NAMIBIA MINUS THE CROWDS: A COVID TRAVEL DIARY

he Namib Desert is the gift that keeps on giving. It transforms as you travel from north to south and east to west, and every inch is bound to leave you in awe. What could possibly amplify the experience of road tripping across this wild and inhospitable terrain? Having it all to yourself. In October, Namibia lifted the travel ban for South Africans and Chloë took the gap and shot over the Orange River to explore the Namib Desert, pretty much alone. This is her Namibia Covid travel diary.

Three Covid swabs later, the reward was a deserted Sossusvlei, an empty Fish River Canyon, an even-more-silent NamibRand Nature Reserve, and a solo Sandwich Harbour tour!

Chloë and the quiver trees at Canyon Roadhouse.

Namibia is one of our favourite countries because it is just so unlike any other in Africa. It’s not about the density of wildlife sightings (but you will get your safari fix at Etosha National Park); it’s entirely about the spectacular desert scenery, the ancient geological history, the hostile yet totally living desert, and the combination of sand dunes, stars, and sea.

Chloë’s recent trip took her across southern Namibia by road over a two-week period. It’s pretty much impossible to do southern and northern Namibia adequately in one trip. The distances are just too vast, unless you’re flying from destination to destination. Plus, there’s so much to see and take in that you don’t want to rush it. This past October, just after Namibia opened its borders to selected countries, Chloë and her cameraman, Kevin MacLaughlin, hit the road from Hoedspruit and travelled to the Fish River Canyon, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Walvis Bay, and Swakopmund. Three Covid tests later and back on home soil, here are the highlights from each destination, which we can’t promise will ever be as blissfully quiet ever again!

FISH RIVER CANYON

Someone told me that as much as you think you know what to expect when you see the canyon, you will not be disappointed. So, naturally that elevated my expectations (dangerous). As we drove towards the actual canyon lookout from our accommodation at Canyon Roadhouse, we kept peering around every corner expecting to see this enormous groove in the earth’s surface. As we got within a few kilometres and still couldn’t quite anticipate what all the fuss was about, I started to think, maybe this has been talked up online a bit. Anyway, turns out it wasn’t!

We returned two or three times just to check out all the different view points and just to cruise around the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, of which the Fish River Canyon is a part. We literally saw one other tourist vehicle and maybe two Namibia Wildlife Resorts vehicles the entire time, so we were just spoilt rotten.

NAMIBRAND NATURE RESERVE

We headed north towards Sesriem and overnighted on a private concession bordering the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is rated the best place to view stars in Africa. This is not its only celebratory factor. The area is a pristine natural paradise with iconic red sand dunes, black and ochre mounds of “musical” rocks, expanses of open space dotted with oryx, shy bat-eared foxes, and boulder koppies burning bright in the sunset.

The benefit of the Covid traveller here was that we got the fully catered private farmhouse at Greenfire Desert Lodge all to ourselves. Just us and a ridiculous view, immense silence, private game drives, a solo sunrise dune climb, and private chefs all meals of the day. We scaled the koppies and watched Namaqua sandgrouse come in at sunset to drink from the little waterhole in front of our house. This is where it really started to feel like a honeymoon!

NamibRand Nature Reserve views for just us two!

SOSSUSVLEI

Sossusvlei is synonymous with a trip to Namibia, but I have been a number of times before without managing to nail down a visit to these famous red sand sea. It is so popular that there are always queues of safari guides and self-drivers at the entrance gate waiting for sunrise opening time, and the chances of you getting to admire the masses of wind-whittled dunes on your own are rather low. This does not mean it should be missed – it most definitely must be seen! Even when you visit Sossusvlei in peak season it will be worth it. But can you imagine sharing your first experience of the most popular place in Namibia with only your travel buddies? It was sublime.

No queue at the gate; no footprints in the sand in front of us; no cars in the parking area; no one already at the top of the dune; nobody at Dead Vlei. Admittedly, the down side was that the lunch menu at the Sesriem restaurant was super limited. But, that’s it in terms of complaints!

We climbed Dune 45 and we ambled our way along the 65km stretch of tar road surrounded by dunes, dunes, and more dunes. Occasionally there would be a collection of dead trees to shake things up, but mostly we were just surrounded by the sea of sand. It is exactly like the brochures! We jumped into a game viewer to make the last 5km drive through thick sand to get to Dead Vlei and the actual site of Sossusvlei and to marvel at the enormous Big Daddy sand dune standing at some 350m (did not climb).

SANDWICH HARBOUR

When you go to Swakopmund, you best be ready for some adrenalin pumping adventures. Whether you hurl yourself out of a plane with a parachute, jet through the dunes on a quad bike, or race the waves as you 4×4 along the beach at Sandwich Harbour, you best believe you’ll get the blood pumping. Honestly, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay were the most pleasantly surprising parts of the trip; maybe because we hadn’t given them much attention and had rather focused on what the “real desert” would be like.

We quickly learned that a) we can have an amazing hotel in the form of Gondwana’s The Delight, and b) that we don’t have enough time to do everything we want to do. We went for the Sandwich Harbour tour and we were not disappointed. The weather was perfect: ice-blue sea, sunny and windless, with smoothly carved white dunes. We were just lucky with the conditions, but what Covid gave us was a totally exclusive experience once again. We booked the excursion with a private guide and there wasn’t another group of tourists out at Sandwich Harbour. Every dune we rounded was greeted with another trackless dune. We could take our time and stop and check out anything of interest.

Sandwich Harbour perfection.

While it was a treat to be a Covid traveller and experience Namibia on such an exclusive level, it must be said that the impact of this pandemic can be seen in the spirit and morale of the guides and tourism employees. Namibia relies so heavily on tourism and the travel ban was a brutal hit to the people who rely on tourists to make a living. These places are so unbelievably unique and are guaranteed to be exceptional even when you visit amongst the throngs during peak season.

100% Recommend Namibia as a travel destination, and there’s so much more to it than is mentioned in this blog. Get in touch to find out more and get to work on your own travel itinerary!