There is something that I haven’t figured out yet about the O’s in Namibia but there are plenty! Just take some of the regions: Omusati, Oshana, Oshikoto, Otjozondjupa, and Omakeke each starts with O. But there is also the towns of Omusati, Ordongab, Olifantsbad, Outjo, Okondeka, Okahandja, to Otavi for just to name a few. About a third of the people are Ovambo, speaking Bantu, so there may be a preference for O. Though Namibia’s official language is English.
But for me it was the real “OH’s” -- the breathless ones, uttered that described the most amazing places we traversed. And then the properties like Onguma, Ongava and Otjiwa!!
And yet when I say Namibia, sometimes people look at me with a quizzical look, “What? Where?” Yes, the most amazing country on the west coast of Africa that you never hear of….but put it on your radar!
Namibia means “Vast Land,” and that is exactly what it is but also a kaleidoscope of land contrasts. With only 2.5 million people it is the second least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia. It is sometimes surreal to travel mile after mile and not see anyone or even pass another car on long stretches of very well-maintained roads. Endless space itself is an allure of luxury with blue skies and lots of sunshine.
Sharing the largest and oldest rippling sand dunes in the world with Namib, Sossusvlei and the Kalahari deserts that all blaze red in the setting sun. The tourism board always seems to promote Namibia as a desert locale, but it is so, so much more than that! There is the famous skeleton forest in a dried lakebed and there is even a skeleton coast –literally scattered with skeletons of old ship-wreaks where the dunes and treacherous reefs of the ocean meet. But what surpassed my expectations was that there was so much diversity of landscapes; in a five-hour drive you would be offered five totally different landscapes.
My first surprise was that the capital, Windhoek is at 6,000 feet above sea level; it is cradled in the mountains! We did a self-driving tour in a Toyota HiLux 4X4 and headed out for a week of phenomenal discovery. Our first day we arrived at Ai Aiba Lodge in the Erongo Mountains rich with legacy as they boast 2000-year-old bushman rock paintings. The Lodge is dramatically set against hundreds of huge imposing granite boulders. Our Sundowner and bush walk with Ronny turned out to be a two mile climb up to get a vantage point over the whole caldera. I was breathless, both with the climbing and the magnificent views going from golden light to darkness (thank goodness for cell phone lights). The morning gave us an easier boulder climb in search of rock paintings, giraffes, and elephant-foot plants which are endangered and thus the lodge is trying to repopulate these large, woody, and partially exposed tuber in its semiarid area. The tubercle-covered tuber, resembling an elephant’s foot, was once served as a food for local people during famine (given the name “Hottentot bread”).
We then drove north on to the privately held Ongava Game Reserve on the southern boundaries of Etosha National Park. Placed as it is on top of a hill in the foothills of the Ondundozonanandara range (another O), the lodge has a beautiful viewpoint overlooking a well-frequented watering hole and the plains beyond. The key to this amazing watering hole is the blind that is settled down into the earth so that you are at eye level with all the animals that come in for a drink. Talk about a swim up bar! This was a complete thrill of a front row seat.
Only to rival that was sundowners in a field surrounded by nine quietly grazing white rhinos. Thanks to conservationists there are more than 20 thousand held in reserves, game parks and zoos around the world. Here at Ongava both free ranging black and white rhinos' populations are recovering via their efforts.
Etosha is the largest game reserve in Africa, it has unique landscapes; savannahs, grasslands, thornbush and woodlands. But the highlight is the vast Etosha Pan, a shallow chalky depression of a dried inland lake which is the size of the country of Holland in the heart of the National Park. Crossing this safari wonderland is something you must do; stopping at the plentiful watering holes, some natural springs and some man-made, all attract game continually. It was like watching animals heading for Noah’s Ark – a steady stream of all varieties; tall, small and those with four legs and those that fly and jump. When it comes to drinking everyone bellied up to the bar in mass and when they had their fill, just walked away.
On the other side we arrived at another O – Onguma’s The Fort, unlike any other -- definitely one of a kind. The welcome by the staff proved that to be an experience in itself. Built of massive raw walls and tower overlooking the Fisher’s Pan for both watering hole and sunset views. This property had stunning architectural elements of Africa, Morocco and India swirling around. Amazing antique windows and doors made you realize you are in a very special place. The bathrooms were in a class on their own. And all the staff were impeccable.
On our first game drive moments away from our suites, we came across a pride of lions dining on Kudu, the same specie I would have for dinner, but mine was seared. Onguma offers several amazing options all of which have their own waterhole for viewing; there is the Tented Camp, the Bush Camp, the Etosha Aoba Camp tucked into a forest, and Camp Kala their ultra-exclusive six star which opened in November of 2022, this one is over the top. But without a doubt my favorite was The Fort! I felt so at home, the perfect mix for me, I did not want to leave.
We reluctantly packed up the HiLux and drove on to have a taste of Damaraland’s alien rock formations. Driving along gravel roads amid the flat, arid scrubland on either side of the road suddenly gives way without warning to the jaw-dropping granite peaks of Spitzkoppe. Often referred to as the “Matterhorn of Namibia”, Spitzkoppe is more than 120 million years old. The tallest of its many outcrops stands 5,853 feet high. Mouth dropping sites as we passed Twyfeltfontain (translated to “Fountain of Doubt” a perennial spring), the Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain all as we headed for our camp (term used loosely), Mowani nestled into an outcropping of massive ochre boulders. Talk about a room with a view for miles, each is an individual bungalow with wrap-around balconies.
Best was sundowners on a mammoth size boulder a short climb up thanks to stairs, where we were comfortably seated on large pillows and a drink was in hand to watch another magical sun setting. Scanning the vast unspoiled wilderness between the Ugab and Huab Rivers in the fading light is a memory I will never forget.
One of our aims was the chance to track the rare desert dwelling elephants, which got us up with the sun for a thrilling adventure. It’s in this place that the elephants have learned to thrive on as little as a 100 mml of rain each year. There is no genetic or physiological differences between elephants found across Namibia’s wilderness. But the desert variety seems to look taller, and scientist attribute this long-legged illusion to it smaller body mass, the result of a lean diet of scattered grasses and scrubs. Damaraland is one of the few places in Southern Africa where the magnificent wildlife of Africa can be found outside of National Parks or private game reserves and co-exist with traditional villages and farms. After exploring miles of desert sands, we did find a small herd of six along a dried riverbed.
As we headed back south we made one more incredible overnight stop at Otjiwa Safari Lodge specifically at The Mountain Lodge which was ultra-luxury. This small intimate lodge offers 5 separate, super king bed modern chalets, each with its own private views, plunge pool and a bathroom that I just had to slip into that footed soaking tub with a view.
The lodge reflects a modern colonial style main house with amazing panoramic views, space, luxurious space over the Waterberg Plateau and Omataku Mountain range. This is still a working a farm run by family, it is actually the oldest game farm. The farm produces all its herbs and vegetables and sources what isn’t available from the farm from other local farms.
With over 25 different animal species to spot on games drive, roaming on horseback, wandering or just watching from your pool. Thanks to amazing people that dedicate their lives to conserve and protect wildlife, the White Rhino species stand a chance to survive in the wild. William, a magnificent man, has been working at Otjiwa lodge for over 29 years and has made it his life’s purpose to protect the Rhinos. He came to Otjiwa in 1993 as a 23-year-old with a passion for wildlife and conservation. He fell in love with the White Rhino species and spent years of his life learning everything there is to know about this specie. William closely observed the Rhinos for many years and through experience discovered how these magnificent animals survive in the wild. William spends hours in the bush tracking all the Rhinos on the reserve. He knows every single Rhino by name and he makes sure that our beloved White Rhinos are well taken care of and protected. William has many stories about the Rhinos of Otjiwa and he loves them as if they were his own children. I think this sums up Otjiwa's commitment that makes it standout!
Besides being a spectacular choice for a final night, Chef Betty prepared a six-course gourmet meal that could have been served in any Michelin Star restaurant in Paris! It was an unforgettable wow.
As I flew back to Cape Town, I was remembering all the amazing experiences and wondering why it took me so long to explore Namibia even if it was a brief weeklong glimpse. What has stood out to me was: it was super clean there was no trash along the roads, the roads were well maintained, the people I met were extremely friendly, food was above any expectations, and both the properties and the accommodations were excellent. Best of all the amount of wildlife was mind blowing and heartening. Conservation efforts were top of mind at every location. Plus, sustainability and social responsibility was all part of hospitality offered. Great Mother Earth has blessed their land, and everyone respects and contributes their part.
Do not wait as long as I did….go enjoy Namibia’s wild beauty!
Ai Aiba- www.aiaiba-namibia.com
Onguma -- onguma.com/
Mowani - www.chiwani.com/mowani
Otjiwa Safari Lodge - otjiwa.com.na