This story was updated on 10 September 2019.
Exploring used to be a fairly risky business. If you happened to be born with a decent dollop of wanderlust in your system, chances were you’d one day die horribly while filling in the blank spaces on the map.
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I recently read up on a few explorers and they faced starvation, scurvy, infection, drowning, being frozen, and, in certain instances, being eaten by the locals.
Luckily times have changed, and now humans can reach the furthest outskirts of planet earth with relative ease. Jeremy Clarkson and James May proved this when they drove a Toyota Hilux to the North Pole in the hopes of proving exactly that. If I remember correctly, Clarkson stated that the time for arduous exploration journeys was over. “Why don’t we rather see how easily and comfortably we can reach harsh destinations?”
In my former life as a motoring hack, I spent a few nights in some dubious places and had more than my fair share of near-death experiences, so this hypothesis makes a lot of sense to me personally. Once you’ve spent a night in the boot of a Nissan Patrol, because the snow made it too cold to camp outside, the idea of luxury travelling sounds mighty appealing.
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That’s why I was tickled by an invite by O&L Leisure Hotels to not only come experience their nicest accommodation offerings, but also a slice of Namibian life. The typical Namibian tourist experience, including a cruise on a boat, dune driving, drinking Tafel Lager and consuming copious amounts of meat.
At this point, I feel I should admit that I had been to Namibia many times before and I adore it. I love the relaxed attitude, the sheer size of the place, Tafel Lager and the fact that they think of chicken as a vegetarian dish. As one tour guide famously told me a few years ago: “For starters, we’re having one tjoppie. The main course will be a rack of tjoppies, followed by another tjoppie for dessert.” What a place.
Our trip was scheduled a few weeks before tourist season started, and this was obvious from the moment we left the airport. The roads were clear, Windhoek was its usual sleepy self and the road down to Swakopmund was all but deserted. Apart from the (year-round) German tourists and locals, we were the only people lucky enough to be there.
Swakopmund is often (affectionately or derogatorily) referred to as Little Germany and it’s not hard to see why. The architecture, food, booze and all-around efficiency are very German-like. No wonder the tourists love it so much. It’s just like Munich, but warmer, smaller and with a sea view. Unfortunately, during our time there the weather decided to lean too much towards European, so even though it was early December, the temperature needle never managed to go higher than 15 degrees.
Swakopmund was seemingly found out of one-upmanship. The British had already set up a port at Walvis Bay, which had everything one could have wanted from a harbour back in the day. But even though it offered zero natural protection to ships, Captain Curt von Francois had his men erect two beacons and captured it for the fatherland. Only afterwards they discovered it was actually close to freshwater and uranium, which, apart from tourism, remains this little coastal town’s reason for being.
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Luckily the Strand Hotel was there to keep the cold and wet outside. At the fear of sounding like a brochure for the place, it really does have everything under one roof. Apart from comfortable rooms, it also has three restaurants to choose from (fish or meat), Italian and a craft brewery. The brewery didn’t produce anything near as glorious as Tafel, but it’s worth tasting if you’re in the mood for something different.
After a lovely night’s rest, we were up bright and early for a cruise around the harbour and an active oyster farm.
A hundred years ago, a cruise like this would have been a stressful experience, but shortly after we set off from the dock, the friendly crew broke out the champagne and oysters. At least we didn’t have to worry about scurvy. Captain Cook actually spent years studying this sickness and what caused it, but he went to his grave never knowing that it was caused by a lack of Vitamin C.
Not that champagne or oysters contain this vital vitamin, but just in case one was so inclined, orange juice was on offer as well. As a man of simple pleasures, who happens to abhor the texture of any kind of oyster, I settled for another Tafel. As I slowly sipped my beer, surrounded by the cold air and thick mist, I couldn’t help but think that luxury exploring is the next big thing. Why struggle around in a dingy when you could just have a drink and let someone else worry about the minor details, like steering, docking and fuelling?
From Sea to Land
With my short, yet luxurious cruise done and dusted, it was time to hit the dunes. Our guides were allowed to take us all the way to Sandwich Bay, which should be on everyone’s list of things to see before you die.
The lagoon is a beautiful, naturally formed body of water that is 3,7km in length and 1km wide. The Royal Navy looked at it but decided Walvis Bay was a better option. They made the right choice, as a recent study found that the water in the lagoon is brackish and basically only good for feeding the reeds growing immediately around it. Still pretty, though.
After staring at it for a few minutes, it was time for the dune driving experience. This is something I’ve done many times before, and I maintain that it’s the most fun you can have with something with an internal combustion engine.
For obvious reasons (death) you aren’t allowed to go about this activity on your own, and this time I was more than happy to just sit in the back and enjoy the ride. There are few things in life that come close to a massive car sliding around a dune to the soundtrack of a large capacity V8 bouncing off the rev limiter. Even the most environmentally inclined member of our group had a smile on her face, but just to ensure that nobody writes to me to complain about the damage done to the desert, let me just state that the certified guides do their utmost to not leave any footprints. “Everything you take in, you bring out,” was our motto for the day. And as for the damaged caused by the heavy cars… Thanks to the wind, the tyre tracks last no more than a few minutes. You can literally watch them disappear back into the dune.
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Back in the day, it took people months to cross the desert by foot, but in the back of a R1 million Land Cruiser, it took no more than two hours. I was getting good at luxury exploring, so I rewarded myself with a nice cold Tafel back at the Strand Hotel. The next day would be a long one.
The second leg of the tour took us all the way up near Namibia’s border with Angola. Our end destination was the Mokuti Lodge, right at the entrance of the Etosha National Park. The park gets its name from the famous Etosha Pans, which are currently 4 760 square km big.
It’s a difficult scene to capture on camera. Even with a wide-angle lens, one can only capture a small portion of it and you aren’t allowed to get out of the game vehicle to find higher ground. As we saw a lion lazing around just a few metres earlier, I wasn’t going to try anyway. It’s a vastness you can only understand with the help of Google Maps and comparing it to something else. The pans are roughly three times the size of Johannesburg…
It would have been the perfect setting for a sundowner, but unfortunately, the Namibian government has extremely strict access times and we were due to exit just as the sunset was starting.
Unknown to us, the friendly folks at Mokuti had prepared a special surprise. Not because we were media, the manager made sure to tell me. They were willing to open this experience to anyone visiting the lodge and it comes highly recommended.
As the surrounding is frequented by wealthy folks, there is a runway for personal planes. But if and when it isn’t used, it doubles as a place where you can set up a garden chair and just watch. I was so overcome with the sheer amount of things to look at, that I spilt some of my Tafel and discovered something entirely new about moths – they’re also big fans of Namibia’s finest. We also spilt a tiny amount of red wine to see if they were interested in any liquid, but no. It was just the beer. I found some other references to this online, but there seems to be no scientific explanation as to why they like it so much. If you are a moth expert, please do get in touch.
And just like that, my luxury holiday was over. Namibia remains my favourite country on the planet and now I have a few more reasons to add to my ever-growing list of arguments I can use to convince my wife that we need to retire there.