Driving south from Etosha National park on a long (and incredibly remote) road, the horizon is dominated by a stunning formation of jagged granite mountains. Towering 800m over an otherwise flat desert landscape in central Namibia, Spitzkoppe and its many peaks are like something from another planet. But this stunning natural wonder is not only impressive by appearance— unlike other mountains that have been formed by the collision of tectonic plates below the earth’s surface, Spitzkoppe has formed by millions of years of erosion to the surrounding area. As I understand it, an estimated 700 million years ago, much of southern Africa was covered by an enormous layer of rock. This rock was eventually disrupted by volcanic activity associated with the splitting of the supercontinent, bringing magma to the surface which cooled, solidified, and began to slowly erode away along with much of that original rock layer. Spitzkoppe is what has been left behind by over 120 million years of erosion. And whether you get off on geology or not, it’s an undeniable natural wonder.
All the details: Spitzkoppe & the Bushman Paintings
Cost: Join a N$55 guided bushwalk around Spitzkoppe to see the Bushman paintings and learn more about the natural history of the area.
Getting there: Drive into the campsite, which is located in the Grosse Spitzkuppe Nature Reserve about 90 minutes NE of Swakopmund or 3 hours NW of the capital, Windhoek. Alternatively, the nearest airport is in Walvis Bay, about 2 hours from Spitzkoppe.
Where to stay: Sites at the Spitzkoppe Community Camp have very basic facilities (drop toilet, no shower, no power, very secluded) and cost N$165 per adult per night.
Top tip: Grab your sleeping bag and pillow, climb up one of the smaller mountains with your head torch, and sleep under the stars.
We wake up this morning in Etosha National Park to a beautiful sunrise and enjoy looking on as the others pack up our tent for the second time— we all made bets on what time we’d arrive back at camp yesterday and this time Callum won, earning us another set-up and pack-up of our tent. We eat a quick breakfast and pack some sandwiches for lunch in the truck during today’s long drive. Before we can well and truly get on the road, though, we have to stop at the park entrance for a few formalities, which provides a wonderful opportunity to interact with a couple of the local Himba women situated outside the gates.
I’d previously seen photos of these beautiful women in a National Geographic and was understandably intrigued by their elaborate hairstyles and use of ochre all over the skin and hair, which is meant to symbolise the red of the earth and the blood of life. Apparently, the Himba in northern Namibia and southern Angola still live in according to tradition, completely resisting modernisation and refusing to conform to new norms. Coming from the “Western World”, it’s admittedly hard to comprehend a life without technology or other 21st century conveniences, but the Himba people have managed to isolate themselves almost entirely from the changing world. And I have to report that they seem to be managing just fine without the latest iPhone or high speed Wifi, so, who knows, maybe there are more important things in life.
All I’d really like is to just speak to these women and then take one really nice portrait, but they obviously don’t speak any English and the only photo I do manage to take (after asking their permission, of course, and also buying several of their hand-made bracelets) is rather sub-par. I don’t think it really captures their beauty or their incredible hair true-to-life, but at least you can get some idea of what they look like. Much respect to these incredible people who are finding happiness in simple living and staying true to their own culture despite pressure to conform.
Eventually, I shuffle back to the truck with my purchases in hand and we hit the road. Nearly immediately, we all fall asleep in our typical uncomfortable positions and remain that way for the better part of the morning. Even before midday, it’s baking inside the truck and everyone is suffering too much to play card games or engage in our usual spirited banter, so sleeping really feels like the only available pastime.
While we’ve all been in our heat-induced comas, the landscape has changed dramatically and beautiful rocky mountains now tower over the flat desert landscape in the distance, rousing us from our naps. We are busy sticking our heads out of the window when the truck comes to a stop for us to take proper photos, so we all file out and spend about a half hour just running around in excitement and orchestrating elaborate group photos. From our photography break, the drive to our camp for the night isn’t far and, before long, we are pulling up against the base of the mountains and spilling out of the truck for more jaw-dropping scenery.
We have a brief group chat in the shade of a large cave and then Cal, Nicole, and I run up one of the mountains. With every step, I am snapping another dozen photos, beyond blown away by the beauty of this part of Namibia and instantly convinced that this is a sure highlight of the trip. Even Cal, who has been suffering particularly loudly in the heat, is noticeably impressed as we climb up the strangely-shaped mountain, willingly posing for a number of photos and sprinting ahead in excitement. When we make it to the top a few minutes later, we are rewarded for all the scrambling with panoramic views. Spitzkoppe is truly unlike anywhere we’ve ever been in Africa (or anywhere I’ve ever seen before) and the photos certainly don’t do this otherworldly place justice.
Quite reluctantly, we pull ourselves away from the incredible views and climb back down to re-join the group for our afternoon desert walk. We walk over to another of the large rock formations, passing interesting plants and animals along the way, and then scramble to the top for more sweeping views of the beautiful landscape. Learning about a particularly poisonous plant that can kill you within minutes, Cal works himself up into a slight frenzy since he had just moments earlier been chewing on a plant as a joke. I can’t say that I feel too badly for him, though, because the obvious solution would just be to not eat unknown plants in foreign countries.
On our walk, we also visit the famous Bushman Paintings, most of which are faded beyond recognition, but a few rhinos, zebras, and humans are still distinguishable on the rock. This rock was apparently used as a sort of message board for the bushmen to share information with one another on the animals that had been seen in the area and the number of people in each tribe. Considering the intense heat and unrelenting sun in Spitzkoppe, it’s pretty remarkable to imagine that anyone would elect to live here, but it is fascinating to learn about those who do make the desert their home and learn to thrive in its seemingly inhospitable environment.
Back at camp, we organise the game of camp Clue that we’ve been planning for a while: essentially, each person draws a name, location, and object out of a hat and they need to hand that person the “murder weapon” in that specific location to kill them and advance forward in the game. The unfortunate side effect of this game is that now no one wants to take anyone else’s photo, help anyone refill their water bottle, or hand them something from the truck. I’m playing the long game with Grace (and also there is no pool at this campsite for me to murder her at), so I just enjoy watching as Cal continually tries to hand Tess a hat that she is refusing to accept.
As sunset approaches, everyone takes a break from trying to kill each other for a few minutes and we go in search of the perfect vantage point. Even walking across the dirt path, I have to stop and take several dozen photos— the strangely Mars-like landscape is even more striking when bathed in the orange light of dusk and every single step provides a slightly different angle to the jagged mountains looming behind us. I’m so blown away by the beauty of where we are right now that I genuinely feel like crying. Instead, I scamper along another few steps and begin my photo snapping all over again.
Finally, we catch sight of the rock bridge in front of us. Not that the walk has been long, but it would have been worth any amount of effort to reach this spot. After my customary frolicking (as I wipe away more happy tears) and quite a bit of excited hollering, we find the perfect spot from which to watch the actual sunset and settle in with about half an hour to spare. As the sun moves toward the horizon, I am surprised to notice a few other people watching from a distant viewpoint. It’s clearly a popular spot! Actually, let me qualify that statement by saying that we’ve seen hardly any people outside the cities in Namibia so far and that means that 10 other people on a rock 500m away feels alarmingly crowded. Really, by any other standards, Spitzkoppe is empty of people. Just one of the many reasons I love this country so much: I don’t have to share its natural beauty with anyone.
It’s fairly dark and thankfully cooling off by the time we leave our sunset perch and walk back to camp for dinner. Rachel and Sam have set up a beautiful fire and ringed our circle of chairs with candles, so dinner feels particularly romantic and is just as delicious as usual. Rachel chats to us a bit about Namibia while we gnaw on our pork ribs, and I’m particularly surprised to hear that it’s the world’s second least densely populated country (after Mongolia) and also that it only gained independence in the 1990s. I suppose it’s not really a country I ever learned much about in school (or that was even on my radar until a year or two ago), but it’s become a fast favourite and I already think I’d like to come back and drive through the country with a rental 4WD and rooftop tent. And we are still less than halfway through the Namibia leg of the trip, so I’m sure there’s more excitement to come!
After dinner, we roast marshmallows and then gather our sleeping bags, mats, and pillows together for the hike back up to the top of the rock where we will sleep under the stars. It’s considerably more challenging in the dark and with arms full of stuff, but we do make it to the top in a single piece and stake out a relatively flat area for the group to sleep. The next hour is happily spent just staring at the night sky— I swear you’ve never seen stars until you’ve seen them on a clear night in Africa. With Kerri’s binoculars, there are about 10x as many stars visible, and the whole experience is enough to leave you slack-jawed in awe over the vastness of the universe. Several dozen shooting stars later, I fall asleep on top of Spitzkoppe thinking that Cal couldn’t have possibly asked for a better last night in Africa.