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Road Report #6

NAMBIAN
DESERT
Skeleton Coast
to Sossusvlei

Twyfelfontein
Saturday, June 16


Today we head west towards the Skeleton Coast. About 100 km out from Etosha we come to the charming town of Outjo. Here we stock up on groceries then enjoy coffee and pie on the patio of a small café. The weather so far has been really pleasant – t-shirt warm in the day and cool in the evening.

Road to TwyfelfonteinNext up, another 130 km down the road was Khorixas. Still driving on asphalt we watch the landscape transition to rolling hills with genuine mountains on the horizon. After Khorixas we hit Namibian gravel, mostly good and smooth but sometimes is is corrugated and the final 25 km into our immediate destination, Twyfelfontein is awful. But Twyfelfontein is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we like to check these out when they come up in our travels.

This site is famous for its rock engravings. Entrance fee is 50 $N each plus 20 $N for a guide which you must have. The rock engravings were quite distinct and easy to make out: animals like rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and a map of the waterholes in the Engravings at Twyfelfonteinarea. The artists sometimes left their handprints as their signature. Carbon dating has placed the engravings at 2-6,000 years old.

The climb up to see the engravings was quite challenging, requiring us to scramble up between the rocks and slide down steep rocky faces. I was a bit shocked at what was required actually. There might have been a warning. On the other hand, if there had been I would not have attempted it and it's a quite a thrill when you actually Twyfelfonteinaccomplish something that's way out of your comfort zone. Very glad I took my trusty hiking stick though.

The area’s other claim to fame is Burnt Mountain. This is a heap of volcanic issue – like a molten flow of black lava. Very little grows on it. The colour and consistency is quite unique for this area.

We had seen a sign for petrol and since we are heading for the Skeleton Coast in the morning we decided to top up. This sign took us down a long corrugated gravel road to an area of workshops for heavy equipment maintenance. This was different but there was a pump on the outskirts with a sign saying we should ask at the workshop for service and sure enough, the fellow came over and topped off our tanks.

On to Aba Huab Camp for the night. This is a “community” run campground. Conditions are quite bleak – ablution block looks like something we’d expect in Mexico. Quite a shock after the amazing campgrounds we’ve been in to date. Never mind, we are camped here with many others: 170 N$. Could be worse. At least we have a safe place to camp and the water in the shower was very hot and very welcome after this dusty day. Incidentally, Aba Huab means “sometimes water.”

Skeleton Coast
Sunday, June 17

Today we are headed down the Skeleton Coast. There are three distinct sections to Road to Skeleton Coastthis area. The upper third is a restricted area. We are not permitted to take the RV up there and in fact you need a special advance permit and a well-equipped 4 WD to venture into that area.

The middle area is a transit zone. We can drive through here if we get a transit pass at the Springbok Gate before 1 pm and are through the lower, Uchabmund Gate before nightfall. The final third of the Skeleton Park is called the Skeleton Coast Tourist Recreation Area and is wide open for everyone to use without permits.

Staff at Springbok GateAt Springbok Gate we filled out paperwork for a transit permit. There were no fees. At the edge of the road the gatekeepers wife had a stand set up to sell souvenirs and the quartz crystals they find in the gravel plains here. I bought one for 30 N$.

Later, as we drove through the lower third of the park we came on little “stands.” These stands consisted of a stump or a can with a board laid over and an arrangement of crystals from small to large. The prices were Crystals for salescratched onto a piece of cardboard: 30, 50, 70 N$.

The middle section of the Skeleton Coast is about 100 km. Initially, the road was excellent. It is what they call a “salt road”. I had imagined this to be hard white salt, like in the pans. But no, it is a sand/gravel road that has been watered down with saltwater from the ocean. This watering down with a salt solution causes the road surface to become very smooth and hard, like smooth cement. It is really nice to drive on. There was a large crew of men and equipment working on improving the road, smoothing out the Skeleton Coastrough bits with red sand and watering it down with the saltwater solution. Within a few months the whole length should be a real pleasure to drive.

Very few people come this way, not because of the condition of the road but because there is very little to see. The landscape is so desolate and lonely looking. Occasionally you get glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean but mostly the route is just far enough inland that there is nothing much to see. At one point the road did route near the ocean so we pulled over and walked out to it. The surf is huge, the rollers relentless. There is no human garbage but the wave action is so intense that the beach is strewn with the natural detritus of storms and Skeleton Coastsurf: shattered shells, rotting seaweed and small gravel.

There are no trees or large rock forms, no shelter. I wondered about all the poor human beings who were shipwrecked off this coast – which is why it is called the Skeleton Coast. Most would not have made it to shore but some did. The book I am currently reading, An Arid Eden, by Garth Owen-Smith mentions the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star in 1942. The boat had ripped its hull open so the captain ran her aground and ferried the passengers and crew to shore.

Skeleton CoastShips in the vicinity had heard the mayday but the rough seas prevented them from rescuing the people. Another ship arrived and tried to send rafts full of provisions ashore for the stranded passengers and crew but the rafts disappeared into the strong currents and were never found.

An overland expedition of men and trucks was sent from Windhoek, over 1,000 km away. In the meantime, to get food and water to the stranded, a bomber took off and flew over them, but the tubes of water it dropped to them exploded when they hit the ground. The pilot landed nearby, hoping to at least pick up the 8 women and 3 children. The aircraft became bogged down in the sand and could not take off again. The poor castaways went looking for firewood and found five headless human Skeleton Coast skeletons! This was becoming what we Canadians call a shit show. According to a new friend, the word in Afrikaan is "kuk."

Meanwhile the convoy heading overland to them was making very slow progress. Every time the trucks had to cross a sandy riverbed (frequently), they had to deflate all the truck tries to make it through the sand then re-inflate them to drive over the harder surfaces again. All with the single pump they’d brought with them. Ten days after running aground, the people were rescued. The seas had calmed enough for another ship to reach them.

The truck convoy had bogged down so thoroughly in the sand that the rescuers, including a doctor sent to attend to them, had to walk the final 50 km. The saga did not end there. When the pilot and crew of the aircraft managed to dig the plane out of the sand and move it to more stable ground and take off, the engines on the plane failed and the plane crashed into the sea. All onboard survived, but they ended up walking 50 km over the blistering gravel plains before they were rescued.
And this bunch were the lucky ones. Everyone on the Dunedin Star survived. Looking around this barren, desolate landscape I wondered about all the unlucky ones who’d died here, so far from comfort of any kind.

Uchabmund GateAt Uchabmund we found a padlocked gate with skull and crossbones graphics but no attendant. Could have been a tad forbidding if the graphics weren't so reminescent of Disneyland. Eventually we rustled up a fellow working in the back forty. Guess he does not have too many customers, has to keep busy doing something.

Carrying on we came to Mile 108 where you can camp right on the beach – a little cold we were thinking. We kept going. Another 30 km down the road we came to the Cape Cross Seal Colony, 115 km north of Swakopmund. This is a crazy place where over 100,000 seals hang out. I have never seen them in these numbers anywhere in the world. There is a fenced boardwalk to let visitors safely walk over and through the seals – but the seals are now extending their territory beyond the beach and towards the parking lot. They’ve even taken over the viewing stand/picnic shelter where people used to be able to eat their lunch - although the smell of seal guano is so overpowering I could not imagine eating for the rest of the day, never mind onsite.

At this time of year it is all mother seals with their 6 month old pups. Most of these Cape Cross Sealspups are still nursing although we observed lots of mothers pushing them away when they tried to latch on. These little seals are clearly going in and out of the water already and fishing for themselves.

These are Cape Fur Seals and their numbers at the Cape range between 80-100,000. There are several other colonies along the Namibian coastline as well. A few days later, on a cruise from Luderitz the guide tells us that there is an annual cull of 90,000 seals. The pups are harvested for their skins which make a fine leather boot and the bulls are harvested for their testicles which are sent to Asia.. Guess why? Exactly.

The guide was telling us that the loss of the bulls is particularly disturbing to conservationists because it depletes the gene pool. With every big bull murdered for his balls, it means there are fewer bulls available to service the female seals, creating an inbreeding scenario that has them concerned about the future health and viability of the stock.

Cape Cross SealsThe cull itself is a brutal affair with pups herded into fenced areas where they are killed with pick axes. The Namibian navy is stationed offshore to prevent film makers from viewing the scene from sea. The army is stationed on land to prevent anyone viewing the cull from the land and the airforce keeps helicopters in the air to keep the media from witnessing the slaughter from above.They are a stinky bunch alright, these seals, but is there no better way?

Tonight we are staying the night at Buck’s Rest Camp in Heintes Bay. I don’t know what that name conjures up for you, but for me it would be something rustic. Instead what we came to was a large sandy field encompassed by a brick wall. Then row upon row upon row of neat little box “ensuites.” The whole setup looks strangely Morrocan.Buck's Rest Camp
We pull up to one of these ensuites and within is a shower, sink and toilet. On the outside is a sink and counter for cooking and doing dishes. There is a portable braii and an electrical outlet. This cost 250 N$. We are the only rig here tonight but during fishing season they are totally full.

Heintes Bay
Monday, June-18

We had a flat tire yesterday so this morning we set off first thing to get the tire fixed. The shop also fills propane bottles so we get that done too. Then we notice that they do oil and lubes and we need that done so after ensuring the guy has the right oil filter we arrange for that to be done.

We go off for a nice walk around town – this consists of one street with a few shops on it. We find a bank machine and get some money. This is a bit of an annoyance as most machines here will not let me take out more than $1000-$1500 N (less than $200 Cdn) at a time. So we get a fill up at the gas station for 700 $N and pay 250 $N for camping and the money is gone. I get charged $5-6 every time I use an ATM. In most countries I take out the max $400 Cdn at a time so I can minimize fees but hereHeintes Bay I can only take out the equivalent of $140-$200 Cdn at a time.

After our walking town tour we see a coffee shop. The owner greets us wearing a red CANADA sweatshirt. Turns out George's son is a metallurgist in Canada and he has been there several times including Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. We don't meet many Canadians who've ever been there so we hit it off immediately. We have some great coffee and cake as well as using the internet to catch up with email.
Then we head back to the mechanic. It turns out that when he went to get the oil filter, someone had just bought it. So we had to wait for an oil filter from Swakopmund. It would be in about 2 pm. And here we were, only 11:30 am.Heintes Bay

So we expanded our town tour to the residential area and set off walking again. Heintes Bay is set on a cliff overlooking the beachfront. They’ve done a nice job of the waterfront, setting cement tables and chairs on a park overlooking the beach which is pristine, with soft grey sand. There is a staircase down to the beach but the wind is whipping up the surf so we don’t stay long.

Instead we set off to walk around the residential areas. We looked at people’s gardens and talked to their dogs. The gardens can be beautiful, based on succulents, palms and flowers like osteos. The houses are neat, either brick or smooth plaster finish, painted bright colours – yellows and oranges prevail. Everything, even the most modest ramshackle houses are exceedingly neat and clean. The houses all sit on Cleaning the streets in Heintes Baysand and the roads, aside from the main street are all sand. People are employed to rake the sand in people’s yards and on the front verges. On the main street there are teams of workers sweeping up the sand off the asphalt, loading it into wheelbarrows and taking it away.

We found some more shops and mooched around. We bought a non-stick fry pan to make our cooking a little healthier and enlarge our menu options. Then back to our friend George’s coffee shop for lunch and conversation. He is a retired metallurgists so he told us about the diamnond and uranium mining which are the big industries here. They diamonds are now being mined from the ocean floor – big pipes suck up the muck at the bottom and sift through it for the diamonds which are all gem quality since they’ve emptied into the sea by the rivers. Finally, about 3 pm our truck is ready.

We head down the roadcell phone tower to Swakopmund, the biggest city around. It is a pretty city, set on the ocean. There are lots of palm trees lining the streets and everything is immaculately clean.

I love the way they disguise their cell phone towers. They build an artifiical palm tree and place all the dishes and whatever in amongst the plastic fronds.

Once again LP lets us down. There is no Dunes Lodge and we cannot not even find the street that it is supposed to be on. But we ask around and come on another place – Alte Brucke. This is a lovely facility with ensuite camping again. Not cheap but it is nice to have our own personal bathroom.

Walvis Bay
Tuesday, June-19

We booked a 4WD excursion to Sandwich Harbour today. Our guide was a grizzled old fellow same age as Steve, raised here in Namibia since 1953. He was driving an old Nissan 4 x4. The thing looked like it had bald tires but I guess that works here in the sand.

Sandwich Harbour is part of the enormous Namib Naukluft Park which is famous for the giant dunes that reach right down to meet the Atlantic Ocean. We started by visiting the salt works. This is impressive. They pump salt water into settling ponds where it take 3 years for the water to fully evaporate. The salt is all bagged up and shipped by sea to South Africa where it is used for industrial and agricultural uses.

Then we saw all the shorebirds in the Walvis Bay Wetlands. Today there were only a Sandwich Harbour Dunesfew flamingoes out there but when the flamingoes are migrating there are thousands. Then we saw the seals at Pelican Point – stinky things. The calves seemed even younger than those at Cross Point Harbor. At Pelican Point we did see some pelicans and we picked up 8 French people who were joining us from a harbour cruise they’d been on that morning.

Now using two vehicles we continued on towards Sandwich Harbour, 55 km away. This was a thrilling ride, especially once we got into the dunes. The first dune we tipped over and down …well, I thought I was going to die. Little did I know that was just a little introductory dune. The huge dunes had us descending at 36 deg and worse. The photo to the left is us actually heading straight down. The tracks you see are actually level. What Sandwich Harbor Dunesthey do is just tip the truck over the edge of the dune, turn its front tires at an angle and basically snow plow down.

On another occasion we were sitting up on the knife edge of a really big dune and the truck started slipping backyard. I looked at the driver. He was laughing. I wasn’t. But we did not die today. So it was fun.

If you notice the difference in colour of the dunes above that is the influence of the sun/clouds and from what angle I am taking a photo. The colour of the dunes changes constantly: soft chamois, peach, burnt orange, white. brown. The variations are endless.

We were served a fabulous lunch. The guides set a lovely table with white linen and lunchthe platters of food were beautiful to look at and very tasty. Large platters of fresh Walvis Bay oysters, calamari, other fish, meatballs, chicken skewers, cheese, veg, pasta salad, cherry tomatoes, several kinds of fresh bread and more. Copious amounts of sparkling wine and cupcakes and coffee for dessert.

Tomorrow we are off to Sossusvlei, home of Namibia’s iconic red dunes. These are the dunes that Windows offers as a wallpaper option for your desktop. I’ve been looking at them every day for years now.

Sossusvlei - Sesriem Camp
Thursday, June-21

It was a long and difficult day of driving – gravel 95% of the way. Some of it “okay” but lots of it really corrugated and lousy so we had to go slow. Particularly difficult were the hills going through Road to Solitairethe passes – Kuiseb in particular. This was a very beautiful area to drive through however. Reminded me of the “Top of the World” Hwy in Alaska/Canada. We drive right up on top of mesas with deeply indented canyons below. If you look hard at the photo to left you will see the road continue up into the mountains. This is all gravel and it becomes a slow climb.

We stopped at Solitaire to have some famous apple cake at Moose McGregor’s Bakery. It WAS excellent. This fellow’s family has been living in Africa for 150+ years. When his sister bought a farm atMoose McGregor's Apple Cake Solitaire he came down for a visit and to help her out with a shop she had at the crossroads. They decided to make “something” to sell to people for tea. After a number of different attempts and recipes they came on a recipe for apple cake and gave that a try. It took a few variations before they arrived at the winning formula but now they are famous all over Africa for it. In our case, it was Botswana where were first told, “Don’t miss the bakery at Solitaire!”Moose McGregor

While we were there a production crew for a big German TV star came bursting in. I was in the middle of a transaction and they just barged in and took over, interviewing Moose. Highly annoying.

Anyway, Moose has been there for 20 years now, aiming to “make people fat and happy” with his baking. He has several other bakers helping him now and they all have their specialities. Bread, brownies, “melting moments”, croissants, shortbread and all kinds of stuff. His servings of apple cake are enormous and delicious – mostly apple so it's not like eating pastry alSesriem Campl.

Arriving at Sossusvlei – Sesriem Camp, it is lovely and warm all evening. The campground is not as developed as Etosha – much more basic. But everything necessary is here and very clean. Each campsite features a large shade tree surrounded by a stone wall.

Early this morning (still dark at 5:45) we headed out to see Sossusvlei. From the campsite we drive 65 km to the 2WD parking lot. For 100 N$ return we catch the shuttle over the final 5 km to where we can climb the dunes. We are surprised by the condensation, the trees are dripping with it, as if it were raininDead Vleig. The seats on the shuttle and the bench in the waiting area are all soaked with this dew.

The first dune we stopped at was called Dead Vlei. Vlie refers to water source/lake. So this was a water source that is now permanently dried up. We enjoyed the 1+ km walk up to the dune and Steve did some walking deeper into the sand. I found myself a nice place to sit and watch the dunes and the small animal bird life around me.

We walked back and caught the shuttle again to the next stop, Sossuvlei. This means “source of water” and refers to the large lake at the base of some very big dunes. SossusvleiWe hiked up into them and once again I found a pleasant place to sit while Steve ventured further.

He insisted he was not going to climb all the way to the top but as soon as I saw that he had started up I knew he’d go all the way and he did. I could hardly see him and my camera barely registered him on the horizon but he was there. While you are on it, it is hard to judge when you’ve hit the peaSossusvleik so he actually overshot it. The photo above was taken by him, those are his footsteps behind him.

Once he decided he was on top he just stepped off the ridge, dug his heels in and snow plowed down the side of the dune. the photo below shows his track down with a tiny little Steve at the bottom walking back to the actual water hole where I was sitting watching.

 

Sossusvlei

Sossusvlei means "place of water" and is a permanent water hole in the Namib desert. Steve took this photo from the top of the dune.I am actually a tiny blot on the farthest dune.

After a full morning of hiking in the dunes we headed back to the 2WD carpark, madelunch and crawled into bed for a pleasant siesta. That’s the benefit of carrying your little house on your back. When we woke up we headed slowly back to the Sesriem campsite, stopping to enjoy a walk around Dunes 40 and 45 (refers to KM location). I really appreciate the fact that Lizard at Sossusvleiwe are here in the winter. The weather is so pleasant that we feel energetic and are interested in walking around and up through the dunes. If this were summer I’d be parked under a tree whimpering.

When we walk towards a dune it is all we see: it is overwhelming in its size and intensity. But when we walk back from the dune we look at the landscape differently, observing the rock forms, the vegetation, the busy beetles and lizards and birds.

There is a small lizard here that is almost translucent and blends peFlower at Sossusvleirfectly with its environment. We were told that it was unlikely we would see any, particularly during the day. But we’ve learned to sit quietly in these places and let the wildlife come to us. And so it does. We saw two of these little fellows and were able to photograph them. Africa makes a person passionate about the wild/bird life. It is so prolific and there are so many different species. We have several books now that we eagerly refer to and mark our sightings into.

The photo below is another example of the small wonders of the Namib desert. It looks like a ball of wire that has drifted across the sand. But no. It is a plant, rooted in the sand.

plant at SossusvleiWhen we caught the shuttle back from Sossusvlei to the 2WD car park the shuttle vehicle was already full with about 8 passengers. We were surprised when they did not get out at Sossusvlei. They found room for us so we talked. They were New Zealanders on a 3-week tour of Namibia. And no, they did not want to get out anywhere. They could see everything they needed to see from the shuttle. I looked at them in astonishment, virtually speechless.

“I have a steel rod in my femur,” said one of the men. “I don’t do walks."

This was too much for me. “He has an artificial hip and I have two new knees and a fused ankle. We walk. How else are we going to see anything?”

Now it was their turn to gape at us. We were all friendly, but holy cow. They came all the way to Sossusvlei and stayed on the shuttle? You could not see anything from the shuttle. Everyone does not need to be crazy like Steve and hike to the top of the tallest dune, but to not even get off the bus and go have a look?

Sesriem lCanyonIn the late afternoon we drove out to Sesriem Canyon, a few km from camp. This is a deep canyon that has been cut out of the sandstone/rock conglomerate by a river. You hike down into it then walk along the dry river bottom for up to 3 km. Going downstream it widens out into a big wide riverbed, still many meters below the surface. Going upstream it becomes ever more narrow and enclosed.

There are thousands of birds nesting in the rocks. The face is sandstone that has been impregnated with a conglomerate of rocks and stones. As these stones fall out it makes a natural place for birds to nest. It was kind of interesting. The problem is, when you have traveled as much as we have, you are always comparing one experience to another. This canyon reminded us of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek in Australia. Unfortunately, once you’ve been in that canyon, which actually tunnels underground for several km it is hard to get excited about something clearly lesser. But if you’ve never been to Windjana, you’ll like Sesriem Canyon.Sesriem Canyon

By the way, if you are wondering about me and the walking stick, I don't need it to walk anymore - not since my second knee was replaced. But I do use it when I am likely to be crawling up and down and over rocks and such. It's a great help. But the knees are great now!

After all that walking today we were hungry and cooked up a great meal – breaded haddock, corn and coleslawl. Chocolate for dessert. Our menu is somewhat limited by the 2-burner stove and two pots but we are getting more creative. The selection in the grocery stores is also improving. In Zambia I had to buy a HUGE head of cabbage if we wanted coleslaw. Here in Namibia I can usually buy a tray of pre-shredded cabbage and carrots. With such a small fridge these convenience foods make a big difference. The selection of fresh fruits and veg are becoming much better and the bakeries in Namiba offer really good whole grain breads not to mention the cakes and pies and strudels. We are not starving.

Tomorrow we head to Aus, high in the mountains, then down to Ludertiz, a reportedly picturesque German town on the ocean.

Carolyn Usher