From my 328-foot perch atop the dunes of the Namib Desert’s Dorob National Park, I feel higher than the colonial German buildings of Swakopmund. The city looks so small from here, despite the fact it’s only a 20-minute drive away. What makes the scene even more otherworldly is the deep golden sand against a bright cerulean sky peppered with clouds that look like Mother Nature used her ToysRUs art spinner. I breathe in the air and inhale the scent of sand — which I never knew even had a scent — while the African sun tans my skin. Today, I’m sandboarding Namibia’s highest commercial dunes in what is often touted as the world’s oldest desert. It is truly an incredible Africa travel experience. And right here, in this Namibia travel guide, I’ll be sharing this epic adventure with you.
Reaching New HeightsLet me explain that phrase. Namibia‘s highest dunes are in Sossusvlei, reaching dizzying heights of 5,853 feet; however, operators don’t offer tours at these dunes, though you can bring your own board to glide down or simply climb up, a challenge as the sand slides out from under your feet. I’m told by my Alter Action Sandboarding guide, Steve, as well as George, my Vulkan Ruine Tours & Transfers guide that the view in Sossusvlei is outstanding because you don’t get the salty mist from the Atlantic as you do in Swakopmund. Still, I’m in love with this place. Swakopmund is a beautiful coastal city with a rich German heritage still seen through ethnic restaurants, lederhosen shops, German chocolatiers and architectural elements like reinforced stone arches and exposed half timbering. A beach destination in the African desert littered with historic structures is quite a sight to behold, though these dunes seem even more magnificent, their chocolate swirl ice cream sands changing with the wind.
Eco-Friendly AdventureInterestingly, sandboarding a very eco-friendly non-motorized activity, pending you leave with all your trash and operate under a leave no trace philosophy, something Alter Action is passionate out. Moreover, they don’t construct lifts but instead have boarders carry their own gear, assisting those who have trouble. There are two different types of sandboarding you can sign up for, standup sandboarding and lay down sandboarding. I’d actually done standup sandboarding in Chile’s Atacama Desert so I decided on the lay down. Plus I was told it would give me a cooler perspective with my GoPro (see video below).
Preserving My Ego“We’ll be focusing on six different routes,” explains Steve, once we huff our way to the top of the dunes with our boards. “Make sure to keep your legs straight, stiff and close together, and the front of the board pulled up.” One wide eyed girl from Holland peers over the edge of the Black Diamond-esque trail asks nervously, “And you really haven’t seen anyone get badly hurt?” Steve smirks. “The only thing you might hurt is your ego.” That’s hard to believe when you’re about to propel yourself headfirst over the edge of a sand cliff. This one is actually the largest in the park, a star dune with six faces. The routes range from uber steep to the uber curvy to the über high. Basically, you’ll be gasping quite a bit, though you may want to try not to or the crunch of sand between your teeth will become very familiar. Actually, though, the wipe outs are the most fun. While some in our group are graceful sand ballerinas, others (cough cough possibly me) are surprisingly elephant-like. When sandboarding it’s important to keep the board pulled up, sort of like a Cobra Pose in yoga if you were holding and pulling up your mat. When you do the opposite — push the front of the board down into the sand — you will likely propel yourself over the top into a spiral rolling motion, kind of like a drunk secret agent. This is also how you get a sexy sand tan.
Height AND SpeedAt one point Steve begins clocking our times, and I manage to hit 45 miles per hour. It’s amazing how quickly smooth chipboard against sleek sand can transport you from Point A to Point B. It would be awesome to have this kind of transport back in Brooklyn, though the pavement and lack of hills would be an issue. You use your feet as an anchor to slow you down when needed, digging them into the warm granules. When you forget to do this, you may end up head first into an adjacent dune. Luckily, I avoided this particular misadventure. The actual trickiest part is walking up and down the sand dunes with the sand boards. With each step, the sand moves out from under feet, causing your knees to buckle and your body to lurch forward. The best sections of sand are the firm bits, solid underneath my feet.
Making A MovieWhen we finish sandboarding for the day we are asked to perform one final group task. “Jump in the air, act like zombies and drag our chosen victims through the sand. We’re making a movie!” Ah, the movie. The tour package includes lunch and video footage of the day, though apparently all the peace signs and winking faces I made at the camera while barreling down the dunes wasn’t cinematic enough. But hey, everyone likes zombies. After beers and sandwiches in the sand, we head back to the Beach Hotel Swakopmund for the day, the staff visibly gasping when I step into the lobby. What’s wrong with them? I wonder. Oh yea, I look like a dirty Santa Claus with a beard made of sand. Showering never felt so good, sand melting off my body like wax, the feeling of shedding an unwanted skin for something purer is delightful. A reviving cup of coffee waits for me on the balcony, where I pull up a chair and snuggle up to sip. I hear cool Atlantic Ocean waves crashing onto the shore while watching paragliders’ colorful parachutes weaving through a blue sky shrouded in salty mist. It’s a rejuvenating destination, and one I had no idea existed in Namibia until I visited.
Logistics:Stay: Beach Hotel Swakopmund. The beachfront location, the private balconies, the rooftop pool overlooking the city, the delicious restaurant with wine glasses and white linens already on the table. This hotel was amazing. Extremely comfortable, strong free in-room Wi-Fi, great water pressure, efficient air conditioning, wonderful hospitality. I highly recommend this property if you visit Swakopmund. Rates range from about $51 USD per person per night including breakfast for a standard room, and go up to about $90 USD per night including breakfast for a luxury apartment. Local Guide: I used Vulkan Ruin Tours & Transfers and was extremely impressed with their dedication to responsible tourism and education. My guide, George, and driver, Martin, were both fun and knowledgable, helping to facilitate all activities in a way that helped our group get the most out of them. I would recommend requesting them when making your booking. Sandboarding: The company I used was Alter Action. Prices are about $25-$32 depending on if you do lay down or stand up sandboarding.
When To Go: Namibia is a year-round destination; however, for wildlife viewing June through October is best as it’s dry season. Currency: The Namibian Dollar. As of March 3, 2016, the exchange rate is about $1 USD = $15.67 Namibian Dollars. Language: English is the national language, though most also speak Afrikaans and German (Namibia experienced a period of German rule from 1884 under German South-West Africa). Staying Connected: If you travel a lot a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker affixes to your SIM to give you local rates and eliminate roaming charges in 200+ countries. Otherwise, you can purchase a local SIM card from MTC. My starter pack cost about $5 and lasted me for eight days of pretty consistent use. Note: You’ll need an unlocked phone to be able to do this. You can call you cell phone provider to have this done if it’s not already. Dress: Dress is casual and comfortable. While I’d read many guides saying you must cover your shoulders and knees, I didn’t find this to be the case in reality. While I’d skip dressing provocatively, shorts, tanks, tees and sundresses are totally fine. Outlets: The four of us on my tour group ALL mistakenly brought the wrong converters. I even brought a 150+ country converter and it still didn’t work. Make sure to get this one. Must-Pack Essentials: Along with your typical gear, make sure to have:
- Light long sleeve shirt to block sun (I love the insect-repelling NosiLife line from Craghoppers)
- A hat (I like this insect repelling one from Craghoppers)
- Scarf-shawl (great for chilly nights and plane/car blankets)
- A Telephoto lens
- Namibian/South African Converter
- Personal alarm siren (I didn’t feel Namibia was dangerous, but I always carry this)
- Pickpocket-Proof Garments (again, something I always pack)
- BUFF (for sun and dust protection)
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