I hope this finds you doing well. I came across your site via CU Class Notes. I am CC 2010. I have been inspired by your story and website, and as a fellow lover of travel and medical student, would definitely be keen on learning more about your travels and how it all works out.
Also–I saw that you have not yet made it to the African continent (according to the place markers on the website’s map). [That is mainly where I travel, and my family is also from there. I would be more than glad to provide you with connections in the countries I have been to/enjoyed, should you make it that side.]
Thank you, and I am truly looking forward to hearing back from you.
All the best,
Nadi Nina Kaonga
— Nadi’s first ever e-mail to me, January 29th, 2013
Press play. And then start reading.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
You’re going to miss the first impressions, the first hugs and handshakes in a random hotel, the jet-lag tempered by an excitement of going on your 2nd (or even 3rd) monsoon with once again the proudly self-proclaimed “worst tour guide ever“, and not having a clue of what could transpire with these familiar friends, co-travelers, and even strangers for the next 16 days.
You’re going to miss setting off on a city that nearly suffocates you with a beautiful chaos, the overwhelming crush of humanity in the world’s oldest outdoor market, trying to find a stolen phone and coming to terms to being forced off the grid for the next few days, the sweet taste of mint lime juice after walking over 12 miles and 20,000 steps with your new travel family, and laughing over the inefficiency of a simple task of getting food at the airport.
You’re going to miss waking up after 4 hours of sleep in a different capital city, the quiet lazy morning of eating simple — but different — bread and watered down coffee before watching a beautiful sunrise over Nairobi.
You’re going to miss landing in another unfamiliar country although this time with a familiar face waiting for you at arrivals as if you already had family here, being welcomed by the very person who sent an e-mail on January 29, 2013 that first compelled you to organize this very trip to subsaharan Africa, being taken in with open arms by a sister and her grandfather that you wish you’ve always had, and being shown around the warm heart of Africa, but only after waiting more than 2 hours to get your visas (well, you might not miss that).
You’re going to miss the popcorn and water that greeted you in the car that would take you to a most beautiful lake that you felt like you had all to yourself, grabbing drinks and kicking back to a splendid view, before heading back to a home-cooked meal so good that you can’t help to having seconds (or thirds), all the while watching with mischief at a grandfather 4 times your age eat 4 times your amount of pie.
You’re going to miss the 5am transfer to the airport before a quietly emerging dawn in Malawi to board a lonely plane in a lonely airport, landing in the afternoon at a country infamous for its civil war but now on the cusp of peace, exploring a remarkably diverse capital city that could have mistaken to be on the Mediterranean, hunting for fresh fruit like a local at the municipal market, being the only customers in a huge empty restaurant and getting better-than-expected food, and afterwards exchanging stories and travel advice with fellow backpackers at your hostel.
You’re going to miss haggling down an entire bus to Swaziland before watching nervously as your bags rattle around outside on a precariously connected trailer, walking through no-man’s land to another country while talking about Donald Trump with fellow transferrers, looking for bathrooms in the chaotic bus terminal of Manzini before settling in at one of the most impressive hostels you’ve ever been.
You’re going to miss collectively deciding on horseback riding while enjoying a comfortable lunch overlooking pastures in the middle of nowhere, heading towards an unexpectedly beautiful safari all the while your horse does its best to sneak in a mouthful of vegetation while you’re trying to keep up with the group.
You’re going to miss the drinks and dinner at the safari camp, failing to blend in with the chi-chi older crowd, before getting to know the Peace Corps volunteers on the eve of their farewell after they had been staying at your hostel for the past 2 years.
You’re going to miss grabbing drinks at a sketchy local bodega so you could stay up with the group on our last night together, engaging one final heart-to-heart conversation before waking up to a frigid Lesotho morning.
You’re going to miss going out on the town for a night of mayhem, getting to encounter so many younger locals who took more of an interest in us than we would have expected, and trying to find our way back home inebriated during the middle of the night.
You’re going to miss freaking out over missing 2 people in the group who failed to board the flight with you to Zambia, the mad dash across 4 countries in one day seeing arguably the world’s most beautiful waterfalls from both sides, fending off a rabid baboon, seeing an unreal sunset over the falls, the quiet night drive into Botswana, and the giddiness of seeing an elephant quietly greet you in the backyard of your lodge before you headed to bed.
You’re going to miss the excitement of going on your first safari, getting to see your first herd of elephants, kudus, giraffes, hippos, and hundreds of other animals that were unafraid to approach your jeep, then quickly getting over seeing your three-hundredth elephant by the end of the day, nodding off on a lazy boat ride on the Chobe waterfront, before staring dumbstruck at a beautiful sunset over the horizon as animals continued to feed, unbothered by our presence.
You’re going to miss turning down a bad deal for ATVs, and then sitting idly in an airport still under construction with literally nothing to do but watch repeating stories in syndication on CNN International, returning home to Johannesburg where you befriended even more locals at the hostel on your final night there.
You’re going to miss packing your bags in an oversized tank/jeep that you would eventually call home and being led around by a guide you would eventually call a friend as your group headed off into the world’s oldest desert.
You’re going to miss the heartfelt conversations and sharing of music on the way there, the difficult hike up to the top of Elem Dunes to watch the sunset, the warm fire at your campsite, having one of the best pork-chops you ever had after it was cooked right in front of you, and braving the slumber outside despite the cold.
You’re going to miss the relaxing ride back home, with enough time to reflect upon everything you had just seen, but more importantly knowing for a few more moments moment you were surrounded by new lifelong friends who had just shared experiences that you wouldn’t be able to repeat again with anyone else.
And you’re going to miss most of all, each other; a group of unique personalities united by adventure, where we’ll all look back one day and ask ourselves if we did see all that we saw and went as far as we did.
And we certainly did — far, and most importantly, together.
But, obligations are obligations as the group parts ways today in Windhoek after traveling 16 days together through 13 countries in Africa.
Following up on yesterday’s trip to Sossusvlei: At 12:30pm we began to drive back to the capital city of Windhoek, stopping a few times to push our vehicle out of a sand dune, and of course, ice cream. We arrived at around 8pm and had one last dinner again at Joe’s Beerhouse (the only place open for groups on a late Sunday night). Afterwards, we turned in early as half the group would be getting up at 4am for their 6am flight back to the USA.
As for the 3 of us left over — Duncan, Kel and myself — we got up later at around 9am and decided to head early to the airport to check into our flights, but not before doing some brief sightseeing around Windhoek.
While Windhoek has been mainly viewed as a home base for desert safaris, it also can be regarded as a lovely, developed, walkable capital city that can otherwise resemble a nice suburban town in upstate New York.
And so before heading to the airport, we first stopped at the nearby Train Station, which doubles as a transit museum featuring one of the first German locomotives to traverse the barren deserts of Namibia:
We then drove by Zoo Park, notable for it being the site of a 5,000 year old elephant hunt; elephant fossils and rudimentary hunting equipment of our early ancestors were unearthed here.
Then we drove up to Windhoek’s unofficial landmark and symbol, the Lutheran Christus Church.
Across the street from Christus Church is the Titenpalast (behind that giant building, which I think is more impressive) now known as the Parliament of Namibia. It’s remarkable for using only indigenous materials in its construction.
Finally, there was this early 20th century Heinitzburg Castle that’s now an expensive hotel. Yeah, ok.
That’s it — Off to the airport! I have a 2 hour flight to Johannesburg followed by a 3 hour layover, then an 8 hour flight to Dubai followed by a 7 hour layover, and then finally a 13 hour flight to NYC.
Thank you Sydney for your company, your sense of humor, and for being so patient driving us around the past 3 days!
…but when I thought the adventure would end here, I would be so wrong once I got to my layover in Dubai!
So usually if anyone, ANYONE, makes me check in my bag on a flight, I fight them (at some points it can border on whining) and win. Although Windhoek and Johannesburg have more liberal carry-on allowances, any flight leaving Dubai’s airports cannot carry anything more than a 7kg bag/case on the plane. So even though my main backpack would have fit in the overhead bin and my smaller backpack would have been my personal item under my set, the airport staff at Dubai still refused me to go back through security unless I checked in my larger bag.
Despite moving stuff around between the bags, no dice; the 7kg maximum at Dubai is strictly enforced. So I then trudged back (and it’s a big airport!) to the front of the airport and proceeded to check in my bag. But out of curiosity, I asked about whether anyone cancelled so I could move my seat more to the front (I was in the back in economy).
Their response? No problem; not only would I be moved up, I would also be upgraded to the plane’s business class for free (FYI, I don’t have any status with Emirates!), located in the upper floor of the fuselage.
So in my moment of irony I want to personally thank the staff that stopped me at security and refused to let me get onboard without checking in my bag. Thank you thank you thank you. My lesson has been learned.
So with dedicated and expedited boarding gates, security, and departure bridges reserves just for business and first class passengers, this oasis greeted me when I boarded:
My seat upon arrival:
My seat decked out as a bed with provided mattresses, duvet, and pillows:
First person POV:
They give you this beautiful brown leather bag filled with free upscale (think BVLGARI) single-use amenities, and a plastic bag with standard airplane socks and eyemask.
The windows themselves are a hi-tech shade/blinders that can be controlled remotely by the iPad/tablet next to you or directly.
And then there is the bar in the back (where the bathrooms are) that opens up after take-off and is staffed throughout the 13-hour flight with free food, chocolates, coffee/espresso, and a semi-full bar available anytime.
The bathrooms are pretty standard, save for the BVLGARI cologne and perfume and the window that looks outside while I peed.
And although the food tasted pretty standard, it was wonderfully plated with frequent utensil changes and condiment refills.
After 13 hours and nearly 8 movies (the best of which was my second viewing of the Bollywood film, 3 Idiots), we began to land at JFK airport, while being treated to the gorgeous thunderstorms outside.
So sad to leave this little island of paradise:
Not a bad way to end a crazy trip. Until the next monsoon…
- At time of posting in Windhoek, Namibia, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Some appropriately curated background music to an epic post, so please, if it’s not already playing: Press play.
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The world's oldest desert just got served
Vemödalen – “The frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.”
National Geographic, Frans Lanting, 2011:
The Monsoon Diaries, Calvin Sun, 2016:
Vermödalen, and yet I persist.
2 days in the world’s oldest desert will compel you to put a few things into perspective, namely that of one’s own occhiolism when arriving at such a place, but also what little you can do to appropriately let it all in.
And yet we persist.
At 8am in Windhoek the 7 of us set off in our 4WD tank led by our guide Sydney (of Travel Bug Safaris and The Cardboard Box Hostel), south across the Namibian desert towards Sesriem.
We stopped numerous times along the 6 hour drive to buy supplies, answer our bladders’ call to nature, stretch our legs, take photos, and have lunch at a remote outpost appropriately named Solitaire.
A beautiful ride that felt shorter than expected thanks to numerous engaging conversations, music, and occasional cat naps, by 3pm we had reached Sossusvlei.
Our first sight by Sossuvlei was a 45 minute stroll through Seseriem Canyon.
Much like Antelope Canyonin the USA, it was formerly a large, million-year-old river that largely dried out in present times, although it bears witness to countless prehistoric episodes of flash-fooding and subsequent rock formation.
If you want to see what a bottom of a river looks like, this is the closest you’re going to get to scuba diving without getting wet.
Afterwards we drove to Elim Dune, a series of probably 13-15 steep dunes that are truly awful to climb up and down, namely due to the fine desert sand that gives in too easily to human weight. FYI, some considered this hike more difficult than our 104-story climb up Lion’s Head.
Where some of us wisely gave up after climbing a single dune, JC, Kel, and myself foolishly hiked through nearly 10-12 progressively steeper and steeper dunes looking for the very end; every time we thought we conquered the last one, there was yet another dune waiting for us.
Eventually we gave up after 45 minutes of climbing and watched the sunset from where we rested our weary calves (and glutes!).
Elim Dune just got served
At around 6pm after sunset, we began to head back. Once darkness hits, you’re kinda screwed in navigating back to the parking lot; it’s very easy to get lost here.
After getting back, we drove to the local Sesriem Restcamp where Sydney set up our tents, fire, and dinner for us to enjoy.
At around 8pm, the stars began to appear.
After dinner, we headed to bed at around 9pm and slept in sleeping bags placed on top of simple but sturdy mattresses that ended up being more comfortable than we expected. We just wish we had known to pack more clothes as as the night progressed and temperatures dropped to near-freezing conditions.
By 4:45am we were all woken up by the frigid cold. But as we left our tents to pack up quickly and run inside our 4WD for better warmth, we paused for a moment to collect our breaths before a star-filled night sky:
And by 5:25am we were all packed up and back in our vehicle, ready to leave the park gates that would open at 5:30am. Then we formed a beeline of tourist 4WD jeeps on the way to Dune 45 (named for being located 45km away from Sesriem) for the famous Sossuvlei sunrise.
At 5:35am we scurried out of our vehicles and made a single line file to hike to the top of Dune 45, which is about 80m high and has sands measured to be over 5 million years old.
The views can be dizzying high, and we walked by one woman who had a panic attack on the way up; this hike is not for those with a fear of heights!
It’ll take an average fit person about 10 minutes to reach the top, where you’ll be rewarded by saying you saw the sun rise over the oldest desert in the world:
Try walking past the crowds and perhaps even farther along the ridge of Dune 45 can so you can spend a few quiet moments here alone. You deserve it.
And nobody dare tread further than I
After about 45 minutes here, we headed back down and enjoyed a brief simple breakfast at the base of the dune.
At 8:30am, we wrapped up and drove about 15 minutes (the ride gets very bouncy here!) more inland. We then hiked about 10 minutes over relatively flat and sandy terrain towards Dead Vlei.
Under the shadow of a dune called Big Daddy (the highest of them all at 325m high), Dead Vlei is a prehistoric clay pan that once was an oasis filled with acacia trees.
After the river that supplied the oasis changed its direction, killing both the oasis and its trees, the lack of moisture in this region caused the trees to petrify (aka “mummify”) instead of rotting away.
And they still stand today; when placed against the shiny white floor of the oasis pan and the “orange skies” that are the dunes, they create a surreal landscape that has been featured in countless movies and shows (namely “The Fall”, “The Cell” as my favorites) and probably is unmatched by anywhere else on this planet.