A few weeks ago I didn’t know anything about Namibia, other than the fact that the new Mad Max was filmed there (and even that didn’t mean much – I still haven’t seen it). I just figured the country had a lot of desert. I also noticed their rugby team was full of white guys when they came to play in New Zealand, so I presumed the country had some European elements too. Other than that I knew nothing (like my buddy Jon Snow).
Namibia turned out to be a nice surprise. Quick history lesson: The Germans got here first. They came and built all this German looking stuff (really straight roads, parallel lines, geometry nerd stuff). Then in WW1 the South Africans came and smoked the Germans and took over. They enforced apartheid and turned it into a second South Africa. Later on when Europe started granting African colonies independence, South Africa refused (I guess they really liked the sand dunes or something). Even the UN ordered South Africa to get outta there but they didn’t want to. That’s when “South West Africa”, as it was known back then, got a liberation army together, did some guerilla stuff and finally got independence in 1990. Namibia was born.
Namibia seems to fit that history nicely. At only 27 years old, it feels like a resilient adolescent, still choosing a path, working hard to be seen, searching for an identity. But it also feels like a place not too sure of its voice yet, and not stomping its feet too loudly. More Khalid than Kanye (how you like that for a music reference!)
Here’s a quick recap of my tour around the country.
This is where we started, but lasting first impressions were made before we even reached the town. As we made the long drove up from Walvis Bay airport, we passed miles of untouched coastline. The water was brimming with endless peeling 4 foot waves, not a single surfer out there. I’d barely been in the country 15 minutes, but had already pledged to come back with a surfboard and shake hands with that ocean. Hopefully sometime soon.
We got to the town of Swakopmund around 40 minutes later. It’s a sleepy place of around 70,000 – a small main square, typical of most small towns, with many different coloured faces walking around. Quite cosmopolitan. This is also a good launching point to visit the famous Namibian dunes (I’ll get to that soon).
We didn’t do much here. Walked around town, strolled along the beach, wandered through all the supermarkets. The German influence is very apparent, similar to other German-developed towns on the continent. There’s a little bit of edge to this place too. It has a few fancy restaurants, long stretches of beach, a lot of sunshine. It’s very brown and sandy, like the desert, but it has everything you need. Other than that, I can’t tell you much. I only stayed one night.
From Swakopmund we headed to Windhoek – an interesting name for a capital. I looked into where that name came from; nobody seems to know for sure. Also for some reason the only photo I have is of the supermarket, so that’s all I can show you right now!
The rest I shall illustrate with words. First, in the foot of that photo you’ll see a display of little packets of meat. That’s biltong, Namibia’s answer to beef jerky. I ate many packets in one week. You must try it.
As for Windhoek itself, it’s very low energy for a capital, at least during the day. There are shopping streets and malls, like any other you’d see around the world, lots of appealing restaurants, people of all colours walking around, a noticeably hip fashion sense. It’s almost a mini Johannesburg. I didn’t really get a chance to explore, but it feels young. I can imagine there’s a fun social scene behind the curtain, if you get the chance to look.
Another thing I noticed were a lot of luxury cars – a Mercedes or BMW around almost every corner, sparkling as if they get waxed every morning. Where does all this money come from?
On the flipside, there’s a more modest side to Windhoek too. Close density housing with the telling sea of corrugated iron rooves, winding mazes of dusty roads and pop-up shops. But passing through these areas always saw crowds of kids running and playing in the streets, gates left open, people riding bikes around. Things like that are usually a sign it’s a safe and close-knit community, rather than areas of hopelessness or crime.
Around the streets of Windhoek I got a lot of smiles, waves, curious stares. It felt like a friendly place.
My 48 hour impression was: Windhoek is cool. You could have a lot of fun here.
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa. It’s quite a drive up from Windhoek (around five hours), although this seems to be a standard component of most African safaris. Safari parks aren’t just sitting in the middle of cities, after all.
On our first game drive we saw all the standard stuff (zebras, giraffes, elephants, impalas, warthogs). We didn’t get to see many cats, save for a couple of distant sleeping lions. Compared to the Serengeti, where you see a good handful of lions every day (and sometimes cheetahs and leopards, if you’re lucky) it was a bit lacklustre.
After setting up camp that night, we headed off to see the waterhole. This is something cool about the Etosha campsites. They’ve built them around waterholes, so even during the night, you can walk over to the waterhole (fenced, obviously), and see if there is any wildlife wandering around. They’ve been set up like little stadiums, so you can sit there for hours (all night if you want to, it’s 24 hours) and watch life in the wild unfold.
This touches on what Etosha really has going for it – there might not be as many lions or leopards around, but the campsites are super well maintained. When I camped in the Serengeti it was like going to war in the 1920’s. We all tented up on a large patch of dirt, no facilities, the toilets were some of the skankiest I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t pay me to use them again.
Etosha is the opposite. The campsites are run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, and have hot showers, real toilets, soap and toilet paper. There’s wifi (for a fee), swimming pools, and shops where you can buy snacks, booze and souvenirs. At each camping post there are also plugs where you can charge your phone and camera. And that’s for the campers. I imagine the actual suites are lavish.
They even had a cable TV where I managed to catch the Mayweather v McGregor fight at 4 in the morning in the middle of nowhere. Go Etosha!
I’m not really an animal kind of guy, after a couple of safaris, gorillas and Galapagos, I think I’m done with the wildlife thing. But if you’re looking to do your first safari, Etosha isn’t a bad choice at all.
Sossusvlei is an area of the Namib Desert, a UNESCO heritage site and also home to the famous Dune 45 and the world’s biggest sand dune, Big Daddy.
If you hadn’t guessed, the desert is vast. This is a good place to come if you want to feel small and insignificant (and hot and sweaty). You need to take a tour to visit this place, indie travel would be difficult here.
On our first day, we woke before sunrise and climbed up Dune 45 to catch the sunrise. It’s a steep but rewarding climb, if you can manage to wake that early. Not so many do, so it’s got a small crowd, but not an overwhelming one.
From there we took a 6km trek over to Big Daddy. It was packed with tourists when we got there, and the sun was really dishing out punishment. For reasons I won’t go into (let’s just say Germans aren’t always punctual and Chinese tourists do some really weird shit sometimes) we were a few hours behind schedule and didn’t have time to climb the monster dune. Ideally I would’ve been able to sit here right now and tell you I’ve climbed the world’s biggest sand dune! Sadly I cannot, but I’m sure one of you will be able to do it for me 😉 It would be a stunning view from the top, if you ever get the chance.
As for the campsites out in Sossusvlei, they’re just as good as Etosha – good showers, a bar, a pool, power sockets, real toilets. Not a bad place to spend a few days on the road.
That was my week in Namibia. Short, but interesting, different from what I expected.
For a country that’s only 27 years old, it impresses. The streets are clean, supermarkets well stocked and there are coffee shops and shopping malls that wouldn’t look out of place in Europe or Australia. Lots of nice houses line the wealthier streets. Things are orderly and well kept, people relaxed and it’s hard to feel unsafe walking in the main areas. Some of it is certainly the Africa you see on television, but much of it is not. Of course it lacks a few things, like a good public transport system and zippy internet, but for a country barely out of its teens you can let that slide (let’s be fair, New Zealand doesn’t have those things either, even after a few centuries). Like with all good things, it’ll come in time. Besides, they make up for it with the best bacon biltong in the world!
If you’re ever in that part of the world, I’d say it’s well worth the journey over. Don’t forget your surfboard.