The 4×4 was up to its hubcaps in mud, hopelessly stuck. Three native boys in loin cloths huddled around the rear of the truck as its driver, a 50-something chap, lay half underneath the vehicle, trying to free it from the muck.
“Need a hand?” I asked, as we pulled close to him in our Toyota Hilux, unlikely heroes to the rescue.
There we were, 42 kilometers into a 50 km drive from Ruacana to the Kunene River Lodge on the Namibia-Angola border – about as far from everything as possible. Two travelers in a rented 4×4 to the aid of a local guy who had picked the wrong path across the muddy river.
Minutes later he was free, thanks to the tow rope from his truck and the power of our 4×4. We gave the local boys a few coins and packages of snacks for their help, hopped in our truck and followed our grateful new friend across a firmer crossing on to dry land and on our way.
One never knows what to expect while driving across Namibia – a vast expanse of dry, barren nothingness in one of the least populated countries on earth. With fewer than three people for every square kilometer, Namibia is a web of roads less traveled. Over the course of three weeks Gabi and I drove roughly 4,000 km on rutted, rock strewn roads, through hubcap-deep sand, up soaring rises in the road and down plunging declines.
We explored rugged coastlines, vast, windswept deserts, and winding roads through mountain passes. I deployed our four-wheel drive on a dozen or so occasions to keep us moving. These roads would be impassable without it. This is no place to become stranded. Help is non-existent, as evidenced by the dozens of rusted car chassis that dot the landscape near the sides of the rutted roads.
Driving into the Namibian wild is like marrying into an Italian mob family. It’s a one-way commitment that might seem like a good idea at the time but may give you second thoughts. It’ll provide rewards, majestic moments and incredible highs, but if you get tired of the bumpy roads and want to renegotiate, you’re out of luck.
Namibia is full of surprises. A broad land of stone, sand and scrub, the terrain changes slightly as the kilometers speed past, but it is consistently desolate. The roads are well signed but poorly maintained. A small army of road graders do their best to keep sharp rocks and deep ruts to a minimum, but the byways are dotted with white pickup trucks at the side of the road, its inhabitants hard at work changing tires. So far, we’ve been lucky, save for the three cracks in our windshield from rocks tossed into our path by passing vehicles.
Our drive took us from the tiny capital city of Windhoek (population approximately 340,000) north to the mind-blowing Etosha National Park, rich with wildlife but devoid of everything else. We drove along the Angola border and then turned south to the center of the Namib Desert and into Swakopmund, a bizarre German enclave that feels more slice of Bavaria than coastal Namibian town.
In the north, the Kunene River paints a strong, green swath along the border that separates Namibia from Angola. Not long ago, South African troops battled Angolans and Cubans in a territorial war that raged for years and closed the border. Now, peace reigns, and the quiet still of this unpopulated land has replaced the pounding thrum of war.
To the south, the Skeleton coast runs into the endless red sands of Sossusvlei, and along the Fish River to the South Africa border.
We stayed in the lush comfort of the Etosha Village Lodge, the weird mega-hotel inappropriateness of the Mukati Lodge, and the solar-powered Kapika Lodge in northernmost Namibia. We listened to the call of a hyena from our tent in the Madisa Rest camp, and watched gentle oryx feed steps from our thatched hut at the Grootberg Lodge.
We fed two tamed cheetahs, played tag with a tamed warthog and stroked and walked with 12 dogs at the Quiver Tree Desert Lodge, one of our favorites. Three weeks is a good start to see this vast country of open space, but we leave knowing there’s much, much more.
When we struck out from Ongula Village Homestead Lodge into the more remote parts of the country we began to get a sense of what we had heard about: the true, unspoiled, brutally barren Namibia that leaves paved roads far behind and plunges you into nature at its harshest.
Over three days we drove more than 150k along challenging, rocky roads through desolate, mostly uninhabited lands. We saw four cars, one motorcycle (a road bike with two people on it…I question their judgment for attempting the drive and wonder if they actually made it to their destination) and perhaps a dozen or so natives. It’s a foreboding place whose stern countenance made us think long and hard before entering.
But once we did, the splendor, immensity, and the profound feeling of being absolutely, completely alone, gave rhythm to the song of authentic Africa. We stopped atop a rise in the road to admire the scrub-dotted landscape, took a video as we struggled up a steep incline in all-wheel drive, and on several occasions peered anxiously over the hood of our truck to see what lay before us over the crest of the rise in the road.
We accumulated a wealth of experiences that will make this trip among our most memorable.
Here’s a few of our favorites, in no apparent order – they would be impossible to rank:
• During a mid-day stop at a waterhole in Etosha, surrounded by herds of springbok, oryx and a lone jackal looking for a quick bite, our guide pointed out a bull elephant that had emerged from the bush far in the distance, making his way to the water hole for a drink and a bath. Two other males soon appeared from the opposite direction. One of them picked up his pace when he spied the larger male in anticipation of a challenge over water hole rights. A pachyderm showdown ensued, and the younger male chased away the older amid clouds of dust rising to the sky filled with the sounds of angry trumpeting. Having vanquished his older foe, the younger male claimed rights over the water hole and enjoying a lengthy bath and drink while the other retreated to a safe spot a quarter of a mile away and waited for his turn.
• The 96km drive from Kunene River Lodge to Kapika River Lodge, traversing rugged terrain and the rocky road that borders Angola, was among our favorite days. I am not an experienced 4×4 driver, but I have traveled thousands of miles on a mountain bike. The skills, happily, are transferrable. You pick a line with the fewest rocks, anticipate corners with care, and make quick decisions when to downshift (deploy the 4×4) and when to brake. What resulted was a three-hour visit with a part of the country few see – an investment in effort and time that paid rich dividends. It also gave us the encounter with the stuck farmer and our good deed for the day.
• Making our way across the southern part of the Etosha National Park where the 4,800 square kilometer grey Pan stretches as far as you can imagine, we spied the telltale sign of big game presence: a small grouping of 4x4s stopped by the side of the road. There was good reason for the interest: two male lions sauntered across the savannah in single file. They crossed the road a couple hundred yards from where we parked and continued along, in hunt for shade for a mid-day nap.
• Not long after sighting the lions, I spotted several elephants to my right as we navigated the last bit across the perimeter of the Etosha Pan. I turned onto a bumpy road and we were soon rewarded with the sight of roughly 40 elephants drinking, splashing and bathing in an enormous water hole. A dozen or so baby elephants frolicked among the older beasts, playing in the water and spraying mud across their backs.
• After checking in at the Waterberg Rest Camp several hours north of Windhoek, we were greeted in the parking lot in front of our cabin by a congress of baboons and several warthogs, all grazing on the lush green grass. We unpacked and sat for an hour or so, watching the families of baboons graze, play and interact. Awhile later, one of the baboons interrupted my nap as he took advantage of the open cabin door to raid my supply of coffee. I awoke; we stared at each other. I suppose he was as horrified as was I. I screamed at him; he departed, the most caffeinated simian in the region.
• The US election was a hot topic nearly everywhere we went. My favorite remark, courtesy of a delightful young woman who waited on us at the Banhof Hotel in Aus, after I reacted to receiving email confirmation that our votes had been received in the US: “Who did you vote for?” (I told her.) “High five,” was her response. “And if we’d voted for Donald Trump?” “Then I would take away your menus and wish you a pleasant evening. That man is like the monster in the closet you fear as a child. I do not want to sleep in that room.”
• The entertaining animals at the Quiver Tree Lodge. Two tamed cheetahs that let us stroke them when then came for dinner. The resident warthog named Speck (ham) who expectantly carried his silver bowl in his mouth, constantly demanding food. And 12 dogs – 5 or 6 Border Collies, I lost count – which ran, licked, jumped and played with us throughout our stay. And a friendly family on a working Namibian farm who made us feel welcome and at home.
• The contrast. We ate tomatoes stuffed with butternut squash and creamed veggies seated at a crude stone table in the Madisa Rest camp, savored the offerings of talented chef Simon Amadhila at the Kapika Lodge in Epupa, and slurped luscious oysters and sipped champagne on the jetty in Swakopmund watching the sun set over the crashing Atlantic surf. We choked on sand that swept across the desert buffeted by the hot winds that arose every afternoon and donned every bit of warm clothes we had to ward off the cold in chilly Swakopmund.
Weeks ago, as we were preparing to depart South Africa for Namibia, we bumped into a local man who endorsed our chosen method of travel.
“Get off the main roads and dive into the wilds,” he said. “It’s the only way to see the real Namibia.”
We leave with dozens more experiences that overload our memory banks, courtesy of a country full of magic, beauty and wonder.
And now we know what people mean when they say that once Africa has worked its way into your heart, your beating pulse will be forever changed.