Out of Namibia 14/10/16
In my last post we were heading from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei after a surprising and interesting three days exploring the coast. As usual, a 6 hour drive over gravel roads but before leaving I made sure that we had our route set in my portable gps linked by bluetooth to my iphone and the Tracks4africa app. Road construction and detours out of Swakop so our usual three way discussion ensued, V with her paper map, the gps with its inflexible and naggingly annoying one-track mind and me with the steering wheel and a very short attention span. Finally got ourselves sorted and on the right road south to the &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge.
Not a particularly memorable drive, gravel road and desert so with a brief stop for lunch in Solataire (sic), we pushed on, arriving in mid-afternoon. The lodge, like all &Beyond properties a stunner, on a rocky rise overlooking miles of flat desert to hills and very large dunes rising in the distance. There are 12 individual self-contained stone units scattered over the ridge, each with its own deck looking out over the infinite desert views, somewhat reminiscent of Doro Nawas, but there the resemblance ended. Instead of desultory service and a rundown air, the rooms and the lodge were spotless and sparkling, service was pleasant and attentive, rooms luxurious and food some of the best we have had. Only drawback is the 1 hour drive from the lodge to the gates of the Sossusvlei Reserve and a further 1/2 drive from the gates to the beginning of the Sossuusvlei dunes.
Out in the evening for a drive across the desert and sundowners on a hill looking across desert and dunes and then back for a wonderfully well-prepared dinner under the stars.
The lodge has its own separate observatory with a very large and sophisticated telescope and a resident astronomer/astrophotographer available for show and tell demonstrations in the evenings. No light pollution here so the Milky Way is bright and almost tangible, the Southern Cross glowingly apparent and Venus and Mars huge and shiny, hanging above the horizon. We were too tired after the day's driving but planned to take advantage of the astro-facilities the following evening. Even more pressingly we were due for a 5:00am wake up call for a balloon ride over the dunes that we had arranged before we left Canada. Call came on time but with less than good news, there was too much wind to launch the balloon so no ride available that day. However our guide was ready and would take us in a Land Rover to the Sossusvlei Dunes and would be ready to leave at 6 so that we would be first in the gates when they opened at 7.
Sorry to miss the balloon ride but not heart-broken; i had felt cranky and achy before going to bed and when our 5am call came I awoke with the early stages of a full-on cough and cold, headachy with a very sore throat. Lots of coffee and then a long drive from the lodge reaching the dunes about 8am, dunes red and imposing, a couple of hundred metres high and glowing in the early sunlight. We drove on a paved road, what a treat!, that traverses the dunes stopping periodically to shoot and working our way to what was for me one of the goals of the trip, Deadvlei.
Deadvlei is dry pan, formerly a very large pond a couple of hectares in size but now hard, baked dry, rock-like earth punctuated with scattered dry skeletons of trees and sitting in a bowl surrounded by very high dunes. The walk in to Deadvlei is 1.1k wading through powdery sand, the sand very light and dry and very tiring to plow through, think very hot, deep powder snow and no snowshoes. Well worth the walk however and I'm hopeful of some good shots
Back to our 4x4 for a picnic breakfast under the trees at a waterhole and then back to the lodge for a shower. At this point feeling pretty grim so decided I'd lay low for the day, doze and try and shake off the cold. V planned to go out with the guide later in the day but I was happy to veg and hope for a better day tomorrow. Received the news from our balloon people that because we were not able to go up today, we need to be put on a wait list for the following day's flight, the balloon being full and our only hope, a cancellation. Long slow day, achy and as ever with these things, events seeming to occur at a padded distance. On V's return went along for dinner but not much appetite and couldn't manage the observatory and star program, too bad really as V went and thoroughly enjoyed it. Had told the lodge that if there were no cancellations for the balloon ride not to wake us so we had a lie in until 8 and the world looked much better.
Tough decision to be made to be made today. Tomorrow we leave for Windhoek and then on to Jo'burg and then Jordan. We were told that there was room for us on the balloon tomorrow morning but I had had the lodge look into organizing a helicopter ride to see if we could get some sunrise shots over the dunes. We knew we would be able to get a ride on the balloon but we didn't know if the winds would keep it on the ground; however the deciding factor was that even if the balloon flew there was no guarantee that it would fly over areas where it would be interesting to photograph. With that in mind we decided to cancel the balloon and commit to the helicopter. Significantly more expensive but we knew we would go independent of winds and we would go where we wanted and not where the wind took us, so up at 5:15am for our ride.
Packed, paid the bill and loaded our vehicle the night before and on the road by 6. The lodge had packed a box breakfast for us and we stowed that for post helicopter and plowed through the darkness to our takeoff point near the gate to the Dunes Reserve. Met our pilot who put us and our cameras in the open back of a pickup truck and bounced our dusty way a couple of kilometres to the pad and met our helicopter, a little 4 seater slightly larger than the pickup. V selected the front seat next to the pilot and I had the back two seats for me and camera equipment. The pilot asked if I'd like him to remove the doors and I jumped at the chance so my cameras and I had to be properly secured as there was now nothing between me and the ground except several hundred metres of air. I had paid for an hour's flying time so we had a fabulous flight out over the dunes as far as Deadvlei and worked our way cross country and back to the launch pad. Fabulous views and wonderful shooting opportunities but cold and very, very windy. In fact we made the right call as the balloon was unable to lift off today, the winds being much too strong.
Once on the ground, found a quiet spot, ate our boxed breakfast and made ready for the drive to Windhoek.