Walvis Bay: Fog and Flamingos
Before we left Swakopmund for Walvis Bay, we opted to do a long scenic flight – a little over 2 hours – to get an aerial perspective of the Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei and the areas in between. As thick fog had rolled in the day before, take off was delayed for around 45 minutes.
As we had arranged to be picked up at 10am by Eagle Eye Aviation outside our apartment in Swakopmund, this meant we had time to hang out and watch Tandem Skydive instructors and casual tandem divers prep for their activities by the Drop Zone Bar at Swakopmund Airport.
Pro tip #1: Time and itineraries are a fluid thing in Namibia. Be flexible. In this instance, we also had to accept that the fog would obscure some of the things on our program such as the two shipwrecks.
The plane was a five seater Cessna 210, and our pilot looked about 18 years of age but was pleasant and professional. As we all had earplugs (supplied) in, he used flashcards to indicate sights such as zebra, shipwrecks and old diamond camps. We flew low over the Eduard Bohlen, wrecked in 1909 and now almost swallowed by the desert, as well as Sandwich Harbour, Kuiseb Canyon and Walvis Bay lagoon, where shimmering flocks of flamingo flew over the deep emerald waters. We also soared over the rusty red sands of Sossusvlei, seeing Big Daddy dune and Deadvlei from above.
Having experienced this flight, I’d recommend perhaps a shorter version. Perhaps consider just seeing the Skeleton Coast? Of all the things we saw, Kuiseb Canyon, desert zebras, Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay lagoon were the standouts and all were quite close to Swakopmund. The flight to Sossusvlei takes ages (I’ll go into those dunes from a ground level perspective later).
Pro tip #2: I’m prone to seasickness and this long trip got a bit hard to bear as I got quickly disoriented trying to look out both windows. Also the pilot flew high, low and round in circles to provide us with better views of sites which didn’t help me. Perhaps consider taking an anti-nausea tablet beforehand.
In the mid-afternoon, we checked out and headed south to Walvis Bay, just 40 minutes down a blissfully smooth road. Our accommodation was a very charming bed and breakfast on Bramwell Road called 1932 House. It was obviously once a grand residence and very secure. By secure, I mean CCTV outside and three locked doors before your room one! However, our room was clean, spacious and most importantly, warm as the weather had turned quite windy and cold.
At around 4:30pm we headed out to the salt pans near Pelican Point, knowing that low tide was around 8pm. Flamingos prefer the shallows, so we thought it would be a good time to go see Walvis Bay’s most famous residents while there was daylight left. We weren’t disappointed.
The waterfront area of town had a few birds here and there which was exciting to start. However, at the salt works on the way up to Pelican Point were flocks and flocks of them!
The road ended in a 4×4-only track which we weren’t game to follow given the fading light. However, we were still treated to incredible birdviewing. There were huge white-backed pelicans, slim-beaked avocets, massive gulls as well as plenty of adorable plovers.
Pro tip #3: We had much better luck with birdviewing sitting quietly in the car, windows down, engine off. Trying to trek out across the mudflats to get closer only caused all the birds to walk away even further. Plus, it was really cold and windy!
I saw a number of little plovers scuttling across the road as we drove along, as well as some sad tufts of feathers so please drive slowly and with care!
The following morning, we got up at dawn to go flamingo watching once more. 8am marked the low tide, and there were a lot of birds but as the water was so far from the road, the birds were harder to see and photograph.
Pro tip #4: The best time for us to photograph flamingos closely was about three hours before the low tide mark. However, the light was better in the morning. Maybe go at least twice at different times!
Walvis Bay to Sossusvlei
At 9am, after a hearty cooked breakfast at our guesthouse, we departed along the C14 to Solitaire. While a number of other travellers and locals had cautioned us due to the poor condition of the road, we actually had become quite accustomed to Namibian driving. And compared to the “D” road between Palmwag and Uis, this was bumpy but practically bitumen.
Pro tip #4: By this stage of our trip, we’d learnt how to let down our tyres to 2 bar or less. This combined with driving in 4×4 mode on particularly corrugated stretches took some of the edge off.
We made a lunch stop in Solitaire, sampling the apple strudel made world-famous by the baker Moose McGregor who passed on in 2014 but whose bakery continues to attract visitors to this day. Those that know me well will know that I despise cooked fruit so I didn’t personally try any. Consensus in our group was that the pie was hot out of the oven and awesome.
What I did instead was sit outside in the sand observing and photographing the nimble desert squirrels! If you stayed still long enough, they’d come close enough for some great photographs. Please don’t feed them, however, as they should remain wild.
We reached Sesreim with about two hours of daylight to spare, where our private campsite at Sossus Oasis was waiting. Set in a circle next to Sesreim’s service station/auto workshop/bakery/grocery store, Sossus Oasis offers about 16 luxury campsites set in a wide circle all facing a central pool. For a full review of the Sossus Oasis campsite click here.
We managed to pitch our tent and have a dip in the pool before sunset, only to return to a very strong wind blowing. Many other campers took down their tents, but we just pegged ours really carefully down.
Pro tip #5: By this time, we were pretty seasoned campers so aside from pitching windproof tents, we knew how to park the car to form a windbreak. Expect very windy conditions on the coast and at Sossusvlei, particularly at sunset and at night.
We had campsite 10. If possible, pick a smaller number such as 1-5 as these sites are furthest from the road. Vehicle traffic is quite heavy and cars churn up plenty of dust which can be unpleasant if you’ve got your tent windows open.
Also, the shop/bakery at the servo sells plenty of things from generous cheese/cold cut/salad rolls to alcohol and chocolate. At the time we visited, it opened at 5:30am and shut at 5:30pm. Very handy.
That morning, we packed up at set off to the Sossusvlei park gate at 6:30am. There were about 5 cars ahead but checking in was quick, as payment only had to be made upon exit.
The distance from the gate to the two biggest sights: Dune 45 and Big Daddy/Deadvlei is significant so prepare to drive. Dune 45 is 45km in whilst Deadvlei is about 65km. However, this park road is bitumen and very good.
Nevertheless, we had a puncture about 30km in. Luckily, we’d already fixed one before and while we were working, had a great view of three hot air balloons floating over the mountains in soft morning light.
Pro tip #6: Did I already mention that you should know how to change a tyre? Well, also know how to spot a flat whilst driving else you could find yourself paying AUD320-350 instead of just AUD10 for a patch. We began stopping every hour or so just to do a general car check.
Also, every smug Namibian mechanic has a horror story for you about some poor tourist who drove so far on a flat that sparks caused their car to explode. Not sure how true this was but from the state of the tyres some tourists brought in, I could see how this could actually have happened.
The trick is to drive slowly – no more than 80kph on gravel roads, avoiding rocks as best as you can.
Pro tip #7: Driving safely in Namibia takes a lot of concentration so switch drivers often.
We decided to make straight for Big Daddy and the white salt pan studded with petrified trees known as Deadvlei as the sun was starting to heat up the morning air. The last 1km or so from Deadvlei carpark is soft sand so just beware that you’ll need a 4WD and some sand-driving skills to get there.
There also appeared to be a shuttle towed by a tractor from the carpark to Deadvlei so if you aren’t confident, that’s probably your only other option.
Pro tip #8: To drive through thick sand, you can’t lose traction which means no stopping. If you get bogged, you’ll hold up a lot of traffic here so just be aware that this will add more stress to the situation!
Big Daddy is a 300m-high dune set between the photogenic Deadvlei and discreet Hidden Vlei. It takes some physical fitness to scale it, but as you can exit the well-trodden path at anytime, feel free to bail. It took us 70 minutes to get to the summit, and about 5 minutes running down Big Daddy’s side into Deadvlei, knee deep in soft, sliding sand.
Pro tip #9: I suggest climbing barefoot. Much easier. Also, carry water, sunscreen and wear a hat as it gets hot. By the time we descended, the sun was high in the sky and the morning chill had all but disappeared.
By Namibian standards, it was very busy up the top!
We had seen Sossusvlei from the air and thought it looked pretty underwhelming. However, having experienced it at ground level, both Big Daddy and Deadvlei were impressive enough to warrant all the hype! Below is a classic view of the much photographed Deadvlei.
We review Sossus Oasis Campsite here:
To read about our trip, the entire three week self-drive safari is chronicled on these pages:
For handy tips on driving in Namibia, read this post: