The tiny, five-seater Cessna that would transport us into the desert looked like a toy parked next to the jet that had just deposited us at Windhoek International Airport. Backpacks in hand, we followed our pilot toward it with equal parts nervousness about flying and excitement about being there. This would be my second trip to the desert of Namibia and Dan’s first. I last visited Namibia in February of 2004 after leaving my job at U.S. News, packing up my apartment in D.C., and sending most of my belongings home to Seattle via the U.S. Postal Service. To say that my memories of being there were wonderful is a vast understatement. I’ve kept a photo of the road outside of Viktoria and Andreas’ farm next to my desk since then, and Dan still makes fun of me for bringing photographs of the area with me on our first date (in my defense: we had originally bonded over stories of travel). So, needless to say, I was very excited to share the desert experience with him.
Once we were airborne, I was fairly sure that we were safe in that little plane, and I have to say that it was a fantastic way to see the vast and varied landscape of Namibia. We passed over mountains, plains, and canyons before catching a glimpse of the red sand dunes for which the Namib Desert is famous. The desert’s fairy circles came into sight just about five minutes before we landed at Wolwedans Lodge. Viktoria was waiting for us at the lodge’s small airstrip and I was positively giddy to once again run up and give her a hug in the desert. Viktoria and I were assigned as freshman year roommates at Bowdoin and have become lifelong friends despite the challenges of geography. Viktoria has been living in Namibia since December 1998 and has created a rich life there in the form of a wonderful husband, an absolutely charming daughter, and a thriving environmental education center (more about that later…).
It is hard to describe the beauty and the feeling of being in the Namib Desert. The mixture of natural beauty, wildlife, warm air, and solitude is just amazing — and exactly what Dan and I needed after our European whirlwind. “Take off your seatbelts, roll down your windows, and enjoy the desert,” Viktoria said as we settled into her double-cab “bucky” for the one-hour drive home that would take us through sand dunes and right past oryx, springbok, and ostrich. Viktoria and Andreas live in a beautiful farm on the Namibrand Nature Reserve, which is also Andreas’ employer. Although their nearest human neighbors are probably 15 kilometers away, they have ample animal neighbors who are fond of visiting a waterhole that is just outside their house’s fence. All of this adds up to an extremely beautiful, quiet, and relaxing place to enjoy dinner outside on the porch and catch up with old friends.
Dan and I spent our first full day in the desert doing absolutely nothing while Viktoria and Andreas were both at work. We slept in, drank coffee on the front porch, watched the waterhole, and took a lot of deep, contented breaths of desert air. At the end of the day, we all jumped in the truck and drove to the “house dune” for sundowners — one of my favorite traditions in Southern Africa. The idea is that you find a nice spot outdoors to enjoy the sunset with friends and cocktails. In V&A’s neighborhood, there is no shortage of beautiful sundowner spots. Their “house dune” is about a five-minute drive away. Again, it’s so hard to put the beauty of this place in words, but picture a bright orange sand dune speckled with bunches of tall grass, and set against a blue sky that fades to violet as the sun sets. On top of this dune, you can turn around in a complete circle and see not one other car or building — just an expanse of desert and grassy plains ringed by mountains in the distance.
We spent our third night camping in a restricted area of the NamibRand reserve. I didn’t think it was possible to get more remote than V&A’s farm, but this area was. It was just us and the tok-tokkies for miles. We set up our camp in a spot that would give us prime views of both sunset and sunrise. For dinner, Andreas cooked up a potjie, which is a South African tradition of basically stew cooked in a cast-iron pot that sits directly in the campfire. It was delicious. After plenty of singing and stories, the five of us snuggled into our bedrolls next to the truck and went to sleep directly under the stars. After packing up in the morning, Andreas drove us home via a route that took us directly up and over a series of very steep sand dunes. It was something like a Namibian roller-coaster. Alexandra was buckled into her carseat in the front seat, Jilly the dog sat on Andreas’ lap, and Dan, Viktoria and I were in the bed of the truck holding tight to the roll-bar. This is something that I would have only done with Andreas, who is one of the most experienced dune drivers around and knows the terrain intimately. Anyway, it was a total rush and so much fun. Andreas would find a path to power up one dune and then we would crest it and roll back down the other side. Andreas later made fun of us in the back for our chorus of “Whooohoo! Whoa, whoa, whoa.” The exhiliration and fun overtook the fear by about the third sand dune.
The next day we accompanied Viktoria to work at the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET), a non-profit that Viktoria founded in 2003. NaDEET’s mission is to educate Namibian children about environmental issues and how they can make a difference through changes in their own lives. Groups of kids come to stay at the center for several nights and during that time they cook with solar ovens, track their individual water usage, and convert waste into reusable items like recycled paper fire bricks. It’s a wonderful example of hands-on, experiential learning.
Another highlight that must be included in this post was our visit to the Sossusvlei dunes. Viktoria, Alexandra, Dan, and I left the house just after 5 a.m. in order to (1) see the dunes in the sharp morning light and (2) beat the growing afternoon heat. The Sossusveli area is one of the key tourist attractions in Namibia. The main stretch of road is sandwiched between two rows of absolutely massive, bright orange sand dunes with sharp ridges that curve down to meet the ground. A few of the dunes are open for climbing, which is exactly what we did on the dune known as “Big Daddy.” We walked up the ridge of this dune, with Alexandra making the climb as well, at times on her own and at times on Viktoria’s shoulders. It’s a pretty narrow path on the ridge, with sand falling away steeply on either side, but not at all scary, because how bad can a fall into sand really be? Once we reached the top, we sat down and enjoyed the view for about five minutes before running straight down the steepest part of the dune’s side. (Viktoria and Alexandra included some butt-sliding in their descent as well.) We laughed the whole way down. Our next stop on this day trip was Dead Vlei, a river pan that has been cut off from its source of water and is now bright white and speckled with dead trees. Visually speaking, this is one of the most striking sights I’ve ever seen. Once again, the colors are just amazing. Bright blue sky leads into bright orange dunes that run into this bright white pan with stark black trees. The only problem is that there is absolutely no shade, so we beat a hasty retreat after about 15 minutes.
All in all, our time in Namibia was wonderfully relaxing and restorative — just as I remembered it from 2004. Although a long trip to get there, we can’t recommend it highly enough. I suppose it helps to have wonderful friends like the Kedings who welcome you with open arms into a desert bungalow with a shower that has a direct view to the waterhole, but we’re sure there are also many wonderful lodges in the area…