A Namibian adventure ends

Windhoek, Namibia

It was with a fair amount of excitement and trepidation that I set out this morning for my final drive in Namibia — a 5 hour haul back to Windhoek. I’ve spent over 30 hours behind the wheel in the last 8 days, showing not only the vastness of this country but also just how terrible its roads are. And this adventure in Namibia hasn’t just token its toll on me mentally.

My first car broke down; my second had a flat tire, lost two of its hub caps somewhere in Damaraland and is currently dragging something. Exactly what I’m still unsure.

As much as the car has given me trouble, it hasn’t detracted from what was, for me, an absolutely stunning country. Namibia has so much to offer — and I’m fairly certain that given time it will become a well-trafficked tourist destination. But for now, the poor infrastructure has deterred only the most hardened travelers from exploring it.

Indeed, it was these terrible roads, the ones that I’ve complained incessantly about, that have kept Namibia such a quiet and special place. There will be a day when coach buses full of Germans, Canadians, or even Americans, will pull up to the dunes of Sossusvlei. Or when the roads to Twyfelfontein or Etosha are smooth. And that will be the day Namibia changes.

Traveling alone has certainly added to the adventure. Nearly everyone I’ve met who learns that I’m by myself has raised an eyebrow. “Alone?” they ask. I’ll admit, it was a little crazy. But spending so much time alone has allowed me to clear my mind and reflect on what has been a whirlwind year. I’ve also met some amazing local Namibians; those who work at the lodges, serve me at the bar and fill up my car with gas. I’ve experienced their warmness, friendliness and positive attitude, regardless of how difficult life is or how little they have.

A few days ago, a Namibian farmer told me that she had just returned from Windhoek, where she had worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day as a cashier at the Pick n’ Pay, a supermarket here. Her salary for the month? 650 Namibian dollars, or about $65USD. Her rent for a shared apartment in the capital city? 500 Namibian dollars. That left about $15USD per month for food, transportation and other living expenses.

This is the reality of life in Namibia. And learning this — really, hearing and experiencing it first hand — has given me a new perspective on my own life as well as an appreciation for how lucky we all are in the U.S.

Luckily, the drive back was incident free and the directions to my guesthouse, Terra Africa, were spot on. This is a small, quiet place west of the city center. My room overlooked the lush backyard garden and pool.

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“What do you want to do this afternoon?” Jackie, the friendly woman working the reception asked me while checking in. “Sit in my room,” I replied. She laughed. “No, seriously,” I said.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out, ordering a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, watching the BBC, doing laundry and catching up with e-mail. I’d wanted to get dinner in town but opted instead just to eat and drink a couple of beers at Terra Africa.

After popping my anti-malarial, it was time for bed. My overland camping trip to Victoria Falls, through Botswana, departs tomorrow morning.

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Lions, giraffes, warthogs, oh my!

Etosha National Park, Namibia

“How are you?” I asked my waitress at breakfast this morning. It was 5:30 a.m. and still dark out. “Tired,” she replied.

“What time did you wake up?” She said 4 a.m. “We needed to prepare breakfast.” Considering that no one else was in the dining room, it made me feel a bit guilty about requesting such an early start. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ve got to get to the park.”

At least that was the plan.

I’d hoped to be at the gate at 6:15 a.m. right when it opened in order to secure a prime early-morning viewing spot. Turning onto the main road, an encouraging sign, there was only one car in front of me. Score!

As the minutes ticked by, the cars and buses started to pile up behind me. All of a sudden, a tap on my window. It was a bus driver. “You have a flat tire,” he curtly said. “Flat tire? What are you talking about?” I replied. “Your tire. In the back. It’s flat. Better get that fixed before going into the park.”

Opening my door, there was no way — not right now. But, sure enough, driver-side back tire. Completely dead. “You have got to be freaking kidding me,” I muttered to myself, pulling off onto the side of the road.

Why Toyota Yaris? Why do this to me now? One of the gate security guards must have seen the smoke coming out of my ears and offered to help. Meanwhile, I’d already started wondering if my brother’s helpful flat tire mantra (“Left loose, right tight”) might be reversed in a country where they drove on the opposite side of the street. No idea.

I’m not much use when it comes to cars but was able to pull out the spare as well as the set of tools. “Where’s the jack?” the security guard asked me. That was a good question. Where was the jack? Fifteen minutes later, having thoroughly torn apart the car and cursed to myself multiple times, there was no jack.

You have got to be kidding me, Budget.

“I’ll call my friend,” the guard said. “Please, call your friend, let’s just get this fixed,” I replied. Shortly thereafter, my car savior arrived with some random jack that he had been able to locate. It was not the right size nor did it fit well under the car but by this point I’d just stepped back and assumed the role of ardent cheerleader.

Cars goes up. Wheel comes off. New wheel pops on. Car returns to ground. $40 Namibian dollars comes out of my wallet and I’m in the park by 7 a.m.

Not a terrible setback but a frustrating one no less. It certainly could have been worse — perhaps a flat, and no jack, while driving through Etosha, with wildlife and signs that warn: “STAY IN VEHICLE AT ALL TIMES.”

The park was nothing short of amazing. Nearly everywhere you turned their were animals. Zebras trekking by the hundreds to the water hole. Springbok grazing with giraffes meandering in the distance. Warthogs snorting and stuffing their faces with grass. The sheer number was matched only by the diversity of wildlife.

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Seeing animals in the wild was thrilling. There was something about witnessing them in their natural environment — one with no fences or feeding times — that offered a real connection.

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Perhaps the best spot of the day was a pride of lions. They were easy to locate given the safari traffic jam on the gravel roads. Still, from a distance, one got a sense of their size and strength. A half dozen cubs played around while three males lazed away the warm morning. Off in the distance, wildebeest, zebra and springbok nervously focused their attention in our direction.

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It was starting to get hot and the animals were hibernating for the afternoon, so after lunch at Halali, a rest area in the park, it was back to the camp to chill out.

Here’s to hoping the Toyota makes it to Windhoek tomorrow with no spare tire.

The “Great White Place”

Etosha National Park, Namibia

After breakfast, the Land Rover transported me back to the farmhouse where the Yaris was waiting for me. One of the enterprising Namibians had given it a wash and was patiently awaiting my arrival. “It looks nice,” I said, giving him a $10 Namibian dollar note. “It should stay clean for at least the next 2 minutes.”

Even that might have been a push. Once back on the wretched gravel roads, the dust kicked up and caked the car in a thick layer. My drive this morning was supposed to take 5 hours; more importantly, according to my map, nearly half of it would take place on tar roads.

Oh, tar roads, how I’ve missed thee. You are so smooth. You allow me to drive above 60 kilometers per hour. You do not overheat my car nor violently throw me into the shoulder. Your rocks do not crack my windshield; your hills do not bottom out my vehicle; your lack of dust allows me to open my windows and breathe the fresh air.

Who would have thought it was possible to develop such a longing for a paved surface? Try a week in Namibia in a hatchback.

My final destination in this country was Etosha National Park, the “Great White Place” that takes its name from the vast white and greenish Etosha Pan. The park is one of the foremost wildlife destinations — not just in this country, but in all of Southern Africa.

For the first time this trip, my arrival was actually earlier than estimated (Bless you, Tar). I’m staying at Andersson’s Camp, a lodge just outside of the park’s gate that opened last year. Sustainability is the name of the game here — 80% of the building materials were from recycled sources. My favorite part of the place was my private outdoor shower, which was about as close to nature as one could get.

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The entire camp was surrounded by an electric fence, which was both comforting and unnerving at the same time. On my bedside sat an air horn. “For an emergency,” the manager stated.

I’d not expected much going into the park at 1 p.m. — the sun was blazing and most of the wildlife would be hiding in the shade — but given my limited time here, thought I’d give it a try anyway.

Essentially, Etosha is a self-drive park meaning you pay at the gate and then cruise around. The one rule, stay in your car at all times. One minute through the gate it became clear why: there were animals everywhere. They grazed on the plains, walked around on the road and drank from the water holes, of which there were dozens sign-posted throughout the park.

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Despite the time of day, the water holes were buzzing with red hartebeest, gemsbok, springbok and this awesome wildebeest.

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But by far, the Burchell’s zebra had the best representation. Everywhere you turned, there were dozens of them — young, old, big, small — slurping down water while carefully watching the horizon for predators.

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There were so many that they even ended up in my side-view mirror. Excuse me, Zebra, could you please get out of my way? I’m trying to back up out of this parking space. Geez.

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Back at the camp, it was completely dead. One of the manager’s kids ran around screaming with his toy truck. How peaceful. “Is there anyone else staying here?” I asked her. “Not right now, it’s all yours,” she replied.

Dinner overlooked the camp’s own water hole. About midway through my stuffed chicken entrée, a tremendous male lion meandered down for a drink, making for an entertaining meal.

On the way back to my tent, the roars of lions could be heard in the not so far distance. This was life in the bush. And after brushing my teeth and double-checking the location of the emergency air horn, it was time for bed.

The desert elephants of Damaraland

Damaraland, Namibia

By this point, I’ve gotten used to pre-dawn wake-up calls. Most of the activity in Africa happens before 11 a.m. when the repressing heat forces all life into the shade. So, I’d actually already started getting ready when the guide stopped by my tent at 5:30 a.m.

We had a solid breakfast and then loaded into the Land Rover. In addition to me, there was a honeymooning couple from France and another solo traveler. The goal of this morning’s game drive was to track down the elusive desert elephant, an animal that has adapted to live and survive in these harsh conditions.

Finding the herd could prove fruitless, our guide explained, since these elephants don’t follow a predictable route. But we could look for clues — namely tracks and poop — and hopefully have success.

In the early morning, outside of the sun, the temperature plummeted. We bundled up with the provided fleece blankets. The breaking light across the horizon playfully illuminated the mountainous backdrop as a flock of ostriches raced across the Great Plains.

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By 10 a.m., we had found plenty of poop and loads of tracks but had yet to find our elephants. Time was running out, our guide said, as the sun began baking the Earth and the mercury started climbing. Once it got too hot, the elephants would hide in the shade. “We won’t see them,” he said.

So, onward we went. And suddenly, a sign. Lots of poop. We were onto something and the Land Rover sped off down a dry river bed. It felt like we were going around in circles as the repetitive landscape rolled by. Then, in a clearing up ahead, we saw them.

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It was a herd of about a dozen, including several babies. The truck pulled within 10 feet as we watched them gorge themselves on trees, fruits, anything within trunk’s reach.

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With our elephant fix filled, we returned to the lodge for lunch. After, it was back out for a taste of the strong cultural offerings of Damaraland, which is named for the Damara people that inhabit it.

The most important site to visit is Twyfelfontein, one of the most extensive galleries of rock art in Africa. Bushmen carved the petroglyphs into the sandstone about 6,000 years ago. Despite their age, they are in remarkably good condition today — in fact, this is Namibia’s first, and only, UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The mid-afternoon heat was intolerable so we only spent about an hour walking among the carvings. On our way back, we stopped at the nearby Organ Pipes, the rock face of a river that resembles the musical instrument.

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Once back at camp, there was time to lounge at the pool for a couple of hours. A big group of German tourists invaded just before dinner. Still, the food was gourmet and the wine flowed freely.

Namibian farmer: “Let me drive”

Damaraland, Namibia

Given my driving experience here, this morning’s 7-hour trip to Damaraland, in the remote northwest region of Namibia, was not one I’d been looking forward to. There wasn’t much to do though besides take it slow, keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

On a salt road, the drive took me along the Skeleton Coast, so named because of its treacherous history — fog, coupled with rocky and sandy coastal shallows, has resulted in dozens of ships washing ashore. Today, they provide a solemn and picturesque reminder of the danger.

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Driving northeast along C35, the landscape began to change and the Brandberg, the tallest peak in Namibia (2,573 meters), came into view. A rest area provided a solid vantage point. Walking back to my tiny car, nestled among hardcore 4x4s with external gas tanks and multiple spare tires, made me think to myself: was I crazy or just plain stupid driving out here in my Toyota hatchback?

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Onward we went. And at every turn, over every hill, was another stark, yet beautiful, scene.

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The drive was going well. Too well. Luckily, the dry bed of the Huab River, with its thick sand and rocky sediment, now presented itself to me. There was little doubt in my mind that I’d be able to successfully get across it. But, what were my options here except to put the car in low and floor it?

It didn’t work. Yet suddenly, as if by magic, local Namibian farmers who had witnessed the spectacle appeared. They surrounded my car. “We can help,” they said. My iPod went into the glove compartment.

I got out and assessed the situation. Indeed, I was stuck. And alone. “Okay, you push,” I told the middle-aged man and handful of kids who had offered assistance. They pushed, I slammed on the gas and slowly reversed out of the ditch. Now what?

The man comes up to me. “Let me drive,” he says. It actually took me a second to come to my senses. “How about you just tell me where to go,” I replied. He gestured to the left. I got back in the car, made a quick prayer to the Toyota Gods and hit the gas, somehow managing to make it across.

On the other side, I got out and gave all the kids a pack of Oreos I’d bought at a gas station in Uis. They wolfed them down. The man was happy with a $5 Namibian dollar coin. And I was on my way.

A couple of days ago, my travel agent in London e-mailed to tell me that the lodge I’d been booked at, Doro Nawas, was full and I’d been upgraded to Damaraland Camp. It was 30 minutes further away but was one of the top rated lodges in the country and would be worth it, she said.

Close to 2 p.m., the farmhouse where I’d be met at came into view. Damaraland Camp is so remote and isolated that it’s only accessible by Land Rover; as we made our way through villages along a bumpy path, my little Yaris drifted off into the distance. The camp manager met me with a drink and cold towel before showing me to my spectacular tent.

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Walking around the camp afterward, it felt largely deserted. There were only three guests, the manager told me, myself included. Wow.

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Walking back to my tent after a delicious dinner, the night sky was brilliant. I’ve never seen stars like that before.

Nor have I ever felt farther from home.

Regretting not packing lederhosen

Swakopmund, Namibia

Arriving so late last night prevented me from truly appreciating the fantastic place that I’m staying at here in Swakop. Villa Margherita is a trendy new guesthouse in the center of town. My “room” overlooking the courtyard is more like an apartment — complete with a sitting area, it’s the most spacious I’ve had in Africa.

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After breakfast in the swanky dining room, my game plan was to spend a couple of hours walking around Swakopmund, a town that feels like it belongs more on the Baltic coast than in Southern Africa. The architecture here reminded me of Bavaria, as did the beer houses and delis hawking German delicacies, all of which made me sad that my lederhosen were back in Chapel Hill.

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It was time to test out my new ride — a tiny Toyota Yaris that was even less suitable for the gravel roads than my last car. The drive back to Walvis Bay, which I’d done in the dark last night, was stunning; it is here that the desert meets the sea. Walvis Bay’s lagoon is an important wetland for migratory birds in this part of the world, including one of the largest flocks of flamingos.

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Swakop has recently reinvented itself as the adventure-sports capital of Namibia; one of the most popular activities is desert quad-biking. Two hours of extreme biking with Desert Explorer through the dunes gave me my fix. The best part was flooring the bikes along the sides of the dunes — our guide said it was “taking them on a rollercoaster.” Sounds about right.

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Dinner was, appropriately enough, at the Brahaus, a German joint that served up a legit schnitzel and a couple tasty pints of local Hansa beer.

Stranded in Solitaire

Swakopmund, Namibia

Today was proof that sometimes travel can be anything but enjoyable. Indeed, it can be rife with delays, frustration and a complete sense of helplessness.

Let’s start at the beginning.

My journey from Sesriem began at 7:30 a.m. this morning. After breakfast, I loaded up the sporty Honda Jazz and set out for my second Namibian destination: Swakopmund, a seaside town on the Atlantic Ocean, about a 5 hour drive from here.

A little after 9 a.m., the check engine light illuminated on my dash. This was followed by the flashing temperature gauge. Next thing, the Jazz lost power and rolled to a stop. Getting out, I looked around. Not a person, building — heck, any sign of life for as far as the eye could see.

Awesome.

About a half hour later, a pick-up truck came barreling down the road. Thankfully, the kind German couple took pity on a mechanically inept American and pulled over. “Car troubles,” I said, pointing to my smoking heap of junk. “Can you take me?” They didn’t seem to understand a word but after conferring for a couple of seconds, opened the door.

“America?” they asked. “America,” I replied, wondering what it was about me — or the situation — that clued them in.

Twenty kilometers away was the town of Solitaire. My Lonely Planet said it was a “lonely and aptly named settlement” and “nothing more than an open spot in the desert.” In this case, the guidebook was right. The “town” of Solitaire consisted of a gas station, bottle store, bakery and a country lodge. Welcome to Solitaire.

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Thankfully, the manager at the lodge was beyond helpful. We called up Budget, who said they would try and locate a new vehicle, and in the meantime drove back to recover the Jazz. We dragged it back to Solitaire and then got back on the horn with the car rental agency. The nearest replacement was in Walvis Bay, a three hour’s drive. With little other choice, I replied in the only way I could, “Okay, send it.”

At 2 p.m., the car had yet to arrive and I’d just finished a Coke Zero and brownie from the bakery (decent). Then, the lodge phone rang. The replacement car had been in an accident en route — in fact, it had flipped over. The driver was fine. But another car would now need to be sent. I glanced around at the grounds of Solitaire, decorated with the remains of discarded vehicles. Why was this news not surprising?

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Two hours later, another call. “I’m sorry sir,” the polite woman said. “But the new vehicle we have sent has broken down.” You’re joking was my reply.

A third vehicle was now coming to get me. The sun was setting over Solitaire. I’d set out this morning hoping to be in Swakop by noon — now, it was looking closer to midnight, if at all. Meanwhile, the tow truck arrived from Windhoek, allowing for a final deep breath and collective thought while sitting on the hood of the source of today’s troubles.

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Namaste.

The kind woman at the lodge took pity on me and offered a room to wait in. The car finally arrived at 7 p.m.; from there, it was a slow drive in the pitch black across the Tropic of Capricorn to Walvis Bay. After dropping off the driver, it was another 35 kilometers to Swakop, which took over an hour because of a thick fog. Icing on the proverbial cake.

My new car pulled into the parking lot of my hotel at 11 p.m. “We were worried about you,” the lady at the front said.

Most of the time, travel can be an amazing experience. Not always though. When you’re on the road, when you’re in the middle of Namibia, on the African continent, well, simply, shit can happen. And when it does, there’s not a darn thing you can do about it.

But tomorrow will be another day.

Atop the highest sand dune in the world

Sesriem, Namibia

Angola, my guide, knocked softly on my tent door a little after 5 a.m. “Good morning, this is your wake-up call,” he said politely. I’m not quite sure what my reply was.

We had a quick breakfast at the lodge before loading into Land Rovers and heading into the brisk pre-dawn. It was a short drive to Namib-Naukluft Park — one of the real advantages to staying at Kulala is that it is the only lodge with a private entrance to the park. This is all the more important when you’re trying to find just the right spot for sunrise among the dunes of Sossusvlei, an ancient pan.

Although it’s not saying much, Sossusvlei is Namibia’s number one tourist attraction. The dunes date back millions of years and are part of one of the oldest and driest ecosystems on Earth. At some places, they are nearly 15 stories high — making them the tallest in the world.

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The early morning light was perfect. The mood was quiet and reflective as we all took in this pretty breathtaking sight.

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As the sun broke across the sky, we loaded back into the Land Rover, passing the touristy Dune 45 and continuing off-road to the more remote Big Daddy Dune, at 480 meters high, the tallest of them all. When we arrived, there wasn’t another group in sight. We laced up our sneakers and started the incline.

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The summit offered incredible views of the surrounding dunes as well as the Atlantic Ocean some 55 kilometers off in the distance.

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Next, the fun part: racing down, which took a good 60 seconds. You can barely make out the rest of our group at the top and bottom of the path. See them?

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We landed in the aptly named Dead Vlei, a large ephemeral pan that has dried of water and consequently cracked under the intense heat.

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In the midst of the pan are the remains of an Acacia forest; because of the lack of humidity, these trees have been preserved in an almost petrified state for hundreds of years.

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After a nap and shower back at the lodge, we took a late afternoon excursion to the 2-kilometer long Sesriem Canyon, formed millions of years ago by the Tsauchab River.

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Conveniently, back at my tent, a gin & tonic sundowner was waiting.

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Not a Bombay, but it would certainly do.

Day of travel leads me to the middle of nowhere

Sesriem, Namibia

The 4:30 a.m. alarm this morning was far from welcomed; in fact, it was one of those which is hard to tell whether it’s a dream or not. It wasn’t. And my taxi was outside waiting at 5 a.m.

Our 6:10 a.m. flight to Jo’burg was the first of the day and wheels were down about 1.5 hours later. My connection to Namibia departed at 9:40 a.m., enough time to grab a coffee and egg sandwich (bad bagel).

It was a 2-hour flight to Windhoek (the W is pronounced like a V) but we gained an hour on the way. The South African gentleman sitting next to me was interesting to chat with; he was well-traveled and gave me some good pointers for this leg of my trip. Peering out the window as we descended into Namibia, a question popped into my head: where was, well, everything?

The airport, my friend told me, was 40 kilometers from the city, the nearest piece of flat land in this mountainous area. He also mentioned that Namibia was the second least densely populated country in the world — a fact that I’m now able to confirm having been here for only 12 hours.

A basically brand new Honda Jazz was waiting for me at Budget. It wasn’t as sweet as my Mercedes but seemed to be in good shape. Looking at all of the 4×4 and SUVs being loaded up in the car rental lot made me nervous though. “Is it okay for the gravel roads?” I asked, gesturing at my small car. “Oh yeah, gravel, no problem,” the rep said.

And with that, I was off for Sesriem, a 5-hour drive south of the capital.

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The tarred roads were in generally good shape; the highlight of my short time in Windhoek was seeing that they called stoplights, “robots.” As in a sign that read: “Slow! Robots ahead.” Weird.

Passing through a couple of police checkpoints beyond the city, the gravel began. And from here on out, essentially the next 9 days, this is what it would be. At best, the roads were in mediocre shape. Driving suddenly became an “active” sport that required my full attention as the two-wheel drive Jazz had a tendency to drift and swerve in the loosely compacted dirt.

The lousy ride was mitigated by the vast landscape, huge Namibian sky and jaw-dropping beauty. This might be the most scenic country in the world.

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When the sign for Kulala Desert Lodge finally passed, the sun was starting to set on the horizon. The nice ladies met me with a refreshing drink and cool towel and then showed me around; it is nothing short of amazing what they have created here at Kulala, in Sesriem, several hundred kilometers from the nearest city.

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To call the accommodation here “tents” would be a gross understatement; there’s electricity, hot water, comfortable beds. And then there are the views. Everywhere you turn. Stunning.

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After showering twice to rid myself of all the road dust, it was time for dinner up at the lodge. This was followed be a nightcap at the bar and a beeline to my bed. Tomorrow would be yet another pre-dawn alarm.