Star dunes and African massages: road tripping from Cape Town to Swakopmund

Some journeys are meant to be taken by road. Travelling from South Africa to Namibia is exactly this type of trip. Driving through the desert during the day and camping under the stars at night, largely with no phone signal, is my favourite way to travel.

An ever-changing terrain

From Cape Town, we drove north for two days to reach the South Africa-Namibia border. Our route took us through rolling winelands and pancake-flat farmland. We passed neat rows of orange trees and navigated undulating hills dressed in moss-green jumpers.

All gallery images by Heather Richardson

On day two, we reached the terracotta-coloured Namib Desert, which sprawls from South Africa all the way through Namibia and up into Angola. It’s thought to be the oldest desert in the world, dating back some 55 million years.

We camped for a night by the Orange River, which runs along the border, enjoying a peaceful morning canoeing down it. Along the way, we were flanked by sandstone cliffs and accompanied only by angling waterbirds.

Entering canyon land

In Namibia, the terrain changes yet again. Table-top mountains sit either side of deep gorges, the earth looking like it’s been torn apart by a furious god. Rays of sunshine break through the clouds, casting pillars of light onto the dramatic landscape.

Fish River Canyon is the second largest in the world, up to 27 kilometres wide and 550 metres deep. The river winds its way through, a jade-green sliver between rock faces of layered colours like coffee-brown, warm copper, and earth-red.

We walked along the edge of the canyon to a look-out point, which we reached just before sunset. Relaxed and in awe, we watched the colours changing as the shadows lengthened. The Fish River shined in the onset of darkness as the sun disappeared, the sky pink in the afterglow.

Image credit: Heather Richardson

Sunrise across the dunescape

Day four was spent on the empty road with nothing to do except enjoy the ‘African massage’, courtesy of the dirt roads, and gaze out at the vast Namib Desert.

I watched the world go by, slowly. Two ostriches sprinted in opposite directions. I observed a lone kudu, and spotted a royal blue stationary train – completely incongruous in the dusty desert.

We stopped in the tiny town of Bethany. It was a Sunday, with just one shop open.

Eventually we reached our camp, the nearest site to Dune 45. Our location paid off the next morning, when we arose at 4am to reach the iconic star dune for sunrise. The light had already started to seep into the sky as we clambered up, our bare feet in the cool sand, and found a seat at the top. The swelling sea of ancient dunes around us changed from a dusky pink to a brilliant rust-orange as the sun’s first rays darted over the horizon. Everyone on the dune was respectfully quiet. When I turned my face away from the breeze, I was suddenly in a muffled world of absolute silence.

Image credit: Heather Richardson

The dead marsh

When we arrived at the Deadvlei – the ‘dead marsh’ – before 9am, it was already about 40°C with no shade. We had to walk to reach the site but it was certainly worth it.

Nestled between the bright tangerine-toned dunes, is a pan of dried, ash-white clay. Dead, blackened camel thorn trees stand eerily at intervals. Their branches twisted and barren. They date back around 900 years, the desert’s dry climate preventing their decomposition. It’s an otherworldly sight.

On the way to our next campsite, we paused for refreshments in Solitaire. A pit-stop surrounded by the rusted carcasses of vehicles, it’s partially swallowed up by the desert sand.

Image credit: Heather Richardson

Six days one way, two hours the other

In the afternoon of day six, we reached Swakopmund, the German colonial city located halfway up the Namibian coast. The temperature dropped to a more comfortable level and I had a bed for the first time in a week. Wi-Fi was available, but I was almost nervous to reconnect and unleash the chorus of notification pings.

From here, it’s only a two-hour flight back to Cape Town. But that’s kind of missing the point isn’t it?

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