Namibia – 50 Shades of Desert

Namibia – 50 Shades of Desert

By Simon Patterson

Safe airline arrival into Namibia? Check.
Camping equipment supplied with hire vehicle? Check.
Wheels attached firmly to the vehicle? Only one wheel nut missing, so near enough. Let’s drive!

Of course, we only realised a wheel nut was missing after a tyre went flat on a lonely desert road. With no mechanic for many miles, we had no choice but to attach the spare tyre as best we could. We therefore drove for a fortnight through Namibia with one wheel not entirely attached to the car. The wheel never fell off, so we learned in Namibia that attaching wheels via all six nuts is perhaps overrated!

White sand abuts orange sand, forming towering dunes.

White sand abuts orange sand, forming towering desert dunes. Location: Sossusvlei area, Namibia

Namibia is famous for its beautiful deserts and amazing wild animals. In a two week tour of Namibia, we saw endless white sand dunes, orange sand dune deserts, white sand abutting orange sand, hilly jagged-rock deserts, flat smoothed-rock deserts, beautiful mountainous bush scenes and flat scrubby bushland. Northern Namibia also has lush tropical rainforests. The Star Wars movie series could almost have been filmed entirely in Namibia! I’m not sure any of it actually was.

The wild game encounters in the Etosha National Park were also incredible.

Namibia is an ideal place to self drive and camp in, despite the need to check the hire car even more thoroughly than we did. Supermarkets and restaurants are full of food for the westerner’s palate. Accommodation is safe and comfortable. Commonly spoken languages include English and German. Credit cards work smoothly, and both food and fuel tends to be quite cheap.

This self contained setup with two rooftop tents was a very good way to travel through Namibia.

This self contained setup with two rooftop tents was a very good way to travel through Namibia. Location: Bullsport, Namibia

At 20% larger than Texas and 30% larger than France, it takes many long driving hours to get around Namibia. We saw about half of Namibia’s attractions in two solid weeks of travel. Most of the country has gravel roads, although the main highway through the middle of the country and roads to major towns are sealed. The corrugated gravel roads provided some uncomfortable rides, especially where they had clearly not been graded for a long time.

Etosha National Park is, in my opinion, southern Africa’s premiere large game park. This is because it is bursting with wildlife and it affords the best unobstructed animal views.

Etosha mainly consists of an uninhabitable salt pan, which is interesting to see once, but not the main attraction. The roads in the park meander around and to the water holes that are immediately south of the salt pan. The animals all congregate in this area, which means that visitors have an excellent chance at seeing lots and lots of them.

We allowed four days to explore Etosha, resulting in many spectacularly close animal sightings.

Zebras can be very affectionate, often cuddling with each other like this.

Zebras can be very affectionate, often cuddling with each other like this. Location: Etosha NP, Namibia

Zebras rearing up in a fight, kicking and biting each other. No lasting damage was apparent.

Zebras sometimes rear up and fight, kicking and biting each other. No lasting damage was apparent. Location: Etosha NP, Namibia

One trap we did fall into was to take uncooked meat into the game park. This was no problem as we entered Etosha, but as we tried to exit, guards informed us that we could not leave with uncooked meat. Apparently uncooked meat can convey the contagious “foot and mouth” disease from wild animals to farm livestock.

Unperturbed, we parked next to the exit gate, whipped out our gas cooker and frypan, and we cooked our sausages and mince right there and then. The guards were very personable, and we gave them some of our cooked local sausage (“boerewors”) upon exit. Whilst our gesture wasn’t strictly necessary, we did successfully leave the park with the remainder of our freshly cooked meat.

An enormous bull elephant and the alpha zebra both keeping an eye on Namibia's tourists.

An enormous bull elephant and a zebra stallion, both keeping a watchful eye on us. Location: Etosha NP, Namibia

A giraffe family loping across an open plain.

A giraffe family ranging across an open plain. Location : Etosha NP, Namibia

Another mistake we made was not to book our game park accommodation early enough. The very safe and well-fenced accommodation sites inside Etosha National Park are highly sought after. We tried to a book an Etosha tent site one month in advance, which was too late. Accommodation close to the park was limited, but thankfully we did find places to book just outside the park gates. This included a 4 star safari lodge, which was lovely and had cheap delicious meals. Of course, it was also more costly than a tent site.

Our inability to camp inside Etosha meant that we spent two full days driving across the park between our pre-booked accommodation sites. We did spot many wild animals on these journeys, but unfortunately it meant too little time remained to drive the many offshoot roads, searching for the big cats. We also missed out on relaxing by a floodlit waterhole in the evenings, casually observing the wild animals come and go. The moral of this story is to book Namibian accommodation well in advance; I would suggest at least 6 months in advance.

Cheetahs are actually just big pussy cats at heart. That's easy for me to say from the other side of a fence!

Cheetahs are actually just big pussy cats at heart. Easy for me to say from the other side of a fence! Location : a private property near Etosha, Namibia

Dune 45, a popular stopping point on the way to the largest dunes at Sossusvlei.

Dune 45, a popular stopping point on the way to the largest dunes at Sossusvlei, Namibia.

Of the different kinds of deserts we encountered in Namibia, my favourite was the Sossusvlei area in the Namib Desert. Spectacular classic orange sand dunes tower over a white dry marsh, which contains a combination of dead trees and the very occasional impossibly-green bush.

One tip for travellers who drive the final few kilometres on the sand to the biggest dunes is to substantially deflate your 4WD’s tyres. We travelled past many inexperienced tourists stuck in their 4WDs on the sand. They required assistance from the national park officials to get back to the main sealed road. Instead, we caught one of the many regular shuttle vehicles, for a short but extremely bumpy ride to the dry marsh and biggest dune.

This is Deadvlei, which literally means "dead marsh". It seems surprising that trees and other plants ever grew in such an environment.

This is Deadvlei, which literally means “dead marsh”. It seems surprising that trees and other plants ever grew in such a barren environment. Location: Sossusvlei area, Namibia

Given the spectacular wildlife and scenery, Namibia is a photographer’s paradise. Wildlife is so easy to spot at Etosha, with views often unobstructed due to the predominance of low grassy plains. Most wildlife seemed largely unperturbed by vehicles, which led to many close animal encounters. It also meant that animals didn’t automatically turn their backs on tourists, which is always a major boon for the wildlife photographer.

Taking a 4WD has the added advantage of being able to climb on the vehicle’s roof to gain a slightly higher vantage point over the desert landscapes. Of course, getting out of the vehicle where lions and leopards inhabit would be a great way to win a Darwin Award, but exiting your vehicle outside of game parks is safe.

African sunsets create lovely soft light, even when skies are cloudless.

African sunsets create lovely soft desert light, even when skies are cloudless. Location: Brandberg area, Namibia

The Welwitschia plant is only found in the deserts of north-western Namibia and southern Angola. Some specimens are up to 2,000 years old, and must be incredibly hardy to survive in such an arid environment.

The Welwitschia plant is only found in the deserts of north-western Namibia and southern Angola. Some specimens are up to 2,000 years old, and must be incredibly hardy to survive in such an arid environment. Location: Dorob National Park

Plenty of light is beneficial whilst photographing wild game, but the lack of any clouds can be a challenge when shooting landscapes. Of course, one advantage of clear skies is that they lend themselves to a spectacular view of the stars. I highly recommend that photographers take a sturdy tripod for long night exposures in Namibia.

Coastal areas can often be shrouded in mist, and the resultant soft light can be a blessing or a curse depending on what the photographer wants to achieve. Thankfully, the mist seems to clear every day, eventually bathing the coast in bright sunlight and blue skies.

A downside of shooting in dry desert areas is the fast buildup of dust on the camera’s sensor, especially on mirrorless cameras. I cleaned my cameras’ sensors for the trip, and still needed to tidy up dust spots in post-processing due to dust buildup.

Namibia is picturesque both night and day.

Namibia is picturesque both night and day. Location: Bullsport, Namibia

Namibia felt reasonably safe throughout our journey, although towns had a large number of people simply loitering. This encouraged us to be particularly vigilant with our personal belongings, and so we encountered no hint of trouble. I carried my camera gear with me throughout, as is my usual practice when I travel. Leaving my gear anywhere felt like it would be even more of a risk in Namibia than any other place I’ve visited recently.

This is how the locals roll in Namibia. We gave this guy some water as he travelled between remote villages.

This is how the locals roll in Namibia. We gave this guy some water as he travelled between remote villages. Location : Uis, Namibia

People were friendly and helpful everywhere, which made it a pleasurable place to travel through. For example, we arrived at one campsite to realise that we had accidentally booked the wrong date. According to the booking confirmation, we had arrived exactly one year too early! The campsites were all taken when we arrived, but this was no problem to the staff. They found us a spot next to a picnic shelter for our 4WD, rolled out a long power cable so we could re-energise our equipment, and charged us just a nominal fee.

Then we realised our gas cooker nozzle was completely blocked, just as they were about to close their shop and go home. No dinner (and, more importantly to some, no coffee) was looming as a big problem for us! The staff immediately unlocked a fuel bowser to help clean our gas nozzle with petrol, then turned on their workshop’s air compressor to blow out the dust. This cleared the blockage and we were once again able to make coffee and cook dinner. Whew! We really appreciated the staff who delayed their own dinner time, so we could eat ours.

A lone elephant takes an early evening stroll.

A lone elephant takes an early evening stroll. Location: Etosha NP, Namibia

Two weeks of driving around Namibia didn’t feel like quite enough to do the country justice. I’d recommend at least a three week tour (and ideally four weeks) to enjoy all Namibia’s main attractions. However, even a few days in Namibia would be well worth it, because it is such a breathtaking location.

This was actually my fourth trip to Namibia, and I certainly hope to go back again. Next time, I will more carefully inspect the hire vehicle, including the wheel nuts, before I start driving!

Striated rock formations.

Striated rock formations. Location: Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Readers who are inspired by amazing deserts would be well advised to consider Ugo Cei’s “Discover Oman” tour in early December 2017. The tour is through amazing deserts and fascinating cultures, with comfortable accommodation and excellent food. It is all arranged for you in the very safe and stable country of Oman. Add the world class photographer and educator, Ugo Cei, and the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I understand a couple of places are still available at the time I write this. Get in quick.

Finally, for readers who are not sure how to pronounce “Namibia”, it is nuh-mib-ee-ya. Nuh rhymes with far, mib rhymes with crib, ee rhymes with tree, ya rhymes with pa. Hope that helps!

Roads through jagged rocky hills could be particularly rough at times. The stark beauty made the slow drive worthwhile, though.

Roads through jagged rocky hills could be particularly rough at times. The stark beauty made the slow drive worthwhile, though. Location : Ugab River, Namibia

About the Author

Simon PattersonSimon Patterson is an enthusiastic photographer who also likes discovering the truth about things. He loves hiking and camping in the wilderness and the challenge of learning to communicate through the art of photography. Simon aims to create images that affect people emotionally. When not out shooting or processing images, he reads everything he can about photography. Simon resides in country Victoria, Australia.

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