With the undeniable beauty of Sossusvlei behind us, we were now driving towards Swakopmund and its neighboring sites. A heavily German influenced area and Namibia’s largest coastal town, Swakopmund was like nothing I had ever anticipated finding in Africa. Our time here and throughout the surrounding region, was at times exciting, full of some very high highs and some awful lows.
After a long day of driving from our previous night’s campsite we reached the Drifters Lodge in Swakopmund. With the Atlantic to our left and the Namib Desert to the right, entering this city was bizarre to say the least. Though we knew that Namibia was formerly a German colony (and in fact the only German colony in Africa considered suitable for white settlement), we were not prepared for just how German Swakopmund is.
If it was not for the massive sand dunes surrounding Swakopmund, I would have sworn that we were no longer in Africa, but had rather been transported to rural Germany. The buildings had all been constructed in an old German style, with alternating half-timber gothic and baroque styled structures dominating the tree-lined streets. White teenagers skateboarded in super market parking lots and rich older white women drove elegant cars along perfectly paved roads. It didn’t take long for me to get the, “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” line from Mean Girls, trapped in my head. Most everyone we saw here was white, and it was rather disconcerting.
After arriving at the Drifters Lodge at what seemed like the edge of town, we were introduced to the lodge manager who ran us through our options for the next day. In Swakopmund, we were going to be allowed to break from the group and embark on separate tours and activities. The activities available ranged from sailing to fishing to town tours to sandboarding to sky diving. Rich and I quickly signed up for a sandboarding session for the next morning along with a quad biking tour for the afternoon.
Rich, BJ, and I were picked up this morning by a lovely American woman, Beth, who had settled down in Namibia over a decade ago and had started up her own adventure travel company in Swakopmund. Beth’s company, Alter Action, would be running our sandboarding excursion this morning.
Arriving at the dune we’d be boarding down today, we were given the option of either sandboarding or lie down boarding. Sandboarding is quite similar to snowboarding in that you’re strapped to a slightly modified snow board and then glide down a dune, carving up the sand. A slight difference is that because of the abrasiveness of sand, after each run you have to wax the bottom of the board so as to insure that you minimize friction and are able to glide down. Lie down boarding is similar to sledding and you use a polished sheet of Masonite to slide head first down the dune.
Having wanted to try sandboarding since I first discovered its existence in an ad several years ago, I immediately signed up for the sandboarding and strapped myself into some snowboard boots. Poor Rich, with his foot still killing him, chose to do the lie down boarding.
Taking us to the top of the dune that we’d be boarding down, our instructors separated us into our respective groups (sandboarding vs. lie down boarding) and briefed us on the proper ways of boarding. I’m a skier, not a snowboarder, so it’s fair to say that I struggled a bit initially. However, Beth and her team were awesome. They would yell pointers out at me as I went, and sit me down between runs to let me know what I should be doing vs what I had been doing. I’d always be greeted at the top with a warm smile and high-five.
When I wanted to attempt a jump off the wooden ramp built into the dune, worried that I wouldn’t be able to turn into the jump properly, one of the guides held my hands and kept me in line until I was ready to go. The entire atmosphere was really supportive and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.
BJ in the meantime was absolutely killing it at sandboarding. Looking like he’d been doing it his entire life, he was carving up a storm, taking jumps like it was nothing. I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous.
From what I could tell, Rich was loving the lie down boarding as well. On the lie down boards you can reach speeds of up to 80km/hr and he was doing his best to go head first down the dunes as quickly as he could.
Given the chance to switch over to the lie down boarding and seeing how happy Rich was, I ditched my sandboard and grabbed a lie down board. The idea here was to lie flat on the board, elbows raised and gripping the top of the board so as to keep the front of the board off the ground, and use your feet to brake or steer. Though the dune was quite steep to start, the slope ended with an incline which acted as our stopping system.
My first run wasn’t that exciting as I was too afraid to go quickly and kept shoving my feet into the sand to slow me down. After that though, I really got into it. On my second run, with a guide monitoring our progress with a speed gun, I went down not letting my fears kick in. I clocked in a speed of 73km/hr. That was faster than anything Rich had done up to that point. Competition kicking in, Rich went for another run and decimated my run by clocking in at 76 km/hr – the second fastest speed all day.
It was an awesome way to start the day, and we couldn’t wait to see what the quad biking would have in store for us.
Unfortunately, the day was not to remain on a high.
Getting to the quad biking that afternoon, we met with our guide and were distributed our bikes and began our safety briefing. Rich unfortunately missed a fair amount of the briefing as something was lodged in his eye, and had to remove it. Once the obstruction was removed, I tried to explain to him what he had missed. At this point our guide came up to the two of us, in what I had assumed would be an attempt to explain everything to Rich. Instead our guide took the time to accost me, accusing me of not paying attention to his briefing and telling me that I should “make an effort to actively listen”. So, instead of giving Rich a recap of his notes, which I had to do, he was giving me grief for not “nodding” at his every word.
Despite this I tried to contain my frustration so that we could have a fun trip through the dunes. Unfortunately for me, I was having problems with steering the bike, which I think should be considered normal as I’ve never attempted quad biking before. Going off the trail, our guide had to come back for me. As I tried to explain why I was having problems and asking him what I should do in certain situations he simply looked at me and told me to “be in better control.” It was as if I was simply being a bad driver for the sake of it.
As we progressed, I continued to have troubles, and getting frustrated I tried asking my guide for help again. Instead of giving any instruction, he told me that I should get off my bike and join him on his. It took me yelling at him for being completely unhelpful to get him to give me any instruction at all, though he did a very good job of insinuating that I must be insane before being of any use.
I hope it’s not unreasonable to expect instruction from a guide who is working with people who have never participated in an activity before, and I couldn’t understand why he was unwilling to help me out. He was most certainly not getting a tip from me.
Absolutely fuming, when we got back to the Drifters Lodge later that afternoon I was pulled over by CP, our tour guide, who could tell that I was really upset by the experience. Directing me to the lodge manager and explaining to her what happened, the manager picked up the phone and immediately called Desert Explorers, the adventure company that ran our quad biking tour to complain to its manager. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was amazed by how supportive everyone was of me and how much care they took to make sure the proper complaints were in place and make certain that I was okay. It was such a relief.
One thing for sure is that I’ll never recommend Desert Explorers to anyone, though Beth and Alter Action were really phenomenal.
Leaving Swakopmund behind, we were to head inland towards Etosha National Park. Before reaching Etosha though, we had a couple of stops to make – one at Cape Cross, and then another at the White Lady cave paintings.
Driving up the coast line we stopped at Cape Cross, a small peninsula on the Skeleton Coast. Cape Cross was first discovered by a European in 1486 by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao who had been in search of a sea route to India. According to stories, Cao stopped at this tiny peninsula because he noticed the massive seal colony in the area and wanted to explore. These days, Cape Cross is a protected area and seal reserve home to one of the largest colonies of Cape Fur Seals in the world.
Rolling up onto the headland, we almost immediately noticed groups of seals huddled under a walkway that had been built to prevent visitors from entering into the seal habitat. Approaching the seals, it was pretty clear that they were used to humans visiting the area. They didn’t even flinch at us, instead cuddling up with one another, basking in the sun, or roaring at one another in competition. Baby seals suckled on their mothers.
Looking out at the small expanse of land and rock we were completely blown away by their numbers. About 80,000 to 100,000 seals populate the area, and in places the ground was so thoroughly covered in seals that you could barely see the rocky beach beneath them.
Despite most of the seals lack of interest in us, one baby seal seemed to take a liking to Rich, following him as he walked down the boardwalk and barking at him to get his attention. Despite the poor state of Rich’s feet, he tried running along the boardwalk to see if the seal would chase after him – it did.
From Cape Cross we traveled inland and back into the desert. We were to go and take a look at the White Lady Painting, a rock painting located on a small rock overhang on Brandberg Mountain (the name roughly translates to “Fire Mountain”). Arriving near Brandberg at around 3PM, we were all hoping for cool weather but unfortunately, it was burning hot. The heat would make the expedition quite difficult as we were told that we’d have an hour long walk to get to and from the rock paintings.
Rich was having one of his worst days with his foot today and opted to stay behind in the truck and avoid both pain and heat.
Meeting up with our guide for the afternoon we proceeded through the overgrown desert path towards the rock paintings. The heat was horrid and the Norwegians in particular were having a genuinely awful time of it. By the time we found ourselves at the entrance of the white lady cave, the three of them were all bright red in the face and experiencing the early stages of dehydration.
Unfortunately, I’m not exactly an art connoisseur and could not really appreciate the significance of these paintings, which I found quite dull despite our guide’s very enthusiastic storytelling. What I did pick up, however, was that the White Lady isn’t a lady at all, but rather a medicine man. The scene happening around the White Lady/medicine man is assumed to be a ritual dance. The appearance of multiple other humans in the frame as well as oryxes could also suggest that the paintings depict a hunt. The painting, which is estimated to be about 2000 years old, was discovered in 1918 by a German explorer who had fallen asleep one night underneath the painting only to wake up the next day and be amazed by what he saw.
Once done here we found our way back to Rich and the truck (all three Norwegians survived) and headed off to our next campsite for the night. The area around Brandberg Mountain is meant to be home to a herd of desert elephants. Having not yet seen any elephants yet, we were all desperately hoping to see some overnight. That however was not to come to pass.
To say the least, it was an interesting few days.