Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Sand, Stars und Strudel

Posted by jamesandpolls on September 18, 2010

The Tsodilo Hills are a lowlying range of three hills rising up out of the very flat landscape of the northern Kalahari desert. We decided they were worth a visit as although very remote, they are one of the world’s oldest historical sites. Man first inhabited the hills 40,000 years ago and started doodling straight away. They contain rock art in over 50 places – mainly animals. The hills are considered very spiritual by the local san tribe, so we took care in not offending the hills/people while we looked at the art and climbed the highest hill (we heard some bad stories!)


We then continued North West up the Okavango pan handle northwards into Namibia. The border was incredibly efficient, easy and empty, the best so far! To say that Namibia is empty would be to exaggerate its population density. The country is (as our guide book helpfully puts it) 1/3 bigger than Britain and Germany put together! If you cant imagine that try 6 times bigger than Britain! Anyway, with only 1.9 million people in it (and half of those in the capital city), days and days would be driven without coming across any type of settlement. Namibia is also unique in Africa due to its German influence. The Germans colonised Namibia for about 30 years in the late 1800’s up until the first world war when the South Africans, after being nudged by the British, invaded and took over the country. It then fell to the South Africans to ‘run’ Namibia (South West Africa) under a League of Nations mandate until independence in 1990. The result of this is an overwhelming German and Afrikaans ex pat community.

2 giraffe doing the splits while drinking - Etosha

After Crossing into Namibia our first destination was Etosha National Park but due to its vastness this took 3 days to get to, driving on some of the straightest roads imaginable. After the long drives it was fun to camp overlooking the Okavango River with Angola on the opposite bank. Another ‘first’ in Namibia is the quality of the campsites. In North Africa we were happy with some ground (flat preferably), in Eastern Africa we sometimes got a loo, some of them even flushable but here we have our own ‘pitch’, braii area, pool, power points and even our own loo and showers . . . en suite camping can you believe it!! (we are getting soft).

We camped just outside Etoshas eastern gate to ensure we were up early to get the best of the animals (they tend to feed in the morning / evening and the light is better for photos), and the next day, as planned we headed in. Etosha NP is a huge salt pan with a grassy fringe but what makes the game viewing so good here is the waterholes where the animals are forced to come to drink. We spent the next two days driving from one waterhole to another (the park is 4 hours driving across – huge) seeing the best game of the trip so far.

Baby elephants playing by a waterhole - Etosha

Particular highlights were a herd of 60 elephants at one waterhole, playing, drinking and fighting. Two prides of lions, one of them at a waterhole eating a springbok whilst the rest of the springbok herd watched on nervously contemplating going for a drink, and lastly two hyena eating a kudu in a waterhole before being chased off by a herd of elephants. It was fantastic not only for the variety of game but for the sheer volume. A real highlight of the trip.

From Etosha we drove west on some very corrugated dirt roads towards the skeleton coast and the Atlantic Ocean. This three day drive took us through a petrified forest where trees had been turned to stone over the millennia (170 million years old!) and also through some of the most magical vistas of boulder mountains and grassy plains. Reaching the skeleton coast we had a great feeling of accomplishment.

Made it to the Atlantic! Ship wreck in the background

We left the Indian Ocean in Mozambique nearly three months ago and it was great to see the Ocean once again, although this time much much colder! The coast line, as the name suggests, is pretty barren with rock and sanddunes slipping into a rough Atlantic swell. The tough conditions along the coast catch out many ships captains whose boats are now the rusting hulks that litter the coast line. It was to one such wreck that we chose as our picnic spot – The SS Winston, ran aground in 1946 – it sounded promising. As it turned out the SS Winston was pretty much a rowing boat and even that would be pushing it. A little disappointed we continued until we found another, one so recent it did not feature in our book – a huge fishing trawler which made a better spectacle and backdrop for another lunch of SPAR value chicken curry instant noodles!

Brighton beach - seal style

We continued south down the coast, driving in parts along the beach. The very cold Atlantic wind was a shock for our bodies, we have now fully adapted to the African heat. We stopped off briefly at the Cape Cross seal reserve where 60,000 seals choose to live and enjoyed watching them eating, swimming and fighting (it is mating season so the big males were getting quite testy with each other). Ultimately though, the smell drove us off, and so we continued south down the coast, to Swakopmund, Namibia’s second city. ‘Swakop’ is as German as it sounds with German architecture, German cafes, German cleanliness and German efficiency..yes a bit too German. It threw us totally. It was completely incongruous with its surroundings and felt more like a little Bavarian toy-town than an African town but we loved indulging in some delicious Apfel Strudel mit Chokolada. On the way out of the town we bumped into an old Durhamite who now works for Rio Tinto. In our brief catch up we managed to get him interested in PAX so it now looks like PAX may be making the reverse journey next year when Henry returns to the UK!

Namib desert salt pan - Deadvlei

Namibia, Australia and Chile are the three best star gazing places in the world. The combination of  being in the Southern Hemisphere, having high mountains, clean air, and no light pollution mean that in these locations there is even a considerable shadow at night when there is no moon – just from ambient light from the stars. On this trip we’ve become keen stargazers (quite a relaxing sport lying on your back looking up!) so wanted to go into the Brandenburg Mountains where the air is particularly pure and there are guestfarms with telescopes. As it happened a group of physics college students from Germany where staying in the guest farm we went to so we used their kit and the expert knowledge of their German professor to give us a fascinating hour looking into the heavens. We now have (slightly) more of an idea what we see above us every night.

Sanddunes at Sousesvlei

Coming down from the Mountains back onto the plains of the Namib Desert was awesome as we could just make out in the distance the features of our next destination – sand dunes. Namibia has the tallest sand dunes in the world and we spent a very hot but memorable day climbing some (and enjoying more from ground level!) at Sossusvlei – an oasis in a sea of dunes.

From there we carried on South (getting our second puncture of the trip on the way) to the Fish River Canyon, the worlds second largest canyon. Pictures will never do it justice. It was so deep and huge and multicoloured that your eyes could not focus on it all at once – and we were about the only people there. Just when we thought Namibia couldn’t get anymore breathtaking.

Fish River Canyon

Namibia landscape is amazing – probably the most dramatic desert landscapes of the trip. The mountains, coastline, desert, natural geology and the night sky all add up to a ‘wow’ moment at almost every turn in the road. Mostly it was vast and endless miles of desert, mountains or grassy plains, no people but the highest density of wildlife we have seen so far.

We are writing this from Upington, South Africa, having crossed the border (our last one!) from Namibia yesterday. First impressions are good, Polls got a 90 day visa without a quibble and Upington seems a good spot to stock up etc. .  as it is the most modern town we have been to in Africa so far! We are looking forward to the journey to the Wild Coast before turning west on our final leg along the Garden route to Cape Town. But with 4 weeks until we are due to be in CT, there is plenty more to come!

Gemsbok infront of Namib desert, South Namibia


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