Our vacations are most meaningful when they take us by surprise for a richer, more profound experience. This vacation transcended that expectation. With its formidable energy, the spirit of Africa engulfed us. It was impossible not to recognize a deeper sense of being and a genuine connectedness to nature while traveling through the strikingly vast and arid lands of Namibia.
Namibia lies in the southwest corner of Africa. It shares borders with the Atlantic Ocean, Zambia, Angola, Botswana, and South Africa. Namibia is the world’s thirty-fourth largest country, and one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It is an unparalleled world of deserts and dreams.
Our adventure through Namibia started in the country’s capital, Windhoek. Our late evening arrival provided us with just enough time to lighten our duffle bags and get a good night’s rest before beginning our fly-in/fly-out safari, a specialized tour that uses chartered Cessna airplanes to access remote lodges and bush camps.
By the next morning, we were flying over Namibia’s expansive terrain to reach our first destination, Sossusvlei.
We flew with Wings Over Africa, a family owned and operated business based in Namibia. By this point, Chris and the girls were numb with excitement in anticipation of starting our weeklong adventure.
This was a big change from the 777s that we’re used to. In a much more confined space, we all had an opportunity to take turns sitting in the co-pilot seat. The girls and I decided that Chris would go first.
Namibia from the sky. The strikingly forsaken terrain was unbelievably barren, but, at the same time, diverse and artistically pleasing to the discerning eye.
Sossusvlei is located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, and Namibia’s most spectacular attraction. Vast open spaces, endless horizons, and a tranquil sea of burnt-orange sand dunes characterize the naturally preserved environment. It’s a place that almost seems too perfect for this world.
After an hour of flight time, our pilot, Fabien, made a sensational decent toward and onto a rugged landing strip in the middle of the Namib Desert. In absolute awe and disbelief of where we were and how we got there, we were speechless. It was the first of many indescribable moments to come our way.
Chris and the girls standing on the “bush strip” where we landed.
It didn’t take long to hear that Fabien has a reputation for his unique piloting prowess. He is able to engage in maneuvers that many other pilots aren’t capable of, or willing to do, which explained our landing!
In pure Fabein style, he departed with a dip of a wing that quickly turned into a 90 degree turn before disappearing into the morning sky.
Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is discretely tucked away in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which boasts more than 445,000 acres of pristine wilderness.
A view from our deck. The most amazing thing about this location is its sheer silence. The absolute stillness in the air was shockingly palpable.
A herd of oryx (gemsbok) grazing in the dry grasslands near the lodge. Oryx is an antelope species that is native to Africa. They are unusually attractive creatures with a horse-like body, cow-like face, white socks, and an impressive set of long, lethal horns.
This trusting oryx wandered up to our patio to steal a little late-afternoon shade.
One of our favorite activities in Soussesvlei was going on a sunset quad biking tour in the reserve.
Kylee is a little daredevil on the quads! When the group’s pace got too slow for her, she purposely slowed down and then went all out to catch up.
One of the best things about African safaris is evening sundowners. After an exciting day of game drives, nature hikes, or quad biking, there’s time for refreshing beverages and a light snack while watching the sun hit the horizon. Our tour guide, Vicky, setting up a sundowner on the front of a Range Rover.
With no light pollution, the reserve offers some of the best stargazing on the planet. In a deep, vast pool of utter darkness, an endless display of stars, and the ethereal light of the Milky Way, shine brightly above Namibia’s unforgiving land. (Observing the Milky Way at Namib Nature Reserve. Photo by Matthew Hodgson. http://www.alpha-lyrae.co.uk).
The girls and me cooling off in the lodge’s spring-fed pool.
The dunes of the Namib Desert were created when winds blew sand inland from the coast. The sand is 5 million years old and rich in iron oxide (which creates the red color). The Namib Dunes are some of the highest dunes in the world, standing more than 380 meters above ground.
The best time of the day to visit the dunes is the early morning or the early evening when the colors are strong and the shadows change with the light.
We hiked the rim of “Big Momma.” It’s one of the most popular dunes to hike because it offers spectacular views from the top and it stands above Deadvlei, a clay pan peppered with petrified camel thorn acacia trees.
Our shadows leaving a temporary mark on the sand below. Deadvlei is the white patch in the top left-hand corner of the picture.
One last picture before running down the dunes into the pan.
There’s no way this little girl was going to pass up the opportunity of running and jumping down Big Momma barefoot. Pure joy and contentment!
This is a view of Big Momma from the bottom. If you look closely, you can see a group of people climbing it.
Deadvlei is one of the most photographed sites in Namibia. The petrified camel thorn acacia trees (Chris’s new favorite tree) are approximately 900 years old.
After two blissful days in Sossusvlei, Fabien returned to pick us up to continue our journey through Namibia. On our way to the next destination, Damaraland, we took the scenic route and soared above an abandoned, century old diamond camp and skimmed along the Skeleton Coast before stopping in Swakopmund to refuel, fix a broken brake line, and change pilots.
Our plane’s shadow somewhere along the Skeleton Coast. The bushmen of the Namibien interior referred to this area as “The Land God Made in Anger.”
The shipwreck of Eduard Bohlen, a German cargo ship that ran aground in 1909 due to poor visibility from thick fog. It currently sits a quarter-mile from the shoreline because the sea of sand is slowing winning a constant battle with the ocean.
The Shawnee Shipwreck, a fishing troller that was stranded in 1976.
After the shipwrecks, we flew over Cape Cross, a breeding colony for more than 300,000 Cape fur seals.
A little more off the unbeaten path, Damaraland’s strikingly untamed terrain impresses the most critical bush trackers. In one of the driest, most desolate regions of Africa, it’s rugged mountains and broad plains offer some of the most spectacular views. For wildlife enthusiast, sparse green valleys provide ideal locations for tracking and locating the rare desert-adapted elephant.
A stunning view of the Brandberg Mountains towering over Damaraland’s desert plains and ancient valleys.
Damaraland Camp, in grand isolation, is perfectly nestled in a prehistoric setting.
Our first evening in Damaraland was spent at an African boma. Bomas are heavily fortified and enclosed wooden fences used to protect livestock. Farmers continue to use them, but many game lodges, including Damaraland Camp, are using them to provide unique dining experiences for their guests. Under the moon and stars, and around a central fire and dozens of lighted lanterns, a memorable evening is created with food and entertainment.
The women of Damaraland Camp entertained us with traditional song and dance before dinner (which included asparagus soup in tin mugs and African fat cakes). The women often spoke in their native tongue, khoekhoe; a language that uses clicking sounds to pronounce consonants.
Our first full day in Damaraland was spent spotting elephants in the Huab River Valley.
On our way through the valley, we stumbled across a herd of ostrich.
A young herd of elephants mingling near a waterhole.
This newborn, Valentine, was following her mom to a thicket of trees.
Valentine received her name from the special day that she was born. If you look at her tail, you’ll notice that it’s crimped; a result of falling on and breaking it during birth.
This elephant was cooling himself by using his trunk to spray dirt on his legs. Chris, our tour guide said it perfectly, “An elephant without his trunk is not an elephant.”
Q: Why do elephants cross their legs? A: It’s irrelephant!
The girls with Chris, our phenomenal tour guide in Damaraland!
Ally was our private photographer during the trip. She recently used her own money to purchase a digital SLR. During our travels in Namibia, we met some amazing people; many of whom offered their time and knowledge to give Ally some of their best photography tips. Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Ally.
After a long day of elephant spotting, Kylee enjoyed a private moment on the deck, cradling a cup of hot vanilla tea, while gazing into a desert that never ends.
One of the funniest stories from our time spent in Namibia happened during our first night in Damaraland. Around 2:00am, Chris, the girls, and I all woke up to the indisputable sound of loud, heavy tramping noises behind our tented-chalets (large, heavy canvas tents under thatched roofs). Thoughts and visions of mischievous elephants or hungry rhinos filled our minds. With no artificial light outside the chalets, it was impossible to see what was moving around us. After a restless night of wondering what large creature visited the camp, we rushed to breakfast to find out. It turns out that the wild creatures that widened our eyes and made our hearts beat just a little bit faster were donkeys! Yup, donkeys! Not even a rare desert-adapted donkey. Just your typical cart-pulling, people-carrying, grass-grazing donkey.
Etosha National Park
Our third, and final destination, was one of Africa’s great game parks, Etosha National Park. The park supports 114 species of mammals, over 340 species of birds, and a salt pan that can be seen from space. Some of the best gaming views in the park take place during the heat of the day when predators are inactive and, therefore, many of the animals feel safe to visit waterholes.
In Etosha, we stayed at a Onguma Fort, which is adjacent to the park and situated in a private reserve comprised of more than 8,000 acres of protected land. The fort overlooks a private waterhole that guests can view from the open dining room, a raised deck, and the swimming pool. This photo (and the photo below) were taken while we were eating lunch in the restaurant.
A close-up of zebra and wildebeest drinking from the fort’s private waterhole. It’s not unusual to see giraffe, oryx, hartebeest, black rhinos, and zebra hanging around the waterhole. Sometimes, lions, cheetahs, or leopards will wander in looking for prey.
We were lucky enough to begin our full-day safari In the park with the sighting of a “number 2”, a black rhino. They are typically difficult to find because they like to hide in the bush.
This giraffe didn’t seem to mind the spotted hyaena that joined him for a drink.
Wildebeests crossing the plains in search of food and water.
A large group of impala playing “follow the leader” with a zebra.
This gentle giant was behind a tree when our guide first spotted him. After a few minutes, he came out of hiding gnawing on a twig.
Dik-Diks are the cutest of all the African animals. The dwarf-sized antelopes are only 12-16 inches tall at the shoulder, but it’s their giant, brown eyes and thick, long eyelashes that grab at the heartstrings. Unfortunately, they’re not domesticated!
A few kudo grazing in a pasture of green grass.
This is one of Ally’s favorite pictures – a “Flying Banana.” It’s appropriately named because of its banana-shaped beak.
We saw a lion and her cub on our first sunset drive night in the preserve, but the pictures didn’t turn out very well, so we were happy to get some great shots of a momma cheetah and her two cubs. When we first spotted them, they were quietly sitting under a shade tree.
It wasn’t too long before the cubs got up and started running, jumping, and playing.
The cubs ran up this tree and jumped back down, giving us a little show.
The momma cheetah wasn’t fond of the jackal getting too close to her cubs, so she chased him off. She wasn’t interested in having him for lunch, she just didn’t want him around.
The skies, day or night, in Namibia are extraordinary and breathtaking!
Our last African sunset and sundowner!
Fabien, Martin, and Wings Over Africa
Some of our favorite memories from this trip came from the time we spent with our pilots, Fabien and Martin. Their specialized training in aerobatics and aircraft recovery gave them the ability to make our flights a little more exciting with abrupt dives, ninety-degree angles, and skimming the coastline within yards of the waves. Those moments easily stand on their own to create an extraordinary experience.
Martin, who spent more time with us, elevated the girls’ experience into a “once in a lifetime” experience by letting them fly the plane! Their faces have never shined so brightly or looked so happy than their time in the co-pilot’s seat with the yoke tightly gripped in their hands.
The plane that we flew in during our weeklong adventure in Africa.
Of the two girls, Kylee bravely offered to sit in the co-pilot’s seat first. She flew next to Martin from Damaraland to Etosha National Park. She had the opportunity to flip the switch that lifts the landing gear, and control the yoke for a few minutes.
Ally sat in the co-pilot’s seat during our flight from Etosha National Park back to Windhoek. She had the opportunity to control the yoke for forty to forty-five minutes. Martin taught her how to use the altitude gauge and GPS, so she knew when to turn the yoke to the right or left, and when to pull the yoke up or push it down.
Our family with Martin. We spent a lot of time with him in the air and on the ground, and truly enjoyed his company and affable personality! He was missed from the moment we departed ways at Eros Airport. Even today, out of the blue, one of the girls will say, “I miss Martin!”