Updated on March 16th, 2020
“Arriving into Dead Vlei with its white clay cracked floor was eerie, atmospheric, stunning & awe-inspiring all rolled into one. I picked the only log I could see, sat down & emptied the bright red sand from my boots before taking in the sight – probably one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen & a stark reminder of the harshness & beauty of nature.”
I had spent 2 weeks volunteering in a wildlife sanctuary just outside Windhoek (read Week 1 & Week 2 posts to learn more) & to make the most of my stay I wanted to take the opportunity to also see the country. I had read that it is safe (or at least relatively safe for Africa, to be a woman on your own) & this was reinforced by my experience. Initially, as an independent-minded woman, I was keen to hire a car & drive but having done a little research I thought better of the idea.
“Namibia is a very remote country. You can drive for miles (often on untarmacked, rocky roads) without seeing another vehicle. You need to be prepared to get involved in any maintenance your car may need & you can’t rely on ‘road side assistance’. If, like me, your skills aren’t up to scratch, you could be left waiting for a long time in the searing heat hoping for someone to stop & help you. In the end, I was very pleased I had this tour organised before I left.”
Being on the truck took all the worries away & the distances we covered were huge (500 km on bone-shaking roads most days). We stayed in some unique places & always had 2 fantastic local guides (Morne, our driver & Daniel, our leader in training) on hand to answer questions, cook our food & generally look after our every need. In addition, although it is possible to see Etosha without being on a tour (and many do), I can’t imagine how much wildlife we would have missed without our eagle-eyed leaders & their network of colleagues throughout this vast reserve.
6 Day Dunes & Wildlife Tour arranged from the UK via The Great Projects, who also organised my volunteering experience. The tour is organised by Chameleon Safaris which is located in Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek & if organised through them you may get a better price or more flexibility. The 3 & 4-day options shared our tour & we had a swap over in Swakopmund where we lost 3 people & gained 4. My friend Caroline from N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary also turned out to be on the first 3 days of the tour which she had organised via the sanctuary while she was there.
All accommodation costs for the 5 nights & meals (except for the dinner in Swakopmund & lunch on the final day) were included in the price of the tour. Drinks were paid separately.
If you would like to see the tour in all its glory, take a look at my Video Diary.
What did we do?
Day 1 – Etosha National Park
I had stayed the night at Chameleon Backpackers, which was convenient as the meeting in the morning took place here before we set off on the first part of our journey to Etosha. It was great to see Caroline who I had left the day before at N/a’ankuse, hoping we would be on the tour together. We met our guides – Morne our driver (and general oracle of all things Namibia), & Daniel who was on his 2nd tour as a trainee. For most trips, there is only 1 guide who drives, cooks, guides & basically works incredibly hard to make our trip as seamless & memorable as possible. It was nice to have 2 people but it’s a hard job even then.
The morning was spent driving up to Etosha on tarmacked roads (not understanding what a luxury this would become!) & getting thrilled each time we saw warthogs & baboons along the way. Just after lunch we entered at Anderson Gate & headed straight for the waterhole where we had been told there was a herd of elephants.
I visited in October 2017 & as this was just before the rainy season started, it is supposed to be the best time to see wildlife. In the rainy season, food is abundant so the animals can hunt, kill & eat anywhere across the reserve which makes it easier for them to get lost in the vast landscape & hence, harder to find. In October, they must find the water, & the carnivores have to follow the food so this is when you get an abundance of different species gathered in one area. Effectively, if you head for the waterholes, you find the wildlife.
“With a keen sense of anticipation & numerous cameras in various pockets (think big camera hanging across my body, GoPro in the pocket of my shorts & iPhone subtly hanging out of my bra), when we got there all we found was a few piles of enormous poo & a couple of springbok (beautiful, but not elephants).”
Barely hiding our disappointment, we headed back to the truck to explore further. It seemed luck wasn’t on our side. We had several sightings of zebra, giraffe, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, more springbok, oryx, an ostrich couple with their babies, the harder to spot & rarer southern yellow-billed hornbill & a kori bustard (it’s a bird!). I was trying to be thrilled at all of these (& I never want to get bored of seeing zebra & giraffe wandering past) but the truth was I wanted to see the big stuff.
As a joke, I said to Daniel that this was all good but we wanted to see elephants. Two minutes later, on the horizon, a big herd of elephants was spotted on the move through the trees. They were in the distance but at least we had seen them! It was a thrill so I pushed my luck & demanded rhinos! Not far along the road, we spotted a black rhino, again in the distance but again at least we’d seen one! I was on a roll so I went for broke “Lions, next please!”
At our last stop of the day, we headed for a watering hole & were treated to not just 5 lions relaxing with enormous bellies (they had clearly just fed) but also another black rhino, stood completely still & posing beautifully for the whole 20 minutes we were there. Finally, we had been rewarded with a fantastic prize & a real high to finish the day on.
That night we stayed at Halal Camp inside the park whose key selling point was a floodlit watering hole which Caroline & I became instantly obsessed with. While Daniel & Morne prepared our dinner, we grabbed some drinks & headed up there. We were rewarded with an empty watering hole & the occasional flypast from an owl. Not quite what we were hoping for but after a delicious braai (BBQ) dinner we persevered & went back.
“On the way, a group of people were leaving so without a lot of hope I asked them if there was much up there to see? “Yes, it’s amazing, there were 5 rhinos there for ages but they’re just leaving!” We tripped & stumbled our way up the path in the dark as quickly as we could & were treated to 3 black rhinos bathed in light. Two of them continued to move off, but the 3rd stayed for a good long drink & was later joined by a spotted hyena. Wow – we were thrilled!”
Day 2 – Etosha National Park
We started early this morning to try & catch the night animals before they disappeared for the day which worked in our favour as just outside the camp we found 5 lions lying tantalisingly close to the road! This was followed by a bumper morning which included 2 bat-eared foxes (nocturnal & mate for life), more black rhino (including 1 walking across the road just ahead of us), loads of giraffes (until we were told that if we stop for all the common animals we’ll miss the rarer ones!), a baby springbok (estimated 1 day old), a greater flamingo (black & white which is a bit weird!) & an amazing sighting as a group of lions crossed close in front of our truck.
We stopped at Etosha Pan for 15 minutes to admire the ‘Great White Place’, a 4,500km2 saline desert. It is mesmerising in its nothingness, which disappears over the horizon & the lack of wildlife a stark contrast to the abundance within the rest of the Park.
The remainder of the day carried on in a similarly rich vein over 2 additional game drives where we were treated to more of the same as well as herds of elephants at a couple of the watering holes. We stayed here for a while, admiring these magnificent creatures as they faced off against each other. We also made a couple of other visits to our camp watering hole & were rewarded with zebras, impala & kudu. Impressive morning overall & Etosha definitely delivered!
That evening we stayed just outside the park at the Taleni Etosha Village in a beautiful room (once we could find it!) with a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet. A perfect end to an exceptional day.
Day 3 – Skeleton Coast & Swakopmund
On Day 3 we embarked on a long, hard 500-mile drive to the west coast town of Swakopmund. The journey took us via Damaraland, the Namib Desert & the Skeleton Coast but for me, the highlights were the local tribal ladies we met along the way.
The first of these were the women of the Herero tribe who are excellent with their sewing machines & sell their arts & crafts to support the rural families. The traditional dress is colourful, long & with impressive hats fashioned from fabric. Among the Herero people value is expressed in cows, if you have no cows, you have no wealth.
For lunch, we made a stop in view of the Brandberg, Namibia’s tallest mountain before heading to our next tribal stall, this time to meet the Himba women.
“Their costumes couldn’t be further from our previous experience with extravagant jewellery but very little else. The Himba are famous for covering themselves with a paste of butterfat & ochre pigment which gives them protection against the climate, and a distinct orange tinge to their skin & hair. The children here were gorgeous too.”
Probably the biggest anti-climax of the trip for me was our visit to the Skeleton Coast. I had been really looking forward to this & imagining an eerie coastline littered with old, rustic wrecks from across the years. Instead, we just parked up, walked to the edge of a very grey, cloudy (& cold) Atlantic Ocean, photographed an old grounded fishing trawler & left. It wasn’t quite the windswept beautiful & tragic coastline I had imagined but I’m glad that meant fewer wrecks & people who had lost their lives as a result.
Swakopmund was our final stop, which was significantly colder than the rest of Namibia & a strange, very European feeling town. That evening we stayed in the Hotel A La Mer & enjoyed a meal out overlooking the bleak ocean at Tug Restaurant.
Day 4 – Swakopmund to Sossusvlei
We had the morning free & I opted to reconnect with the world by exploring the town & the shops. Swakopmund is the adrenaline capital of Namibia & you can use this as a base for all sorts of activities – skydiving & quad biking came highly recommended but I wished after 2 shops that I’d gone on the sand boarding excursion!
“As we approached the dunes on the outskirts of the town to pick up members of our group who had gone sandboarding I felt a bit jealous. The dunes themselves were spectacular & having the opportunity to hurtle down them headfirst from 120m up suddenly seemed like something I should be doing.”
Top tips from those who did – you have 2 options, to stand or lie on the board. Although the standing (like snowboarding) looks more impressive, the most fun is lying on your front. This way you get the chance to try your hand at 4 different runs (as compared to just 1 area standing). All people who tried both apparently preferred the lying option. But be warned you will be covered in sand by the end & walking back up to the top can be challenging. Despite this I hope you enjoy it, I certainly wish I had!
For the remainder of the day, we were on the truck through slowly changing landscape from the Namib Desert (endless flat sand for as far as the eye could see) to Kuiseb Canyon (hills of grey granite rolling into the river bed giving us the first glimpse of trees for miles). In this area of Namibia, there is only 50-70mm of rain a year. It is bleak & life is scarce. The roads were all bone shaking gravel, hypnotisingly straight & mesmerising in the relentless heat. It was this day which justified my decision to take a tour rather than attempt driving this immense country alone.
The awe-inspiring monotony was broken by the photo opportunity offered by crossing the Tropic of Capricorn before eventually arriving at Solitaire (a service station, photogenically populated by abandoned old cars & trucks). My bed for the night was in Desert Camp in view of the Naukluft Mountain Range, a permanent tented camp on the outskirts of Sossusvlei. We arrived at dusk to see the sun going down as we watched the red atmospheric mountains. Wow!
Day 5 – Sossusvlei
We were up early for the 55 km drive into Namib Naukluft Park, home of the picturesque Namibian sand dunes. The dunes are named after their distance to the park entrance so our first stop was at the impressive Dune 40 (40 km from the entrance), followed by Dune 45 where numerous trucks & cars had stopped to climb. We carried on for the prize we were told we came for – Big Daddy & Dead Vlei. It was worth it!
“As we stopped to transfer to a 4×4 vehicle, the bright red dunes created a beautiful backdrop as an Oryx slowly wandered past. Then we were off to conquer Big Daddy, a 320m high sand dune, 15-30 million years in the making with an unprecedented view of the surrounding area & the white bottomed ex lake that now forms Dead Vlei. I was in awe of the experience!”
Climbing on the peak of the dune wasn’t easy due to the heat, the width of the path & the fact that once people stopped for breath/views it was difficult to pass them without feeling you were going to hurtle headlong back down in either direction with one wrong step.
I managed to make it ¾ of the way up Big Daddy before deciding to head down into the far end of Dead Vlei. It was a moment to savour as I stood at the top with barely another soul in view & the stunning vista of this otherworldly sight.
And then I ran down. It felt like I was literally filling my boots with sand as I went.
Arriving into Dead Vlei with its white clay cracked floor was eerie, atmospheric, stunning & awe-inspiring all rolled into one. I picked the only log I could see, sat down & emptied the bright red sand from my boots before taking in the sight. Dead Vlei was originally a lake which was cut off from its water supply by the creation & growth of the immense sand dunes, killing the trees. The result is probably one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen & a stark reminder of the harshness & beauty of nature.
On our way back for an afternoon relaxing at camp, we made a short detour to Sesriem Canyon, impressive but nothing to me in comparison to the other sites of the morning.
Day 6 – Solitaire Guest Farm
The final day started with an early morning visit to the Solitaire Guest Farm, a sanctuary for cheetahs & a release site for problem carnivores (linked to N/a’ankuse). Despite all the close contact with cheetahs I had been lucky to experience so far on my travels in Namibia, this was still a treat. The cheetahs were raised in captivity after being orphaned, & seeing them play with a ball & climb trees was as much a thrill as the first time I saw a cheetah.
What next time?
As stated, although I have no desire to spent a lot more time in Swakopmund itself, the draw of trying out sandboarding here, along with some of the other activities does appeal. In addition, exploring further south in this stunning country with a visit to Fish River Canyon would also be high on my list should I return.
What did it cost?
For the tour, including 5 nights accommodation & most meals was UK £799 when booked through The Great Projects. As stated earlier, there are options to shorten the trip with either the first 3 days (Windhoek to Swakopmund) or final 3 days (Swakopmund to Windhoek). You can also book directly through Chameleon Safaris which at the current exchange rates were cheaper (NAD $13,100 sharing but for NAD $2000 extra if you prefer a single supplement). Not included are any excursions (e.g. sandboarding) & the restaurant dinner in Swakopmund.
Read about my other adventures in Namibia here: Part One volunteering-in-a-wildlife-sanctuary-in-namibia-week-one and Part Two Volunteering-at-a-wildlife-sanctuary-in-namibia-week-two and also watch the videos – 6 Dunes & Wildlife Tour of Namibia , Volunteering in a Wildlife Sanctuary and The San Tribe of Namibia
What do you think?
Where else would you recommend for a visit to Namibia?
What experience can you share of other tours in Namibia?
What has been your favourite activity in Swakopmund?
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