Inside Africa

Gretchen Healey

Namibia is fast becoming a destination of choice for the savvy Africa traveler due to the country’s staggering beauty, a legacy of passionate conservation, and friendly, welcoming people. With 12 trips to Africa to her credit, “Africa Hand” and photojournalist Gretchen Healey shares her top five adventures not to be missed.

Okonjima

Okonjima is the home of the AfriCat foundation, an organization focused on long-term conservation of large carnivores in Namibia.  It is a few hours’ drive northeast from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and allows travelers to get their feet wet with game viewing as well as providing a fascinating environmental education experience.  There are multiple types of lodging available, from camping to luxurious private villas.

Okonjima cheetah

While AfriCat is primarily a rescue and release program, there are several ‘ambassador’ cheetahs that reside there full time.  Visiting these cats can be a very rewarding experience, especially for keen photographers.  Guests are able to get very close to the cats; hearing their vocalizations was one of the most interesting aspects of our time with them. 

In addition to education, Okonjima offers game drives, night viewing from a hide, and bushman walks.  One highlight of my visit was tracking and finding cheetah on foot.  It isn’t strenuous and the cheetahs are habituated to humans, but it is not without risk – or reward.  The vantage point on the ground is quite different from being in a vehicle.

Etosha

Etosha waterhole

Etosha National Park is probably Namibia’s most famous, and rightfully so.  It is vast at over 8,500 square miles and is home to more than 114 mammal species and 340 bird species.  The park is dotted with waterholes, giving visitors a unique opportunity to see many different animals gathered in a small area sharing the same resources.  It gave a vehicle-full of very seasoned safari goers pause to see elephants, oryx, springbok, ostrich and zebra milling around the same waterhole, while a pair of lazy lions were splayed in the shade nearby – too hot to be bothered to move.

The Park’s other feature is the Etosha Pan.  Three million years ago it was an enormous but shallow lake, but the Kunene River changed course and reduced it to a series of salt pans.  If the lake still existed, it would be the third largest on Earth. 

Etosha Pan with vehicle

 As it stands now, the pans fill only once approximately every 7 years.  During our visit, it was bone dry, which was nice, as visitors can drive a small distance on to the pan.  Standing on the pan gives the impression of being on the surface of the moon.

Damaraland

Damaraland is an area defined by stunning and changeable rock formations.  Rock walls of burnt orange escort travelers through the desert, broken up by building-high piles of boulders.  While in this area a visit to Twyfelfontein – arguably the best collection of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa – should not be missed.

The site is an ancient graffiti museum.  There are depictions of land animals, as well as hand and foot prints and abstract art littered over acres of terrain.  Perhaps even more amazing are the engravings of sea animals, such as seals and penguins, given that the petroglyphs are well inland from the ocean. It’s an astonishing collection set in an incredibly dry, and therefore unlikely, place for people to have settled for 7,000 years.

The highlight of Damaraland was searching for desert-adapted elephants. These are not a different species from the African elephant, they have specially adapted to exceptionally dry conditions.  The most obvious of these adaptations is their ability to go 

Desert adapted elephants

without water for several days, as well as their eating habits – they are much less destructive when eating vegetation than their non-desert dwelling counterparts.

We ‘river surfed’ (drove quite quickly through the sands of an ephemeral riverbed) looking for the elusive elephants and managed to spot two herds that had come together and were headed for water.  The unique part of viewing these animals was that we were the only vehicle - in the middle of nowhere - and there wasn’t a national park border anywhere nearby.  It was an intimate and incredibly special experience.


Skeleton Coast/Sossusvlei

Namibia’s formally protected coastline, dubbed the Skeleton Coast, is named after the beached whale and seal bones which covered the shore when the whaling industry was still active, 

Skeleton Coast shipwreck

as well as for the skeletal shipwrecks caused by rocks offshore in the fog.  The Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park is the eighth largest protected area in the world and the largest park in Africa.  A few nights spent in the coastal towns of Swakopmund or Walvis Bay give travelers the chance to see the hundreds of thousands of seals at Cape Cross, view some of the coast’s many shipwrecks, take a dolphin cruise or to jump into some of the dune-based adrenaline activities like quad biking and sand boarding.

We did our quad biking further inland at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. 

 Quad biking (riding 4-wheel ATV’s) is quite a bit of fun and gets the adrenaline going.  However, the real magic in this area is the chance to see Namibia’s night skies.  With virtually no light pollution, the universe is a riot of color and light. 

Antares and Rho Ophiuchi - photo by Dr. George F. Tucker

 The lodge has a resident astronomer along with an observatory.  We could see the Large Magellenic Cloud and the Milky Way with the naked eye, and the telescope allowed us to view things like the Tarantula Nebula, the Jewelbox, and Saturn.  The night sky here is among the darkest ever measured.


We spent the next day in Sossusvlei, surrounded by 60-story dunes that are some of the tallest on Earth.  This requires an early wake-up call, but when the sun rises and turns the dunes an impossible shade of red, all is forgotten.  A typical day here involves driving through the Park and taking photographs, as well as taking a hike up one of the dunes.  We climbed the dune directly behind Sossusvlei Pan, which was filled with water (an event that occurs only once a decade). 

Sossusvlei climb

 It was an exhilarating but tiring climb along the dune’s crest to the top, and a two minute run down its steep face to get down. Thankfully, our guides had prepared a hearty bush breakfast for us to recover from the exercise.

Wolwedans


The ‘sundowner’ drink is a much celebrated tradition on every trip I take to Africa.  On an afternoon game drive, you sit unaware that your guide is taking you somewhere special only he knows about.  The vehicle rolls to a stop at an improbably scenic spot and as you get out to stretch a bit, you realize there is a cocktail box magically appearing.  Voila - you’re about to enjoy the privilege of taking time out of your day for a drink and to watch the sun set.  G&T, anyone?

I did my duty and observed this excellent tradition every day of the trip, but the most memorable sundowner was our last night in the bush at Wolwedans Dunes Lodge in the NamibRand Nature Reserve.  The desert landscape is incredibly beautiful.  It is almost Martian-like, with stark mountains and red sands.  Cocktails in hand, perched above a plain dotted with enigmatic barren patches of land dubbed ‘fairy circles’, we learned that these unexplained formations have many theories as to their existence – they may be caused by poisonous vegetation or created by termites. The locals believe that they are footprints of the gods.  Whatever their origin, they complete this haunting landscape perfectly.

NamibRand fairy circles
Wolwedans is a sublime place to end a Namibian journey – if you like to relax.  The pace is slow, the activities are quiet, and the silence of the desert is complete.  Visitors eat and drink exceptionally well and leave a very light footprint with their stay.  The only complaint is that any return to reality from this place is quite jarring.  It’s a danger I’ll willingly face again.
 

Getting there:  South African Airways has daily flights from JFK and Dulles direct to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Connections are available to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.  Alternatively, major carriers route via Europe and Johannesburg, where a layover may help reduce potential jet lag.    Air Namibia has direct flights to Windhoek from Frankfurt, Germany.

Recommended operators:  Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (866-778-1089) specializes in small-group and custom African safaris, including to Namibia.  They can create an itinerary to suit your needs, whether you choose basic accommodations or luxury, or a driving or flying safari.  It’s possible to rent a vehicle for a self-drive safari, but make sure to work with a local operator such as Ultimate Safaris (US phone number 888-993-1006) on your route and proper outfitting – a road journey is not to be undertaken lightly.

More info: For general country information visit the Namibia Tourism Board website, or purchase the excellent Bradt Guide to Namibia. 

 

 

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