I have always had a fascination with the stark beauty of deserts, but after watching David Attenborough’s documentary on the “Great Natural Wonders - Namib Desert, Africa” several years ago I knew this was a destination I had to explore. I am also a huge fan of the big cats, especially the cheetah. When I learned that Namibia has the highest concentration of these cats in the world, I was eager to explore this country. Following extensive research on various itineraries, I chose The Great Projects 6 Day Dunes and Wildlife Experience. It was truly an amazing experience of my lifetime and left me with memories I will forever cherish.
Our tour began in the city of Windhoek, Namibia where we were greeted by our tour guide for the week. He not only served as our guide but also as our driver, cook, wildlife specialist, and expert on the local history, culture, geography, and geology of this region. I was truly impressed. After a 5-hour drive north, we stopped off at the town of Otjiwarongo where we had a picnic lunch and stocked up on any provisions at the local store. I would highly recommend buying at least 5 litres of water here as the tap water in the Park has a distinct brine taste to it. In addition, make sure you have plenty of sunscreen, moisturizer, and if you want beer or wine with your meals, this is the place to buy it. We were then off to visit Etosha National Park entering through the Anderson Gate.
If you love wildlife, this park will not let you down as it is home to an astonishing 114 species of mammals and over 340 species of birds. You can also find species that are endemic to northern Namibia such as the Black-faced Impala and the smallest antelope, the Damara Dik-Dik. Our guide gave us a two-page checklist of many of these animals we may encounter whilst exploring the park. I can say after our two days in the park we saw at least half of them! But what was on my personal list of animals to see were the Four (lion, leopard, elephant, & rhinoceros) of the Big Five mammals that roam Etosha Park (because of the lack of rivers, the water buffalo is not found here).
Within an hour of entering the park, we came across a large herd of elephants (I counted at least sixteen) crossing the road right in front of us. You could literally feel the ground shake beneath us. Then at the very end of this procession of enormous animals was this very small and adorable baby elephant. She was struggling to keep up with her mother, constantly tripping over her own trunk. It was a sight to behold!
At the lodge later that evening, our guide was busy cooking us dinner over an open campfire whilst I headed out to a floodlit waterhole next to our camp. I was greeted by the sight of an enormous black rhinoceros emerging from the bush seeking water to drink. After dining out under the starlit Namibian sky I peacefully went to sleep knowing I had now seen two of the Big Four mammals.
The following morning we woke up before sunrise, had an early breakfast, and were the first to leave the camp in search of those animals that are more active in the pre-dawn hours. We were not disappointed as we quickly came across a leopard crossing the road within several meters of our vehicle! The rest of our morning was spent on safari touring the various waterholes of Etosha. The elephants, and especially the two babies, were so much fun to watch as they drank, splashed, and rolled around in the water. After an entertaining morning at the waterhole, we were off to have a picnic lunch by the Etosha Pan.
This salt pan needs to be seen in person as it is truly a sight to behold. As far as the eye can see the pan projects an eerie atmosphere of desolation. Animals are frequently attracted to the pan as it is a vital source of salt. We actually witnessed several zebras and oryx roaming the pan during our picnic lunch. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to drive out and explore the pan on foot. This definitely gives you a greater appreciation of how immense this salt desert actually is.
The day was quickly coming to an end. As the park officially closes at sunset, we had little time left to find our last elusive Big Four animal, the lion. Our guide was determined not to let us down and we headed out to one last waterhole. I must admit he has a keen eye for spotting wildlife in the park. Out in the distance, lying under a tree, he spotted a lion pride containing seven lions with cubs. Then under a second tree, we spotted the rest of the pride. The lions were all huddled underneath the shade of the trees to escape the heat of the day. Our persistence of waiting and observing them resting soon paid off as we saw one lioness march her cubs to the water hole for a drink. This was an absolutely amazing sight to watch!
As we exited the gate and drove to our next accommodation, Etosha Village, we actually encountered a black rhinoceros several meters off the road, grazing on some vegetation. This was actually our third black rhino encounter during the past two days! The black rhino is on the verge of extinction, mostly due to poaching, we are now losing more than one rhino every eight hours. This left me wondering when I return to Namibia, will I ever again see this majestic animal roam the grounds of Etosha National Park?
After departing Etosha village, we had the opportunity to visit both the Herero and the Himba tribes. The women are much admired and photographed for their style. Herero women wear long Victorian-style dresses with wide skirts. Their headgear is made from brightly colored matching cloth in the shape of cow’s horns. The Himba women are recognizable by their intricate hairstyles. Both tribes sell jewellery and other arts and craft items they make to support their families. Since Christmas was around the corner, I found this a great opportunity to buy many of these items as gifts for my family. If you are planning on visiting these tribes, I would recommend bringing plenty of smaller denominations of Namibian dollars as they are unable to make change for you.
We were soon driving off to the Skeleton Coast, along a route notoriously known as the African Massage road as your back gets a good kneading after bouncing around over the endless gravel washboard roads. I felt like one of those bobbleheads on the dashboard of a car as my head was bouncing in every direction. I will never again complain of our dirt roads back in my home state of Vermont. However, the journey was well worth it. I had felt like we reached the end of the world or even another planet. We arrived at the Skeleton Coast, a landscape of fog with sand dunes towering over a hundred meters above us and nothing but shipwrecks strewn along the 1,570 km coastline. I felt like we were in some sort of post-apocalyptic world.
The coastline takes its name from the various skeletons of whales, shipwrecks, and even humans left stranded and unable to survive in this hostile environment. Many of the ships were unable to navigate the thick fog, rough seas, unpredictable currents, and stormy winds typical of this region. One local told us "Even if you survived the wreck you were probably doomed. You struggle ashore, overjoyed that you've been saved, and then realize that you landed in a desert and probably should have gone down with the ship."
Despite the hostile character of the Skeleton Coast, there are quite a number of animals that inhabit this region including desert-adapted elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, hyenas, jackals, and hundreds of thousands of Cape fur seals. Unfortunately, we were unable to see any of these animals during our brief visit to the shoreline, but we were able to witness the haunting remains of the shipwreck Zella which was a fishing trawler.
From here we had a short drive south to the town of Swakopmund. After traversing the arid desert landscape for days this oasis of a town was an inviting welcome. It was nice to finally see green grass, palm trees, and flowers. Dinner was at a beachfront restaurant called the Tug, where I drank wine and dined on a meal of freshly caught seafood while watching the sunset over the rock jetty.
After a peaceful night’s sleep, we had a choice of several activities that included: further exploring the town by foot, taking a scenic flight over the Skeleton Coast, skydiving, quad biking or sandboarding in the dunes. I chose the latter and was absolutely thrilled by this experience, boarding on the sand was a totally different and exhilarating experience. This sport was truly an adrenaline rush and left me yearning to return.
The day after, we were up before sunrise to reach the gates of Sossuvlei and be one of the first to explore the dunes in the park. Arriving here at sunrise offers several opportunities including getting to see these majestic dunes during the early sunlight when they are most picturesque. Arriving early also allows you to be one of the first to climb the dunes thus avoiding the crowds and the heat of the midday sun. In addition, you may be able to spot an early morning predator on the drive, as we witnessed a spotted hyena eating the carcass of an oryx!
The drive to the trailhead of Deadvlei and the Big Daddy dune takes you through an ancient riverbed between the towering sand dunes. There is no water in the park so I would recommend bringing at least 2 liters with you from the lodge as well as plenty of sunscreen, a sunhat, sunglasses, and a long sleeve shirt.
Climbing the Big Daddy dune is a must as it is the tallest dune at 1,066 feet in Sossusvlei and offers some spectacular views of the surreal landscape of Deadvlei in the valley below. This is a good time to stop for photographs, drink some water, apply some extra sunscreen, and remove the sand from your shoes (although this is a never-ending process). Continuing on from here to the final peak requires some stamina and good footing. When you reach the top you will be rewarded with some astounding views and the bragging rights of knowing you have conquered Big Daddy, the largest dune in Sossusvlei. You then get the adrenaline rush of running and bouncing down the dune in the soft and slippery sand. While it can take close to two hours to reach the summit, you can get to the bottom in under five minutes! This exhilarating experience actually rivals that of our time spent sandboarding in Swakopmund.
Leave plenty of time to stroll around and take photographs of Deadvlei. The trees are estimated to be approximately 900 years old and have not decomposed due to the arid climate. The contrast of colors between the bleached-white and hexagonally shaped clay pan, the jet-black trees, the rusty-red dunes, and the deep blue sky make for some incredible photographic opportunities! After we were shuttled off to a beautiful picnic place under the shade of an Acacia tree overlooking the Big Mama dune.
From here we visited the nearby Sesriem Canyon and returned to our desert camp by late afternoon in time to take a dip in the pool and wash off all of that sand that had accumulated onto every part of my body from our activities in the dunes. Our final dinner together was cooked over an open campfire and we shared our stories and photos over a bottle of wine or two under a brilliant starlit desert sky.
On our last day, we had the unique opportunity to visit a cheetah reserve in Solitaire. This to me was one of the highlights of our trip. The cheetah is one of Africa’s most endangered big cats. Their numbers have declined by 90% over the past 100 years, dropping from 100,000 to less than 7,500 today. Luckily for us, Namibia has the highest concentration of cheetahs in the world. So seeing these cheetahs up close and in person at the reserve made this experience all the more incredible. We were able to observe these cats from the safe confines of an open roof truck. The highlight was feeding time when another truck came speeding by us with fresh meat. We were able to witness how fast these beautiful animals can swiftly and gracefully accelerate to their top speeds.
After a wonderful last day visiting the cheetah reserve we drove back to Windhoek where our adventure all started six days ago, logging in just over 1,500 km of driving through some of the most spectacular desert landscape I have ever seen. If you are looking for a little fun and adventure in your life and love the desert, dunes, and wildlife, then I would highly recommend going on The Great Projects 6 Day Dunes and Wildlife Experience. The itinerary is fabulous and will leave you with wonderful memories you will treasure for the rest of your life.
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