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Trip Report Better Late Than Never - Namibian Trip Report

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Hi all.

Going to Namibia was a last minute decision for me. So unlike lots of folks on the forums, I did not have a long to research or plan. Hence, the Fodors and TA forums were a life-saver. And though I am an avid poster when planning a trip, I admit to being an awful trip report writer. In fact, I have never written one. But as I plan my next trip to SE Asia, I feel as if I must write at least one trip report before I travel next. Not including, this Christmas trip to St. Martin where I currently am writing this post. I know it will not be as long and detailed as most, but hopefully whoever reads it will gain some insight.

I went to Namibia with 2 of my 3 daughters ages 8 and 10 and my 18 year old cousin. I was joined by two girlfriends and their daughters ages 8 and 12. And my babysitter came as well. So we were 4 adult women, 1 teen, and 4 kids. A true girls trip! We went in late June last summer after spending a week in South Africa. Since we only had 7 nights on the ground in Namibia, I am truly grateful to all those who helped us to figure out a realistic plan of action while also ensuring that we experienced the best of Namibia.

Because I have already done safari in South Africa numerous times and in Kenya and Tanzania, we decided to skip it in Namibia, so our itinerary ended up as follows:

Day 1 - Arrive Windhoek, pick up cars and drive to Sossusvlei, stay at the Sossus Dune Lodge
Day 2 - Early morning sunrise tour of the dunes, including Big Daddy and Dead Vlei, breakfast on the dunes
Day 3 - Tour and hike of Sesriem Canyon, Quad biking tour
Day 4 - Drive to Swakopmund, Mondesa township tour, stay at the Stilz
Day 5 - Sand boarding, visit to Cape Cross, drive to Damaraland, stay at Damaraland Camp
Day 6 - Breakfast in the bush, fly to the Angolan border to visit a remote tribe of Himba people
Day 7 - Desert elephant trekking
Day 8 - Fly to Windhoek and onto to Joberg

With this itinerary, I feel we saw the best of the beautiful Namibian desert and mountains, were introduced to different people and cultures, and enjoyed exciting adventures. It would have been great if we would have had more time, but we did not and I feel we made the most of our limited time. I will now write about the details and highlights:

We booked the trip through Gemma Dry of Discover Namibia Tours. She is an expert on TA and many people on the forums used her so I thought I would give her a shot. The experience was good except for a few glitches which she sorted out fairly and quickly. I thought it was a bit of a hassle to pay her with multiple fax attempts and long waits for bank clearances, but I suppose that comes with the territory of using a small company. She did give good advice, coordinate all of our requested outings, and handled the changes we requested efficiently. I would recommend using her.

For those who saw my trip planning posts, you will know that I could not wrap my head around a self-drive no matter how many times I was told it was easy and doable. And please know that I am an avid traveler. I have been to the Continent over 15 times exploring the east, west and southern parts with a mix of adventure, off the beaten path, and luxury travel. But, I have always been driven to all of my destinations. However, after asking Gemma numerous questions, I finally decided we would rent two 4x4's and 3 of the 4 adults would take turns driving. When we landed in Windhoek, the car rental company met us at the airport and we went to an airport restaurant to handle the transaction. Gemma had sent our itinerary, vouchers and maps in advance and we were given all of this paperwork. After signing the rental contracts and showing our licenses, we left the airport and went to the parking lot to collect the cars and load them with our luggage. We knew we could not waste too much time as we needed to reach the Sossus Dune Lodge before dark. One of my girlfriends went first as I took money out of the ATM and another friend stopped at the gift shop. As I made my way to the parking lot, my friend who had seen the cars said in her strong Bronx accent, "we have a big f---ing problem!" I could not imagine what she meant until she said the cars were stick shift. She didn't drive a stick, she knew I didn't drive a stick and we quickly found out that the other two ladies did not either! We were American suburbanites who drive big SUV's, minivans, and comfortable sedans. Oops! Now to give a little background....never in the planning process was I told that the rental vehicles would be stick shift nor was I asked if I could drive one. And because I rent cars in the Caribbean each winter and have also rented throughout Europe and have only been given automatic SUV's, it did not even dawn on me that the cars would be stick. So we had an immediate problem upon landing in Namibia with 4 kids. Immediately, we asked for the cars to be switched to automatic vehicles. We were told that they did not have any. We asked if we could rent from another company at the airport. But we soon found out that it would be days before 2 automatic cars could be driven from South Africa to Namibia. Since we could not under any circumstance learn to drive the cars in the airport parking lot (though we thought about it!), we went to the next solution and asked for drivers who could start immediately and drive us on our tour of Namibia. It turns out the car rental guy actually owns his own tour company and thought he could get us two of his drivers ASAP. So instead of hitting the road, we jumped into the cars and head over to the tour guy's office. Within 30 minutes, 2 of his driver guides show up and agree to drive us for the week. We did not have time to think about it or work out the details as we really had no choice and we were afraid of not getting on the road to beat the sunset. It was a 5 hour drive. Once on the road, we contemplated our dilemma -- two drivers needing accommodations, meals and fee. We sent Gemma an email, as did the other tour company guy and we soon found out that they would work it out amongst themselves. Though Gemma felt very strongly that the tour company guy should have emailed her immediately prior to hiring out his guides, as she has her own, she was very professional about the whole thing and took full responsibility. So even though we did not end up driving ourselves, now that I have seen the roads and signs in Namibia, I do think a self-drive is possible as long as you can drive a stick! And by the way, the driver/guides ended up being very nice, helpful, and informative along the way.

We chose to stay at Sossus Dune Lodge because of its proximity inside the park. We enjoyed the facility for many reasons but do have some complaints. The good thing about it is that the staff is very friendly and helpful. The design of the lodge is also very nice with large, nicely appointed individual large chalets dotted across the desert landscape. The rooms are comfortable and the bathrooms are fantastic. In fact, they are almost the same size as the rooms with a fabulous large, hot shower and a great sink and vanity area. The room also has a large viewing deck and floor to ceiling windows to take in the amazing, stark landscape. And two favorites were also the French press coffee maker and lots and lots of outlets for charging! However, some of the rooms are very, very far from the main reception. So if you forget something you are in for a long walk. At night, it is badly lit, so a flashlight is a must. But worst of all is the food. It is mediocre at best. This is a bummer because if you are used to traveling to lodges throughout Africa, the food is usually one of the best things about the experience.

However, a plus to staying at Sossus Dune Lodge is being the first ones at the dunes at sunrise. Climbing Big Daddy in time for sunrise is spectacular. The views are utterly amazing and live up to all expectations. The kids had a ball running and rolling down the back of Big Daddy into Dead Vlei! Dead Vlei is other worldly in its starkness and beauty. I enjoyed walking around and studying each petrified tree the most. My pictures are stunning. We then walked across the dunes to a beautiful lake where a wonderful breakfast was waiting for us. It was fantastic.

The next day we explored Sesriem Canyon which you can see from the lodge. We had a great time exploring, climbing and hiking through this unique formation. We took great pictures of the kids in little nooks and crannies in the rocks. After lunch, we went quad biking at Sossesvlei Lodge. It did not go well. To make a long story short, after checking in and getting helmets, we were taken to the quad bikes. Each adult was riding with a child. An important thing to note is that not all helmets are made the same. My children and I had one that covered our entire head with a plastic face mask. Others had a short small helmet that covered half the head and no face mask. Bad mistake as the sand flys in the face of any person behind a quad and you get the exhaust smoke as well. When we started, two bikes kept cutting off and the guide could not get them to work. We thought 2 people would have to stay back but they finally got them to work sort of. The tour started out nicely. You are riding in the desert and the scenery is stunning. But we quickly had some issues. Because I jet ski and snow mobile regularly, I think I got a feel for the quad and drove it easily. However, the others were new and were riding a bit slower than the guide and myself who I was directly behind. After a bit, I noticed that he was leaving the group and I would slow down. It would take him forever to notice that we were not behind him and come back. This happened repeatedly. This started to really bother all of us as we realized that we could never make our way back and if something happened to one of us on a quad he would never know. We tried to explain this to him on several occasions and realized that he could not understand us or speak very good English. This really bothered us as we felt we should not be out in the desert with someone who we could not communicate with. After about an hour we asked him how much longer the tour would be. He did not understand us and did not tell us. As the sun was beginning to set, we asked him if we would get back quicker if we turned around. He could not understand us and kept going. Against our best instincts, we kept following him and we all tried to go at a fast pace as he was going to leave us. At some point I realized that 3 of the 5 quads were behind us and that I could not see 2 of them. I stopped and the guide kept going. After waiting for what seemed an eternity, I got off my bike and told my daughter to stay put. I went to look for my babysitter who was riding alone and my friend who had my other daughter. It's a good thing I did because my girlfriend's quad flipped and was off road. I saw my crying daughter running towards me and my friend on the ground before my brain could even digest that they had fallen. When it clicked, I rushed to my daughter and checked her all over. Miraculously, she was fine without even a scratch but terrified. Because I saw she was fine, I ran to my friend who was getting up but was noticeably dazed and bleeding. When I reached her and saw her face, she had a huge gash close to her eye and lacerations all over her face. She had on the half helmet with no face mask. At this point the others had come back to us including the guide. I ran to him and told him my friend was hurt and she needed medical help. He just stared at us. He was completely unable to help in any way. We knew that she could not ride herself back because she was still dizzy and her eye was starting to close. Eventually we had him call the lodge and spoke to the desk ourselves. They said they would come and get us. It took about 20 minutes and it was starting to get dark, so it was a scary wait. Once we were in the van, I asked for a medical kit. They had a rudimentary one and I was able to clean the blood up. When we got to the main road, an ambulance was waiting for us to take us to the clinic. I went with my friend and everyone else went back to the lodge. I was surprised that there was an ambulance and a nice clinic. Turns out that it just opened and before that there was no clinic at all or medical help within hours. The clinic and ambulance, as well as the nurse and ambulance workers were donated by a man who was traveling in Namibia with his wife. While driving, their car flipped and the wife was thrown out of the car and trapped underneath it. The husband went for medical help but when he returned, his wife had died. The clinic was his gift to the people and travelers of Namibia. The staff was great and the clinic was bright, clean and nicely appointed. Except they had nothing to use at that time to stitch my friend's eye. I travel with a well-stocked medical kit so we asked the nurse to come to the lodge with us to use my sutures or butterfly bandages. They ended up using the butterfly bandages and giving her an oral antibiotic and coming the next day to clean her other cuts and abrasions. So the moral of the story is that quads are dangerous. We were told hair raising stories of accidents later and met a man on the plane with a broken leg from a fall. But I do feel you know this when you decide to ride them and have to accept the risks. However, my complaint is with the lodge and the differences in the helmets they give out and having a guide who could not speak English and was completely incapable of reacting in any helpful way once we had the accident. The staff at the lodge were suitably quick to react once they knew, as they were proactive with the ambulance and very remorseful. We were very lucky it was not worse and once my friend was bandaged and drugged, we did not let the episode dampen our spirits.

We left Sossusvlei after breakfast the next day for the drive to Swakopmund.
This drive took us 5-6 hours with a stop for gas and for apple pie again at Solitaire. This is a must stop. The bathrooms are clean, you can buy snacks and Moose's apple pie is amazing! We stayed at the Stilz. I forgot what our first choice was but it was not available. I did not love the Stilz. It is a very odd hotel. Though we had the huge 3 bedroom family room, it was freezing cold in the room and there was virtually no lights in the room. So after dark, you are cold and can only see with a flashlight. I also thought the owner/operator was rather brusque and unfriendly. They did have a nice breakfast though. But the reason for stopping here was for the kids to sand board! Before that though on our first day, we went on a township tour of the Mondesa township. It was great as it was more than just driving around and looking. We visited the homes of 3 different tribes and learned about their rural way of life as opposed to life in the city, tried on traditional clothes and tasted great food. We also visited the home of a traditional healer and local tribal chief. We had a great dinner at Jetty 1905 which has incredible seafood and a spectacular location at the end of a jetty right in the sea.

The next day we took the kids sand boarding. We were picked up and driven to the dunes. The kids picked it up right away as they are skiers and snow boarders and the equipment is exactly the same. They had a great time, even when they wiped out. Their only complaint was that there was not a lift to take them up the mountain! We stopped quickly back at the Stilz to shower the kids and pack our bags up. We checked out and started our drive to Damaraland. We stopped along the way at Cape Cross to see the seal colony. The sheer number of seals was mind boggling. I still can't understand why they are all there. For those of us who could stand the smell, we took great pictures and amazing video. I thought it was a fascinating and worthwhile stop.

The drive to Damaraland was long and we did not get there before dark, so we had trouble finding the very obscure road leading to the Damaraland Camp. I know for a fact that if we were not being driven, we would have NEVER found it, and if we did, the absolutely horrendous road would have scared the you know what out of us. After a harrowing last half an hour, we made it. As soon as we got out of the car, the fear melted away as we were greeted by the most beautiful voices welcoming us with song. Led by the most amazing lodge manager ever, Ms. Maggie, we were checked in seamlessly and taken to our rooms. The round tented chalets are fantastic. Each one has a great viewing deck, lots of closet space and a great bathroom. After a short rest, we went to dinner in the main lodge. Dinner is buffet with a lot of delicious choices. But the best part is the singing. The staff sang fantastic traditional songs and danced for our entertainment. When we went to bed we were greeted by a nice warm hot water bottle and an extra comforter. The next morning hot chocolate and coffee was brought to the room. After dressing, we were driven to breakfast which was cooked and served outside on a mountain top with extraordinary views. It was such an amazing experience. After all the fog dried up, we were driven to a nearby air strip for our excursion. Gemma worked really hard to coordinate my desire to spend time with the Himba people even though they live in the more remote Kaokoland. So in order to experience their way of life, we had to fly by charter plane up to the Angolan border. The charter company gave us two 5 seater planes, the smallest planes I've ever been in! Based on weight my kids were in a different plane from me so I had to close my eyes and breath the entire time. OMG! I could not wait to get out of that plane. We were picked up and driven straight to the Himba tribe. They were just as beautiful as they seemed in the pictures. I am so fascinated by the simplicity of tribal life and the ability to live of te land without western influences. One Himba woman through a translator told us her typical day. She explained that they had no calendar and did not keep track of ages. She told us that the older men were gone hunting. Another women took us into her hut and explained about the red clay they put on their skin and in their hair. We were able to learn about their arts and crafts and traditions. We then took a slow stroll through the small village meeting most if the members. It was a wonderful experience. We then went to lunch at a wonderful lodge on the Kunene River. Afterwards we got a closer look of the beautiful water falls at Epupa Falls. When we returned we had to stop for fuel and then back to Damaraland. We enjoyed dinner in the Boma this night with extraordinary singing again. The Boma was so beautiful with twinkling lights leading a path from the lodge to the Boma. The food was again outstanding. The next morning we woke early for the desert elephant trek. I really enjoyed this as the landscape is so different from safari in South Africa or Kenya and Tanzania. The elephants proved to be very remote and it took a few hours before we found the first herd. There is not a lot of other wild life so you are taught a lot about the plant and bird life which I really liked as well. When we finally found a herd I was not prepared for the sheer volume of elephants. After that we observed herd after herd for a few hours. It was a really incredible experience. Back at the lodge we relaxed by the pool and then the fire for the rest of the day. This was my favorite hotel by a long shot. Damaraland Camp has extraordinary service, food, and a beautiful location.

The next day, we departed for Windhoek to connect back to Joberg. Because we wanted to conserve time, we decided to take a charter flight back to Windhoek instead of drive. This time, we had a 12 seater plane to fit all of us and I was not as scared. The connection was seamless and we were soon back in Joberg.

All in all, besides the mishap with the cars and the quad accident, we had a lovely trip. We enjoyed the beauty of the country, the kindness of the people, and the amazing adventure and cultural opportunities. I really want to thank all on the forums who post trip reports and take the time to answer endless questions and offer advice. Your help was instrumental in coordinating the perfect itinerary for one week.

I look forward to returning to Namibia one day.

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