The Desert Express is a brilliant way to travel from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, to Swakopmund on the coast, without missing out on any of the wildlife or scenery…
As the blue, lumbering Desert Express trundled through the surprisingly lush landscape outside Windhoek, we spent the journey eagerly searching out cleverly camouflaged wildlife through the train’s large pictures windows. It took a while to ‘get our eye in’ but once we did there was so much to see – strikingly marked Oryx grazed, bounding herds of Springbok were spotted and a flock of Ostrich raced headlong through the Savannah.
130km from Windhoek we arrived at Oropoko Lodge for a game drive (included in the price of the train fare). Here we got up close to leathery White Rhino while Giraffe kept half a long-lashed eye on us from the shade of the trees. We spotted Warthog, Crocodile, Springbok and Oryx and a herd of around forty Buffalo, out to impress, kicked up the dust in a scene stealing stampede.
Back on board we enjoyed a compulsory ‘sundowner’ – well it would be rude not to – during a spectacular red and gold sunset before continuing westward towards the coast. As night drew in we pulled into a siding for the night were we had dinner, an excellent meal given the size of the train’s galley, served in the Welwitschia restaurant. A breath of fresh night air was enjoyed with some of our travel companions in the blackness alongside the tracks before heading off to bed in our carriage for the night – the Kokerboom.
Our two seated compartment had been miraculously transformed into a bedroom with two bunks and an incredibly nifty ablution solution; a tardis-like cupboard housing shower, toilet and hand basin combo. We snuggled into our bunks and it wasn’t long before the zzzzs were flowing. At around 05.30am the train abruptly shuddered into life and our journey resumed – there was definitely no shut-eye now as we were jolted around in our bunks. But that’s the idea, The Desert Express timetable is tailored to make the most of the superb Namibian sunsets and sunrises, so we pulled back the curtain to take a look. The view was astounding; as the dawn ebbed away, the sun rose over miles of pale apricot sand dunes.
Swakopmund sits on the edge of the dunes on the Atlantic coast, a slightly odd but quaint town with German, colonial-style wooden, buildings. To give you an idea it’s where the recent re-make of ‘The Prisoner’ was shot. It’s Namibia’s only beach resort and is an ideal base for a variety of tours.
An unforgettable morning was spent in the dunes with Tommy Collard on his Living Desert Tour. A wiry, sun-tanned chap with a massive smile a large brimmed hat and an overwhelming love of wildlife. We board Tommy’s custom–built truck and set out for the sands. As the gradient sharply increases he jumps out and partly lets down the tyres for more traction, and we’re off up an incredibly steep dune, backs almost to the floor. All around is sand, sand and a million more tons of sand; there’s no wildlife to be spotted that’s for sure. That is until Tommy jumps out to investigate some apparently invisible clue, after digging around in the sand he hooks up a sidewinder snake and, grinning widely, tells us all about this venomous reptile, we watch as he releases it twisting and curving its way in an ‘S’ pattern across the dune back to its habitat. We learn about the flora and fauna of the Namib desert, the protected gravel plains and why the colour of the sand varies – it’s to do with the iron content of the sand – remember iron filings from science lessons at school? Well the sand’s full of them which he neatly demonstrates with a magnet.
Tommy points to a ‘stone’ which is actually a pretty big chameleon, carefully picks up a deadly black scorpion and then finds a tiny transparent gecko. His enthusiasm and obvious love of the wildlife and desert make this fascinating tour something very special. On our return journey we enjoy some extreme dune driving ending up by riding a dune and on tipping the peak coming face to face with the spectacular view of the Namib desert flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. It felt like we’d reached the end of the earth. Tommy’s Tours
From sand to sea and our boat, The Olin, sets off on a slightly chilly, overcast morning for a cruise round Walvis Bay with Mola Mola Sea Safaris.www.mola-namibia.com. Before long a wet, black nose appears at the back of the boat and Sally a huge, smelly but sociable, Sea Lion clambers aboard. After entertaining us and demanding some fish in return she sploshes back into the water and surfs along behind us in the boat’s wake. There’s major competition between the Sea Lions for fishy treats and two or three others try to join us but this is strictly first come first served.
We motor past Bird Island, a wooden guano pier crowded with gulls and dripping with bird poo which is harvested annually and sold for fertilizer. Heading further out of the harbour pelicans drop by, flying alongside the vessel at eye-level, catching fish thrown by our skipper in their capacious bills.
Pelican Point, the very tip of the sandbank that forms the bay, is home to a colony of cape fur seals; thousands of them frolic in the waves, slippery, shiny, noisily barking and baying. Pink flamingos, cormorants and cape gannets abound and occasionally the Jackass Penguin will show up. This area is part of the Skeleton Coast; rusting wrecks languish in the waters giving the area a haunting feel under grey overcast skies – a complete contrast to Sossusvlei and the Dead Vlei which was the next stop on our trip through Namibia.