Namibia by Rail

This 13-day journey to Namibia in late June and July checks off a few of our bucket-list items. Read on for our story and watch the video created by Pangolin Photo Safaris: Pangolin Express Video Link (18 minutes). We were on the move most of the time so this story quickly became long-winded but it’s an easy read about an amazing otherworldly place.

Preparing

We were looking for a new type of adventure on this trip to Africa. A safari trip in Kenya and Tanzania in 2012 and a safari/sightseeing trip to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in 2015 provided us lots of the traditional travel destinations and wildlife viewing on this beautiful continent. Our ‘screen-saver’ image in Namibia with the dead trees on white clay, backed by orange sand dunes, always caught our eye so we made a plan to travel there to see the gorgeous landscapes.

Guide “Guts” on the Pangolin Safari boat 2015

Deciding which tour company to use was a no-brainer. One of our favorite excursions was at the Chobe River, Botswana with Pangolin Photo Safaris. Pangolin’s photo guides and special photography boats equipped with cameras on gimbals and chairs that swivel 360 degrees provided exceptional viewing and expert instruction. The plentiful animal sightings such as elephants, giraffe, hippos, cape buffalo, crocodiles and many birds on the Chobe River were outstanding.

Our experience with Pangolin was so amazing that when they announced the Pangolin Express Rail trip through Namibia two years ago, we signed up right away. Check them out here: Pangolin Photo Safaris

The Charter & The Train

Approx map excluding Etosha NP

The Pangolin Express was a chartered train operated by the Rovos Rail luxury train line. Two buses followed along for transport between the train and the remote excursion sites.

The main focus of this trip to this huge country was photographing remote landscapes. Complete with five photo guides for about 45 people and itinerary adjustments to catch the best light and night skies.

How they managed to serve delicious 3-course meals out of the little kitchen car still boggles my mind.

Well-traveled and easy-going guests from 6 continents were such a pleasure to share this experience with. About half of the guests were Chinese speaking travelers with their own guide/interpreter on one of the buses so our tour group seemed even smaller than we expected. We learned a lot from our guides who shared their impressive skills in photography and Adobe Lightroom software.

 

Getting There and Back

We were so thankful that our friends allowed us to leave the RV at their vineyard in Oregon so we didn’t have to worry about the the RV baking in the 100+ degree weather at our daughter’s place in Arizona.

I counted 40 hours of travel on the return trip. A bus from our hotel in Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, Namibia. Plane from there to Johannesburg, South Africa. Flight from South Africa to Atlanta and on to Portland Oregon. Finally an hour by car to the RV. It was worth it but I wished we could have stayed longer to get more out of the time investment to travel that far! A few things made the travel nicer: Delta’s Comfort+ Seats gave us more tolerable leg room for our tall frames, lots of movies to fill the time, and TSA Pre-Check eased the US portion of the security lines.

Excursions

Various excursions to mostly remote, natural spaces were a highlight. Our only complaint as not having enough time at each location! It’s a big country and the sites are spread out enough that we had to keep moving to see as much as we did. Lucking out with the weather, we (mostly) avoided rain and sandstorms too.

The Big Hole at Kimberley Diamond Mine

A break from our train travels between South Africa and Namibia was an excursion to the largest diamond mine in the world at Kimberley where the De Beers name first became well known. This really impressive hand-dug mine has collected water over time and is known as The Big Hole. It is so large that it can be seen from space.

Fish River Canyon

Rugged landscape and a horseshoe bend in the Fish River cut a beautiful canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in the USA. A morning walk along the canyon edge was lovely. Canyon Road House on the way out of the canyon was a great rest stop. Vintage cars decorate the bar and restaurant which was very popular with the self-drive crowd.

Quiver Tree Forest – Star Photography

As we left the train, a wind storm had cropped up which made it nearly impossible to see the historic hotel at the train stop as we piled into the bus and rode an hour away, past the storm, to a quiver tree forest in Karaspark near Keetmanshoop. Quiver trees are a tall branching species of Aloe that look like something Dr. Seuss imagined. Their trunks look lumpy and papery and under the bark, And they have a webbed skeleton like a saguaro cactus.

This was one of my favorite stops. The park host agreed to keep the park open past the usual sunset close so we could do some star photography. There was time to get golden-hour shots beforehand and the train staff brought snacks and drinks over to keep us happy until our late 9:00 dinner back on the train. As the sun went down near 6pm in the Namibian Wintertime, we added hats, gloves and down jackets to keep warm.

The rock formations were alive with Hyrax (Dassies to the South Africans). As I was climbing around the rocks getting shots, the Hyrax didn’t show their faces, they just skittered about in my peripheral vision like aliens in a sci-fi movie.

Later, we heard about the train staff’s battle with the sand. They emerged from their cabins after a rest break from the guests who were on excursion to the quiver tree forest. They found the sandstorm had crept into the cracks and crevices of the train and deposited sand everywhere, even over the tables in the two dining cars that had already been set for dinner.  Scrambling to clean everything and reset all of the tables before we returned was not how they wanted to spend their break time. We were blissfully unaware of the attack and everything seemed beautiful and clean as usual to us. A staff photo shows what it would be like to live in this vast desert country when the sand makes it’s way everywhere. It was a good segue to the ghost town visit.

Ghost Town Overtaken by Sand – Kolmanskop

Kolmanskop is the best ghost town I’ve ever been to just a few kilometers from the coastal city of Luderitz. Many Germans settled in this area after diamonds were found in early 1900’s. The town was built in the style of a German town with upscale features afforded by the wealth of the diamond industry. The town was abandoned in 1954 when the last of the diamond fields were exhausted. A hospital, ballroom, school, bowling alley, casino as well as the first tram in Africa stand in ruins. The wind and sand took it from there. Some buildings have sand all the way to the ceilings!

Only open til 1:00pm, this park allows tour groups to reserve a private 2-hour block of time. This place could easily take two full days to explore and photograph and I would definitely want to visit again!

Luderitz on the Coast

Our first sight of the sparkling blue waters of the Namibian coastline was near Luderitz at Diaz Point which is the site of a historic marker. Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Diaz discovered the Cape and erected a stone cross in a padrão style in 1488 but it was in ruins in by the early 1900’s. A replica was erected in 1988 on the 500th anniversary of the landing.

After all of the sandy desert experiences, it was a nice change to nab some photos of the lighthouse and the waves hitting against the rocks. The town of Luderitz is beautiful with colonial architecture and a great place for a lunch stop on our way to Sossusvlei.

Sossusvlei Namib Desert

An early morning visit to the brick red, glowing, gigantic dunes of the Sossusvlei area was another favorite experience. We bused 6 hours from the train to gorgeous Soussusvlei Lodge just outside the park entrance.

A two-night stay at Sossusvlei Lodge with it’s luxury bungalows and tented architecture was a nice break from the movement of the train. We hung out near the beautiful patio dining area overlooking a pond that attracts Oryx and enjoyed some catching up with wi-fi. The train has no internet. The lodge had lots of food choices at cook-to-order stations and buffet on the patio.

Our drivers got the bus in the queue in the middle of the night so we could be one of the first to enter the park at opening. The light changes so quickly that an early start is required for the best shadows on the dunes. From the lodge, after a lovely breakfast buffet, we walked to the bus ignoring the looks of the self-drivers that had sat in the line for hours.

The bus driver took us through the apricot colored sand along the Tsauchab river bed 43 miles to a parking area where we loaded into a tractor and open-air trailer to navigate the deep sand for the last 3.5 miles. Finally, a long half-mile walk through deep sand to Dead Vlei. Here were the iconic dead camelthorn trees are standing in a white clay pan surrounded by tall orange sand dunes with deep shadows.

This was an amazing photographic treat and definitely a favorite on this trip. If we had more time, I would have climbed the Big Daddy sand dune like several of our group did, they said the views were amazing. Instead, I wanted to spend as much time photographing this dreamland. Oh, I might also hang out long enough to see if one of the plentiful Oryx would stroll on the dunes or onto the vlai. Quite an adventure to get these photos! Finally, we saw the place that we envisioned from that screen-saver image during our planning stages!

Windhoek – The Capital City

A short walking tour in the capital city of Windhoek (pronounced vəntɦuk) to see Christuskirche (Christ Church), the Tintenpalast parliament buildings and the Alte Fest (old fortress) museum, followed by a couple of shopping experiences gave a taste for the look and feel of the city. There wasn’t enough time to see the vast collections in the museums and parliament was in session with no visitors allowed, but the church was open. 

A bus tour to the township of Katatura, provided an example of the living circumstances for large segments of Africans living in poverty. A shopping stop at Penduka which benefits women who live on site and learn to make and sell high-quality crafts to improve their lives was a highlight. More traditional shopping at another fun craft center included individual shops spread out over several floors of an old building.

Spitzkoppe

Shadow fun at Spitzkoppe in the Namib Desert

A remote park, Spitzkoppe is between Usakos and Swakopmund in the Namib desert. Here the ancient 700 million year old rock outcroppings seem to grow out of the desert landscape is also known as the ‘Matterhorn of Namibia’. Climbers, star gazers, rock lovers, campers, oh, and photographers would love this place!

The highest rock outcrop at over 5,800 feet above sea level is protected and closed to the public. The rest of the rocks can be explored with the plentiful Rock Hyrax scampering about and sitting atop high rocks watching us. Here they showed themselves unlike those at the Quiver Tree Forest that stayed hidden. A baby Hyrax even sought cover under the haunches of one of our people and was so cute and friendly. I’m not sure I’d pet it like they were – medical care is very far away! Campsites were tucked into alcoves in the pile of rounded rocks which were topped by a beautiful arch. After viewing the arch, we enjoyed snacks and sun-downer drinks before setting up for star photography. We had learned some things by now and enjoyed another go at capturing the stars and the Milky Way.

I could imagine being one of the self-drivers camping among the rocks and having more time to practice night photos in the early Winter sunset of the southern hemisphere. Back home in Oregon, the Summer sun stays out until at least 9:30pm.

Flight over the Dunes & Skeleton Coast

Departing the train was a little sad. On the way to Swakopmund, we stopped at Walvis Bay to photograph Flamingos. I could have sat there for hours capturing their antics. Our lovely accommodations in Swakopmund were in a historic train station building turned hotel, a perfect ending for our train trip. A flight with Soussfly by Bush Birds (click for more info) over the dunes, the bay and the skeleton coast gave us views the unique features of Namibia. We caught sight of a shipwreck, seals, salt beds, amazing dunes that appear to flow right into the ocean and flocks of flamingos flying under our little 6-seater Cessna.

 

Reality

This was a great way to see Namibia’s remote and hidden places while enjoying the beautiful accommodations, awesome food and outstanding service on the train. To be in the company of so many wonderful people was a bonus that made this trip even more special.

It is always hard to return to reality after a big trip. We are so blessed to be living our dream life where every day is an adventure.

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