Surviving Namibia

A novice camper explores Namibia with her family and discovers the most beautiful country in the world and a secret talent for erecting tents
By Christina Castle

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This, I said to the boys, is not going to be a fancy holiday. Not that we really do fancy holidays. But I felt I had to justify the dicey spot I’d booked us into last minute just the other side of the Namibian border. 
 
“It’s going to be more of an adventure holiday,” I added. “You know, camping, no electricity, 4x4ing, scorpions and punctured tyres…”
 
“It’s a survivor holiday, Mom,” said Alex putting it in perspective. “And that’s why I’ve brought along The Boys’ Book of Survival.” At which time he produced the little yellow book out of his backpack like they do in really bad direct-marketing TV commercials and proceeded to tell me how to survive an avalanche.
 
“Interesting, sweetheart. You don’t suppose they mention surviving ablution blocks in there as well?” I enquired. And, just for the record, they don’t.
 
On the Road
 
Well at least we were there. There being Noordoewer, Namibia, six hours north of Cape Town, and day one into a journey we’d been planning for almost a year.
 
With the Prado bursting at the seams, bikes on the back, GPS desperate to shout its directions and four excited travellers, no, adventurers, we hit the gravel road the next morning and headed for the desert.
 
Space. Sand. Silence. Three words you need to wrap around your head when it comes to the Namib Desert. And very much in that order.  Once you’ve done that you can add words like stars, gemsbok, very dry skin, fantastic hikes, bat-eared fox, dune boarding, freezing nights, mild days, stars (I know I have mentioned them already but there really were so many), springbok, filthy children, stars, ostriches, solar power, and my favourite: quiver trees.
 
Home for our first few days in the desert was a humble little farmhouse in the NamibRand Nature Reserve – no electricity, encroaching sand dunes, no cellphone reception, uninterrupted views across pale yellow plains, impressive mountains. Book in one hand and camera in the other, we could walk when we wanted to, play barefoot soccer in the sand every spare second – we could have spent weeks here.
 
But we didn’t, instead we ventured north to the famous Sossusvlei to conquer some of the largest dunes in Namibia. We only managed to get half way up the biggy but the solitude of the dunes was what we had really come for. And our quiet little spot on that beautiful fine red sand at seven in the morning was awesome.
 
Camping for Beginners
 
Swakopmund was a fix of luxury before the camping began.
 
Now I have to confess two things. One, I don’t understand why Angelina and Brad had to rush to the sleepy town of Swakopmund to have their child. Two, we are not natural born campers. We do not even own a tent. For this trip we’d cleverly hired a trailer packed full of all the things you need to go camping, which we collected in Swakopmund.
 
Namibia is an overlander’s paradise, which means you’ll share the road with experienced overlanders in their serious 4x4s with equally serious 4x4 trailers. These trailers are state-of-the-art, designed for any off-road experience and packed neatly with all the camping gadgets, plugs, drawers, kitchenware, gas bottles, satellite dishes, clothes lines, microwaves, solar panels, you name it, to make life in the bush as hassle-free and comfortable as possible. Press a button and these trailers will probably erect the tent for you and start braaing your dinner as well.
 
Our trailer was not one of these. Think Venter trailer and Os du Randt, and that’s pretty much it: not pretty, but practical. And equipped only with the stuff you need for an honest camping experience.
 
“Armand,” said Greg, my husband, as we took temporary ownership of the “tank”. “Does the tent have instructions?”
 
“No,” said Armand, the wonderful Namibian from whom we had hired our trailer. “But go to Green Sports in town. They have a tent exactly like it in the shop window. That will show you how to put it up.”
 
And that’s exactly what we did. While my 12-year-old son, Dylan, lay in the tent to examine the internal construction, Greg studied the exterior. They had it taped – we hoped.
 
Over the next nine days, as we camped our way across the north of Namibia, through Brandberg, Palmwag and Etosha, our novice camping status was promoted to “almost experienced”. By the end of it we could set up camp in under half an hour and pack up in about forty-five minutes. As for the ablution blocks in the campsites, or “pollution blocks” as my camping friend calls them, well, I survived them. And I am very proud of myself. It helps, however, that they were always incredibly clean, pretty much empty and came equipped with two-ply toilet paper.
 
But camping is more than just putting up a tent and sharing ablution blocks. It is about being together. Cooking together, chilling together, cleaning together. And it’s fantastic to do this with other families. Sharing stories, tea bags, Peaceful Sleep, red wine and food around a fire.
 
The Wild Side
 
The northern area of Namibia is wild in every sense of the word. When there’s a triangle-shaped sign on the side of the road with an elephant in it, it really means that there are elephant in the area – we can vouch for that. The gravel roads are unforgiving – we can vouch for that too. We lost our rear window when a stone ricocheted off the nose of the trailer. But the landscape is spectacular, vast and mesmerising.
 
Everything you see has a story to tell. From the 2 000-year-old rock art at Spitzkoppe and Brandberg, and the crystals and welwitschias that just lie in your path at Palmwag, to the 250 million-year-old Petrified Forest on the C39 and the equally petrified owner of a campsite in Uis. You might have to hike a bit and swat a few flies along the way, but the journey is worth it and the tales even better. The locals are sussed, helpful and proudly share their Namibia with those fortunate enough to travel there.
 
People tell you about the raw beauty of Etosha. And although most of us have seen wildlife documentaries filmed there, there is nothing quite like seeing it for yourself. No photographs or words quite do it justice. Suffice to say the camps are really well equipped, the pools are a winner and the Ola merchandiser is doing a terrific job up there – every shop in Etosha had a full freezer of Magnum ice creams. Brilliant for a hot afternoon in the bush. Not so brilliant for the backside.
 
So Long, but not Goodbye
 
Homeward bound via the Waterberg Plateau Park, Windhoek (to return the trailer) and the Fish River Canyon. Virtually tar road the entire way except for a few hundred kilometres.
 
The Waterberg Plateau Park is a fantastically lush area that was a battleground during the war between the Hereros and German forces in the early 1900s. Today it is a wildlife sanctuary that boasts awesome hiking opportunities.
 
Several hundred kilometres down the track is the Fish River Canyon. Considered the second largest canyon in the world, it’s a breathtaking experience and the most fitting way to finish our journey. We spent an entire day meandering along a 4x4 route that hugged the canyon’s edge and picnicked in absolute solitude. At night we feasted on springbok, gemsbok and ostrich at a surreal little spot littered with derelict classic cars.
 
Next stop, Cape Town. We’d travelled more than 5 000 kilometres in three short weeks. We’d experienced the wild, survived ablution blocks, had a peek at the past and can’t wait to get back there soon – trailers and all.
 
Top 10 Moments (Plus One)
 
1. Standing on the edge of the Etosha Pan.
2. Sand-boarding in the dunes at Namibrand.
3. Hiking to the White Lady paintings in the Brandberg.
4. Spotting desert elephant just minutes after we’d seen the elephant sign on the road between Palmwag and Outjo.
5. Playing soccer every afternoon with all the boys in the camp at Palmwag.
6. Witnessing three shooting stars in as many minutes in the Waterberg.
7. Picnicking on the edge of the Fish River Canyon, not another soul in site.
8. Standing in a supermarket queue in Outjo with a bare-breasted Himba woman in front of me.
9. Putting up our tent for the first time.
10. Watching black rhino and elephant drink at the Halali Camp waterhole in Etosha.
11. Devouring the most spectacular springbok fillet at the Fish River Canyon.
 
Trip Planner
Inspired to get going on your own Namibian adventure? Here are some of the websites we used.
 
transport
• I Dream Africa Adventures, email butterfly@mweb.com.na (trailer hire)
• Desert Car Hire, desert-carhire.com (4x4 hire)
 
accommodation
• NamibRand Family Hideout, hideout.iway.na (self-catering house in NamibRand)
• Namibia Wildlife Resorts, nwr.com.na (camping and self-catering chalets in Etosha)
• Nel’s Estates, nels-estates.com.na (self-catering apartments in Swakopmund)
• Palmwag Campsite, palmwag.com.na (camping, cottages and luxury ccommodation in Palmwag)

• Cañon Road House, gonwana-collection.com (camping and bed and breakfast accommodation at the Fish River Canyon)

 

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