Namibia on board Rovos Pride of Africa train review: The weirdest place to travel on earth

Namibia, place of sand and stone, is another planet. Fierce, alien, drenched in primeval colours – red for fire, ochre for earth, black for magma, purple for deep space – this country is no place for the fainthearted.    

Even the naming of parts of the world's least populated, arguably wildest country is savage – Skeleton Coast, Deadvlei, Outlet of Excrement, Badlands, Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain, Dead-End Marsh, Place of No Return, The Land God Made in Anger, Gates of Hell. 

And strange plants like the "flowering stones" or lithops, the petrified camelthorns, the striking quiver trees beloved of the Bushmen and the living fossil, Jurassic-age welwitschias, which can survive for 2000 years, make this a journey into prehistory. Only 5450 kilometres of this wild country has tarred road; the remaining 37,000 kilometres is gravel.

So we are fortunate that our "spaceship equivalent", Rovos Rail's luxury Pride of Africa train, should be transporting us deep into this outlandish and wonderful red country twice the size of Germany. 

Our nine-day, 3400km Namibia Safari from Swakopmund to Pretoria allows us to make forays into its wilderness, and then return to five-star comfort. Occasionally we must resort to small planes, buses and off-road vehicles to reach remote destinations.

Rovos' Namibian trip, which takes in the main attractions, with nights off the train at Etosha and Sossusvlei, has proved so popular extra trains have been added for the Pretoria to Swakopmund and Swakopmund to Pretoria routes. Australians, drawn to Namibia's wide spaces, are deeply interested in the journey – Australian GPs and specialists, for instance, chartered the train last year for an "unconventional" medical convention. 

Namibia, sandwiched between South Africa and Angola on Southern Africa's dry west coast, offers an eccentric version of beauty in the sharp lines of the dunes, the ochre and butter palettes, the primeval geology of tessellated lava rocks and jagged moonscapes that give way to eerie gravel and sand expanses.

The icy Atlantic Benguela current that races up from Antarctica, depriving the land of moisture, renders a mostly arid land, with the Namib Desert fortressing the west, while the semi-desert Kalahari brackets the east. To the south is the Nama Karoo, another parched vastness. 

As a result, Namibia's 2.5 million inhabitants are spread thinly – just three people per square kilometre – with the majority living in the far north with its better rainfall and perennial rivers – the Kunene, Zambezi, Okavango and Kwando. For the rest of Namibia, rain and rivers are ephemeral. 

Advertisement

Formerly German, then South Africa-governed, but independent since 1990, Namibia has long been a wild west hideout for recluses, eccentrics and those escaping English rule in the Cape Colony of the 1800s.

Now, Namibia has surged onto the world tourism map, not only for its natural beauty and rich game – it has the world's largest number of free-ranging cheetah, for example – but also for its relative political stability and good value. The Namibian dollar is tied to the South African rand, weak against the Australian dollar.

Swakopmund and the Namib Desert

Flying in to Walvis Bay from Cape Town, the Namib's great pale dune rollers march in menacing lines towards the sea. Yellow-grey at the coast and ochre further inland, this is true desert; the world's largest and oldest, existing for 55 million years – 1900kms from north to south and up to 160kms wide. In the Nama language, it is the "endless expanse". 

Those lost will remain lost, for it is known that the dunes are sly and will lead you in circles. Some are among the world's tallest at more than 300m, while temperatures can reach 60 degrees and zero at night. 

Walvis Bay airport reinforces our sense of insignificance, being a tiny building planted in desert. On our drive to Swakopmund we note that the dunes, swept by the prevailing south-westerlies, are clearly hard at work reclaiming the road.

Swakopmund, gateway to the Skeleton Coast and, rather cruelly, in Khoisan, "Tsoa – outlet of excrement" for the brown sludge that occasionally runs from the mouth of the ephemeral Swakop River – is still a deeply German town. 

To be fair, Swakopmund is a rather charming, beautifully-preserved 19th century town plonked in the desert, resembling a Baltic Hanseatic League maritime trading town. You will still receive a "guten morgen" in shops, German food like eisbein is widespread in restaurants such as the Brauhaus and the excellent Erich's (the Namibian sole and beef are outstanding) and buildings are happily named Schweizerhaus, Bund + See and Hansa.

The Germans built the Swakopmund in 1902 as a massive railway terminal (now our historic hotel) for Imperial German's colonial Kaiserliche Eisenbahn line connecting Swakopmund with the capital, Windhoek.

A Rovos Rail welcome of red carpet, champagne and local band awaits on Walvis Bay Station (Rovos has had to bus us there since Swakopmund's station is being renovated) and after a welcome by our train manager Mart Marais, our "rooming ladies" escort us to our compartments. 

They will soon be indulging us with well-stocked bar fridges and other treats including sculptural displays of bedmaking in our truly beautiful compartments. The service and luxury is why Rovos enjoys what it calls "repeat offenders". A Mrs Buchanan, with her 55 journeys, has even had a compartment named after her. 

Today we will venture northeast across the Namib, heading towards Etosha, Namibia's greatest wildlife sanctuary. But to properly experience the desert we must first climb the highest coastal dune, Dune 7, an hour from Walvis Bay – a massive yellow crescent replicating the thousands behind it. 

Some attempt the difficult slog up the face but others like me seek the gentler ridge, though few gain the summit. Vertigo overwhelms me about 10m from the top. In the distance, the train is a centipede nestled in sand.

The climb is purpose-made so we can appreciate our fragility in such harsh environs – stinging wind, fierce heat, and shadeless expanses. The train's entertaining historian, Nicholas Southey later recounts the grim story of the Dunedin Star in 1942 (but one of about 2000 ships wrecked since the 1400s) and the stranding of 106 souls on the hostile Skeleton Coast.

It's a relief to return to the air-conditioned train, to tip buckets of sand from our shoes and enjoy an excellent four-course meal with matched wines that includes plump garlic and lemon-skewered Mozambique prawns with julienned vegetables and coriander and ginger dressing.

Etosha National Park

We've headed north-east overnight to Otjiwarongo – "place of the cow" in the Herero language. This is where we disgorge for our hour-and-a-half bus ride to Etosha – Rovos has chartered two buses with two excellent drivers to accompany the train while within Namibia. 

It should have been Tsumeb, closer to the reserve, but the Otjiwarongo to Tsumeb line is under renovation. Luckily we have Nicholas Southey to entertain us with stories that deftly humanise Namibia's politics and history. 

There are 13 ethnic groups – including the majority Owambo, Herero, Damara, Nama, San (Bushmen), Kavango, Tswana and the Himba – a fascinating north-western Namibian group which still follows the customs of its ancestors. The beautiful Himba women do not use water; they take daily smoke baths and anoint their skin and hair with a red ochre-butter mix.

Etosha, an immense park of saline desert, savannah and woodlands, is one of Africa's largest. Its 5000sqm central pan can be seen from space, a salt-encrusted depression that yields shimmering mirages of floating game.

We have arrived in deep drought. At the bar of our comfortable Mokuti Lodge at the eastern Namutoni gate, a couple speak of the massed game of their last visit. 

We are, however, treated to some exceptional sightings – the jewelled slink of leopard, sunset skulk of cheetah luminescent at pan edge, a rare and endangered black rhino, endangered black-faced impala, dozens of giraffe, flamingos, various antelope and elephant, Hartmann's mountain zebra, black-backed jackals, kori bustards – Africa's largest flying bird – en masse (a sure presence of snakes) and Namibia's tiniest antelope, the sweet Damara dik-dik.  

Birds are still abundant – Etosha has about 340 species of birds and 35 raptor species. Our sightings include a gorgeous southern pale chanting goshawk eyeing us regally from its tree. The grand finale is an ethereal sunset over the pan.

Windhoek and Sossusvlei

Etosha, at 1000m, is at the north of the central plateau and our south-bound train climbs to 1700m en route to the nation's capital Windhoek, nestled in mountains. After a tour, we board a fleet of tiny planes for the south-eastern Namib and Sossusvlei where the spectacular red dunes are the Namib's tallest.    

The hour-long flight allows us to experience the sculptural landscape – prehistoric charcoal and ochre mountains giving way to sand, gravel and clay, dry watercourses – a prelude to what is to come.

Sossusvlei, meaning dead-end marsh ("Sossus" is Nama for dead-end and "vlei" is Afrikaans for marsh) is deep desert, an extraordinary world of mammoth dunes, stony outcrops, severe clay pans and gobsmacking temperatures. Only those creatures that have adapted may survive – scorpions and hardy snakes like horned adders and sidewinders, white dancing lady spiders and, surprisingly, the oryx or gemsbok. 

We're staying at the eco-friendly Sossusvlei Lodge in adobe-style plaster and tented cottages, set among camelthorns near a waterhole where desert creatures come to drink. Just in case, I stuff a towel under the door – scorpions, and poisonous snakes like Cape cobras, black necked spitting cobras, puff adders and black mambas are not welcome on my bedroom floor in the dark of the night. 

Sossusvlei's dunes are tomorrow's treat. Tonight, game drive vehicles transport us to a rocky sunset viewing point where we sip champagne as the desert sky turns violent. Afterwards, lanterns guide us to a desert dinner – beautifully dressed tables and platters of eland, kudu, oryx, chicken, salads and vegetables as the lamps that light our meal join up with the Southern Cross in a kind of Namib stairway to heaven.

It's freezing for our 5am, 100km drive into the ancient unpredictable expanse of dunes known as Sossusvlei. Here, the fixed, red oxide dunes are star-shaped with multiple arms because of the variable winds.

En route, Dune 45 glows bloody in the rising sun, a tiny line of climbers already heading for the top, but we are bound for Big Daddy, the so-called "crazy dune" because you're crazy to attempt the 360m climb.

The last five kilometres of road are thick sand – four cars are already bogged as we cling on, our guide, Francois, giving us a "dune massage". Sporting a mohawk, he distracts us by telling us he's taking his "dune to the dune". 

Finally, we're climbing, trying not to notice the precipitous dune face on one side. We marvel at the occasional shoeless European climber. Francois tells us this is madness given the scorpions and shallow-buried sidewinders. Three litres of water are recommended for the climb.

Below us, Deadvlei is revealed – a blinding clay pan dotted with ghostly black, 700-year-old camelthorns, which resist decomposition because of the dryness. From Big Daddy's summit, an endless red sand sea of dunes and white pans is revealed – like deep space with sand. I have to admit, I only know the rest from YouTube! Time constraints and a slap-up dune breakfast mean we sadly only get halfway up Big Daddy before taking the leap of faith, space-walking down the vertical slipface plummet to Deadvlei – easy once you've done it; terrifying as you seemingly step into mid-air to start the descent. 

The Fish River Canyon

An amazing thing happens on the way to the Fish River Canyon – it rains. The drought means there has been little rain since 2011. El Nino has desiccated the land. Windhoek is facing the loss of its drinking water. 

Suddenly the rains come, sweeping north from Cape Town, greening the Karoo and swirling through the parched ravines of the Fish River Canyon. Veteran canyon visitor, Nicholas Southey, says he has never seen rain there.

This immense geological miracle, 27km wide, 550m deep and 160km long, is second only to the Grand Canyon in geological importance. It was forged 500 million years ago in rainy pluvial times, whittled by water and the shifting of the earth's crust. The San believe a giant serpent carved the canyon when it burrowed underground to escape hunters.

The Fish River, though Namibia's longest at 650km, flows intermittently, only flooding with the occasional summer rains, but otherwise existing as a chain of narrow pools. The 86km Fish River hiking trail along the canyon floor is world famous but dangerous for inexperienced hikers.

We however, huddle at the canyon lip, toasting it with our wine – for Rovos has again thought of everything – and marvelling at its zigzag beauty, flat-topped buttresses and the mist that shrinks and swirls.

We've just come from baking Keetmanshoop and the Garas Park quiver tree forest (Garas is the Nama word for quiver tree). These weird trees do not usually grow in forests but there are 300 in this 800-hectare park. Once a shallow sea, volcanic activity forced up lava, which cooled beneath the water into the piles of dolerite that quiver trees require. Some here are more than 500 years old, much prized by Bushmen for their branches, hollowed out as arrow quivers.

Later we will cross the mighty Orange River out of the wild west to begin the South African segment of our safari. The train will take us through the Karoo to Upington, De Aar, Kimberley, Johannesburg and finally Pretoria – journey's end – where Rovos' private, colonial-style station awaits. 

We leave the red sands of Namibia with some regret for this is a captivating place that time, for a while, truly forgot.

THE TRAIN

Rovos Rail offers luxury Victorian/Edwardian-style rail travel – wood panelling, fine dining, elegant lounge, dining and open-backed observation cars – combined with up-to-date comfort and contemporary adventures such as the Namibian Safari.    

Rovos recognises that it's not just about the train – people also want to experience the countries through which they travel. There are frequent off-train forays, some with overnight stays including at game reserves, and a historian accompanies the longer journeys – a popular addition to assist guests in understanding the culture, history, geography and politics of the particular region. Rovos' owner, Rohan Vos, a tall man, has emphasised space so compartments are unusually spacious for a luxury train, beds are huge, there's luggage space to burn and you could swing a small cat in the bathrooms.

The seven square-metre Pullman suite with ensuite and bar fridge (replenished daily) has a sofa that coverts to double or twin beds – there are five Pullmans per carriage. The 10-square-metre deluxe has a fixed large double or twin beds with lounge area, bar fridge and ensuite (three per carriage) while the 16-square-metre Royal has a full bathroom with Victorian bath and separate shower (two per carriage). All suites are incredibly comfortable with air conditioning, multiple picture windows and electric blankets.

The full complement of 72 passengers is rarely booked. Our 19-coach train had 58 passengers in 36 individually named suites, two historic dining cars, lounge car, observation car and about 30 incredibly hard-working staff. Smoking is only allowed in the smoking lounge and suites and electronic devices are discouraged in public places. 

Daytime dress is smart casual and evening dress more formal. Four-course meals (announced by a gong) use fresh local ingredients, accompanied by fine South African wines. Off-train excursions, overnight stays, lectures by the accompanying historian and a light plane journey are part of the Namibian trip. Rovos offers multiple short and long journeys.

See also: An epic train journey like no other

See also: On board Europe's newest high-speed train

TRIP NOTES     

MORE INFORMATION

rovos.com

namibiatourism.com.na

smartraveller.gov.au/

GETTING THERE 

Fly Virgin Australia from Brisbane/Sydney/Melbourne to Perth, then South African Airways to Johannesburg, and Walvis Bay. See flysaa.com/au

TOURING THERE

Rovos Rail's nine-day/eight-night Namibia Safari between Pretoria and Swakopmund includes accommodation, meals, drinks and excursions and costs from $4770 a person. See rovos.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Rovos Rail and South African Airways 

FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN NAMIBIA

VISIT

The world-heritage Twyfelfontein site in Damaraland with its ancient rock paintings and engravings. Also in the region are the Organ Pipes basalt formations, the fossilised Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain and The 2573m Brandburg, Namibia's highest mountain for hiking and rock climbing. See namibian.org/

TOUR

Kolmanskop Ghost town. Once a prosperous German diamond town with stately homes, 10km from the port town of Luderitz, now reclaimed by the Namib – a photographers' dream. See namibiatourism.com.na/

EXPERIENCE

A lusher Namibia by visiting the Zambezi (Caprivi) region on Namibia's Angolan border. Camping or river lodge accommodation is available for white water rafting, canoeing, hiking and Himba culture. namibian.org/

SEE

The wild horses of the Namib, which have survived the heat for 100 years. Near Garub in the Namib-Naukluft Park. namibweb.com/wildhorses.htm

VISIT

The Cheetah Conservation Fund centre at Otjiwarongo, the global leader in cheetah research and conservation, dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild. See cheetah.org/

Comments