A long and fairly tedious walk – but rewarded by the view from the Window, a canyon that cuts through the Chisos mountain rim
This is another walk that’s probably very busy at certain times of the year, but as I set out an hour before sunset there’s no-one else around. Although late in the day, I was looking for a trail that might provide a good sunset vantage point. The trail starts at the Basin car park – although you can also start at the Basin Campground (making it a slightly shorter route).
The well-made trail soon starts descending, with the destination visible in the distance: the V-shaped gap at the of the valley (to the immediate left of the gap is Carter Peak, and to the right is Vernon Bailey Peak). There’s no marked track to the top of Vernon Bailey Peak, but you can hike to the top and the views are said to be among the best in Big Bend.
Catching the last of the sun’s rays is Pulliam Peak (or Pulliam Bluff) – one of the two main peaks making up the northwestern rim of the Basin along with Vernon Bailey Peak.
The trail is fairly exposed for the first mile as it crosses the middle of the Basin, until it reaches Oak Creek. It then enters a forest of pines, oaks and juniper.
The trail follows Oak Creek, and after 2.3 miles (3.7km) there’s a junction with the Oak Springs Trail. This trail leads to a look-out, and continues down toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – The Window can also be reached via this track, which I’ve read is a more scenic route (but a 4WD is recommended to reach the trailhead). Just after this junction the trail enters a rock canyon, carved by Oak Creek. The creek is the only drainage point for the entire Basin, so while rainfall is low, when there is a storm considerable water is funnelled through the canyon.
Near the end of the canyon there are stone steps carved into the rocks, and Oak Creek is crossed several times.
The Window marks the end of the canyon: a narrow crevice carved by Oak Creek, with a sheer, vertical drop to the desert floor below. The canyon floor is smooth and slippery, so caution is needed.
Facing almost directly west, it’s not a bad spot to photograph the sunset, with the “window” framing distant Chisos mountains.
I stay here for half an hour or so, as the sky gets gradually more orange… there’s no-one else here, and the photos don’t really do justice to the view and serenity.
Eventually I need to get going – not so much as it’s starting to get dark (I have a head-torch), but because I’m getting pretty hungry, and I’ve got a 2.8 mile hike back out I need to do before the restaurant closes…
The Basin car park (or the Basin campground, which makes the hike slightly shorter)
A long day walk that ascends Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park, and continues to the South Rim, Southeast Rim and Northeast Rim. Spectacular views for most of the route!
Today’s my second and last day at Big Bend, and I’m up early for a big hike… The plan is to hike up to Emory Peak and the South Rim via the Pinnacles Trail, then do a circuit of the South Rim via the Southeast and Northeast Rim Trails, before returning to The Basin on the Laguna Meadows Trail. A long hike, but one described as “one of the most impressive in the park”, so I’m looking forward to the day.
The Basin to Emory Peak junction (Pinnacles Trail) – 5.2km / 3.2 miles (465m ascent)
After the drive from Terlingua Ranch Lodge, I set-out from The Basin car park around 7:30am, with the well-marked trail immediately climbing up towards the mountains.
It’s a steady, but not steep, climb up to Juniper Flat, a nice grassy plain where the first marked camping sites are located. The trail follows the base of a low mountain range that forms part of the eastern Chisos mountains.
From time to time there are views out to the east over Juniper Canyon, although much of the trail is through forest.
It’s a surprisingly varied environment. There are sections of thick and deeply shaded forest, including what I think is Graves Oak (Chisos Red Oak), which display a deep red foliage in autumn (fall). Moments later, cactus plants are a reminder we are in the Texan desert!
There’s more fantastic views as the trail climbs.
After a final steep section of switch-backs, the trail reaches a saddle between Toll Mountain and Emory Peak. There’s a lots of shade here, as well as toilets and large bear-proof containers for anyone leaving a backpack for the trail up to Emory Peak.
The trail quickly leaves the forest, as it follows the ridge towards Emory Peak, and with a very gentle incline.
It’s very pleasant hiking, with views of Boot Rock and across to Toll Mountain.
As the trail gets closer to the peak – directly ahead are the two rocky peaks – it gets more exposed. To the north you can see The Basin, our starting point, in the distance. It’s rather obvious from here how it gets its name!
There’s a last, steep section to get to the summit. Or rather, the base of the summit. As Emory Peak consists of two rocky columns. Both can be climbed with some scrambling: the right, or northern, column (below left) is slightly higher. Both have almost vertical cliffs on all sides, so while it’s not a difficult climb you don’t want to suffer vertigo or have a fear of heights for this last bit.
The views from either peak are outstanding, with a 360-degree outlook over Big Bend National Park, and beyond. Looking north is The Basin and the Chisos mountains.
To the south is the Rio Grande, and Mexico.
The panoramic views are stunning, and it takes some effort to clamber back down the rock, to return back down to the South Rim Trail.
It’s easy walking back down to the saddle, with the hardest part of the hike behind me. (It’s all downhill from here! Well, almost…)
Boot Spring Trail – 2.9km / 1.8 miles (80m ascent)
From the junction with the Emory Peak Trail, the Pinnacles Trail becomes the Boot Canyon Trail. It descends very gradually towards Boot Canyon, with “the boot” visible in the distance.
An interesting rock formation that can be seen from quite a distance away, it gets it’s name because it looks like an up-turned cowboy boot…
As the track nears a spring in Boot Canyon, a couple of deer graze by the track (the only wildlife I’ve seen so far).
Not too much further along and there’s a very basic and somewhat dilapidated shelter by the track, which I later learn is used as a shelter by rangers and maintenance staff performing repairs to the radio tower on Emory Peak. There’s a short track down to the spring, which is the only spring in the high Chisos mountains. I’ve read it is not reliable, but today there’s a decent flow of water. It’s a very sheltered and cool spot in a small valley, and would make a nice rest spot on a hot day.
Not much further on and fed by the spring is a small pond. The bottom looked a little slimy and I’m not sure that swimming in such natural ponds is encouraged, but would have been deep enough to cool of on a hotter day.
What was striking on this section of the trail was the Bigtooth Maple trees, their bright red leaves contrasting with the greenery of the firs and other evergreen trees.
The trail soon leaves the shaded valley as it climbs up Boot Canyon, reaching the junction with the Northeast Rim Trail about half-way up.
Northeast and Southeast Rim Trails – 3.9km / 2.4 miles (140m ascent)
Although the track is still well marked, as I turn-off onto the Northeast Rim Trail it’s a bit more overgrown and seems to be a lot less travelled. (I’ve seen a few people on the trails so far, but not one person on this section.) The trail traverses grassy plans and light forest as it climbs up to the rim.
As the track starts to follow the rim, there are views far out to the north-east, over Juniper Canyon and to Crown Mountain and beyond.
The views are just stunning as the trail follows the edge of the rim, with desert and mountains as far as the eye can see! (I’ve read the views are far less clear toward Mexico due to power stations causing pollution – but I’ve nothing to compare to.)
There are a number of rock platforms providing a spectacular vantage point over the Big Bend National Park.
As the track starts swinging around to the south, there are views over the Chisos Formation to the Elephant Tusk and Dominguez Mountain (with the Rio Grande beyond).
The trail continues to swing around to the south-east as it follows the steep cliff line, with the Sierra Quemada (which translates to “the Burned Mountains” in Spanish) range to the south.
There are more eye-watering views all the way along the trail, and as it slow-going with constant photo stops…
As the trail continues along the south rim, there are panoramic views to the south, towards the southern part of Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande. To the right are the jagged Punta de la Sierra (a southern escarpment of the Chisos Mountains) and Dominguez Mountain, and just to the left Backbone Ridge and Elephant Tusk. Further to the left is the smaller Chillicotal Mountain.
Somehow, the views seem to keep getting better and better… I wonder how I coped many years ago, before digital cameras allowed the luxury of taking so many photos!
The trail continues to follow the rim, to the junction with the Boot Canyon Trail. This is where I would have met the South Rim, if I hadn’t take the longer Northeast and Southeast Rim trails. Which I’m very glad I did, as the scenery has been stunning! If I had more time (and had brought my camping gear), one of the designated tent sites around the South Rim would be an amazing place to catch the sunrise and sunset. Next time!
South Rim Trail – 3.5km / 2.1miles (100m descent)
The trail names are a bit confusing – I think I’ now on the Southwest Rim trail, although it’s also referred to as the South Rim Trail. Now that I’ve rejoined the slightly and more popular circuit, I encounter a few people on the trail. The views are still out to the south, over Backbone Ridge, Elephant Tusk and Chillicotal Mountain.
As the trail nears its most southern point, you can see the South Rim Formation, where I’ve come from, stretching back to the north-east. Directly ahead is the Sierra Quemada and Punta de la Sierra, and to the right the Mule Ear Peaks.
South Rim Formation
Sierra Quemada, Punta de la Sierra, and Mule Ear Peaks
As the trail starts bearing north, the outlook is to the south-west and takes in the Mule Ear Peaks (although it looks like a single peak) and Kit Mountain.
A broad rock platform on the edge of the cliff provides a last view to the south and south-east.
Elephant Tusk from South Rim Trail
Punta de la Sierra from South Rim Trail
The trail then now starts to head away from the south rim, and begins a gradual descent along Boot Canyon – on the opposite side of the valley to the Boot Canyon Trail.
Laguna Meadow Trail – 7.4km / 4.6 miles (490m descent)
From the junction with the Colima Trail, it’s all downhill… and a bit of an anti-climax after the South Rim! After a last view at the Sierra Quemada to the south, the trail winds around the back of Emory Peak.
Last view of the mountains to the south
As the trail descends further, The Basin comes into view – overshadowed by the Casa Grande Peak to the right and the Pulliam Bluff behind.
The trail isn’t steep, but feels like it goes forever as it descends in a northerly direction to The Basin, with a few switch-backs from time to time. It’s fairy exposed, but fortunately it’s not a hot day. This bit wouldn’t be much fun at the height of summer.
Eventually, I reach the junction with the Basin Loop Trail, with Emory Peak now in the distance. Almost home!
A last section, before the junction with the Pinnacles Trail, to complete the circuit!
From here, it’s a short distance back to the car. It’s been a long but spectacular walk. And I’ve still got a few hours of daylight left to squeeze in one more walk, and to find somewhere to watch the sun set.
The Basin parking area (Visitor Centre)
31km (19 miles) circuit inc Emory Peak
Moderate. 1100m total ascent on a very well-built trail.
A steep walk up to a ridge, rewarded by stunning views over the Chisos Mountains and out toward Mexico.
The last hike of my first day at Big Bend, with a couple of hours of daylight left. I’d seen mixed reviews of this trail, with some comments that it’s “over-rated”, and others suggesting it was one of the best walks in the park. Either way, it’s one of the most popular trails in the park: by setting out at 5pm, apart from a few people on their way back, I had the trail pretty much to myself.
There’s a big sign at the start warning of wild bears and mountain, which is comforting when walking on your own, just before dusk 🙂 The well-made track starts climbing immediately through light juniper, oak and pinyon pine forest, and there’s no views for the first kilometre or so.
Shortly after the first kilometre (0.7 miles) of steady uphill walking, you start getting views to the south over Juniper Canyon and towards Mexico.
The track is now quite exposed; being very late afternoon means it’s still a comfortable temperature. But I wouldn’t like to be doing this section at midday in summer! After 1.5km (just under a mile) there’s a saddle, from where there’s great views south towards Mexico, as well the ridge above the track and Lost Mine Peak to the north of the trail.
After the saddle, the track gets more steep with multiple switchbacks. The quality of the track, built from 1940-42 by the Civilian Conservation Corps can be seen here with examples of some serious stonework.
Between some of the switchbacks, there’s a great view to the west to the Chisos Basin Campground, and to The Window at the end of the Chisos Basin.
I spot a Mexican Jay (formerly known as grey-breasted jay), which feeds largely on acorns and pine nuts and lives in montane pine-oak forest (in Mexico and parts of Arizona and Texas).
Finally, the last exposed ridge is reached after 3.5km (just over two miles) – which is also the highest point of the trail. However, the best views are at the end of this 400m ridge.
From the end of the trail, there are spectacular views in most directions – to the south-east is Pine Canyon and the Sierra Del Carmen, in Mexico.
To the south-west is the east rim of the Chisos mountains.
I’ve got the summit to myself for over an hour, as I wait for the sun to set. It’s cold on the exposed ridge due to the wind, but tucked down in the rocks it’s the perfect temperature. I only wish I’d thought to bring some wine or a whiskey with me: it would have been the perfect end to the day (although, I still have the descent ahead of me!).
As the sun dips behind the Casa Grande peak, it’s time to head back to the car.
The descent is much quicker than the ascent, despite the fading light (for the last mile I need to use my head torch). I’m at the Chisos Mountain Lodge by 8:30pm, in time for dinner. It’s been a magnificent walk, and I’m glad I ignored the advice that suggested avoiding this trail. I’m also very happy that I went late in the day, and avoided the crowds – in summary, I’d definitely put this trail at the very top of the Big Bend “must do” list. But go very early in the morning or late in the day, and avoid the crowds. I can imagine that following a queue of people up through a series of switchbacks in the midday sun would put you off this walk.
Trail near Panther Pass, just before reaching the Basin
A combination of driving and hiking, to explore the best parts of Big Bend National Park over two days.
Having arrived at Big Bend from Sydney after about 19 hours of flying on three flights followed by a four hour drive, I couldn’t face an early start to tackle one of the longest day-hikes in the park (South Rim). Instead, my first day at Big Bend would be a drive through the park. I’d do some of the shorter hikes I’d picked out from my guide book, that would reveal some of the different landscapes in Big Bend National Park. The second day would be the Big Bend Big Hiking Day!
Texas would not normally be top of my list as a hiking destination in the US. But I’m in Dallas for a conference, and my closest option is Big Bend National Park. Bordering Mexico, it’s a 1:15min direct flight from Dallas (to Odessa Midlands airport). It wouldn’t be too hot in late October/November, and there was a big range of walks. The scenery was spectacular, and the hiking completely exceeded my expectations! You could easily stay a week here exploring the area – my recommendation would to book well ahead if you can, and stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge (the only accommodation within the park). October to May is regarded as the best time to go, and the very end of October was perfect – warm but not hot days, and chilly evenings.
As well as hiking, the park is a good place for astral viewing or photography – in 2012, the park was named as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. You can also do rafting or canoeing trips down the Rio Grande River (which I didn’t have time for, and I prefer hiking given the limited time). To reach some of the trailheads, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required – or so I was told. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck or puncturing a tire on my rental car.
It’s hard to pick out any single area or hike – and with only two full days, I didn’t get to Rio Grande Village, and the border crossing with Mexico. This could be another full day trip, including some of the walks in this area.
So, what are the best hikes in Big Bend? My recommendations, if you only have a few days in the area:
Emory Peak and South Rim – even more spectacular views than Lost Mine, but a long day walk. If you don’t like heights or rock scrambling, skip the summit and do the extended South Rim (Northeast and Southeast Rim trails). If you only do one walk in Big Bend – do this one!
Lost Mine – great views for a relatively short walk. Go very early – or late – to avoid the crowds as it’s a popular walk. I had the top to myself for over an hour in the late afternoon, and it’s good spot to watch the sun set (bring a good torch!)
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (below) – you could easily spend the day exploring the area, if you do some of the shorter walks.
Santa Elena Canyon at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – very different scenery from the other walks, as you follow the Rio Grande upstream.
Day One – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Lost Mine
On entering the park on the 118 near Study Butte (I’m coming from Terlingua Ranch, the closest accommodation I could find at relatively short notice), the ranger recommends Maxwell Drive as being the most scenic option. After the flat and almost monotonous landscape all the way from Odessa Midlands to Big Bend, the mountains rising out of the desert make a pleasant change.
My first stop is the Sotol Vista Overlook, a short detour off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There’s space for many cars to stop, but I share the lookout with just one other car and a small group of motorcyclists sporting Swiss flags on their Harleys.
The 180-degree view is impressive, looking over the western side of Big Bend National Park, with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.
Not long after the Sotol Vista Overlook turn-off, the Mule Ear peaks are visible in the distance. The very distinctive peaks are two volcanic plugs, created by differential erosion of their lava beds.
Towards the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the Santa Elena Canyon rises up in the distance, marking the border of the US and Mexico.
It’s worth a brief stop at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, where there’s some interpretative signage about the canyon. The most impressive in Big Bend National Park, the canyon was formed by the Rio Grande river cutting a deep, narrow gorge through the mountains. It changed direction sharply here, as a result of movement along the Terlingua fault zone that crosses the park.
Santa Elena Canyon (3.2km / 2 miles)
The best way to really appreciate the depth of the canyon is the relatively short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which is clearly marked at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail heads through a tall stand of giant river cane, with the start of the canyon behind it.
The mouth of the canyon is soon reached. The cliffs to the right are the easterly edge of the Mesa de Anguila (a large mesa in the western part of Big Bend National Park).
To enter the canyon, you need to cross Terlingua Creek, which drains into the Rio Grande. It can be dry – or it can flow strongly. I guess it was in between these two extremes, and I managed to cross it without my shoes getting too wet or muddy, but going 50m upstream.
From the top of this section there’s a great view over the Rio Grande flood plain. In the far distance are the Sierra Quemada and Chisos Mountains.
The trail then descends as it follows the river into the canyon.
Most of the trail follows the edge of the river, sometime diverting inland through grass and giant river cane. Eventually there’s a sheer canyon wall that blocks any further access, and marks the end of the trail.
From here – unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, in which case you can take Old Maverick Road to make a circuit – it’s back up Ross Maxwell Drive… The next stop is the Desert Mountain Overlook, a short walk to a viewpoint over the park.
The closest peak is the distinctive Cerro Castellan (1,004m), and in the distance is the Chisos Mountains with the highest peak in Big Bend, Emory Peak (2,387m).
Just after the lookout is the Castolon Store where it’s time for lunch: a still half-frozen sandwich, and a drink. The store only gets deliveries weekly, so the choice of food is limited. But it does sell some books on the area, local maps, hats and other essential camping supplies.
The next, short walk is Tuff Canyon, which starts right next to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. A narrow, sheer-walled canyon, Tuff Canyon was formed Blue Creek, which is one of the largest drainages of the Chisos Mountains.
It’s a short and well-marked track, with two lookouts over the canyon, which are perched right above the crumbly edge of the canyon walls. The track then descends into the narrow (and shaded) canyon, which it follows for a while, allowing you to get a close look at the very loose “tuff” (a light, porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) that makes up the canyon.
A few miles after Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ear peaks come into view again.
I don’t have time to do the full 11km (7 mile) return hike out to the base of the peaks, but I walk the first half a mile or so of the track, to get a view of the Mule Ears and the Chihuahuan desert. It looks like a pleasant walk, but the scenery wouldn’t change much along the trail.
The Chimneys (8.4km / 4.8 miles)
My last hike from Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is The Chimneys Trail. It’s a very flat, featureless and exposed hike to the the tall and rocky ridge, visible in the distance. I only see a handful of people, on their way back to the car park. (I wouldn’t recommend this walk if you have limited time.)
The Chimneys has always been an important landmark, and Indian rock art marks the base of one of the high pinnacles. There’s not much written about the Indian petroglyphs, which vary in age from thousands of years old to some carved in the 1700s and 1800s.
The petroglyphs are on the southern-most pinnacle, with an unmarked but distinct path leading from the main path up to the base of the rock outcrop.
While the hike to The Chimneys is horribly boring, the landscape once you get there is interesting. Climbing some of the lower outcrops provides a good view over the desert landscape: to the south is Kit Mountain, and beyond that the Chisos Mountains.
Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (12.8 miles/20km from start of road)
After this walk, I drive back to the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, and to the Chisos Basin to have a look at the Visitor Centre and get a drink.
I’ve got time for one more hike: the Lost Mine Trail, which was on my “must do” list from prior research.
Lost Mine Trail (10km / 6 miles)
I had read conflicting reports on the Lost Mine Trail hike, from “must do” to “it’s completely over-rated”. I’d argue it should be near the top of your “to do list”, but pick a time when the trail is less busy. I went a couple of hours before sunset, and had the top (the hike doesn’t actually go to the Lost Mine peak summit) to myself – with great views as the sun set behind the Chisos mountains. I’ve covered this hike in a separate post.
Day Two – Emory Peak and the Window
Today’s the “big day”, starting with a circuit of Emory Peak and the South Rim, and hopefully allowing enough time for another hike before it gets dark. I end up hiking 40km (25 miles) today across two hikes.
Emory Peak (31km / 19 miles)
The main reason not to do Lost Mine Trail, is if you are doing Emory Peak. This long day-hike offers outstanding views from Emory Peak, with some rock scrambling required at the end to reach the actual peak. It’s best combined with the South Rim, to make this into a circuit – even better, include the Northeast and Southeast Rim trails which adds a couple of miles, but offers panoramic views all the way along the trail. I’ve also covered this hike in a separate post.
The Window (9km / 5.5 miles)
I’ve got just enough energy left to make it the Window, a canyon that end with a narrow slit in the Chisos mountain rim. It’s a pretty tedious walk, that goes gently downhill from the Basin car park. I wouldn’t like to do this walk in the middle of summer, especially coming back up the hill. But the somewhat boring nature of the walk is compensated by the last half a mile, where you enter a narrow canyon (with steps carved into the canyon walls) and end in front of the narrow Window, overlooking the desert.
Do this walk near the end of the day; you’ll avoid the crowds (I had the place to myself) and enjoy views of the distant mountains under an orange sky. This hike is also covered in a separate post.
Best Hikes in Big Bend (blog) – I don’t agree with some of the advice, but found it useful as a starting point for researching what to do and see.
SummitPost – information on the highest peaks in Big Bend, including routes to hike or climb them (many have no marked trails and are for experienced hikers)
NPS – the official National Parks Web page, which include the calendar and booking page for Chisos Mountain Lodge (only accommodation in the park, other than camping – book as much in advance as you can).
Have I missed a great walk…? Let me know in the comments! I definitely plan to come back one day and do some more hikes in Big Bend.
Five years after our last African trip, an amazing seven days in Botswana, we’re off on another African adventure – this time with the kids. We’ve used Cedarberg Travel again, who have done a fantastic job in putting together a “self drive” itinerary, that will take us around the central parts of Namibia over two weeks.
Located in southern Africa, Namibia borders Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, with a largely desolate coastline of 1,570km. Namibia’s name is derived from the Namib (one of the oldest deserts in the world), with the name “Namib” meaning “vast place”. Due to this large & arid desert, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with a population of 2.1 million people.
Like Botswana, Namibia has a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. Its economy is based on agriculture, cattle, tourism and mining. It’s a land of extremes, surprising us with a hot & very arid interior (as we expected) but a cool, almost cold, climate along the coast. There’s modern and efficient tourism infrastructure equal to almost anywhere else in the world, but leave the larger towns or tourist lodges and you feel like you’ve left civilisation behind.
When to go (and for how long)
As always, our travel is dictated by school holidays. We chose the September school holidays as being the best option, although most areas of Namibia are dry all year round. September and October is regarded as the best time for game-viewing, as the landscape is at its driest and animals are more likely to congregate around waterholes.
Conversely, for hiking April/May after the summer rains would be preferable – the one walk I did in Naukluft was very hot and dry, with no chance of swimming or cooling in the dry river beds!
How long? I reckon you could easily spend a month and not get bored. Two weeks felt a bit too short – we could have spent a few more days at Etosha National Park, and I would have loved to have a couple of days walking in the Naukluft mountains. We also didn’t have time to get to Fish River Canyon, further to the south, as this would have required another 2-3 days to do it justice. In most cases two nights at each lodge was ideal, enough time for one or two morning and evening activities at each location.
Getting there and around
In contrast to our last trip, where we flew between camps, on this trip we clock up almost 3,000km by car over two weeks. On arrival at Windhoek we pick up our “all wheel drive” vehicle, a Renault Duster. As part of our booking, we’re met by a local tour company that provides us with an esky (chiller) & icepack, local maps and a mobile phone, in case we have any problems.
Namibia has approximately 44,138km of roads, of which just 6,387km are paved [CIA World Fact Book]. As we soon discover, the paved roads are generally very good, and the locals often drive well over the 120km/hr speed limit – we’re told that outside of Windhoek, due to bureaucratic issues, speeding fines can’t be issued. Conversely, the condition of the unpaved “C” and “D” roads are highly variable, and we average about 60km/h on these. Navigation is fairly straightforward and roads well-marked, so while it takes a while to cover the distances between camps, we rarely have any concerns about travelling on our own.
In summary, we did a broad circuit of central Namibia. While none of the days had more than about 400km of distance to cover, due to the condition of the “C” roads, there were some days where we drove for most of the day – I wouldn’t suggest covering any more distance each (at least, not with two kids in the car!). Having said that, the longer “drive days” were never boring, with lots to see, both scenery and wildlife. In hindsight, the only major change we’d make is to allow more time at Etosha, and to do the circuit in the opposite direction. We had two nights at each of the lodges/guesthouses:
Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge – this was a slight anti-climax after the rest of the trip. While we did a game drive and saw the Kalahari sand dunes, it was not as “wild” or dramatic as the previous lodges, but a nice way to end the trip before returning to Windhoek (had we started here, we probably would have found it amazing)!
It’s hard to pinpoint the “best bits” of our trip, as we had so many great experiences – and part of the attraction was the variety of activities and landscapes. But, if we had to single out the highlights of our trip it would be:
Etosha National Park – the number and variety of animals was well beyond our expectations. We stayed just outside the park at Anderrson’s Camp in the Ongava reserve, and did both an Ongava drive (where we saw a pride of lions) and a half-day drive within Etosha. I’d recommend driving through Etosha if time permits, and spending 1-2 nights inside the national park.
Skeleton Coast – While we had a few moments of doubt (such as when we shredded a tyre about an hour into our journey), the isolation and desolation of the Skeleton Coast was a unique experience
Damaraland – Camp Kipwe was (arguably) our most memorable camp, being nestled within granite rocks overlooking the Aba Huab valley. As well as spectacular desert landscapes, the guided tours from Kipwe let us get close to the desert-adapted elephants and see the UNESCO-listed Twyfelfontein site.
Swakopmund – the Walvis Bay boat trip to visits seals and watch whales followed by 4WD trip to the sand dunes was one of our best days, combining close-up encounters with sea creatures, exhilarating descents of steep sand dunes (by car and on foot) and great photography opportunities.
Sossuvlei – this one depends a bit on your appetite for hiking. If you’re happy to look at the dunes from a 4WD, I think Sossevlei might be disappointing compared to doing a 4WD tour from Walvis Bay. The attraction of Sossuvlei is the opportunity to walk up some of the dunes, see the never-ending sea of dunes from the top, descend from the top of “Big Daddy” to the Dead Vlei, and walk across the barren clay pan through a forest of dead thorn trees.
N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary
Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 5/5. African-themed set menu. Best feed we had on the whole trip. Family friendly: 5/5. Three bedroom cottage with lots of living space Scenery: 3/5. Not a very interesting landscape.
Activities: 5/5. Cheetah experience, Carnivore feeding and “Behind the Scenes” tour are all quite different but well worth doing.
Our first stop after we land in Windhoek and pick up our car is N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary, a relatively short drive from the airport. After about 10km on the paved B6 highway, we turn off down the unsealed D1510 road.
Road to N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
Aerial view of the D512 road to N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
Despite being half an hour from the airport, there’s almost no other vehicles on the road, and we’re already seeing Chacma baboons, warthogs and what my wife later thinks is a leopard when looking at our photos.
We soon arrive at the lodge, which is set in the African savannah amongst camel thorn trees, riverbeds, and a stone canyon. Overlooking the stone canyon – which contains a small amount of bright green, stagnant water from the last rains – is a far more inviting swimming pool, which the kids use straight away!
Swimming pool at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
Stone canyon at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
In and around the canyon, no doubt attracted by the water, are lots of Chacma baboons, which live in troops of 20-100 animals. Also hiding in the crevices are rock dassie (rock hyrax), which become the kids’ favourite animal! A “small, plump and tail-less guinea-pig-like animal that’s about as large as a big rabbit”, the rock dassie is the closest living relative to the elephant – despite the size difference!
Rock hyrax (Dassie) at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
Chacma baboon at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Lodge
It’s a short day for us, having arrived at the lodge around 4pm: we finish the day with a very nice dinner and watch the sun set, before an early night!
N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Cheetah Experience (Day 2)
Today’s a busy day, with a cheetah experience, carnivore feeding tour and a “behind the scenes” look at N/a’an ku sê. Established in 2006 to support the conservation of Namibia’s vulnerable wildlife and the lives of the local San Bushman people, the sanctuary is situated on a 3,200-hectare reserve. Nankuse hosts an abundance of African wildlife and free-roaming game, including giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, springbok, eland, jackal, as well as wild cheetahs and leopards. This includes injured or orphaned wildlife that are cared for by volunteers. Many animals will never be released back into the wild, due to being “human imprinted”, which would significantly reduce their survival chances in the wild.
After watching the sun rise, we drive the short distance from our cottage to the main lodge.
It’s only about 2km to the lodge (it could be covered on foot), and we’re already seeing lots of wildlife – an eland, hundred of scaly feathered finches that dart around in huge swarms, a family of guinea fowl and some fish eagles, high up in the trees.
The first tour is the “Cheetah Experience”, where we walk with cheetahs and observe their behaviour. We thought our kids (9 and 11yrs) might be too young, but we’re told it’s fine as long as they stay close to an adult. The three leopards are released from their cage, and immediately set off, as we follow-them on foot.
Their destination is a tall thorn tree, that they take turns climbing. Out guide explains that they do this as it’s provides vantage point, to observe what’s around.
Although cheetahs are not as proficient as leopards in climbing trees, and don’t go very high, they have semi-retractable claws that help them climb. They seemed very adept at climbing – but not so confident coming back down!
We watch them for a while as they each check their surroundings, before deciding it’s time to move on. They play for a while on the way back to the car – they seem to know the routine and where to go. The tour lasts about an hour, and we really enjoy following and watching the cheetahs on foot, rather than seeing them from a 4WD vehicle.
N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Behind the Scenes (Day 2)
After our Cheetah Experience, we’re taken on a tour of Nankuse, which provides an insight into the workings of a wildlife reserve and sanctuary. It also allows us to get very close to some of the animals being rehabilitated.
Our first stop is a porcupine. These spiny creatures are nocturnal, but this one was fairly active in its cage. Next, and more photogenic, is a cheetah cub, which peers at us from its small cage. Our guide explains how mother was killed in a road accident and the cub rescued.
The next encounter is with the leopard tortoise, which weighs up to 20kg and is the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world. Namibia has seven distinct tortoise species, giving it the second-most diverse population in the world (after South Africa), and all of them are classed as threatened. We’re shown how to tell the difference between sexes: the male has a convex plastron (the underside part of a its shell) while the female’s underside is flat.
We then see the small-spotted genet, a small, cat-like animal which is mainly nocturnal. They are great climbers (although they hunt on the ground) and
In the same enclosure as the genet is our favourite animal: the rock dassie (although its correct name is the rock hyrax). A little shy at first, it is gradually coaxed out of it’s hiding spot with some food.
A bit later on the tour, another rock dassie (in a different enclosure) is happy to be given a cuddle while it munches on some greenery! We all agree we want one of these as a pet!
Around the sanctuary are many birds – the fairly common Greater Blue-eared Starling and Red-headed finch being a few of the ones we see.
The most engaging animals are the baby baboons; after taking off glasses, everything out of our pockets and anything that the mischievous baboons might steal, we enter their enclosure. The baboons leap and swing between humans, check our hair for nits and chase either other around the enclosure. It’s great fun to watch and interactive with them.
N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Carnivore Feeding Tour (Day 2)
After lunch, we head off on our afternoon “carnivore feeding tour”. Over the course of this drive we see older (adult) baboons, caracals, lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs and leopards which are fed by one of the guides. The first animals we stop and feed are the adult male baboons; they are in a large, fenced enclosure.
Next is a pair of cheetahs, who take a while before they appear. One eventually shows up, followed by the second one a few minutes later.
A leopard is fed next: even with a solid fence between us, you can feel the power of this animal.
Smaller and slightly less intimidating is the caracal. It’s quickly transformed from a placid creature to a snarling cat when provoked. Famous for their impressive leaps into the air, where they’re capable of catching birds in flight, they also have amazing ears. The caracal uses 20 muscles to independently control each of it’s large ears, which act as super-sensitive parabolic sound antennas.
Speaking of ears, the African wild dog also has large rounded ears that allows them to pick up the minutest of sounds. The wild dog is one of Africa’s most effective predators, having an 80% success rate with hunts (higher than the 30% kill rate of lions), although they are critically endangered with about 5,000 left in the wild.
Last but not least is the king of the jungle (or desert, in our case)… like the leopard earlier, both the female and male lions exude power and instill fear. It’s a little unsettling to hear the male lion roar, even from the safety of being behind a high fence.
It’s been a long and hot afternoon, but with a couple of hours of daylight left there’s time for the kids to enjoy a last swim, and to observe some of the animals around the gorge.
N/a’an ku sê to Okonjima (Day 3)
We’re leaving N/a’an ku sê today, after breakfast. There’s a few more animal sightings on the short distance between our cabin and the main lodge.
Our trip today takes us back through Windhoek, and then up the B1 (or Trans Kalahari highway). It’s about 330km, but mostly on sealed roads where we make good time, until the last section where our instructions ensure we don’t get lost: “…keep following the road to the Lodge, through three gates. At the Thorn Tree and Ant Mound turn left and over the river bed and final gate up the hill to the Lodge”!
Okonjima Game Reserve
Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. Amazing omelettes cooked on the BBQ for breakfast. Family friendly: 4/5. Large “View room” in Plains Camp, with two double beds Scenery: 4/5.
Activities 5/5: Leopard and cheetah game drives, self-guided bushwalks
Situated halfway between Windhoek and Etosha National Park, the 55,000 acre Okonjima Game Reserve is known for its cheetah and leopard safaris. Home of the AfriCat Foundation, Okonjima rehabilitates cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. On entering the reserve, there are signs warning visitors not to leave their vehicle.
Even before we reach the lodge, in time for a late lunch, we’ve seen a couple of jackals by the road, and outside the main lodge area there’s a pair of warthogs in the water.
Okonjima Leopard Drive (Day 3)
Our first activity is a leopard drive: we’re trying to locate one (or more) of the rehabilitated “big cats” that are somewhere on the 55,000 acres. The good news is that they all have radio collars. The bad news is that the accuracy is somewhat limited, and the leopards are very good at hiding. Gideon, our guide, drives to a point that overlooks a large section of the reserve, and brings out an antenna. After pointing the antenna in various directions, he confidently points to a spot in the distance, and we head off down the steep track from the top of the escarpment to the valley below.
En-route to our leopard, we stop to look at a Damara dik dik, Namibia’s smallest antelope, and spot a solitary giraffe grazing on an acacia tree.
And we’re in luck… our eagle-eyed guide spots the leopard, almost hidden behind long grass. Even after we manoeuvre closer, it’s still very hard to spot the leopard – although it’s keeping a wary eye on us.
We spend a good half an hour watching the leopards – after spotting the initial male leopard, we see there’s also a second (female) leopard. Although the fact that it’s “radio tracked” feels a bit like we’re cheating, it’s still been hard to find the elusive cats! Not far from our leopard and oblivious to its presence is a lone mountain zebra (which is distinguished from the Plains zebra as its stripes end on their flanks, leaving their stomachs white).
Nearby is a confusion of blue wildebeest, one of the most unique species of antelope that has been described as being “created from the spare parts of different animals”!
A sundowner ends our first Namibian safari, before we head back for dinner.
Okonjima Cheetah Drive (Day 4)
A new day and a different cat… it’s an early morning start as we leave the lodge, this time in search of a cheetah.
Not far from the lodge, we spot two black-backed jackals and a baby kudu.
There’s lots of birdlife around, too. A purple roller and double-banded sandgrouse are among our early morning sightings.
There are hundreds of red-billed quelea, also known as the red-billed weaver, which fly around in large flocks. Referred to as “Africa’s most hated bird”, the average quelea bird can eat about 10 grams of grain per day, and a flock of two million can eat as much as 20 tons of grain in a single day. This makes them the most abundant bird in the world and also the most destructive, with the ability to decimate fields across Africa.
We see my favourite bird, the flying chili-pepper, or red-billed hornbill, in a tree, as well as African Barred Owl.
A dik dik urinates on the side of the track: they drink very little water and to make the most of every drop, they excrete the driest excrement and most concentrated urine of any hooved animal.
Another bird, the red-necked spurfowl is seen, which is generally shy and wary.
We still haven’t see a cheetah, but after a brief sweep with the antenna, a few minutes later we’re a few metres away from a pair of cheetahs.
They seem surprisingly easy to find after the more elusive leopard yesterday: our guide explains that they seek exposed, high ground where they have a good view of their surroundings.
After observing the cheetahs for a while – they don’t seem to mind us getting fairly close – we drive a short distance back to the camp. On the way back we see a dik dik, a small antelope, a korrie bustard in full flight and a Grey Chanting Goshawk, perched high up in a tree.
After our morning drive, while the rest of the family has lunch, I head off to do the Giraffe Walk. It’s very hot and I don’t see a lot of wildlife. The well-marked walk does go the edge of the escarpment, providing views over the reserve and surrounding mountains.
Okonjima Leopard Drive #2 (Day 4)
We re-group in the afternoon for our second leopard drive, as we search for more of the leopards that are on the reserve.
We see less animals today – a few giraffes. And a number of termite mounds, some well over two metres high.
This time, however, we’re not successful… We know we are very close to the leopard, from the radio signal. We can see a recently-killed warthog, and our guide assures us the leopard will be keeping a very close eye on his dinner – and on us. But despite our best efforts we don’t even see a glimpse of the leopard, who is hidden in thick scrub. While it’s a little disappointing, it makes yesterday’s sighting more meaningful. It reminds us while we are on a reserve, there’s still no guarantees about spotting the wild animals!
We see a few more zebras as the sun starts to set, and we find a spot for our sun downers.
Okonjima to Ongava (Day 5)
After breakfast and a last look at the animals visiting the waterhole behind the lodge, we’re on the road again.
We are heading further north on the paved B1 highway, covering a distance of about 230km – a fairly easy driving day.
Andersson’s Camp, Ongava
Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. Family friendly: 4/5. Two separate cabins separated by a short path. Ideal for families with older children. Scenery: 4/5. Some variety of scenery, but the animals are the main attraction
Activities 6/5: Game drives within Ongava reserve and Etosha National Park. Game viewing at the lodge waterhole (which also has a hide)
Andersson’s Camp is located on the famous Ongava concession, a private nature reserve that borders Etosha National Park. Surrounded by plains teeming with wildlife, and situated close to the largest saltpan in Africa, the family-friendly Andersson’s Camp takes its name from Charles Andersson, a Swedish explorer who first ‘discovered’ the Etosha Pan.
A resurrected farmstead forms the main lodge, fronting onto a thriving waterhole with an underground hide for wildlife viewing and photography. We have two separate, raised tents; there are 20 tents in total, so it’s a relatively small camp – smaller than the last two we’ve stayed at. While we sit in the lodge and are given an introduction to the camp, we watch an incredible procession of animals visiting the waterhole. A herd of impala take turns to drink.
Next is a gemsbok or oryx, which approaches warily, before drinking.
Half an hour later, a pair of zebras turn up.
The other amazing spectacle around the waterhole are the scaly feathered finches; they are also known as “Baardmannetjie”, the Afrikaans name that translates to “little man with a beard”. Common in the drier parts of Southern Africa, a huge flock of these small birds sits in a tree by the waterhole, before the entire flock flies down to the water. This happens every couple of minutes, and is quite a mesmerizing sight!
The other option for those that aren’t interested in watching the ebb and flow of the waterhole is a swim in the pool, which overlooks the plain behind the camp!
Andersson’s Camp – Ongava Drive (Day 5)
After watching the animals for a while, we set off at 5pm for our afternoon drive. We’re in search a pride of lions that’s been spotted for the last few days… but first we see if we can spot some cheetahs that have been moving across the reserve. We spot them fairly quickly, but there’s already a couple of vehicles watching them so we have to observe from a distance until we can move a bit closer.
As we try and get closer, disaster strikes as our 4WD sinks into a deep rut! We’re stuck until one of the other Ongava safari vehicles comes to the rescues us, towing us out. We finally get a bit closer to the cheetahs – a mother with three cubs – but they remain partly hidden in the scrub.
After this initial stop, we have a fairly long drive – we see a zebra and giraffe, and a few impala, as we drive west across the large reserve.
Rather unexpectedly, as we take a short-cut between two 4WD tracks, we stop right in front of a black rhinoceros. Normally most active during the night, the black rhino tends to be solitary in the wild and forages on leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit. The species overall is classified as critically endangered, and from an estimated 65,000 black rhinos in 1970, there are now fewer than 2,500 left (in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania). Poaching has been the primary reason for their decline, with their horns worth up to $65,000 a kilogram!
We watch the rhino for a while. It’s not particularly bothered by us as it munches away, gradually moving along the track in the search for more food.
We continue on our drive west, with the landscape becoming more open.
Two hours after we’ve left, we reach an artificial waterhole – and a pride of fourteen lions.
Some lions are drinking, others are playing and a couple play-fighting on the top of a nearby hill.. we watch them for a while as they interact with each other.
Away from the rest of the pride and just visible in the long grass, is the adult male.
We need to get back before it’s dark: we’ve covered about 30km over two hours to get to the lions. After about 20 minutes of lion-viewing, we need to start heading back, with a quick sundowner stop en-route to camp.
Andersson’s Camp – Etosha Drive (Day 6)
Today is going to be a LONG drive… we’re heading into Etosha National Park, to the north of Ongava Reserve. Etosha is considered to be one of the best game parks in Southern Africa. It encloses a vast saltpan that becomes an immense, shallow lake in rainy periods, attracting great numbers of flamingos and other water birds. The open plains are home to tens of thousands of animals with large herds of springbok, gemsbok, zebra, wildebeest, elephant and, of course, the predators – particularly cheetah and lion.
The saltpan, shimmering white for most of the time, was once the inland delta of the Kunene River, whose course was changed millions of years ago. It left behind a salt encrusted barren, shallow depression, which only becomes a giant lake after very good rainfall. The legendary origin of the pan is that the Heikum San people who inhabited the area were raided and all but the women were brutally murdered. One woman was so upset at the savage death of her child, that her tears formed an enormous lake. As the lake evaporated, it left the salt from her tears as a saltpan.
We have breakfast as the sun rises, and watch some of the animals around the waterhole at the camp.
The guinea fowl keep a watchful eye on the jackal, who’s more interested in having a drink than eating.
There are birds everywhere – the finches have begun their never-ending swarming between the trees and the waterhole, and a series of larger birds cross the morning sky.
We’re off at 8:15am. The gates to the park open at sunrise, but there’s often a very long queue to get in, so we’ll get there a bit later and hopefully avoid a long wait. On the way to the main road and the gate to Etosha, we stop at a recent cheetah kill within the Ongava reserve. Although the cheetahs have moved on, and the jackals are now cleaning up what’s left of the impala.
They’ve done a pretty thorough job removing what the cheetahs have left behind.
We’re back on the road after this stop; it takes us about 15min to get through Anderson’s Gate – there’s about ten cars in front of us, and we need to provide passport details as well as paying the entry fee. This is part of an effort to prevent poaching – earlier in the year seven rhino carcasses were discovered in Etosha, having been killed by poachers.
Our first stop within Etosha is the Ombika waterhole, which is the southern-most source water of water in the park. We can’t get as close to the water as we do later in the day (so it’s not as good for photography), but the amount of animals in and around the waterhole is staggering.
It’s hard to do justice to the sight of so many animals… there are many zebras, both in the waterhole and around it.
Giraffes come and go (they are attracted to the Catophractes alexandri and Acacia nebrownii flowers in Spring), as do oryx and impala. We don’t see lions, although they do frequent this waterhole.
We could stay here and watch the animals for hours, but our guide explains there’s a lot more to see and we need to keep moving!
We haven’t yet reached Okaukuejo, the most popular rest camp inside the Etosha National Park and the administrative center for the park, as we continue to spot animals along the road.
At Okaukuejo, we stop to pay for permits at the office (it’s a two-step process – we collected our park entrance permit at the Anderson Gate and then pay for the park fees at the Okaukeujo Tourist Office). There’s a total of 102 chalets with five different types of accommodation within Okaukuejo, and a popular floodlit waterhole that attracts a wide variety of animals. If you book far ahead to stay here, I’d highly recommend a couple of nights here, with a combination of guided tours and self-driving around the vast park.
We don’t stay here long, with our next stop the Nebrownii waterhole, named after the water-thorn acacia (Acacia nebrownii) which grows in thickets to the west. Created in 1992 to relieve the animal grazing pressure around Okaukuejo, the borehole attracts elephants, rhinos, lions and hyenas. The first animals we see are hundreds of springbok on the flat and open plans surrounding the waterhole.
As we get closer, we see a pair of lions; the female lion heads to one of the culverts on the main road, which are favoured as dens by lions and hyenas, while the male lion drinks from the waterhole.
This is one of the advantages of being with a guide, who correctly predicts the male lion will shortly follow his mate. We leave the waterhole viewing area, and get a prime position on the side of the road, as the male lion walks across the plain directly towards us, to the culvert.
While we don’t see any hyenas at the waterhole, shortly after leaving we spot one from the road, walking parallel to us in the distance. The spotted hyena is a rather ugly and menacing animal. While generally regarded as scavengers, the spotted hyena may kill as many as 95% of the animals they eat (the striped hyena being more of a scavenger). A study done by Duke University found that hyenas have a frontal cortex on par with primates, and a captive pair of hyenas performed better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees (12 Wild Facts about Hyenas).
A bit further on and slightly smaller (and less menacing) is the double-banded courser, which is widely distributed across southern Africa and lives and breeds in flat, stony or gravelly, semi-desert terrains.
Our next destination is the small Kapupuhedi waterhole, which attracts animals during the dry season as it offers good grazing. There are not many animals here today, but the attraction is the view over white Etosha saltpan in the background, which seems to stretch forever.
Wandering through the grassland in front of the saltpan is a kori bustard, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds (although it is reluctant to fly unless in serious danger), and the largest of all bustards.
Watching us pass is a yellow mongoose, which lives in colonies of up to 20 individuals in a permanent underground burrow complex.
The next waterhole is Aus, its name is derived either from the Nama word meaning bitter-tasting bush, or the Hai||om word meaning ‘spring’ or ‘salt water’. There are not many animals near the waterhole when we arrive.
Just as we reach the next waterhole, Olifantsbad (Afrikaans for ‘elephant’s bath’), a herd of elephants arrive, crossing the road as they leave the waterhole.
We are fairly close to the elephants as they pass us, and the younger male expresses his displeasure with our presence.
Once the elephants have left, the waterhole is busy with kudu and impala drinking – but no “big game”. We have a quick look before continuing.
Our final stop is the Gemsbokvlakte, an Afrikaans name meaning “the plain of the gemsbok”. It’s a relatively small, artificial pond that’s obviously a popular spot, with many impala taking advantage of the permanent water.
Soon after, a dazzle of zebras take their turn drinking.
Then, our guide points out a herd of elephants in the distance, making a direct line for us (or rather, the waterhole).
It’s an amazing and majestic sight as they get gradually closer, in a formation that protects the younger calves who are in the middle.
They pass almost directly in front of us.
Finally they reach the water, where the other animals make some space (not that they have much choice!).
It’s now 1:30pm and getting pretty hot in our open safari vehicle… we reluctantly head back to the lodge for lunch.
We’ve seen far more than we expected, having covered 120km over six hours – and we would have been happy staying the rest of the day in the park. We had (briefly) contemplated a self-drive option, which would have meant we had air-conditioning and could have gone a bit further into the park. But going in the safari vehicle meant we saw a lot more and often were in a much better “position” as the guide knew where the animals would go – and photography is far easier from an open safari vehicle.
Andersson’s Camp – Around the Lodge (Day 6)
We’ve got most of the afternoon free before our late afternoon drive, so we take advantage of the camp waterhole – and the salt lick – which have a constant procession of visitors!
The underground hide, as well as being much cooler, offers a different perspective of the visiting animals. A kudu wanders down for a drink, approaching very warily; despite being very quiet in the hide, the animals can sense the presence of someone from a fair distance.
The “waves” of finches are also even more impressive from the hide, as they take off (and land) only a few metres away from the opening.
Next is a giraffe pair, also approaching warily, followed by a couple more, looking very awkward as they drink.
As the giraffes depart, a trio of zebras take their place at the waterhole.
Many birds flitter around the camp: the African red-eyed bulbul, a common bird distinguished by its orange eye rings and the crimson-breasted shrike.
Meanwhile, the kids enjoy a swim and Elbey, one of the staff, offers to do our daughter’s hair in a traditional African style!
Andersson’s Camp – Ongava Drive #2 (Day 6)
After our very long morning drive in Etosha, we’re ready for an afternoon drive… this time we’re in the Ongava reserve again, looking for cheetahs or leopards. Our first sightings are a sandgrouse and a lone Plains zebra.
I’ve asked if we can detour via the cheetah kill we’d seen the previous day, which is not far from camp. It’s incredible how, within 48 hours, the impala has been completely stripped – there’s nothing left but bone.
We pass by the old (now disused) cattle ramp used when Ongava was a working farm, before being converted to a wildlife reserve.
No “big cats” so far, but a few more birds – the Spotted Thick-knee, which can be difficult as it hunts on the ground, a purple roller and a red-billed hornbill.
Although we’ve visited a few waterholes, we haven’t see many big animals this afternoon. After the morning’s feast of animals in Etosha we’re not too disappointed, as we enjoy a sun downer at the end of a long day.
The day is not finished though… as we relax outside over dinner, my wife (somehow) manages to spot an almost-invisible cheetah that’s crept down to the waterhole. Shortly after this, a family of white rhinoceroses turn up (we also saw some on the previous evening, but didn’t get any photos).
Andersson’s Camp to Camp Kipwe (Day 7)
Today we have fairly long drive, as we head west toward the coast. It’s just over 300km in distance, but the majority of the route is on unsealed roads. We farewell the staff – and the camp birds – after breakfast and we’re on the road by 10am.
Just outside the entrance to Etosha, we stop to buy some local crafts made by the nomadic Himba people, who are descendants of a group of Herero herders who fled into the remote north-west of Namibia after being displaced by the Nama. Hairstyle and jewellery are very important for the Himba, indicating the age and the social status of each person within the community.
The first 130km is on sealed road and we make good time to Khorixas on the C38 and C39.
From Khorixas we’re on unsealed roads, and although we are heading towards the coast it gets increasingly dry and desolate. We’re now in Damaraland, one of the most scenic areas of Namibia that comprises plains and grassland, massive granite koppies and deep gorges.
Camp Kipwe, Damaraland
Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 5/5. Great food with 4-5 courses. Service sometimes a bit slow. Family friendly: 5/5. Kids get a safari tent that adjoins the main bungalow Scenery: 6/5. Spectacular and varied scenery, and an awesome sundowner location
Activities 5/5: Guided and self-guided nature walks, elephant nature drives, Twyfelfontein excursion (Burnt Mountain, Organ Pipes, Bushman petrogylphs)
We reach Camp Kipwe at about 3:30pm – it’s taken us a bit over five hours – and we’re happy to get out of the car! Nestled in granite rocks, with sweeping views across the Aba Huab valley, Camp Kipwe feels a bit like a hidden base in a James Bond movie!
Accommodation is in igloo-shaped double bungalows, each with an outdoor en-suite bathroom with a shower and a private veranda that overlooks the surrounding plains. The kids are excited as they get their own adjoining tent!
Although we might have been able to (just) make the afternoon drive, everyone’s tired – and the kids want to have a swim – so we have a relaxed afternoon. Well, most of us do. Although there’s no guided nature walk offered, the open landscape dotted with granite outcrops is easy to navigate, so I take off on my own, camera and drone in the backpack, for a circular walk around the camp.
Camp Kipwe, almost invisible in the granite outcrop
Damaraland plains around Camp Kipwe
The Camp Kipwe pool
Every camp offers a sun downer, the quintessential end to the African day… Camp Kipwe goes one step further with a sunset viewing platform right on top of the granite hill.
Although there’s some low cloud in the sky, it promises to be a spectacular sunset as the sun sets behind the distant mountains range.
And it doesn’t disappoint – the best sun downer location and sunset so far on our trip!
Camp Kipwe – Nature Drive (Day 8)
The following morning it’s an early, pre-sunrise start on our nature drive, where we head to the dry Huab River in search of the region’s rare and beautiful desert adapted elephant.
We drive at a fairly fast pace on the rough dirt road, admiring the dramatic Damaraland landscape – and wondering how anything can survive out here.
We abruptly stop, about 38km and an hour from camp, and our guide points out elephant footprints and dung. By examining these, he can determine which direction (along the riverbed) the elephants have travelled and approximately how far away they are. The dung is fresh, and the elephants are close!
We veer off the road onto the soft sand of the riverbed – and exactly three minutes later we’re right in front of a small herd of elephants.
Found only in Namibia and Mali, desert adapted elephants are not a separate species or subspecies, but are uniquely adapted to their arid environments. The animals have some morphological differences from savanna elephants, notably thinner bodies and wider feet. They also possess a number of unique behaviors shared by no other African elephants, such as digging wells to purify their drinking water and lying down to sleep. They survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation growing in ephemeral riverbeds and can go several days without drinking water.
What’s great about this drive is that it’s not at all rushed – we spend over an hour observing the elephants and their behaviour. Our guide, Bradley, is not only passionate but extremely knowledgeable, and as we watch the elephants he tells us about them and answers all of our questions in detail.
We finally leave the elephants, and follow the Huab river-bed to the south, crossing the wide sandy valley to the Abu Huab river to the east. We stop on a small dune for morning tea, with towering sand-covered koppies, or small hills, on both sides of us.
A bit further on we stop at the foot of one of the taller hills, where we race up to the top for views over the surrounding area and the Huab valley.
The Etendeka Mountains can be seen to the north, across the vast and dry plains of the Damaraland.
We pass through De Riet village, which has an interesting history. In 1974, 800 people and their belongings were relocated over 1000km from their home north of the Augrabies Falls National Park in South Africa, when the area was declared a military training zone. One of the sites that became home to this re-settled community was an old farm near the confluence of the dry Huab and Aba-Huab Rivers called De Riet. Faced with increasingly tough conditions for farming and a drought in the 1980s that reduced the wild game population, the village – along with many others in Damaraland – combined their communal land and agreed on a management plan that allowed the continuation of subsistence farming while supporting conservation. In 1998, a 352 200 hectare conservancy called the Torra Conservancy was registered by the Namibian Government. Recognised as a pioneer at the forefront of community conservation in Namibia, tourism-derived income has grown from zero in 1997 to more than N$1 million in 2003.
We make a small detour from here, further down the Abu Huab River, to where it merges with the (also dry) Huab River. Our guide explains he often fund large game here, and we see a male and female kudu just above the bank of the river.
From here we head back to De Riet, and then follow the Abu Huab river along a very sandy track back to the camp.
Bradley seems to have developed his own, circular route, that follows both the Huab and Abu Huab rivers and avoids any back-tracking. We cover 104km on the six hour drive, and as well as spending lots of time with the desert-adapted elephants we’ve seem some amazing Damaraland scenery.
Camp Kipwe – Twyfelfontein Drive (Day 8)
The afternoon drive is to the Twyfelfontein rock engravings site and a few other natural formations. Our first stop is an outcrop of volcanic rock called the Organ Pipes, a mass of perpendicular slabs of basalt between 130 and 150 million years old. They were formed as a result of the intrusion of liquid lava into a slate rock formation, which was exposed over time by erosion.
We climb down to the dry riverbed for a closer look; there’s a few other people here but it’s fairly quiet.
Not far from here is Burnt Mountain, a mountain of maroon, black and charcoal rock formed 120 million years ago when a large sheet of black magma forced its way into carbonaceous shale. Nothing grows in this desolate area. It’s not particularly photogenic, but worth a quick stop; a large sign states “do not climb the mountain” to avoid erosion. Most visitors seem to ignore this sign, and the nearby park officials seem to have no interest in enforcing this.
The real attraction of the area is Twyfelfontein, the most significant rock engraving site in Namibia with over 2,500 engravings found at 17 main sites. The site has been inhabited for 6,000 years, first by hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders. Both ethnic groups used it as a place of worship and a site to conduct shamanist rituals. UNESCO approved Twyfelfontein as Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007.
Twyfelfontein is situated in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain. It’s estimated that as many as 40,000 people a year visit the site, making it one of the more popular tourist destinations in Namibia – it was by far the busiest place we’ve seen in over a week!
Near the start of the circular trail (which you must do with a guide) is the remains of a farmhouse that was built in the 1940s by David Levin, who named the farm Twyfelfontein (meaning “doubtful fountain” in Afrikaans), as had doubts about the capacity of the spring that was discovered on the slopes of the mountain.
As we continue up the trail, our guide points out the various petroglyphs that can be seen near the path. Some are very obvious, and others are not so easily spotted.
In most cases, the hieroglyphs represent local fauna, such as the easily-recognisable giraffe. But on one rock, there are engravings of animals that never occurred in this area, like a sea lion, penguins, and possibly flamingos, and our guide explains that the hunter-gatherers would have travelled to the coast, more than 100km away. However, a recent archaeological survey questions this theory, suggesting that the “foreign” animals are in fact rough sketches of animals that did occur at Twyfelfontein. [Source: Wikipedia]
We’re back by 6pm, just in time to meet Stanley (one of the staff at Camp Kipwe) for a walk up a nearby mountain. We watch the sunset from half-way up the mountain, before returning to camp in time for dinner.
Camp Kipwe to Swakopmund (Day 9)
Today is our longest driving day: a 452km trip on some of the worst (2WD) roads in Namibia. Our tour company recommended we take a more direct way to Swakopmund, which is to the south of us on the coast, but we’re keen to experience the “Skeleton Coast” and opt for the more challenging route…
Before we leave, I take a last quick look at the view from the top of Camp Kipwe.
We farewell Stanley, who’s looked after us at Camp Kipwe, and one day will become an excellent nature guide.
We’re on the road at 10:30am – a bit later than planned – but we have all day to reach our destination. The first part of our trip takes us west to the coast on the C39 road. The condition of the road varies, but some sections are very rough – we’ve been told that the government forgot to renew the contract with the company that grades the roads, so for the last six months there’s been virtually no maintenance. The first section of road is also notorious for shredding tyres!
There’s almost no cars on the road, which is shared with many different types of traffic. At one point we stop as a herd of goats comes towards us, closely followed by two “herders”.
The road conditions deteriorate, and about an hour into our drive we hear a thumping noise from the car. We pull over, and discover one of the tyres is completely flat. With many more miles of rough road to go we’re a bit nervous about continuing (we only have one spare), but we don’t really have a choice.
A little further on and a cow wanders across the road – it looks rather emaciated. Despite the harsh and dry landscape, 35% of household income in the area we are travelling through (Kunene) is derived from farming, and there are vast farms that are barely economically viable.
We reach the Springbokwasser (Springbok Water) Gate after two hours, where we register (it’s free) and enter the Skeleton Coast Park. From here we are have 33km left before we reach the coast.
Despite our relative proximity to the ocean, it’s still a completely dry and lifeless landscape. From Springbokwasser Gate (which is still 445m above sea level) we gradually descend to the coast, with the road much better on this section.
Finally, we reach the coast – we turn left, and follow the coast south for 308km, with Henties Bay (235km to the south) the only town until we reach our destination. This section of road is still gravel, but in good condition.
We are now on the infamous Skeleton Coast, the name coined by after the title of a book chronicling the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star. Well before this, many ships had been wrecked on this hazardous coast, their remains scattered along the beaches (along with the bones from slaughtered whales) and rocky approaches to the shore. “The Skeleton Coast is Africa’s Bermuda Triangle. Here, where the arid Namib Desert air collides with the Benguela, a flow of icy water bearing due North from Antarctica, a blanket of fog sits permanently along the coast, stretching as far as ten miles inland and even further out to sea, rendering navigation impossible, confounding sailors with distinctly untropical temperatures.” (Jeff Dawson describes in ‘Dead Reckoning’, an account of the stranding of the crew of the Dunedin Star in 1942.)
The Skeleton Coast goes from Swakopkund in the south (our destination today) up to the south of Angola). A desolate area, it consists mostly of soft sand occasionally interrupted by rocky outcrops, with high sand dunes along the section we are travelling. It’s also much cooler – we’re almost cold – than the previous week we’ve spent inland.
From time to time there are the remains of abandoned mines visible from the road. The one below is an old oil extraction station that was operational in the late 1960s and early 70s, before the National Park was proclaimed.
Of the several thousand shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast, a few are easily accessible from the main coastal road. The first wreck, between Ambrose Bay and Ugab gate which marks the southern end of the national park, is the S.W. Seal. Parts of the boat, which sank in June 1976, are well preserved despite the waves washing over the remains.
A view from above provides a better sense of the desolation of the coast – I can’t find much information on the wreck, or if there are any survivors. But even if the crew managed to reach shore, there’s still the challenge of reaching civilisation, hundreds of kilometres away.
Just after the shipwreck is the Ugab Gate, which marks the southern end of the Skeleton Coast Park and the start of the Dorob National Park. Proclaimed in 2010, Dorob is one of Namibia’s newest national parks.
This next part of the Skeleton Coast (C34) route is a “salt road”: the surface is a mixture of salt water, gypsum, sand and/or gravel that is baked in the sun. Although it can become slippery and dangerous when wet, it’s very smooth – almost like a tarred road – and we can drive much faster on this section.
It’s a welcome change after the rocky, tyre-shredding first section of road, and the previous loose gravel.
Our next stop is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, the best-known breeding colony of Cape Fur seals along the Namib coast. (It’s also the site of the first European to set foot on Namibian soil, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão in 1486.) The population of well-fed seals is sustained by the rich concentration of fish from the cold Benguela Current, with over 100,000 seals basking on the beach and swimming in the surf. Although the abundance of seals and their piles of stinky seal poo means it a seriously smelly place, and our nostrils are assaulted as soon as we open the car doors!
There is a walkway all the way around the seal colony, and the seals also seem to have taken over some of the picnic areas intended for humans.
You can get very close to the seals, who seem unperturbed by the human intrusion, and it’s fascinating to watch them alternate between playing, fighting and sleeping.
We’ve almost finished today’s journey. We have one last (brief) stop to look at the wreck of the Zeila. It was stranded on 25 August 2008 in the early morning hours near “Die Walle”, a popular fishing spot about 14km south of Henties Bay. Having been sold as scrap metal to an Indian company, the fishing trawler came loose from its towing line while on its way to from Walvis Bay to Bombay. Although shipwrecked, it looks like it’s still floating just off the beach.
From here its another hour to our accommodation in Swakopmund. It’s been a long day in the car (about seven hours driving) with some challenging roads, but we’re all really glad we took the “long road” and experienced the isolation and desolation of the Skeleton Coast.
Brigadoon Guest House, Swakopmund
Overall rating: 4/5.
Food: 4/5. Breakfast provided. For dinner there are lots of restaurants in Swakopmund, and the guest house was happy to help us book one. Book as far ahead as possible. Family friendly: 3/5. One main bed, a single bed and a folding bed in one large room. Scenery: 4/5. Sea and sand dunes.
Activities: 5/5. Sand dune tour, dolphin/whale/seal watching tours, skydiving, kayaking, fishing, quad biking, sand boarding, camel rides into the desert
After checking in (we don’t arrive until 5pm), we’re just in time for dinner – with lots of choice, for the first time in a week! It’s nice and cool as it has been all the way along the Skeleton Coast; being right on the coast, Swakopmund has a completely different climate to the inland towns. Swakopmund, a coastal resort, was founded in 1892 as the main harbour for German South West Africa and to enable Germany to establish control over the territory it claimed in the interior. A small part of its population is still German-speaking today and there are many examples of German colonial architecture.
Walvis Bay Boat Trip (Day 10)
We are picked up at our guest house at 8am, for a transfer to Walvis Bay where we are booked on a seal & dolphin watching tour with Ocean Adventures. Situated 30km to the south of Swakopmund, Walvis Bay is Namibia’s main port and home to its large fishing fleet. The fishing industry is the mainstay of the town’s economy, with a number of tourist operators also using the port. It’s about half an hour on a fairly busy sealed road; there’s a slight delay as we divert around a truck that’s over-turned. We’re surprised we haven’t seen any other accidents so far – according to the World Health Organisation, Namibia is ranked first in the world in terms of the number of road deaths per 100,000 residents.
We have a short wait at the Sandwich Harbour wharf, as a few other boats pick up their passengers. Our catamaran finally arrives, and we have a brief pre-boarding safety briefing.
Once we are underway, it doesn’t take long for a seal to make itself at home on the back of the boat; our guide explains there are five seals that have been rescued which live near the wharf, and are separate from the colony of “wild” seals. They are fed by the various boat cruise operators, and are quite comfortable being around humans.
We’re heading directly away from Sandwich Harbour, with the industrial area of Walvis Bay in the distance.
We’re soon joined by a pink backed pelican that circles the boat…
… before it lands on the boat, where it’s happy to pose for us.
A second one joins the boat; both happily hitch a ride as we keep a lookout for whales, which have been sighted in the bay the last few days.
We spot a pair of humpback whales, which often visit the coastline of Namibia. Southern right, humpback and Minke whales pass by the coast from July-November, with most sightings taking place in October and November.
We watch them for a while, but need to continue on our journey so we have time to observe the seal colony on Pelican Point. We see some cape gannets and kelp gulls.
As we reach the middle of the bay, heading towards Pelican Point, there’s an increasing number of what looks like abandoned ships.
Our guide explains these boats service the oil rigs off the coast of Angola, to the north. Due to the oil price being depressed, many of these oil rigs have become uneconomical to operate. As a result, hundreds of boats that serviced these rigs are now moored in Walvis Bay with a skeleton crew. It’s much cheaper to moor them here than in Angola.
We reach the seal colony at Pelican Point, a sandbar which forms one of the perimeters of Walvis Bay. While the Cape Cross seal colony is much larger, there’s up to 30,000 seals at Pelican Point. At Cape Cross you can observe them better on land; here you can see them cavorting in the water at close range.
We see more kelp gulls, also known as the Dominican gull, which breeds on coasts and islands.
Our guide spots a sunfish as we’re having lunch – it’s the heaviest known bony fish in the world, with adults weighing between 247 and 1,000kg. It look like a fish head with a tail, its main body being body flattened laterally.
From Pelican Point we head back to the wharf; on the return journey we pick up a few more flying hitchhikers. As we near the shore our friendly seal returns, leaping onto the back of the boat and waiting expectantly for some more food!
Walvis Bay Sand Dunes (Day 10)
Following the boat tour, it’s straight onto a 4WD tour of the sand dunes by Sand Waves Namibia. We’re met at the wharf as we come of the boat by Juandre, and we board his Nissan Patrol.
Our first stop, not far out of Walvis Bay as we head south towards the sand dunes is the Walvis Bay Lagoon, home of a large flamingo colony.
The lagoon is home to hundreds of thousands of birds throughout the year, and has been declared a Ramsar site for its importance as a wetlands area and a feeding ground for many of species of bird on migratory routes from Africa to the Arctic Circle. The number of birds fluctuates from year to year, ranging from 37,000 to as many as 170,000 resident birds around the lagoon, with another 200,000 more stopping off on migratory routes. The best time to see them is a bit later than our visit; November to March.
A bit further on, and still accessible by 2WD, are the salt works, a 3500-hectare salt-pan complex which currently supplies over 90% of South Africa’s salt. The pans concentrate salt from seawater with the aid of evaporation, and are also a rich feeding ground for shrimp and larval fish. (They are one of the three wetlands around Walvis Bay that together form Southern Africa’s single most important coastal wetland for migratory birds.)
Our eagle-eyed guide points out two eggs at the edge of the road, and nearby the owner of the eggs, a white-fronted plover (a common species of plover along the coast).
From here we’re off the graded roads, and in the sand… we encounter a group of tourists that have their rented 4WD firmly bogged on the access road onto the beach, which is very soft sand. We tow them out, and are glad we’re with someone that knows what they’re doing. At least, we think he does 🙂
We soon reach the beach, which is fairly deserted. A few other 4WDs heading towards the dunes, a couple of groups fishing and a lone seal basking in the sun.
After about 15km of driving along the beach, we have another quick stop to look at the view from one of the small sand dunes near the beach. There’s not much to see – just miles of sand and some smaller dunes that form the “foothills” of the larger sand dunes.
About 35km along the beach, we finally reach the main dunes and we turn-off the beach. Before long, there’s another unexpected stop. Juandre hops out of the car, and starts digging in the sand. A few minutes later, we’re looking at a tiny, and rather cute, Namib Dune Gecko.
This endemic gecko (also known as a Palmato gecko or Web Footed gecko) is found throughout the Namib Desert. A nocturnal animal, it spend the day in a self-dug burrows, which Juandre shows how to identify from markings in the sand. They keep their large fixed lens eyes (which have no eyelids) clean by licking with long tongues. Their web feet act as sand shoes, and they get enough water from what they eat (insects such as crickets, beetles and termites).
Now we’re in the dunes, which forms part of the vast Namib-Naukluft national park.
The sand noticeably changes colour across the sand sea, which extends from near Walvis Bay (where we are) to Sossusvlei almost 200km to the south-east. In the west, close to the sea, the sands are whiter and become progressively pinker inland.
It’s great fun for adults and kids – the kids (and adults!) get to jump and slide down the dunes – although they also need to haul themselves back to the top!
The highest dune in this area is Dune 7, just behind Swakopmund, at 383m. The top of the dunes we’re on are only about 70m above sea level, but they feel much higher, as we look directly into the ocean below.
Juandre manages to find us another desert dweller, this time a Shovel-Snouted Lizard. A fast-moving lizard that’s endemic to the Namib area, it chases insects and even catches flying moths. Unlike the Namib Dune Gecko it’s diurnal, and can be found moving along the slip faces of the dune where the dune sand is very soft. When the lizard feels threatened it dives into the soft sand, giving it a nickname of the “sand diving lizard”.
After we have our afternoon tea in the dunes – with way more food than we can possibly eat – we see a flock of pelicans (the “Namibian air force”) flying across the dunes.
It’s almost time to head back, but not before we slide (and drive) down a few more steep sand dunes.