Why join a self-drive safari group when you can head out on your own? Isn’t it better to organise your own trips? Johan Badenhorst used to think so, but now he’s not so sure…
In February and March this year I had the privilege to join two back-to-back guided tours through the Namib. Both were arranged by Live the Journey in conjunction with the local operators in Namibia, Uri Adventures and Desert Magic.
I used to be sceptical about guided tours, but these trips really made me think again.
We started off at Solitaire on a “Faces of the Namib” adventure. There were loads of different types of vehicles in the group – Fords, FJ Cruisers, Land Rovers and, of course, my eight-speed automatic Amarok.
The tour members were from all walks of life, and different parts of SA. Some were dune-driving experts while others were complete novices.
Our guide was Simon Wearne of Uri Adventures. I’d known Simon from previous trips, so I knew that he would lead us expertly in the Namib. While he would be skilfully observing each driver’s ability and setting new challenges, he would also inform the whole party about the secrets of the desert.
Lunchtime each day was “an occasion” as Simon and his three helpers set up shade netting between their vehicles and served the most fantastic meals. The same could be said of their breakfasts and dinners.
Travelling in the desert with Simon and his team is a memorable experience. It is great fun, especially for novices. It is also very educational as Simon has vast knowledge of the age of the desert, the creatures that live in it and the many ships that have foundered on its shores. Most of all, such a journey is a proper adventure, away from cell phones, newspapers, television and traffic jams. In our six days we encountered no other vehicles – total bliss!
Two days after ending my excursion with Simon, I joined Volker Jahnke of Desert Magic – a legendary dune driver – for a trip up north.
Volker recently secured the concession to take tourists to the Cunene River Mouth along the beach, and then back via the Hartman Valley. Not only is this an exceptional journey – it traverses a part of Namibia seen by very few people.
The Cunene Mouth trip was two days longer than the Faces of the Namib excursion. More fuel was needed, so more jerry cans had to be filled. Volker catered only for breakfast and dinner. Not that this really mattered, as most people carried enough biltong, nuts and other items to see them through the day.
Like Simon, Volker is a living encyclopaedia on the Namib. Along the way he talked about the history of the ill-fated Dunedin Star, the Cape fur seals and their effect on the oceans, the flight of many Portuguese citizens from Angola along the beaches of the Skeleton Coast in 1974 and many other anecdotes.
Camping on both excursions was under the stars. On the Cunene Mouth trip the touring party were, for the first few nights, exposed to the winds of the Skeleton Coast. Under normal circumstances this would not be pleasant, but Volker and his team managed to make it as comfortable as possible.
During both trips everybody had to get up at roughly the same time in the morning, have breakfast, strike camp, and get under way. The groups travelled in convoy and were in constant radio contact. We were like one, big, happy family in our 4x4s.
In both instances, I am happy to say, everybody behaved wonderfully. There were no difficult customers, squabblers or unreasonable people.
Going on guided trips such as these offers something exceptional. The trips are in “concession areas” not normally open to the public. But with the tour companies having paid for the concessions, these wonderful places can be reached by groups of paying guests. These are the best guided self-drive excursions imaginable!
But there is another way of going on safari, of course – a cheaper, less intrusive way. Go by yourself.
As I drove back from Puros, heading for SA, I passed Sesfontein, Warmquelle, the signpost to Ongongo, Twyfelfontein, the Burnt Mountain and the Petrified Forest. I was reminded of Namibia’s huge diversity – and so many of these places are not under concessions. Anyone can go there.
How many nights have I spent in Namibia under the stars in some unknown dry riverbed or at some community campsite? How absolutely wonderful is it to “discover” the desert elephants in the Hoanib, or to see the fresh lion tracks next to the small fountain at Gai-as, or just to get stuck for hours in the deceiving riverbed of the Ugab. This is ultimate freedom.
So, what do I propose: guided or unguided overland trips? Both, I think. During a guided trip, some obnoxious individual could spoil your whole desert experience, but if you don’t go on such an expedition, you won’t see some of the most fascinating places in Namibia. Moreover, guides share their knowledge and prepare wonderful meals.
On the other hand, there are so many places to visit in a country like Namibia that you can have a great trip on your own, or with a couple of friends. You may have to do a little more research, and plan your own menus, but there is nothing wrong with that.
Most of the people who were part of my two excursions did what I did. They travelled with Volker or Simon, and then took their own private trips afterwards. That’s the way to do it. Experience ultimate freedom both ways!