Many years ago I saw a picture of the fort at Namutoni, a town in the desert country of Namibia. It looked like the fort in Beau Geste, a movie I loved in my childhood. I wondered what it would be like to go to such a remote place. Namibia seemed to me to be in the same class as Timbuktu: a place removed from the world, with no clear “triptik” available, no known route, not on the grand tour.
Then, a few years later, I got a telephone call from an old law school classmate. She asked me if I’d like to fly down to Zimbabwe, and drive to Namibia, with two friends she had met on previous trips to Africa. I cupped my hand over the phone and asked my husband: “Why would I want to drive to Namibia?” He answered: “When do you think anyone will ask you again?” So I said yes.
A month later I was on my way to London, where I met Marge and a few days later we were flying down to Harare. We met June Johnston, our intrepid leader, and Mary Allan, her old friend from childhood days in Kenya, who became our official birdwatcher.
The four of us set out in a Toyota truck for Victoria Falls, the Caprivi Strip and eventually, Etosha Game Park in Namibia, the site of the great fort at Namutoni.
I chuckle now when I read in the glossy travel magazines about fancy new resort destinations in Namibia, which boast elegant five-star accommodations, air conditioning, French chefs, marble bathrooms, etc.
Believe me, when I was in Namibia, there was no Relais /Chateau anywhere to be found. And may I add “thank goodness.” I feel lucky to have seen this bleak, yet remarkable country before it was discovered by the bored jet setters. I was sort of hoping they would never find it. I guess it’s true, there are no more hidden places left on the globe.
Now, there is no particular reason to go to Namibia, unless of course, you love sand. That is about all there is in that country, that and many mountains full of uranium. Driving through the Anza/Borrego desert in southern California will give you a good idea what to expect, except there are many more conveniences in California. We actually stopped one day on our driving trip and took pictures in every direction, all of flat sand, with nothing else in sight. The road was even sand, sprayed over with salt water from the South Atlantic, before us and behind us. It was, in fact, a very eerie feeling, and I saw mirages for the first time.
Still the country was compelling, and absolutely fascinating, because it was so different from any place I had ever been.
It was so dry in this part of Southern Africa that we could feel it in the dehydration of our bodies, and were compelled to drink water constantly. Our skin was visibly drier, as were our fingernails. The heat, though dry, was oppressive always. While we were at one of the rest camps in Etosha Game Park, the biggest in Namibia, we hung the clothes out to dry upon our return from the Laundromat. About ten minutes later, June suggested that we go out and take them off the line. “Now?” I said. Sure enough they were dry as bones. We were obliged to stay indoors or out of the sun from 12 to 4.
There were some hardships in Namibia, not the least of which was the heat and the constant sand and dust. We inhaled large amounts of the latter, living like plasterers, as we drove all those kilometers. We spent hours per day in the truck, in the game park, viewing a grand assortment of wildlife: Dikdik; gemsbok (oryx);impala; wildebeest; jackal; giraffe; zebra; greater kudo; warthog; lion; eland; ostrich; elephant.
After a while, although the variety of animals and the chance to watch them in their habitat was truly marvelous, I really wanted to talk to some people. I am one of those travelers who want interaction with local people when I travel. And not only were the animals not communicating, visitors to the park were forbidden to get out of their vehicles. Furthermore, there are fewer than two million people in the whole country, which had only gained its independence two years before we visited.
As I said, this trip had its hardships: sometimes sleeping in the truck; not often finding bathrooms; not showering every day. We did have interesting rest camps to stay in most of the time, and they were always cheap and comfortable, and sometimes, even air-conditioned. In the rest camps, we met travelers, mostly Europeans, (never met an American of any age in all of Namibia) who were traveling on shoestrings, mostly. That was where I got to meet, if not locals, at least fellow travelers. One group of college students from various countries was traveling with Truck Africa, sleeping under their huge truck at night. This was truly a shoestring trip, clearly too much for the likes of me.
Due to a problem with our truck, we spent several days in a seaside resort town of Namibia, called Swakopmund. It is on the South Atlantic, a mostly German settlement, (Namibia used to be German Southwest Africa) with a very strange climate. In the town, which is surrounded by sand dunes, and for about one mile inland, there is an almost constant overlay of mist from the South Atlantic. It makes the town much cooler than the desert, and allows all sorts of plants and flowers to grow, even though the actual rainfall is almost nil. If you get chilly, you can drive one mile inland, where it will invariably be sunny and hot. We stayed in the municipal chalets in Swakopmund. We found good restaurants, some hotels, mostly one or two story buildings, somewhat like the old west in the US. This resort town, with beaches and some lovely seaside homes also had a nice German konditorei in the Hotel Schweizerhof, where the pastries were as delicious as they were anachronistic, in this stark desert country.
In the vast desert areas, there are some prehistoric hieroglyphics in a place called Twyfelfontein, and there are everywhere strange prehistoric plants called Welwitschia. It is said that they may live for 2000 years, with a long taproot somehow finding moisture way down below the surface. There is almost no rain in this country, and there is also almost no traffic. We went for hours, and even a day without seeing any cars, just a few long haul trucks.
The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, is quite a modern city, with a population of about 40,000 people, which seemed like a veritable metropolis to me. It even had a shopping mall.
It also had a wonderful hotel called the Hotel Furstenhof, where I checked in and enjoyed a gourmet meal and a lovely half bottle of South African white wine, before flying off the next day to Durban in South Africa. But that’s another story.
(Betsy Shequine is not a back-packer, nor a camper type traveler, but somehow remembers this Africa trip much more than more luxurious ones.)