21st - 29th June, 2005
In 2005 we have made a thoroughly enjoyable family trip to Namibia. Having visited some of the rock art sites in the lower Brandberg, the similarity to Uweinat was striking, both in the themes of the paintings, and also the landscape and environment. As soon as we returned, the thougt began to form to go back once the girls are big enough to climb to the upper Brandberg, which is one of the richest rock art areas in the entire African continent. This trip account is inteded to give an overview for anyone interested to join the planned Upper Brandberg trip.
We have taken the direct Air Namibia flight from Frankfurt to Windhoek, it was a quite pleasant experience, and a rather novel concept to step off an 11 hour overnight flight after a reasonably decent sleep and into the same time zone as we departed. Most of the flight was in the dark, morning broke just as we started our descent over the Etosha pan.
The first morning was spent picking up our camper vehicle, and stocking up on the supplies in a Windhoek supermarket. Compared to the Saharan standards we were accustomed to, the car was pure luxury - two fold-out tents on the roof that took about 3 minutes to erect, a small fridge, a table and chairs in the back together with a fully equipped camp kitchen. In the afternoon we set out towards the Namib desert. At first we passed through very neat farmland, but as soon as we entered among the hills the landscape changed into a proper uninhabited wilderness. We camped at a lovely secluded spot by a couple of small spring fed lakes at Tsauchab River Camp.
Dawn was the best African experience one can get, with a full moon setting over the hills, and the small forest around the lakes coming to life with the cries of thousands of birds and monkeys. We have taken a walk around the lakesto catch a glimpse of the creatures making the sound, but they remained elusive, just a rustle in the bush or treetops showing their presence.
In the morning we continued the drive towards the Namib desert. First it was accross sparse savana, with the omni-present weaving bird nests, then the country turned drier with just some grass and a few shrubs.
The dunes of the Namib desert appear quite suddenly, rising from the plains bordering the hily country further west. Here we encountered the first wildlife much to the excitement of Dora & Viki, a herd of gazelle and a large oryx.
As we drove deeper along the dry river leading into the desert, the dunes started becoming bigger and were no longer covered with vegetation. The sand has a reddish tinge, similar to that in Wadi Hamra in the Gilf. The neatly built road and marked out picnic places appeared totally out of place...
We were going for the main attraction, the Sossusvlei, where the Tsauchab river gets swallowed up by the sand, leaving a couple of dry lakes and a lush green oasis among the dunes. It is arguably the most amazing and grandiose desert scenery anywhere, with the dunes rising over a hundred metres around the basin, larger than any of the dunes we have seen in the Sahara.
The oasis is teeming with wildlife. There are plenty of gazelle, and I have encountered a lizard very similar to the species living in the valleys of the Gilf Kebir. Unfortunately it is not allowed to camp in Sossusvlei for the night, all visitors must leave at sunset, and return to the campground at the entrance of the park.
Next morning we had a rather amusing show put on by the birds cleaning out the remnants of our dinner from our pots with huge chirping and rattle as we had breakfast.
Much of the day was spent driving north trough a rugged, broken country deeply carved by river valleys coming down from the western plateau towards the sea. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn marked by a prominent roadsign, at the foot of which we found a two inch critter that turned out to be a spiny cricket.
In the afternoon we re-entered the northern Namib Desert National Park, which is a flat grassland with occasional patches of savana, full of ostrich, gazelle, giraffe and other wildlife. Yet further north and closer to the sea, true desert conditions set in once again, and here we met the first welwichia plants.
We camped at the Blutkoppe campground by the dry Swakop River, much preferrable to the crowded campsite at the entrance of Sossusvlei. Here we were alone, except for the hyraxes that were living among the rocks surrounding the camp.
Next morning we drove down towards the coast some 50 kilometres away. About 25 kilometres from the sea, we ancountered a dense band of fog covering the land. As soon as we entered it, the temperature dropped by at least ten degrees. In the desert it was pleasantly warm, while in the fog it could not have been more than a rather unpleasant 16-18 degrees. We made a brief visit to the sea, and decided that the beaches were definitely not one of the top Namibia attractions, at least not in mid-winter...
The only reason we came down to the coast was to see the Cape Cross seal colony. What we were not ready for was the smell, that one never gets to appreciate watching photos and films - we were still a good one kilometre away when an undescribable stench filled the car, the sure sign that we were approaching the colony.
Having ticked off the seals, we were all quite happy to leave the damp and cold coast to the desert once again. We set out on the track to Messum Crater, the remnants of an ancient volcanic caldera that is about as remote desert as it can get in Namibia. By Saharan standards it was highly amusing to read the warning signs saying it is highly unadvisable to enter with one vehicle and always let someone know where we are going ... a mere 30 kilometres from the nearest inhabited place, 10 kilometres from the closest travelled road. We soon encountered some more Welwichia plants in a ravine, and near to one I spotted a pebble that appeared to look back! Leaning down to pick it up for a closer look, the pebble hopped away. It was a mantid (Trachypetrella sp.), but almost toad-like in appearance and quite sturdy, having survived Viki's loving attention without any apparent harm.
The interior of Messum Crater is stark, barren except for a few welwitchias. It does have a remote feel, I do understand why it is considered a prime attraction in Namibia, but after the Sahara it has a limited appeal.
The main reason for our visit to Messum was a large shelter with rock art, situated near the centre of the structure in a large shelter in the side of a granite outcrop. The shelter contained a series of red figures in a style not unlike some we have seen elsewhere in the Sahara.
As we exited Messum through a dry river valley towards the east, we caught glimpse of the Brandberg for the first time. We camped in a bend of the river where Brandberg came into full view, our only campsite in Namibia where we could be truly alone in the desert without any feeling of civilisation looming behind the next corner. With the acacias, a large Salvadora persica bush and even a Colocynth plant close by, it appeared just like some wadi in the Sahara.
Next morning we drove up to, and around the Brandberg till the north-eastern Tsisab ravine, the site of the famous "White lady" painting (actually a man), as well as some other paintings. One must leave the car at the entrance of Tsisab, and walk about two kilometres up the gently sloping valley till the shelter with the paintings. The landscape is just like at western Jebel Uweinat, with the huge granite boulders and rugged grey granite slopes, but the vegetation is much more lush, probably how Uweinat must have appeared several thousand years ago, when the climate was wetter.
The White Lady shelter is truly magnificent, with beautifully preserved paintings that have a very distinct style and character, with the depicted wildlife echoing that of the dry savana today.
There are several sites beyond the White Lady shelter recorded by the Abbé Breuil. It soon emerged that our mandatory guide was only calibrated to lead tourists till the white lady (accessible on a built footpath), and had no clue that there were other paintings nearby. Without any map I could only find a couple of the major ones based on the landscape and expectation on where rock art may be found. It was interesting to note that the my experience was directly transposable, all the sites were at spots where I would have expected some rock art in the Uweinat environment.
In the late afternoon we returned to our car, and started driving north towards Twyfelfontein, a site with numerous engravings about 60 kilometres north of the Brandberg. As we drove along the track, we became aware of large fresh brown dung piles and football sized lumps on the road. It took a few seconds for the realisation to sink in - Elephants! As I stopped, we found ourselves alongside a herd of desert elephants just a couple of metres off the road. They were not the docile creatures encountered in the national parks, they became immediately agitated as we stopped, and the larger males soon came charging at us, requiring a speedy getaway.
After spending the night at the local campsite, we went to the rock art site which is in a lovely setting at the foot of a low escarpment. The rocks at the base of the scarp are full of engraved pictures of animals, most of which live in the area to this day.
The same afternoon we drove 250 kilometres towards the north to Etosha National Park. As we went north, the country became much greener, with many wildlife encountered even before we have reached the park.
The main park campsite was horribly crowded, after all the secluded places we have been to it was a stark reminder that we are back to the mainstream African tourist trail. We did manage a game drive to the water hole closes to camp before sunset (by which time all vehicles must return to camp), and were lucky enough to encounter a pride of lions taking their afternoon rest there.
We spent the next day and a half in the park. While the park was a bit too touristy for our liking, the wildlife is very rich, and the viewing opportunities are excellent, as all animals tend to converge on the water holes.
For the second night we moved to the less crowded middle campsite, and the next day explored the western part of the park, which is a bit more out of the way, and one does not have to share every water hole with at least half a dozen other vehicles.
In the afternoon we drove south towards the Erongo Hills, where further rock art sites may be found. Along the way we stopped at a series of very well preserved dinosaur footprints at Otjihaenamaparero farm.
We spent the night at the Ameib Ranch campsite at the foot of the Erongo Hills, very luxurious in comparison to others, it even had a swimming pool! Fortunately it was apperently off-season, we did have the place to ourselves. One of the most important rock art sites in Namibia, Philipp Cave is on the ranch, reachable after a pleasant hike of about three kilometres among the spectacular granite mountains.
The cave is situated half way up a hillside, it is a shelter formed out of an eroded fault in the granite. The rear walls are covered with some spectacular paintings of an uncommonly large scale.
Out time being up, the remaider of the day was spent driving to Windhoek, returning the car and equipment, then getting to the airport for our evening flight home. While nowhere as remote as our Sahara travels, we have found Namibia to be a thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable experience, very civilised and easy to get by, and a place definitely worth a re-visit.