Empty roads and a full soul: Road tripping Namibia during the pandemic
Traveling during the present time is a personal choice that must be made with serious thought and consideration, and as I have shared here before on World Footprints, if you find that the benefits outweigh the risks — in terms of mental health, career opportunities, income, or other factors — then there is a way to travel, while being as responsible and safe as possible.
This is the choice I have made for my life, and while I am based in South Africa for 90 days (or possibly longer, pending visa extension), there was a land that has been calling my soul for quite some time, a place that just couldn’t sit at the top of my bucket list any longer, a place that is possibly one of the best on Earth for social distancing at any point, but especially during the pandemic…
Namibia was calling.
Like most people who have touched down on the continent, Africa has captured my soul in a way that you just can’t understand until you’ve been, and this is my fourth time visiting in the past three-and-a-bit years. I’ve visited Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda twice, and am now in South Africa for the fourth time. The landscapes, the people, the vibes, the wildlife, the purity, the untouched pristine nature — it all amounts to a an experience that, for me, other continents just can’t compare to.
Namibia was a country that had piqued my interest over my visits, as many other adventurous travellers had told me it was their favourite place they’d been, with mind-blowing landscapes that felt other-worldly, like the moon, and it was about as remote as it gets.
So I had to see it for myself, and given that it was only one nose-swab (I’m an old pro at COVID tests by now) and a couple hours’ flight away from my base in Cape Town, I was on my way to Namibia.
You don’t even have to land on the tarmac to get a sense of the magic that these other travellers had spoken about. Descending into the airport, there were no signs of civilization apart from a few dirt roads — no towns, no cities, no vehicles, nothing until we landed at the airport itself. Just vast stretches of land, surprisingly green for us because we were visiting after a period of heavy rains, and softly undulating hills.
The vastness continued as we set off in our rental vehicle to our first destination: the Kalahari Desert. We were blown away and instantly infatuated with this country that had been calling us for so long.
I was with a friend I had met in Cape Town named Evie, who was from the UK and shared a similar love for Africa and craving for Namibia as I did. Given that we had only known each other for a week before booking our trip, and that the idea of going to Namibia had been brought up in our very first conversation, things could have gone very, very differently on our road trip, where we spent hours in the vehicle with just each others’ company, were often the only two people in the beautiful Gondwana lodges we stayed at, and shared a room every day for 12 days. But we hit the travel buddy jackpot, and I think the key was simple: a shared appreciation for Africa, Namibia, and the opportunity we had seized to be living out our bucket list, despite everything.
We road tripped around the country, from the stunning landscapes of the Kalahari and Namib Desert, stopping in Swakopmund and venturing through Damaraland, with our final stop at Etosha National Park. Each stop was breathtakingly different, from desert dunes to the coastal breeze, to moon-like rock formations to the safari capital of Namibia. The landscapes changed by the hour and blew our minds with their diversity and uniqueness, standing out amongst every other country we had been.
The destinations we visited would have been incredible in any year, which is what obviously led all the previous travellers I’d spoken to to rave about it in such high regard. But there was something extra special about visiting Namibia during a time where other travellers were few and far between.
Sometimes, we would drive for hours without passing another vehicle. We would arrive at a lodge and be the only guests booked in for the night. Arriving at Sossusvlei — the iconic red sand dunes that you’ll see on most Namibian postcards — we were the third vehicle to check in of the day, and there was no one tailing us. We got to hike Dune 45 as the only people on the entire dune, following in the footsteps that had been formed at times when there were surely hundreds of tourists on the dune at a time. At Twyfelfontain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with fascinating rock engravings and spectacular sandstone boulders, we were the first guests to arrive when we got there at 10 AM. Seeing these spectacular sights with no other tourists to impact the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it was food for the soul.
As lucky as we were to experience these marvels without the throngs of tourists, this experience rings an alarm bell to how hard the lack of tourism is hitting these communities. The lodges, gates, and shuttles are all still staffed, but instead of admitting thousands of visitors they are just welcoming us and maybe a few others. They are depending on the few guests to stay alive, and this is another devastating side effect of the pandemic.
The opportunity to get off the beaten path, find solace in Mother Nature, and experience these popular tourist attractions free from the crowds was certainly a blessing. I was able to disconnect from daily COVID updates and social media stressors, enjoy the company of my lovely new friend and some friendly staff members of the lodges we stayed at, and other than that, soak in the me-time that I couldn’t find when lost in the hustle and bustle of regular life. It’s not a feeling that everyone is privileged to experience, and for this I am so grateful, but it is important to find ways to access that serenity in whatever ways it is possible. Maybe it’s in your backyard, or a nearby mountain, or an open field. Maybe it’ll be in Namibia once travel is safer and more feasible for you to visit (which I would highly recommend). But either way, stepping out for a fresh perspective is something that every soul deserves.
World Footprints Editor Kellie Paxian is living the digital nomad lifestyle as she explores six continents (and counting — looking at you, Antarctica). Her office locations are determined by a mix of wanderlust and Wi-Fi. From the top of mountains to the bottom of the ocean, there is no bucket list item that Kellie won’t chase. She is passionate about wildlife, adventure, and making the most out of every experience on her travels, whether it’s good or bad. Follow her footprints across the world on Instagram at @kelliepaxian