Oryx stands alone in front of a red sand due and blue sky

Namibia: Sand, Sea & Sossusvlei

When we left the green, grassy plains of Etosha and said goodbye to our last Wildebeest, I was not fully aware of the vastness of the desert lands that cover a large portion of Namibia. Some stretches of the landscape felt familiar and reminded us of Texas with its scraggy trees and tall grasses. Others, the tall red mesas and rocky ground looked like we could have been driving in Western Colorado, Arizona or Utah. However, as we traveled from Ethosha to Damaraland (an area that, after Apartheid ended, was renamed the Kunene region) and then on to the costal town of Swakopmund, we drove through deserts the like of which I had never seen before; deserts that make myths and fairytales.

Tan sand stretched in all directions with short bushes the horizon

Miles and miles of flat sand dominated the view out the windows of our trucks. The heat rising off the road tricked our eyes into seeing shimmering water on the horizon. As if in a storybook, I half expected to see figures traversing the barren sands on camelback.  In reality, the only tall object to break up the view was the occasional lone Ostrich with his fluffy black feathers blowing in the hot wind. Africa is one of those places where you have to keep pinching yourself as a reminder that you are indeed awake and not in a dream. One of my favorite images of our drive was on the road through the Kunene Region. We drove up and down dirt roads past random, single shacks made of driftwood and then, in the distance, we saw a woman spinning around and around; her billowy, brightly colored Victorian-style dress caught the sun with the hope that we would stop and buy one of the glittering crystals she had on display at her roadside stand.

The Kunene Region has over 45,000 ancient rock paintings tucked into the red, sandstone peaks; the most famous is called The White Lady and is found on Brandberg Mountain. Much of the time, the Desert Elephant is also found in this region. Their feet are wider than those of other elephants, which allow them to lumber through the sand and over rocks with greater ease. Sadly, we were unaware that they actually migrate long distances in search of water and move away from the heat of the Namib Desert in summer. Other than the elephant crossing signs on the side of the roads, the only evidence we saw of them were the broken trees left in their wake on the hike to The White Lady (it was a dangerously hot hike and should only be taken at daybreak during the summer or not at all).Elephant crossing sign with puffy clouds in the background

For most of our trip through Namibia, azure blue coated the sky; a blue equal to that of the famous blue of Colorado’s skies. However, as if passing through some invisible curtain, the sky suddenly changed to thick, gray clouds and the dry, hot wind became cool and sticky with moisture it had picked up from the ocean. We arrived at Skeleton Coast where the desert meets the sea. Low bushes growing in the sand were the only signs of vegetation we saw as we snaked through the dunes on black, salt roads. Swakopmund is a German colonial town that houses most of the people of this coastal area. We were told that more often than not the sky is overcast and gray but it rarely rains. There is a quaint, walk-able downtown with tons of tourist shops and cafes.

Walvis Bay, 20 minutes down the road, has a large wetland area where you can get your National Geographic moment and watch millions of flamingos munch on shrimp and algae; their zipper-like chatter fills the air. We watched them for what seemed like hours as they flew through the sky and landed with a run on the surface of the water. I had never seen them fly and so I was unaware of their gorgeous wings with a swath of pink changing to black at the tips of their feathers.Dozens of pink flamingos wade in water and fly in the sky

We stayed at a bed and breakfast in Swakopmund called The Alternative Space. This home, with its white washed walls and interior garden courtyard, was our oasis from our regular hot, dusty campsites. The description of the guesthouse on the itinerary from the travel agency said, “The Space is not recommended for persons who find pictures of nudity offensive”, which of course gave us a bit of a pause. In reality our hosts, Sibyle and Frenus, have a beautiful collection of paintings from local artists and their own photography adorn the walls like a gallery.   Frenus thinks of their establishment as one for the “upscale backpacker”; its aim is to attract those wanderlust people who no longer want to endure the smells and snores of hostels but also want to travel on a budget. It did feel like a luxury resort with the gorgeous spread of food provided at breakfast and the large, airy rooms with comfy beds. Our room was a sort of a “free-form” family room with no walls or door for the bathroom. A lovely claw foot tub sat toward the back of the room to signal the bathroom space and a single pipe with a shower-head hung down from the ceiling. It was liberating to take a shower out in the open with no doors to restrict your movement.

We left Swakopmund and drove back through the mysterious curtain into the hot desert. The road took us around Zebra Mountain where we watched a herd of zebras run next to the car and then across the road (remember that pinching yourself thing? Yeah, had to do it again). We landed at the Sesrium Camp just in time for sunset. Out of all the campsites, I think this one was my favorite. It was a large circle with a huge Camelthorn Acacia tree in the middle that quenched our thirst for shade. Our site was located on the edge of the campground and so we had an unobstructed view of the rocky field where Springboks quietly grazed in front of the mountains as the sinking sun washed everything in an auburn hue.Springbok grazing during sunset, red mountains in the distance

Sesrium is located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the main reason to visit here is to explore the red sand dunes that surround Sossusvlei and to see the ghostly trees of Deadvlei. The best time to venture into the dunes is either just before sunrise or sunset and many hikers climb to the top of “Dune 45” to take in the show. The sunlight at dawn and dusk paints the dunes in amazing purples, rusts and deep red and the acacia trees pop with lime green. If you have a bucket list, put this place on it. A 4 x 4 vehicle is a must if you want to make it all the way to Sossusvlei or for a small price, catch a ride with a large transport truck in the high season. We all piled into one truck, my Dad at the wheel, and bounced and slid through the dense sand — true four-wheeling style. I know my Dad was thankful for his expertise in driving through snow because we had a moment when we thought we were stuck and would be locked out of our campsite (I guess everything turns back into a pumpkin at sundown if you are not through the gates in time).

Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of these dunes. The wind blows the sand into artful designs and in some places, with the help of the long shadows creates the stripes of the zebra. Jacob and Mackenzie scrambled up and over several of the dunes to catch a glimpse of Deadvlei. I think Mackenzie could have cared less about seeing the skeleton trees.   She really just wanted to slide down a dune, which she did and then preceded to empty her shoes of the bucket loads of sand that had collected inside them.

red sand dunes at sunset, long shadows highligh the zebra stripes in sand
Zebra Dune (courtesy of Quinn)

Our last stop before heading back to Windhoek was in the Kalahari Desert. The Kalahari actually receives between 5-10 inches of rain per year so instead of a barren wasteland, it is filled with soft grasses, bright yellow flowering bushes and of course Acacia trees. The Kalahari also has its share of dunes and the locals call the space between them the streets of the Kalahari. We stayed at the Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch outside a town called Mariental. It was another cherished oasis and a free upgrade since the original booking was closed for repairs. We quickly found the outdoor patio, shade and cool drinks savoring our relaxation until it was time for dinner. The girls donned their swimsuits, jumped into the cool clean pool and rescued dragonflies and grasshoppers from drowning in the water. Springbok were of course in plenty and the owners of the ranch have even adopted one for a pet who came for a visit during dinner.

I am so very aware of how privileged I am to be on this trip and also to have parents who could come and share a piece of it with us. I love that I have a picture of my parents looking through binoculars into the game reserve searching for wildlife. I love that we shared the experience of the crazy rooftop tents, baboons, the scorching heat of the desert and the magical elephants. I love that I have a memory of watching them try to negotiate the overwhelming persistence of the sales people in the street and were duped (as was I) into buying too many carved nut ornaments. I love that they are home now telling their friends and family about their adventures with us (and hopefully getting us more followers… hint, hint.); proudly owning the Namibian stamp in their passports with the realization that they might need more stamps from other countries to keep it company. I know I do.

Mackenzie, Quinn, and Jacob riding horses in a line surrounded by red sand and green desert trees
Our last Safari
Single giraffe stands in the green bush with storm clouds behind

Rhinos and Wildebeests and Oryx Oh My!

It was the large piles of poop that gave us our first clue. As soon as we drove through the gates at the Namutomi entrance of Etosha National Park we saw the grassy, brown mounds and then moments later, the giraffes. Mackenzie and Quinn were riding with my parents so I had to imagine the level of squeals that were erupting in the car behind us. Three of theses beautiful animals, with their big, loving brown eyes, tall graceful bodies, and knobby knees were munching leaves by the side of the road. Did you know Giraffe’s preferred diet are the leaves off of Acacia trees with THE deadliest looking thorns? They twirl their tongue around the branch and use their top lip to pull off the leaves, taking care to slide their mouth down the branch in the direction the thorns grow, like smoothing a feather. Oh, they get those daggers in their tongues sometimes but their saliva has natural antibiotics to help heal the wound; nature always seems to think ahead. We arrived at Etosha after a grueling 5 hour drive, which also happened to be on Mackenzie’s birthday. We determined, long before we left the States, that birthdays should last a week (well, they should, shouldn’t they?). If we have to be traveling on the actual day, at least there will be a celebration to look forward to in the near future.  However, the wish for a Giraffe sighting on her day? Check.two giraffes eating leaves from acacia trees

Because of the timing and trajectory of our world travels, we came to Namibia during the rainy season (January-March are the wettest months). The downside of the rain is the increased risk for contracting Malaria and the majority of the waterholes, which have dried up during rest of the year, are full of water. Because of the abundance of water, the animals spread out across the approximate 22,000 square kilometers of the park. The upside to this time of year is that prices drop, there are less people and you get amazing skies painted with rain clouds. The shrubs and grasses in the landscape turn a radioactive, neon green against the steel, gray sky quivering in anticipation of a storm. Oddly, during our time in Etosha, we never had a day get interrupted by rain. It clearly did rain at some point during the day or night because some of the roads were muddy and barricaded by ponds. However, we never had to hunker down inside and wait out a storm. I also don’t remember being very bothered by mosquitoes and believe me, I was on high alert. They are tiny little pests, not the large ones we have in Colorado or the bird-like ones that live in New Orleans. No, these guys are microscopic but they give themselves away by their high-pitched buzz in your ear.

Etosha Salt Pan with storm in the distance
Salt Pan at Etosha

**Travelers Tip**

You can get more coverage if you use lotion repellant instead of spray. We went for the variety with 30% deet due to the risk of malaria. I couldn’t stand the thought of putting that on our faces so I used a spray I concocted from adding 30 drops of DoTerra’s Terra Shield repellant to water in a 3 oz spray bottle of the pump variety. Seems like it was a winning combination**

Poop would continue to be our clue that a large animal was nearby during our self-drive safari on day two of our Etoshan adventure. Of course you know every time I saw the mess in the road I had to sing a Wizard of Oz inspired song (only to receive big eye rolls and sighs from my husband): Follow the poooopy road, follow the poooopy road, Follow follow follow follow, follow the poooopy road. After packing a lunch and buying a booklet from the visitors’ center, complete with animal and bird identification guide and map, we headed toward our next destination. For the safety of  visitors as well as the animals, you are required to stay in your vehicle as you drive around the park. The drive from Namutomi to Okaukuejo (Oka-Kway-yo: meaning woman who has a child each year), our next rest camp, was only two hours. We did it in five. There are so many secret little meandering roads that take you out to the desolate Etosha Salt Pan and wind through lifeless plains with the dry, fossilized looking shrubs. There are also fields with soft grasses dotted with flowers and flitting birds.

As we passed through the varying terrain we caught sight of herds of the country’s beloved Spring Bok with their delicate faces and small, twisted horns.  We also saw many groups of Oryx (my favorite) joined by an adopted Wildebeest (a close second and correctly pronounced Wild-e-beast). Zebra and Giraffe were also in abundance and never failed to give us a zing of excitement when we saw them. Guided by our instinct, we took one of those secret meandering roads and while scanning the brush in the distance, I gasped when I sighted our first Rhino. I understand that zoos provide much needed education and conservation efforts to the world. However, after seeing this beautiful, rarely sighted White Rhino with his huge, sharp pointed horn enjoying his peaceful habitat, I wondered about the necessity for zoos. Rhino’s horns are shaved off when in captivity and the zoos I have visited seem to always keep them in small, barren enclosures. We learned that they are shy, solitary creatures. I am sure I will never be able to see another Rhino in captivity without thinking of this one, the Black Rhino we spotted on our night safari or the one Jacob and I got the pleasure of watching take a bath in the waterhole at our rest camp.White Rhino in the brush

We continued to roam around the park, stopping to watch the golden and teal colored Bee-Eater birds as they gracefully dipped through the air and stared in fascination at the Secretary Birds giggling at how they really do look like they are wearing the garb of politicians of the 1800s. Rolling by the fields at a slow crawl, we squinted and tried to determine if we were seeing an Ostrich or just a fluffy tree (to fool their predators in this way is clearly part of their adaptation for survival and we lovingly coined them Ostrich bushes). Soon, I spotted the poop in the road again as the skies began to darken with a storm and the shrubs popped with that magnificent green. There they were, the elephants. I read several times from other travelers in Africa that the first time you spot an elephant in the bush it is magical. Magic does not even come close to describing the energy they radiated. The air around them was electric and peaceful all at the same time. Like that deep, releasing exhale of breath as you sink into a steaming hot tub, seeing them was a feeling I didn’t know my body needed until they appeared. They were silvery white, almost ghost-like against the green trees.  I can see why so many religions honor the elephant; the way they move through the environment with deliberate steps and seem to know something otherworldly that I can only hope to just taste. Even writing this now, I can find that tingle, that goose bump, armhair-raising shiver I felt as we watched them from our cars.

We drove through the gates at Okaukuejo high from our safari experience. We checked in, found site number 14 and set up our camp; each of us chatty with stories and “what was your favorite part?” questions to ponder and discuss. The girls and their Omi crashed into beds that night while Jacob, my dad and I picked our way through the dark to the water hole, hopeful of more wildlife sightings. The light shines all night on that water hole. Why on earth any animal would choose this stadium setting to quench their thirst is beyond my comprehension. It is lit with lights as powerful as the sun and promises to reveal the location of prey to their lurking predators. Turns out, with the abundant choices of water holes in the rainy season very few animals do come to this water hole. I wonder, though, during the dry season, do all the animals share this stage together like a home base temporarily halting their game of predator and prey?  Like the ancient tribes around Taos, New Mexico when they bathed the mineral rich waters of Ojo Caliente, do the tribes of animals stop their warring while they nourish their bodies in the refreshing, healing water hole?

While we didn’t see Rhinos battling or elephants drinking, we did see the sneaky jackals and heard the raucous twittering of the social weavers in their GIANT nest in the tree above our heads (took us awhile to figure out they were birds, I was convinced they were some kind of rodents). Whispering together with my two favorite men on the bench as we expectantly watched the waterhole was a great ending to a more than magical day.

Waterhole at Namutomi at sunset
Namutomi Waterhole
family of warthogs

Nine in Namibia

On the day before my oldest daughter’s birthday I laid in our rooftop tent, pen in hand trying to capture our first couple of days in Africa. I realized while I wrote that at the same time nine years ago, I was in the 20-somethingish hour of labor. I try not to remember too much about how many actual hours it took from the start of the first contraction to when she finally entered the world. It was many, way more than 20. Stubborn that girl, plain stubborn. Along with that stubbornness, however, she also possesses knowledge of who she is and what she wants. It’s all I want for her; to know thy self. Isn’t that the key that once found, will unlock the world? The best weapon we can have against the meanness and pressure of adolescence and high school is to know how to listen to our own opinions and have a strong sense of belonging, especially in our own skin. My job as her Mama is to help her continue to grow in self-awareness as well as cultivate an ability to advocate for herself. It is because of that self-advocacy that we arrived, nine years later, in Namibia, Africa.

My parents took us up on our suggestion to join this leg of our trip. We met them in Frankfurt and then flew the ten hours to Namibia together. The reunion was so sweet; once Quinn spotted her Popa at the gate, she flew down the airport hallway and crashed into his open arms. Mackenzie landed in her Omi’s arms and was immediately covered in a thousand kisses. I would do that scene over and over if I could.

My own desire to go to Africa started when I was Mackenzie’s age.  I watched movies, read books and looked cravingly at photo after photo of this continent until well into my adulthood. I began the sales pitch to my parents back in July; enthusiastically painting my vision of Africa for them as we sat around the campfire at our favorite family camp spot. To further entice them into joining, Mackenzie happily added that Africa was her chosen place to celebrate her birthday. My parents gave me my appreciation and need for outdoor adventures, which I hope I am also passing on to my daughters. My mom loves to tell the story of camping with my dad when she was eight months pregnant. How she fished with my sister on her hip and me in her belly; got sick on hotdogs and marshmallows. How my dad dug a hole underneath the tent with the hope that this little streak of genius would allow her to comfortably sleep while resting her heavy, Baby-Amy-filled belly in the hole (didn’t work, but what a guy). I remember my excitement at receiving my first backpacking pack, baseball hat and fishing pole for Christmas when I was ten. I logged many a wilderness mile with that pack on my back, hat on my head and pole in my hand. What a gift to add a camping safari in Africa to my bank of outdoor adventure memories with them and for my kids to have those memories with them too.

Our research and planning landed us on a self-drive tour through the country complete with 4 x 4 trucks supplied with camping gear and two-man tents harnessed to their roofs. The girls were giddy when they saw the pictures of the trucks, enamored with the idea of how the tents open up on the roofs and a ladder drops to the ground for them to climb into their kingdom.

white 4 x 4 truck with popped up tents on the roof
No snakes or millipedes up here!

The eleven-day route took us from Windhoek, the capital and largest city in Namibia, north to Etosha National Park, west to Damaraland and then to the coastal town of Swakopmund, south to Sesriem and the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei then finally to the Kalahari Desert before heading back to Windhoek.

The time change and driving conventions were the first challenges to overcome when we arrived in Windhoek. As we ventured out to find groceries for our trip, I watched through finger-covered-eyes as Jacob wrestled his brain into driving on the left side of the road while simultaneously yelling unheard warnings to my Dad to, “stay left!” . The travel agent through Cardboard Box who arranged our trip, knew what she was doing when she booked our first night in Windhoek at a bed and breakfast.  After our heart stopping tour of the city, we relaxed on the veranda with a beer while jet lag seeped into our bodies.  My mom and I suppressed secret giggles as my Dad lost his battle, his neck too tired to hold up his head.

Once we got on the road the next morning, I felt like we were on some kind of crazy theme park safari ride. Our trucks running in a track, taking us to the perfectly timed and choreographed mechanical warthog by the roadside with the bright blue bird perched on his back. Like the Jaws ride at the Universal Studios of my childhood, a lion would come bursting out of the bush at any moment. However, one turn of the knob on the radio and the car filled with the sound of a DJ speaking an African language complete with clicks and I realized that the warthog was real and this was no theme park.

Our first stop was Waterberg Rest Camp. After the long hot, dusty drive, the girls were desperate to find the swimming pool. This must be the most picturesque swimming pool in the entire world, or at least in the world I have seen. Two big circles of clean water were surrounded by Acacia trees and situated at the base of an iron red cliff. Thousands of dragonflies zoomed high in the sky overhead. We sat in the grass with cups of crisp, white wine, inhaled a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and watched while the girls delighted in their splashes. I looked around at this scene and tried to get my brain to accept the place where my body had landed.swimming pool with Mackenzie and Quinn playing

Back at our campsite, an entire family of warthogs greeted us. At least ten of these beautifully ugly creatures were snorting around in the grass, completely unaffected by our sudden stop and gawk. We laughed at the size of their heads, which take up most of their body and snouts that take up most of their heads. That night I was happy to be kept awake by their very strange donkey-like snort as they defended their territory from the screeching baboons. Literally, their sound is a hee-haw, snort snort.

Because Namibia has a population of two million in a country roughly the size of Texas, the darkness outside the cities is like no other darkness I have ever experienced. Before setting off, we were warned by a fellow traveler to “have your torch handy” because once that sun sets, it is immediately dark. However, with the darkness came the stars! It was like someone spilled a pound of salt on a pitch black tablecloth. Not even in the darkest, clearest mountain sky in Colorado have I ever seen this many stars. We sat with our heads resting on the back of our camp chairs and looked up into the sky. The more our eyes became accustomed to the dark, the more the stars appeared. The familiar constellations were lost in all of the extra stars invisible in other places, in other skies. The Milky Way was truly milky.  Mackenzie did not want to go to bed when her sister crawled up into the tent.  It was one of those moments when you watch your child mature right before you.  She “oooed” and “awwed” with Jacob, me and her grandparents and I silently noticed my emotional dichotomy, both excitement for her growth and nostalgia for her infancy.

The conversation between the warthogs and baboons continued the next morning in the trees all around our campsite. The baboons made their appearance in the adjacent site just as we were packing up our things. They walked through the site, tails held high with an air of superiority. Their body language told us clearly that they were in charge and the trashcans were part of their territory. They noisily flipped off the lids to peer inside, expectant of breakfast. My Dad bravely moved closer for a picture as my mom slowly backed further away and jumped into the truck not sure she wanted to be so close. Once packed, we all piled into the trucks. Wasting no time, the biggest of the group bounded into our site and hopped up on the braai, giving us all a safer photo op.Baboon sitting on the outdoor grill at the campsite.

With Etosha National Park and Namutomi rest camp plugged into the GPS, birthday cake waiting quietly in the refrigerator for its adornment with candles later that evening (let’s face it, this really was more of a version of glamping rather than camping!), we headed down the first of many dry, dirt roads. I watched as the landscape flew by and marveled at the billions of clouds in the sky and the long views of the savannah. I said a silent prayer for Mackenzie to receive her requested gift of a giraffe sighting on her birthday and secretly hoped for that scene of the lion bursting out of the bush. I giggled to myself as I remembered the interaction we had with some young American girls on a bus in Sevilla. One of them declared to Mackenzie, “how many kids can say they turned 9 in Africa?!” Mackenzie astutely answered, “All the kids that live in Africa?”

This planet is better off since she arrived and I will always be impressed by her intelligence, humor, creativity, confidence and ability to catch every detail. While I never got my lion scene, I could never have prepared myself for the many incredible scenes I did get to see throughout our safari. Watching Mackenzie turn 9 was just one of them.P1040197