I never knew or understood how much I needed a holiday until I came back from an epic road trip traversing 6500km of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. What a trip!
Tall Dark & Handsome tries his hand at a Panorama shot of me on the beach in Walvis Bay
Since then, it’s been quite a mind shift to get back into work mode, and the whole being chained to a desk thing. To add some context, I hadn’t been on a holiday that was more than a long weekend since 2010. So it was well overdue, and that’s putting it mildly.
We planned an epic roadtrip through mostly Namibia but ended up adding some parts of the Northern Cape, Botswana and Zimbabwe to the journey. And when the big day arrived, our gorgeous long holiday stretched out in front of us like a magic carpet ride.
Day 0. We spend all of the 16th prepping and packing the car, my faithful OssemWa, and ensuring all our papers are in order for the eventual 5 border crossings and 10 passport stamps. On the 17th of December, one day after most people would have hit the road, we will set out. We have every intention of getting going by 04:00 latest but as often happens, hiccups in the morning mean we only head out after sunrise, at 05:30! That feels stressful but in the end, doesn’t have a huge impact. I have packed an easy heat-and-eat dinner for our first night so we don’t have to try squeeze out a from-scratch dinner after a likely 10 hour journey on the road to Keimoes (our destination for the first evening) and our first “camp set up”, which will take a while. By the end of the 17 day trip, we will be an expert tent and campsite setup and dismantle crew. But Day 1 is still going to require some tent missioning.
So, on Day 1 and a little later than planned, we head out from Melville to Keimoes, where we will spend two nights under vineyard canopy at Kalahari Water. We stop in Delareyville at a hotel for breakfast, which is unfortunately not the best (we are one of two groups but the food takes forever, and you could conceivably kill someone with the eggs if you throw it at them) but the people are friendly and welcoming. We opt for lunch at Nando’s in Kathu as a spot with air-conditioning in a very toasty town. But we have snacks in the car. We have snacks for days and days and days.
Sunset, Day 2, Keimoes (Kalahari Water)
Check-in at Kalahari Water is mostly smooth, though we arrive after the office has closed and have to wait a little while for someone to arrive to help. As it is still quiet there, we get to choose our camping spot, a really lovely location with great shade (this will be some of the last shade we see for quite some time i.t.o. camping). And we meet a very friendly Scottish Terrier who we dub “Scotty” (yes, very original). Scotty will choose to protect us every night from the monkey invasion and as such, keep us wide awake. His good intentions nearly knock a table over onto our tent the one evening and his protective barking and chasing of the ninja monkeys prove cute but not super helpful. Sleep is fitful. We have packed everything away in the car, as any camper would know to do, and the monkeys really have nothing to get at. But shame, Scotty definitely thinks he is being our hero.
This is an absolutely gorgeous camping spot with shade created by grapevine as well as a nice framework. There is a small dam in the one section where you can see fish but you’ll be lucky if they bite. Old hands, if you ask me. This man-made dam has a somewhat noisy pump so if possible, choose a campsite away from it. This was one of our favourite spots in terms of shade and comfort. The ablutions are not fantastic though, and we were there during a very quiet period. The one shower head’s cover/grill was off which meant you were basically enjoying the use of a hose. Lots of fun and interesting creepy crawlies all over the showers and bathrooms but I suppose in terms of camping, that’s not unusual. Not the cleanest in the world but I’ve seen far worse. We’ll stay there again should we venture back to the area, just for the lovely spot under the vines, so it still gets at least one thumb up.
Campsite at Kalahari Water near Keimoes
We stay in the Keimoes area for two days and spend one of those days, Day 2, enjoying the sites and sounds (and extreme December heat) of Augrabies. It’s a *must visit* but you absolutely need to be sunblocked up to your ears, have a huge bottle of ice cold water (or three) on your person and wear thick-soled shoes. My flops almost melt on the black volcanic rock that you can easily fry an egg on, and the heat that penetrates into my feet makes for quite some difficult wobbling later on. The temperature reaches 45 C but real-feel is 47!! Nevertheless, Augrabies is stunning and we might pass by there again should our next December road-trip take us nearby. Definitely go!
Augrabies Falls National Park
In the afternoon, back at camp, we walk up a little hilltop right next to our campsite, for a 360 degree view of Kalahari Water and Keimoes. We enjoy the sunset from this gorgeous little hill, and should you ever stay there, do not leave without climbing the hill. Our evening is spent making a cosy fire, and having our first braai (the first of many). We braai chipotle sausages and meat patties and enjoy a few cold beers. Cold beers will be a rarity going forward, but we don’t realise it yet.
Top of the World, Kalahari Water
On Day 3, it is time to head to the Namibian border. As is usual with me, I am nervous and tense about our first border crossing. Tall Dark & Handsome’s leisurely packing-up and his belief that we don’t need to rush don’t help to calm me down, but as will prove to be the case over and over again throughout the trip, he is right. So, despite waking up at the intended 06:30, we only set out for the border 2 hours later. All my fretting is for nought. Less than one hour later and we are through the border posts. One very odd thing (for me anyway) is that the no man’s land between the two border posts stretches on for a helluva long time and it takes us 10 minutes to drive to the Namibian border post once through the SA side. This is really strange and I actually start wondering if we have somehow missed something and have not gotten stamped in. But all is well in the end. Our border crossing is through the Nakop/Ariamsvlei post.
No Man’s Land, South Africa to Namibia
We are heading to Keetmanshoop where we will be camping for one night only before moving on to Sesriem and the desert. It is a bit of a struggle to find the spot, Trupen Gardens. We drive up and down and the directions are not really helpful, and the GPS co-ordinates seem to be incorrect. We ask around town and nobody knows where we mean. Finally, we spot it on the way back out of Keetmanshoop driving back south in another attempt to locate it. The tiny signboard is completely invisible if you don’t know where you’re going. But, crisis averted as we manage to find it before sundown and still have time to setup camp.
This was a “mixed blessing” kind of spot. It is our first time camping in desert-like conditions and so when we see the campsite, we feel frustrated and unhappy. In retrospect, this campsite will actually be one of the best sites we visit! The camping spot is away from the chalets and closer to the road. This means that road noise is a factor, but unlike in SA, as the night wears on, the roads get really quiet so this concern ends up being a non-issue by the time we go to sleep. There is also no windbreak, so the campsite is constantly buffeted by hot desert air and this does not abate. We park the OssemWa in such a way as to try to create somewhat of a windbreak. The biggest issue is that there is no shade but nevertheless, a gorgeous tent-sized patch of grass makes it comfy and shade is only an issue until the sun sets. Apparently they have just recently built the sites and shade cloth will be added sometime in the future, assuming it can withstand the wind.
They have exactly two campsites and each campsite has its own little kitchen nook and toilet with an amazing shower. Over and above that, in this sparse semi-arid spot, there is a spectacular pool. After setting up our tents, we take our beers (recently cooled by ice picked up at the garage very close to the accommodation) and go chill in the pool and watch the sunset. I wish we had more time to spend in that pool but this is very much an “on the road to somewhere else” campsite with nothing much to do or see there. In the end, after our whole trip, we understood that this had actually been a pretty great campsite (especially the private ablutions in great condition). So I’d recommend it but I would phone them beforehand to make sure you know how to get there, and I don’t see a reason to stay more than one night. If you’ve hit the garage before Keetmanshoop, you’ve gone too far (travelling north).
Our patch of grass at Trupen Gardens, Keetmanshoop
We spend the evening enduring some hot wind and blocking our little braai behind the ablution buildings. We chat amicably to our neighbours, who arrive later than us but are fully kitted with impressively stocked 4x4s and an electric cooler box/portable fridge. We will run into this group once more on the road somewhere. Another doggy comes and keeps us company here, a very very pregnant Jack Russell cross of some kind, who is friendly and hungry and clearly uncomfortable at that stage of pregnancy in the hectic Namibian heat.
Day 4, and we decide to sleep in a bit due to a restless night getting used to camping in the hot, windy desert conditions. This time we opt to skip making breakfast from scratch, but rather break up camp, pack the car and get moving due to the late start. It’s useful for a proper repack of the car, especially now that we’ve realised what’s more important to have close at hand. Then after all the rushing, we stop at Wimpy for a quick breakfast but the food is absurdly oily and I somehow manage to spill my entire Americano all over the table. My follow-up filter coffee is horribly weak and milky. I feel pained at not having had a good cuppa. We depart feeling unfulfilled, thinking we may as well have taken time to make our own breakfast.
Since we entered Namibia, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get a sim card and activate it. This proves quite a process. I finally find a sim card at the Puma garage also in Keetmanshoop, and the extremely friendly and helpful shop assistants there go to great lengths to explain to me how to get a special data deal and set it up (which is fairly complex). But as we head out of Keetmanshoop, where data is possible, we lose the signal before I can even get it activated. Data spots are few and far between in Namibia, especially in the south. I give up on the whole thing for many days. The point of the data was to do a little bit of leftover work and I have to send an SMS back to my team to say “sorry, it’s not happening”. As with many things in Nam that go a little wrong, it turns into a blessing as we are finally rid of our phones and get to be present for the entire trip, rather than constantly checking our social media. We have workable, usable wifi at exactly one place for the entire Namibian leg and this is just fine.
As we are on the road to Sesriem, we come to realise that we’ll now have to leave tarred highways behind. Tall Dark & Handsome reviews our travel notes, route plans and the map and opts to skip the gravel a little longer for another tarred way. We’ll discover throughout our journeys on the much lauded “amazing Namibian gravel roads” that skipping them whenever possible is always a wise choice, even if you add many many kilometres to your trip. His decision that we take a longer, tarred route is reinforced as wise by a very brief 2km side-track on a gravel road to get petrol. A very bad gravel road patch. Nope, longer road it is!
On the road to Sesriem, we stop to take in an impressive ravine
A note about Namibian gravel roads: Our feeling is that Namibian gravel roads used to be “the shit” but that maintenance is no longer what it was. This is substantiated by one truly shocking mountain pass we take, though the sights are beautiful all around us. The corrugation is so bad, the 250km stretch of road takes nearly 8 hours to drive. Halfway up the pass, we discover a maintenance vehicle, presumably meant to grade the roads, upended in a dried-up river bank on the side of the road. Our advice to any traveller, even those in 4x4s, is that should you have a choice between a tar road up to 200km longer than the gravel route, take it. Many people we know have multiple punctures even in their 4x4s on these “amazing” gravel roads. If you’re on a bad stretch, go slow, and try the opposite side, as if going against traffic. We were very fortunate never to have any punctures but we took our time maneuvering bad stretches.
Possibly why the Namibian gravel roads are no longer as awesome as they once were said to be
Close to our final destination at Sesriem, we start seeing Sociable Weaver nests
Gravel roads are inevitable though, and eventually we run out of tar for at least the next 3 or 4 days. This bit of gravel we come across, before we start hitting the passes, is actually a decent stretch and even the OssemWa manages 60 to 80 km/hour. On the first pass, we come across an amazing ravine and stop to walk around and check it out. This probably takes almost an hour but it is well worth it! One of the most important things we’d agreed upon before we set out was that we would stop everywhere for anything we saw that caught our fancy, and enjoy the road as one should. At this stage, I can’t even tell you what the mountain pass or the ravine was called, or where it was. Somewhere between Mariental and Matlahohe, at a guess. But this would not even be the most impressive pass we go through just on the way to Sesriem! We soon hit what I think is the Tsaris Pass and this is one of the most spectacular passes we come across, though that doesn’t say much because they are all pretty amazing. The prolific passes and mountainous landscapes surprise me most about Namibia. This beautiful pass eventually drops down into an unbelievably massive plane and this is where the road gets particularly bad. This last stretch to the Sesriem campsite takes an absolute eternity and it feels like the car might shake apart. The going is slow to reach our final camping destination. We arrive at camp as the sun gets close to the horison.
Gorgeous mountain passes are par for the course in Namibia, a surprising discovery
Check-in is fairly simple here, and they give us our camp site number. The camp sites are all quite large. This allows for either a number of tents on your plot of land, or at least some space and privacy. However, there is no grass in sight as you are now on the edge of full desert, and though some campsites have awesome lush wide trees, we have a very old, very tall tree which casts a thin line of shade in a long line to the next campsite. Basically, no shade. We try and see if we can move to another site but all of them are booked up and the park guys don’t want to hear anything of it. The worst is the wind. Gale-force hot desert wind makes setting up the tent akin to one of Hercules’ labours! We attempt to fasten the tent to the tree to give it more support but the wind manages to keep pushing the tent down so much, it’s lying almost flat on the ground.The wind creates a manic flapping from the tent cover and in the end, we pull it off in frustration.
With no shade in sight, we realise it’s going to be a blistering couple of days. We park the car where we expect the sun will come up the next morning (boy, do we get it wrong) to block the light so we can sleep in a bit. Tall Dark & Handsome goes in search of ice and finds none. Ice will be the most priceless commodity in Namibia and where you do find it, prices are often absurd. The garage close by tells him to try again in the morning. We drink warm stout beers.
Our campsite at Sesriem
The sun sets and the blistering heat simmers down to a low boil. We set about making dinner, our usual braai. We’re feeling a bit more relaxed now but the journey there was rough and camp setup proved a bit fraying on the nerves. As setting up took ages, we eat and braai very late. But now that we sit down, and look up at the stars, we realise we’re in one helluva magic place. And something happens. The hot desert wind dies down at about 10pm and suddenly the world is quiet except for the occasional voices of fellow campers. It’s all beautiful and magic, just like that! When we settle down in our tent to sleep, we realise the crazy wind did us a favour. We lie on our mattress, and without the tent cover, we have an almost unobstructed view of the amazing night sky, and we bask in the wonder of the stars, which we’ve never seen so bright!
No dog at this campsite, which feels odd as we have just started feeling like we have begun a new tradition.
Sesriem and Sossusvlei are top Namibian destinations. There are surprisingly many places to stay in the area but you want to, whenever possible, book at the NWR campsite. If you stay here, you have later and earlier access to the road that goes to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei. Also, some of the accommodation is quite far away from the sites you’ll want to visit. Those staying outside of the NWR campsite at other accommodation spots have to wait for the park gates to open, which makes it impossible to do the sunrise dune viewing that most people want to do. The NWR campsite has no grass and many campsites are without shade. You may be fortunate to get one with a nice tree. They have a tiny pool but it’s still a great relief in the heat. Ablutions are okay but in peak season, does need to be maintained a bit more as drains get clogged and you end up dealing with a shower “pool”, which can get gross. Remember that you are now in proper desert so no matter what you do, absolutely everything at all times will be covered in a thin film of fine sand. We had sand from the desert camp still covering stuff as well as the inside of the car when we were already back in Jo’burg in January.
They have a shop and bar in the main admin building, which is nice for supplies and cold beer. However, the meat there isn’t great, being old sheep meat rather than lovely soft lamb, so if at all possible bring your own but be aware that ice will be hard to come by and keeping things cool will be tricky.
The Sesriem campsite is just on the edge of the proper desert landscape
When the sun rises on Day 5, it is nowhere near where we had estimated it would come up. So all plans to sleep in a bit are burnt away by the bright light flooding our tent. We’re up and about by 06:30 but it’s fine because we wake up from an amazing, deep sleep, and for the first time on our trip we feel refreshed and energised. And there’s magic here! I tell you! We spend the morning being leisurely. The entire camp is deserted as everyone went to see the sunrise on the dunes and left hours ago. Meanwhile, we chill at our spot, having coffee & tea and doing a proper breakfast fry-up on the gas, after which we sit watching the fascinating birds, especially the sociable weavers, going crazy in the early morning. Later, we walk around to check out the rest of the camp, have a dip in the pool, and then go have a shower. We decide to wash dishes and clean up camp, and move the tent slightly to a more advantageous position, though it makes little difference in the end.
A solitary Gemsbok on his way to nowhere
At 2pm, a time the personnel on duty tell us is absurd to head out, we hit the road to go check out the proper desert dunes and the famous Deadvlei. The on-duty guys tell us we’ll never reach it on time and still be back at camp before they lock us out but we figure we’ll give it a shot. After indications that it would take us three hours to reach the desert locations, we find the famous Dune 45 in about 40 minutes. We decide to pass it for now and come back later, so we can definitely still make the Deadvlei site before they stop driving people there. It only takes about another 20 minutes to get where we need to go. No idea why the staff at camp were so sketchy about the details but the gate only closes at 20:15 (sunset) so we have a good 5 hours available to us to check things out and still head back.
Actual gate times, as opposed to times supplied by panic-stricken staff
Deadvlei has a little admin caravan where you pay to be driven to a closer position but walk you must. If you have a 4×4, you can drive directly to the start-off point yourself but be sure you know how to traverse soft sand and dunes before making the bold call that you’ll DIY. If you take their transfer, do buckle up because it *will* be a bumpy ride. And be prepared. Wear clothes that cover your skin and/or lots of sunscreen and have water, have lots of water. A hat is an absolute must! I can’t tell you how far the walk is, maybe 1 or 2 kilometres, but in the December desert heat, you’ll feel like you’ve walked 8km and the going is slow in soft sand. You also have to strike out in a “direct line” but if the guide doesn’t point you in the right direction, there’s a good chance you’ll miss it entirely. I’ve seen social media posts where someone took photos in the “dead vlei” but they clearly never reached it. There’s nobody out there so you might never know that you didn’t find the real thing. And there are smaller salt pans around too. If there are other visitors, you’ll have a better time of it. We pointed a few groups in the right direction on our way back.
Heading from camp into the proper desert, to find Deadvlei
The dunes are something incredible, though. The Deadvlei itself reinforces that strong feeling of magic or other-worldliness. If it wasn’t for the fact that the heat really gets to you, you might easily stay there for a really long time. There is an amazing, magnetic pull to remain. The entire place is still when we arrive and dead-quiet. But just a short time later, a dust storm kicks up and suddenly, you have a white dusty haze all around you and it looks very different. It’s worth lingering, if you can. But we brought a lot of water and it still wasn’t enough. So we head back on the long walk to the collection spot. By the time the driver picks us up to take us to Sossusvlei, just around the corner, I feel spent. I plonk down heavily at Sossusvlei, which underwhelms after Deadvlei, and wait for the transfer to come back so we can head back to the air-conditioned car and more water. I spend some time in the shade there while Tall Dark & Handsome takes photos but I’m relieved when the guy is back very quickly to fetch us.
The famous Deadvlei
On the way back to camp, we stop at Dune 45. We’re too spent to climb it but we enjoy the majestic red dune and can just imagine how it must look at sunrise, bathed in the light of a red morning sun. Sitting under a tree at the dune is a solitary Gemsbok. We see these single Gemsbok everywhere, always just one at a time. The Gemsbok looks at us curiously but doesn’t dare move from its shady spot. I’m amazed that somehow there are still trees in the desert.
Back at camp, we’re faced with the fact that we still can’t get ice to save our lives. We have a brilliant cooler box that stays cold for days but we have eggs, veg, beer and cheese in there, and we definitely need ice! We also forgot to buy charcoal before the Park gates are shut so no braai tonight. We use the gas to reheat our last braai leftovers, lamb and potatoes. Another gorgeous night under the stars when the hot wind finally chills out at 10pm. Seems you can set your watch by the wind.
Still no dogs at camp but we’ve become quite enamoured with the birds.
The next morning, Day 6, we have all intentions of getting on the road quickly. We wake up early but only manage to leave at 11, for various reasons, including waiting for ice at the garage. Here we nab the very last two bags that have just been created. The woman announces anymore ice bags will take hours to make, and as she says this the waiting crowd groans loudly, so we dash before someone comes at us for our ice! Hahaha! The ice dramas of Namibia. We’ll wish we left earlier though because the 245km trip to our next camp site takes 7 & a half hours on the worst stretch of gravel we’ll ever come across.
On the way to our campsite in Gamsberg, we find the famous Solitaire. Not actually a town as I had thought, it’s more of an elaborate pitstop, with a restaurant, garage, shop, a little hotel and a host of broken down cars and car parts, bits and pieces. It’s very amusing to check out the old wrecks standing around. There’s also a placard listing rainfall over the years, which doesn’t come to much at all! The restaurant there is expensive and we sit down for a meal, only to decide to rather keep going, which is probably a good thing considering what time we’ll finally reach our destination.
Pit-stop at Solitaire, where many vehicles have come to die
By the time we reach the guest farm, close to the highest point in Namibia, Gamsberg, it’s 18:30 and we’re pretty wrecked. This campsite is in the middle of nowhere and the OssemWa ends up doing a bit of 4x4ing to get there. But we manage somehow. There are no stores anywhere, no place to get petrol (luckily we filled up at Sesriem and Solitaire), and no electricity. This is our first camping experience without electricity but we are prepared.
Our personal nemesis, the Gamsberg Pass
Nevertheless, it proves beautiful!
Tall Dark & Handsome taking the photo above
Another piece of advice for roadtripping in Namibia is that you should never pass a petrol station without filling up, even if you filled up 50km ago. This saves us on the long journey to and from Gamsberg, with no towns or stops or fill-ups in sight for almost the entire way.
Mysterious (as yet unidentified) golden trees along the Gamsberg Pass
Easy to find, hard to get to. The Gamsberg Pass up the mountain is the worst stretch of gravel we come across. We never see the other way, from Windhoek’s side, but I can’t imagine it would’ve been much better. An up-ended road grader lying abandoned on the side of the road pretty much sums up the situation for us. When we find the entrance to the farm, we’re grateful. The first bit of road is great but the last bit is a precarious stretch more suited to 4x4s. Once there, we’re so ready to crash but find out we still have a little way to go on an even more precarious 4×4 type road. Luckily the OssemWa with its decent clearance manages but only just. The camping at Hakos is pretty cool, though. There are only 4 campsites and they’re far apart (about 80-100 metres from each other). There is no electricity but there are ablutions with a solar geyser. The place is as far removed from civilisation as you can get. Each campsite has a make-shift building which is almost like a carport. If you’re there at the right time, the owner of the farm does stargazing from the very top of Gamsberg. However, when we arrive, she has family staying and she also previously indicated that they don’t do stargazing in “the rainy season”. As a result, we don’t get to go to the top of Gamsberg but considering how long it took us to get there, we likely never would’ve had the time. I have to laugh because the rainy season in Namibia probably means they get 10 minutes of rain once in the month. I stand to be corrected. All in all, a great campsite to spend a night at, especially for old-school campers who still want a toilet and warm shower.
The figures point away from the farm!
We put up our tent inside the little building so we’re under the roof and sheltered by the wall, and it just just fits. We braai some tough old sheep ribs we got from the Sesriem camp shop. They are hella chewy. Baboons are around so we try to make a big fire but we don’t have a lot of wood, mostly briquettes. We hear the baboons but don’t see them until the next morning. We watch the sun go down and try to take photos of the amazing night-sky with our phones but soon give up and just sit back and enjoy the sight. Soon, the darkness is creeping in, as it’s basically new moon, and we decide to rather get cosy in the tent. The threat of baboons and scorpions and snakes just outside the perimeter of our little fire feels very real to me and I’m happy to get to bed. We spend a good deal of time in the tent discussing our strategy for the next morning’s drive to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. We review the maps and debate endlessly whether we should risk going back on the road we came, or try the other road to Windhoek and add a helluva lot of kilometres. Finally, our petrol situation makes the decision for us and we realise that heading back the way we came and then up to Walvis Bay is the more reasonable tactic, especially not knowing when we’ll next see a petrol station. We get comfortable but I struggle to sleep, feeling very isolated. Each night noise has me on edge. Finally, I drift off. This will be our last night in the particularly arid and mountainous regions of Namibia, but we don’t know it yet. I wish I knew! I would have paid all those gorgeous mountain passes more deference.
Out little Gamsberg campsite fire to ward off baboons
There are dogs at the main house but we hardly get to say hi. *sniff* In my restless state this night, I wonder how our dogs are doing back home.
We wake up on Day 7 and the baboons are around, checking out the other three already abandoned campsites. All three of the other groups are missing and we didn’t even hear them packing up. We take a deep breath, pack up after breakfast, and mentally steel ourselves for the road we’re about to head out on. And then bizarrely, heading back in the direction we came, the road is not nearly as bad as the coming. And we learn something interesting about corrugations and how heading back over them in the opposite direction can go a little easier! The relief makes me almost giddy! The return trip down Gamsberg Pass is a lot less violent and going back down from a high vantage point without the the road quality making us tense, we manage to appreciate the beauty of the pass even more. Now we’re on the road to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, with a stopover just beyond Swakopmund. As the road is more manageable, our worst-case scenario about our arrival time is out the window and we make great time.
The ‘rivers’ of much of Namibia
Heading to Walvis Bay: the only shade for miles and miles is supplied by the Ossemwa’s boot door
A little bit before we reach Walvis Bay, we hit proper sand dunes again, as desert and beach melt into one, and we also drive into a sandstorm. It’s another breathtaking sight, somehow, though we can hardly see the road. We try to figure out what there is to see in Walvis Bay as it seems to be very industrial. We find the promenade, which is not much of a promenade, but we decide to stop to put our toes in the Atlantic. As I open the car door, the wind nearly whips it away! A photo attempt of me almost being lifted off my feet does not quite get across how strong that wind is. I dip my toes into the icy water, and the ocean is flat and calm and barely splashes on the beach. We linger a while, watching the gulls try to maneuver and tame the wind. No shops on the promenade so we decide to move on to Swakopmund, which is so close to Walvis, it’s odd. But we somehow find ourselves in a bit of rush-hour traffic and we drive slowly along the edge of the ocean. It’s the first time since crossing the border that we’re seeing so many cars. There are a lot of homes and estates going up here and Swakopmund is considered a proper holiday spot, though it’s hard to imagine in the current sandstorm.
Sandstorm on the road to Walvis Bay
Can you see anything?
Attempting to use the wind to fly in Walvis Bay
Despite the wind, there are barely waves
We stop at a grocery store in Swakopmund to stock up on food and supplies, as we haven’t seen a proper shop since Keetmanshoop. It’s a bit of a mission to find nice meat but we’ve got to buy here as we’ll face difficulty getting meat at the next few stops. Another odd thing that we notice is that fruit and veg on sale are tiny and in bad shape, and finding some decent fresh produce is hard. We head to our campsite just outside Swakopmund on the main road to Windhoek. Sophia Dale base camp will be one of our favourite campsites. We meet a whole bunch of friendly dogs here, and it makes up for the dog dearth at the last two sites.
Sophia Dale Base Camp feels like an oasis in the desert. We arrive and head to the office. For a moment, I pause here as there are a bunch of young people sitting outside the closed door. I glance at them and wonder what’s going on and whether the office is open. I then look at a sign on the door which indicates that yes, they are open and also, the wifi is only available if you’re close to the office. I laugh out loud and say to the kids: “Oh, you’re here for the wifi”. They all say things like “Obviously”. We receive a very warm welcome and get all our checking in done. We’re shown to our campsite and it’s just great. Though there’s no grass (we’re still basically in the desert), each campsite is demarcated by a very large bamboo-like structure which offers shade, a wind break and room for a car and a tent. It’s really flippen awesome, actually. The ablutions are also fairly neat and tidy. Showers work with solar geysers so they advise you shower early. I immediately wish we had booked more than one night here, and spent a little time in Swakopmund, maybe on the beach. When we tell the lady at reception that we’re heading through to Etosha the next day, her eyes open wide in amazement and she strongly urges us to consider an alternative. We ask about the state of the roads and she says it’s tar, and upon this determination, Tall Dark & Handsome and I are just fine with the distance. For roadtrippers like us, 500km is all in a day’s work. We highly recommend Sophia Dale for all campers!
Finally, cold beers at Swakopmund campsite Sophia Dale
And so we set up – and by this time we are real professionals at setting up camp – in no time at all and start getting together a braai. We’re back to cold beer now so it’s a pleasure! The dogs are chilling with us but every once in a while run off to see if another camper might not feed them (or so I assume). The two friendly dogs’ names are Laila, an Africanis of some sort, and Chicco, some kind of Africanis Jack Russell cross. This braai feels like a feast. We haven’t had veggies (other than potatoes and onions) for a while and we’re tucking into a decent, fresh, crispy salad with the best produce we could find, as well as heavenly t-bone steaks with butter! It’s still a highlight as one of our best dinners on the trip. Each campsite has a tiny lapa and table vibe that two or three people can sit around comfortably. We spend the evening relaxing, showering and finally getting comfy in our tent.
On Day 8, the trip to Etosha commences. We actually leave at 10:00 which is the earliest we’ve managed to get going thus far. This part of Namibia is much more populated, turning from desert to sub-tropical the further north you travel. As such, we end up driving through a number of towns: Karibib, Omaruru, Otjiwarongo and Outjo among a few others. I love these names and though I find out I’m mispronouncing most, they seem very Mauri in nature to me. There are also a lot more cars on the road now. Whereas in the desert, you could go hours without ever seeing another car, here there are always cars. Our whole road there is all tar, divine glorious tar. We stop in Otjiwarongo and find a restaurant where we have lunch. We also realise it’s Christmas Eve as we notice all the decor in the restaurant. It’s the first time since Keetmanshoop that we’re not making our own meal. My pizza is pretty nice, if nothing mind-blowing. Tall Dark & Handsome’s Gemsbok burger on the other hand is fairly terrible. Finally the novelty of having someone else make a meal for us wears off as we are surrounded by flies and tardy service. So we head back out on the road.
My trusty OssemWa holds up like a trooper for the entire trip
When we reach Etosha, it’s a different world. The place is abuzz with activity and large tour groups. I stand in a massive queue to pay entrance fees while TDH goes and looks for petrol. This takes quite a bit of time. There are three campsites/accommodation centres in Etosha. We have planned to drive through half the park, see the sights, and stay in the middle, and the next morning drive the rest through to the exit and on to our next destination. I decide to buy water because we’ve been advised not to drink the tap water here. The cost of water is obscene in the park and I feel ripped off. Even the accommodation here is quite costly compared to camping everywhere else, and we’ll soon discover, not worth it. Once we’ve dealt with the queues and crowds, something we’re not used to of late, we head out. TDH reports he can’t get petrol as the electricity is off.
A whole new world … clouds and rain in Etosha
Now that we’re driving in the park itself, cars are few and far between, maybe because it’s late in the day. We take a leisurely drive and see hyenas, blue cranes and lots of other bird species. We get to Halali, our campsite. When we check in there, we find that spots are not assigned but it’s first come, first served. That proves disheartening, as the place is absolutely packed, and some campers have annexed neighbouring campsites because nobody is there to stop them. Finding an open spot is hard. We stop the car and start walking around because driving isn’t working. It’s Christmas Eve and the whole campsite is in a celebratory mood. We finally come across an okay spot and I hold it while TDH goes to fetch the car. We put up the tent and start braaiing some chicken, while we get settled and chilled. The party vibe gets a bit hectic as some groups get sloshed and music is being pumped from various places. We worry that the campsite won’t simmer down later but eventually it chills out. The ablutions are a mess and no cleaning schedule can keep up with the crowds.
Torrential downpours leave big puddles
There are no dogs here, as it’s not a pet-friendly kinda spot.
This gets a definite NO from us. Etosha is obviously immensely popular and always packed in high season but the fact that they don’t strictly assign campsites makes it chaotic and unruly as people just grab sites next to theirs when their groups are technically too large for the one site they booked. Also, if you arrive late, you have to hope for the best. The camp is not well maintained and when the rains come (torrential downpours), pools of water are everywhere and your site has a good chance of being flooded, if not one of the well-built ones with a cement slab. The ablutions are no good and not maintained well enough during crowded times. Etosha is a must visit, though. Our recommendation on camping in Etosha, is to not camp in Etosha. Do yourself an immense favour and book at Kupferquelle Resort in Tsumeb less than an hour’s drive from Etosha on glorious tar all the way. You’ll soon see why we recommend Kupferquelle (read further below). I have no idea what the Etosha chalets are like and cannot speak to that. Bonus on staying outside Etosha is that you also get to avoid dealing with the Etosha “officials” in terms of your car being searched and your “contraband” stuff being confiscated, and you can purchase produce and meat elsewhere at more reasonable prices.
On Day 9, it’s Christmas and we head out around 11 with no real plans. We hadn’t thought this through very well. But off we go and we drive slowly and leisurely, spotting animals and birds. We stop at the incredible Etosha Salt Pan and check it out a bit. But we didn’t have a big breakfast and by now, lunchtime, I’m feeling moody. We stop at the last site before the exit, Namutoni. Here we have a very late “Christmas lunch” of chicken burgers. As we sit down, a massive rainstorm explodes over our heads and this is the first rain we’ve seen since leaving SA and it is a deluge! Sudden and torrential and over in minutes. We enjoy our chicken burgers while the storm calms down outside. Before we leave Etosha behind, we stop at the shop for some frozen meat to cook for “Christmas dinner” at our next campsite. Little do we know at this stage what an error that will prove to be.
Sights of Etosha
In the last little stretch of the park, we come across a massive pride of lions and cars are stopped everywhere as we all crane for a look. But time is not on our side, and we head out. We still have to exit the Park and head to Tsumeb. But trouble is waiting for us at the exit gate. We weren’t told we couldn’t travel with meat into or out of the park, although apparently there are “signs everywhere” and here we sit with our Christmas dinner in frozen form. No amount of reasoning will see us leaving with our meat. I opt to give it to some German tourists who have just driven in instead of leaving it with the surly camp officials, who were likely getting very happy at the thought of the meat they’re about to bag. I was extremely irritated with this loss of cash, and the fact that we would find nowhere open to buy food for dinner. At this stage, our stores are down to canned goods. I’m a little grumpy as we head out. The road to Tsumeb is a lovely tar road that is in great condition. We come across a small tortoise crossing the road and stop to let it pass, which allows for an amusing break in the tension that built up at the exit gate.
On the road to Tsumeb
The clouds still linger and leaves us feeling like it’s getting dark as we travel to Tsumeb but we get there before dark anyway. We arrive at Kupferquelle, our spot for the evening, and are absolutely blown away by this campsite, which comes in at BEST CAMPSITE EVER. Lush, green lawns are everywhere, gorgeous massive trees and pines create immense blankets of shade, and the bathrooms! Oh my word, the bathrooms! But more about that shortly.
The lush green lawns of Kupferquelle Resort
We chat to the guys at reception about where we might find some food. They talk about one hotel in the town that is open for dinner tonight, Minen. We set about getting our campsite in order and once that’s done and dusted, we go take a great shower and head out to find the hotel. Directions are not the best and we drive up and down and try to consult the maps to find this spot. Luckily it’s a small town and we finally get there. They put us in the bar, for some reason, where people are drinking and smoking and a few folks are gambling on automatic machines. We ask if there isn’t somewhere else we can sit and get moved to the proper restaurant, which is open and has only a few guests dining. This seems great. We feel relieved that we’ve found somewhere we can eat. I get a lamb main and TDH orders a peppercorn steak. My food is okay, wholesome but there’s something really wrong with TDH’s steak. We hear angry shouting from the kitchen and I worry about the chef. TDH’s steak tastes like soap or jik. It’s the strangest thing. We try to figure out if we’re missing something but no, the taste is some sort of cleaning product. After numerous attempts, we get a waiter to assist and then ask him to take it back. TDH and I start sharing my food as nobody comes back to us for 20 minutes. We get up a few times to look for someone, and finally they come back to say they’ll take it off the bill. We’re happy with that because by this time, we’re a bit off the idea of dinner and have had our fill on my dish. Christmas ends up being a little bit of an odd sort of day. We decide to head back to camp and chill.
Kupferquelle is unparalleled in terms of camping. We have yet to come across anything as lovely since. Lawns for days, immense trees for shade, they even have an on-site restaurant (Dros or one such), wifi! and an Olympic-size swimming pool. There are massive lights that can be switched off! But nothing comes close to the ablutions. There are about 8 (I think) individual bathroom units that have frosted glass and doors that lock and an immense shower, a lovely space to tidy up and a separate toilet. And you have that all to yourself! Clean and modern and just fan-bloody-tastic. I don’t know if anything will ever take me that far north again but I hope I will find a way to stay at Kupferquelle again. We might journey back to to Okavango for fishing one day and stop in Tsumeb on the way.
Day 10 dawns and we marvel at how far we’ve come. Before we head out to Rundu, we have a very relaxed morning. We go to the on-site restaurant and have a massive breakfast. We use wi-fi for the first time on the trip, and send our families a few updates and photos. Finally, TDH takes a dip in the massive pool and we pack up to head out to a our next stop 80km beyond Rundu, Shankara, just before the Caprivi. We don’t know it yet but we’re heading for a campsite right on the Okavango. We’re sad to say farewell to the amazing Kupferquelle. We reach Shankara without much fanfare as it’s all tar all the way now. We find it easily enough, though directions could be better. We’re warmly welcomed by Sonja, our host. As it’s Boxing Day, we weren’t able to buy meat anywhere so she graciously offers us a packet of wors from her own stores! We buy ice and wood that they have on-site and we’re on our way. Shankara will be one of TDH’s favourite spots cause we get to do our first bit of proper fishing and he almost pulls in a big Tiger. We’ll wish we had stayed at Shankara a little longer cause our next stop is also on a river but it’s not as awesome as being on the Okavango. We meet one of their dogs, clearly still a puppy from its face, but a giant of a dog. We dub him Wolf Bear Pup and he is big enough to push me to the ground just by trying to rub against me! But an absolute teddy bear, friendly and playful. I can’t even imagine how big this dog will be when fully grown. We have no clue as to its breed. We spend a quiet, restful evening braaiing and relaxing.
The road to Rundu and the Caprivi Strip
Shankara is actually one of our favourite stops on the journey. The host is welcoming, friendly and helpful. The campsite, in the lush tropical riverfront of the Okavango, is shady and cool. If we had known about the Okavango being right there, we would have booked a longer stay. The only thing that Shankara is lacking is decent ablutions. Though they are okay, they are in a thatch-roof building and the creepy crawlies are crazy. For me, this is tough call, showering at night with spiders and unidentifiable insects everywhere. Shankara also has chalets and offers fishing and sunset boat rides on the river.
Tropics at Shankara
On Day 11, we opt to get up crazy early for the first time in a while so we can spend some time fishing before we have to move on. This will be the very first time in my life that I actually catch a fish, and I hook two small Tigers that we release. TDH has a great take from what must be a sizeable Tiger but it snaps the line before he can haul it in. I leave him to fish a little longer and start getting camp ready for departure. We leave Shankara behind with a lot of regret, wishing we could stay longer and hoping that our next destination on the Kwando river will be as good. On the way to Camp Kwando, we stop at a grocery store for supplies, drinks and snacks. Directions are a bit sketchy and we see signs here and there but often feel like we might have missed a turn-off. We do eventually find it after travelling a dirt road for a while, through a small village and beyond. This time, we know we’re heading to a site on the Kwando so as long as the river is still up ahead, we are on the right track.
Fishing on the Okavango
We reach Camp Kwando and it looks very impressive, especially the chalets. But once we get to the camping section, we’re a little less impressed. Recent rain means the ground is very wet, and we now discover there is no electricity. For some reason, we didn’t know this about our campsite, whether due to our own lack of checking or not being informed, I don’t know. The ablutions look pretty bad, and we’re just not feeling it. Suddenly, Tall Dark & Handsome decides that we’re done with camping for a few days and goes to chat to the manager on duty about upgrading us to a tented chalet unit right on the river. I’m relieved as I’m not feeling the whole showering with creepy crawlies everywhere vibe anymore and we hadn’t prepared for no electricity. There’s no real room to braai on the deck of the tented chalet but we make a plan as we’ve checked in too late to book for the dinner service and have few options for a meal. The nice thing is the tented chalet is right on the river and we will be spending two nights at Kwando. We meet the resident dog, who is called Village.
To be honest, I’m not sure it’s that the camping site was really particularly bad but the fact that there’s no electricity, and we haven’t prepped for it, puts a nail in the coffin for us. Part of it is likely also “camping fatigue”. The cost of the upgrade is not really worth it, in my opinion. I would never book a tented camp at that cost, considering the shower taps shock us when we touch them, and we can hardly plug in anything before the power shorts and trips. Also, on the first night, one of the beds dislodges from its frame and crashes down with us on it. And after the majestic Okavango river, we’re a little disappointed with Kwando, where we only catch a few squeakers and don’t have any luck bagging anything big. If I had known, I would have definitely changed our plans to stay at Shankara an additional evening and spent only one night at Kwando. But we bite the cost bullet, and enjoy having a space to ourselves with privacy and our own shower which is clean, though slightly risky with the shocks. It is also a nice break from camping and sitting on the river’s edge is lovely.
Kwando River: The view from our tented chalet
As Day 12 breaks, we wake up in a very leisurely fashion, having slept on the other, unbroken bed. We make the decision that we will spend the day relaxing, reading and recovering from all the driving and constant moving. It’s one of very few 2 day stays we’ve booked. We have an okay breakfast at the lodge (service is leisurely, to say the least, and the food is not comparable to similar setups in SA). We spend the rest of the day on the porch of our tented chalet, eating leftovers and drinking beer, fishing, reading and bird watching. The heat is hectic and we get our first serious sunburns. We catch a few squeakers. Our neighbour manages to reel in a decent-sized barbel.
This time we’ve booked for dinner at the lodge, and it’s a very good meal: leg of lamb, couscous and gem squash. We spend a chilled evening in bed (the bed has been fixed by the guys on duty), reading and falling asleep to the sounds of the river, and hippos somewhere in the water. In the middle of the night, we’re awoken by strange noises and discover a field mouse ripping open one of our snack boxes. We do a bit of repacking in terms of what’s lying around and go back to sleep.
Day 13 and we’re up around 08:00. We do a little packing before we head to breakfast. Village, the dog, who has been visiting once in a while, stays with us as we pack the OssemWa. This is our last day in Namibia and we’ll be driving through the rest of the Caprivi, through the top of Botswana, into Zimbabwe. We have two border crossings ahead of us and a bit of road before we get to our last “holiday” destination, Victoria Falls. It’s 29 December and we have no idea what’s waiting for us at Vic Falls. We check out of Camp Kwando and explain to them about the “electrified” taps and other issues we had, before we head out on the road.
Elephant Spotting while driving through the top of Chobe National Park
The border crossings go surprisingly fast and easy on all sides. Tall Dark & Handsome is from Zim and expects some trouble at the border but, other than one surly official who tries to make life hard, we have no real issues. We make our way to the town of Victoria Falls in good time. We have booked at the Vic Falls Rest Camp through Safari Now and as such, got a great price. We realise this as we wait to check in and people are trying to book sites and are getting fleeced in US Dollars. The lady at reception tells us the great news. Do we know that it’s almost New Year’s Eve and there’s a massive music festival going down the next few days in the Camp? Whoops. Our assumption was it would only start getting crazy once we were already leaving. She suggests that we stay well away from the camp section and rather look for a spot between chalets. But the 18 to 20 year-old partygoers and the party has well and truly started. We find a spot as far away from Party Central as we can and organise a make-shift electrical connection with the assistance of one of the staffers. We’re also booked for two nights here but are already seriously reconsidering.
As we set up camp and go about making a braai and chilling with a few beers, we decide, as people are vomiting around us and drunkenly falling over each other, that we will split from here the next day and lose out on our 2nd night’s booking. Our final destination on the trip is TDH’s parents’ house in Gweru and we figure one more day there is just fine with us. So we make the best of the evening, enjoying our dinner and beers, and eventually we try to catch some Zs while the world around is going crazy, and all I hope is that nobody comes tumbling onto our tent.
There are a bazillion mongooses everywhere running around in troops, trying to get at any food that might be left unattended. But no dogs.
At any other time of the year, this may have been a great option. We just made the mistake of thinking that the New Year party vibes would only start on NYE but in fact, it already kicks off on the 29th just as we arrive. It feels like all of Zim’s well-to-do young people are there, ready to go absolutely crazy. And for someone in that age group keen on the action, this is an awesome vibe. It feels like Girls Gone Wild and Jersey Shore all rolled together. Booking through SafariNow is clearly the way to go because the prices in USD there is kinda absurd. It is close enough to Vic Falls to walk if you can stand the heat or head out early enough. In fact, I advise walking as many places as possible because the cops are also out to fleece the tourists and we get a $20 fine coming out of a Spar parking lot for “not stopping properly”. After threats of confiscating our vehicle and setting a court date, when we try to argue the point, we give up and pay the fine. Tall Dark & Handsome is not impressed and his concerns that we’ll get fined for random nonsense all over is not unfounded, as we find out when we reach Gweru.
So, Day 14 arrives and everything is deathly quiet. Clearly the whole of Vic Falls Rest Camp is sleeping off the party from the night before. As it’s nice and quiet and chilled, we decide to do one last proper breakfast fry-up, before decamping, packing up the car and heading to Victoria Falls. We discuss it and decide we cannot leave town any later than 2pm to reach Gweru at a decent time. We go to great lengths to repack the car so we cannot be fined for “overloading”. We are up and down about whether to leave the car and walk to the Falls but it’s getting very late so we opt to drive instead. This is when we get the $20 fine and lose a lot of time at the police station debating the point.
Feeling edgy and unhappy and not rested, we finally make our way to the Smoke that Thunders. All the drama is worth it. Obviously TDH has been before but this is my first time. Words cannot describe the amazing sight. It’s not even at full volume, as the rainy season has only just begun, but it’s spectacular. A definite bucket-list item, you must find a way to see it! We spend a lot of time there, and we’re not watching the clock. It means we end up leaving town at 15:40 instead of 14:00.
It’s a 600km drive but we’re feeling optimistic. However, we soon realise our optimism is unfounded as the road is in a horrible state and we have to drive slower than we hoped to avoid excessive potholes and shoulder breaks. There are also a lot of animals on the road. We also go through 15 roadblocks on the total trip to Gweru, which adds to the delays. And as the sun sets, not a great situation already, it starts to rain heavily. At 20:30, we’ve only reached Bulawayo and almost had a very bad encounter with a donkey on the road in the dark. Our nerves are frayed but we decide we’ll push on to Gweru anyway. However, the universe has other plans for us. In Bulawayo, we need to stop for fuel but there’s none to be had. At this time, TDH is reading the signs and says NO and phones family so we can crash with them.
By 21:30, we’ve found fuel but lost lots of time and are happy that we have somewhere in town to crash. We’re exhausted. We have a lovely wholesome dinner and take a much needed shower and have a great night’s rest.
On Day 15 we depart for Gweru, and due to a late start, we only get there at 12:30. It feels like the holiday is basically over but we spend some quality time with TDH’s parents and chill in Gweru for a few days. Our New Year’s Eve is a quiet, relaxed affair.
Before we leave Gweru, TDH gets fined once more because he’s driving my car even though he has all the right documentation and the car meets all the ridiculous rules and regulations specified.
Day 17 and we head out from Gweru at 03:30 hoping we’ll skip most of the roadblocks thanks to the early start. We’re wrong. We’re not even out of Gweru town limits, when we’re stopped the first time. We’re heading to the Plumtree border post to get into Botswana, final destination: Johannesburg. After some debating, we’ve decided to skip Beitbridge, which is both exceptionally busy and very notorious. We opt for a much longer (but hopefully quicker) route via Botswana. Plumtree is quite busy and we wait for just over an hour before we’re through but considering Beitbridge sometimes has a waiting period of 5 to 8 hours, we feel lucky. This is our longest border crossing during the entire trip.
As we’re making our way through Botswana to the Martin’s Drift border post, we come across lots of people with GP plates heading in the same direction. We start wondering if we shouldn’t find a more obscure border crossing. And that’s just what we do. After making contact with family in SA via SMS, we get info on a small post that might be worth a little extra mileage. And that’s how we find ourselves on a gravel road, laughing at this strange turn of events and wondering if we’ve made a bad decision, as we were convinced we’d left all gravel behind in Namibia. The road isn’t too bad, though, and we soon come across the most obscure petrol station in the world, just before the border post.
The Parr’s Halt border crossing is a tiny freight container building of a crossing and there are maybe 4 people ahead of us. We’re through the other side (Stockpoort) before you can say “Beitbridge for what?”. And so we’re back on SA soil and the last stretch to Jo’burg via Limpopo. The drive is a stunning one, and we promise ourselves we’ll be back to this part of Limpopo. We’re on the N1 highway a little way north of Pretoria when the sun sets on the last day and on our trip. We get home just before 9pm to a happy pair of doggy faces waiting excitedly to greet us.
I can honestly say that we were very fortunate for almost all of our trip. We had no flat tyres despite hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres on gravel, we went through border posts 5 times without incident and hardly ever waited more than 40 minutes (except at Plum Tree heading into Botswana). Our accommodation and camping spots were usually great and only in Zimbabwe did we struggle with law enforcement and dodgy fines. When I think back on the trip now, an amazing 6500km journey, I have countless fantastic memories. Even the difficulties or hindrances we faced often had unexpectedly wonderful results. A trip Tall Dark & Handsome and I will never forget and will likely never be able to recreate. So my advice to you is to definitely travel in Namibia, a land of many facets and amazing people and gorgeous vistas: often stark, sometimes lush but always memorable.
The sand of the Namib from our 3rd stop still sits on the dashboard when we arrive home, 6500 km later