Now that I’m self-quarantined in New York, looking back on photos from our road trip around Namibia makes me feel a special kind of nostalgia. Originally the plan was for Namibia to be the final chapter in our Southern Africa trip, before we returned to Southeast Asia to work from February through November. While I didn’t know it at the time, this vacation wound up being a last breath of normalcy, the calm right before COVID-19 began dominating global headlines. In the midst of trying to reimagine what 2020 is going to look like, I’m grateful to have these happy memories as a balm.
The crew! These are our friends Joe and Loren. Gary met them in Myanmar, we celebrated 2017 on a rooftop in Vietnam, and here we are, reunited at long last for a two week road trip around Namibia.
First photo of the trip, taken at a pitstop during our ten hour drive from Springbok towards Etosha National Park. With a population of only 2.5 million, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world.
Our first touristy stop was a visit to check out some new flora, the quiver tree. Found only in the Northern Cape region and Southern Namibia, it’s not actually a tree but a species of aloe that can grow over 30 feet tall.
The price to enter the quiver tree forest was a bit too steep for our budget, but we got the idea from the roadside.
As we got closer to Etosha, the barren landscape filled with swirling dust devils slowly transformed into vast green plains dotted with massive termite mounds.
Welcome to Etosha National Park! Most of our three days on safari were spent driving between little watering holes like this one. January is the park’s low season due to higher grasses and more abundant water sources, which makes spotting wildlife more difficult, but I loved seeing the desert in bloom.
First giraffe sighting, with the Etosha Pan in the background. This salt pan is the park’s most distinctive feature- the largest in Africa, it’s even visible from space.
10/10 most majestic kudu in the park.
So many flamingo friends!
We were lucky and saw nearly a dozen white rhinos, but the heat waves made getting any decent pictures tricky. Soaring temps also made camping every night a sweat fest, but that’s another story.
There were plenty of zebra buddies in nearly every corner of the park.
And so many ostriches, mouth-breathing as they bobbed along. Look at that face!
Watching a momma cheetah teaching her three cubs how to hunt was my favorite wildlife sighting of our trip. She had just demonstrated how to cross the road in a crouch, and here they are following. Eventually, she left them to nap in the shade, while she chased after a tasty springbok.
A lilac-breasted roller, always a treat.
Little wildebeest dude escaping the afternoon heat.
On our drive out of the park, we rounded a corner to find this family napping in the shade, and it was VERY exciting.
Sweetest lil bebe with mom.
From Etosha we drove to Twyfelfontein, past massive, topsy-turvy boulders piled haphazardly against the red earth. Other than the occasional group of baboons running across the road, it was easy to feel like we were the only living things left in the world. Eventually we came to a tiny, dusty town where we stopped for gas. While filling up, Himba women sauntered past, topless and painted with red otjize, bouncing babies on their hips as they bought cold cans of Coke. After a long day in the car, we finally reached the 2000-year-old San petroglyphs, animals and symbols carved into giant stones scattered across the desert.
After another sweaty night camping, we made our way to the Skeleton Coast, a 500km stretch of completely uninhabited shoreline.
Just one of the many of animal bones scattered across the sand that gives the area its name. Fun fact, we did not know that lions prowled these beaches until after we left, very glad we did not end up as lunch.
Hundreds of ships have wrecked along this stretch of coastline, left to gradually decay.
Bones of old boats.
After so much time camping in the wilderness, arriving in Swakopmund (pop. 44,000) felt like visiting a big, bustling metropolis. I forgot to take any pictures of this strangle little German enclave, but I very much enjoyed my first real shower of the trip, the cooler coastal temperatures, and their many beers and bratwursts. This picture is from the dunes just on the outskirts of town during our “Little Five” tour.
Our guide pointed to a group of women praying and ululating while walking across a nearby dune, before bending down to point out this well-camouflaged rattlesnake hiding only a few feet in front of us.
The cutest of the little five, the web-footed gecko, endemic to these dunes.
Spitzkoppe, emerging from the vast, flat nothingness like a lost city. A heat wave struck the day we left the coast to drive out here, and the transition was brutal.
Even with the heat, this might have been my favorite stop of the trip. A natural jungle gym filled with boulders to scramble on, arches to hike under and rock pools to investigate, the unfettered freedom to play and explore was my idea of a perfect afternoon.
Even though it wasn’t the right season, Gary and I decided that we couldn’t leave Namibia without at least doing a little climbing. The 13-pitch route, BYOND, heading up the massive slab seen here, was calling our names.
The only way to beat the heat was by waking up at 3:30am, to hike up and start climbing by 4:30. Here I am about to reach the top around 8:30am. With the temperatures already hovering around 90 degrees, in this picture I’m pretty sure I was screaming at Gary that my feet hurt too badly for him to be taking pictures, but I sure did love getting to the top, pulling off my shoes and enjoying that view!
By the time we started hiking down the temperature was hovering somewhere around 100 degrees, and I was hungry and tired. Still, I enjoyed discovering new plant friends hiding in various nooks and crannies.
Almost back at the campsite, finally. Back at camp we found Joe and Loren suffering, hunkered together in the only shade like wilted plants. At the park exit I had to put my whole head under a faucet in an effort to cool down. The desert is hot, y’all!
Originally we’d planned to head further into the desert immediately after our climb, but the car’s emergency light sent us back to the coast in order to swap it out at the dealership. A night in a hotel room and some AC was life-changing, and the next day we set off for Sossusvlei refreshed. On the way we got a flat tire, fussing around in the heat while Gary did most of the heavy lifting putting on the spare. Some pastries and cold drinks in Solitaire helped save the mood, and one new tire later, we were on our way.
We arrived too late to really see much of the park, but we did manage a little hike halfway up Elim Dune for this view. By this point, the heat was relentless, and my mouth felt so dry that even talking hurt. Luckily our campsite somehow kept their pool icy, and after a soak with a cold beer, I felt like I might live through the night.
The next day we woke up early to visit the Deadvlei before the tour buses arrived. A photographer’s paradise, this clay pan surrounded by giant sand dunes is the most iconic place in Namibia.
These trees are over 900 years old, but the dry climate keeps them from decomposing. Neat!
Tiny child, big dune.
A real life Dali painting.
Dreamy dunes in every direction.
And that’s all, folks! I’ll leave you with this oryx, who fares much better in the desert sun than I ever will. Our long drive back to Cape Town involved stops at Fish River Canyon and at the Orange River… but if I’m being honest, I could barely enjoy them, because by that point it was so atrociously hot that I felt as if my body might burst into flames at any given moment. After such a jam-packed adventure, a few night’s rest in a seaside cottage in Cape Town was the perfect ending to this trip.