A dazzle of zebras by the side of the road in Etosha Park.
“T-I-A … this is Africa”
“T-I-A … this is Africa”
I first heard this expression from the fictional character Danny Archer, played by Leonardo di Caprio, in the movie Blood Diamond. Although I heard it in a movie, it is apparently a widely used expression often accompanied with a shrug, to explain the African way of life. It is all encompassing – it is used to explain corruption, rebellions, poverty, good food, culture, and concepts/behaviors that are perplexing to people unfamiliar with Africa. It is also used to explain why you cannot get what you were promised, or why plans have changed. For someone like me who can be particular when organizing trips – I was concerned to go to a place where everything can be explained with the three letters – TIA.
On top of that, Africa is a very big and diverse place, which I did not fully appreciate until I started researching for our trip. Looking at most printed world maps – Africa almost seems like the size of the U.S. or Greenland, when in fact, it’s bigger than three times the size of the contiguous U.S. states! With Africa’s size and diversity – how do you decide where to go and what to see? Then factor in distance, cost, logistics, plus all things TIA – planning a trip to Africa becomes a challenging task.For inspiration, I turned to fellow traveler Anthony Bourdain. I sat on my couch and watched several episodes of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show casing both the good and bad parts of Africa. I know, I know… there weren’t many episodes filmed in Africa, so please forgive me for not using a more comprehensive material for my research. But it was Bourdain, and it was entertaining. So enter Season 4, Episode 5 – Bourdain’s trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar. When I watched the scene where he was having breakfast while looking out over the Ngorongoro Crater – I was inspired. I wanted to experience that for myself.
Then reality came knocking. Unfortunately, I am not paid to travel nor do I have deep pockets, so staying at andBeyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge was not financially responsible. The cost for a safari trip to Tanzania was more than I wanted to spend, especially when looking at the price quoted by popular travel operators like Abercrombie & Kent and Thomson. And although Tanzania is, overall, a safe country to visit, it is recommended to go with a highly rated safari tour operator rather than going on your own.
Now that we’ve established that our budget did not cover the high prices for a Tanzanian safari (plus I really didn’t want to be with the same tour group the entire time while on vacation). I also wanted to see the diversity of the African landscape on top of what a safari will cover. There had to be a way to experience what Africa had to offer on our own terms.
Enter Namibia 🇳🇦.
Thankfully, my husband happened to remember a social media post he saw awhile back on amazing African landscapes. One of the photos that captured his attention was of the Deadvlei landscape in Namibia. It was surreal and different from the usual safari photos associated with Africa. If you are not familiar I suggest looking for it in Instagram or scrolling down to my photos below.
Arriving at Windhoek airport via South African Air.
Namibia is one of the safest countries in Africa. According to the U.S. Department of State Travel.State.Gov website, the Namibia Travel Advisory is Level 1 (at the time of planning our trip), which is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. It is also one of the least-densely populated countries in the world with, generally, well-maintained roads and infrastructure.
Namibia was the perfect fit for our first African trip. It hit all the points – diverse landscapes and experiences, within our budget, and we can do our own self-drive tour! I kid you not!! Admittedly, a self-drive tour is not without risks. To help with the planning, I utilized a local Namibian travel agency for our itinerary and bookings our car rental and accommodations. For more information on our itinerary, click here.
Due to Namibia being a former British colony, Namibians drive on the left side of the road. Good thing there are stretches of road where there’s barely any traffic. Majority of Namibian roads are gravel roads, which can be dangerous if you don’t watch your speed and pay attention to the road tracks. On our last full day driving from the Kulala Desert Lodge back toWindhoek, I yelled so loudly and woke everyone in the car because I no longer saw where the road was leading to as I was about to turn right into a sharp downhill turn – I really thought we were driving off a cliff. We laugh about it now, but it was not funny then. The travel agency also recommended to avoid traveling when dark since there are no lights on the road outside of big cities like Windhoek.
Watch out for the animals! Road signs in Namibia.
If not planned carefully, you can spend a long time driving between destinations. However, driving does offer incredible views. Up north, by Etosha Park, you are surrounded by the vast open plains with the occasional herd of impalas and wart hogs. Our longest drive was a little over 6 hours from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei through the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Here in the south-western part of the country, the orange and yellow desert landscape against the big blue sky dominates the views. There were moments during the drive it felt like a National Geographic episode, especially when you look across the vast distance through shimmering waves of heat and dust, spotting wildebeest and an ostrich or two. At one point, two ostriches were running perpendicularly towards us that we had to slow down so they wont hit us!
Once you are at your destination, whether its a lodge or a reserve, make sure to book your activities right away. Most game drives start right before dawn, although there are also afternoon and night game drives. In Okonjima Nature Reserve, home of the Africat Foundation, we were able to experience cheetah tracking on foot. Which means they drive you in a safari style jeep until they locate the cheetahs, then you approach it on foot. And while driving through the reserve, we were able to see plenty of animals like giraffes, wart hogs, antelopes, wildebeest, rhinos, and many more. We located three cheetahs, brothers, who were rescued and rehabilitated and eventually released into the reserve. We were just in time to see them stalking and hunting a family of wart hogs. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the wart hogs escaped. While in Etosha, we did both morning and afternoon game drives where we saw a lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and various species of birds.
At the Kulala Desert lodge, we woke up before dawn to tour Sossusvlei in the Namib desert – home to some of the highest sand dunes in the world like the aptly called ‘Big Daddy’ which goes up to 325 meters. During the tour, we climbed up Dune 45 which is around 80 meters high. We also saw Deadvlei, a white clay pan with a spattering of fossilized camel thorn trees, surrounded by red sand dunes and a blue sky backdrop. In the afternoon, we hiked the Sesriem canyon before heading back to the Kulala Wilderness Reserve to enjoy a sundowners picnic of wine, beer, and hors d’oeuvres.
Namibia was the perfect introduction to Africa and it had something for everyone. Between seeing animals in the wild, hiking up one of largest sand dunes in the world, picnicking in the desert, even the long distance driving on gravel roads – there was never a boring moment and it provided many new and wonderful experiences. And if I could change one thing, it would be to spend more time in Namibia, since 10 days was not enough to discover all it had to offer.
Please enjoy some more photos from our trip!
Sunset at Etosha National Park
On safari at Etosha
Picnic at Sossussvlei