Namibia Part II: Africa’s Grand Canyon

After a smooth border crossing from South Africa we stopped briefly at a Namibian gas station to stock up on snacks and beer.  Our driver had warned that whilst Namibia was one of the more modern countries we’d visit with some of the best infrastructure, the roads would be the worst we’d travel on and he wasn’t exaggerating.

We spent a brief time on the paved B1 highway that runs all the way to Windhoek and if we’d known how long it would be before we’d experience another smooth road we might have paid more attention to it, but we soon turned left on the first of many bumpy roads and made for our desert campsite near Ai-Ais.  Here we pitched our tents in the sand before heading off in the truck to explore the area.

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Ai-Ais means burning water in the Nama language and it is a popular tourist destination due to its hot springs and served as a military post for both German and South African soldiers during colonial times.  We didn’t visit any hot springs because we were in the area to see Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa and the second largest in the world after the Grand Canyon.   We arrived late in the afternoon to hike around part of the rim before enjoying the sunset.  I have been to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona several times and it is one of my favourite spots on the planet.  Photos never do justice to just how huge it is, never mind the array of colours that make up the canyon walls.  Fish River Canyon was also huge, slowly revealing itself as we drove to the parking lot.  You feel as though you are driving on a relatively flat plain then suddenly notice the Earth dropping to great depths to reveal the deep windy canyon below.

Hiking around the rim in the late-afternoon light as the heat of the day dissipated was spectacular, and whilst there were many tourists around by Namibian standards it was a good deal quieter than a similar walk would be around the rim of Grand Canyon. And just like the Grand Canyon, it is possible to do longer and more challenging hikes down into the canyon itself but for today we were just going to enjoy the views from the rim on an easy walk that took about 20-minutes.    I was determined to take less photos on this trip and instead spend more time soaking up where I was with my own eyes, so I left the rest of the group furiously taking pictures and composing group shots to strike off with our tour leader on the short hike, stopping just a few times to snap well-rationed photos.  Fish River is the longest in Namibia and we were to cross it several times as we made our way North over the next few days, but from the Canyon rim it was barely visible far below.  The colours here are far more muted and uniform that the Grand Canyon but the views were still amazing.

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Eventually we made it to a kind of viewing platform where other tourists including a few different overland trucks were getting set-up to watch the sunset whilst enjoying a few beers.  As I settled down to take in the view and wait for the rest of my group an extremely loud type of buzzing noise disturbed the silence of the canyon and quiet chatter.  It was one of those noises that is instantly irritating like a sudden loud motorbike destroying the calm of a suburban street.   With rising anger I looked around for the source and soon spotted a couple of inconsiderate tourists flying a drone around the viewing area.  I get that people want to film using a drone in a place like that and will admit that I enjoy seeing the resulting footage of hard to reach places, but I wish that enthusiasts would find a more remote place away from other tourists to operate.  We had all travelled far to experience the view, the sunset and the peace of this remote canyon and it was all being destroyed by a couple of drone nerds.  I threw my best death stare at them to no avail but I guess someone eventually told them to shut up because this only lasted for another 10-minutes before we all got to enjoy the incredible spectacle of the sun setting over this beautiful place.  As the sun got lower the colours on the canyon walls began to change as they must have done night after night for thousands of years.  When darkness set in we reluctantly boarded the truck and made our way back to the camp at Hobas.

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The next morning we set off early on a 480km (298m) journey on rough sandy roads that took us even deeper into the Namib Desert.  After and hour or so we stopped at a smaller canyon by the Fish River to stretch our legs before continuing to the small dusty desert town of Bethanie.  Despite their size and remote locations these small towns are on the Namibian tourist route, frequented by small and larger tour groups along with adventurous self-drive tourists, many of whom hadn’t properly prepared for the rough roads and were often found broken down with flat tires and various other types of damage.  The presence of the tourists has provided demand for small cafes, bakeries and bars that are of a high standard and provide a welcome break from the hot, sandy driving.

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Later we stopped at the tiny town of Helmering where I visited a cute café-come-deli to stock up on biltong, as well as a tiny bottle store (liquor store/off licence) the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my childhood in New Zealand.  Myself and a tripmate made our way up the narrow sidewalk and walked into a small oblong smoky room.  At one end, what appeared to be one of the owners and a few locals sat smoking cigarettes and reading the newspaper.  A long wooden bar formed the counter, behind which were fridges stocked with South African and Namibian beer, ciders and an impressive collection of spirits.

I discovered Windhoek beer on one of my first visits to South Africa and having sampled an embarrassing amount of other beers throughout the world since then it remains my favourite.  Another tasty South African beverage for a hot African day is Hunter’s cider and one of the best tasting liquors on the planet called Amarula is also produced in South Africa, a cream liquor made with Marula fruit that most closely resembles Bailey’s and is also taken over ice.  I unashamedly stocked up on all three to add to my growing collection of biltong and the case of wonderful Highlanders Chenin Blanc I’d purchased on our first night at the vineyard.  By now I had a nice stash of Southern African taste sensations that I thought would see me through the next few weeks but I’m afraid that it barely lasted until the end of that week.

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We left Helmering behind in search of a roadside lunch stop.  The day was getting hotter and windier with trees few and far between.  Eventually the driver found a single tree large enough to shade about half of us and that offered some meagre shelter from the wind.  Our cook grumbled about dust getting into the cooking equipment and food whilst we hastily prepared lunch, occasionally chasing cheese wrappers down the road to return them to the trash can we carried with us.

As we continued on after our meal we saw the first of many giant weaver bird nests.  Our driver found a place to pull over by a tree weighed down by one of these huge and incredible houses created by Weaver Birds, cute little things about the size of a sparrow or finch.  We wandered over to admire the tree up close and tried in vain to get a photo of the birds darting in and out of the well-constructed holes, but for the most part they were just way too fast.  The nests have to be seen to be believed and some end up so huge they can actually topple over the unfortunate tree that houses them.  Wired magazine even featured them in their ‘Absurd Creature of the Week’ column.

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The long hot afternoon drive was spent gossiping, playing cards, nodding off to sleep and gazing out the window.  Soon we saw the first zebra of our trip that got us all incredibly excited.  Within a week zebra would be a sighted almost as commonly as donkeys and cows but for now it was enough to wake us up and take turns spotting animals out the window.  Shortly before we reached our camp I spotted something unusual moving in the distance.  At first I thought it was a cow but I was soon yelling out ‘Ostrich!’ causing everyone to wake up and search in vain as we’d long passed it before I’d realised it was bird and not bovine.  I was pretty excited as I’d never seen one in the wild but just like the zebra, wild ostrich were to become a common sight from the truck as we journeyed through Namibia.

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Our destination that evening was Sossus Oasis Campsite near Sesriem, the typical staging point for visits to Sossusvlei and the Namib-Naukluft National Park, home to Namibia’s giant sand dunes that we were to visit the next day.  As we approached the area the scenery changed again from pale sand and grey or brown rocky hills to a vast plain of red sand, rocky outcrops and the occasional dune.  It felt liked we’d turned a corner only to find ourselves on a different planet.

It had been a long day so we were happy to arrive at our camp that was sprawled out on this incredible desert plain with few trees offering shade to hot tired campers.  As we pitched our tents in the sand many yelps could be heard as people discovered big black beetles crawling everywhere.  As far as I can tell they are a type of Tok Tokkie beetle and they appeared to be a close relative to the huge Darkling Beetles that were a common yet harmless feature of the New Mexico desert where I used to live.  At that time I wasn’t sure that they weren’t stink bugs so whilst I wasn’t scared of them I told everyone to avoid stepping on one just in case.  Apart from the beetles everyone seemed to enjoy this campsite and as the sun began to set the desert quickly cooled off, allowing us to enjoy an evening by the campfire.  A few people ventured to the outdoor swimming pool where they encountered beautiful Oryx drinking from the pool after dark.

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I made my way to the shower which was quite a distance away and involved walking through the dark sandy desert.  Encountering snakes or scorpions was a real possibility so I put on some sturdy footwear and moved slowly, sweeping my torch in front of me to check for creepy crawlies but I never saw a thing.  The showers reminded me of the ones featured on the TV show MASH.  They only came up to chin height so that you could see the person next to you as you casually showered and chatted away.  The next morning we had to be up early to visit the huge sand dunes so I was climbing into my sleeping bag fairly early but not before enjoying the view above our heads.  The dark desert night and clear air made the stars look incredibly close and bright.  One of the many things I already miss about camping in Africa is enjoying that wonderful view of our universe every night before bed, knowing that soon I’d be waking up to yet another spectacular African dawn.

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