Camping in the deserts of Namibia

Southern Namibia was so vast and empty, it felt like we were driving across the moon. The arrow-straight gravel highway was so long, and so straight, it touched the horizon with a pinprick. The vast pastel sky seemed to be about a hundred times larger than usual.

We felt extra excited now; Cape Town was well behind us, and we were all alone on the open roads of Africa.

The South Africa-Namibia border was fast and hassle-free. A small brick office in the middle of a stony canyon, it was basically empty.

After hearing stories of corruption and bribes (in retrospect from our experience, completely unfounded), we didn’t know what to expect at this border. The guard was joking with us, pretending we were in trouble with the law (which we completely fell for), then laughed and stamped us through.

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We began down a highway of crunchy grey gravel, which extended into a distant mountain range. Around us was a barren rocky desert, with small wire fences bordering the road. I wondered why on earth they would erect a fence here – there didn’t seem to be animals for hundreds of kilometres.

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The Namibian nothingness landscape

Ai-Ais (pronounced eye-eyesh) was close. Judging by our map, this natural hot springs (where we hoped to camp for the night) seemed about an hour’s drive. The light was already fading, and the sky was transmuting from pale blue to a cool wash of yellows and oranges.

We hoped to arrive before dark; we had heard many warnings against driving at night time in Africa, as the roads are rarely good quality and almost never lit. Potholes, pedestrians, animals, bicycles, children, cars without lights, and other unexpected items were all major concerns.

We activated the four wheel drive setting, until we realised that flashing warning lights were indicating that we were close to damaging the gearbox at highway speeds.

African sunsets

An hour later, the landscape had become more hilly, and Ai-Ais was still nowhere to be seen. We pulled over and opened some Carling beers. I climbed to the top of a nearby hill to take a photo of the stunning sunset, a golden fireball hovering over the horizon.

Africa would gift to us an incredible sunset almost every single night that we were there, and I couldn’t resist taking pictures. I filled my lungs with fresh air. I felt like this was the furthest from cities and pollution and people that i’d ever been.

Jeff and Wessel followed suit, removing their cameras from their cases and enjoying a few photos. “We might not make it to Ai-Ais” Wessel suggested. “Maybe we should just set up our tents here, by the road. Nobody’s going to come!“, Jeff agreed.

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Camping here was tempting. However, I knew that our destination wasn’t far. The scenery was striking, but even more amazing was the silence. I’d never heard anything like it. No distant cars or planes, no people, no buzzing power lines, no animals or insects, not even wind. We might have been on Mars. We got back into the Ford, and began to drive.

Ai-Ais was just 15 more minutes down the road. The highway began to weave into tight bends through a snaking canyon. Overzealously, I pulled the top-heavy Ford into a tight left hander, leaning to the right. An overcorrection swerved the car alarmingly to the left.

The others panicked and told me to slow down. The blood drained out of my face as I felt as though I had almost rolled the car on the first day of the journey. 

Ai-Ais hot springs

I slowed down until we got there. As we approached, an employee opened the long steel gate for us, enthusiastically waving us into the extensive compound as he pulled it aside.

When we awoke the next morning, our tents had been baptised by fine African dust. We had spent our first night camping in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, at the hot springs of Ai-Ais.

The camping grounds were unusual. Besides the dusty campground of tents and palms, there was the cavernous Jurassic Park-style visitor’s centre, and a humid indoor pool decorated with waterfalls and potted plants.

The most fun was the expansive outdoor pool, heated by the earth below, supporting the growth of a thick layer of slimy green algae on the floor which we slid around on (with a mixture of disgust and curiosity) as we finished beers in the pool.

Dwarfing the compound were the great canyon walls, which glowed in pale tangerine as the sun rose. We boiled water over the fire, enjoying the rustic wholesomeness of every flake of ash in our coffee. 

Jeff didn’t think much of the springs themselves, a small pit of clear, steaming water. A well-boiled lizard was simmering on the surface. He showed his disdain with a half-arsed photo, taken over his shoulder as we walked back to our car, ready to tackle Namibia’s highways once again.


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