Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

The ocean mist that hovered over Swakopmund when we arrived yesterday has lifted this morning. The sun is shining over the quaint pseudo-Bavarian seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, just the right preface to an early harbor cruise. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Walvis Bay, the country’s main deepwater commercial harbor 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, the fog has rolled in again. The horizon is an eerie line of black shadow ships fading into an uncertain curtain of gray gauze.

A Morning on the Water

Walvis-Perican lighthouse.

The Pelican Bay lighthouse emerges from the morning fog.

A slick catamaran, the Silvermoon, pulls up to the jetty, and we are off. A trio of white pelicans make their characteristic wobbly landing on the roof of the cabin and invite themselves for the ride. We pass oyster farms, a delicacy for which the area is famous, on our way to Pelican Point, the sandy peninsula that protects Walvis Bay from the assault of Atlantic Ocean. Next to its landmark lighthouse, a 34 meter (112 foot) high cast iron structure built in 1932 and still in use, the point is home to a resident colony of Cape fur seals estimated at 60,000.

Walvis Bay-Cape fur seal.

Cape fur seals put on quite a show near our boat.

Beyond the point, we sail toward a line of ships and oilrigs that have come from the offshore drilling fields of Angola for maintenance and garaging. This is a unique opportunity to get a close look at one of these giant drilling platforms. The tour ends with a copious tasting lunch of fresh local oysters (yes, they are delicious) and other regional seafood specialties as we return to port.

 

 

Walvis Bay-Lagoon.

The Walvis Bay Lagoon is host to thousands of flamingos.

Back on solid ground and with the sun now high overhead, we stop by the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of southern Africa’s major coastal wetlands and migratory bird sanctuary, where thousands of flamingos are busy feasting on crustaceans.

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton Coast Experience

Skeleton Coast-drilling wreck.

Not all wrecks came from the sea. Deep in the dunes, this is all that remains of an aborted attempt to drill for oil.

We head north the next morning. Within a half hour from the center of Swakopmund, all signs of life fade away. Ahead of us is an endless dirt trail between rolling dunes and pounding surf. This is the West Coast Recreational Area, the southern end of the windswept strip of desert that covers the 500 kilometers (300 miles) of Atlantic coast from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, now known as Skeleton Coast. Long before it got its sinister moniker from the bones that once filled the shore, remnants of the whaling industry’s heydays, early Portuguese explorers were referring to the area as “the Gates of Hell.” Enough said. Today the skeletons that remain are most likely to be those of twentieth century ships that fell victim to hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog.

Namibia_Skeleton Coast_Zeila,

The fishing troller Zeila, stranded on 25 August 2008 just south of Henties Bay.

An hour into the trip we stop to check out one of these skeletons, the Zeila, a rusting fishing trawler stranded in 2008. Now just another convenient perch for passing seabirds, it is slowy disintegrating under the relentless battering of the ocean. Moments later, we come upon the incongruous sight of a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s Henties Bay (population 8,000), which owes its existence to the discovery of a rare fresh water source there in 1886, and its prosperity to current day anglers who find it a bountiful fishing destination. We stop just long enough for gas and continue on to Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross-Seals.

Cape Cross is home of one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in southern Africa.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Henties Bay, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in southern Africa (150,000 to 210,000, depending on who you ask). Either way, it’s a hugely impressive sight, and an aggression to other senses. The stench of guano hanging over the site is overwhelming, as is the din of continuous bleating from this enormous herd of sea mammals. Cape Cross owes its name to the first European known to have set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486, Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, who erected a stone cross on the spot. The original cross found its way to Germany 1893. It can be seen today in the New Hall of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. An exact replica was erected in 1980 on the spot where the original once stood.

Skeleton Coast-Dunedlin

The British cargo-passenger liner Dunedlin stranded on 29 November 1942 south of the Kunene River.

After a windblown picnic lunch on what has to be one of the longest beach in the world, contemplating the remains of the Dunedlin Star, a British cargo ship stranded in 1942, , we enter the Skeleton Coast National Park at its southern Ugab Gate. Said gate is actually a double portal emblazoned with giant skulls and crossbones, a none too subtle “don’t say we didn’t warn you” message. We continue on, undaunted. After another two hours of empty sea and sand, we take a sharp turn to the east, to emerge at the Springbokwasser Gate onto an alien planet of cone-shaped mountaintops, brushed with copper by a relentless sun. After the Khomas Highland, the Great Dune Field, and Skeleton Coast, I had been wondering what our awesome Wilderness Safaris guide Jimmy Limbo could possibly do for an encore? We’ve just reached the answer. We are about to enter surreally magnificent Damaraland!

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. An historic building in its own right, it is ideally located in the historic center of town and within a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . Tel: + 264 64 414 200.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Catamaran Charters depart every morning from Walvis Bay Waterfront, Atlantic Street, Walvis Bay, Namibia. All their catamarans feature on-deck seating as well an a large interior lounge. All their tours are led by experienced local guides. Contact: e-mail dolphin@iway.na, tel. +264 (0)64 200798.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Skeleton Coast

Walvis Bay

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

On the third morning of my journey across Namibia, I leave behind the red sands of the Great Dune Field and head north along the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Craggy mountains still dominate the landscape, but at their base, what was barren desert when I entered the area two days ago is turning into something like a green five-o’clock shadow. I now understand the excitement of Jimmy, m amazing Wilderness Safaris guide, at the very prospect of rain.

Welcome to Solitaire

Namib-Oryx new grass.

Oryx are drawn to the new grass.

The wildlife is out in force at this promise of new grass. Small herds of springboks join the ubiquitous oryx. We also spot our first zebras and blue wildebeests. After a couple of hours of bouncing on a washboard dirt road leaving a massive trail of dust in our wake, we pull into Solitaire. The tiny desert outpost at the junction of the two gravel roads that are the main tourist routes in the area, is a de-rigueur stop for travelers. The place is right out of a 1950’s western movie set. It announces itself with deteriorating carcasses of vintage American cars scattered in the sand around the compound, and sign that goes straight to the point. “Welcome to Solitaire”.

Originally built in 1848 as a sheep farm by a Mr. van Collier, Solitaire was named by his wife, or so the story goes, both because there were diamonds in the area and the place fit the name (definitely the middle of nowhere!). Since then, it has developed into a gas station, the only place to get fuel on 340 kilometer (210 mile) trip the between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, a post office and general store, and a bakery.

The Moose McGregor Desert Bakery

Namibia-Solitaire_1.

Solitaire is a must stop for anyone traveling through the area,

The bakery is the main attraction these days, its apple pie famous beyond the borders of Namibia. It’s more like a crumble actually, but lets not quibble. It too comes with a story. Three decades or so ago, a Scottish adventurer, and a man bigger than life in every way, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor came into town and never left. He was a wonderful baker who started to sell baked goods, including the aforementioned pie (from an old family recipe, of course), and the word spread around the world. Sadly, Moose passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on. His meal-size squares of delicious Moose apple pie, served right out of the pan and still warm from the oven, are clearly the reason why a stop at Solitaire now figures on every tourist itinerary.

Tropic of Capricorn

Namib-Kuyseb River.

The ephemeral Kuiseb River meanders through the canyon,

Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Solitaire, we pass the Tropic of Capricorn. Then the road starts climbing in twist and turns, going around drop-offs sufficiently steep they warrant the first guardrails I have seen on this trip, to the top of the Gaub Pass. I take in the spectacular view of the stark schist rock face the Kuiseb Canyon below and black badlands undulating from its rim to the horizon as we snake down toward the river. The canyon was formed five million years ago, when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the river chiseled a narrow gorge through the Great Escarpment.

Namib-West of Kuiseb.

West of the Kuiseb Pass, the desert is framed by  mountains..

Today, the Kuiseb River is a sluggish ribbon of opaque brown water in no rush to vanish into the dunes some 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream. Yet this is an exceptional sight, since for most of the year this ephemeral river is no more than a broad, dry sandy riverbed.

One more arduous climb on the other side of the canyon over the Kuiseb Pass, and the landscape goes through another metamorphosis as we head west toward Walvis Bay. We are back into the desert, flat, empty, endless; 140 kilometers (85 miles) of desolation framed by the distant outline of rocky outcrops worn smooth by an eternity of sand and wind.

Walvis-Oil rig.

The ouline of an oil rig appears from the mist off Walvis Bay.

Suddenly the gravel road turns to tarmac, and an immensity of colorless water rolls through the sea fog, with the eerie outline of an oil-drilling platform suspended above it. Walvis Bay, the only deepwater commercial seaport in Namibia, is also a servicing and parking destination for rigs and ships from the offshore drilling sites of Angola to the north.

 

 

The Swakopmund Time Warp

Namibia-Swakopmund.

The onion dome of the Swakopmund Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

It’s another half-hour ride up the coast to Swakopmund, where we enter yet another time warp. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, in the haydays of German South-West Africa, this resort town remains a living monument to its colonial past. It may be one hundred years since Germany relinquished the control of Namibia, but its cultural influence remains entrenched throughout the town. From the onion dome of the Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church to the neat, white-trimmed pastel buildings and the German street signage in angular Gothic script, all of it channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Even the ocean mist, which lifts only briefly today, conspires to give the town the feel of a small, off-season Baltic coast vacation town that time forgot.

Swakopmumd-Hansa Hotel.

The Hansa Hotel (circa 1905) retains its old-world atmosphere.

The Hansa Hotel, where we spend the next two nights, is right in character. The oldest hotel in town (circa 1905), it is an integral part of the local architectural heritage. Although fully renovated in 2014, it retains its traditional old-world atmosphere, with welcome twenty-first century additions such as air-conditioning and reliable WiFi throughout. Its central location, a few minutes’ walk away from everywhere in the historic center and the waterfront, is ideal to explore the city at leisure.

 

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . + 264 64 414 200.
  •  Wilderness Safaries  is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa, recognized for its responsible tourism practices over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Solitaire

Sossusvlei

Swakopmund

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Early wake-up call this morning. As I walk into the chill of the desert night toward the pale light of the refectory tent, my sleep-addled brain tries to take stock. This is Day Two of my journey through Namibia. I am at the tiny Kulala Adventurers Camp, deep in the Namib, the legendary desert that gave the country its name. And I have a sand dune to scale by 7:00 am.

A Namib Dawn

Namibia-Kulala dawn.

A springbok welcomes the dawn in the Kulala Wildernes Reserve.

It’s taken me years to get here, but I am finally about to see the sun rise over the highest dunes on the planet. The reality of the moment doesn’t fully sink in until we, my four fellow adventure travelers and I, are bumping along a sand trail that only our guide, Jimmy Limbo, can detect across the shadow landscape of the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve. The sky begins to glow with pre-dawn light and shortly thereafter we reach the private Wilderness Safaris entrance into the park. It’s precisely sunrise, the official opening time of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Although “our” gate follows the same schedule as the public Sesriem Gate, it has the huge advantage to be a good 25 kilometers closer to the dune field and not subject to any entrance formality delays. For almost one hour, we have the rare privilege to experience the intense silence and awesome grandeur of the oldest desert in the world in exquisite solitude.

Namibia-Naukluft sunrise.

Sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains.

Jimmy drives straight to the Elim Dune, the farthest inland dune, somewhat off the main track that leads from the Sesriem Gate to the heart of Sossusvlei. It is sprinkled with tufts of dry grass that help a bit with the climb. And it offers a unique view of the sun rising over the Naukluft Mountains and the sea of apricot dunes rippling to the horizon.

 

Beyond the Sunrise

Namib-Dune 45.

Dune 45 is arguably the most photographed dune on the planet.

As the sun begins to arch up, we get back on the road more traveled, the 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of asphalt maintained by the park from the Sesriem Gate to a central parking area in the heart of the dune field. There, self-drive tourists must park their car; only serious all-wheel-drive vehicles allowed beyond this point. Other visitors may either hike or use a shuttle to go to further into the dunes. Our “Wilderness Mobile,” an imposing custom designed all-terrain Land Cruiser, gets more than a few covetous glances as we go by.

A lone centuries-old camel thorn tree suggest we are nearing the Sossusvlei area.

Jimmy points out Dune 45, thus named for the sensible reason that it stands 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the entrance gate. Located fairly near the road, with an unusual S-shaped edge and a few picturesque trees lining its base, the 170 meter (560 foot) high dune is one of the most photographed in the park. And climbing is allowed, which also gives it supporting cast status in adventure travel anecdote throughout the world. We snap shots of the celebrity from every possible angle, but no taker for a climb among our lot.

Namib-Big Daddy.

Big Daddy is the ultimate hike in Sossuslvei.

Then we come to Big Daddy. At a height of 330 meters (1050 feet), it is the highest dune in the park and one the highest in the world. I do believe one of us does climb some or all of it. I am too busy dragging myself up a much less impressive incline to get to the Deadvlei (Afrikaan for Dead Lake) pan to take notice.

 

 

 

Namibia-DeadVlei,

A surrealist landscape 900 years in the making.

Once a small basin moist enough to allow camel thorn trees to grow, Deadvlei dried up some 900 years ago due to climate change and encroaching dunes. Today, in the relentless mid-morning sun, the vision of skeletal remains of dead trees rising from the cracked white clay floor against a backdrop of orange dunes looks like a colossal surrealist fresco.

 

Life in the Namib

Namib-Oryx.

This Oryx enjoys the remains of yesterday’s rare downpour.

I’ve come to Namibia for the scenery, not expecting to see much wildlife in such a barren land. Yet the regal Oryx, these desert antelopes with majestic sword-like horns that I had only come across once before in the Kalahari, are everywhere. In spite of the scorching midday heat, we see them repeatedly on our drive back across the Kulala Reserve. We also spot ostriches strutting nonchalantly across the sand, and the occasional springbok. We even get a glance at a silver-back jackal stealthily on the prowl.

A magical Kulala sunset.

After lunch at the camp, I spend  the early hours of the afternoon on the shaded porch of my tent, taking in the stillness of the desert. Its endless vistas of rock and sand look like an overexposed photo in the harsh light of the overhead sun. Then, as it begins to dip down and the landscape regains its full power, Jimmy has one more treat in store for today, a sunset drive to the top of a nearby ridge. He muscles the truck expertly up a perilous rocky slope that I would find hard to handle even on foot, to the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view that redefines infinity. And where we sip our sundowner cocktail while dusk swallows up the horizon.

We enjoy a hearty braai, the traditional southern African barbecue, under the stars,  accompanied by a chorus of barking geckos. Tomorrow, we head north toward the Atlantic Coast and Walvis Bay.

Namib-Kula Sunset 2.

 

Good to Know 

  • A Dune Primer – The Great Dune Field around Sossusvlei is thought to have formed some five million years ago, when sand colored by iron oxide washed from the Orange River in the Kalahari to the sea. The Benguela Current drove the sand north, then northwest winds blew it back inland and began shaping the dunes. The quartz sand that made the Namib dunes shimmers in different colors; the more intense the shade of red, the older the dune. The wind constantly reshapes the dunes, depositing the sand on the windward side. It then slides down on the leeward side (the slip face), which is therefore the steeper side of the dune.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades, recognized for its responsible tourism practices. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arranged my journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo-traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Namibia had been on my radar screen for over a decade. On successive journeys across Africa, the name popped up now and then, usually around the fire at some remote camp. That is when strangers brought together for a day or two by the chance of converging itineraries exchange their most memorable travel experiences. The recurrent tales of parched deserts, mountain-high dunes and eerily fogbound coastlines insidiously worked their way into my mind. Namibia began calling my name in an insistent crescendo.

Namibia - Great Escarpment.

Going over the Great Escarpment feels like an encounter with the edge of the planet.

But there was a major catch. These rugged Namibia cheerleaders spoke of self-drive adventures and sleeping under the stars. My own idea of wilderness travel doesn’t include venturing into one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet at the wheel of a rented four-wheel drive and pitching my own tent at the end of the day. It looked like Namibia might forever remain the top destination on my Africa wish list.

 

Wild About Africa

Then, while researching for a recent article on the economics of solo travel, I came across Wild about Africa, an offshoot of U.K. based Expert Africa, a trusted specialist in high-quality custom-made safaris, and a pioneer in Namibia travel since 1991.

Namibia-Kulala Adventurer_1.

The Kuala Adventurer Camp offers a unique experience of the Namib Desert.

This younger sibling (created in 2003) offers small-group (maximum 7 participants) road trips in custom-designed, guide-driven land cruisers. Accommodations are ideally suited to my idea of “roughing it”: fully staffed tented wilderness camps exclusive to the group, with the occasional hotel or guesthouse stay thrown in where required by the itinerary. Their “Namibia Wilderness Safari” includes everything on my wish list, plus a couple of destinations I haven’t even thought about. The virtually all-inclusive in-country pricing is reasonable and the solo traveler’s upgrade nominal (86 British pounds or 110 U.S. dollars at the time of my visit). I want in!

Namibia-Windhoek Schweringburg,

The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, retains incongruous of its German colonial past.

I promptly dispatch a query, and things keep getting better from here on. The response is near instantaneous, and in spite of the onset of the year-end holidays (admittedly the most awkward time of year to start planning a complex trip), all my questions are thoroughly addressed, often in real time. The amazing Sabina Hekandjo, clearly a Namibia expert in her own right, becomes my new best friend. Within a few weeks, an exhaustive personalized booklet recapping every point of information I could ever need to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure lands in my mailbox. A detailed map of the country and a copy of the award-winning Bradt Guide to Namibia are thoughtfully included. Let the countdown begin!

Where It All Falls Into Place

It’s late afternoon when I land in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, dazed after 24 hours of non-stop travel from Europe via Johannesburg. A greeter from Wild about Africa’s local partner, Wilderness Safaris, takes over. Once delivered to my comfortable guest house in a quiet suburb of Windhoek, I manage to stay awake just long enough to meet my guide, Jimmy Limbo, who drops by to introduce himself and recap the main points of my journey of the next twelve days. I meet my traveling companions the next morning, two friendly couples from Australia and the U.K. respectively.

Namibia-Wilderness Truck.

Our custom-design Wilderness Safari vehicle is masterfully handled by guiding expert Jimmy Longo.

We pile into a custom-designed, extended-cab land cruiser with a pop-up roof, three stepped rows of seats and six slide-down windows, so each passenger gets unrestricted views and photo opportunities. In addition to the 12-volt cigarette lighter charger, the dashboard includes two USB ports to recharge cameras on the go. The rear of the vehicle features a locked luggage compartment and a refrigerator stocked with drinking water and picnic lunches. With its oversized tires and high off the ground chassis, this is one impressive all-terrain truck!

A Tropical Bavaria

For the moment, however, it is smoothly gliding over the asphalt of downtown Windhoek, and I get my first real look at this most unlikely African city. No colorful chaos here, cacophonic crowds or free-for-all traffic that define most African capitals.

Windhoek- Christ Church

A Windhoek landmark, the Lutheran Christ Church is a remainder of Namibia’s colonial past.

Namibia’s largest city (population of 368,000, close to 15 percent of the country’s total of 2,500,000) is a well-groomed, modern provincial town shaped by its colonial past when the country was known as German Southwest Africa. Along the neat avenues lined with palm trees, the orderly traffic flows at the regulated speed of synchronized traffic lights. I take in the skyline where new steel and glass commercial and public buildings incongruously mingle with crenellated medieval towers. Jimmy points out the neo-Romanesque Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church), topped with a sturdy pseudo-Gothic 24-meter (79-foot) spire, circa 1910. Spread across a verdant plateau of the central highlands, some 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) above sea level, and framed by the brush-covered Auas mountain range, Windhoek brings to mind a misplaced tropical Bavaria. I am hitching to get on with “the real Namibia.”

Off The Grid Into The Desert

Khomas Highlands-Rock Formations

Sculptural rock formations rise from roadsite brush.

I don’t have long to wait. Within the next 20 minutes, the asphalt abruptly gives way to to a dirt road that meanders through the soaring amber-colored schist ridges of the Khomas Highlands. In this landscape eighty million years in the making, the rock formations are eye-popping. Occasional ancient rockslides rise out of the brush like gigantic modern sculptures. I start snapping away non-stop.

 

 

Khomas Highlands-Meerkat.

A meerkat stands guard by the roadside.

We are heading southwest toward the Namib Desert, another five-hour drive on washboard gravel roads, so Jimmy tries to keep photo stops to a minimum. Nonetheless, a moment later he pulls to the side and points into the brush: “meerkat,” he announces. Two of them actually, their slender body erect on a rock, in their familiar standing-guard position. Scenery is definitely the main event in Namibia, but we get interesting wildlife sightings as well, birds mainly, such as a colony of social weavers busily adding an extension to their already tree-sized common nest, and bright russet-colored chestnut weavers for whom nest-building is all about hanging out (quite literally, upside down).

Namibia-Kulala rain.

The Kulala Wilderness Reserve after the rain.

After a quick roadside picnic lunch under a shady camelthorn tree, we continue on over the Great Escarpment, and down in the gravel foothills of the Nautkluft Mountains. Then the unexpected happens. Clouds start building overhead, and ahead of us a wide telltale opaque gray vertical stripe reaches down to the mountaintops. Rain! My heart sinks. I’ve been waiting for decades to experience to one of the most parched deserts on the planet. It cannot rain on the day I get there! Jimmy, on the other hand sounds excited as the clouds keep building and huge drops start splattering our windshield. He says something about the start of the rainy season. What rainy season? Isn’t this place supposed to get barely 100 millimeters of rain in a good year? I keep my peevish thoughts to myself.

Namib-Kulala light.

The landscape changes color with the light.

By now, we are steadily moving through a middle-of-nowhere landscape of lake-size puddles that the parched earth has yet to absorb, featureless save for the black shadow of a mountain range. But shortly after the downpour subsides, the topography returns. We are now in a broad valley, and the mountains on both sides go from black to purple to a warm golden brown as the sky clears up. A right angle turn reveals a half-dozen tents tucked along the base of the mountain. We are in the heart of the 18,5 hectare (46,000 acre) private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, at the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. And this is the remote Kulala Adventurer Camp, our home for the next two nights, with its friendly staff of two.

Desert Advendure At Its Breathtaking Best

Namibia-Kulala Vista.

The setting sun turns the mountains into burnished gold.

My tent is a cozy three-meter by three-meter dome, raised on a large, canvas-covered wooden platform, with two comfortable cots clad in crisp white cotton bedding. At its rear, the full bathroom with a solar-heated shower and flush toilet is conveniently supplied with a stack of thick cotton bath towels and a full range of biodegradable toiletries. At night, lighting is provided by solar-powered LED fixtures. But the best feature of my desert abode is the front veranda, where I can take in the pyrotechnics of the African sunset on the valley, and the mountains and dunes beyond. The sun has returned just in time to bathe the landscape in burnished gold. Then the sky begins to blaze in every shades of crimson to purple before suddenly fading to black.

At dinner, a wholesome, freshly prepared three-course menu, Jimmy announces the morning schedule: wake-up call at five (!), breakfast at five-thirty, departure by six, which, he explains, will get us in the Sossuslvei dunes area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park just in time to watch the sun rise over the most famous sand dunes on the planet.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – For overseas visitors, Hosea Kutako International Airport, located a 45-minute drive east of Windhoek is the main entry point in the country. Visitors from most Western and Asian countries may enter Namibia visa-free for up to 90 days.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced quality small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa. They are a fully-bonded member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa. They offer private access to over 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Kulala Wilderness Reserve

Windhoek, Namibia

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

Today we visit Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air), one of the largest Orthodox monastic complexes in Greece, built from the fourteenth to sixteenth century on gigantic sandstone pillars towering over the northwestern corner of the Thessaly Plain. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain and are still home to small religious communities.

Monasteries in the Clouds

Meteorga Monastry Complex

The monasteries of Meteora overlooks the Plain of Thessaly

It is one of the most visited historic sites in Greece and we happen to be here during a long holiday weekend. Anticipating crowds, our Tripology Adventures leader Yoav Barashi, has called for an early start and arranged a mid-morning privately-guided tour for us at Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ).

 

 

Grand Meteron

Steps hugging the chasm lead to the entrance of the monastery.

Perched on Platys Lithos (or Broad Rock) over 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the plain, Great Meteoron is the highest as well as the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It is slow going on the recently built road up to the nearby plateau. From the small parking area, the monastery is reached by a footbridge that straddles the chasm and leads us to the base of the 300 steps cut into the rock face.

 

Just a Basket on a Rope

Grand Meteoron pulley tower.

At Grand Meteoron the pulley system is still used to lift up supplies.

I recall a friend who had spent a summer roaming around mainland Greece in the mid-1970’s telling me how she had happened onto “a forest of colossal stone pillars topped with medieval monasteries” at the edge of the Thessaly Plain. It was a well kept secret then, with no visible mean of access other than an oversize basket pulled up and down by a basic rope and pulley system to transport the monks when they went down to the village for supplies.

After several days’ wait she was able to make contact with one of them and get a lift up for a visit. That was before James Bond gave Meteora its moment in the limelight by tracking villains to the Holy Trinity monastery for the suspense ending of its 1981 caper “For your eyes only,” and UNESCO anointed the complex a World Heritage Site in 1988.

 

 

Grand Meteoron Wine Cellar

Meteoron Wine Cellar

Much has changed since then. A licensed English speaking local guide leads us on a comprehensive tour of Grand Meteoron. With only three monks remaining in residence, the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.

The original refectory with its elegantly vaulted ceiling now holds the monastery’s rich collection of ancient manuscripts and icons. The ossuary can also be viewed, with its grizzly display of skulls of the earliest residents neatly lined against the back wall. For me the gem of the visit is the katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity).

A Repository of Hellenic Culture

Grand Meteoron Katholitikono Dome

The Katholiticon is topped with an elaborate twelve-sided dome.

Due to its isolated location, Meteora became an academic and artistic safe heaven during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece. Hellenic culture and traditions were kept alive here, especially at Great Meteoron. The monastery attracted among its early disciples Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king who became a monk here in 1373 and endowed his fortune to the monastery. The Church of the Transfiguration built in 1388 and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with a striking twelve sided dome. They are a fine example of orthodox architecture and a perfect backdrop for the icons adorning the sanctuary.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Painted in the late fifteenth century, the frescoes of the katholikon are in the Macedonian style, depicting the Virgin Enthroned and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially note images of Christ Pantocrator that remind me of the early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia. The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 are in the more rigid style of the Cretan school and recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. It is a rare pleasure to come across ancient frescoes that have been so well protected by their isolated environment that they are still in their original state and in remarkable condition.

Zebekiko Send-off

Athens - Acropolis at Night/

The Acropolis aglow against the night sky.

We head back to Athens to next morning. The smooth, multi-lane highway with its slick roadside rest stops and souvenir shops is a bit of a culture shock. After a detour for a long seaside lunch of freshly fished seafood at a small resort on the Gulf of Corinth we get back into our vehicles for the last leg back to the Hotel Alexandros. The mood is subdued. I trust I am not the only one to feel a pang of regret to have arrived at the end my Greek Odyssey.

 

Athens - Psiri Neightborhood Tavern

Psiri Tavern

But I am premature in my assumption. Izhar Gamlieli, the Tripology Adventures co-founder who has been in the background all week orchestrating our off-road expedition, has one more treat in store for us. As the starry night falls on Athens we follow our Tripology hosts through the trendy streets of the once gritty Psiri neighborhood to one of its oldest taverns for an epic farewell dinner of the best local specialties, live Rebetika music and laughter.

 

Athens - Zebekiko Dance

Nikos’ farewell Zebekiko

As the evening wears on, Nikos Manolis, our wonderful lead driver (and a national figure in the Greek rally racing community) who has led us though this unforgettable off-road adventure, finally breaks into the Zebekiko dance we have been begging him to do for us for the past week. Move over Zorba! Before long a couple of other patrons come to watch, respectfully waiting for Nikos to acknowledge them with the traditional tap on the foot before taking part in the dance. And then we, a group of reserved strangers a mere eight days ago and now a band of friends, all join in. And the Zebekiko (which traditionally is danced by men only) turns into a would-be Sirtaki kicking line with much joking and laughter.

After this unique opportunity to encounter the Greece of the Greek people, I have fallen in love with the country and can’t wait for a return visit. As for off-road touring? This experience was so intoxicating that I feel the Tripology Adventures logo should include a warning label. I am already poring through their itineraries for my next destination.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grand Meteoron, Greece

Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

Hard to imagine but the landscape keeps getting more dramatic as we zigzag up and down the dirt roads of the Agrafa, deep in the Evrytania region toward Lake Kremaston, the largest artificial lake in Greece. And I find it easier to enjoy the view now that my car mate Mary Bailey has asked about the tiny roadside shrines standing at the very edge of the most precipitous drops. They are getting more frequent as we go deeper into the wilderness. Since Mary is by now doing all of the driving, I understand her concern. They are kandilakia, and yes, they sometime commemorate fatal accidents, but they are just as likely to give thanks for catastrophes avoided, Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, assures us. Or they can simply mark a spot for an instant of private devotion as people go about their daily business.

Of Olympian Gods and Judas Trees

Greece - Pindus. Lake Kremaston

Lake Kremaston and Episkopi Bridge.

Under a robin’s egg blue sky, the scenery is a riot of colors. When first revealed from high on a ridge, Lake Kremaston is a palette of greens from pale jade to emerald, turning to teal whenever the sun hides behind a cluster of puffy white clouds. The Judas trees are in full bloom, splashing the mountainside with random hot pink patches. This is a photographer’s paradise and every few minutes someone gets on the radio to announce an impromptu photo stop, until Yoav ends the chaos by telling us the best vantage point is just ahead. Once we are back in our cars, he finds a sure way to keep our unruly lot going. He entertains us with a story. Yoah is an Olympic-class storyteller. Whenever driving conditions allow, he takes to the radio and weaves mythological tales for us (with voices) with such an irreverent humor he has us all asking for more. Who knew that Greek mythology was all about testosterone-laden Zeus, all these demi-gods birthed from his various body parts and his wife Hera’s dim view of his shenanigans!

Greece - Pindus. Trikerotis River.

We stop of a break on the sandy shore of the Trikeriotis River.

By now we have crossed the Episkopi Bridge to the far size of the lake. We follow the tree-shaded shore of the Trikeriotis River where we reach a sandy beach and find Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, putting finishing touches to our morning break. The river looks like liquid rock crystal as it rushes toward the lake.

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa village.

We reach of small village high in the Agrafa.

It’s a long, steep climb out of this idyllic place. At times the road seems little more than a ledge not much wider than our cars and with lots of sharp turns. I wonder idly what would happen if we were to come face to face with an incoming car? Mercifully, I don’t have to find out. All we see are goats that bounce up the mountain at the sight of us. Eventually the road widens and flattens a bit and we come to a village. Yaov tells us to walk down to the platia while Nikos, our lead driver, takes the cars down. I pause to snap a few shots of the valley below, and almost get knocked of my feet by jet engine thunder. The culprits are already vanishing behind the next ridge before I grasp what just happened. Here I am in a remote village that has been clinging to its mountainside since the days of the Ottoman invasion, and I am getting buzzed by the Greek air force!

Into Monastery Country

The footpath down is so precipitous it could have been traced by the goats. Although well kept, the village looks deserted. I don’t see a soul until I reach the platia and find Izhar once again on catering duty setting up a buffet lunch.

Greece - Pindus. Proussos Monastery,

The Proussos Monastery is home to a sacred icon said to have healing powers.

Back on the road, and there actually is a proper road here, albeit narrow and hewed into the rock high above the Karpenisiotis River, we head to the Panaghia Prousiotissa (or Proussos Monastery). According to tradition this monastery partially overhanging the edge of a chasm traces its roots back to the discovery by local shepherds of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. Originally from Proussa (in Asia Minor) the icon is said to have found its way to a shallow cave here during the reign of the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842 AD). Believed to have healing powers, it has remained to this day in its shelter within the monastery that was built around it starting in the twelfth century. It is a place of pilgrimage for faithful from all over Greece. In addition to the icon, the chapel that surrounds the cave also includes thirteenth and sixteenth century frescoes. With Karpenisi only 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away, we are back at the Hotel Spa Montana in plenty of time for me to enjoy a water massage in the spa’s elegant glassed-in pool before dinner. Tonight we discover another of Izhar and Yoav’s favorite restaurants in a nearby village. That’s one of the pleasures of traveling with them; they know all the best places and have friends everywhere. This gets us invited to visit the kitchen and witness the unveiling of a delicious lamb and potato stew that has been simmering for hours cocooned in charcoals in an ancient oven.

One More Mountain Pass, or Two

Greece - Pindus, Niala Peak

From Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass the view reaches the vast expanse of Lake Plastiras and the plain of Thessaly.

Although I have been happily loosing track of time recently, it’s clear than we are now bound for the end point of our expedition, the medieval monastery complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Meteora. But before we reach it, there is still an exciting day ahead. We start with a morning climb from the Karpenisiotis Valley to a mountaintop café for our morning break, followed by a steep drive down into a gorge of the Agrafiotis River where we enjoy a waterside lunch of freshly grilled trout at a local trout farm before the climb to the Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass. At an altitude of 1,657 meters (5,436 feet) the pass is one of the highest in Greece and well above the tree line. Then it’s down again to the northwestern edge of the plain of Thessaly and our first jaw-dropping sight of the famed monasteries of Meteora atop their colossal sandstone pinnacles.

Greece - Pindus. Kalambaka Dusk.

In Kalambaka, our al fresco dinner comes with a glorious view the night falling over the Pindus Mountains

We settle at the four-star Famissi Eden Hotel in Kalambaka where my room has a large balcony with a straight up view of the monasteries. It is the start of the long May-Day Weekend in Greece and when we go for dinner at a lovely Main Street restaurant terrace, the town is lively with tourists, the first we have seen all week. An omen of what awaits us tomorrow when we visit the Meteora complex… to be continued.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Monastery of Proussos, Evrytania.

Karpenisi

Kalambaka