Namibia Part IV: Into the Tropics

We left our campsite near Sesriem at dawn to make for Swakopmund, a 350km journey that would reveal even more of the incredible desert vistas of the Namib.   We hadn’t long been on the road before we had to stop to help out a fellow Africa Travel Co truck that had broken down.  It is an unwritten law that overland trucks help each other out in situations like this and as our tour leader correctly pointed out, next time it could be us.  It wasn’t long before we were on our way and passing through the tiny town of Solitaire, memorable due to the multitude of vintage trucks and cars half buried in the sand.  We didn’t stop and the road was too bumpy for me to get a good photo so I’ve posted one from Wikipedia below.  I always admire the way otherwise nondescript towns around the world find unique ways like this to stand out.

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Photo of Solitaire sourced from Wikipedia Commons

After climbing over the somewhat treacherous Gaub Pass we dropped back down onto what looked like a never-ending sandy plain where the Tropic of Capricorn passes through Africa.  As I covered off in an earlier post, I grew up fascinated with looking at maps of the world so I was pretty excited about this yet also surprised at how many people didn’t know what it was or why it was important.  So just to be clear, the Tropic of Capricorn is an invisible line around Earth that marks where the tropics end and the Southern Temperate Zone begins.  Its northern counterpart is the Tropic of Cancer and half way between the two is the Equator.  In short, the area of our planet between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn is always closest to the sun and generally experiences the warmest temperatures on our planet all year.  This region is commonly known as the Tropics.  North and south of these tropical lines are temperate zones where we tend to experience the four seasons, only getting as hot as the tropics or as cold as the poles for relatively short periods.  North and south of the temperate zones are the polar zones that are always further from the sun than everywhere else and are therefore bloody freezing most of the time, only experiencing a short mild summer i.e.  the Arctic and Antarctic.

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The long bumpy road eventually took us through the Kuiseb Canyon region where we briefly left the sandy vistas behind and found an area of rocky outcrops, escarpments and small windy canyons, dry when we passed through but it was obvious that they could quickly fill with dangerous flash flood water during the rainy season.  The pass peaks at about 900m so we pulled over for a break and to take in the views.

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Another steep windy road took us to an even vaster flat desert plain and this time the road hugged the border of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and took us all the way to the coast.  The truck wasn’t air-conditioned which was fine so long as it was moving as the windows offered a breeze to cool things down.  Problems arose when your seat happened to be in direct sunlight which is especially strong in this part of the world.  When that happened even a good flow of air from the windows couldn’t cool you down so we learned to fashion temporary curtains out of t-shirts, scarves and blankets.  For some reason the three Koreans had a roll of Korean Air branded packaging tape so that held things in place whilst making for an odd sight on a truck in the middle of Africa.

The problem was that when the ‘curtain’ was taped up you’d then miss out on the view and if the truck changed direction we’d need to move the shade to the opposite side or perhaps the front.  But we made it work for us and on long journeys like this I’d look around to find most of my tripmates fast asleep, something I’d resist as I didn’t come all the way to Africa to look at the back of my eyelids.  But on days like this where we had early starts and unchanging scenery I often couldn’t fight it and would soon find myself nodding off, only to be rudely jerked awake when we went over a particularly bad bump or turned a sharp corner.  I’d then try to fight sleep again before eventually succumbing and repeating that process sometimes for several hours at a time, likely doing terrible damage to my neck.

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Road signs for Walvis Bay and Swakopmund soon told us that we’d reached the Atlantic Coast but the ocean view was obscured by more of Namibia’s incredible giant sand dunes.  They reach all the way to the coastline and make this area a popular tourist playground with a variety of sand and sea-based activities including sandboarding, quadbiking, sea kayaking and desert nature trails.  The coast here is part of the infamous Skeleton Coast, so named due to the sheer volume of shipwrecks that dot the region thanks to frequent thick fogs, treacherous rocks and wild surf.

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We made for our accommodation in Swakopmund that was a real treat.  Instead of once again pitching our tents in the sand we were staying for two nights in budget accommodation that turned out to be very nicely converted shipping containers, each sleeping two people with a private en-suite bathroom.  After just 5 nights in the desert I felt like I was checking into a Ritz Carlton and whilst my tripmates engaged in the various activities on offer I stayed close to my room.  My overall trip fund was looking a little less healthy than it should have been when I left for Africa so I was avoiding optional activities unless they involved something truly unique.  Whilst Swakopmund is flush with great things to do, I’d participated in most of them before in other parts of the world so decided to spend my time there seeing the town and catching up on chores like sorting out my pack, myself and my laundry.  That evening we had to say a sad goodbye to our three Korean friends who were finishing the trip there then went out for a group dinner at a great restaurant and bar called Napolitana where much meat and booze was consumed.  The next day I set off to explore a bit of the town.

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With a population of around 44,000, Swakopmund is Namibia’s fourth largest settlement.  The German colonists needed to find a good seaport to serve their new colony and the British had already claimed the best one at nearby Walvis Bay, leaving Swakopmund as the next best option.  So the town was founded in 1892 and still retains some good examples of German colonial architecture.  As you walk around the town you can look down long streets to see the Atlantic Ocean and due to the proximity to the dunes and the beach sand seems to be constantly trying to reclaim the town.  In fact many of the sidewalks and roads outside the main centre consist largely or solely of sand.

Despite it being a popular tourist spot Swakopmund has a quiet feel to it and looks like many colonial towns of the Southern Hemisphere with wide streets and sidewalks, two-story concrete and brick buildings, many of which have verandahs to give shelter from the sun to both pedestrians and the contents of shop windows.  There are a handful of decent restaurants and pubs along with a smattering of souvenir shops and tour companies.  I was on the hunt for a book shop where I could purchase some maps but there isn’t one in the town and I wasn’t to find one until several weeks later in  Tanzania near the end of my trip.

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Whilst we knew it was a bit unimaginative we had really enjoyed our meal the night before so decided to return to Napolitana for our final dinner in the town.   On the short walk back from our boozy dinner we made for a small stretch of pavement that was clear of sand and I suddenly found myself falling over in spectacular fashion.  I’d forgotten about some random and large oblong pieces of rough concrete that were sticking out of the sidewalk in places and tripped on one in the darkness with my left wrist taking the brunt of the fall.  I wasn’t too humiliated because I had so much practice at falling over to the point that it is almost one of my calling cards, so I was doing ok in the ego department but when I woke up the next morning I noticed that the physical damage was a lot worse than I thought.  Both my knees had been badly skinned and my left wrist had a huge lump on it.  Unfortunately this injury would plague me for the next week or so and my wrist still hasn’t fully recovered as I type this over three months later.  According to our crew another person had done exactly the same thing as they passed through on their way south a few weeks prior.  So if you are ever in Swakopmund please keep an eye out for random blocks of concrete on the sidewalk.  Especially if you’ve just been doing Springbokkie shooters in town.

This was our last morning so we said a sad goodbye to our comfortable beds and private bathrooms  before I gingerly loaded my gear on the truck with my non-injured arm. We were leaving behind our three Korean friends but had gained a new Swiss one I was enjoying getting to know.  By now it was a week since I’d started my 6-week overland journey in Cape Town and I reflected on this as we drove out of Swakopmund away from the Atlantic Coast.  The next time I’d see the ocean would be many weeks later after we’d crossed an entire continent to find ourseveles at the Indian Ocean in Tanzania.  Since leaving Cape Town we had visited Africa’s largest canyon, seen giant sand dunes, visited 700-year old dead trees and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.   It felt like a lifetime of adventures had already passed so it was wonderful to realise that I still had another 5-weeks of this before me.

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