Armstrong Adventures travel blog

Dana shreds the dunes

Radical Dude!

The incredible view at sunrise from Dune 45

A ~900 year old dead tree in the middle of the dead...

Hello From Swakopmund, Namibia!

We are exactly one week into our first 3 week overland trip and we find ourselves in the small seaside town of Swakopmund surrounded by incredible sand dunes and desert. Namibia was annexed by Germany in the late 19th century and Swakopmund in German means "mouth of Swakop". What the tourism office of Swakopmund rarely discloses is that in Nama, one of the early languages spoken in the region,"swakop" means, literally "shit-smelling river". So really, the name of this town is Mouth of the Shit Smelling River. Fortunately, if that river really does smell bad, we don't know it because it runs underground. About every ten years there is enough rain inland to flood the rivers flowing out to the Atlantic and the river flows above ground. Apparently it is such a big deal here when that happens that all the shops close and everyone goes and camps out along the river. So, I guess it probably doesn't really smell that bad, or they are just so excited to see water flowing they don't care about the smell.

But, enough about water, as we haven't seen much here. For a girl who grew up surrounded by mountains and water life in the desert is very exciting, if not a bit hot. Being on the coast is a nice break from the 92 to 103F temperatures we've been camping in this week. Swakopmund is a relatively cool upper 60's.

Namibia is a vast country, a little more than 500,000 square miles with a population of 1.8 million. That is not a typo, there are not many people here. We drove for hours through southern Namibia without seeing so much as a car on the road, much less a house or a farm by the side of the road. It was actually part of South Africa as Southwest Africa until 1990 when they became an independent country. They've had the same president since 1990, but there are elections coming up this year. Apparently, by their consititution, the president can't run for another term, but no one seems to know who will be running.

One of the most outstanding natural attractions in the country is an area called Sossusvlei which is on the eastern border of the Namib Desert. "Vlei" is Afrikaans for a flat pan area where water sinks down as ground water. In the desert when the river does flow, every 5-7 years, the river bed becomes a vlei once the river dries up. It provides an area where vegetation can grow at the base of the massive dunes. "Sossus" actually comes from the word "tsossus" which means a place where man disappears into the sand". Back when the bushmen where pushed into the desert by the whites and blacks in southern Africa the whites and blacks would go to this area and the bushman would attack them with poison arrows and kill the whole party so no one could return inland to report on what had happened. Then the next group would go there and they, too would be killed with poison arrows by the bushman. And so on. No one knew what had happened to the men that went there so it became the place where men disappeared into the sand.

Sossusvlei is actually huge area (300km long and 150km wide) that encompasses 63 dunes on either side of the dry river bed (the vlei), each numbered 1-63. The picture above is from Dune 45, which is the dune where all the tourists go to climb to watch the sunrise. Notice the annoying tourists who, wanting to get a better picture than everyone else, stood right in the middle of the shot the rest of us had. But, aside from that, what an incredible place to take in the sunrise. Then, after we climbed down the dune around 7:30am we had yummy french toast and bacon waiting for us at the truck. Not a bad way to start the day!

The rust orange color of the dunes is created by the iron in the ground. The sand that is blown into the area from the sea is actually white. But the rust from the iron turns the white sand this brilliant hue. Because the wind only blows either east to west (in the winter) or west to east (in the summer) these dunes don't shift much. The guide from our desert walk showed us a picture he took 8 years ago. He parked in the same place where he took the picture and the dune in front of us looked exactly as it did 8 years ago. The only difference was the amount of vegatation in the picture. In 1997 there was record rain fall that flooded the whole area, holding the water there for over 18 months and another flood, a little smaller, in 2001. Consequently, there is an unprecedented amount of green shrubs and trees along the vlei.

Our desert walk took us through the dunes to an area that is now cut off from any river flow by the sand moving in from the ocean. Because it hasn't had any water in centuries all the plants have long since died, but the desert is so arid it takes a long time for things to decompose. A banana peel, for example, takes 60 years to decompose in the desert. This area is called Dead Vlei (see the picture above). The shifting sand, in another few hundred years, will fill in this vlei and cut off the end of Sossusvlei, then creating another dead vlei.

Our guide on the desert walk grew up in this area and was a fountain of knowledge about all things desert. He explained how the different animals survive in the desert, how they find water, who they prey on, that the spend the heat of the day about 3 meters under the sand, etc. And all this time I just thought it was just a big pile of sand, but it's really a very alive world.

We drove about 4 hours north from Sossusvlei to get to Swakopmund, but we broke up the long drive with a night of camping in Solitaire, Namibia, the smallest town in the country, population 7. It is literally, in the middle of nowhere, but if you look on fairly good map of Namibia you will see it, a little southwest of Windhoek, the capitol of Namibia. Solitaire used to be a farm in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest town more than 2 hours in any direction. The owner of the farm put in a gas station and a general store and it became a town. When we rolled into town we doubled the population.

Swakopmund, it turns out is the adrenelin capitol of southern africa. We had our choices of paragliding, hanggliding, parasailing, skydiving, sandboarding, quadbiking (ATVs), a ride in a microlight...the list goes on and on...We chose to stay on the ground. What I was looking forward to most was sandboarding. (See me shredding above!) It took a little getting used to as sand is a little different from snow, but it is essentially the same sport. But, here it's much more of a work out as there are no ski lifts! Yes, we boarded down, took off our board and climbed back up the dune and started all over again. But I loved every minute of it! It was awesome to be at the top of the "mountain" and look out across the beautiful dunes toward the ocean, and ride down in shorts and a tank top. Snowden had never snowboarded before and he gave a good try, however, I don't think he enjoyed the actually sandboarding as much as I did. But they also had pieces of particle board waxed on one side that we could lay on and fly down the dune (see the Radical Dude above!). What a rush! You can't steer, you definitely want to make sure you are lifting the front lip, or you'll get a face full of sand, and you are completely at the mercy of gravity! The first run they sent us down they said we were going about 40kph, the second, starting much higher and ending with a bit of a jump, got us up to 80kph!

Tomorrow we pile back into the truck and head back out into the desert. The next time you'll hear from us will be early April from Victoria Falls, between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

I hope everyone is well!

Take care.


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