Swakopmund, Namibia — Where the Desert Meets the Sea

A seven hour drive takes us to Brandberg, the site of famous bushmen rock paintings dating back between two and five thousand years. Today’s lecture is on landscape photography, appropriate as we move into the ever-changing desert landscapes that Namibia has to offer. The scenery has changed dramatically, from the greenery of Etosha to much more arid plains with low scrub brush and yellowed grasses.

The Birds

We’re told it hasn’t rained here since September. At places, the scene looks like a moonscape, with course sand and rubble. We stop suddenly when we notice hundreds of kites, a bird of prey, swooping and circling, riding the thermals. The sky is black with them, probably five hundred or more; none of us have seen anything like it before. We’ve stepped into a Hitchcock movie.

Tin shacks dot the landscape, some with rusty windmills standing out against the white sandy, rocky soil, almost post-Apocalyptic. Once in a while, there are shacks set up along the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, selling colorful rocks and handmade crafts. One of the tires goes flat, so we stop in front of a rock shop, practicing our bargaining skills. I swap a t-shirt and some headbands for a piece of quartz and a necklace made from orange seed pods and the tip of a springbok horn.

Further down, we see hand-sewn dolls dressed in Herero and Himba costumes. We stop at the first one, but not the rest, and my heart sinks as the Herero women extend their arms out, palms up, imploring the truck to stop and look at their wares, a resigned look on their faces as the truck whizzes by, leaving a trail of fine white dust.

The campsite in Brandberg has a posh lodge but most entertainingly, a pair of pet meerkats. The inquisitive little creatures purr and posture, sticking their claws through the holes in my crocs. We play with them for a stretch before going off on a brisk 45-minute walk under a merciless sun, scampering over small boulders and through a dry riverbed to the site of the rock paintings.

Brandberg rock paintings

Some of the paintings are polychromatic, with scenes of game animals and others, the older ones, are monochromatic with figures of medicine men and gatherers, with the most famous being the White Lady. Discovered nearly 100 years ago, the paintings are now faded due to the previously unregulated tourist trade (some people apparently pouring Coca-Cola over the paintings to make them temporarily more photograph-able).

In the evening, we come back to delicious chicken curry over rice, snow peas, sweet potatoes and carrots. The staff at the campsite come by to serenade us with their harmonious singing and choreographed dancing.

The next morning, we make a 6 am start, in time to see the sun rise over the red granite of the Brandberg Mountains (meaning ‘Fire Mountain’) and have our most scenic breakfast yet.

Best. Breakfast. Spot. Ever.

A two hour drive takes us to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. The stench that greets us is hard to describe, an acrid mixture of fish and death. There are up to 250,000 seals lying on the dark rocks, some dotting the rough, cold surf. It’s birthing season and there are fluffy black pups everywhere.

There is a boardwalk set up and lots of seals lay underneath, just inches from our feet. At first, I want to reach out and touch the pups but after seeing so many either dead or dying, the urge quickly goes away. The pups strangely bleat just like lambs. The sea is grey and uninviting.

In the early afternoon, we arrive in Swakopmund, a sleepy beach-side town with low new-looking German-colonial style buildings. Swakop is building a reputation as the adrenalin-capital of southern Africa, with desert quad biking, skydiving, sand-boarding and other activities available. We check in to the Municipal Bungalows, a community of small two bedroom chalets with basic kitchen and fridge. The couples have to share, but the two single girls and two single boys get their own bungalows.

The firm beds feel heavenly and there is a laundromat nearby. We haven’t worn machine-washed clothes in almost two months and it’s worth waiting for the two of five working machines… In the afternoon, we take a walk through the lazy town with its extra wide streets and modern supermarkets and upscale boutique craft shops. For dinner, we’re given an allowance to eat at the Lighthouse Restaurant, an atmospheric joint by the ocean. Most put in extra and have oryx steaks (tastes slightly like venison but less gamey and very lean), oysters Rockefeller, crumbed Camembert and escargots. It feels wonderful to be back in civilization, even if only for three nights…

Cape Cross seals barking

The next day, we scour the city looking for fast internet. Internet in Africa is nothing like the developed world and it’s a lesson in patience whenever we use it, dolefully watching our minutes tick down while webpages load incrementally. Friday is a day of activities and some in the group go on 4×4 sand buggies. The singles go on quad bikes through the dunes (a great value at USD 75 for two hours).

It’s an exhilarating yet nerve-wracking experience. The last time I went quadbiking was in Hawaii and the speedometers were locked at granny speed and you couldn’t deviate from the trail. Here, you could gun the motors, bumping along sand moguls, climbing halfway up the sides of the dunes, turning just as you start losing speed.

Cape Cross Seal Colony

Cape Cross Seal Colony

We avoid dropoffs and gravel pits, zipping through the sand, hoping not to roll. At one point, we go over a dune and suck in our breaths as we overlook where the dunes meet the sea. Our guide unzips his bag to produce champagne flutes as we enjoy a sundowner in this most picturesque spot.

Our safari is winding down as we move into more populated areas which comes with modern conveniences and an abundance of structure.

Shopping tip: There are lots of small boutiques in Swakopmund, neatly arranged on the easily navigable grid-like streets, an easy 10-minute walk from our bungalows. While prices tended to be higher than in some of the less-developed countries we had visited, the quality of the crafts seemed higher. Alternatively, there is also a craft market located near the lighthouse. A bracelet of malachite beads was USD 4. While there, check out the free-flying parakeets that nest in the palm trees lining the boulevard…


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