Tips for Driving in Namibia

Experiencing Namibia by car is an epic adventure—and pretty much the only way to truly experience it. The country is vast and abandoned; while flying over the landscapes is also beautiful, part of the fun is taking in every different element. The crumbling, shifting gravel roads. The dry air pouring in from an open window. The thrill of spotting a zebra in the high grasses. The first sputtering spatters of an unexpected rainstorm. But it wouldn’t be a proper adventure if it wasn’t at least a little bit hazardous. And by hazardous, I’m referring to road hazards.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you if you’re planning a self-drive road trip through Namibia is to be familiar with cars. You’ll need that know-how to navigate the different road terrains and avoid tire troubles. Tire trouble can easily derail your itinerary; you’ll likely get at least one. But some proper precautions will definitely help!

Familiarize yourself with car maintenance before you go

If you’ve never changed a tire on your own, it might be worth watching a Youtube tutorial, just to get a sense of how it goes. Because a flat is pretty likely to happen.

Book a 4-Wheel Drive Vehicle

Our Toyota Fortuner felt like a tank when we pulled out of the Walvis Bay Airport parking lot. But an hour later, on dirt and gravel roads, we were thankful for the car’s bulk, height, and automated systems. We met another couple who were driving a Volkswagen Polo—they told us they’d already gotten two flat tires within three days of arrival. It’s worth it to get the larger vehicle for the rough roads.

Check your insurance

We rented our Fortuner from Budget/Avis, and had full coverage included in our rental cost. Make sure to check with your rental company to see what you should do in case of an emergency—when we got our flat, we found out that all we had to do was go to a garage and they’d invoice the cost of the new tire directly to the company. That kind of stuff is helpful to know ahead of any trouble.

Deflate your tires

If you go too fast on bad roads with full tires, you’re at high risk for blowing one out. We found 1.8 worked the best for the gravel roads, and 2.0 worked best for the paved roads. Ask at any gas station, and the attendant can do it for you.

Carry 3-4 liters of water in your car

Or at least one liter per person. It can get to be over 100°Fand you’re going to want to stay hydrated. We always kept snacks and toilet paper in the car too—there are places where you can easily drive 3-4 hours without hitting civilizations, so it’s good to have provisions.

Fill up at every gas station you pass

A general, but important rule of thumb. We stopped to fill up any time we were lower than 3/4 of a tank. You never know when you’ll see the next gas station., and trust me, you don’t want to get stranded in the Kalahari desert.

Always have eyes out for animals

Your rental car company will probably sternly warn you not to drive after dark. This is because zebras, oryx, warthogs, and other animals come out at dusk. They aren’t accustomed to seeing cars and have a tendency to run suddenly into the street. Take this seriously—and always have at least one person on the lookout for animals at any given time.

If you see a stopped car, check in

When we got our flat, we were luckily close enough to a major highway intersection that a few cars passed. The first two didn’t stop, the next three did, and all offered help. It’s a considerate thing to do in a country where, depending on where you are, you might see only four other cars on the road per day.  Tim did a great job with our tire and we didn’t need any help, it was reassuring when someone stopped by to offer help or even some water.

After it happened to us, we made sure to stop and check in with anyone pulled over on the side. It led us to one of our favorite moments. We were driving back up to Swakopmund on our heaviest (and hottest) driving day and saw a donkey-driven cart pulled off on the side of the road. A Namibian man thumbed us over, and we stopped. He asked if we were driving past Maltahöhe and if we were if we could take his kids with us. “The donkeys are overheated,” he said. “And school starts tomorrow.” Behind him stood six little kids, one clutching a plastic bag of books and clothes. Maltahohe was a 20-minute drive for us, but easily another few hours with the heaving donkeys; we opened the doors and let the kids and their mother pile into the backseat.

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Even though Namibia is unpopulated and abandoned, we felt safe the whole time we were driving, and everyone who stopped did so with positive intentions. Obviously, exercise judgment when and for whom you stop. But with a little auto expertise, common sense, and alert senses, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have the drive of a lifetime.

 

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Self-Drive Namibia: The Route

“What made you think of Namibia for a vacation?” Tim asked. It was the moment I was flipping through a National Geographic and saw this photo. Jim_Brandenburg_Oryx_smallSomething about it deeply appealed to me—the wild emptiness, the strange and beautiful animal. And I found Namibia to be exactly the same as the photo: an abandoned, primitive, and breathtaking environment just waiting to be explored.

Namibia is huge, and to do it properly we needed more than the six days we earmarked for the trip. We dedicated these days to exploring the midland and southern areas of the country, though I would gladly return to visit the northern and eastern staples: Skeleton Coast, Etosha National Park, the cave drawings at Twyfelfontein. I would, in fact, do the whole trip again—driving and heat included.

Our route was meant to be a big loop to and from Swakopmund, flying into Walvis Bay airport. Unfortunately, the day we arrived for our flight in Cape Town, we found out that our flight route had been permanently canceled some months before. Before anyone could freak out, the wonderful woman at the Air Namibia desk had rebooked us with a different carrier, but with the caveat that our flight arrived in Windhoek, some four-hours drive away. We wound up taking a taxi from Windhoek to our hotel in Swakopmund (which was very expensive, but somehow cheaper than a rental car), and our loop began just a few hours later than our original target.

We plotted the route ourselves, with Google Maps guiding us with timing estimates.

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Day One: Arriving in Windhoek and driving to Swakopmund

In the original plan, we would have explored Swakopmund, gone for a little pub crawl, and watched the sunset. In actuality, we did watch the sunset, but from the back of the taxi while eating takeout from Wimpy’s. Romantic.

Day Two: Swakopmund to Sesriem

An early morning start in Swakopmund, then a 3.5-hour drive to Sesriem, where we spent the afternoon relaxing at Moon Mountain Lodge, and the evening stargazing on our porch.

Day Three: Sossusvlei

We planned to wake up early for sunrise at the dunes, but the bed was too damn cozy. Instead, we did the hour drive to Sossusvlei at around 11:00—not the ideal time in terms of the heat of the day. We made a quick stop at Solitaire, an adorable little town, for some snacks, and then chilled at the Sossusvlei visitors center to let the noon heat pass before heading into the dunes.

Day Four: Sossusvlei to Luderitz

We took the scenic drive through the Mountain Zebra park (no zebras were spotted) down to Luderitz. On the way, we got our first (and thankfully only) flat tire. Read our tips for driving in Namibia here. We spent a quiet afternoon/evening in Ludertiz, visiting Agate Beach and enjoying dinner before our early start the next morning.

Day Five: Kolmanskop (and then Luderitz to Walvis Bay)

We kicked off our heaviest day of driving with a lovely stop at the Kolmanskop Ghost Town, where we spent about 3 hours on a photo expedition. The drive from Luderitz to Swakopmund took us about 9 hours (faster than we expected), and we stopped twice—once to replace our busted spare tire, and once for some unexpected passengers.

Day Six: Walvis Bay

We explored around Walvis Bay, stopping to see the flamingoes and pelicans that make the waters so famous, until our flight to Johannesburg left at 14:00.

So that’s our route! Ambitious, but manageable with the right car and some road-trip know-how.

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Road Trip Namibia

Riding the Waves for Change

Well, I survived my first surf lesson in the waters of Cape Town. Given the hype about sharks and the abundance of terrifying Youtube videos, I assumed the surfing itself would be the most notable part of the day’s experience. To my surprise, it was our instructor, Apish, who turned out to be the center of focus.

I should say, Apish and the organization he works for: Waves for Change (W4C). When I was looking for a surf lesson in Cape Town, I used Airbnb Experiences; I liked their focus on local development and wanted something that didn’t have a strong tour-y vibe. I booked Surf with Purpose, something Airbnb calls a Social Impact Experience. That means that 100% of what you pay for the Experience go directly to the host’s organization. When I read more about what they do, I couldn’t have been happier.

Waves for Change has developed an award-winning program to improve the well-being and emotional stability of young people who have been adversely affected by violence and abuse in the townships of Cape Town. They’ve termed it surf therapy—you can listen to the founder of the program talk about what is down at the bottom..

From an initial reach of 10 children in the township of Masiphumelele, W4C has since grown to reach more than 400 children, teachers, and parents every year. Apish told us that he works six days a week with rotating groups of kids. He and the other instructors teach life skills, surfing, and lifeguarding, giving the kids mentorship and a sense of value and community. The kids start the program at age 10, and stay for 2-3 years, though Waves for Change stays invested in them after they’ve moved on.

We cannot recommend this experience enough. First of all, the surf lesson was wonderful— Apish was a straight-forward, patient instructor who really made you feel comfortable as you gained confidence in the waves. The lesson took place at Muizenberg beach. At low tide, the beach typically has nice, gentle waves, and the sand is clean and smooth underfoot. The day we were there the water was more like a washing machine—which was good in that there were lots of waves, but bad in that you got swished around a decent bit. The area around Muizenberg is really sweet and bohemian, with a classic beach town vibe, plenty of little shops and cafés to poke into, and a wide sandy area for relaxing when you’re down with the lesson.

What we really found of value in this experience, however, wasn’t just the surf instruction. After the lesson, Apish drove us to his township, Masiphumelele (pronounced Mas-i-poom-i-lay-lay), which is named after a Xhosa word that translates to, “We will succeed.” Masiphumelele is a 15-20 minute drive away, but at least a two-hour walk for the kids that live there and visit the beach to participate in the program. On the way, we passed one of the boys Apish works with. As he rolled down the window to wave, he told us the story of how he used to collect metal on his own childhood walks to the beach, which he would then sell at a scrapyard to get money for food.

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Masiphumelele was much larger than I expected—though to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. Apish estimated that about 40,000 people live there. The gravel streets are lined with concrete shops and businesses in bright colors. The township looked pretty self-sufficient: there were national banks housed in small cargo containers, law offices, hardware stores, mechanics, electricians, hair shops and fashion stores, little markets and people selling fruits out front. For lunch, we went to the equivalent of local tavern/township pub (one of three in the township). It served a rotation of beers, braai (South African barbecue), and breakfast. Lunch consisted of milli pap, which is a type of corn mash, cold chili soup (there was a running joke that no one wanted to eat it hot), and braai meats. An older local man sat at the table beside us and offered running commentary and life advice, to the entertainment of everyone. At the end, Apish offered him the lunch leftovers, telling him: “If you get the food, you have to teach them something.” And so we got an impromptu (and pretty improvised) lesson in Xhosa, the click language.

This experience provides both high levels of interest and engagement and gives you a real 360-view of Cape Town’s vibrant cultures. It was eye-opening—and not just because the saltwater stings.

You can book the Airbnb Experience with Apish here. And learn more about Waves for Change or make a donation here.

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Waves for Change

Things I Learned at My First Surf Lesson

“But aren’t you worried about the sharks?” It was a refrain echoing in my head from the moment I booked our Airbnb experience, Surf with Purpose—further amplified by friends, colleagues, and near-total strangers in the weeks leading up to our trip. So much so that, even though it was meant as a surprise Christmas gift, I wound up telling Tim in a fit of mild anxiety. Should we surf in shark-infested waters? Is it wise? Is it safe? Will a Christmas gift be our doom?

Panicked jokes aside, sharks are a real problem in South Africa—and you can expect to be assured and reassured of safety precautions from the moment you don your wetsuit. I did a lot of research on shark safety at the Cape Town beaches and found a lot of good information and resources on the measures each beach takes. And our instructor, Apish, seconded all this as the lesson began—showing us the safety flags (green means coast is clear, gray means they can neither confirm or deny the presence of sharks, and red means clear the water)—and emphasizing the vigilant eyes of the Shark Spotters up in the hills. Fears assuaged, I turned my attention to the board lying in the sand at my feet and realized that in all the research I’d done on surfing in Cape Town, I’d learned a lot about Cape Town, but had no clear picture for what the surf lesson itself would involve. In case you, too, are contemplating a surf lesson or looking forward to your first, here are a few things I learned and observed in the waters of Muizenberg Beach.

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What to expect from your first surf lesson

First off, you’re going to drink a lot of seawater.

Even if you’re wearing a ¾ wetsuit, make sure you sunscreen wrists and hands and face (okay, this was more something Tim learned, and the hard way at that)

If you wear contacts, pack contact solution. You’ll want to rinse your lenses after.

The wax on surfboard is rougher than you’d think.

Also, boards are heavier than you think—especially on a windy day.

It can feel very odd to be attached to the board; oddly comforting when you charge into the water for the first time, knowing you have a floatation device literally attached to you. And oddly uneasy after the first time you feel the yank on your ankle of the ocean snapping your board away from you.

You’ll start practicing on the sand, where hopping up feels easy and intuitive. It does not feel the same once you get into the water.

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In fact, it can feel a little like this.

Make sure your feet placement matches what is natural to you—not what everyone else is doing.

You’ll probably pick up some bruises from jumping up, falling off, and/or getting whacked by the board.

You should be comfortable in the ocean, but you don’t have to be a swimming pro.

You won’t go out so far in the water (from the beach) or into any really deep spots.

Did I mention that you’re going to drink a lot of seawater?

The teacher will push you into the waves for a bit of a rev. This makes it way easier to get going.

The ocean is powerful; it exhausts you constantly. Don’t plan much for after your lesson—you’ll probably just want to veg out for a few hours.

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Bigger waves might look scary, but the more power a wave has, the easier it is to stand.

Deer in the headlights have nothing on the eyes of a child with a surfboard bearing down on them.

The one thing Apish kept repeating was, “Don’t rush”. He meant that if you try to jump up too fast, you’ll get thrown off kilter. Because it kept happening to me, he recommended a more step by step process—first getting to your knees, then one foot up, then the other. This definitely worked better but felt counterintuitive—you think that the wave will run out if you aren’t leaping to catch it. And is true that if your process takes too long, you’ll lose the wave. So I guess in summary: “Don’t rush, but don’t be too late.”

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We were lucky to have a great instructor in Apish—he was patient, reassuring, and encouraging. Look for a follow-up post soon about Waves for Change, the organization he works for, and the ways they use surfing to impact lives.

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Source: Waves for Change

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Surf Lesson

All gifs sourced from giphy.com. 

A Cape Town Date Night

Imagine. You’re sitting in a patch of sunlight in a garden of almost Biblical beauty. A small stream runs alongside you. The bricks beneath your feet are warm from the heat of the day, but the glass of white wine in your hand is cool. A duck and her ducklings—their soft baby down fuzzing them to appear out of focus—wander out from a stand of towering purple Agapanthus. It’s nearly sunset; the sun is sinking behind the mountain’s hulking shoulders, shifting the light from the harsh brightness of the afternoon to a sensuous, buttery blanket. Families and couples sit on a wide lawn, their voices and laughter muted in the wide expanse.

Flowery language is the only way to talk about one of the world’s most beautiful botanical gardens. Nestled in the lap of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is the largest botanical garden in South Africa and internationally recognized for its beauty. The garden’s sprawling 528 hectares contains multitudes both artistic and educational—an ornate sculpture garden, neatly groomed perennial beds, areas of wild nature reserve.

Typically Kirstenbosch closes at 6:00pm during the winter (Apr-Aug) and 7:00pm during the summer (Sept-Mar), and costs 65R to enter. That changes if you have dinner at Moyo’s—a charming restaurant nestled at the foot of the park. Serving a buffet of traditional dishes from around the African continent, Moyo’s provides delicious eats and Afro entertainment in the shadow of one of the new Wonders of the World. Best of all, if you choose the buffet option, you can enter the garden after hours and for free.


Tim had been to Moyo’s on a previous South Africa trip, and raved about the experience (which includes a little face painting). So when he said he had a date night surprise planned for me, I could hazard a guess where it might be. But I wasn’t expecting to the Off-Road Polo to sweep up such a gorgeous drive, or for the patio of the restaurant to open into such a stunning garden.

We asked for a bottle of white wine to go and strolled beyond the patio, wandering the stone paths into Kirstenbosch. We walked past wild violets and banyan trees, thorny acacia and stands of African mahogany (the story of whose name greatly entertained us; European settlers asked what the name of the tree was and the locals replied, “Mahogany”, which means, “I don’t know.”). We stopped to crush herbs in the traditional medicine garden, where you are invited to sample plants used as remedies for everything from headaches to burn wounds. And we finished our walk along the curving canopy trail, which took us level with the treetops as we polished off the last of our Sauvignon Blanc.

Dinner and flowers? These are strong bones for a date night. Add in Cape Town’s perfect summer weather, the unbelievable harmonies of the Moyo’s entertainment troupe, and the spectacular rays of a fading sun above Table Mountain…I can’t guarantee you’ll get lucky, but you sure as hell will feel like it.

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Date Night

Things to Eat, Drink, and Do in Cape Town

“Is that…raw chicken? On the windshield?” We peered closer. It was the first day of 2018, we’d just come downstairs in search of breakfast and the beach, and it was, indeed, a piece of raw chicken wing between the windshield and the wiper. “Must have been one hell of a weird and wild party,” we joked.

Raw poultry aside, Cape Town is an intensely vibrant city, teeming with things to do. It runs the gamut; ritzy waterfront, boho beach city, tin-shack shanty town, untouched nature, and burgeoning industry all exist within its boundaries. To see just one aspect is to deprive yourself of the true city experience. We stayed in Woodstock, a neighborhood our Airbnb called, “up and coming”. It was a very real and raw Cape Town experience—the loft was beautifully restored and centrally located, yet behind us was a shanty town, full of sheet metal shacks and glitchy electricity. It felt a little surreal to stay there, straddling that spectrum so obviously. But it also provided us a taste of Cape Town we’d never have seen if we’d splurged on one of the nicer hotels.

Woodstock provided a perfect launch point to explore the rest of Cape Town. And without much further ado, here are some of our favorite, “must see” spots:

Sea Point

We did a mini bar crawl along the Sea Point promenade, stopping at Jerry‘s Burger Bar (do yourself a big ol’ favor and order their amazing cheese bombs, which pair perfectly with craft beer), grabbing another pint at local hole-in-the-wall Corner Bar (two big beers for three small bucks), and polishing off the evening with shockingly good Mexican food at El Mariachi (which earned bonus points for an A+ Coronarita). And obviously, a stop to catch the sunset at Milton Beach. (Seems a good place to note that unlike in Germany, there are strict open-carry laws around alchohol—don’t try to bring a bottle of wine to the beach, because you will be met with resistance).

Bo-Kaap

You may have seen Bo-Kaap’s colorful houses on Instagram or Pinterest—they are certainly photo-worthy. Visit with an empty stomach; Malay grannies and aunties often have little stands out front, selling samosas, cakes, meat pies, and other snacks that make perfect beach bites. Don’t miss the Atlas Trading Company spice shop and the uber-trendy Bo-Op Collective, a hipster paradise of locally created goods.

Long Street

Long Street has a multitude of bars and eateries to be discovered. Our favorites were The Waiting Room, a speakeasy-style bar/club which has an amazing roofdeck; Beerhouse, with it’s endless beer sampler options (99 beers, to be exact!); and Mama Africa, where you can try traditionally prepared dishes and sample ostrich, kudu, warthog, crocodile, and more.

Markets & Shopping

Some of the most comprehensive shopping can be found at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront—a sprawling center located at (you guessed it) the waterfront. Visitors can catch ferries to Robben Island, or do day trips to spot whales, dolphins, and other sea life. Our favorites within the center were the African Trading Port, which felt more like a museum than a shop considering the number of artifacts and artworks housed on the upper floors, and the Watershed, which hosts the best local design and craftwork, including artwork, jewelry, sustainable crafts, and clothing. We also really loved spending a Sunday browsing the Bay Harbour Market, which also had some amazing food options, and Hout Bay Lions Craft Market.

Stellenbosch

I’m sure die-hard wine lovers have plenty more to say about Cape Town’s wine region than I do, but allow me just to note that we found the Guardian Peak winery to be absolutely lovely (and with killer views from the patio to boot). Though there weren’t many people there, a small group of locals were seated near us, which is where we stole our tip for The Thirsty Scarecrow, which blends a love of wine and beer in a very whimsical setting. We ordered a trio of apps, a bottle of Chenin Blanc, and watched the sunset over the fanciful garden. If you are visiting Stellenbosch in high season, it’s best to call ahead and make some reservations. We tried a few other spots but got turned away because they were already at capacity.

And finally, back home to Woodstock, where the Devil’s Peak Brewing Company served up a lovely date night. If you’re a fan of craft beer and burgers, you’ll definitely want to check this place out—especially given their generous every-day-of-the-week specials.

Anything we missed? Leave us a note in the comments!

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Things to Do CPT

Throwback: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

An old dear friend from my study-abroad days stayed here in Berlin with me last week. Over the course of the weekend, we traded turns teasing each other over our naive, first-time-in-Europe stories. Speaking of, did I ever tell you about the time I meant to fly to Rome and wound up in Riga? No? Seems a good time for a Throwback Thursday blog post.

February 23, 2009 – Riga, Latvia

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum… Somehow either the airline company or I mistook Rome for Riga. Riga, which is not in Italy, but in fact in the Eastern Bloc country known as Latvia.

Maybe the first clue should have been all of the people speaking Baltic languages as I stepped off the plane. I know I thought, That’s curious. I’d say the snow on the ground should have been another tip-off, but it was early, and Rome had predicted light snowfall for that morning anyway. I looked outside and thought- Wow, bet the Coliseum will look cool with snow on it. But the biggest clue should definitely have been the announcement that blared over the loudspeakers: “The flight from Rome to Riga has been delayed.” Myself: What the hell? I’m in Rome!

An embarrassing encounter with the information desk later, I realized that no, I was not in Rome. How did that encounter go? Myself: Hi, can I get wifi here anywhere? Information desk lady: Sure. You have to pay for it though. Me: I can use Euros? Lady: No, you have to use Lats. Me: Lats? Lady: Local currency.  Me: [beat. Start to speak. Cannot. Longer beat] Where, exactly, is local?

Oh, Riga.

It was iced over, but the ice just added charm to the flourishing ornament-work that gilded the surface of every building. I left expecting ancient. I got instead, medieval. And without the strange sense of vertigo that Amsterdam provided. Here the buildings took up space. They sprawled down the block, swooping into towers of architectural fancy, sometimes with stained glass windows, or carved gargoyles, or recessed niches that turned every building into some sort of pastry-like delicacy.


Riga by day was overwhelming. Half-built from the imagination of the Grimm brothers, the city is a maze of narrow streets, uneven pavers, modern architecture mingling with the cracked facades of Guild houses that have stood for centuries. The fog hangs low over this city, hiding the spires of countless churches, masking the faces of the statues standing tall over the squares. Fur-hooded children frolick with ducks in the Bastejkalns—a wide strip of frost-laden grass that runs parallel to the Pilsetas Kanals.


But Riga by night. Riga by night is something completely different. Yes, the fog still crowds in close, draped over the shoulders of the hulking structures like a shawl. Yes, the same snow heaps on the same narrow sidewalks. But the effect is more magical. Strategically placed lights highlight architectural features of the old buildings—the House of Blackheads, for example, has a white-bulbed stagelight focused on each buttress, each curved angle, each window ledge. It’s as if the entire Old City is transformed into a massive art gallery and the streetside buildings as priceless a piece as any Monet or Van Gogh.


What interested me most were the people—ten o’clock at night, and I felt as safe as if I was in my own living room. For several streets I tried to figure out why this was the case—it wasn’t that people were friendly, or even that they looked my way, but I felt a total security as I walked around. Finally, I realized what it was. There were children out. Small children in furs and round caps pulled low over their ears, preteens in huddled groups standing under eaves, mothers, and fathers coaxing toddlers to follow in their wakes. It was impossible not to feel safe with the number of young people out.


In a side alley, I found a curious array of medieval flags, hanging still in the night air. The light was all orange—the color of the beer, rich and heavy. Beneath the array of flags was a gypsy wagon. Barrels clustered together sat in the corner, resting unevenly on the thick cobbles of the street. A movement from behind the wagon startled me, and a woman in a long dress and cloak staggered out from the shadows. She looked at me for a second, then pulled open a thick door in one of the alley buildings and disappeared. In that second, somewhere far off, a recorder began to play.

It raised the hair on the back of my neck. I peered through the thickness of the light, searching for more people. No one moved. I snapped a picture and moved on, trying to find the source of the music.

The narrow street opened into a larger one, and I took a right. Stray cats hunched along the silent street, their eyes catching the light and glowing. The recorder was playing “Amazing Grace,” or maybe just a song that sounded like it. It was getting louder.


This larger street opened into a square, so suddenly I stopped in my tracks. Snow covered the bricks beneath my feet. To my left, the street sloped away into an embankment, a strange sort of waterless moat for the massive Church that had sprung out of the darkness. Down in the gulley, an old man called to his Jack Russell, who was much more intent on scrabbling up the incline towards me. Above me, gulls launched themselves from the roofs of buildings, their bellies flashing dove-white against the dark cornflower blue of the sky. And through it all wove the reedy, sad song.

It was a strange weekend. It was Valentine’s Day weekend. On each corner were young teenagers, holding heart-shaped balloon bouquets, hawking the helium hearts to anyone who passed by. How weird to be there alone, unexpectedly. And at the same time, how nice. To go wherever I wanted. Linger in whatever alleyway. Be responsible just for myself. I spent the weekend in a sort of hysterical daze, often laughing to myself as I floated through the city.

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I’m still laughing about it now, typing this out two weeks later. I mean, what’s funnier than trying to get to the Roman forum and ending up in Latvia?

 

Discovering the Great Karoo

The Great Karoo—one of South Africa’s 20+ National Parks (and a fine name for an up-and-coming magician)—is located in the middle of what looks like an illustration from one of my brother’s dinosaur encyclopedias. To reach it, we had to drive 7 hours through absolute nothingness, beneath a sky the blazing blue of a neon takeout sign. Our rental car, a Volkswagen we came to nickname, “The Off-Road Polo”, matched the color of the flat landscape beyond the window: a dry, drab gold, further washed out by a harsh South African sun.

When we told people we were planning a road trip through South Africa, people automatically (and logically) assumed we’d be following along the picturesque coastline. Instead, we opted for the faster, more direct way from Johannesburg to Cape Town. We planned a day of hard desert driving punctuated by a stop at the Karoo National Park, then another solid half-day’s drive to our Airbnb in coastal Cape Town. And in truth, we didn’t think of the Karoo as more than just that—a stop on the route. It was only on our radar based on a recommendation from a local; a cursory Google search popped up some pretty pictures of flowers and rocks. We imagined a nice quick hike and then an evening spent at the lodge’s pool. It wasn’t until we arrived at the Karoo gates that we found out just how many tricks the park has up its metaphorical sleeve.

First of all, you are not technically allowed to leave your vehicle except at specific sites within the park. The reason being that the Karoo is host to a number of lions and aggressive black rhinos, in addition to ostriches, baboons, kudus, elands, hyenas, oryx, and a number of other large mammals.

Second of all, the bulk of the park must be driven with a 4×4. The Off-Road Polo took this in stride, and we committed ourselves to driving the smaller loop—the promise of the pool strong in our minds.

Third of all, the landscape was far more than just pretty flowers and rocks. It legitimately looked like sets from Jurassic park—long, flat mountains (called Karoo koppies) that sprung abruptly from flat, rocky ground. Craggy cliffs descending into deep gorges where kudus roamed in the shade. Wide badlands made of red and black stone that looked like the remnants of a charcoal grill. The odd bits of greenery, scrubby but strong. It was wildly wild—a contrast to the more lush area around the Vredefort Dome from which we had just come.

We made the 2×4 route, a snaking stone road called Klipspringer’s Pass, fairly easily, spotting a number of placid deer, saucy baboons, and haughty ostriches as we cruised the loop. At one of the lookout spots, we encountered a volunteer ranger. She eyed our Polo as we asked about the park and the different routes one can take to explore it. She took hold of our map. “You can do this one,” she said, tapping. “But it’ll be difficult.”

“But it can be done?”

“It will be difficult,” she reiterated.


Difficult does not equal impossible. Tim and I traded glances, then decided to go for it on the condition that if the Polo showed signs of struggle, we’d backtrack right away.

Our fourth surprise of the day? The Polo handled magnificently, trading the tar road for gravel-gullied tire trails with relative ease (Tim’s driving skills certainly helped). While we couldn’t catch a glimpse of the park’s lions and rhinos, likely due to the high heat, we saw the other animals in spades. Best of all, the animals were all we saw—the Karoo was basically empty of other tourists and cars, which made our exploration feel all the more exclusive.

The Great Karoo has a fascinating history. Its vastness has been described as a palaeontological wonderland, as rich with fossils as our initial Jurassic impression implied. It has also been host to an unpredictable and inexplicable massive springbok migration (that’s a lot of adjectives to describe one migration, I know). The grounds are superbly kept, with clean facilities and nice little picnic spots dotted throughout. And though we came to find out that “Great Karoo” refers more to the area’s size (as opposed to nearby “Little Karoo”) than it does its excellence, I still recommend you go off the beaten tourist path to check out the magic of The Great Karoo for yourself.

Know Before You Go:

  • Visit the park early (before it gets too hot) for the most animal sightings
  • Go with a 4×4 for the full, unfettered experience
  • Lodging can be found within the park.
  • Conservation Fee of R192 pp (International Visitor as of 1/2018)

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The Great Karoo

Christmas at Tava Lingwe

“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white…”

Merry and bright were for certain, but we’d traded a white Christmas in bitterly cold Germany for the equatorial climes of South Africa. We arrived Christmas morning at O.R. Tambo International Airport, where the silver trees bedecked in orange and blue beaded ornaments seemed completely at odds with the 85-degree (F) temperatures outside. Coming out of a 12-hour flight (preceded by a 9-hour airport layover), we wanted to kickstart our vacation with both comfort and adventure. A friend recommended staying at Tava Lingwe Game Lodge, which means Noah’s Ark, a private lodge and game reserve just beyond the Vredefort Dome. Drunk on sunshine, we made the two-hour drive, jabbing our fingers at the window when we spotted ostriches and springbok.

 

We booked a two-person chalet for one night, opting into both the evening game drive (which began at 16:00) and the sundowner. Our afternoon was slow and languid—though the bed in our thatch-roofed cabin looked beyond tempting for a nap, the pool had a louder siren song. Walking along the property, I wished we could stay longer. The property was dotted with sand volleyball courts, two pools, and a large clubhouse with an open-air game room, where we could already hear the tell-tale bip-bips of a ping-pong game in progress.

 

After a quick but refreshing swim, we got dressed for our first African game drive. We were a group of about 11—two couples and one larger family. I wish I could fully capture the moment: the way the warm, dry wind moved across the skin, the heat of the afternoon sun, and the feeling of being so exposed in the open Land Rover led to a kind of a giddy freedom that strongly reminded me of childhood.

 

That feeling intensified as we saw our first animals—first giraffes, and then a herd of zebras. As the Land Rover trundled along the rocky paths, we spotted kudus, elands, and springbok.

Rounding the bend, we saw the pride of lions that is the reserve’s pride and joy. Like many smaller reserves, the predators are kept separate. Tava Lingwe’s stud lion is named Tao—a hulking, black-maned, good-looking guy. They’ve also got several younger lions, (engaged in a standoff with a ballsy little dog—see video), and currently, a few several months-old cubs who were too cute for friggin’ words.

 

After the game drive, we were driven to the top of the property’s hill for a sundowner, a concept I quickly came to appreciate. It basically entails having a cocktail and light eats while watching the sunset—and on our first night in Africa, with a stunning view over the low rolling hills and the grumbles of the lions at our feet, the experience was the perfect Christmas gift.

 

If you’re traveling to South Africa around the holidays, make sure to plan ahead, as lots of places get booked very quickly. Locals have an extended holiday as well, and many places were full through mid-January. Lodges like Tava Lingwe, which have small kitchens and braai areas, are great for budget-minded travelers, or for remote areas where outside restaurants are hard to come by. We can also wholly recommend the lodge restaurant, which served up a sumptuous Christmas dinner for two.

Africa Over Christmas and Into 2018

There comes a point in life in Germany where you start dreaming of someplace well…warmer. Sunnier. Cheerier. I like to joke that a sun-smoked vacation in the middle of winter is my condition for continuing to live in these cold Northern climes, but honestly? It’s no joke. To get our doctor-prescribed vitamin D, we scheduled this year’s trip to straddle 2017 and 2018 as far south as we could go and still remain in the same time zone: a three-week adventure through South Africa and Namibia. We learned a lot about both countries, cultures, foods, animals, landscapes and government’s commitments to maintaining the roads. And Tim learned about my secret ability to quote lengthy passages of Disney’s The Lion King unprompted and with an accuracy that greatly disturbed him.

We designed the self-drive trip so that Tim could share some of his favorite South Africa stops with me, and added in just shy of a week’s time in Namibia, to explore some new ground for both of us. Anyone who’s been to Namibia will tell you that’s an aggressive timeline (and now, in hindsight, I’m one of them), but for the most part, it worked out well.

Departing Flight: December 24

We got an amazing deal on round-trip flights (600USD/550EUR), but it requires flying on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. We spent the bulk of Christmas Eve on the road, leaving Berlin at 7:00 am to get to Hamburg in time for our flight. (Long story short, we live in Berlin now, but booked the flights before the life swerve).

Return Flight: January 13

We left the evening of Saturday, January 13 and arrived back in Berlin on Sunday afternoon, perfectly positioning us to (unfortunately) return to work on Monday.

We divided our trip into three different legs over the course of the three weeks.

Leg 1: Johannesburg to Cape Town (and stay in Cape Town)

The cheapest flights were in and out of Johannesburg. We rented a Volkswagen Polo, nicknamed the Off-Road Polo for all the things we put it through, in Jo-Berg and mapped a route from O.R. Tambo to Cape Town over the course of three days. We stayed Christmas night at a private game reserve and lodge near Vredefort and then cut through the interior of the country to Cape Town over the next days, with a day-long stop at Karoo National Park. Then we spent a week exploring Cape Town.

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Leg 2: Namibia

Our original idea was to drive the whole route, but it soon became clear that we’d need more time than we had to attempt that. We opted instead to fly to Walvis Bay, Namibia (on the coast near Swakopmund) from Cape Town. There, we rented a Toyota Fortuner (4×4 strongly advised) and did a big loop of the southern part of Namibia, including the famous Sossusvlei Dunes, the Namib desert, Lüderitz, and the ghost town Kolmanskop, before flying out of Walvis Bay back to Johannesburg.

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Leg 3: Johannesburg Area

We actually didn’t spend any real time in the city itself. Once we landed, we rented another Volkswagen Polo, nicknamed Off-Road Polo Remix (since it was a flashy red), and did a small loop of the surrounding area. We spent two nights around Pilanesberg National Park and two nights in Parys with Tim’s family friends before heading back home.

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