Tag Archives: Namibia

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…

Our action-packed trip to Namibia was coming to a close. All that was left was a six-hour drive through the desert from Walvis Bay to Windhhoek, a quick overnight at the local Hilton, and then a short, two-hour flight home. What we did not count on was car trouble, and a run-in with some less-than-friendly locals in the pristine and orderly German town of Windhhoek.

Saying goodbye to the Pelican Point Lighthouse in Walvis Bay, we locked our luggage in the covered rear bed of our rented truck, threw our backpacks and camera bags in the back seat, and began our journey to Windhhoek. We had chosen to take the slightly longer “scenic” route, on the advice of our guide, and hoped to see some animals along the way. Once we left the now familiar sand and hit the hard pavement in Walvis Bay, our truck began to shimmy violently. Bouncing over sand berms two hours a day for the previous three days must have knocked a weight or two loose from one or more of the tires. Mind you, this was no ordinary wiggle of the steering wheel. This was a make-your-arms-numb, rattle-your-brain kind of shimmy. Walvis Bay is a small town, and we were short on time, so we decided to just deal with it. We’re tough like that.

Of course, after about ten minutes, I was ready to turn around and go back. Hubby, on the other hand, was determined to stay on schedule. Once we hit the dirt road leading into the desert, it was hard to tell the difference between the rattle from the tires and the rattle from the road. Hubby’s answer to that was to just drive faster. My head was pounding and my teeth hurt, but I held my peace. If he could stand it, then so could I.

Thankfully, there was plenty of beautiful scenery to take our minds off of the car. The barren desert gave way to green mountains, as we bounced along with the road nearly to ourselves. The few cars that did come along appeared to be in a great hurry, and had apparently never been taught to share the road. Each time, we had to swerve to avoid being hit. We also got a nasty crack in the windshield when a large truck flew past us, showering us with sand and rocks. A large pebble imbedded deep into the glass – nearly coming straight through! Oh well, at least we had insurance to cover the damage, and after we made our one-and-only turn, we did not see another car for more than two hours.

Namib Naukluft
A “river” in the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Our first animal sighting was a herd of mountain zebras, grazing along the road. Our approach sent them running, but we did manage to get a few nice shots.

Zebras Namibia
Zebras in Namibia. Such pretty markings!
Zebras Namibia
One of several herds of Zebras we saw in the Namib desert.

Next, we encountered a group of springboks, also beautifully marked. As their name implies, they spring into the air as they run, which makes for quite a sight!

Springboks Namibia
A herd of springboks. I tried to capture one of them leaping, but they are too quick!
Springboks Namibia
More springboks, so fast and agile.
Springboks Namibia
Springboks running along beside us, as we drive through the desert.

Along the way, we encountered more mountain zebras, a large Kudu, baboons, and numerous birds.

Zebras Namibia
Zebras striking the perfect pose.
Kudu Namibia
A large kudu, the only one we saw on the drive through the desert.
Baboon Namibia
A large baboon taking a break in the sunshine.

As we approached Windhhoek, the scenery continued to get greener, almost lush. This was undoubtedly due to recent rains and not the normal look for the area.

Beautiful flat-topped mountain in the Namib-Naukluft Park.
Namib- Naukluft
Unusually green mountains from recent rains in the area.

Once back on the hard pavement of Windhhoek, we realized that the shimmy was gone. We guessed that the remaining weights on the tires were shaken loose as we rattled along the dirt road. That’s one way to fix an out of balance tire!

We plugged in the Sat-Nav and input our hotel name, planning to stop at a nearby craft fair on the way. Not wanting to drag our backpacks and cameras into the fair, we searched for a place to pull over and lock them in the back compartment with our luggage.

The streets were busy with cars and pedestrians on every corner, and all street parking seemed to be full. We approached an intersection, with plans to turn right and make the block again, but the car in front of us stopped and sat in the middle of the intersection. We were unable to go around due to foot-high concrete barricades on both sides of our lane, and so we had no choice but to sit and wait for the numbskull to move.

Suddenly, men on both sides of us opened all four of our car doors. Terrified, I grabbed my door and began to wrestle it closed, nearly slamming it on the would-be robber’s fingers. Make no mistake, I would have snapped his fingers off in a New York minute, but he moved his hands just as I managed to close and lock the door. I quickly reached behind me to close and lock the back seat door as well. Then, I looked over my shoulder to see the man on the other side of the car grabbing my husband’s backpack. Hubby jumped out of the car and yelled, “Hey, you!” Not exactly a menacing threat, but I guess it did the trick. The robber dropped the backpack on the seat and ran off, just as the car in front of us finally started to move.

Once we realized neither of us was hurt, we did our best to slow our pounding hearts, and take stock of the situation. What was missing? Where did the robbers go? Once we found a place to pull over and count our bags, we realized they were all there – and that the whole situation had been a set-up. The barricade had created a trap and the stopped car in front of us had played a role as well. We had been incredibly lucky, as our bags held passports, money, cameras, etc. But, we had also been incredibly foolish for making such rookie mistakes.

You see, we had both forgotten where we were.

Windhhoek looked so clean and civilized, we let down our guard and fell into a false sense of security. Displaying a Sat-Nav and having visible bags in the back seat was just dumb. And driving along with unlocked doors was even dumber. We live in Africa, for heaven’s sake! We know better. Needless to say, we won’t make those mistakes again. Truth be told, these things can happen anywhere, even in Texas, so it is always best to avoid looking and acting like a wide-eyed tourist. Never again.

Despite the poor welcome to Windhhoek, we managed to make it to the craft fair and buy a few treasures. After checking into the hotel, we also had a nice dinner at a popular local eatery called Joe’s Beerhouse, known for serving excellent game meats. We both enjoyed our kudu and oryx steaks, more tender and flavorful than even Texas prime beef. Blasphemy, I know, but true.

Joe's Beerhouse Namibia
Joe’s Beerhouse. Excellent game meats and beer – if you like that sort of thing…

Our flight back to Luanda came off without a hitch, and we still marvel at all we had done in just seven short days. Despite a few bumps (literally), our trip to Namibia was a true joy, and we hope to return someday. But next time, we will remove the “I am a tourist. Please rob me.” stickers from our foreheads, lock our doors, and keep the Sat-Nav on the down-low!

©2015 – Cheryl. All Rights Reserved.

Walvis Bay – Flamingos, Seals and Sand…

A remote lighthouse at the end of a deserted, windswept beach filled with beautiful flamingos. Sound romantic? Our experience staying at the Pelican Point Lighthouse in Walvis Bay, Namibia was indeed romantic but with a few unexpected twists. Oh, the lighthouse was lovely. The flamingos and people who ran the lighthouse were even lovelier. But, driving there? Now, that was anything but romantic.

We arrived in Walvis Bay, picked up our rental car equipped with a navigational system, and attempted to input Pelican Point. No luck. We had been sent a simple map and written directions (odd as they were), so off we went through the small and tidy town. Walvis Bay is another German settlement in Namibia, and boasts a lovely waterfront drive with nice homes and a large lagoon filled with thousands of – you guessed it – flamingos. This turned out to be a frequent photo stop, and resulted in hundreds of shots of these graceful, bubble-gum pink beauties.

Flamingos Namibia
Beautiful flamingos in Walvis Bay.
Greater Flamingo Namibia
A Greater Flamingo, larger and with more pink on the bill than the Lesser Flamingo, also present in Walvis Bay.

The heavy concentrations of small mollusks, algae and plankton in the lagoon attract flamingos and other shorebirds in astounding numbers. During the dry season, there are typically around 50,000 flamingos in the Walvis Bay area! It was quite a sight to see.


We drove on, past the lagoon and into an area of salt-flats, turned pink from the large amount of brine shrimp in the water. A small salt factory had pink salt piled high, waiting to be processed and sold. Once past the salt factory, the last real landmark on our map, there was nothing but sand as far as we could see.  No people, no cars, and no buildings – just deep sand and plenty of opportunities to get stuck.

Walvis Bay Namibia
Walvis Bay beach. Just ten miles of sand. How hard can it be? 

We stopped, let out about a quarter of the air from our tires, put the car in four-wheel low, and pressed on. Not surprisingly, this kind of driving is not what we are used to. This was nothing like the freeways in Houston or the crowded mayhem of Luanda. Here, the closest thing to a “road” is to pick a set of tire tracks and follow it until it gets jumbled up with another set. Of course, all of this has to be done at the fastest speed possible, and no stopping to take pictures is allowed. Stopping is the kiss of death when driving in deep sand, and no wrecker service is coming along to help a stuck tourist who decided he needed one more flamingo shot.

We knew the drive to the lighthouse was ten miles long and would take a full hour. But, our path on the map from this point was designated by only a dotted line, so we hoped we were going the right way. Ten miles of white-knuckle, hold-your-breath-and-pray driving. The only marking on the map in these ten miles was a supposed “fork in the road”. What fork, we wondered. What road?

Oh well, just kept driving, we decided. The sand will run out eventually. So, we gritted our teeth and lurched forward, our eyes searching the horizon for any signs of civilization.

After bouncing from one set of tracks to another for what seemed like hours, we could finally see the lighthouse in the distance. Hallelujah! At least now we had a target to shoot for, but getting there was far from a done deal. Even if there were no obstacles, such as deep puddles or large nail-studded pieces of wood, we found that it was impossible to stay in a set of tracks for very long. Once we picked up speed, our car would fishtail and we would be launched out of the tracks and into deeper sand. My hands were sore from gripping the door handle, even if my husband seemed to be having fun. Next trip, we are going to a spa. No discussion, buddy.

After many more minutes of dodging foot-high berms and swerving back and forth in an attempt to follow the most pronounced tracks, we finally reached the lighthouse, all alone at the end of the beach.

Pelican Point Namibia
Pelican Point Lighthouse. Our home for the next few days. 

We stopped to let down the chain across the entrance and it finally happened. We got stuck. Apparently, it happens to everyone, so the manager, a very friendly fellow named Hugo, came out quickly to help.

As we were checking in to our room, Hugo let us know that he and his wife, Roseweatha, were only there temporarily, and only as a favor to the owner. All of the regular staff, from the former manager all the way to the maid, had quit en-masse three weeks prior to our arrival. We never did find out why the staff had so abruptly departed, but Hugo and Roseweatha had done an admirable job in getting things up and running in such a remote location.

The two of them were quite outgoing and talkative – and originally from Angola, of all places – so we felt an instant kinship. They had been in the middle of building their dream home in Botswana when they got the call to come fill-in at the Pelican Point. Having many years experience managing living quarters for oilfield service companies in Angola, they were well-versed in finding staff (most importantly an excellent chef) and bringing things up to a very high standard. The Pelican Point had always been known for its gourmet food, a good thing since the remote location meant no one with half a brain would drive to Walvis Bay for dinner.  Although we have no idea how things were right after the mutiny, Pelican Point was running smoothly now, and so we were happy.

We settled into our clean, modern room and then went for a walk on the beach, hoping to get close to one of the large groups of seals sunning themselves on the sand. Luckily, we were upwind of these fascinating but rather smelly creatures, and were able to get close enough for a few good shots before they scampered off into the water.

Seals in Namibia
Seals on the beach. Fun to watch, but hold your nose!
Seals in Namibia
Seals, seals and more seals. Boy can they make some noise, too!

We then walked over to the windward side of the narrow, peninsula-shaped beach and could see more seals frolicking in the waves.

Seal Namibia
Well, hello Mr. Seal!
Flamingos Namibia
More beautiful flamingos, which I kept calling pelicans for some reason. Maybe it was because we were at Pelican Point – an odd name, as we never saw any pelicans!

Seeing such abundant wildlife had made the effort to get there worth every tense moment. But, there was another facet to our stay that we had not anticipated. The remote location meant that everything ran on a generator. All electricity went out promptly at ten o’clock at night and did not come back on until six o’clock the next morning.  No worries. Dinner and bedtime just came earlier than we were used to. Truly, our days had been so full  that this was a welcome change.

The next morning, we made the long trek back into town  for a Sandwich Harbor tour, with its massive sand dunes that come right up to the water. Of course, these dunes beg to be climbed, and with my newfound sand-climbing skills, I was ready to go (yeah, right!).

Sandwich Harbor Dunes
Another dune to climb. At least this one is smaller than Dune 45!
Sandwich Harbor Dunes Namibia
The view of Sandwich Harbor from the top of the dunes.
Garnet Sand Namibia
Beautiful garnet sand along the beach. Tiny crystals of real garnet make the sand extra heavy and glisten in the sun.

Timing is tricky when getting to and from the dunes, as high tides completely block off the path. We made it out just in time.

Namibia dunes tides
Better hurry! The tide’s a-coming…

After a brief stop for lunch on top of another dune, we explored the area just behind the sand, and were able to see just how shallow the water table is in this area.

Water table Namibia
Digging for water…

Our guide dug down about a foot and easily reached fresh water, which is forced upward when it encounters the heavier saltwater along the coast. We so enjoyed our day exploring such a unique coastline.

On the way back to the lighthouse, we spied a group of jackals roaming along the beach. Not nearly as scary-looking as their name implies, we enjoyed watching them frolic on the beach. That is, until one of them caught and began to tear up a cormorant, and we were reminded of their predatory nature.

Jackals Namibia
Jackals on the beach. Just puppies at play!
Namibia Jackal cormorant
A Jackal catching a cormorant. It looks like he bit off more than he can chew!

The next day brought another tour with the same guide, but this time we were exploring the Namib Desert and we had the guide to ourselves. Here are a few of the highlights of our day:

Namib Desert
Lunar Landscape in the Namib Desert.
Welwitschia plant
The male Welwitschia plant, considered a living fossil. These plants live for up to 2,000 years!
Female Welwitschia Namibia
A large female wetwitschia plant. Our guide said this one was at least 500 years old.
Ostriches Namib Desert
Ostrich Rush-hour in the Namib Desert.
Namib Desert
Stopping for lunch in a rare shady spot.
Lunch in the Namib Desert
A lovely lunch in the Namib.
Geology of the Namib Desert
Interesting geology of the Namib.

After our fun day in the desert, we headed back to the lighthouse for a lovely sunset and another gourmet dinner.


Despite the bright moon, we managed to get a few star shots before it was time for a good night’s sleep.

Pelican Point Namibia
Pelican Point Lodge at night
Southern Cross Namibia
The Southern Cross bids us good night.

We would need our rest for the six-hour, dirt-road drive back through the desert to Windhhoek the next day.

Until this point, everything had gone pretty much according to plan in this “most civilized” of all  African countries. The next day brought a few new challenges, and a scary reminder that we were definitely not in Kansas anymore…

©2015 – Cheryl. All Rights Reserved.



Dune 45 and the Dead Vlei…

Life in Luanda has been quite hectic lately, hence the delay since my last blog. Thankfully, the memories of our climb of Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia are still fresh in my mind. For weeks before our trip, my husband had me climbing stairs and cranking up the incline on the treadmill in preparation for our assault on the mythical dune. I had no idea what to expect, but made sure I could easily climb forty-five flights of stairs, just in case. Something about that number just seemed right.

By the way, forty-five flights is three times from the bottom to the top of our building, in a boiling hot stairwell that smells of oil and garbage. Sound fun? The things I do to for that man.

The morning after our beautiful balloon ride over the dunes, we gathered in the lodge to head to the entrance of Sossusvlei Park. A British couple came along with us, and we bonded instantly. They were quite friendly and appeared to be about our age, which was particularly important to me. You see, I hoped this meant they wouldn’t be running up the dune and leaving us, or rather me, in their dust. I hate being humiliated, especially on vacation.

We made it inside the park just in time to see the sun’s rays spread across the valley. While we were stopped at an overlook, soaking up the magnificent view, cars sped past us in an attempt to be first on the dunes. I’ve long since given up the need to first at anything. We enjoyed the sunrise and then leisurely made our way to the base of Dune 45, so named because it is forty five kilometers from the park entrance. A popular stop for visitors, it is easily accessible while most of the dunes are not. We guessed many of the cars were also headed to other dunes, specifically the one named “Big Daddy”, which is the tallest accessible dune in the park. Again, I’ve long since given up the need to climb the tallest anything. Dune 45 was just fine with me.

Thankfully, it was still fairly cool when we began our ascent, though the sun was coming up fast. The startling red-orange sand was in brilliant contrast to the deep blue, cloudless sky. It was hard to focus on our climb rather than the beautiful surroundings!

2015-04-03 08.14.28
On of the hills to climb on Dune 45. Not the top yet, but getting closer!

Climbing in sand is always a challenge, but especially so when the sand is bone dry and piled hundreds of feet high to a sharp peak. Surprisingly, the best place to walk is right along this peak, placing one’s feet in existing footsteps as this sand is slightly more stable. Oh, the things I have learned on this crazy journey!

2015-04-03 08.40.35
Walking along the spine of Dune 45.

As we climbed, I focused on each of my husband’s footsteps, rather than the steep drop-offs on either side or the long trek ahead. Before I knew it, we came upon our British friends. She had plopped herself down in the middle of the path and refused to take another step. It was not the physical effort that stopped her, but rather her extreme fear of heights. Her husband seemed unsure whether to keep going or stay with his wife. In the end, he came along with us, and she seemed perfectly happy to stay where she was.

Up and up we went. It took some effort, but the view from the top was worth every step!

View from the top of Dune 45.

From the crest of the dune, we could see that it went on for quite a distance. Since we had already done the hard part, we were happy to keep going. Our friend, however, headed back down to his wife. Wise choice, fella! We walked on for awhile longer, but knew our British friends and guide were waiting for us back at the car. Reluctantly, we turned around and headed back down. The day was only going to get hotter after all, and we had more to see.

The climb up had been much easier than I expected, and the trek down was just plain fun! Imagine those moving walkways at the airport – feeling superhuman as you speed past the poor saps walking along the old-fashioned way. This was the same sensation, only with the benefit of gravity. Down we went, faster and faster, finally breaking into a jog. Each step a leap followed by a soft landing in the sand. About halfway down, I stopped to remove my shoes, which were so full of sand there was barely room for my toes. What a wonderful feeling it was, effortlessly running down that bright orange sand, so cool on my feet! Truly, I would have climbed back up just to be able to run down again!

Once we reached the bottom, we saw a group of people dragging thin “sand boards” up the dune with them. I would have loved to see them fly down the dune on those boards, but we needed to press on. Our next stop was the Dead Vlei, or dead lake, an area where hundreds of years ago an ancient river flowed during occasional rains, and camel thorn trees grew as a result.

In Namibia, the terms “river” or “lake”, are used to describe any spot where water has once been or where the aquifer is close enough to the surface to support plant life. There are no true rivers or lakes anywhere in Namibia, except along its borders. There is, however, a vast system of underground rivers which are easily identified by a line of trees or bushes. These aquifers are of little help to the animal life, of course, but for people who are capable of digging a well, it means the ability to live and farm in a mostly uninhabitable country.

In the Dead Vlei, climate change and shifting dunes cut off the water source and the trees died. Their petrified trunks remain, some up to 900 years old. Each tree is a work of art, forever preserved in this dry desert climate.

2015-04-03 10.02.17
The Dead Vlei, Namibia.
2015-04-03 10.09.12
Dead Vlei trees – 900 year old works of art.
2015-04-03 10.19.23
The Dead Vlei and its beautiful ancient trees.
Close up of a camel thorn tree in the Dead Vlei.

After hiking around the Dead Vlei and taking way too many photos of dead trees, the sun was beginning to take its toll. The shade of our car was most welcome, as was taking off our boots and pouring out a pile of sand from each one.

We drove a little further into the park until we found a rare shady spot to have lunch, which our guide had brought along with him. He also offered us hot coffee or tea, which we politely declined. He explained that Namibians (and people from India, apparently) always drink hot beverages when it is even hotter outside. He claimed the hot liquid somehow makes the body feel cooler. The Brits agreed, and sipped on a cup of hot tea, while sweating profusely. What a load of hooey! We stuck to our ice cold sodas instead. Our mothers didn’t raise fools, you know.

After lunch, we headed back to the lodge for a siesta and a dip in our ice-cold plunge pool. By ice-cold, I mean literally as cold as a bucket of ice. How a pool could be so cold in such dreadfully hot weather, I will never understand. I know, I know, evaporative cooling and all that. Still, it was so cold that it was actually painful – but very refreshing, according to my husband. I wasn’t about to get in. I’ve blogged before about my aversion to cold water. But I did dip my feet in – ever so slowly – and that cooled me off quick enough.

The afternoon activity was four-wheeling through the desert valley. This was much more fun that I expected, and the scenery was spectacular. Our guide rode in front to keep the speed demons in check (i.e. my husband), so we had ample opportunity to look around and take in the immense valley from the perspective of the oryx, springboks, and ostriches that live there.

A thunderstorm in the desert.
A beautiful oryx in the Namib desert.

The animals in this area live with little to no water at all, subsisting on whatever small amount is found in the plants and grasses they eat. Truly amazing!

2015-04-03 18.39.49
A panoramic view of the colorful Namib Desert.

Our evening meal was served a short walk away from the lodge, under a small grove of trees. This “Boma” dinner turned out to be the most fun of all of our meals on the trip. Our guide walked us out to the Boma in the pitch dark with the aid of a small flashlight. As we approached, we could hear the staff of about fifteen singing African songs with gusto. They welcomed each of us with a cocktail, and then one lady stood up to welcome us in the local bush language, a mixture of words and clicks. So fascinating to hear!

Here is a link to a You Tube video about this language. The first twenty seconds or so is about our gluteus maximus muscles, but be patient and it will transition to the subject at hand, I promise!

A Boma dinner – singing under the stars…

After more singing and dancing, a buffet dinner was served with plenty of local favorites and game meats on the menu. The oryx and kudu that we tried were tastier than the best Texas beef, and even more tender! Towards the end of the meal, two animals raced through the Boma, one chasing the other. In the dark it was hard to tell what they were, but both were larger than a fox and clearly feline. They turned out to be African Wildcats, which are slightly larger than a domestic cat. Not exactly threatening to humans, but startling nonetheless.

The next morning, it was time to leave Sossusvlei and head to the coastal town of Walvis Bay. This meant another tiny plane and a scenic flight over the desert. We arrived at the dirt airstrip to find that the airport we were due to fly into was fogged in, a common occurrence. Along the Namibian coastline, the cold Benguela current comes very close to shore. Where the cold water meets the hot desert air, thick fog forms and creates havoc for pilots and ship’s captains.

After an hour or so delay, the fog had lifted and we were given the green light to board.

2015-04-04 08.12.29
Something is not right when your car is bigger than your airplane!

This plane was slightly larger than the one which had brought us there, thank goodness! This plane had room for the pilot, our British friends and us. The flight took us over the dunes, with a great view of Dune 45, and then on to a whole lot of nothing. No people, no water, no trees, no shade – just miles and miles of sand and rocks. It was hard not to imagine what would happen if our plane went down. Later we learned that all of us were thinking the same thing, but no one had dared say it out loud! We laughed when our friends said they felt safe because my husband, the great white hunter and fisherman, was along on the trip. Somehow they thought these skills would come in handy, even in an area with no animals to hunt or fish to catch. I suppose to city folk, a guy who has slept outdoors and killed his own dinner must have seemed like Bear Grylls!

A great view of Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia.
2015-04-04 10.28.10
Sossusvlei – Red sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
2015-04-04 10.30.16
The red dunes gave way to a slightly rockier landscape, but still no water or shade in sight.

After more than an hour of this desolate landscape, we came upon the coastline and saw large groups of seals gathered on the beach. We flew along until the fog ceiling became too low and we were forced above it and inland.

Seal colony on the Namibian coastline, south of Walvis Bay.

This legendary fog and hard-to-see rocks have caused so many shipwrecks along the Namibian shoreline that the area is referred to as the Skeleton Coast, in part a reference to the hundreds of rusting carcasses of large ships found scattered along the beach. Whale and seal bones once littered the shore as well, a result of the whaling industry in the area.

Flying along with nothing to look at but fog made me more than a little nervous, as our tiny plane was not exactly equipped with the most sophisticated navigational equipment. I hoped our pilot had not skipped the lesson on how to use a compass! Of course, I needn’t have worried. Although disturbingly young, our pilot was quite skilled and familiar with the area. He made a perfect landing at the small Walvis Bay airport, and I finally took a full breath.

We said goodbye to our British friends and collected our rental car, a four-wheel-drive truck. The next challenge facing us was finding our hotel for the night, a remote lighthouse located at the end of a ten mile stretch of deep sand. The directions we had been given were vague at best, but more alarming was the suggestion that we let out two-thirds of the air in our tires to avoid getting stuck!

We would soon learn that it is best to follow such suggestions, as crazy as they may seem…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Full of Hot Air in Namibia…

Growing up in the flatlands of Texas, I had often seen hot-air balloons floating peacefully over the rice fields. In my mind, the flight would begin with a gentle lift-off, as the colorful balloon rose slowly into the air, while the passengers ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the scenery. Well, let’s just say, our experience in Namibia was a little different…

After a light breakfast, our guide Simon drove us to the take-off sight in the pre-dawn light. There was a slight breeze but the sky was clear – perfect flying weather in my estimation. But, Simon said several times that he hoped our flight would not be cancelled. Truly, it was only a little breeze, especially by Texas tornado standards. It would not have ruffled a perfect Texas hairdo, even without the usual gallons of Final Net.  Not that I was perfectly coiffed, mind you. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled down tight on my head to shield against the African sun, sure to emerge with a vengeance.

As we approached the waiting balloons, I could see why we might not make the flight. Two balloons laid on their sides, flames leaping into their bellies, as a crew of eight to ten men struggled to keep the attached baskets in one place. The breeze was picking up and the men seemed  in a hurry to get everyone loaded and off the ground.

One balloon had a much larger basket which held up to sixteen people, while the smaller one held only eight. We were relieved to find we were assigned to the smaller balloon. Spending our dream flight squashed like sardines into a tiny basket was not exactly what either of us had in mind.

The larger balloon, which we later learned was twice the size of ours.
Filling up our balloon. Careful not to singe the ropes, please!
The sun was coming up quickly!
Success for the larger balloon, but ours was still being tossed about by the wind. The people in our basket are the ‘fly-boys’ and the pilot struggling to fill up the balloon.

The larger balloon took off just as I had always pictured. Despite being packed closely together, the passengers all waved happily as they lifted higher and higher into the air.

At last, the crew gave us the signal to board. Our basket was divided into four corner sections, which held two people each, and a middle section for the pilot and his equipment. Hubby and I scrambled into our compartment, and joked that we were definitely in first class and the rest of the basket was coach.  First class or not, we were quickly snapped to attention.

A sudden gust of wind catapulted the balloon forward and threw our basket onto its side. We found our faces within inches of the desert dirt. Our side of the basket was on the bottom, so we were lucky to have grabbed the internal handles, rather than the top of the basket. We would surely have smashed our fingers or worse if we had grabbed the top instead. How many times have you been told to keep your hands and arms inside of a moving vehicle? Always good advice to follow, as our “vehicle” was definitely on the move now.

The wind dragged the balloon sideways, with the basket skidding and bouncing along on the ground. Clearly, this was not the direction any of us wanted to go. Chaos ensued as the pilot struggled to direct the flame into the belly of the rapidly deflating balloon, while doing his best to avoid catching it (or us) on fire. Thankfully, while all of this was going on, we were able to crouch down inside the relative safety of the basket. There was so much noise and jerking about, we had no idea how far we had been dragged – or if we would soon find ourselves turned completely upside down. Our camera equipment and backpacks were an added liability, as we needed both hands to hold on for dear life. In the heat of the moment, I had the foolish thought that they might call a halt to the flight and tell us all to get out. I quickly realized the only way out in that situation was to be thrown out, and that was not something I was keen to experience.

After several minutes of this, our arms and legs aching from trying to stay in one place and not smash our cameras, the bouncing finally stopped and we were told to emerge from our hiding place. I was completely shocked to find we were hundreds of feet in the air! When we finally had lifted off, we lifted off like a shot! The sun was just peeking above the horizon, and we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the desert valley and the red dunes of Sossusvlei in the distance.

One benefit of flying with a buddy balloon, lots of beautiful photos! The red dunes of Sossusvlei are a stunning backdrop as well.

Once we had all calmed down, our pilot informed us we had just experienced what they call a ‘sporty take-off’. Ha! ‘Sporty’ was a funny way of describing being dragged along like a tire tied to the back of a tractor. He seemed to take it in stride, but a fellow passenger who had flown twice previously, said she had never experienced that before. She had experienced a ‘sporty landing’, however, which sounded much worse to me! I tried to put that possibility aside and enjoy the lovely scenery. It was all completely out of my control anyway, so there was no point in worrying about it.

The larger balloon radioed wind information to our pilot throughout the flight, instructing us to go up or down to catch faster or slower layers of wind.
I had worn a jacket thinking we might be chilly as we flew. I didn’t count on our on-board fireplace!
Our pilot, a very capable twelve-year veteran flyer from South Africa. Despite the bumpy start, we were in very good hands.

As we flew along, with only the occasional sound of the flame, the pilot told us all about the desert flora and fauna below us, and we spied a few animals wandering along. The landscape was so colorful, with the morning light casting a golden glow on the valley floor, bordered by the bright orange dunes on both sides. We never flew directly over the dunes, as they would have been unsuitable for a landing sight, and we needed to be able to go down when the wind was right.

The pilot shared a few stories of other places he had flown, and a little about the characteristics of previous groups of passengers. The Germans, he told us, love rough take-offs and landings – even better if some blood is spilled. On our take-off, one lady had required a band-aid, so technically there was blood involved.  Unfortunately for the one German couple on our flight, they came away without a scratch. They still had a good story to tell, but no proof to flash around.

The Japanese, he said, are so busy taking photos of each other and themselves, they probably don’t know they made it off the ground until they look at the pictures later. The French are universally unimpressed and unhappy, no matter how it goes. And the Italians inevitably break into song. He said one group of Italians contained an opera-ready fellow singing Nessun Dorma as they sailed over the desert. Imagine the goosebumps from that! He never said how Americans typically behave, which was probably for the best! Of course, all of these stereotypes were only for humor’s sake, and we all had a good chuckle.

All too soon, it was time to land, and the pilot gave us instructions on positioning ourselves in the event of a sporty landing. Thankfully, the wind had completely died down, and we were able to land so gently that we ended up exactly on top of the trailer behind our vehicle. Talk about a postage-stamp landing!

A picture-perfect landing for the first balloon. The shadow in the upper left is us!

After our lovely landing, we were treated to a delicious breakfast with the red sand dunes as a backdrop.

2015-04-02 09.01.24
We were welcomed with a champagne breakfast in the prettiest of settings.
Our landing spot was on the edge of the dune area. A little teaser for what we would be doing tomorrow.

After our very early morning – and all of the excitement – we spent the afternoon relaxing in our bungalow. Before dinner, we took a short outing to nearby Sesriem Canyon, a surprisingly deep canyon carved by the very infrequent but sometimes heavy rains that occur in the area.

Sesriem Canyon
A rare pool of water, here in this desert nation. Every place that water occasionally flows is called a ‘river’, something we had to get used to as we traveled through the area.

After our tour of the canyon, Simon took us to another sundowner spot and we were treated to a moon rise and sunset from the same viewpoint.

2015-04-02 18.53.22

Day one was done. We felt very lucky to have gotten the balloon ride in, although it had gone way too fast. Tomorrow would bring a trip into those beautiful red dunes, and our attempt to climb Dune 45…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

South to Namibia…

This past week, we travelled south to our neighboring country of Namibia. The first leg of the trip took us to the largest city, Windhoek, where we spent the night at a lovely B&B called the Olive Grove Guest House. The next morning, we caught a hopper flight to the Sussusvlei area of the Namib Desert, which is located about an hour south of the city. When I say a hopper flight, what I really mean is that we flew there in a wind-up toy.

Truly, I have never been in a smaller plane. It was a four seater – including the pilot. Looking back at the photos, I am amazed that I crawled into the back seat and strapped myself in without being sedated first. Take a look at the photo. Would you get into this thing?

2015-04-01 14.36.54

Thankfully, our pilot seemed very competent and professional, and had been flying in the area long enough to know the peculiarities of flying over desert thermals. He was young (no danger of heart attacks) and jovial (no anger management issues) and Scottish (just all around good folks). Once I got over the initial shock of flying in a tin can – and not exactly a shiny new one at that – I relaxed and prepared to enjoy the flight.

We had been given a baggage limit of twenty kilograms per person, and the pilot stuck firm to that number – with good reason. With only three small duffel bags, there was not an inch to spare in the tiny cargo hold!

The third passenger was a lovely lady of about sixty-five who hailed from San Antonio, Texas – of all places. Her retirement gift to herself had been a several months long vacation across Africa. Surprisingly, she had traveled much of it by boarding cargo ships – something we did not even know was possible. Imagine spending weeks on the open ocean with only the ship’s officers and a mostly Filipino crew as your companions. She had nothing but good things to say about her cabins on the various vessels she had boarded, and seemed outgoing  enough to make friends in any situation. I’m sure she saved a few pennies by traveling this way –  and made some amazing memories as well.

By the way, her bag was smaller than either of ours and she had been traveling for three months. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, packing light is something neither of us have mastered!

The flight turned out to be great fun, as we flew very low and close to mountains, all the while skirting the scattered thunderstorms.

2015-04-01 15.09.46
The area was unusually green due to some recent rainfall.
2015-04-01 15.56.25
Nearby thunderstorms mean rainbows, too!

A few little bumps along the way weren’t enough to rattle us, and the beautiful scenery was our own in-flight entertainment. The landing was perfect, and a jeep was waiting when we arrived to take us to our lodge, the Little Kulala.

A short drive across the stunning desert landscape provided our first game sighting, when an ostrich ran across the road right in front of the jeep. That ostrich was speeding along, kicking up dust in the process. I’m not sure our jeep could have out run him!

2015-04-01 16.38.50
Just an ostrich in a big hurry to get somewhere!
Little Kulala Lodge. A lovely setting, friendly staff and wonderful food!
Our private patio with a great view of passing springboks, ostriches, and oryx – and an ice-cold plunge pool!
View from the top of our bungalow, which featured a “star-bed” where one can literally sleep under the stars.
2015-04-01 17.36.01
Now, this is the place to write a blog! No writer’s block here!

They served up a lovely afternoon tea and then we headed out with our guide Simon for a private sundowner. The rain stayed in the distance and provided for another gorgeous rainbow and a beautiful sunset.

Incredibly vivid rainbow, which was visible all the way to the ground. Can you spy the pot ‘o gold?
A Sociable Weaver’s nest. These little birds build very complicated nests that can house eighty or more birds.
2015-04-01 18.53.37
Simon found the perfect spot for us to enjoy our sundowner drinks. Not another sole in sight!
Now that’s a sunset! #nofilter

After a delicious dinner, and a few animal sightings around the lighted watering hole just beyond the open-air dining area, we headed back to the bungalow, intent on sleeping under the stars. We were surprised to find a nearly full moon made for a too-bright setting. It was a bit like sleeping with a flashlight shining in your face, so reluctantly we gave up and headed inside.

Hubby had purchased a special lens to take some star photos, but the bright moon nixed that as well.  Undeterred, we set the alarm for 4:00 am in order to catch a few shots after the moon went down and before the sun came up.

We awoke to find the moon was still up, but managed to get a few shots anyway.

The Southern Cross. Click on the image to enlarge.
Orion as seen just before sunrise.
The Milky Way.

We had a big day ahead of us, so there was no going back to sleep after taking photos. A hot-air ballon ride was planned for sunrise – if the weather cooperated, which it often did not.

But, at 4:30 am, the weather looked promising. The sky was clear, and the wind was calm as well. As we headed to breakfast, we hoped to soon be floating overhead in yet another tiny compartment…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved