Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund

Before we arrived in the country, our prospects for seeing Namibia on the cheap were looking quite grim. Most of the package safaris we found online were north of the US$125 per day which is astronomical compared to most of the places we’ve gone (Palau excluded!). As with many other African countries, the general advice to budget travelers is to not book ahead but instead just turn up and look for a last minute discount.

The crew on our final morning.
The crew on our final morning.

We were thrilled when we met Chad, the owner of the Cardboard Box Travel Shop (and hostel) the day after we arrived in Windhoek. He was planning to try out a new business idea he had come up with for in a few days time. His idea was a “participation safari” for budget-oriented travelers. Basically, he would provide the vehicle, a guide (himself) and all the necessary equipment for NAD3500 per person for an 8-day itinerary. In addition to this cost, we would be responsible for paying for our own camping and park entrance fees.

As for the “participation” part of the safari deal, we would be responsible for preparing our own food and making/breaking camp each day. The food aspect of it was good fun. Given Amy’s vegan diet and my enthusiasm for burning things over an open fire, we would just assume do our own thing on that front. The near-daily access to Namibian grocery stores, which were well stocked, made it easy to get supplies and we even found exotic things like veggie sausages in the stores.

Gems (squash) stuffed with carrots and onions then roasted on the braai
Gems (squash) stuffed with carrots and onions then roasted on the braai

Helping setup and take-down the camp each night became part of the daily routine. Chad’s tents were of the industrial strength (military?) variety but they were easy enough to setup. These tents could have easily slept four people but we were assigned two people per tent. He also had some nice mattress pads and quality sleeping bags – what I would’ve given for those in Mongolia!

I became the roof loading specialist.
I became the roof loading specialist.

Overall, Chad’s safari was an excellent experience and on top of that he’s a great guy. His budget safari idea is a great one and I definitely think there is a niche in the budget travel market to be filled. In retrospect, I would say that the “turn up and see what happens” approach to budget travel in Namibia is a risky one. Unlike some of the bigger safari destinations (e.g. Kenya, Tanzania) there just didn’t seem to be a large volume of tours leaving from Windhoek and I think we were quite lucky. Hopefully Chad can make his new idea work to help open Namibia up to backpackers!

8-day Safari Budget Summary

  • “Participation” safari for two: NAD7000 ($875)
  • Groceries: NAD790 (US$ 98.73)
  • Two nights camping plus park fees at Etosha National Park: NAD770 (US$96.25)
  • One night camping in Damaraland: NAD180 (US$22.50)
  • Misc entrance fees: NAD260 (US$32.50)
  • Two nights at guesthouse in Swako plus laundry: NAD840 (US$105)
  • Two nights camping plus park fees at Sossousvlei: NAD1000 (US$125)

Total for two people: US$1355 (or $85 per person per day)

When a friend of mine heard that we were going to Namibia she told me that Sossusvlei was one the most spectacular and bizarre places she had seen anywhere.  Having visited myself, I have to say that I agree!  Sossusvlei is an area in the Namib Desert that is known for its spectacular sand dunes and salt pans.  We visited Sossusvlei at the end of our 8-day safari.

After a full day and two nights soaking up the cool breezes in Swakopmund, we loaded up the jeep and headed back inland across some hot and desolate terrain.  Come to think of it, Namibia has quite a bit of land that could be classified as hot and empty!  Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere we found a nice sign clearly designating the Tropic of Capricorn so clearly a photo was necessary.

A bit further on we passed through the settlement (read: intersection) of Solitaire, Namibia which is home to Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery.  Moose’s most famous creation was his apple pie which I have to say is quite good even though it wasn’t the pie shape I was expecting.  In addition to the bakery, the outfit houses a gas station and a small eatery.  The whole compound is littered with ancient cars which didn’t quite survive the rigors of Namibia.  You could have told me I was in one of those quirky little towns along Route 66 in the American Southwest.

The campground at nearby Sesriem was nice and spread out with ample room between us and the other campers.  The fact that the surrounding land isn’t teeming with lions means they can spread the operation out a bit more, I guess.  On the day of our arrival nothing specific was planned so we just pitched the tents and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the prairie.

The next morning it was rise-and-shine at the crack of dawn because the main thing to do at Sossusvlei is watch the sunrise over the dunes.  The park staff  open the gates to the park so that there is just barely enough time to drive the to the dunes and climb them prior to sunrise.

(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45

Dune 45, named because it is 45 kilometers into the park, is the focal point for all sunrise-seeking tourists.  When we arrived there was already a sizable throng of people plodding up the ridge of the dune.  If you haven’t climbed a dune before all you need to know is to stick to that razor-sharp ridge that runs up the center.  It is still not easy but it is much better than trying to scale the loose sand on the face of the dune (like we did in Mongolia).

After sunrise we drove to Deadvlei (literally “dead marsh”) which is an area in the dune field that was once fed by a nearby river.  At some point way back when, the dunes shifted and cut off the river that was flowing into this area.  The trees growing there died and their scorched remains are still standing hundreds of years later.

Before crossing Deadvlei itself we climbed one of the huge nearby dunes.  This dune is over 350m high and locals claim that it is one of the highest in the world.  Getting to the top was quite a workout but the views from the top were spectacular!  It was a good thing that we completed the climb in the mid-morning because it would have been way too hot in the middle of the day.

Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)

We descended straight down the steep face of the dune that faces Deadvlei.  This was one of those situations where the ascent took 90 minutes of sweaty determination whereas the descent took all of 2 or 3 minutes!

I think the photos from Deadvlei speak for themselves.  It’s a positively strange sight to take in.  The contrast between the blackened trees, hardened white mud, red dunes and azure sky is amazing.

By the time we finished poking around at Deadvlei the clock was creeping towards noon and the intense sun was starting to make it uncomfortable.  After a brief stop at at small canyon near the campground we retired to our shady campsite to pass the afternoon.  This was definitely one of the days where Amy and I regretted leaving our bathing suits behind in Windhoek as the campground had a pool!

We spent our last night of the safari doing what had become a familiar routine: cooking our dinner on the braai (Afrikaans for barbeque).   We stuffed some gems (small local squash) with onions and garlic and then roasted them on the coals of the fire.

On the last morning we again rose early to catch another sunrise from atop the dunes.  This time we elected to try for a less accessible dune to avoid the large crowds at Dune 45.  Chad dropped us along the road at the large dune due east of Dune 45.  It was about a mile from the road and was substantially higher than its more famous counterpart.  We missed the sunrise but did eventually make it all the way to the top!

Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

To me, one of the most amazing aspects of the dunes was the creatures that call them home.  We saw a wide variety of beetles, lizards and even a dune gerbil.  My favorite was the Namib Dune Geckos which I managed to spot on my evening walk to the bathhouse at the campground.  These geckos are specially adapted to survive in the dry environment and even have webbed feet for better maneuverability in loose sand.

Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)

Overall, Sossusvlei is stunning.  I would rank it up at the very top of all the natural sights I’ve seen and highly recommend it to anyone considering a visit to Africa.  The next post will be a short wrap-up post regarding our safari costs in Namibia.

Sossusvlei
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Moose's famous apple pie
Moose’s famous apple pie
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Beetle tracks
Beetle tracks
You are going to need the 4WD here!
You are going to need the 4WD here!
A long climb to the top!
A long climb to the top!
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) - the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) – the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

Damaraland
Damaraland

Heading west from Etosha Park we passed through a region of Namibia known as Damaraland.  We were scheduled to make an overnight stop there to break up the long drive to the coast.  The terrain of Demaraland is beautiful but it is definitely not a place you would want to get stranded without supplies.  The land is arid and rugged but it made for some good photos.

We stopped at two places along the way.  The first was a petrified forest which was run by some of the local indigenous people.  The forest was OK, but not nearly as good as the one we saw earlier in the trip.  The main thing I remember about the forest is that it was very very hot!  The second stop was at Twyfelfontein (that has got to be one of the best place names of the trip!) which means “uncertain spring” in Afrikaans.

Twyfelfontein’s claim to fame are the ancient rock engravings that can be found in the walls of the valley.  Some of these engravings are upwards of 6,000 years old and mostly depict animals of the region: giraffes, lions, zebra, etc.  There was even a partial engraving of a penguin!  Considering we were standing in a desert, it was hard to believe that penguins live along the coast, less than a hundred miles away.

We camped near Twyfelfontein at a small campground along a dry river bed.  A fierce-looking line of thunderstorms rumbled away to our south but we didn’t see a drop of rain that night.  For some reason, and maybe it was the nearby storms, but the evening sunlight was a spectacular gold hue.

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

Amy and I cooked up roasted gems for dinner.  Gems are small, perfectly-round squash a little bigger than a baseball that we cut open and stuffed with onions and garlic before roasting on the open fire.  While we were preparing the meal, lots of strange looking birds were hanging around waiting for handouts.

The next morning we broke camp and loaded up the Land Cruiser and continued west across the Tsiseb Conservancy.  The  final 50 miles to the coast were across a desolate pan of loose sand although Chad did point out that some small lichen manage to survive on the sand provided nobody drives off-road.  We stopped at one point and I snapped this photo of the telephone poles along the road.

Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog

We hit the coast at the small town of Hentiesbaai where we ate our lunch in the visitor center parking lot.  With full stomachs we headed north up the Skeleton Coast to visit the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is home to one of the largest colonies of cape fur seals in the world.

As we learned, visiting the seal colony in November has its ups and downs.  On the upside, it is pupping season so there are plenty of cute baby seals flopping around.  The bad news comes when you learn that one of the leading causes of seal pup mortality is being crushed to death by an adult seal.  This made the colony more smelly than usual but it was still an interesting stop.

On the final stretch down to Swakopmund we stopped to see one of the more recent shipwrecks that give the Skeleton Coast its name.  The “Zela” was a fishing trawler that lost its bearings and ended up aground a few years back.  Apparently there are more ships like this one further north but those can be very hard to access.

The fishing pier at Swakopmund
The fishing pier at Swakopmund

We spent two nights in Swakopmund and had the day in between to ourselves.  Swakopmund has a population just over 40,000 and has a distinctly German vibe.  The most noticeable (and appreciated) change from the prior few days was the cold temperatures.  The cold South Atlantic gives the place a much cooler and wetter climate.  We didn’t do much while we were there other than wander the town and the coastline.

Damaraland and Swakopmund
Damaraland
Damaraland
Termites
Termites
Giraffe carving
Giraffe carving
Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)
Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Red-billed Spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus)
Red-billed Spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus)
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Cape fur seals
Cape fur seals
Many, many seals
Many, many seals
One of the more recent wrecks along the Skeleton Coast
One of the more recent wrecks along the Skeleton Coast
Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
The fishing pier at Swakopmund
The fishing pier at Swakopmund
Swakopmund's main drag
Swakopmund’s main drag

If you want to go on safari in Africa you have two choices: book it in advance or turn up and hope for the best.  The latter approach generally yields much better deals but demands some flexibility.  I researched some of the options ahead of time and the costs were downright scary.  We are talking well north of US$1000 for an 8-day tour!  To put that in perspective, that is roughly equivalent to our monthly budget!

Fortunately, our turn-up-and-see-what-happens approach worked out just fine.  On our first full day in Windhoek we visited a couple of tour agencies including the Cardboard Box Travel Shop where we learned about a tour that was departing in about four days.  Chad, the owner, would personally be leading the 8-day “participation safari” to some of Namibia’s headlining attractions.  Unlike the expensive tours, we’d be responsible for feeding ourselves, erecting/stowing the tents and loading the vehicle.  The itinerary included two nights in Etosha Park, a night in Damaraland, two nights in Swakopmund on the coast and finally two nights near the dunes at Sossousvlei.  Don’t worry if those names don’t mean anything, I’ll be writing about all of them in the coming posts!  I’ll also put together a budget summary for the safari in the final post on Namibia.

Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads

On the first day of the trip we made the 400km drive north from Windhoek to the southern entrance to Etosha.  The roads in Namibia were much better than we were expecting (Mongolia certainly altered my concept of what constitutes a bad road!) so we reached the park by mid afternoon.   As soon as we were through the gates we started to see the animals and lots of them there were.

Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!

Like many of the parks in Africa, Etosha is basically a huge fenced-in area.  The park is a little more than 22,000 km² which is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey but the wildlife is a bit more exciting!  The animals that live in the park roam freely, eat each other and do what wild animals do.  Water is the only thing that is provided to them by humans and this is because they are not able to migrate long distances in search of water as they would do in the wild.  The park staff drill boreholes to make small ponds for the animals.

Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)

Etosha is also the only game park in Africa where you can turn up in your personal vehicle (we saw people driving tiny VW’s!) and go on a self-guided safari.  The roads inside of the park are sealed and comparable to what you find in many national parks back home.  The rules are simple: stay on the roads and never get out of your car except at designated points.  I guess this makes sense considering you could very well end up as a tasty meal for one of the park’s residents.

A black rhino!
A black rhino!

There are a number of camps within the confines of Etosha.  We stayed at Okaukuejo lodge, a German-built camp dating back to 1901.  The facilities there include a luxury hotel, a campground, a swimming pool, a small airport and probably lots of other things I am forgetting.  We stayed in the campground but were treated to hot showers each evening and even running water at our campsite.

The best part of Okaukuejo was the adjacent watering hole.  Just a short walk from our campsite we could go sit and watch the activity at the watering hole behind the safety of a formidable fence and stone wall!  Sitting at the watering hole you have basically a nonstop parade of animals coming through.  At first there might be some giraffes awkwardly drinking from the pond (did you know they pass out if they keep their head down in the water too long?).  A short while later a pride of lions might come in for a drink and a nap while the lesser animals watch on cautiously with envy.  After they leave it could be rhinos, wildebeest, springbok, etc.  The parade goes on and on around the clock.  Amy and I both agreed that we could have spent days hanging around watching the action.

It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

The main activity inside of the park is to go on game drives.  We completed a number of drives in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active.  Chad had large modified Land Rover was perfectly suited for photography with huge windows.  Combine the vehicle with Chad’s uncanny ability to spot animals out in the bush and we had more than our share of animal sightings!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more photos from our time at Etosha.

Namibia – Etosha National Park
Beware of the warthogs!
Beware of the warthogs!
Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
Kudu
Kudu
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
Springbok
Springbok
Red-Crested Korhaan
Red-Crested Korhaan
Jackel
Jackel
Sociable weavers - massive bird colonies
Sociable weavers – massive bird colonies
A black rhino!
A black rhino!
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Cats and birds.  Both bigger in Africa.
Cats and birds. Both bigger in Africa.
Zebra crossing?
Zebra crossing?
The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
The viewing area at the lodge’s watering hole.
Black Rhino
Black Rhino
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Kudu
Kudu
Helmeted Guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
Looks like we aren't going to be continuing on this road.
Looks like we aren’t going to be continuing on this road.
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
Tuna sandwich.  I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Tuna sandwich. I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Jackel
Jackel
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Jackels
Jackels
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Mongoose
Mongoose
It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

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