The plan was to explore central Namibia using the less-travelled roads. To make things more interesting, not a single accommodation booking was made. It would be a “stop-and-sleep” trip – courtesy of a Volkswagen Caravelle T5 2.5 TDI and a Jurgens Oryx off-road trailer…
Text and photography by Danie Botha
The dirt road was rough. Very rough. And we were not driving a tough-as-nails “Über-4×4” but a front wheel-driven Volkswagen Caravelle T5 bus – with a heavily laden Jurgens Oryx camping trailer in tow. The “road” was the gravel stretch leading towards the Rietfontein border post in the Northern Cape and it was in very bad shape, with some humungous ruts and corrugations. Some ruts were so deep that first gear was the order of the day.
On the Namibian side of the border post, a highway-like dirt road greeted the VW and Oryx. Smooth as silk, it’s in even better condition than some of South Africa’s tarred roads! We now made good progress towards our first stop, the one-horse town of Aroab. Driving into Aroab, you can’t miss the Kalaharie Lafenis shop, this area’s equivalent of a Pick ’n Pay Hypermarket. This quaint shop offers great hamburgers, a licensed restaurant, accommodation, and even a place to pay Namibian road taxes.
After that Rietfontein dirt road, and with the sun sinking fast, the prospect of accommodation, hamburgers, an icecold beer and a friendly host swayed us to stay over in Aroab. Accommodation in Kalaharie Lafenis terms is a basic bungalow, with the bare necessities, or camping next to this bungalow.
The next day the Caravelle train reached Keetmanshoop, and the first opportunity to fill the Volkswagen’s fuel tank in Namibia. At 5,22 Namibian dollars per litre ($1 Namibian = R1), things were looking up. Rands are widely accepted as payment, too.
The main B1 highway to Mariental was quiet, very straight, and very flat. In these conditions the Volkswagen excelled. The powerful diesel engine’s 400 Nm of torque made light work of the 1000kgplus Oryx trailer, with the 6-speed gearbox in top gear, and the engine revolutions hovering around the 2000r/min mark – exactly where all that torque is to be found. Overtaking also proved to be a relative breeze, with that low-down grunt under the driver’s right foot.
We headed for Maltahîhe, about 120km west of Mariental. The town has campsites galore, and we settled for the absolutely peaceful Daweb guest farm, 5km out of town. There are only three camping sites, surrounded by windmills, and the stands are beautifully kept.
Next day, next stop: Duwiseb Castle, about 70km from Maltahîhe. A castle? Yep. Erected by a Baron von Wolf for his American wife Jayta, this red sandstone castle was completed in 1909. But alas, Baron von Wolf was killed during the First World War, and his wife never returned to her desert paradise.
Today visitors can stroll through the castle, which resembles its European counterparts. A tour will take around 30 minutes, or one hour if you’re really into antique furniture and artefacts.
So the Volkswagen and Oryx hit the road again, destination Sesriem, the gateway to the magical Sossusvlei. The Namib Naukluft Park straddles this road and the scenery here is breathtaking, with vast, flat vistas filling the horizons to the north, south, east and west. Curious gemsbok and other buck can also be seen.
This is where the Caravelle suffered a puncture – and it took us over an hour to change the tyre, with the VW’s standard jack not exactly suited to the sandy and rocky surface. Bethesda Lodge and Camping, a real little gem around the corner from Sesriem, was a welcome sight. It has a proper lodge, and very cosy campsites. There is also a swimming pool, a shop and a bar.
At Sesriem, the wind was blowing great guns. We forged ahead regardless, leaving the Oryx at the main gate. Except for the dismal state of sections of the 60km “tar” road leading to the Sossusvlei epicentre, the experience was simply awesome. And when the wind subsided, it became heavenly.
Even Van Gogh would not have been able to do justice to this landscape on a piece of canvas. The sheer size and expanse of it all is mesmerising, intoxicating, and truly magical…
The one-horse town of Solitaire was next on the menu. Solitaire was once famous for its white puffadder snake, which apparently attracted busloads of tourists. The famous snake has passed on, however, and now, believe it or not, it is apple pie that sees to it that Solitaire’s restaurant/shop is probably one of the most popular in the whole of Namibia. The campsite, lodge and restaurant are really decent, too, and there’s a great sundowner lookout spot.
The road to Walvis Bay was up next, and it was a long, long stretch. Most of this main road is in great shape, and cruising at around 110 km/h is quite comfortable and safe.
You’ll find the Gaub and Kuiseb Passes on this road, and although they certainly are not meant or designed for dynamic driving, they offer a welcome respite from the monotonous, straight dirt roads.
Some sections are so steep that the front-wheel-driven Volksie encountered some difficulties just to get going, with the Oryx’s extra weight and the steep inclines causing the front wheels to battle for grip.
Walvis Bay eventually appeared, along with the first tar road we had seen in many days. But, after all the freedom, space and quietness we had experienced so far, Walvis Bay seemed very crowded – so we spent 10 minutes driving around before heading towards Swakopmund, farther north along the coast.
We soon realised that we were not about to escape from traffic, tourists and built-up areas, even though this coastal road runs between massive sand dunes and the ice-cold waters of the treacherous Skeleton Coast.
But we did discover a little bit of peace and quiet, about halfway between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund: the Langstrand (Long Beach) camping site. This massive campsite was completely deserted, and we settled into a quite corner, about 50m from the beach.
We liked this campsite so much that we decided to use it as our base for the next few nights, and to explore the surrounding areas. With the Oryx left at the camping spot, we cruised to Swakopmund for delicious fish and chips, and visits to the local aquarium and the famous lighthouse. We enjoyed the lovely town, with its rich German heritage and history.
The German link is an interesting one. At the turn of the 19th century German settlers landed here with the aim of establishing a crucial port to link up with Windhoek. The result is a proper German town, with all the necessary architecture – slap bang in the middle of one of the harshest climates and landscapes on earth. It is stunning. The Caravelle stretched its legs to Henties Bay, once a desolate fisherman’s haven but these days a thriving little community with loads of new luxury housing developments. Its famous sand golf course is still there, however, and it’s quite a treat to play. Cape Cross followed, and the Caravelle was in its element on the beautiful salt road leading north past Henties Bay. Apart from its historical significance (the Portuguese seafarer Diego Cao landed here in 1486, and planted the famous cross), the attraction is the seals. A lone jackal was working its way up and down through the seal ranks, looking for sick or injured seal pups. It did not find any while we were there, much to the disappointment of a large group of tourists, most armed with a camera in one hand and a video recorder in the other.
Our time at the peaceful Langstrand was over all too soon, and we hitched up the Oryx and hit the road again – next destination Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. Just a few kilometres outside Swakopmund we decided to visit the area’s famous Welwitschia forests and the so-called moon landscape. Armed with a well-known travel magazine’s directions, all we managed to do was get the VW stuck in powdery soft sand, in an apparent dead-end. Happy we were not!
More than an hour later we were on the main road to Windhoek. Gradually the landscape changed from stark and naked to lush bush, grass plains, with mountains in the background.
Along this main road there is another noteworthy attraction: Spitzkoppe, situated near the town of Usakos. Essentially it is a mountain – comprising solid rock. From a distance Spitzkoppe looks like just another mountain, but up close it’s a pretty spectacular sight.
Windhoek buzzed, but we didn’t spend much time there. Not that there’s anything wrong with Windhoek. On the contrary, as cities go, it’s quite a lively and interesting place, but the final leg back to South Africa loomed.
Instead of heading back the traditional Keetmanshoop way, we aimed for the Trans Kalahari Highway, which is supposed to cut the travelling distance between Windhoek and Johannesburg by around 400km. It is said to be the second busiest road in Namibia, and has a smooth tar surface.
Just outside the town of Gobabis, though, we encountered an interesting obstacle.
A 10km stretch of the highway was being re-surfaced and the traffic was diverted onto a narrow, two-spoor dirt road next to the main road. This turned out to be the most challenging “offroad” drive of the entire journey!
We were also forced to drive a few metres on the fresh and very wet tar, which would later need a lot of elbow grease and chemicals to clean both the VW and the Oryx.
The Buitepos/Mamuno border transition into Botswana went without a hitch, but on the Botswana side we encountered an entirely new challenge: navigation. While the Trans Kalahari Highway was clearly marked on the Namibian side, there was not a single signpost in Botswana. Our map book also didn’t feature the highway, so we placed all of our hopes in a Garmin GPSMAP 76S, loaded with all of southern Africa’s road maps.
With the Garmin showing the way, the Volkswagen reached the Pioneer /Skilpadshek border post around noon – and here a friendly South African policeman even gave advice on how to remove the sticky tar on the Volksie and Oryx. It was good to be back in familiar territory, even though our 5000km odyssey was filled with highlights.
Would we do it again? Without a doubt. In fact, the Okavango and the northern regions of Namibia beckon …