Sunday Morning ~ Ai-Ais, Namibia
July 29, 2018
Well, I know for sure this will not get posted today. We are at the base of the Fish River Canyon–– the second biggest canyon in the world next to the Grand Canyon–– and there is no wifi. We’ll be leaving here for the northern rim tomorrow so maybe it will be another Monday success but I’m not counting on that either. It’s funny, for a country that runs so much better than Malawi, the internet is so much worse. Even when we are in an area that supposedly has good wifi, it’s really slow and often cuts out unexpectedly. Oh well. The navigable roads certainly make up for it. The distances we are traveling would be impossible otherwise.
The camping is going well. We roughly plan to do six nights in the tent then one in a lodge or hotel. That gives us a chance to get the kinks out of our joints and save a little time on the set up and take down. But for various reasons, we ended up nine consecutive nights in the tent and we were ready for a break from sleeping on the ground. Last night we got to Ai-Ais and got a chalet at the camp here. The drive here through the mountains was spectacular along the Orange River bordering Namibia and South Africa. The road was gravel but smooth with continuous hairpin turns, a bit exhausting to drive for three hours, but we only passed one other car so didn’t have to worry about oncoming traffic. We were tired by the time we arrived at six p.m. and though there are seventy campsites here and many were available, we splurged on the chalet, which, I swear, is the size of my elementary school. It’s a two bedroom chalet, (all they had available) and it is probably 3,000 square feet of living space. The bathroom is bigger than some of the ablution blocks at the campgrounds where they have six toilets and six showers. George is still asleep and I’m in the living room and it feels like I’m in a different neighborhood. Really, it’s a walk here from the bedroom. There are walls of windows, a courtyard, a huge veranda with a big built-in barbecue, a carport, and the dining area could comfortably seat thirty people. If this veranda were part of a restaurant there would be ten tables for four out there. I have no idea why they built these so huge. The bedding is absolutely dreamy with cotton sheets and a silky cotton duvet with feather pillows. We were warned when checking in, though, that we must keep the windows closed during the day to keep the baboons out. We’d opened them when we checked in and it took us about ten minutes to shut them all when we went to dinner last night. There are about thirty windows in the place.
It’s almost seven a.m. and it is still pitch dark. The sun doesn’t come up until almost eight. It’s so strange to be in this climate and have it be so dark in the morning. When we are camping it’s hard to get going before nine and I feel like a big part of the day is wasted. The only two days we’ve moved before sunrise were the two mornings we spent at Sesriem, the gateway to Sossulvei, where the famous Namib dunes are.
We left Swakopmund as it got light on Monday, hoping to catch some good light on the dunes as we drove along the coast toward Walvis Bay. We stopped at a German bakery to buy breakfast and got waylaid there with waiting in line and trying to communicate, so by the time we left the town, the sun was already up. It was still pretty, but we hadn’t counted on actual traffic. It’s the first place we’d seen other cars on the road heading in to town. It isn’t uncommon to pass maybe one car per hour and sometimes it’s much longer than that, so having to share the road took a little time as well. It took us an hour to go the thirty kilometers to Walvis Bay where the road turned east away from the coast. (I still can’t get used to east being away from the ocean.)
Sesriem is as big a tourist attraction here as Etosha. The park has a big campsite inside the entrance, then there is another entrance a few hundred meters away with a gate keeper controlling how many cars can enter the dunes. The first gate (to get into the campground) doesn’t open until sunrise, but the second gate (to drive the 70 kilometers down to Sossulvei) opens one hour before sunrise, in this case at 6:45. Therefore, in order to see the sunrise on the dunes, you must be inside the campground, which we had no reservation for. There are plenty of places to camp outside the gate, but we wanted to be inside. We got there around three on Monday afternoon, about two hours later than we’d planned, and all the campsites were taken. They have an overflow area, which, is basically a parking lot, but it’s all sand anyway, so it doesn’t really matter, and we found a spot under a camel thorn tree and pitched our tent. With our little gas burner and our cooler (which wasn’t quite cool anymore) we were plenty self-sufficient. It was a tad noisy at night with people walking by us, but really, it wasn’t much different from the proper campsites except we had a longer walk to the showers. And we were inside the gate.
Tuesday morning we were up at six along with everyone else camping there and took our thermos of tea and got in line to be through the gate as soon as it opened. We were fifth in line and after the miles and miles of gravel roads to reach this place, the 70 kilometers along the dunes was paved! A sweet smooth road with snaking head and tail lights making their way down as the sky started getting lighter. Five kilometers before the biggest dune (called “Big Daddy”) the pavement ends and it’s all sand. 4x4s can get through it, or there is a land rover that the park uses to shuttle people, but we decided to walk it as the sun rose and it was spectacular. These enormous, sensual, apricot dunes of hour-glass sand with the sun coming up was worth getting there. The sun was well up before we started the ascent up Big Daddy, along with about a hundred other people. It was slow but not hard. I took my shoes off and went barefoot as I didn’t like my shoes filled with sand. We just plodded along and got to the summit about an hour later. It’s 300 meters high and you climb it along the spine. The wind was covering the footprints almost as quickly as they were made. It was great fun moving up and chatting with people from all over the world. And it was mind-bogglingly beautiful. Another tick off the bucket list. Coming down was even more fun! You practically glide down, a bit like skiing. It seems like it would destroy the dunes with people doing this every day, but the wind is so strong that they look like no one has been on it within seconds, and the number of people per day is controlled. I’m not sure how fragile these dunes are. They seem indestructible, all part of the sand sea of the Namib desert. By the time we’d walked up and down, then across the great salt pan, then the five kilometers back to the car it was hot and our water bottles were empty. We got to the car and each guzzled a liter of water, ate our little picnic, and went back to the campsite. We hung the hammock from the tree and sat in the shade until five when we went back into the park to hike another dune to watch the sunset. This one was not high and it was only a few kilometers from the gate and we could drive to it, so not a huge effort, but still steep getting up, and still worth it. It is such a serene place. In the three years I’ve known George, I’ve never seen him so calm and happy.
The next morning we did the same routine, up at six, in line to be through the gate at 6:45, and this time we stopped at Dune 45, which is 45 kilometers from the gate. It’s easy to climb as it is near the road so it’s possible to be up on top before the sun comes over the horizon. Clearly a popular thing to do as there were at least a hundred other people there, most of them from safari busses. We made it to the top to see the sunrise, hung out there for a bit, then drove to the end of the road again to walk to a place called Hidden Vlai, two kilometers from the parking area. I asked the park official there if it was ok to walk anywhere and climb any of the dunes? His response was only, “Don’t get lost.” I suppose they don’t come looking for you. We wandered around there for awhile, getting to the salt pan then climbing a few of the surrounding dunes before heading back to camp to take down the tent and head south. We weren’t quite sure where we were going. We knew we wanted to go to Luderitz, another coastal town, but we thought it would take two days to get there. We were trying to decide where to stop along the way and George was reading the guidebook aloud while I drove with dunes on one side and rugged mountains on the other. It was so beautiful. We passed a few farms that had camping but in the guidebook there was a place sounded really cool and we decided to keep going and stay there. It was described as a working farm, nestled in a valley between the mountains and desert where it was possible to horseback ride and go on desert walks with a guide. We agreed, that was the place. So we drove and drove and drove, the scenery so spectacular that we kept stopping to take photos, but then I was getting a little worried it was getting late so we continued on until we reached the 12 kilometer driveway to find a sign that said, “Dear traveler, we are sorry we don’t accept any campers without pre-booking.” The drive into the valley looked amazing and beautiful and I was kicking myself. George had suggested he call ahead, but the signal wasn’t good and I said we hadn’t seen one single other car so they couldn’t possibly be full. My fault. Well, they probably weren’t full, but we didn’t want to take a chance of driving 12km down a sandy path only to be turned back when it was getting to be six o’clock. So we pushed on.
We passed another farm about 20 kilometers away and we tried there but the gate was locked. This was the first time I was a little worried about finding a place. We went another 40 kilometers to the main road, which is also gravel, and turned north where we saw a sign for another guest farm. Another 8km and we found the tiny little oasis in the desert, in a small valley covered in orange trees. It looked too good to be true. It was immaculate. We drove down the driveway and found a sign that said “Reception” in a pretty scroll. A woman came out of an inner room saying, “Ah! you finally made it! I was wondering about you!” I said, “It’s probably not us you were expecting. We don’t have a reservation, but were hoping to camp here.” (Actually we were hoping to get a room at that point, but if camping was the only thing available we were going to take it.) She said it was all full (we did not see one other person or car anywhere) but told us we could squeeze into the campsite as long as we negotiated with the other campers about using the sink, shower, and barbecue. We eagerly agreed and she gave us the directions to the site. We had to go back out the driveway (about a mile long) to the main road, cross it, and go into the farmland (and by farmland I mean grazing for something hardy, not cornfields) up a hill so steep there were two cement wheel tracks that made ascent possible, and park there. That was the campsite perched on the side of this rocky hill. She’d given us keys to the toilet and shower, which were so clean I could have done surgery in there. We found ourselves alone, no other campers, in the most gorgeous campsite I have ever been at, overlooking a plain with mountains all around us. There was a French couple staying at a little nearby cabin but the four campsites remained empty all night. We were the only ones there. I was in heaven. I made supper, a risotto with some feta cheese and a can of peas given us by the German family we’d met, while George set up the tent. There was enough gin and tonic for one drink, and one beer. We split those as we watched the sunset, ate our meal, which was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself, cleaned up and crawled into our tent happy as can be. The next morning we didn’t want to leave! I found enough oats to make breakfast then George went off for a walk while I painted. I went for a run then showered and we packed up and left around noon. We’d driven way further than we’d planned the day before so only had a few hours to get to Luderitz where we were determined to stay in a lodge. We were also out of food.
Luderitz is the diamond mining area and also a fishing village on a small harbor. There were plenty of B&Bs and we stopped at two right on the water, but they were full. We continued up the peninsula where there was a campground that the book said had three chalets. We decided to try our luck with getting a chalet. The campground was amazing. The sites were all situated among the rocks hanging out into the ocean. It was windy, but the setting was unbeatable. We found a caretaker and were in the process of finding out about the chalets which he said were available, when our friends Peter and Caroline pulled up next to us. We were standing in front of their tent. We really thought we would not see them again. We didn’t even know they were going to Luderitz. So we decided to camp and hang out with them a bit. We found a spot tucked into the rocks with a fairly level surface for the tent and a cooking area between two huge boulders. I felt like we were cave dwellers. We had a water faucet and an unobstructed view of the harbor. We pitched the tent, put on warmer clothes and went to our friends’ campsite for cocktails before going into town for dinner. It was great. They were leaving the next day heading for Fish River Canyon, so we might bump into them there, but we said goodbye (again!) Friday morning, then went to explore the town. We drove out to another windy point, toured an old house of a diamond mogul, still with it’s original furnishings, read everything in the museum, then went grocery shopping. It was the night of the full moon and our campsite was positioned perfectly to watch the sunset and moonrise from one spot. I had a romantic notion of lighting a campfire and cooking some fresh fish while we sipped wine on the rocks. Well, that was a bit of a bust. We couldn’t get the fire going, it was blowing stink and was cold. While we were struggling with the fire the sun set and the moon was up and I wished I’d stopped at the wine idea and bagged the food. The fish store was closed by the time we got to shopping and they don’t sell any at the supermarket, so we bought chicken and struggled to cook it in our cave with the howling wind. It was stupid. We should have gone out for oysters after the moon came up. Bless George’s heart, he worked hard to cook that chicken in that wind. We ate standing up in the cave to be out of the wind. All our clothes and hair and everything smelled like smoke, we cleaned up and went to bed, a bit sour (and drunk) and missed the lunar eclipse.
Yesterday we got up and broke camp to head to the Fish River Canyon. There was a family from Austria next to us, sharing the cooking cave and they told us they were giving up their reservation here at Ai-Ais because their kids were loving being on the ocean so much, so we knew there would be an available chalet. We left Luderitzaround 9:30 and stopped at Klemanskop about 10km away, a ghost town where the diamonds were mined until 1959, and now an incredible tourist attraction. The houses and buildings are amazingly intact though being reclaimed by the desert. Many of the rooms are filled with sand. It was an interesting site to learn about how diamonds were discovered there, and of course, how Europeans profited. The Namibian government now profits, however, from the diamonds mined here so I guess that’s progress.
From there it was four hours to where we are now, but a beautiful ride. We had originally considered hiking the length of the canyon but it is such a big deal to arrange we realized that was unrealistic. You have to have medical clearance secured within 40 days of doing the hike, have to have a minimum of three people, be able to carry water for five days, on and on, and we’ll enjoy it from another angle. The start of the hike is at the northern rim a steep decent down to the river and then it is five days of walking along the river as you walk out of the canyon at Ai-Ais, where we are now. There is no other way out of the canyon and no way to rescue you if there is trouble, so I see why they are so strict. From here we are allowed to walk six kilometers into the canyon (there’s no descent from here, it’s like Yosemite, you drive into tis end) and back out and we’ll do that today. There are hot springs here and a heated pool which we’ll also use today so it’s time to get going. Tomorrow we have to drive way north, then west, then south again to get to the lodge we’ll be staying at perched on the rim. Looking forward to that.
Okay! Not sure when I’ll be able to send this…
Love to all,