“Once you go into the desert, there’s no going back. And when you can’t go back, you only have to worry about the best way of moving forward.” Paulo Coelho
I’ve been finding it difficult to write about traveling to Namibia. Our tour group drove 2,984 kilometers across the barren Namib desert, along the remote Skeleton Coast and through the vast Damaraland in Namibia. We spent 7 days and 8 nights in lodges and hotels. We traveled to 3 out of the 14 regions. But it is funny… or maybe not surprising at all, that the Namibia memories that stuck out to me during this epic road trip and experience are not the ones that I thought I was most looking forward to. I suppose this is the power of travel – the constant sense of curiosity – but it surprises me every time.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what to expect during my trip to Namibia. Sure, I’d done my research. I’d heard stories from adventure travelers about hiking across magnificent sand dunes and then speeding down them on a sandboard. I’d seen photographs of the landscapes that leave you speechless during scenic flights over the coast. I’d read about unique camps and lodges, the Skeleton Coast and encounters with the intriguing Himba tribe. I knew we would not see it all as our 8-day trip would only begin to explore the Khomas, Erongo and Kunene regions with stops in Windhoek, Swakopmund, Brandberg, Opuwo and Terrace Bay.
8 days, 9 Surprising Namibia Memories
It would be simplistic to say that I was most looking forward to three things: visiting a Himba village, seeing shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast and feeling the rush of speed while sandboarding.
While we did experience many of the highlights I’d read about and looked forward to seeing…the Namibia memories that will stick with me were not the ones that I was anticipating. Yes, we visited a Himba tribe and it was amazing. And yes, we saw two shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast, but my imagination had anticipated something else entirely (that probably does exist, but only if you take a scenic flight over the coast or have a 4x4). But as I think back to what struck me about each special moment – the themes are clear: people, nature and daily life. I left Namibia feeling more alive, more connected and more mindful.
Meeting (and playing with) two Herero girls
I don’t usually like it when tour guides make shopping stops where I feel like a captive tourist. I’d rather find something unique to buy on my own through browsing or because it reminds me of an experience or maybe because I’ve chatted with the local shopkeeper. But when George – our trusty Vulkan Ruine tour guide – told us that there we’d be passing an area where Herero women had set up crafts to sell, I was all in. Maybe it was because I thought the traditional Victorian dresses and unique hats worn by Herero women were so beautiful…but for whatever reason, I bounded off the van. Plus, any chance to give back in a sustainable way to local women is never a bad thing.
As I browsed traditional Herero dolls as a gift for my tween daughter, I was approached by two smiling girls – who could not help but stare at my watch with its large (and bright) teal face. Call it my mom or teacher instinct, but my heart melted instantaneously. The older sister, Vevangapi – was nine and told me that she went to school. We counted the numbers on my watch, and eventually even took a selfie (after asking their mom for permission of course). The girls lit up with oohs and ahs looking at other photographs on my camera – with especially exuberant giggles at a capture of my feet in the ocean in Panama. When I asked Vevangapi to pick one of the dolls for my own daughter, she kissed it as if she was blessing it with her energy and joy. Did I mention that my heart was a melted puddle?
Standing on the granite at Spitzkoppe
I’d never really wanted to camp before…until I stood at Spitzkoppe – a group of granite peaks between Usakos and Swakopmund in the Namib desert of Namibia. The highest of the peaks rises 1,784 meters – a massive contrast to the otherwise flat plains.
Standing on the granite, feelings of immense gratitude washed over me. I was surrounded by strength among the massive boulders that looked as if they might topple and roll down the ledge at any moment. And yet, I knew they wouldn’t. The curved facade of the peaks and edges reminded me of life. Just like the impact of weathering takes time, so does the journey to find one’s own strength. The cracks, like fear and judgment were symbols of a journey that would take many shapes. I could see myself waking up after a night of camping, meditating overlooking the 11 peaks and practicing yoga as the sunrise began to cast its reflection on the red and orange earth below.
Being wowed by the pre-sunrise sky at Brandberg Mountain
I’ve been lucky over the last year to find myself in places like the Atacama desert and the coast of a remote village in Panama where the night sky comes alive with stars, planets and views of the Milky Way. But when I looked towards the sky after dinner at the Brandberg White Lady Lodge, I found myself wanting to sit on the sandy ground to capture the scene that included glimpses of the Southern Cross. Truth be told, I wanted to enjoy the view. I wanted to be mesmerized by the constellations, designing an elaborate painting that felt close enough to touch. But I couldn’t because I was totally transfixed with documenting the scene with my camera…to no avail. For whatever reason, I could not for the life of me find the right settings, or anything to focus my camera on and so I became frustrated instead of wowed. The next morning though, was a completely other matter.
On a mission to provide in-person wake up calls to some of my fellow travelers, I was shocked when I opened the door from my room to light – even though it was well before sunrise. The moon had risen, dampening the brightness of the stars that still shone in the sky but illuminating the earth like a flashlight. Like a wake up light beam for me, the moonlight reflected an aura of white to illuminate my path. It felt like an arrow pointing to a refreshed perspective. A reminder to appreciate the plethora of colors and vibrations of energy from the people, land and history that surrounded me. In that moment, I didn’t need a camera to freeze the moment in my heart and mind.
Running early in the morning in Swakopmund
Running while I travel is not new for me. Lacing up my shoes and scoping out neighborhoods is one of my favorite ways to experience a destination in part because you never know what you will see or experience. Knowing that my best chance would to run in Namibia would be in the seaside town of Swakopmund, I set my alarm for an a pre-dawn wake up and headed out along the beach.
There were no epic sunrise scenes to speak of as I made my way along a path that parallels the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to foggy mist from the ocean rising toward the sun. But as I ran through past the homes and businesses, many of which gave architectural nods to Germanic influences, I found myself witnessing scenes of daily life that I’d have missed had I stayed in bed, like the uniformed groups of kids on their way to school. I’d heard the sounds first. Chattering groups of friends sharing gossip and secrets, car doors closing in drop-off lines, the sounds of bicycle chains speeding up so as not to be late for class. I left the bright blue v-neck sweaters moving in packs toward the entrance gate behind me, as dog walkers, runners and couples holding hands filled the path that hugs the ocean on one side and finely manicured lawns and gardens on the other. Condominiums and houses sat across the street, charming and cute, strutting their oceanfront views – no differently than the houses along the coast along the California coast. The familiar morning routine was met with wonder as I took a moment to stare out at the Atlantic Ocean – thinking about life beyond the horizon – like I’d done many times on the opposite coast.
Hiking at Brandberg Mountain
Another one of my favorite travel activities is hiking. So it isn’t surprising that I was excited to embark on a hike, even if it would be a relatively short trek to see the White Lady painting – one of more than 50,000 paintings spread across the area. The only trick was that the temperature was rising since we’d started our hike around midday, going from 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) to closer to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). The only thing distracting me from the temperature (other than the beautiful peaks and rocks that surrounded us) was chatting with our hiking guide – Justice – who wore the cleanest pair of baby Blue converse sneakers I’d ever seen despite his daily adventures in the dusty sand.
It seems fitting that Brandberg is known as Daureb in the language of the local Damara people – meaning “burning mountain.” And yes, it was sweltering. I was thankful for the Buff on my head to soak up the sweat. But as we walked along the dry river gorge, I felt a calmness come over me – as if the canyon was offering a gentle hug. Brandberg Mountain stands as Namibia’s highest peak at 2,600 meters, and although many hikers come for a multi-day route, it is known by many for the White Lady painting. The images – dating back 2,000 years – were created by either Bushman or Damara tribe members (depending on who you talk to). Discovered in 1917, the depictions represent scenes from a local shaman’s hallucinations. And although I know I was supposed to be impressed by the entirety of this detailed canvas on rock, I could not help be drawn to the representations of giraffes – a spiritual symbol of being near water. Their elegance and delicate nature of their structure strengthened my own posture and attitude as we set back into the unrelenting sunshine.
(Note: Brandberg Mountain is an off-the beaten path destination in Namibia, with many travelers focusing instead on ancient rock engravings at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein instead. I’d highly recommend making time for exploring Brandberg especially in the spring or fall when the temperatures are not as severe. Early morning or evening is the best time to visit as the heat can take a toll even on the fittest of hikers.)
Spotting a giraffe
First off, I should say that I never expected to see any of the legendary Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and White or Black rhinoceros) that you so often hear about when people talk about when traveling (on safari) across the African continent. Our itinerary did not include exploring Etosha National Park – Namibia’s wildlife sanctuary – so somehow I never really anticipated the possibilities of what we might see even though our guide suggested that we always be on the lookout as we drove (animals do roam after all).
The truth is that wildlife spotting skills have never been my strong suit. In fact, I caught myself several times before announcing that I’d seen something only to discover it was a large boulder (aka: elephant) or utility pole (aka: giraffe). So when I did actually spot spot a giraffe en-route to Opuwo – driving along C35 – I almost didn’t believe it. Surely, my eyes must have been playing tricks on me. Eventually, I stuttered loudly enough so that my co-travelers heard me and we stopped the van. Not only was there one giraffe…there were two! And while I’d seen giraffes in zoos before, seeing these two creatures snacking on leaves and moving their long necks was more than just a wildlife spotting for me. I began to think about vulnerability and strength. And even though spiritually, giraffes symbolize being near water – their need to drink also represent their biggest threat. As strong as they appear, and despite the advantage that I might perceive they have because of their height, giraffes spend an excessive amount of time observing, getting closer, waiting and continuously checking for predators before they approach a watering hole. Just like in life, giraffes remind us that sometimes are strength and vulnerability are one in the same.
Feeling surrounded by play at the Cape Cross Seal colony
I’m not sure why I was so surprised by what I saw at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve Colony as we left the Skeleton Coast. I’d already ooh-ed and ahh-ed at pictures on Pinterest, but walking out onto the boardwalk surrounded by so many seals and their pups was – in one word – joyful.
Yes, there is an overwhelming stench of seal, but there is also a sound of play that still rings in my ears that made me smile then – and now. (In case you’ve never heard what a large seal colony sounds like…it was a bit like Chewbacca meets a herd of goats.) There was chaos with seals flipping and flapping, in huddles and piles. But there were also so many pups, waddling across the sand and rocks toward to ocean, as a reminder of the cycle of life. Every movement was intentional, each flipper making an effort to move. It was hard to tell whether the seals were going out to play or coming in after a feeding looking out at the whitewater and waves, filled with brownish-black spots bobbing up and down. As a naive onlooker, I could not help but stare at the pairs of seals fighting and bumping each other for territory, or the burping sounds that came up through the wood planks from the dozing seals underneath. Though at first glance, the scene looked frenetic, like mayhem, but I was filled with a desire to skip, jump and laugh with every flip and gesture.
Feeling connected to the dunes in Swakopmund
Swakopmund is said to be the adventure capital of Namibia. In a country known for epic sand dunes across the Namib desert, I stood atop the Big Nellie dune at 90 meters looking out towards a sea of gold contrasting against the bright blue sky and misty ocean in the distance. “The only thing you’ll hurt is your ego.” – Steve said as he prepared us for the sandboarding adventure. It occurred to me that we must look like an army of ants climbing up the dunes, struggling to hike over the slip face – the soft sand that looked like it was alive – filling the spots where a step had been like it was trying to cover up a secret.
And yes, sandboarding was a thrill. But as exciting as it was racing down the dune at 68 km/hour – lying in cobra pose on my board – it was the hiking back up after each run and the sand that accumulated on my face, in my mouth and in every crevice that made an impression. The hike up was strenuous but made me grateful (Steve even joked that we’d lost 2 kg during our time on the dune). The grit in my teeth was uncomfortable but real. I’d connected to the dune in a way that surprised me as inches of sand accumulated in my shoes. I wasn’t just riding a sandboard, I was experiencing the energy that emanated from the ocean and swirled around in the wind, creating constant change on the dunes.
In the end, I only began to explore Namibia during our 8-day tour. I found myself wishing I could linger for longer, and spend more time surrounded by the natural beauty and formations that make the diverse geography of each of the 14 regions so unique. I’d love to sit under the shade of an acacia tree, camp overnight and trek along more of the dunes further south. But for now, I’ll hold on to these moments which made my heart beat faster as singular events, but even more importantly created an amplified sense of awareness and connection.
Here are a few other Namibia stories to explore and learn more: