© Jonathan Hey
Africa wide open
An MD's road trip through Namibia to celebrate his 60th
The start to my trip was a bit of a downer. “Any metal in your knees or hips?” asked airport security. “What?” I thought. “In this temple?” I considered doing a one-arm push-up as proof of my youth, but quickly remembered that I hadn’t done one for 20 years and even if I could, I might not be able to get up. “Of course not,” I said, with what I thought was the right amount of disdain.
I had been honouring my 60th birthday for the entire year, with my family rolling their eyes every time I suggested yet another celebration. This time I thought a trip to Namibia would be a suitable destination to let that country know of my birth — and to try to keep up with Angelina Jolie, who, for some strange reason, had decided to deliver her fourth child in that country.
Namibia is on the southwest coast of Africa, home to the oldest desert in the world and the tallest sand dunes. “Namib” means “open space,” Namibia the “land of open spaces.” I had been there before in another lifetime, courtesy of the South African Army, and had always wanted to go there again in a more peaceful time.
We flew from Atlanta to Johannesburg and then on to Cape Town, and spent a few days recovering at the Cape Grace Hotel (capegrace.com; doubles from $697 a night). My wife went on a shopping frenzy (at last a country where the Canadian dollar translates well, with the South African Rand doing poorly at the moment) and I tried to sample each and every Cape wine, an impossible task, but one that needed to be done.
The Cape Grace Hotel is situated on the waterfront, a reclaimed area around the working docks of Cape Town, resplendent with smart restaurants and expensive shops — shops so expensive that it’s worth looking around at others, as prices varied enormously.
The hotel has splendid rooms, excellent food and a whiskey bar with over 500 types of whiskey, in case, I suppose, one runs out of wine to drink. The personalized service could not have been better. The staff greeted me every morning, asked how I slept and the impressive concierges were more than willing to share their knowledge and make suggestions to an “elderly” visitor such as myself. There is a “Hop On, Hop Off” bus close to the hotel that’s very easy to use. It takes visitors all over the city and into the surrounding areas: Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and Hout Bay.
Paintings come true
My wife and I set off from Cape Town airport one morning and flew directly to Walvis Bay, two hours up the West Coast of Africa. It’s a desolate landscape with sand stretching as far as the eye can see. (Keep the Atlantic Ocean on your left and you can’t go wrong). Our plan was to spend two nights in Swakopmund, a small town 30 minutes away, three nights in Sossusvlei, famous for its red sand dunes, which are among the tallest in the world, and then finish off in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.
Namibia, or South West Africa as it was once called, was a German colony around the turn of the last century, mandated to South Africa after the First World War by the League of Nations, and given over to a trustee system after the Second World War by the United Nations. This was disputed by South Africa, which led to a long and protracted civil war until independence was achieved in 1994.
The German influence is strikingly obvious in Swakopmund, where most people speak German first and then English. Here, the streets are clean, the food European and there are lots of elderly people, the women in frilly bathing caps, swimming in an unusually warm Atlantic Ocean.
One of the reasons for the visit was that my late stepfather, a judge, had spent a week in Swakopmund while attending a law conference in the ‘70s. He was, to me, a Renaissance man, with a formidable intellect and a multitude of interests. He was an artist as well. He spent his off time from the conference painting two landscapes of the town. I am at heart a romantic and had photographs of them, and we wandered around the town until, with the help of the hotel manager, we worked out where he had sat to create them. It was fun to do and, to me, quite emotional, thinking of him sitting quietly painting, those many years ago.
My wife and I wandered about the town, buying enough curios to tip us into the “heavy luggage” sticker at the airport on the way home. We stayed at the Hansa Hotel (hansahotel.com.na; singles from $145 per person a night; doubles $100 per person) in a suite because we had been warned that the other rooms didn’t have air-conditioning. We needn’t have worried: the nights were cool and pleasant, even in the heat of summer. The hotel is situated a few blocks from the sea and is very comfortable. It’s also well worth having a meal there; the food was excellent.
A day at the dunes
The next stage of our journey was to Sossusvlei, south of Swakopmund, home to what is thought to be the highest sand dunes in the world, rising some 300 metres from the desert floor, and located in Namib-Naukluft Park.
Our Namibian trip was arranged by Wilderness Safaris (wilderness-safaris.com) and we stayed at Little Kulala (sossusvlei.org/accommodation/little-kulala; from $650 per person a night, all inclusive), a lodge of 11 cabins overlooking the bleak Namibian desert with the wind and sand constant companions. Each cabin has air-conditioning (a must in the Namibian summer heat), a plunge pool on its deck and a rooftop double bed for those wanting to sleep under the stars. The stars alone are worth the trip. Unhindered by smog and lights, they are simply magnificent.
We were awakened one morning at 4:30am by our guide and set off at 5:30am after a light breakfast of fruit, muffins and full cream yogurt. No point in attempting a diet here. We arrived at the Naukluft Park gates a half hour later, just as the sun was rising, and set off for Dune 45, the sand dune featured in most National Geographic magazines.
The sun was just tipping the top of the dune, casting strong contrasting shadows with beautiful light playing on the edges. The orange colour of the sand is a sign of the age of the dune. The iron in the sand oxidizes over time creating a deep orange glow made spectacular by the morning sun.
I enjoy taking photographs of landscapes. Put me in front of a solitary tree on an open plain and I will take hundreds of them. If my photographs are ever discussed, they will say, “This was his ‘solitary-tree-in-front-of-a-sand-dune’ period. It was unfortunately his only period.”
Little Kulala and her sister camp, Kulala Desert Lodge, both run by Wilderness Safaris, are the closest private camps to the gates of the park and, therefore, the dunes. Within half an hour of our arrival, the parking lot was filled with tourists staying at camps further away, climbing to the top of the dune.
We travelled from there down the road (four-wheel drive only) and then walked three kilometres into the desert to “Doodvlei” or “Deadpan,” a dried pan with dead trees, some more than 500 years old, scattered about. The area used to be a river, until the dunes encroached, cutting off its path to the sea. It was a spectacular morning, one that I will always remember.
Happy as a lark
Apart from seeing the sand dunes, appreciating the bleakness of the landscape and contemplating one’s own insignificance in the face of such vastness, there’s a lot to do.
There are ATVs that one can use to roar about the desert accompanied by a guide and even hot-air ballooning at dawn.
I spent a lot of time looking for — and finding! — the desert lark, a small rather dull bird that is endemic to the sand dunes of Namibia. “A serious tick” as the ornithologists would say.
There is little wildlife compared to Namibia’s neighbours, Botswana and South Africa. Oryx or gemsbok, a large stately antelope with straight horns; springbok; cape and bat-eared foxes; brown hyenas and black-backed jackals. As for the bird life, I saw 24 endemic species, all mostly brown that blended in with the desert scrub, except for the crimson-breasted bush shrike, with its flash of colour on a brown background.
For me, three nights in Sossusvlei was ideal. Enough time to see the dunes, to experience the sunsets with a gin and tonic every evening, to spend an afternoon sitting on the deck of one’s cabin with the occasional dip in the plunge pool.
As I left Namibia for home, a friend shook me warmly by the hand and said “I hope to see you before one of us pops off.” I can’t wait for my 70th birthday celebration.
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