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Paige Donnelly and her brothers Gavin and Wyatt play on one of the Sossusvlei Dunes in Namib-Naukluft Park.
Paige Donnelly and her brothers Gavin and Wyatt play on one of the Sossusvlei Dunes in Namib-Naukluft Park. (John Donnell/Globe Staff)
 NAMIBIA: If you go: Namibia

Dune with a view

Where better to take a family vacation than Namibia, and one of the tallest sandpiles on earth

Email|Print| Text size + By John Donnelly, Globe Staff and Laura Hambleton, Globe Correspondent
November 13, 2005

SOSSUSVLEI, Namibia -- Our children kicked off their sneakers at the foot of their first giant sand dune here. As soon as we stepped out of the car, they were running and laughing up the spine of the red dune. Within minutes they appeared as tiny figures against the blue African sky. We scurried behind with our guide, Cornelius ''Bokkie" Mitton. Bokkie, which means ''goat" in Afrikaans and is a nickname he picked up as a child, shook his head. ''Are you really going to go up there?" he asked. We told him to take a breather as we followed the tracks of our children up the 500-foot hill. Cool sand spilled into our shoes. It was just 7 a.m. and our footprints, along with those of a few beetles and a jackal, were the only marks on the windswept surface. Soon, the children were running down the hill at breakneck speed and asking Bokkie for more. Never before had they begged to hike. Through the years, we have learned -- sometimes the hard way -- that traveling with children is about pacing. That means going at their pace, satisfying their interests, feeding their hunger, and finding a compromise between our desires and theirs. Namibia, more than any place we have visited, lent itself to the likes of our children.

It is a playground for the young: It has rocks to scale, dunes to hike, quad bikes to drive, kayaks to paddle, sun to bask in, and water holes to sit by as lions stalk their prey. It was as though we were on an Outward Bound course, only with plenty of recovery time.

Sand shapes Namibia, which hugs the western coast of Southern Africa. In the desert, a sea of red dunes appears pink or dark orange, depending on the light. In the north, wind shifts the contours of beige dunes that sometimes spill over onto the sole coastal road that stretches into Angola; it is known, eerily, as the Skeleton Coast.

In the central plateau, the gravel and sand plains burst with long green grass after a good soaking rain. Months later, the grass fades to yellow, supporting wandering herds of gemsboks (a type of antelope), zebra, brown hyenas, and, in one section, even herds of wild horses, which numbered 147 at last count.

We spent three weeks in Namibia this summer, from the northern game preserve of Etosha National Park to the most southerly coastal town, Luderitz, which German settlers built more than a century ago out of the hard boulders along the shore. Namibia is more than a collection of places, though; it is defined instead by its vast open space.

Pancake-flat dirt roads, which turn pinkish in early morning light, stretch hundreds of miles. Every so often, a gas station appears on the horizon. They might as well put stop signs in front of each one: One thing you don't want to do in Namibia is run out of gas.

Sossesvlei is the most famous site in Namibia -- and for good reason. This impressive collection of dunes surrounds a large pan of parched white earth in the Namib-Naukluft Park, the world's fourth-largest conservation area.

The highest dune, the object of our children's eyes, is called ''Big Daddy."

After our initial ascent that first morning, we ate a breakfast of boiled eggs, hot tea, cold cuts, and bread packed by our guesthouse. Wyatt, our 8-year-old, asked Bokkie again when we would climb the highest dune.

''You really don't want to climb that dune, do you?" Bokkie asked.

''Duh," said Wyatt. ''Of course I do."

As we drove to the base of Big Daddy, Bokkie regaled us with tales of a local man nicknamed Bushman, who walked barefoot year-round in hot sand and cold.

''Bushman has never in his life worn shoes," Bokkie said, warming to his tale. ''He's always barefoot. If someone gets lost in the desert, they always send Bushman."

The exploits of Bushman stayed with us the entire trip -- especially for Wyatt, who repeatedly asked about his legendary feats.

The sands of Sossesvlei come from the Orange River in the Free State province of South Africa, Bokkie said, as he parked his four-wheel-drive vehicle and pointed out the path to the top of Big Daddy. It was after 10 a.m., the sun was climbing, and the sand already was moderately warm.

Bokkie handed us four bottles of water. Walking a dune is tricky; we slid back a little with each step. It was no use running; the grade was too steep, and soon we were out of breath.

Big Daddy stands 864 feet high, a monster in sand terms. Halfway up, our faces had turned red, and the sand was getting very warm. We stopped often to drink and slowed our pace. We inched along, talking of Bushman and of the toktokkie, or Tenebrionid beetle, which faces its posterior toward the sea on foggy mornings to collect drops of moisture to roll into its mouth.

At one point, Wyatt sat down, saying he had had enough. Gavin, 10, and Paige, 13, urged him on.

''We are a short distance to the top," they sang out. ''Think of what you can tell your friends in America: You hiked the tallest dune in the world."

We slogged on -- and finally reached the top. We yipped and hollered as though we had reached the summit of Everest. Dunes stood all around, reddish orange spires in the midday sun, except for one called White Lady, which was completely bleach blond.

The hike up took 1 hour, 10 minutes. Our sprint down took seven minutes. For hours afterward, Wyatt couldn't stop talking about what he had accomplished.

From Sossesvlei, we drove north to Etosha National Park. Etosha means ''great white place of dry water." The dry water is a huge expanse of cracked salt pans, somewhat similar to what we had seen in Sossesvlei. Here, in the dusty flatland, zebras, gemsbok, elephants, and springbok (a small gazelle) congregated by the thousands. We had never seen anything like it in the game preserves of South Africa and were giddy at the sight.

The real gem for us, though, was the water hole near our campsite at the Okaukuejo Resort. The park aims spotlights at the hole at night, and the effect is surreal. Light casts shadows across the landscape and flattens the view, giving it a feeling of something on television. We sat behind a wall of stone and barbed wire on benches, watching for hours as three lionesses stalked a giraffe and later a pod of springbok.

We were silent, except for the low pop of a bottle top or the striking of a match.

Another day, our kayak trip into Walvis Bay, about 300 miles to the south and Namibia's only deep-water harbor, was anything but quiet. We launched four kayaks from a deserted beach with Jeanne Meintjies, owner of Eco-Marine Kayak Tours, who directed us toward a colony of about 1,000 seals.

She had given us an environmental history of the area, including the black-backed jackals that scavenge around the shoreline, the estimated 60,000 greater and lesser flamingos who leave Walvis Bay once a year to breed in Etosha, the gigantic jelly fish that sometimes reach 12 feet across, and the fact that the shoreline is Africa's biggest salt pan south of the Sahara.

Now, with the seals swimming toward us, she focused on them and told us not to worry.

''The seals love children," she said. ''They may jump right over the hull of the kayak. Don't worry, you won't tip, but you will get wet."

It didn't take long. Soon, seals surrounded us, diving under the kayaks, surfacing a few feet away, and splashing their tails near us, sending up sprays of water.

After 90 minutes of paddling around them, and spotting dolphins nearby, the children began to shiver. On shore, Jeanne's daughter served hot tea, coffee, and sandwiches.

The thrills weren't over. Just 20 miles north of Walvis Bay sits Swakopmund, Namibia's second biggest town, where the influence of German settlers is felt to this day. (Called South-West Africa, Namibia was a German protectorate from 1890 until 1915.) Everything seemed tidy -- the streets, the tourist shops, the walkway along the shore. It felt as if we had entered Europe through a back door.

We left town for the dunes again. Only this time, we decided to try quad biking, something we had never considered in the United States out of concern that the all-terrain vehicles tear up the environment. Outside Swakopmund, however, we found one company that not only promoted the sheer joy of riding up and over dunes, but also stopped at many places for short lessons on the desert.

After instructions on how to operate the bikes, our guide, Steven Dobson, 22, roared off, leaving us lurching in his wake. Soon, though, we had the hang of it, especially Gavin and Paige.

Steven stopped often, getting down on his hands and knees as he followed the tracks of a white lady spider, a sidewinder snake, even a legless lizard, which he fished out of the sand and covered with his palms. The lizard is nocturnal and he was careful to shade the animal's bulging eyes. After a minute, he let the lizard wiggle its way back into the sand.

The stop in Swakopmund marked the 2 1/2-week mark. We pointed the car south again, heading for the austere coastal village of Luderitz on our way home.

It was a day-and-a-half drive on back roads, nearly running out of gas once, and passing train tracks that had been swallowed by sand dunes. When we finally arrived, it felt like the end of the earth.

Luderitz is a collection of carefully crafted Bavarian buildings rising from rocks. The surrounding countryside is a changing landscape of dunes. In the early 1900s, Luderitz was a booming center for diamonds, where the gems were literally plucked from the sand.

A collection of hamlets for German diamond workers was erected almost overnight. Kolmanskop is such a place. Built in 1910, the Germans abandoned it by 1915 when the precious stones became harder to find, the war was on, and South Africa was about to seize the territory. It has become a ghost town.

Looters carted away fixtures and furniture at first, according to our guide in Kolmanskop. Now the town is fenced off and has become part of the restricted diamond mining area. A few buildings have been restored and much remains of the German handiwork in the stenciled walls and polished wood floors of a bowling alley. Mounds of sand have collected in many of the neglected buildings.

As we walked into houses knee-deep in sand, it felt a fitting end to our glimpse into this little-discovered country. What we saw that day may be completely different tomorrow, fashioned by the ever-shifting sand.

John Donnelly and Laura Hambleton live in South Africa. Contact them at donnelly@globe.com and laurahambleton@cs.com.

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