than one would expect when camping out of an SUV in the middle of western Africa, with hot meals, showers, and wifi among the amenities provided.
MAY 2 – Car time: 5 hours
We awoke bright and early to enter the park gates upon sunrise. Game rules only permit park access between sunrise and sunset so as to restrict night time driving. Not coincidentally, the best times of the day to quest for animal activity are also sunrise and sunset, when the temperature has dropped and the beating sun has relinquished for the day. This meant we really had limited scouting hours so naturally we set off with serious intent for some animal porn.
Our first stop was a watering hole watching a herd of zebras trying desperately to reach the pool to drink, anxiously hovering but reluctant because there were a small pack of hyenas (which we just learned eat zebras) inconveniently sunbathing around the perimeter. It was quite comical watching the zebras staring with trepidation, conflicted as to whether their thirst was critical enough to risk being the hyena's next meal. Unfortunately we didn't see much in the way of real action though, and eventually the cowards retreated and sought another source of hydration elsewhere.
After a whole day of driving more than 150km through the park with few sightings beyond the fairly abundant springbok, kudus and wildebeests, we decided to head in for food just before sunset. Literally on our way into the gated campsite we noticed a line of jeeps all watching something exciting. We posted up in front, searching for whatever these safari keeners had found. We finally spotted the Mrs, the king of the jungle's lady - the Lioness! Shortly after, we spotted another, and another and a few more all perched around each other. And sure enough the King himself was lazing in the sun not far from his harem! Suddenly one lady, presumably the Boss Lady of the crew, decided she wanted to go for a jaunt across the path we were parked on. And one by one, the other girls followed suit, all walking nervously close to our car. We waited and waited, but the boss seemed to be making a statement of independence, refusing to leave his post to chase his women. When he finally conceded and trotted across the road, he came so close to our car we had to roll up the windows in case he jumped.What a way to end the day, just pure nature magic!
We continued driving west towards the most popular camping facility inside the gates. We spent the night at the trailer park there, which also doubled as a high end cabin resort for tourists looking for a more lux experience. The lush bungalows overlooked another watering hole that was lit all evening for night spotting, so we spent a few hours marveling at the migration of the zebras and elephants, with hundreds of them systematically marching to the lake and back, all politely taking their turns splashing and drinking. I imagine they were much happier about this experience than the group earlier in the day!
MAY 3 - Car time: 9.5 hours
Up for sunrise again and checked out of campgrounds for one last joy ride through the park. We didn't find much in the way of animal activity but we did see some pretty crazy carcuses. Of the Big Five we saw the Elephant and the Lions, but disappointingly none of the other giants in the desert. Shame. Our overall experience here led us to the conclusion that those who find themselves on guided game reserve treks are probably partaking in some form of coordinated or perhaps even manipulated game hunt. We have no evidence to validate that assumption, but based on the feedback from the pricey tours we heard about, it appears this may be the case.
Either way, we needed to hit the road as our journey as we still had a paralyzing 30+ hours ahead of us and we weren't exactly blessed with the luxury of time. En route to the western coast of Africa we took a pit stop at the Petrified forest in Khorixas - which is an accumulation of enormous fossilized tree trunks about 280 million years old. While the site itself isn't overly impressive, the transformation of these trees is quite magnificent. Due to enormous pressure and over a period of millions of years, these formerly wooden trees had been dissolved by silicic acid and replaced by quartz, which is silicic acid in crystalline state. The result is perfectly conserved and completely "petrified" trunks, that visually appeared to be tree wood, but upon touch, felt more similar to steel. Pretty damn cool if you ask me.
The next four hours to the coast were like driving through a Mad Max scene. We drove completely alone for dozens of miles, on a singular gravel and sand road (which could have made an excellent rally course), surrounded by sharp mountains on all sides that eventually transformed into white dunes and flat desert roads. We were quite literally the only people around, and both kept praying we'd make it to the next gas station with our tank, and our tires wouldn't cross too much trouble (with the recent PTSD from Afrika Burn looming in our memories). It was quite possibly the most beautiful place we'd ever seen....yet.
To add to the magic of this Elysium, as we neared the entrance to the next national park, we spotted a giraffe hiding out behind a little bush. Since we'd been so starved of wildlife in Etosha, we decided to test the vehicle and off-road to chase him for a little bit. The gentle giant casually loped ahead of us through the rocky terrain until we finally decided we'd given him enough of a hard time and continued on our way to the Skeleton Coast.
Another two hours later we reached the Torra conservancy park, which among many of the stressful time crunches we needed to be wary of. The gates to the park didn't allow visitors to enter past 3pm before they we locked for the evening, and we'd have been stuck in the middle of the desert solo, camping out amongst the giraffes and whatever other giant wild animals were lurking for the evening. Whilst we were well-equipped for camping, the idea of sharing the desert floor with no more protection than a thin canvas tent with not a single other human for hundreds of miles, wasn't particularly appealing.
Namibia has felt incredibly unique in how quickly terrain changes, and how drastically different each location is. By the time we hit the far side of the park, we had gone from a bucolic desert with exalted mountains and yellow sand with coral-like rocks, to talcum-powder white sand, with velvety dunes for as far as the eye can see. We drove through the park to the water's edge, an area known colloquially as "Skeleton Coast", and referred to by the Khoisan Bushmen of the interior as ‘the land God created in anger’. Evidently the cold water of the Atlantic’s Benguela current collides with dry, warm, air of the Namib Desert and the resulting cold, dense fog extends far out to the sea. The resultant wind and currents combined produce a force pulling inexorably towards the coast which have led to sailors to loose their bearings and end up abandoned in the inhospitable conditions of the shallow waters. This desolate area whilst visually stunning, is littered with hundreds of ships that met their demise in the maelstrom of the coastal shores. Rusty remnants of ocean liners and trawlers, galleons, clippers and gunboats line the shores, just a testament to the treacherous winds and ruthless current.
The land was equally majestic as it was eerie, and as the sun set on our surroundings, the realization that we were entirely alone in a notoriously capricious environment haunted by unexpected tragedy, dawned on us and we beelined for the park exit. As the dusk turned into darkness, we calculated a four hour drive straight down the coast, with a gas station at the midway point. As it turned out, we were visiting in the low season, and many of the small villages had packed up for the winter, which included the sleepy town that housed the only petrol station. So there we were, completely alone, 150km from the nearest town, and approximately 148km from running out of gas. That was if our odometer was properly functioning, and in this borderline broken-down off-roader was working in our favour (and of course if the next town was indeed a town and there was a legitimate gas station). So many permutations running through our minds as to how we could escape this precarious situation alive! Not surprisingly, this was not our first time in this situation together, and surely it wouldn't be our last.
Notwithstanding our poor planning, and the rotating fears we tried to pacify, we made it safely to the next town south of the ocean's graveyard, an unexpectedly developed surf town called Swakopmund - pr. "swa-kop-mond". Arriving here was like coming home. The desert and sea met in a serenely foggy town which felt like comfort food after the grueling desert. The drive down the coast was not only nerve-racking due to the threatening gas tank, but the roads became increasingly asperous, turning from the soft coastal sand to a gravel road that was uncomfortably reminiscent to the drive to Afrika Burn just days before. We didn't fare well on that journey, so needless to say, we were extra cautious on this trip. Relieved to have reached civilization alive, we got a room in the best hotel in town, celebrated our arrival with some of the region's local wine, and had our first showers since leaving Windhoek 4 days prior.
MAY 4 - Car time: 5.5 hours
Today was intended to be a fairly relaxed today (relatively speaking), with plans to spend the day in the surf town and surroundings, heading down to Walvis Bay, a small fishing village famous for its dune riding and sunset views. Though after a couple hours hurdling the highest dunes in the barren desert and concluding that the town had perhaps been a bit overstated, we troubleshooted and decide to kick off on another multi-hour road trip south. Our initial plans were to take off for the famous Namib Desert at dawn, but given our abridged time in the country, we thought a better use of our time was to head south that evening to maximize our daylight hours for sightseeing. In most other countries, this would be a reasonable decision, and an effective use of our time. The complicating factor however is that Namibia is famous for its poor quality of back roads and travelers are routinely cautioned against driving at night (even car insurance doesn't cover accidents after dark). But naturally we decide we were the exception to this rule, and set off for another five hours towards the monolithic dunes.
Now this was one hell of a drive. Benji's hands were clutched so tightly to the steering wheel that his knuckles were nearly as white as mine, and I don't think his gaze left the immediate road in front of us other than for the occasional pee stop. The road(s) down were an unfriendly combination of gravel, jagged rocks, and loose sand. Evidently the experience of the gravel road beneath your wheels becoming so corrugated it rattles your teeth is not unfamiliar to locals, and they endearingly call it an "African massage". This is the "secondary road network", and is frequently unmarked on GPS navigation, making for a lot of missed turns and confused travelers. The only thing keeping us sane during the late-night roadie were the herds of zebras, elephants and springboks and wildebeest. They hopped abound next to the car as if we were one of them, and entertained us gleefully running down the mountains and across bridges freely.
Mid-way down a narrow dirt road in absolute darkness with the closest town being 50km back, we ran into a pair of truckers stopped in a broken-down transport. They claimed their phones were both dead, and needed a lift back to the nearest town. Ordinarily my instinct would be to help out to the best of our ability, but we were both so on edge about the conditions and our traumatic petrol situation the day prior, we reluctantly only offered them a quick phone call to help. As we drove away we instantly regretted not helping out more, but the situation was far too uncomfortable for us risk our safety in the secluded wilderness.
A few hours later, we felt like we braved a battle when we saw signs for Sesriem and earned ourselves a proper night's sleep after this never ending day. Curveball though, the planned campsite reception was empty and gate was locked. Go figure. Nothing was going to be easy on this trip. Life wanted us to deserve this trip, that was for sure! But we ended up charming the local guard who let us share his parking spot for a few hours of shut-eye before taking off to the darling of the Namib first thing.
MAY 5 - Car time: 7.5 hours
Another early start before sunrise for the final stretch to Sossusvlei - the crown jewel of the desert. We were instructed to climb one of the two famous dunes just as the sun was rising to view the world's tallest dunes with two distinct colours where the sun had yet to cast its rays on the far side. We were told it was one of the world's most insistently jaw-dropping, unadulterated natural landscapes, the topological equivalent to the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal. So off we went, planning to ascend both dunes before the sun crested and made any exercise unbearably hot.
Dune 45 was a bit too tourist-filled so we opted to take on the Big Daddy - the mammoth 325 metre sand mountain. We scaled the spine of the dune as the first ones up, and despite taking dozens of water breaks along the way, were rewarded with an unrivaled vantage point over the undulating, Martian landscape over the oldest desert on Earth. On the one side we have the sunrise peering onto us and vistas of the myriad other dunes, and behind us we have Deadvlei, a clay pan oasis checkered with dead acacia trees. These contorted trees died in the arid air more than a millennium ago - it hasn't rained in four years - but their corpses maintain a stunning backdrop against cracked floor pan. The surrealistic landscape felt like I walked right out of a scene from the Lion King. Otherworldly. That's all I can say.
We got back on the road after our pretty serious morning of hiking to drive another 6 hours further south to the deserted ghost town of Kolmanskop, just a few miles from German industrial shipping town of Luderitz. I don't think any place has left such a profound impression on me and invoked such immediate physical reactions.I I was simultaneously scared and in awe. The ghost town is immortalized in the opening scene of Samsara, by famous director Ron Fricke. Despite my knowledge of what I was about to experience, few places have hit me so viscerally; I was literally blindsided houses invaded by the desert, the anachronism to the past, with the abandoned city filled knee deep with sand. It haunted me deeply.
Kolmanskop is an abandoned diamond mining village in the Namib desert of southern Namibia, run by the famous DeBeers. They had strict rules, one of which was that equipment or vehicles that entered their facilities were never allowed to leave. In its day, Kolmanskop was incredibly wealthy and the residents used their money to recreate a German village in the savage African desert. For entertainment, there was a ballroom, theater, sport hall, bowling alley and casino. It was the location of the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere and the first tram in Africa. After World War I the diamonds began to peter out and it was too expensive to keep things going here. The ghost town has been reclaimed by the desert, sandstorms invading the structures and creating an eerie scene.
We had planned to spend the night in the nearby town of Luderitz, but we were so deeply disturbed by the whole experience we opted to keep driving back towards Windhoek where we would end our road trip. Parked in a cool camp site two hours outside the town and ready for another long day of driving tomorrow.
MAY 6 - Car time: 6 hours
Final day of driving back to Windhoek. We headed due north another 6 hours to drop the jeep in Windhoek on yet more barren dusty roads.On the most remote stretch, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn - or the line of latitude at 23.5 degrees south of the Equator - notable as it's the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be seen directly overhead. By this point, we encountered another car at most once every hour, sometimes not for more.
We arrived in Johannesburg to a fairly lux hotel after the past week of camping, and met up with Benji's friends from Maputo for a fancy dinner and clubbing in the nation's capital city. All in all, this was one hell of a journey, and quite possibly, the trip of a lifetime. Couldn't imagine a better way to do it, with a better partner.
TOTAL CAR TIME: 39.5 hours....and we're both still alive, and actually talking! This has to be some kind of record.