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Exploring Namibia: no plans, no bookings, all adventure – Part 2

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THIS IS THE SECOND INSTALMENT OF OUR TWO-PART TRAVEL FEATURE. READ PART 1 HERE.

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> Tonga Camper Trailer


We were about halfway through our adventure in Namibia, and with a few thousand dusty kilometers behind us, we were heading “back to civilization” for a couple of days.

It was time for us to do some proper shopping to resupply, get a few loads of washing done, and perhaps even have stable Wi-Fi to check in on the real world (in other words, there was some work to be done).

So, on our last day at A Little Sossus Campsite, while lounging by the pool and managing to get some Wi-Fi (the campsite usually has a pretty decent connection, but the area was experiencing unexpected power outages), we started scrolling through Airbnb for accommodation in Swakopmund.

 

SESRIEM TO WALVIS BAY

The drive from Sesriem to Swakopmund is not very far, about 350 km, but trust me, it’s going to feel a bit longer. Don’t pay any attention to online Maps trying to suggest it’s a four and a half hour drive.

If you search online for information on this stretch of road, you’ll find many travellers expressing their joy at hitting the tar road a couple of kilometres before Walvis Bay (35 km south of Swakopmund).

But we weren’t near Walvis Bay yet. We headed out from A Little Sossus Campsite at the crack of dawn, driving north on the C19 to Solitaire.

 

 

The well-known little settlement of Solitaire is a popular stopping point for travellers in Namibia. Firstly, it has the only fuel station, bakery, café, tyre repair workshop, and general dealer in the area (from Sossusvlei to Walvis Bay and the capital Windhoek). Secondly, there are old derelict cars scattered around the settlement, which provide a great opportunity to investigate and photograph.

When heading out of Solitaire, make sure to check your odometer, because after almost exactly 50 km on the C14 you will cross the Tropic of Capricorn, which is marked by signs on either side of the road.

Keep your eyes open, or you will miss it, as over the years visitors from all around the world have stopped there and many have placed stickers on the sign.

 

 

For some, the Tropic of Capricorn will mean nothing, and they’ll either drive past or stop to try to figure out what all the fuss is about before heading on, shaking their heads. But for adventurers who enjoy having some fun and understand what the Tropic is, it’s a must-stop spot to take a picture and reflect on the interesting nature of our world!

To keep it brief and without going into the science, the Tropic of Capricorn is an imaginary line running around the Earth at 23°26′10.6″, which is the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be seen directly overhead at midday. It divides the Southern Temperate Zone to the south from the tropics to the north.

Fun fact: The Tropic of Capricorn’s position is not fixed, but is gradually moving northward by about 15 metres per year because of a slight wobble in the Earth’s longitudinal alignment relative to its orbit around the Sun.

 

 

After a quick stop and the obligatory photo session, we headed further along the C14 to the Gaub Pass, a beautiful stretch of road (although considered dangerous as there are no crash barriers and the road bends regularly).

The scenery on this drive is simply spectacular, and luckily there are a few places to pull over and take pictures. Keep your eyes open for the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras which live in the area.

I guess you can see why this stretch takes so long… we weren’t even 150 km from Sesriem and already stopped at a handful of locations!

 

 

Shortly after the Gaub Pass, travellers on their way to Windhoek will turn off on the C26; those heading to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund should stay on the C14 and continue through the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

While this section of gravel road is not too bad, it’s far from exciting. Just flat terrain with perhaps a Springbok or two along the way. And the closer you get to Walvis Bay, the less interesting it becomes as you start to be surrounded by all the signs of civilisation.

When you hit that tar road, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

The waterfront town of Walvis Bay is famous for its huge population of pink flamingos and pelicans, which line the lagoon in the late afternoon. Dune 7, the highest sand dune in Namibia, is located on the outskirts of the town.

We didn’t spend much time in Walvis Bay, apart from driving through and having a roadside snack next to the beach, as we were eager to get to Swakopmund, settle in, and explore Namibia’s largest coastal city.

 

 

SWAKOPMUND

I absolutely love Swakopmund, the city just has a “lekker vibe”; it is, after all, essentially a beach resort.

I’m not going to delve into the history of Swakopmund, as this information is readily available online. Just know that it was founded in 1892 as the main harbour for German South West Africa, and thus there is a strong German influence, which is visible everywhere in the colonial architecture. This German influence is actually particularly relevant to this trip, but I’ll get to that later.

Our accommodation for the next two days was a fantastic split-level apartment near the town centre. If you’re looking for a well-equipped self-catering stay in Swakopmund, I would recommend giving Whaleback a go (all the details are on Airbnb). Whaleback even has two secure parking spaces across the road, so we could safely park the Tonga.

After unloading the camper trailer, we decided to search for some lunch before tackling all the cleaning and laundry.

 

 

The guesthouse is only a short walk from the waterfront and town centre, so we took a stroll down and popped into the Swakopmund Brauhaus… yes, a German pub. And even though it was before noon, we had to have a beer, because the Germans were already in a partying mood.

To explain: The Cologne Carnival takes place every year in Cologne, Germany, where traditionally, the carnival season is declared open at 11 minutes past 11 on 11 November…

It was at this exact time and date that we happened to be in the Brauhaus.

 

 

After lunch, we headed back to our apartment and spent the day doing laundry, dusting off some gear, and repacking everything. I even had the Isuzu D-MAX and Tonga washed just down the road at Coastal Car Wash.

Over the next two days, we did all the “tourist” things in Swakopmund, including my personal top two: visiting the Kristall Galerie and going on a quad bike trip in the dunes.

 

 

But let’s not get too much into the city life; this is a camping adventure, after all.

As mentioned in Part 1 of our story, the original plan was to go from Swakopmund to Spitzkoppe, and from there start heading back home. However, as mentioned, this was all about to change…

On our first night in Swakop, over dinner, my wife and I decided that, even though we had already covered a few thousand kilometres, the Isuzu and Tonga made the ride so comfortable that we might as well fit in an extra thousand kilometres (there and back).

So instead of our next destination being Spitzkoppe (and then heading home as planned), we decided to push further north, all the way to Etosha National Park.

 

 

OKAUKUEJO CAMP – the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

After two nights in Swakopmund, with our supplies restocked and all our clothes and gear cleaned, we were ready for the road to Etosha.

There are a couple of routes to choose from, and my recommendation on which is best would be based on your travel style, as well as the amount of time you have.

If you like the gravel backroads and enjoy exploring, take the C34 out of Swakopmund and head to Hentiesbaai – which is, of course, also a popular destination for fishing.

The quickest, most direct route is the tarred B2 out of town, and making a left on the C33 at Karibib. This road is also tarred, and if you follow it to Otjiwarongo, you can then take the B1 to Outjo and continue along the C38 (also tarred) all the way to the Anderson Gate.

At the gate, there are two checkpoints. The first is your entry into Etosha, and the second is a vet point. Officials at the gates may check or ask you if you have any meat, and you may be asked to sign a form to confirm that you know you may not take meat out of the park. So you can go into Etosha with meat, but not out.

The checkpoints at the gate did not take us very long, and we had no trouble.

 

 

From Anderson Gate to Okaukuejo is about 20 km, and gives you your first taste of this incredible National Park. We had barely driven 5 minutes when we saw some giraffes and zebras close to the road. You are almost guaranteed to see Springbok along this road as well… actually, you will see a lot of Springbok during your time in Etosha.

Okaukuejo is the oldest tourist camp and the administrative centre of the Etosha park. Accommodation options in the park include camping (of course) as well as various types of chalets.

How would I describe staying at Okaukuejo? To be honest, the phrase “the good, the bad, the ugly” comes to mind.

It’s no surprise that the camp has a 3.5 out of 5-star rating from over 2 000 reviews on TripAdvisor. There are a ton of reviews online that will explain my comment, so I’ll touch on the main aspects.

 

 

Let’s start with the bad and the ugly, and get it out of the way. Okaukuejo is run by the government, which probably says a lot to many of us already. I found the staff to be quite unfriendly and unhelpful, with an overall attitude of not caring about their job and just doing it because they “have to”.

The first signs of trouble (maybe too strong a word) were found at check-in. After confirming that we had paid our park fees and moving on to booking camping accommodation, we were handed a map of the camp… at least, that is what it is supposed to be. The paper contained a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy – it’s barely legible, and includes some random notes and numbers scribbled all over.

It was so badly copied that the section of the camp where we were booked was not even on the map anymore.

 

 

Check-in completed, we headed to our campsite.

I think we were lucky, as Okaukuejo is very popular and we had no reservation, but still managed to secure a site close to the fence.

The campsites are spacious, and the park allows up to 8 people per site.

There is not a blade of grass in sight – the entire camp is gravel. Thankfully, almost all sites have a large tree to provide some shade.

All are equipped with electricity (including a light) and a large braai area. Water is available from shared taps.

 

 

As for the ablution and kitchen areas… here we get to the Bad and Ugly.

If you read anywhere that these facilities are well-maintained or up to date, don’t believe it.

During our three-day stay in Okaukuejo, the ablutions were not cleaned once. With multiple tour groups of up to 30 people pulling in each day by bus and setting up right next to the ablution to overnight, you can imagine what things start to look like.

I visited three ablution blocks during our stay, and I don’t think I saw a single door that could lock. The “fix” for a broken lock in Etosha is apparently to place a rock in the stall to help you at least keep the door closed.

To say the showers are “run down” is being generous. You feel like you need a shower after having a shower. At least there is hot water.

The communal kitchen areas are not much better. The large tour groups have staff doing all the cooking and washing up for them, but generally, they left the kitchens in a mess.

Before we get to the Good (yes, there is good at Okaukuejo as well), let’s head over to some of the other facilities.

The camp also has a restaurant, swimming pools, and a bar.

After setting up camp in nearly 40-degree heat, a cold drink and a dip are much appreciated, and there’s nothing to complain about. Just make sure you get there early if you want a nice spot in the shade or a lounge chair, as these are in short supply.

 

 

Since we had already done quite a bit of driving, and had a couple more days in Etosha, we decided to spend the rest of the day by the water.

You can get Wi-Fi next to the pool, and vouchers to connect are available at high rates at the front desk.

It was after lunch and too early for dinner, so when we got hungry, we took a few steps over to the restaurant.

It’s difficult to believe the low standard and high pricing of the restaurant, considering the amount of money flowing into the camp. After the amazing meals and restaurant experiences available in Swakopmund, it’s sad to sit down at tables with weather-worn cloths and get a badly-designed menu on a laminated piece of paper.

My recommendation at the restaurant would be a portion of chips. It’s not even on the menu, but they’ll make it. And it is pretty good.

 

 

OKAUKUEJO WILDLIFE

There are many negative things to say about Okaukuejo, but the camp does offer something truly special: the wildlife.

Okaukuejo has a massive waterhole on the edge of the camp, and many animals from the area visit it every day. The waterhole is also floodlit at night!

Springbok, nyala, zebra, giraffe, and elephant are just some of the animals you will see visiting the drinking spot. We also saw hyenas, rhinos (at night), and a secretary bird.

Unfortunately, the lions did not make an appearance at the waterhole during our time in Etosha (although we did see them elsewhere in the park).

 

 

The afternoon visits from a herd of elephants are a sight that makes the camp’s shortcomings worth it.

In fact, our campsite was close to the fence, and we could watch them go by on the way to the water from right next to our tent. If you are at the waterhole before the elephants, you will definitely crack a smile as you see the giants come closer – there are always a couple of elephants that break into a run to rush straight into the water to cool down.

Sitting back and watching them play and splash about in the water for an hour is a magical sight.

Sure, the giraffes, wildebeest, and all the other animals are also beautiful, but nothing beats a little elephant calf having a roll in the mud.

 

 

ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK

There are a couple of private resorts just outside the Anderson Gate (and I’d probably opt for these in the future), but the advantage of Okaukuejo is that you stay inside the Park… which means you can head out on game drives early in the morning, and stay out later.

We also went on a night game drive. You can’t drive around yourself at night, but have to book at the reception. Book your spot as early as possible, it’s first come first served and fills up fast.

And make sure you arrive, you can’t get a refund or reschedule.

 

 

On that note: there are also no refunds on accommodation in Etosha, so if you booked and paid and are unhappy and want to go somewhere else, you’ll lose your money. In the little time I spent in reception, I saw no fewer than two couples who got very upset about this when they wanted to cut short their stay at the camp.

But back to the good stuff…

Etosha is a big park and there are various routes to drive and water holes to visit on a self-drive adventure to view animals.

 

 

Tip: About 6.5 km before the Anderson Gate, you get the Etosha Trading Post Campsite. Apart from a fuel station, the trading post also has a large shop. One of the items they sell is an Etosha Map and Animal Checklist. Buy one. It costs £5 for the piece of paper, but it has all the roads in the park, stopping points, water holes, toilets and distances between all of them.

The pictures of the animals that you could spot (and check off on the map) are fun to have in the car while out and about in the park.

 

 

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll say it again: Etosha has a lot of animals. We went on self-drives for two days, and saw lions, white and black rhino (with babies!), bat-eared fox, zebra, hartebeest, kudu, wildebeest, Oryx, giraffe, elephant, hyena, and much more.

And those are just on the ground – the birding in the park is just as amazing.

My recommendation is to get your map, and plan routes that will take you from water hole to water hole, which is where the animals tend to gather (of course).

 

 

Also, make sure to visit the Etosha Lookout point to get a full sense of the vastness of the Etosha Pan.

Some of the smaller side roads in Etosha are in rough shape with lots of corrugations, so the driving can be slow at points – make sure you give yourself enough time when planning a day drive.

 

 

After a couple of days in Etosha, it was time for us to start the trek back south. With 2,000 km of road between Etosha and the Cape, and still quite a bit we wanted to experience, we had planned our next couple of nights in Namibia while relaxing around the Okaukuejo pool between game drives.

Since we would be driving on tarred road for most of the journey south, we thought we could pack in long stretches of road on days when we are on the move. This would mean fewer camping destinations, but a bit longer stay at each in the time left.

We knew we definitely wanted to spend some time at Keetmanshoop and had no intention of staying or even stopping in Windhoek, so the middle point between Etosha and Keetmans was Mariental.

It’s a drive of just under 700 km. We decided to do it all in one day and find ourselves a nice camping spot (with some grass) in Mariental.

We didn’t have any bookings, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right…

 

WINDHOEK

The road from Etosha to Mariental does go through Windhoek, and we planned to just pop into the capital of Namibia to refuel and grab a bite to eat. Plus, we needed a place with Wi-Fi to see if the resort we had contacted to inquire about camping had responded.

To keep a long story short, Windhoek was a pain. After so many days on the open road, outdoors, camping and not experiencing a big city (Swakop does not count, it’s too chill!), the heavy traffic and loads of people were not what we wanted. Finding fuel in Windhoek was easy, so half our mission was quickly completed. Finding a place to eat with Wi-Fi was a different story.

I don’t know Windhoek, so we drove in the direction of the city center, looking for any place that looked promising. But when we found one and got out of the car, a security guard immediately came over and anxiously told us that we should not leave the caravan (although locked) unattended in the road, and that we should not leave any items visible in the car.

Now, if you’ve ever been on a long-distance road trip, you’ll know that this is simply not possible.

Memories of a previous trip to Namibia flashed through my mind, and I remembered how many years ago someone had tried to steal my mother’s wallet in the city (luckily, we managed to stop him and grab it back out of his hand).

We considered trying to drive around and find a safe spot to park, but in the end, we decided to rather get out of the hustle and bustle, have a bite on the side of the road, and just push through to Mariental, still not knowing if we had a place to sleep for the night.

 

 

MARIENTAL

A 700 km drive in one day is not too bad, especially since it’s all tarred road. Still, it’s a long time behind the wheel, so reaching your destination is a relief.

For us, the day was not done yet, because on arriving at the campsite we had in mind, we found the gate closed.

Just outside the resort is a padstal, so we popped in there to enquire if they perhaps had Wi-Fi we could use to at least try and contact the resort.

No luck!

But they did open the gate to the premises for us… and inside we could not find a living soul.

Everything looked fantastic, though, but nobody was around!

So, back to The Bicycle Padstal we went, and they contacted the resort owner, who informed them that actually the entire place was booked out for a wedding.

I knew there were other accommodation options in Mariental, but the day had been long and it would have been nice to have an easy check-in.

Anyway, after a delicious coffee and a lekker chat with the Padstal managers, we got back in the Isuzu D-Max and headed to Mariental to look for a place to pitch for the night…

 

 

RIVER CHALETS CAMPING

River Chalets Mariental is located right next to the B1, and the camping spots are excellent! Although they are not grassed, the large gravel sites are kept impeccably tidy.

River Chalets has just six regular campsites and two private campsites. Each site has a neat wooden fence around it and provides access to electricity, water, and a braai facility.

 

 

The private campsites have their own built-in braai and ablution block that is equipped with a shower, toilet, and washbasin. The communal ablutions for the regular sites are fantastic – they are large, clean, and well-maintained – with showers, toilets, and washbasins.

If you don’t choose a private stand, one of the campsites does actually have a lawn, but it is small and best suited for camping. The other campsites have more space and are suited to caravans. I would recommend asking for number 6; it has a massive tree that covers almost the entire site (check the pictures).

 

 

In addition to camping, River Chalets Mariental also offers self-catering chalets and tented camps. The tents do not have a bathroom, but guests can use the camping ablutions.

There is secure parking on the premises, which is surrounded by electric fencing, CCTV cameras, and is patrolled at night.

The resort has a communal swimming pool where you can cool off – something we did the second we were set up. It was a hot day, and nothing beats a dip after a couple of hundred hours on the road. There is also a Jacuzzi, but this is only available for an extra fee and you need to make a prior reservation.

 

 

After a nice swim, we were in the mood to relax some more, so we headed over to the on-site restaurant, which has a full menu (steak, pizza, burgers, etc), and ice-cold Namibian draft beer.

Other attractions at River Chalets Mariental include a playground for the young ones, and animals that have been rescued from the area, including warthog, goat, springbuck, ostriches and other farm animals.

 

KEETMANSHOOP: MESOSAURUS FOSSIL CAMP

River Chalets was just a stop-over for one night on our way to Keetmanshoop, where we wanted to check out the famous Giant’s Playground and Quiver trees.

It’s an easy two-hour drive from Mariental to Keetmans.

Our idea was to stay at one of the most famous camping sites in the Keetmans area: Quivertree Forest Rest Camp.

This accommodation did not work out… I won’t go into detail of what happened, but you read my Google review about the horrible experience here.

With Quivertree Forest Rest Camp out of the picture, I remembered a conversation we had with a traveller we met earlier on the trip at Klein-Aus Vista Desert Horse Campsite. He had told us he had spent two amazing days at the Mesosaurus Fossil Camp.

This campsite is less than 30km down the road from where we were, so we got back in the D-MAX, and with the trusty Tonga in tow we left the sour taste of Quivertree Forest Rest Camp in the dust behind us.

 

 

Arriving at the small reception building of Mesosaurus, we found nobody in sight. Was this going to be a repeat of our predicament the previous day?

No!

Because a sign on the door informed us that if the office is unmanned, you can just head on into camp.

 

 

We didn’t have a reservation, but we decided to take a chance and go see if there are any camping spots open.

A couple of kilomtres along the road we arrived to find the bush camp completely empty.

While you won’t need a 4×4 to tackle the road to the camp, you will need higher ground clearance here and there.

We had our pick of camping sites, and chose one near the ablutions under a massive tree.

 

 

Mesosaurus Fossil Camp has only 6 sites (maximum 20 people allowed at a time in the entire camp), spaced far enough apart to almost feel like you have the entire place to yourself.

Note that this is a bush camp, so there is no electricity.

However, there is a rudimentary ablution facility with two flush toilets, showers and washbasins. Hot water is available if you light the donkey.

 

 

There are no bins, and visitors are required to take all their garbage with them when they leave.

Each campsite has a braai facility, with instructions on putting out your fire properly to prevent veld fires.

Mesosaurus Fossil Camp was one of my favourite camps we stayed at in Namibia. Here you can truly experience peace and quiet in nature.

The hills surrounding the campsite, in a dry river bed, are full of Quiver trees, which creates a beautiful sight of silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.

 

 

After setting up camp, we headed back to reception to see if anyone was around, and to book a spot on the “Mesosaurus Fossil Tour” we heard of from our friend at Klein-Aus.

The tour is guided by owner Giel Steenkamp – what a legend – who takes you around the farm to view Mesosaurus fossils (a dinosaur that lived over 250 million years ago) and the graves of two German Schutztruppers who died in a battle between the Namas and Germans in 1904 at the farm.

Giel will then take you further into the farm to view some of their prime specimens of Quiver trees (they have over 5000, which make it the densest concentration of Quiver trees in Namibia), and he’ll play you some music on the Dolomite rocks.

Once the official tour is done, Giel will head home and leave you to explore and experience the Quiver trees on your own for as long as you want. Absolute magic!

 

 

Here you can also get a taste of the “Giant’s Playground”. The geological phenomenon is called this because of dolerite boulders that appear to have been packed by a giant playing with blocks.

The best area to view this is on the land owned by Quivertree Forest Rest Camp, but we were not going to support them, and Mesosaurus had amazing formations as well.

 

 

Giel will give you a proper explanation of how the stacked boulders formed about 180 million years ago, but in a nutshell: Back then all the continents were basically one big landmass, the super continent named Pangaea.

Over millions of years, the northern (Laurentia) and southern (Gondwana) parts began separating, causing massive natural disruptions.

In the area surrounding these rock formations, molten magma pushed its way through the cracks of the surface rock. After another couple of million years, the sedimentary rocks (that were pushed aside to make room for the dolerite) began to erode, exposing the harder rock underneath.

With a couple hundred thousand years of water, wind and heat erosion, you get rock formations that look like a giant’s playground.

If you want to explore even more at Mesosaurus, there are also three and 10 kilometre hiking trails, as well as a 16 km high clearance route, which takes you to the quiver tree valley.

 

 

HEADING HOME

Mesosaurus Fossil Camp was the perfect place to spend our last nights in Nambia.

Our travel adventure wasn’t over yet, though, since home was over a 1 000km away.

We had one more destination that we would visit, since we were (sort of) in the area: Augrabies Falls.

We had booked two nights’ camping at the Kameeldoring campsite, literally a couple of metres down the road from the entrance to the Augrabies Falls National Park.

But that’s a story for a different time. For now, our Namibian Adventure had come to an end.

 

 


THIS WAS THE SECOND INSTALMENT OF OUR TWO-PART TRAVEL FEATURE. READ PART 1 HERE.

More related articles:
> Tow vehicle review: Isuzu D-Max 1.9 Ddi Double Cab LS A/T
> Tonga Camper Trailer


 

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