Imagine sitting on top of a dune 35 storeys high, nose face 37-degrees down.
4X4ing through the Namib Desert on a dune tour is a heart-pumping adventure of slip faces, shipwrecks and ghost towns – you’ll love it!
Parked at the top of a 35-storey dune, it seems impossible we’ll ever get through the Namib. For a little comparison, the Carlton Centre in Jo’burg is 50 storeys high – but we’re in a 4X4 Toyota Fortuner and aim to drive through this giant sandpit with nothing but gears, four jerrycans and a sprinkling of grit to get us to the coast on the other side.
Luckily, we’re not alone. Booked through Live the Journey, our first family dune tour through the Namib is guided by professionals like Danie ‘Jakkals’ van Ellewee, who trained under the original desert driver, Eben Delport. There are always two guide cars on each tour – one vehicle in front ‘breaks’ the route, finding a way through the imposing dunes, while the other car brings up the rear and helps with recovery.
Also read: How to fly a 4X4 in Namibia.
Eben reads the dunes like he owns the place, which he almost does. His company, Uri Adventures, created a way for self-drive travellers to explore the Namib after former diamond-mining areas became concessions. ‘Uri’ is the Nama-Damara word for the movement of a springbok as it jumps, otherwise known as pronking. Although our 4x4s are certainly not as graceful, I like the image of us pronking across the dunes of Namibia.
Jakkals’ voice crackles over the radio. At the beginning of our trip, all 12 cars in our convoy were fitted with radios so that we could warn each other about obstacles, like slip faces and holes, and so that the guides could help us navigate each hurdle.
‘Okay, there’s a very big hole here. You really need to give it gas at the bottom of the dune, then keep accelerating until you get right to the top of the next one on the other side – but not too much.’
My heart is pounding. The last thing we need is for our car to fly over the dune peak when we have no idea what’s on the other side.
‘Try high range, second gear,’ Jakkals says. My dad slips the car into gear. I hold on tight and hope for the best. Mom holds even tighter.
‘Gooi mielies!’ Jakkals cheers over the radio. ‘Go! Go! Go!’ The revs are up and we’re churning the sand into butter at the bottom to get enough speed for the upcoming crest. ‘Daaaaaar’s hy! Lekker man,’ Jakkals congratulates us.
We sit, perched on top of the second dune. The 35-storey-high one. Below us is a steep slide of sand and the car nose is pointing downwards at a scary gradient. Actually, we are standing in our car, perched on the peak, with our feet planted at on the floor because of the angle of the car. Eben says no dune face is less than 37 degrees, or the dune would collapse and avalanche in on itself.
It feels far steeper from inside the car. The trick here is to glide slowly down the dune, letting the compression of the car’s gears and the thick sand help you dribble to the bottom. Accelerate at the wrong time and you’ll have a carful of wide eyes and wild screams.
Our convoy is a lucky packet of vehicles, but most of them are Toyotas: Hiluxes, Prados, Land Cruisers, one Ford Ranger, ‘Suzy’ the 2,8-litre Isuzu bakkie and our automatic Fortuner. (Having an automatic in the sand was great – Jakkals told us that a clutch can sometimes break on the trip, in which case, a new one has to be dropped off by helicopter.)
It doesn’t matter what car is used, all tyres are let down to a low pressure of 0.8 bar. So low that if you turn too sharply or hit a clump of vegetation, the tyre can peel away from the rim, letting out any remaining air. Then it has to be carefully put back together with a can of deodorant and a lighter.
There’s a real thrill in skimming through sand and self-satisfaction while negotiating truly technical driving. Even though this is a 4X4 driving tour, I’m pleasantly surprised that the trip is not confined to the car. Thanks to the obstacles and recoveries, photo stops and lunch breaks, there’s plenty of time to step outside and feel the sand sieve between your toes.
I’m also astonished at the variety of the Namib. It may be the world’s oldest desert, but it certainly isn’t a stark or dead place.
We drive past oryx – shimmering in the distance because of the heat – while skittish toktokkies, sidewinders and lizards with dancing limbs all skate across the sand. The latter varies in colour, from sunset-red vegetated hills to longer strips of golden ridges to pure-white sand mountains – Eben’s favourite part of the Namib.
The route also wends its way towards the eerie, abandoned mining settlements of Charlottenfelder, Holsatia and Grillenberger in the area between Conception Bay and Meob Bay. Only the triangular roofs of buildings peek out of the dunes, as the settlements have been taken over by sand and piles of glass bottles, scoured matte and opaque. Then, once we hit the foggy coast, wrecks of ships that tried to service these towns emerge. They lie between groups of stinky Cape fur seals – we estimate there are at least a thousand sitting on the beach – while several black- backed jackals dart between them, furtively looking for scraps.
This unforgettable adventure combines adrenaline-filled thrills with desert exploration, but also supports a respectful, environmentally sound mentality of treading lightly. Each car must drive in the same set of tracks as the lead car so there aren’t tyre marks everywhere, and so that desert wildlife gets a chance at survival too, as many species bury themselves in the dunes to keep cool. All the trash we generate has to be taken out of the desert, and we have packed all the water, food, camping gear and fuel we need for five days.
Eben reckons about 90 percent of the clients on these dune tours are South African, and it makes a lot of sense. ‘People own 4x4s and they’ll first visit Botswana, check out the highlights in Namibia and do a few shorter trails, then they really want to test their car on an epic 4X4 adventure.’ This is exactly how my parents feel about this holiday, and I’m so glad I’m getting to tag along.
Every evening around the fire is festive as we all gather for drinks and dinner, exchanging war stories from the day’s driving, and every evening I try to figure out why this trip is different. Why is everyone so happy? Of our group, five couples have done a dune tour before and will definitely return to do another.
Back in the 90s, when Namibia gained independence, there were 17 applicants for the concession to trek across the Namib but only four spots were awarded.
Tours through this desert have a low footprint, offer exclusivity and manage to maintain the solitude that comes with all this sand.
Could one be in love with sand? It’s unlikely. But the infinity of the Namib Desert is definitely overwhelming – in a good way. It’s an area so vast, they named a whole country after it; an area so vast that Namibia is the second least-populated country in the world (the first is Mongolia); an area so vast it takes six days to cross it. Something about being engulfed by so much space stirs up a powerful feeling of enchantment.
On the last evening, Jakkals prepares a mean meal of kebabs and salad, and even treats us to a sneaky tub of ice cream that has journeyed through the dunes for the last supper, and he ‘fesses up: ‘We’ve been putting a little bit of Namib sand into your food every night. So when you go home and get a craving for the desert, it’s because it’s now in your blood.’ I may not be in love with sand after all – it’s the Namib in my veins.
Plan your desert dune tour
This video gives you a great idea of what a Namibia 4X4 Dune Tour feels like.
Standard tours start in either Solitaire or Lüderitz. The easiest route from Joburg is on the N14 to Upington via Ventersdorp, Vryburg and Kuruman. It takes about eight hours, so spend the night. From Upington, take the N10 to Ariamsvlei border post – you’ll need to pay N$260 road usage fee (bring cash, payable in rands). Keep the receipt in a safe place, as you will be asked to present it if you’re stopped at a roadblock. From Ariamsvlei take the B3 to Grünau, then the C12 to Seeheim and Goageb.
If you’re doing the tour from Solitaire, turn right onto the C14 at Goageb and continue north for about 400km. If you’re starting from Lüderitz take the B4 from Goageb to the coast. Tours end in Walvis Bay. From there, take the C14 east, then the C26 and C24 to Rehoboth, then the B1 to Grunau and B3 home.
We did a custom tour (available for groups with 10 vehicles or more) that started at Betta Campsite, which is halfway between Lüderitz and Solitaire. The ‘Faces of the Namib’ is the flagship, six-day trip that starts from Solitaire and traverses the Namib Desert from east to west, as well as south to north, so you experience a lot of variety. The ‘Lüderitz to Walvis Bay’ tour is one day longer, 100km further, and follows a route that is predominantly along or very near the coast. Both tours each cost R10950 per adult, with reduced rates for children. There are also variations of the ‘Faces’ tour with two-, three- or four-night options, if you are limited by time constraints.
For the tour, you need a 4X4 with high and low range gear functions and good ground clearance. If you don’t have a 4X4, you can hire one through Live the Journey from R3300 a day, including camping kit for two people.
Concession fees and levies, trained guides, a radio, dinner every evening and some communal camping facilities like a braai area, a chemical toilet and a shower (you need to supply your own water for the shower though).
What to pack
Take enough fuel to cover about 800km. The heavy sand conditions mean you can only do about 4km per litre. On our tour, we did a total of 640km and used about 170 litres of fuel. Every car also needs a spade and tyre pressure gauge, and must be fitted with points where you can attach a tow rope, both in front and at the rear. No trailers are allowed. Each vehicle needs to take two bags of firewood and 60 litres of water for general personal use, like showers and washing up (20 litres will be used by the communal kitchen). I’d recommend taking a ground sheet, as you need a place to put baggage and bedding while pitching/breaking camp or repacking vehicles. A pop-up or rooftop tent will make camping easier as every night is spent in a different location.
Need to know
You don’t need experience of dune driving to do this tour. While some previous experience is recommended, German visitors in our group managed to do the trip expertly. The guides are that good.
Medical insurance is essential. Transportation to a hospital will probably require an airlift, so make sure you’re covered for this. The Namibian dollar and SA rand have the same value (R1 = N$1), and payment in rands is accepted.
The Namib is a surprisingly cool desert and sea breezes keep temperatures down. You are more likely to feel too chilly than too hot in the mornings and evenings, so take warm clothes. Your vehicle’s air conditioning should keep you comfortable during the day, but you will need sun protection. It gets pretty windy in July and August, but when I went in March the weather was perfect. I could even sleep outside.
Libby’s Lodge in Upington is a lovely B&B set in a garden. It won’t break the bank and has off-street parking for bigger vehicles with rooftop accessories. B&B from R770 for two sharing.
Kairos Cottage in Lüderitz is a great place to spend the night. Especially if you’re doing the ‘Lüderitz to Walvis Bay’ tour. B&B from R750 for two sharing. While here, visit the nearby old diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop (from R85 per person) and eat local oysters at Diaz Coffee Shop (R10 each).
Klein-Aus Vista in Aus is nestled among mountains between Lüderitz and Keetmanshoop. There are accommodation options for every budget – campsites (each under a big camel thorn tree), B&B cottages close to a pool and self-catering chalets with endless views. Camping is R130 pp, B&B is from R1090 per person and self-catering (which also includes breakfast) is from R1485 per person. It’s part of the Gondwana Collection so if you get a SA membership card (R200, valid for five years) you qualify for 40 percent discount (excluding camping).
The Delight in Swakopmund is the perfect treat after six days in the desert. It has colourful decor, free Wi-Fi and is centrally situated in town, making it a perfect base for exploration. It’s also part of the Gondwana Collection so you can get the discount with the membership card. B&B from R1069 per person.
This story first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Check into the most desirable places in South Africa with our featured winter deals; find cool images of the Antarctic and take a wild drive over the Namib dunes in our June issue!