I’ve returned here for many a reason
I’ll certainly live here for many a season
Like thousands of others I hear its heartbeat
My heart opens up when I am in the mountains
Where I can be alone with my thoughts
I’ve returned here to be in the deserts
I love to hear the sound made by sand dunes
I am one of those who perceive the rhythm
Of a landscape as recorded in many paintings
I am one of thousands who know I am finally home
I’ve indeed returned here for many a season
This is my God-given beautiful country
That very mountain over there and across
The deserts sandwiching my African land
Even though I don’t own anything, it’s my land too.
by Mvula Ya Nangolofrom - Watering the Beloved Desert (Makanda: Brown Turtle Press, 2008)
Listen to the soundtrack HERE for an enhanced experience.
In January of 2017 we had the divine privilege of existing amongst the energy of the Namib Rand desert in Namibia, and it changed us permanently. The memories of the gentle desert breezes, the Namibian sunset, the sweeping landscapes, and the silent solitary stare of the oryx, were calling us back. We didn’t know the capacity, but we knew we would return to the Namib desert, where our love grew roots amidst nature and solitude.
We returned in late January 2020 and we brought friends to gather and help us celebrate our union. In all the places we’ve explored together, there was something special about Wolwedans. The simplicity, the minimalism, the solitude, the isolation, it was a place for us to create something special that our friends would remember forever. With help from a few friends on the ground in Winhoek, 50 people came via caravans of 4x4 vehicles ( all rented from ASCO in Windhoek ) and bush plane flights. With all the pieces in place, nature did its job and created the backdrop of a more than a few perfect moments that continue to bring tears to my eyes as I write this. The warmth and genuine enthusiasm of the staff at Wolwedans was on display and when the sunset over “ceremony dune” we felt that our dream had come true.
We want to acknowledge Elemotho, the voice of Namibia, who performed for us alongside Samuel Batola. These charismatic artists mesmerized in the most spectacular setting. Also on site was Namibian rapper Ringo Starr who was a surprise discovery amongst the wolwedans staff. Sound Engineer Shafa Ace Da Bass built our soundsystem and DJ booth and was on point at all times. Joel Haikali seamlessly provided us with logistics help out of Windhoek. We are immensely grateful for the generosity and impact these individuals made on our weekend.
After three days at wolwedans, we made a caravan to Sesriem for one closing sunset night at Deadvlei. The next morning we embarked on a 9 day self drive journey visiting three very special lodges which we will detail here in case you might want to retrace our steps.
Heading north from Sesriem, we made a quick stop for pie and fuel in Solitaire. Possibly the best apple pie I’ve ever consumed (sorry mom!) This place is an absolute must stop and experience this gas station truly lost in time.
Next stop: Walvis Bay
About a four hour drive north and then west and we arrived at Walvis Bay. Right away we jumped into a 4x4 and did the sandwhich harbour 4x4 tour, we went with the half day option. The tour was with Kurt von Schweintz who is a retired nuclear engineer who gives the tour. We started at the salt pans just south of Walvis Bay. To harvest the salt, ocean water is dehydrated, and salinity increases in concentration until it turns into pink and green lakes due to the different alge that can survive the high salinity.
Moving further south along the coast our 4x4 was blazing along breaking waves towards Sandwhich Harbor, where the dunes meet the ocean. Along the beach we immediately came across a Nama burial site with human skeletal remains. It turns out the Nama tribe are the only people who can survive in this area, and they sustain themselves on a very bitter melon that grows wild along the dunes. Most of the living things in this ecosystem feed off this bitter melon called the Nara fruit. We tried one, and it was harsh.
Kurt was the best 4x4 driver we have ever seen, and his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area was astounding.
By four PM it was time to drive back, and there were a few times that we thought the car was going to be caught in the breaking waves as the tide came in, but Kurt seemed to have it dialed. We got back to town to meet our escort taking us to Pelican Point.
Next stop: Pelican Point Lodge
Getting to Pelican Point was another adventure in itself, crossing again through the salt mines, then driving along open sand to a solitary lighthouse on the peninsula surrounded by numerous seal colonies, pelicans and flamingoes. The lighthouse was opened by the South African government in 1932 and is the only structure on the peninsula. This was some of the best beachecombing, and each day that passed gave the ocean a different feel depending on the wind and the weather. Day trips included boat interactions with the seal colonies, and nature drives along the shoreline.
Next stop: Shipwreck Lodge
After two nights at Pelican Point it was time to heard north up the Skeleton Coast to Mowe Bay. This was our first challenging leg of driving, and we gassed up in Swakopmund and lowered the pressure in our tires in anticipation of softer roads. The drive through skeleton coast park was very rough, with a lot of very ominous looking rocks and hazards. When we signed in to the park register there were only two other visitors for that particular day and it was around 3pm at the time. We didn’t have time to explore the coast but we passed probably a dozen wreck sites along the coast as we headed north to Shipwreck Lodge. This was probably some of the most treacherous driving we experienced and we did puncture a tire on the way up. I got yelled at by my (brand new) wife for driving too fast whenever the back tired would fishtail a bit. I found it exciting but apparently she did not. When we arrived to the meeting point in Mowe Bay, we saw Shiimi’s smiling face waiting for us, and we knew we had arrived. I recommend taking a look at Mowe Bay on google earth and seeing what a small town this is. The population is around 11 people, and one of those people is a visiting scientist. That scientist resides in Mowe Bay studying the desert adapted lion, of which there are only around 150 remaining. They are currently trying to get the lion to feed on seals, and introduce this as a new protein source of which seems to be in limitless supply.
Shipwreck lodge is a relatively new lodge in Namibia. The lodge was built and designed with the intention of leaving a small footprint and not disturbing the natural landscape, so you will only find 12 guest rooms there. As you approach by 4x4 you will appreciate how the architecture of the resort allows it to blend into the windswept dunes. The color scheme of the rooms matches the surrounding environment and each rooms is dedicated to a unique shipwreck. The resort is partnered with the Puros and Sesfontein conservancies. Local Ovahimba and Herero people comprise the delightful staff at Shipwreck lodge. In addition, 8% of hotel fees are returned to these conservancies who are partnered in land and wildlife preservation of the surrounding region, and development cannot take place without their blessing. If the hotel prospers, everyone wins, even the wildlife, and you don’t have to worry about condos going up next door. This is responsible tourism, welcome to Namibia. ☺
Our three nights at Shipwreck were absolutely sublime. I wont go into details about all the activities, but every day our dedicated guide continued to dazzle us amongst this fascinating landscape. Nature drives, ATV rides, beach BBQ lunches, and the white sand windswept landscapes. Namibian sand comes from south Africa and blows north along the prevailing winds. The dunes in the south are older and the sand oxidizes and turns red. The dunes in the north are still younger and moving and the sand has yet to oxidize so it maintains its yellow color.
Shipwreck Lodge is under the umbrella of Natural Selection Safaris. If you desire to visit someday, have a look at their portfolio of properties, as it is some of the finest that Namibia has to offer, and they often offer a discount if you visit more than one property. It is important to note that most guests to these resorts arrive by bush plane.
We chose to self-drive, which made a trip like this more affordable for us newlyweds. Natural Selection does offer a land transfer to its sister property Hoanib Valley camp, which is around 60km due east of Shipwreck lodge. We chose to self drive, so for us this meant backtracking south along the coast, then east, then back up north to the town of Sesfontein.
Next stop: Sesfontein
As we crossed east off the skeleton coast we crossed Damaraland via Springbokwasser. We then took the C43 north towards Palmwag and Sesfontein. This particular stretch of road was rocky and desolate, even the animals looked thirsty. Our Land Cruiser rattled over the gravel roads until we were overtaken by a car on our left waving for us to stop. They were pointing at our back tire and gesturing for us to slow down. I stopped the vehicle to see a flat in the back, and two guys from the pickup came out to take a look. They asked if I needed help, and I graciously accepted. Within minutes, in the hot 35 degree heat, they went to work. I provided the tools and within minutes they artfully swapped out my tire with a spare. It was as if they had done this thousands of times before. Namibians are known for being experts in auto repair, almost by default. We offered them some wine and some USD, and a cold coke for the elderly woman in the back of the flatbed. As we posed for a photo the patriarch of the group, he yelled something about Namibian hospitality, and that his family was from “Kunene Region” It was all smiles and we were happily on our way to sesfontein.
Next stop: Himba village
Sesfontein, Puros, and Opuwo are the main towns in the region of Northern Namibia inhabited by the Himba people. We had read about these people and their vibrant traditions and culture, and we wanted to learn more. Through a private guide arranged by our Windhoek contact Joel Haikali, we met “Jimmy” at Fort Sesfontein Lodge.
We arranged to be married in the Himba tradition. We negotiated in advance how authentic we wanted the ceremony to be. Jimmy advised me spending the night alone in the bush and waking up with men and skinning several animals in order to make a suitable dowry to offer for the wife. He didn’t think it would be authentic without a slaughter, but Gaby rightfully objected, and didn’t want to see any animals die on our behalf. We decided to omit the slaughter, but to try and keep everything else. We were taken to a tribal village, and put inside a hut and rubbed down with dark red ochre. We were outfitted with traditional Himba garb to wear. Everything was handmade from cow and goat, and everything was died red with ochre. Jimmy translated for us and keyed us in to the symbolism and meaning of the ceremony. Jimmy showed us the dried gourds that were normally used for milking goats and cows, then lamented that the cows and goats stopped giving milk due to severe drought over the past several years.
I was then taken by two men of my same age, barefoot, to a place on the other side of the village. I walked amongst rocks, goat dung, and other potentially penetrating debris. From there Gaby stayed with only women inside the hut. In accordance with the Himba tradition, a group of men came to pull Gaby out of the hut, but the women inside resisted. A battle ensued, and there was about 20 minutes of intense action between about ten men attacking the hut and another ten women violently defending it. The women seemed just as powerful as the men, and the hut seemed like it could collapse at any time. I sat in the distance and could only watch the melee unfold, I hoped my brand new wife was safe and asked myself, “how did I get here?“
Finally the tumult subsided, and there was silence, and three Himba women approached the center of the camp where the sacred fire was burning. The entire village looked on, as the three women approached the fire. The chief was waiting and had words for one of the women. As I looked closer I realized that woman was indeed my wife. She was so elaborately decorated that I could not recognize her, and this brought a tear to my eye. After some advice from the chief, it was agreed that our union could take place, and I was reintroduced into the circle. We were given a blessing and then we danced some traditional dances, and the did our best to communicate our appreciation to the tribe for including us.
Next stop: Hoanib Valley Camp
The Himba experience in sesfontein seemed to be an entire trip within itself, but we had one more magnificent resort to visit. The next stop was the Natural Selection sister property Hoanib Valley Camp. The route from Sesfontain to Hoanib Valley camp isn’t on google maps. We headed west over a small mountain pass and onto a road crossing a dry river bed. We were given two routes to choose from and a GPS coordinate that wasnt working on our device, so from there we only had verbal directions and no phone signal. We chose the "recommended 4x4 route" and were told to drive off-road and follow the river bed south until arriving at the camp. This offered a little adventure, and made the trip pretty exciting, just looking for natural land markers. Completely alone and off the grid, we made our way through stunning scenery stunning scenery alongside rocky canyons and natural obstacles.
We arrived at Hoanib Valley camp in time for a sundowner on a mountain overlooking the Hoanib River valley as a small family of desert elephants slowly made their way along the riverbed. During our stay we had an encounter with desert adapted lions that we tracked with our guide. We got to choose our own sundowner location that had never been used before. As the sun set on our final day, we were overcome with gratitude for what we had witnessed, and for the gracious hospitality we experienced.
On our last morning we woke up early with the intention to drive 10 hours straight to Winhoek. I messaged Jimmy and asked him if he could help with the drive from Sesfontain, which he gleefully accepted. Gaby slept in the back and we got back to Windhoek in time to meet Joel for a beer at the Hilton. The next morning we woke early for a flight to Livingstone, Zambia.
Next Stop: Tongabezi, Zambia
After having our asses bounced around over thousands of kilometers of rocky Namibian roads, we arrived at Tongabezi lodge on the bank of the Zambezi River. Livingstone was founded by Scottish explorer, physician and missionary David Livingstone. You can imagine his delight when coming across Mosi-o-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”. This discovery was none other than the majestic Victoria Falls. On the Zambia side of the falls, Tongabezi is the most famous luxury safari lodge. Here you can design your own custom itinerary every day, whether that be a river tour amongst groups of hippos, or visting the resort’s own strip of land at the edge of the mighty Victoria Falls. The resort’s habitations are all unique, and immediately adjacent there’s a school founded by the Tongabezi foundation. The guides at Tongabezi were excellent boatmen, as boating skills are a must when navigating a river full of aggressive hippos.
Tongabezi came up with an idea to do a fashion collaboration with local Zambian designer Miriam Chirwa.Gaby and Miriam co-designed two stunning Zambian Ankara dresses. The brilliant Ankara colors, against the natural backdrop of the Tongabezi property made for beautiful photographs. Read further here.
With a visit to a place like this, you can directly witness the positive impact you are making with your visit. The resort has historical significance in that its founder Ben Parker came to Victoria Falls flying microlight flights over the falls. From humble beginnings, the lodge grew to become a cornerstone of the community, and you can feel the warmth in the atmosphere. To finish your day with a sunset over the Zambezi while hippos moan into the night is an experience we will never forget.
As we returned to New York City from Africa in February of 2020, we soon watched in disbelief as the world succumbed to the coronavirus. Within a month of returning, my work (as an anesthesiologist in NYC) changed rapidly as covid patients filled our hospital. Life went from honeymoon heaven to hell on earth remarkably fast. My own mortality even came into question and I wondered how we didn’t see it coming. While we were caravanning through the Namib, the entire city of Wuhan was locked down, as the bodies started piling up, and we continued on, in blissful ignorance. As international leisure travel ground to a halt, we realized a trip like this will not be possible to recreate for some time. As we remain in lockdown mode, our thoughts are with all our wonderful hosts, and the endless smiles we received. We would also like to thank our family and friends for following us to such a remote corner of the world to celebrate. Our trip symbolized the beginning of our life together, the alpha, but also the end of the way life used to be, the omega. We wait with cautious optimism ready to discover the new opportunities that lie ahead. Thank you for reading this, be safe, we love you.
By John @ WanderGlider