At first glance Namibia is a bleak, monochrome, vast expanse. Lots of sand, lots of flatness, scrubby desert, and the rather uninviting sounding Skeleton Coast. You wouldn’t think that someplace that looks like this could be so exciting. But it is.

We were exhausted when we arrived in Namibia. And filthy. So, we spent a couple days re-cooping in the town of Tsumeb. The feeling of that first hot shower after 12 days accumulation of dust and sweat without anything that could really qualify as a wash was beyond ecstasy. The fried eggs, sausages, and fresh milk we had for breakfast the next morning was like tasting breakfast for the first time. No matter how great or how exciting the thing you’re doing, the little luxuries in life (like hot showers and fresh milk) always feel well earned, if not a little indulgent, when you’ve been deprived of them for so long. 

Our first stop after Tsumeb was Etosha National Park. At 22, 912 km2 , Etosha is one of the largest national parks in Africa. A gigantic mineral pan, the Etosha Pan, covers 21% of the park and is a pretty impressive sight. Etosha is one of the more accessible game parks in Africa so we’re able to take the truck in and do our own game drives. 

This is the wet season in Etosha so, while the animals are not as concentrated at the 86 water holes the park has as in the dry season, the scenery is spectacular. The usually dry and dusty plains were lush with grass. We could see thunderstorms in the distance, moving across the sky. We were lucky with the wildlife as well. In the dry season, the animals are dependant on the man made water holes scattered throughout the park and large groups of birds and mammals congregate there within easy view of the roads. In they wet season, water is in abundance so they disperse a bit more and sometimes it’s trickier to spot the animals. 

Fortunately, we had Dave’s eagle eyes on the truck. He’s responsible for spotting the black rhino, the well camouflaged pride of lions, and the family of bat eared foxes. We saw plenty of zebra, hyena, springbok, kudu, dik-diks, steenbok, jackal, wildebeest, impala, warthog, mongoose…We saw quite a bit. Possibly the best sighting was a big male lion devouring a springbok that had just recently expired, probably at the claws of animal who was currently munching on his prime cuts. 

We left Etosha and moved on to more big cats. Not far out of Kamanjab, a family owns a large ranch. They raise cattle and they also have a campsite on the premises. What makes this place so cool is that they’ve also made the ranch home to a couple dozen cheetahs who would have otherwise met an unfortunate end. Cheetahs threaten livestock in Namibia which is a major industry there. Cheetahs suspected of killing livestock are quite often shot or trapped by understandably peeved ranchers. An alternative is to capture the cats and move them somewhere else. The cheetahs on the ranch are either the convicted cow killers or animals with injuries who wouldn’t have survived the harsh life of the African bush. They have been relocated to the enormous property where they live out their days in a large fenced area. They don’t have to worry about hunting because most afternoons, a pickup truck filled with overlanders and a barrel full of donkey or zebra meat rolls out on the paddock and the meat gets equally distributed. The cheetahs escape a death sentence in exchange for a relatively free and easy life funded by the overlanders who get some awesome photos and a unique experience for under $10. It’s a good compromise. 

The family has also taken in orphaned cubs that have grown up as house pets. This isn’t completely unusual. Cheetahs used to be kept as pets by royalty in ancient times. Before getting involved in overlanding, I worked with big cats and the cheetahs were always different than, say, tigers or cougars which you could never trust. If raised from infancy cheetahs are not much more dangerous than keeping something like a German Shepherd. Not that I’m trying to encourage the practice of keeping exotic pets by any means. I am saying that in the right hands, they are tame-able enough to host visitors. 

We got to pet the 3 house-raised “tame” cheetahs and were entertained with their antics when they wrestled with the Jack Russell Terrier ( who, incidentally, knew just how to put the cats in their place.) Phill did encounter a problem when the youngest one of the 3 found his camera bag a little too enticing and tried to take it off him. 

As awesome as it was to hang out with the big cats, possibly the highlight of our visit to the Cheetah Farm came the morning we left. We were about to take off when a young giraffe came to inspect the truck. About 18 months ago, one of the guys who runs the ranch found a very young giraffe stuck in a fence. They decided to take him in and fix him up. He now gets to wander freely but seems to prefer to hang out around this property where he was raised. He was there this morning and decided to stick his neck into every open door and window of the truck. He might have been looking for candy or he might have just been reveling in the attention. He got a lot of it. He got right up into everyone’s face or camera lens. Dan Howitt got possibly the best hug of his life when he wrapped his arms around the giant animal’s neck. 

We continued on to the Brandberg, the highest mountain in Namibia (which isn’t really saying that much). We don’t climb the 2,574 meter mountain but we do hike in the area under it. We hike through the rocky terrain to the “White Lady”. The so-called “White Lady” is a rock art site dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We get a guide to take us out there to see the rock art and also to introduce us to the local flora and fauna. It’s a great walk and this time was especially exciting for the twitchers among us. We spotted a Rupples parrot. Awesome. 

A few hours down the road we visited the Cape Cross seal colony. This is home to the largest congregation of Cape fur seals in the world; up to 100,000 of them. It smells awful but the overwhelming sight of so many animals in one place is enough to distract you from the odoriferous chaos. Pupping season is usually in November or December so there were plenty of awkward young pups there which made it just a little more entertaining. 

Next came Swakopmund, Namibia’s adventure capital. This is where some of our guys did the unthinkable. Mac, Chris, Gav, Mike, Sean, and Kev all got strapped to an instructor who threw them out of a plane high above the Namib desert. Crazy enough, in my opinion. Phill, Dan, and Jeremy went a step further and took the static line course. This means that after a few hours of instruction, they were able to throw themselves out of a plane without anyone else strapped to them. The static line attached to the plane automatically releases the parachute so there isn’t much of a free-fall but all the rest of the work is up to them. Phill unfortunately missed the landing by a few kilometers. A van had to drive over and pick him up. Otherwise, they all did well and were ready for more. 

Swakopmund had all kinds of excitement. Greg went shark fishing. A group of us went sand boarding which is like snow boarding only down the enormous sand dune instead of snow. Quad biking in the dunes was an option a lot of us took. Deep sea fishing was attempted but the guys didn’t get so much as a bite. There were some adventures in dining, too. At Napolitana, arguably the best restaurant in the world, we sampled zebra, springbok, ostrich, and kudu. Swakopmund was great. 

After Swakopmund we made our way down to Sossusvlei, home to some of the Namib desert’s most impressive sand dunes. We hiked across the flats, through the red sands to “Big Daddy”. “Big Daddy” is, as the name implies, the father of all the accessible sand dunes and we were going to climb it. It takes at least 45 minutes to get to the top and in the desert heat it feels more like 2 hours. Once at the top, though it’s a short trip straight down the face of the dune to the Dali-esque Dead Vlei. The Vlei is a clay pan with scattered dead camel thorn trees that looks nothing less than surreal. After barreling down the dune we hiked back across the pan and then dragged ourselves back to the truck thoroughly exhausted. 

We finished our time in Namibia right on the border of South Africa, along the Orange River. Some of the troops spent the day canoeing down the Orange while the rest of us enjoyed the wonderful camp site.

Namibia was fantastic and we were all a bit reluctant to leave. However, we knew what was coming up : Wine tour, Cape Town, shark diving, bungee jumping, and a bit of an urban infusion in South Africa. Afterwards, on to even more adventures and excitement when we turn the trip around and start heading north on the second leg of this incredible journey.