After saying our goodbyes to the good people at Desert Rhino Camp we met with our incredibly informative pilot Marco who was to fly us to the Sossusvlei region. It was then that we realised just how vast Namibia actually is because the light aircraft flight to Sossusvlei took about three hours! That included a refuelling stop at Swakopmund. The route took us down theSkeletonCoastto Swakopmund and the views were probably even more stunning than on the way up fromWindhoek. Photos just dont do them justice.
From Swakopmund to Sossusvlei we flew for a time along the Kuiseb Canyon, which is the dividing line between the typical Namibian terrain and the sands of the Namib Desert. The dunes at Sossusvlei are 135 million years old and were created by sand being carried south-west in the wind from the Kalahari Desert and then being dumped by the cold wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean and up from the Orange River (the border with South Africa). The striking terracotta colour of the dunes, especially at Sossusvlei, is the result of the iron oxide content of the sand.
Joas (better known as Jo), our guide from Kulala Wilderness Camp, met us and took us to the camp where we met Dios and Petronella, the camp managers, and enjoyed an excellent lunch before heading for the customary siesta followed by sundowners and the best sunset yet!
Next morning we arrived at the dunes just as the sun was coming up. The colours were a mixture of terracotta mixed with pink, purple and gold and deep shade, often with the outlines of dead trees in the foreground – a photographers dream! The occasional oryx or springbok gave vitality to the scene.
We stopped first at ‘Dune 45 (all the dunes carry numbers), which was ‘only 90 metres high! Deryck and Ann resisted the challenge of a climb but I had a go. Even though it is only 90 meters high it is quite a challenge! Due to the deep sand each stride only takes you about 10% of the intended distance! I reckon I made it about 2/3 the way up, at which point I easily persuaded myself that the views wouldnt get any better if I went any higher!
For the next 5km it was definitely 4x4 territory and even then we saw one 4x4 stuck up to its axles. Thankfully Jo knew how to handle our vehicle. As we neared the Dead Vlei we could see ‘Big Daddy, at almost 400 metres its the highest sand dune in the world and is the only other dune youre allowed to climb. On the other side of the valley we could see another big dune, ‘Big Mama. We were told that the Sossusvlei dunes extend either side of the valley for at least 80km.
The Dead Vlei is just over a kilometre walk (in searing heat!) from the parking area. Some 800 years ago it was a swamp then over time the accumulation of sand cut off the water source. All the trees died and the swamp became a ‘dead vlei. It is sheltered, dry and hot so there are no insects to destroy the trees and no wind to blow them down. The stark black outlines of the trees against the white pan with a background of terracotta, pink and gold sand is truly amazing. The colours change as the sun waxes and wanes so it is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of shades.
Next morning it was up early for me to go on the hot-air balloon flight which took off at sunrise. Looking down on the dunes, the sunlight and shadows were a sight to behold. There wasnt much wind so we were able to hover over the eastern end of the dunes looking west which was ideal. Big Daddy and Big Mama were sticking their heads up in the distance. After about an hour, the pilot did a precision landing on the trailer and we enjoyed an excellent champagne breakfast complete with white tablecloths and table napkins in the middle of the desert! Over breakfast the pilot explained that ballooning was so much safer inNamibiadue to the absence of power lines, highways etc. and, of course, the weather.
One of my abiding memories was looking down on the thousands of ‘fairy rings. They are commonplace in this area and apparently nobody has come to a definitive conclusion as to what causes them. One of the theories is that it is due to the poison from the roots of dead Euphorbia bushes.
That evening, on our sundowner drive, we visitedSesriemCanyon, which was carved out of the desert and only became visible when you were right at its edge. It must have been 30/40 meters deep and only had the odd pool of water at the bottom. You could just imagine the raging torrent that rushes through it after rain as it is only 5/6 metres wide. Jo and I climbed down to the bottom and he explained how snakes fall over the edge and drop 30/40 metres to the bottom. I am glad to say none appeared while we were there! The only animal life was a solitary baboon hanging on to a rock on the side and some warthogs that scurried away when we climbed back up again.
After sundowners it was back to camp and time to pack our bags for our departure the following morning - Deryck & Ann back to Joburg and me on to Wolwedans.
I was picked up for the drive to Wolwedans by Philip, who was to be my next guide. Wolwedans was created about 15 years ago by someone whose dream it was to save the environment in the area from the degradation of livestock farming. He acquired several farms and created a private nature reserve covering a huge area. Some species, such as cheetah and leopard, have been reintroduced to the area but we didnt have the good fortune to see any unfortunately.
The terrain here is quite different. The dunes are much lower but are an even darker red. There was also quite a bit more vegetation.
During the evening drive we saw lightning and heard thunder rumbling around the hills, making for a spectacular sunset due to the heavy cloud formations.
Over dinner and throughout the night the thunder and lightning continued but next morning it was still dry so we headed off on our game drive. We mustnt have been more than an hour out on the drive when the rain started to come down and I reckon the temperature fell by 15-20 degrees. Despite being well wrapped up we were frozen and, by mutual agreement, we abandoned the drive and headed back to camp. My luck must have run out! Apparently it rains on average 15 days a year inNamibiaand I was there for 1½ of them!
To compensate for this, the food at Wolwedans was excellent – they run a school for aspiring local chefs at the concession. Moreover, the Windhoek Lager was still excellent and after dinner, my new-found American friend, Kurt and I found a bottle of Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey!
Next day, the storm had cleared, so Philip and I headed off on a game drive hoping to find a leopard or two. We had no luck with the leopard but the terrain, with sizeable hills of enormous boulders, looked promising. There were plenty of springbok, oryx, ostrich and black-backed jackals and we even saw a Quiver Tree. The highlight came near the camp where Philip almost turned the jeep over as a result of violently swerving off the track to avoid aCapeCobra. It must have been about 3½ metres long! Philip insisted that I get out of the jeep to take a closer look! At this point the cobra was going across the track and appeared to be heading off but he changed his mind and turned back and started heading down the track towards us. When he lifted up his head and stared at us it was time to get back into the jeep and quick!
By now the weather was looking up and the sun had come out again so the last evening drive and sundowners were excellent. It was the perfect way to end a perfect trip to a stunningly beautiful country. I am well and truly ‘bitten by the Africa bug. In fact, Ann, Deryck and I are already planning our 2013 expedition to Zambia so watch this space….