Matt Kopala

Software Development, Technology, Travel

Namibia - a 3 Week African Adventure

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I recently finished a 3.5 week trip around Namibia with my Swedish friend Fredrik, whom I met back in 2003 in Australia. This is our second trip together, after spending 5 months traveling together in Asia in 2004.

We saw a good bit of the country, and spent a good amount of time taking photographs, waking up before sunset many of the days, as Fred was obsessed with the light at sunrise & sunset for photography.

The Country

Namibia is one of the least populated countries in Africa with only 2.1 million people, and the least densely populated country except for a few geographically small countries & islands. There is only one proper “city” in the country – the capital Windhoek. As a result, traveling across Namibia it feels quite empty, and in many places, even on paved roads, you won’t see anyone else for miles.

Most of the country is arid, and quite a bit of it is a desert. It bears many striking resemblences to Arizona, my home state. The world’s oldest desert is found here, along with many iconic African animals.

The population is made up of mostly black Africans – primarily Ovambo – with small minorities of Afrikaners and Germans.

Gear

I had a good assortment of electronics with me for this trip: Digital SLR camera, iPhone, laptop, and iPad.

Camera

As the trip approached, I decided it was finally time to buy myself a digital SLR camera, which I’d wanted for a long time, but had avoided buying due to cost & weight.

I ended up buying the Sony Alpha 77 (SLT-A77), with the included [Sony 16-50mm/f2.8 SSM Zoom lens]. I also bought the Sony 70-300mm/f4.5-5.6 SSM zoom lens and the Sony 18-250mm/f3.5-6.3 SAM zoom lens.

The main reasons for purchasing the Sony over a Canon or Nikon DSLR were:

  • the excellent Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
  • auto-focus speed & continuous shooting speed
  • flexible & versatile articulating LCD screen
  • sensor to automatically switch between EVF and LCD

Although it turned out that the light sensor that toggled the viewfinder mode wasn’t as important as I’d thought, my original reasons proved to be very good choices for me.

The only disadvantage that I found to the EVF was that it is very noisy in very low light situations, although I read somewhere that there is a setting to help with this.

I was extremely pleased with this camera, and it worked out quite well for the trip. I shot thousands of pictures, averaging about 300 per day. With a fast camera & adequate memory, it’s easy to shoot a lot of pictures and just pick out the best ones later.

I shot almost exclusively in JPEG instead of RAW, in order to save disk space, and because I currently lack the skills for processing RAW images, and I didn’t want to spend the time tweaking images either. Because I shot about 6000 images at 24MP and chose to pick a small number favorites & tag & upload them, rather than deleting a larger number of near duplicate or poorer images, the disk space saving was important. For the most part, with some help from the camera’s HDR function, the JPEG images seemed to be just fine, and work well for publishing to Facebook.

Phone & Internet

I was able to buy my iPhone 5s about a week before leaving on my trip. I picked up the Verizon iPhone, so that it would be SIM unlocked for Namibia, and because I’ve been sick of poor AT&T coverage.

My phone was one of the most important & most used accessories during the trip. I used it for direct internet access, Facebook messaging, Facebook updates, internet tethering for my laptop, a secondary camera, and GPS (via Google Maps).

There are two main cell phone carriers in Namibia: MTC and Telecom Namibia. I chose MTC because of the supposed superior coverage, as well as popularity.

You can buy a pre-paid MTC SIM card at a lot of shops throughout the country. I purchased a mini-SIM at a corner store, and then cut the SIM card down with a small pair of scissors and filed it with my Swiss Army knife, so that it would fit in the nano-SIM slot of my iPhone 5s. This took a few minutes, but wasn’t too difficult, and it worked flawlessly once I was able to insert it.

Most operations for pre-paid accounts are handled via short codes. Adding value to your account is done via recharge cards, which are available just about everywhere across Namibia. There are various data bundles available, which get cheaper as you buy more data. I bought a 1 GB package to start, which would have lasted the entire trip, except that I accidently let Dropbox suck up all my data at one point. I ended up buying another 300MB and 500MB to get me through the trip.

Coverage was suprisingly good throughout most of the country, although I only had 3G data coverage in cities such as Windhoek, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and Luderitz. The remaining time I was left with painfully slow EDGE network speeds, which was usable for Facebook review & messages, checking Gmail, accessing Wikipedia, and for photo uploads via Shotwell – although patience was a necessity. I was able to video chat with home several times, but only when I was somewhere that had 3G coverage or WiFi (rare, or slower than 3G).

Laptop

I brought with me a Dell XPS 13 laptop for the trip, and it worked very well. The main reason for the purchse of this laptop was it’s full HD resolution (1920x1080), small size & weight (2.9 lbs), and good compatibily with Linux (Ubuntu 12.04 LTS).

The Trip


San Francisco to Windhoek

The trip to Namibia was long: three flights in total, from San Francisco to New York (JFK), to Johannesburg, South Africa, and finally Windhoek. On the flight from JFK to JNB, I watched my first South African film, Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, which was quite good.

The airport at Johannesburg was one of the nicest I’ve been through.

In Windhoek I was met by friend Fredrik and a driver from our rental car company, and we headed to the office to finalize our rental details & get the details on how to set up our car-top tent, change the tires, and use our camping equipment.

We took off from the office, with me driving. It took a bit to get used to driving the manual transmission, and on the left side of the road again. It was the same as in New Zealand back in 2003: the side of the road isn’t the challenge – it’s centering yourself properly in the lane, as the driver’s seat is on the other side of the car.

We drove around a bit, found guesthouse, and then took a short walk to buy some groceries & a SIM card for my phone. The next morning, after a yummy cooked breakfast that was included with our stay, we hit the highway for Etosha.

Etosha National Park

Our first tourist destination was Etosha National Park, in northern Namibia. We spent 5 full days driving around the park & visiting waterholes looking for & photographing wildlife.

We saw a variety of wildlife, including male & female lions and cubs, white & black rhinocerous, elephants, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, giraffes, wildebeest, zebra, gemsbok, springbok, hartebeest, kudu, eland, black-faced impala, jackals, warthogs, ostriches, steenbok, dik-dik, an african wild cat, a yellow mongoose, and a desert tortoise, along with a variety of smaller birds.

On our second to last day, we found – or rather joined several other tourist vehicles in watching – a lioness & her two cubs, just off the road, with their freshly killed Wildebeest carcass. We returned the next morning just in time to see them abandon the mostly eaten carcass, and run off across a field.

Opuwo, the Himba, Cheetahs, Twyfelfontein

After leaving Etosha, we decided to head up towards the northeastern part of Namibia. After staying a night in Kamanjab, where I had an excellent Oryx steak at the guesthouse, we drove to Opuwo, with plans to visit the Himba.

Opuwo turned out to be the most (black) “African” of places we visited. It was a busy little place, and reminded me quite a bit of Papua New Guinea. We camped at the luxury tourist lodge on top of the hill above the town, which granted us access to the pool.

I arranged a guide for us to visit a Himba village. We bought some food supplies as a gift for the village, and headed out with our truck. Although I got some pictures, it was way too touristy and neither Fred nor I really enjoyed the experience.

Next up we visited Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm, where the owners keep some tame cheetahs they’ve raised, as well as wilder animals caught near their farm or other farms.

After another long day of driving, and some of the most scenic driving of the trip, we visited Twyfelfontein, which has the largest collection of rock engravings in Africa.

Spitzkoppe, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay

We arrived at Spitzkoppe in the afternoon with enough time to wander around a bit and start taking photos at sunset. I got myself a nice 30-second exposure shot of the Pondoks through an arch near our campsite. I also shot some nighttime shots with my tripod, and my flashlight, which I used to “paint” some of the foreground. Our night spent camping here was also our coldest, and stayed bundled up in my sleeping bag until well after sunrise.

It was quite nice to arrive in Swakopmund for a couple of nights, where we got laundry done, and got to eat some decent food and have a bit of brewed espresso. I spent the morning of our only full day sandboarding on the dunes just outside of town. In the afternoon, Fred and I walked over to the snake park and took a look at their impressive collection of snakes.

After leaving Swakopmund, we drove down the coast to Walvis Bay, where we stopped for groceries. While I was in the store, several guys apparently kept coming up to our truck & tried opening the car doors, while Fred was sitting inside. Luckily, we had them locked, so no one grabbed our bags & ran off.

Sossusvlei & around

There’s something about towering high sand dunes, which change color from a light orange-tan in the midday sun, to a reddish-brown color just before sunset, that makes Sossusvlei Namlaibia’s top tourst destination. Admittedly, I was drawn by them as well, having a picture of the red dunes etched in my mind for many years already after seeing some pictures from fellow travelers on my previous world tour.

The best – and really only – way to fully experience & appreciate the dunes is to hike up them. I did a total of 3 hikes, and despite being a bit tiring climbing up the shifting sand, the hikes & views were well worth it.

Our last morning in the Sossusvlei area was occupied by a hot air balloon ride over the Tscauchab river valley, with views to the dunes in the distance. This was my second such ride, having done my first in Arizona a couple of years back. Although the views were nice, the flight was not the best value for our money, and we were left wishing we had done a scenic airplane flight instead, which would have taken us over the actual dunes, and allowed us to see a lot more in our short amount of time.

Desert Drifters Lodge & Gunsbewys farm

Several hours south of Sesriem we pulled into a farm to spend the night at what turned out to be one of the nicest & most hospitable nights in Namibia. Our splurge for the trip, we spent USD $110 for the two of us for the night, and in return we had the entire lodge to ourself, a delicious home-cooked dinner & breakfast, and a game drive with our host Murray.

Luderitz, Kolmanskop, Fish River Canyon

We rolled in to Luderitz in the afternoon and found ourselves a bright new guesthouse with a view of the ocean. noticeably missing from this town were the loads of German tourists found in Swakopmund. Not until we wandered into a coffeeshop, where I audibly exclaimed, “Look, I see white people!”, did we find more than one or two.

On a recommendation from our guesthouse manager, we stopped for some oysters in town, which were absolutely amazing. In the end, I had eaten 16 fresh oysters, and 8 grilled oysters with cheese & garlic. The fresh oysters were some of the best I’ve had – they tasted like they had just come from the ocean.

The next morning we spent several hours photographing Kolmanskop, a diamond mining ghost town 15 minutes outside of Luderitz. I made extensive use of my tripod here, as well as the versatile LCD screen on the Sony A77.

Next up was the Grand Canyon of Namibia – Fish River Canyon. Although not nearly as pleasant or awe-inspiring as the one in Arizona, it was a nice change of scenery, and an impressive – and rather untouristed – site to see.

We then spent a night at the hot springs “resort” of Ai-Ais. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the hot springs, but swimming in the heated pool was nice, and having baboons wandering around the campsite was a new twist.

Keetmanshoop & Windhoek

We headed east from Ai-Ais until we hit the paved B4 highway, which we took north to Keetmanshoop. About 12 km outside of town, there is a Quiver Tree forest on a farm. We spent the night here, tooks some photos, and were lucky enough to see some meerkats in the morning before we left.

The end of our trip was a return to Windhoek & one last night in the capital city. After returning the rental truack, and getting dropped off at our hostel, we had a walk around central Windhoek, including a visit to a fully modern shopping mall & a stroll through a pedestrian street. Looking back, I wish I could have spent a few more days in Windhoek, at the beginning of the trip. Namibia for tourists lies primarily outside of the capital – but the heart of the real country is obviously here in the city.

Final Thoughts

The trip was an enjoyable adventure, and I got out of it what I wanted: a visit to Africa, a chance to see African wildlife, some wandering in the red dunes of the Namib desert, and my decent international trip in 3 years.

Several times I found myself comparing the relatively expensive admission costs for the National Wildlife Resorts (NWR) parks, vs. the US Nation Park Service, which costs only USD $85 for a year, unlimited use, to all parks, for a vehicle & all the inhabitants. In contrast, your pay per day, per person, plus a vehicle fee in Namibia, and the service & facilities – though not bad – are far inferior to the US NPS. But, as they say, “This is Africa”, and the tourists pay for it.

We spent almost two-thirds of our nights camping, using our car-top tent & gear provided by our rental car company. Sleeping in the tent on top of the car was pretty cool, and quite comfortable. It worked out nicely, and was actually better in places where there were mosquitoes, as long as we didn’t let any in to the tent. A couple of fitful nights in guesthouses under mosquito nets with the incessant high pitched buzzing in our ears was high on the list of lowlights for the trip.

As a tourist destination, Namibia is pretty solidly on the list of “safari” countries, though probably not nearly as bad as Kenya & Tanzania. I’d say about ½ of the tourist vehicles were larger vehicles, carrying package toursts, which means package tourists probably outnumber independent travelers by a fair margin. The number of “older” tourists was quite high compared to most places I’ve visited – probably due in large part to the higher relative cost of traveling in Nambia, compared to say, Asia or Central & South America. We saw relatively few younger travelers or backpackers.

I found Namibia – and this may apply to much of the rest of sub-saharan Africa – to be quite similar in many ways to Papua New Guinea. It’s hard to capture the similarity in words, but I’ll try: full of black people, a more “relaxed” vibe than Asia / South America, lots of imported manufactured goods, underdeveloped infrastructure, and very little in terms of stalls & places selling local food to others (although they seemed to have enough gambling houses & drinking halls). I think several of these factors – and the supply & demand effects of having few backpackers & tons of older package tourists throwing money around – also contribute to the relatively higher cost for travel.

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