Skeleton Coast and Sossusvlei Experience
per person sharing
Three nights in the friendly coastal town of Swakopmund is exactly the right time frame to really experience everything that is on offer, including the climate. The Namibian coastline is often chilly with a cool breeze and frequently foggy in the mornings and afternoons.
We cruise the famous lagoon at Walvis Bay with its myriad of ocean creatures and birds. Cape fur seals, flamingos, great white pelicans, leatherback turtles, sunfish, penguins, hump-backed and southern wright whales and much more are all on the sighting’s menu.
Sandwich Harbour is an Atlantic Ocean and sand dune sea adventure where we roller-coast the high dunes and play chicken with the waves during our trip to the remote, beautiful and historic Sandwich Harbour.
The sand dune sea of the central Namib Desert is the most iconic of all the destinations and many other attractions that Namibia has to offer, and with good reason. The experience is uniquely Namibian, there is nowhere else in the world that can offer such a day out.
Following an ancient riverbed to the heart of the desert we watch the landscape grow and change in the early light of sunrise. There is the chance to hike the world’s highest sand dunes to be rewarded with the panoramic vistas from the top.
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Day 1: Thursday – Windhoek – The Delight Hotel, Swakopmund – 380 km
You will be collected from your accommodation within the Windhoek city limits at 07:15 and transferred to Chameleon Safaris Head Office for a short pre-departure meeting.
We first drive north via the small town of Okahandja, but soon we are heading west, past the tiny centres of Karibib and Usakos, to the port town of Walvis Bay. The edge of Africa and the Skeleton Coast. Walvis Bay Lagoon is an internationally recognised Ramsar site, (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat) and is justly renowned for its birdlife. Flamingos, pelicans, African oystercatchers and turnstone to name but a few of the more than 50 bird species occurring here. This with other aqua fauna including bottlenose and Heaviside dolphins, humpbacked and southern right whales, ocean sunfish and Cape fur seals all add up to make Walvis Bay lagoon being a wetland wonderland.
In particular, we are here to see the flamingos which are usually abundant and found within easy photo distance from the shore. There are two types of flamingos to see, lesser and greater and they accumulate here because Namibia’s Atlantic coast is abundant with both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Flamingos do not enjoy a solid diet, they live on micro-organisms such as plankton and they are filter feeders, almost like an oyster. They rinse the seawater through their beaks and tiny filaments filter out the nutrients as it swishes by. Flamingos are unable to eat unless their heads are fully inverted and, while feeding, they walk around in a circle stirring the sand and mud with their feet to release the nutrients. Certain types of these micro-organisms turn reddish pink when they die and this accounts for the pink colour of the birds.
Flamingos do not breed in Walvis Bay. The tides here are not usually very steep, but occasional spring tides can bring deeper waters and this is not suitable for the specialised nest constructed by the birds. Flamingos build a nest, called a cone, out of sand and mud which has a hollow top into which they lay a single egg. This cone is designed to keep the egg out of the water and so a tidal environment does not work. Instead, for breeding, huge flocks of birds head typically for the Etosha Pan or to the Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana. Both these mineral pans are seasonal and are usually dry but can flood when there is sufficient rain. It is still not properly understood how the flamingos know when there has been suitable rainfall in these relatively far away catchment areas, but somehow, they do know and they leave the coast in great flocks that streek the horizon pink as head inland.
We complete the final leg of our journey into Swakopmund and we check into our accommodation at the centrally located The Delight. Swakopmund is an interesting place to say the least, founded by Captain Kurt von François of the imperial colonial army of the German empire in 1892. (He also founded Windhoek in 1890). It is bounded to the north, the east and the south by the mighty sand dunes of the Namib Desert and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean. There are still many examples of colonial German architecture to be seen and the German language is still widely used.
Lunch and dinner tonight are for your own account, Swakopmund boasts some truly excellent restaurants and again our guide will be able to help you with recommendations and bookings.
Accommodation: Twin share rooms, en-suite bathroom
Day 2: Friday – The Delight – Walvis Bay Dolphin Cruise – The Delight – 90 km
We will be collected from our accommodation this morning at a predetermined time for our cruise excursion on Walvis Bay lagoon. Heading south it is only a short 40 km drive along the dramatic coast road to the port town of Walvis Bay.
Walvis Bay is Namibia’s largest port and its strategic location gives excellent access to the main world shipping routes. The economic importance of Walvis Bay to Namibia is hard to overestimate. Apart from its own interests, three of Namibia’s direct neighbours, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are all landlocked and most of their shipping requirements are also handled through Walvis.
Home to the Namibian fishing fleet, Namibia is blessed with highly nutrient seas, the Benguela Current that pushes alongside Namibia’s 2000 km coastline brings unusually rich concentrations of plankton which supports an abundance of commercial species of fish.
The name translates simply to Whale Bay and in the olden days, the late 17th century until the early 18th century, a period of around 20 years, European and American ships hunted the abundant whales with a vengeance. Only when the whale numbers dropped to below economic numbers did the slaughter end.
We are heading to the Walvis Bay waterfront area where we will be welcomed aboard our boat for our cruise around the Walvis Bay lagoon. Our boat skipper will take us right across the lagoon where we will see the Pelican Point lighthouse, (34 meters tall and erected in 1932), that guards the end of the lagoon peninsula. The lighthouse used to be manned but has long since been converted to operate automatically and the old lightkeeper’s accommodation has now been converted into a lodge. Weather permitting, we may cruise on past the lighthouse for a short sail on the open Atlantic Ocean.
On our cruise today we will be accompanied by an expert local guide and towards the end of the trip we will be offered a light lunch that usually includes local fish and of course, the world-famous Walvis Bay oysters, all washed down with sparkling wine and excellent local Namibian beer.
Returning to Swakopmund in the afternoon with time to spare for other activities if you would like to participate. The staff at the Chameleon office in Windhoek will be on hand to liaise with you and will be able to offer full advice and make any bookings that are required.
Dinner tonight is for your own account in one of the many great restaurants in Swakopmund.
Accommodation: Twin share, en-suite bathroom
Meals: Breakfast & light lunch as provided on board the dolphin cruise.
Day 3: Saturday – Swakopmund – Sandwich Harbour – Swakopmund – 200 km
This morning we will again be collected from our accommodation at a predetermined time for our excursion to Sandwich Harbour. We will travel south along the coastal road, beyond Walvis Bay and into the desert to experience one of the more adventurous activities available in the Namib – a journey, through the dunes and along the beach to Sandwich Harbour. Sandwich also wears the badge of Membership to the Ramsar Convention and is located about 50 km south of the port town.
Appearing on Portuguese maritime charts as far back as the 15th century, Sandwich Harbour was first called Port dÍhelo and it was a little later before the name Sandwich was coined. Sandwich was noted on a chart produced by the India Company with information supplied by a British survey vessel working in the area around 1785. The survey vessel was called The Sandwich.
Sandwich Harbour once boasted an abundance of fresh water, artesian springs of sweet water used to bubble up from under the dunes and onto the beach and into Sandwich Harbour lagoon. So abundant was this water that the lagoon often contained more fresh water than salt. The source of this liquid gift was the Kuiseb River Delta where underground water still flowed, even during times of drought.
Freshwater made this isolated harbour habitable and over the centuries mankind has tried valiantly to commercialise the area. Whaling was what first caught the eyes of the early prospectors, closely followed by guano. Guano today is mostly used as fertilizer but in the 16th century it was a vital ingredient of gunpowder and so highly valued. Commercial fishing was popular, diamond prospecting was feverish and there was even an abattoir and meat canning factory established in 1887.
Today there is virtually nothing left of this once hive of activity. In more recent times the fresh water supply has greatly reduced and just about all sign of past human endeavour has been either washed into the sea or buried under the ever-shifting sands, leaving Sandwich Harbour pristine and naturally beautiful for our visit.
To get there though is another story. This excursion could have been referred to as a road trip, that is, if there was a road! Access to Sandwich is limited and it is action all the way. From Walvis Bay we head south, over, around and through the Kuiseb River Delta until we reach the high dunes of the coastal sand dune sea. From the dune belt, depending on the local, (on the day), conditions we will go either up and over the dunes or we will head for the beach and follow the coast, driving only meters from the waves.
For the final 8 km of distance, there is only one way to go. We will join a narrow strip of beach that runs right between the sheer towering dunes on one side and the angry, snatching Atlantic on the other. This mere ribbon of beach is the only way, in and vehicles are sometimes washed with salt water as that make their way. Timing is important as this beach access is closed off by the breakers at high tide.
There is still a lagoon to see at Sandwich although the entrance is mostly silted up, and we can imagine how the tall ships of another age must have looked as they snubbed at their anchorage. The best views are from the top of the high dunes but it is also highly recommended to take a walk along the lagoon shore and to push your toes into the soft wet sand.
On our return trip, after once again braving the ocean gauntlet and again depending on local, on the day conditions, we will usually take a thrilling drive up and over some of the highest sand dunes in Namibia. The term is Roller Coasting the dunes, our own natural theme park in the Namib Desert.
Returning to Swakopmund in the afternoon with time to spare for other activities if you would like to participate.
The next section of this safari will be guided and your guide will make contact with you this afternoon to brief you about the rest of the safari.
Dinner tonight is for your own account.
Accommodation: Twin share, en-suite bathroom
Meals: Breakfast & snacks as provided on the Sandwich Harbour excursion.
Day 4: Sunday – Swakopmund – Namib Desert Lodge – 350 km
We will be departing Swakopmund at about 11:00 so there is time for a lie-in or a quick last-minute run around town.
On departure we first head east into the desert, crossing the Namib gravel plains, large areas of flat and seemingly barren terrain broken up by huge mountain inselbergs. We have two mountain passes to traverse this afternoon, first is the mighty Kuiseb Pass and we follow the road from the top of the mountains, dropping steeply down into the canyon carved over eons by the Kuiseb River on its way to debouch into the ocean at the port town of Walvis Bay.
We climb up from the banks of the river and over the pass, travelling through the mountain peaks and on to the second, smaller canyon of the Gaub River, a tributary of the Kuiseb.
We emerge from the mountains onto a flat road and almost immediately we cross the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5 south degrees. There is a signpost at this auspicious spot and we stop along the road for photos.
From here we continue on through the desert landscape to the tiny town of Solitaire and onwards again to our destination for today, Namib Desert Camp.
Accommodation: Twin share, en-suite bathroom
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Day 5: Monday – Namib Desert Lodge, Sossusvlei – Namib Desert Lodge – 220 km
Getting to the dunes as early as possible is the name of the game this morning and that means a pre-dawn start and a very early breakfast or breakfast on the way. We hope to be at the gate of the National Park with sunrise as it opens up to visitors.
The best time to photograph the dunes is around sunrise and sunset. This is when you can see towering sand dunes illuminated a glowing orange, apricot red on one side and swathed in shadow on the other. The depth of field is amazing at this time of day.
From Sesriem, we cover the 60 km into the dunes quickly and arrive at the 2×4 car park where all two-wheel drive vehicles have to stop. From here we enter the ancient Tsauchab River bed for the last 5km leg to Sossusvlei itself.
The Tsauchab River is ephemeral, it only flows seasonally, when there is enough rain, and for the most part, the riverbed is dry. Eons ago, during these rare floods, the Tsauchab sometimes received enough water to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as the millennia passed and the dune fields began to form, (around five million years ago), wind-blown sand invaded the riverbeds. The rivers became more and more constricted by sand until eventually, the occasional floods could not break through the sand barriers that had been erected by the wind. The valley we drove along this morning to get here is kept free of sand by the Tsauchab but Sossusvlei is now permanently waters end.
Sossusvlei does still sometimes flood, (perhaps once in a decade). After good rains in the Naukluft Mountains where the river rises Sossusvlei can become inundated, and the lake that this creates can last for many months, but no longer can the river find its original path to the Atlantic.
There is a 4×4 shuttle service that will transport us through the sandy terrain of the riverbed. We will visit Dead Vlei, an ancient pan completely surrounded by dunes, that is strikingly populated with dead, skeletal camelthorn trees.
These trees have been a feature of this landscape for over 1000 years. Sossusvlei is almost surrounded by dunes, just one narrow path kept open by the Tsauchab River.
We have time to explore the area on foot and to climb one of the highest dunes in the world, some towering 300 m above us, the views are breathtaking and justly famous.
We drive back the way we came, (there is only one road), stopping at the iconic Dune 45, (so named as it is 45 km from Sesriem. There is time to climb Dune 45 if you still have energy, or perhaps just sitting in the shade at the base of the dune will suffice.
Driving back to Sesriem we take a short excursion to see the Sesriem Canyon. Only four km from Sesriem, this canyon has been carved out of the landscape by the Tsauchab River. Around two million years ago there was an ice age in Europe. This caused glaciers to form and resulted in a worldwide drop in sea level. The knock-on effect of this at Sesriem Canyon was that it increased the length and water flow of the Tsauchab River. This greater force of water allowed the Tsauchab to begin cutting through the terrain resulting in the canyon we can see today. We can easily walk into the riverbed; it is usually much cooler in the canyon and we can follow the river for some way along its journey to Sossusvlei.
We head back to Desert Camp in the late afternoon.
Accommodation: Twin share, en-suite bathroom
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Day 6: Tuesday – Namib Desert Lodge – Windhoek – 320 km
Our last day today but excitement is still on the menu. We head back to Solitaire where our guide will ge us a sample of their world-famous apple pie.
There is some lovely mountain scenery on our drive back to Windhoek. The road climbs up onto and over Namibia’s central plateau and we return to Windhoek via the small community at Bullsport and the small town of Rehoboth. We arrive mid-afternoon and will be dropped at Chameleon Backpackers or the accommodation of our choice within Windhoek city limits.