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Namibia trip report

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This is my report on a 6 day trip to Namibia, following a trip to South Africa at the end of April 2006.

We flew to Windhoek, the capital city, (population approx 240,000) situated in the center of the country, a 2 hr flight from JNB. The international airport is about 45 minutes outside of the city where there is enough flat space for jet runways. Very quick immigration/customs process – 5 minutes max. The landscape as you drive in to the city is grassy semi desert with rolling hills and dotted with farms. The city itself looks very European – it was colonized by the Germans in the late 1800’s – and is very clean. We saw no shanty towns like in South Africa, although country wide unemployment is quite high.

We were met and transferred to the Castle Hientzburg, a member of Relais & Chateaux, for the first night. The “castle” was built by a German aristocrat in 1914 up in the hills overlooking the city and has been converted into a hotel with 16 or so rooms, built in an annex. Reception, the terrace, restaurant and breakfast room are on the first floor of the original building – I don’t know what is upstairs.

Prior to our departure our tour operator had heard some negative comments about service and maintenance from clients and suggested we try a different property, but I liked the location and look of it so I decided we’d keep the reservation. Overall the hotel was OK but the service was pretty basic – for instance we had a fax waiting from Skeleton Coast Safaris who arranged the rest of our trip, but they did not give us the fax until check out even though it had been received the morning of our arrival. Service on the terrace for drinks was slow & a bit confused - my husband ordered a vodka martini and they made it with vermouth. The restaurant, however, had very good food (mainly game) and better service, although not up to what we have experienced at Relais & Chateaux properties elsewhere.

With the exception of the restaurant, the rest of the 1st floor rooms in the castle itself looked a little worse for wear – worn carpeting in places, old (but not antique) furnishings. There was no library or common room for people to hang around in. No internet availability. Our room was fine and the bathroom had a separate tub and shower, but nothing to rave about. They had a nice cold buffet breakfast – no menu or hot stuff offered. In the reception area there is a picture of a dashing young German, the former owner, who died of a heart attack at age 40 while climbing Kilimanjaro a couple years ago – I think his widow is carrying on, but we did not see her.

The next morning we embarked on our “dunehopper” itinerary. We stored our excess luggage at the hotel and were transferred to Eros Airport, where smaller planes and domestic flights depart, about 5-10 minutes away from the hotel. We met our pilot who ushered us out to a small 6 seat plane for our approx 1 hour flight to the airstrip at the Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge.

Our naturalist guide picked us up and took us over to the lodge where we had a quick check in and very thorough briefing from James, the manager. Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge was built about 5 or 6 years ago, is owned by CC Africa and located in the foothills of the 445,000 acre private NamibRand Nature Reserve. Accomodations are in 10 stone and glass villas which were very nice - features include a shaded private terrace, contemporary split-level bedroom and living room with fireplace, fully-stocked bar, spotting scope, bath w/ double sinks and shower and also an outdoor shower. The main lodge area has a bar, sitting room with multiple couches and conversation areas, upstairs library with CD and book collection, swimming pool and wraparound veranda where meals are served. The lodge also has a small observatory which we did not see, and they typically have visiting astronomers attracted by the clear Namibian sky, but unfortunately the guy who was resident just prior to our arrival experienced health problems and had to leave before his replacement arrived. The property is all inclusive – meals, drinks, activities, laundry.

The typical day there involves morning and afternoon game drives, excursions, hikes or quad biking. Our first afternoon we went on a 3 hour game drive with sundowners on the nearby dunes – just us and a couple from New Zealand along with our guide – no tracker. Over the two days we were there we saw springbok, oryx, zebra, ostrich, jackal, cape fox and many birds.

The next morning we did the excursion to the Sossusvlei sand dunes, located in the Namib Naukluft Park, departing around 6:00 AM in order to see the dunes shortly after sunrise when the colors are amazing and constantly changing. It was about a ½ hour drive to the park entrance, then another hour and a half to the end of the dunes, or the “vlei”, the pan where the dunes close in and prevent the river from flowing any further. Since they had a record rainfall season there was actually water in the vlei, a very rare occurrence. The desert is reputedly the oldest on earth and the dunes the highest – some reaching as high as 1000 ft. We stopped multiple times and hiked through dead pans, stands of 500 year old dead trees and up one of the more spectacular dunes. We had our picnic breakfast at the end, or vlei. On the way back we stopped at Sesriem Canyon, returning to the lodge around 11:30 AM.

Our afternoon game drive went to a different area from the first day, with sundowners next to a huge boulder outcropping. This time we were joined by two other couples, one from Holland and one from Switzerland.

A note about the naturalist guides/rangers – the guy we had was OK, but only had about a year of experience. He did his training through CC Africa at Phinda in South Africa. There was another guide there who trained with him and a guide from Zimbabwe who was there temporarily. There was just no comparison to the level of knowledge and personality of our Singita ranger. The guides don’t eat with the guests, but they hang around the bar after the afternoon/sundowner game drive.

The food was mainly excellent. They serve a set menu for lunch – a cold soup (vichyssoise one day, gazpacho the next) and light entrée – tomato quiche/tart one day prawn salad the next. Desserts were unusual flavored homemade ice creams each day. At dinner there is a choice of one of two entrees. Breakfast was order off the menu – no buffet. They have a very small staff – the waitress was charming & efficient but difficult to understand. The one breakfast we had was served by a different guy who kind of forgot about us and our eggs arrived lukewarm. The managers were a charming South African couple and were sent to Namibia for a 5 month shift to try to bring the level of service up – they had previously managed a CC Africa camp in Botswana will be moving on to Madikwe in a few months.

Our final morning we took a 1½ hour hike to see some cave paintings with a guide and another guest from South Africa, then had breakfast and were picked up by a ranger from Wolwedans Dunes Lodge for a 2 hour drive south through the grassy plains, dunes and fields of mysterious “fairy circles” - round patches of bare soil 4 to 8 ft across in the midst of the grassy area – there are quite a few theories about them ranging from radioactive soil, toxic proteins left by poisonous plants, termites eating the seeds and possible alien landings - but surprisingly the secret has not been solved after 25 years of research.

Wolwedans is situated on top of the dunes in a beautiful setting. The lodge has 8 chalets and a mountain view suite which are part permanent structure and part tent. The main lodge area has a dining room, sundowner decks, multiple living rooms a library (with mainly German books) and a fire pit/boma for after dinner enjoyment. There is also a small pool. The manager, Benny, is an outgoing Namibian and for the most part on top of everything and the staff was uniformly pleasant and friendly.

We had the mountain view suite which was just amazing. Arranged in a wedge shape with a large verandah facing the mountains, one wedge was the bedroom with bathroom and the other wedge the living room complete with stocked bar and kitchen. Apparently you can have a private chef whip things up for you in the kitchen, but nobody ever offered that service to us. The tent flaps open up for a “in the desert” experience. Nights were freezing, however, even with the flaps closed. Electricity and hot water were via solar.

The first afternoon we opted to just hang around, relax and enjoy our suite and took glasses of wine up the dune behind our suite for the sunset. Typically the lodge does a one hour sundowner type drive into the dunes for sunset. The next day we did an all day excursion, including picnic lunch with a ranger and a German couple who were staying at the Wolwedans tented camp, which is about 10k from the lodge. Our ranger, Elvis, was very good and had much more experience than the one at Sossusvlei.

Meals are served in one seating – breakfast is a small cold buffet with meat, cheese and cereal and you can order eggs. Dinner was a set menu – no choices. Food was OK, nothing exciting. The make up of the guests was a German group of 8, another one of 4 and a French group of 6 plus us the first night. The next night there was a French couple with a young child and a few more Germans along with the group of 8 Germans and 6 French. We saw no other Americans the whole time we were in Namibia – it has an understandable appeal to Germans since it was colonized by Germans and German is widely spoken and there is a non stop flight via Air Namibia from Frankfurt.

The final morning we were driven by jeep a few minutes over to the airstrip at Wolwedans and flown back to Eros airport in a 6 seat plane, then met there for our airport transfer. We picked up our stored luggage & then were driven out to the international airport for our flights home.

We really enjoyed Namibia, especially as a contrast to South Africa. I think I would have preferred to do it first and then end with the extravagance of Singita, but would definitely recommend it. The scenery was stunning, helped along by record rains and blooming flowers and grasses in the desert and dunes. It is more of an emerging tourist destination but the country is stable, English speaking, sparsely populated, has good infrastructure, supposedly is relatively crime free and the government seems to be committed to conservation and developing responsible eco-tourism. All arrangements went smoothly and as expected. A lot of the people we met at the lodges rented cars and drove the 4-5 hours from Windhoek. We only visited a small part of the country but spent quite a bit of time browsing and reading books in the lodges’ libraries which enticed us to want to explore more of the country.

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