Spitzkoppe to Swakopmund – Namibia
Spitzkoppe is one of those places you have never heard about and one I would never have visited if it hadn’t been for the tour. As we drove out into the vast Namib desert all I knew was that we were off to see a giant rock, Africa’s Uluru if you wish. I had seen Uluru a few months beforehand and I was surprisingly impressed by it even though I had seen it a hundred times before in pictures. Therefore, seeing something similar again didn’t fill me with buckets of excitement. That was until I saw Spitzkoppe coming into view on the horizon. Out of the flat desert floor rose a solid red rock formation whose summit sits at 1728 metres high and would serve as the backdrop to our evening. We arrived at the base of the rock a couple of hours before sunset and as standard protocol dictated when we had an entire desert to freely camp in, everyone grabbed their tents and fled in opposite directions to pitch their tent in their own little tranquil spot. Tonight we were bush camping and it would go down as one of the most stunning places I have ever camped. We were the only people there that I know of but the place was so vast there could have been a Glastonbury festival around the corner and we wouldn’t have known about it. Tent pitched, we headed off to explore the rocks. Unlike Uluru there were no restrictions on climbing the rocks and no hoards of tourists getting in the way, shouting and leaving the place a mess. Some of the guys went full steam ahead and headed far off up into the rocks which are made from smooth solid granite and makes climbing tricky. I decided to take things at a steadier pace and made it high enough to be able to look back down at our truck which was surrounded by tiny dots that were our tents basking in the late afternoon sun. It was one of those places where everyone took off either by themselves or as couple and went off to find a little place to sit and watch the world beneath their feet. It was truly magical and only got better as the sun fell out of the sky. From my perch, I had identified a spot which I thought would be awesome to watch the sunset. It was a huge rock the size of several two-storey houses located adjacent to our truck. The thought process being that we could grab a bottle of red wine, climb the rock and watch the sunset while getting some awesome photos of the rocks changing colours. Once the sun had set, dinner was only a hop, skip and a jump away. I can’t really describe the scene. I have described so many sunsets now that it is becoming a joke but this is how it was, another stunning sunset in another amazing part of Africa. This time, settled high up on a rock, a mug of red wine (glasses don’t exactly travel well on rough roads in the back of a truck), looking across a vast plain dotted with trees and dry yellow grass, with one of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever seen. The colours around us changed every minute, I think that is the best way to describe the moment. Colour. An assortment of yellows, oranges, pinks and reds were the only colours to be seen from the sun to the rocks to the desert floor and they all danced between the colours depending on the position of the sun. The only other colour was the rich blue sky turning to a black canvas with stars eventually generously sprinkled across it. It takes time for stars to fully emerge and reveal their true beauty but this night was going to be a spectacular night for the Milky Way. Seeing a sky full of stars was a regular occurrence in Africa and getting to see the Milky Way was a particular highlight and although it couldn’t be seen every night, I got to see it more times during the trip than I ever had before and every time it blew me away. If you have never seen it, it is basically a strip of concentrated stars across the sky. It is always there, only light pollution and dust can hide it but when you are somewhere perfectly dark and the sky is perfectly clear, it will light up the sky as well as any full moon. It is simply stunning.
The following morning started like many of our days had done previously. The sun beginning to rise in the clear blue sky with the sound of cook group busy away preparing breakfast, albeit it was getting colder when the sun wasn’t high in the sky. Trousers, body warmers and hats were becoming the norm now as we headed south to the tip of the African continent. After breakfast we headed off on a guided walk around Spitzkoppe and although we had explored the area pretty well the afternoon before, we had missed the paintings that were scattered around on the rocks. I don’t think they were ancient paintings by the first people to walk on the continent but they were fashioned by local tribespeople and bushmen over the years. On saying that, it has been said that some of the bushmen art found in parts of Namibia could be up to 28,000 years old and so I may be understating the artwork that I got to see! We were all treated to another kind of artwork a few hours later down the road on our first pee stop courtesy of Stu and Jason, naked. The pair of them had gotten on well for the entire trip and it would seem that Stu had managed to convince Jason that he needed to run through the Namib desert naked. The first we knew of this was when we saw them run past the truck wearing absolutely nothing other than glasses and a smile with Stu letting it all hang out and Jason slightly more modestly holding things in place with his hand. I won’t lie, I wish I had done it! I am not one to get naked in front of people, never have and never will be, but there are times in life when some part of the world demands nudity because of the sense of freedom it provides, that and also quite simply the fact that you can just get naked. Stu and Jason will be forever able to say they ran completely naked through the Namib desert during daylight. The smell of fish soon followed. The reason for this aroma? Seals, tens of thousands of seals at the Cape Cross seal colony. They were everywhere, piled up on the beach, chilling out on rocks, getting thrown around in the surf, everywhere you looked there were seals. The smell was truly overwhelming but we battled on through it and distracted ourselves by watching the amusing things seals do about their day, which appeared to be just sleeping with a little bit of banter in between. Naturally I was super excited about watching a shark or killer whale strike which of course led to a long conversation discussing if whales and sharks frequented the area and if so at what time of year? Not that it mattered because either way we didn’t get to see any killing action. This as it turned out was definitely a good thing as some of the guys decided to take a dip in the ocean during a lunch stop on the beach a bit further down the coast. The sky was grey, the wind was blowing and it was rather chilly but there was a reason behind the madness. The last time we had visited the ocean was on the east coast of the continent and therefore the Indian Ocean. A few weeks later and we had crossed the African continent to arrive at the west coast and the Atlantic Ocean. Taking a dip seemed like the best way to commemorate such a moment. With the smell from the seals well and truly stuck in our nostrils we continued on to Swakopmund which would be our home for the next few nights and would see the awakening of our adrenal glands once again.
I was about to write there isn’t much to say about Swakopmund but that would be an absolute lie. On the face of it one would think it is a little hill-billy town on the coast, battered by wind and spray from the Atlantic Ocean which it kind of is, but its also a fantastic little place to visit. Not only is it the adventure capital of the South African West coast, it also has numerous fantastic restaurants and bars, mostly built during German colonial times which offer a certain sense of charm. Our first full day in Swakopmund kicked off with another activity that I had never done before, sand boarding. In fact, I had never really been on what I would describe a proper sand dune before. The morning began with snow boards and all of us standing on top of a tall sand dune with an instructor telling us that he would strap us into the board, point us downhill and give us a wee push. This was definitely not going to be an activity that would scare the crap out of you but was most definitely an activity that would generate a lot of laughs and leave us all with sand getting wedged into every part of our bodies. To spice things up even more there was a jump part way down the dune and by happy coincidence a man was stood nearby with a camera, ready to shoot every fall and tumble. As it happens, snowboarding on sand is quite tricky as there is a technique required to keep the board sliding forward because sand is a wee bit grippier than snow. The majority of us were only interested in getting over the jump and landing standing up before inevitably falling over several seconds later. This was the dream and it took me many, many attempts to achieve it! This was great fun in itself but then our instructors brought out the big guns, the toboggan of the sand, the present everyone wanted for Christmas, a sheet of plywood! Once again African ingenuity had pushed the limits of technology. Out of all the ways one could go down a sand dune it had been decided that a small piece of plywood was the best way and as ever, boy were they right. I have done this activity many times now on boards of all types but not since this time in Namibia has anyone ever handed me a sheet of plywood and told me to throw myself down a massive sand dune. The way it worked was simple. Put the board down flat on the sand, preferably at the top of a sand dune, lie down on the board face first, bend your knees back so your feet are up in the air, lift up the front two corners of the board with your hands, ask for a push and, away you go. The board was only a couple of millimetres thick and had a ridiculous shine to it which enabled it to go rather fast. This time, the camera man not only had a camera, but he also had a speed gun which was used to record how fast we were going. I clocked up seventy kilometres per hour! That is bloody fast and most definitely scared the crap out of me but oh my days was it awesome fun. The only downside was having to trudge back up the dune for another go. As with all great activities lunch was included and although it was nothing fancy I happily chowed down three delicious ham salad rolls and washed them down with three bottles of beer before realising that the afternoon’s activity involved a spot of driving. The whole morning including food and beer cost a bargain forty-five American dollars.
The most quad biking I had ever done was about a month earlier when we were in Jinja but I decided that was enough experience for me to go in the fast group on this occasion in Swakopmund. The other group on offer was the slow group or, if we are being politically correct, the less experienced group. In classic African style we got to choose which group we wanted to be in and so naturally all of the sensible people went in the slow group and all the cocky buggers went in the fast group which meant that absolutely nothing could go wrong. There wasn’t even a little course to do beforehand to judge how competent everyone was. Our playground for the next two hours? The sand dunes of the Namib desert, proper dunes, massive dunes that stretched for as far as the eye could see, the kind you see in the movies, the kind you wouldn’t want to get injured in while, I dunno, driving a quad bike. There was one essential piece of safety advice issued to us as we signed the indemnity form. When we arrive at the top of the dune, follow the guide in a long sweeping arc and head back down the dune. Under no circumstances try to stop at the top of the dune or go over the top and down the other side for it may be a whole lot steeper than you were expecting. For almost two hours solid we tore around the dunes, rarely dropping down from top gear. Our guide took us up huge dunes, four or five stories high. We would hit the foot of them at speed, go straight up the dune, make a long turn when the tip of the dune was only metres away and head straight back down to the desert floor. Every time we reached the floor, the speed with which we hit it smashed our bodies downwards into the seat giving the lower back a good beating but there was no time to slow down or take it easy, this was the fast group! The afternoon was quite simply the best quad biking I have ever done. Powerful, fast bikes, an absolutely incredible and exciting landscape and of course, the sun was setting.
Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.