Swakopmund

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Swakopmund was the first city we’d seen in god knows how long. We were excited for some good shopping, an actual bed in a hostel, a fun night out on the town and some extreme sports to participate in. Swakopmund is a small city right in the middle of the desert. Just rolling dunes and vast expanses of sand then, bam! there’s Swakop. We arrived on the weekend, which meant that nothing in the entire town is open past noon. On top of that, on the Sunday, they shut off the power to the entire city for some rewiring. This meant, no restaurants, no lights, no shops, nothing. The city was eerily quiet: no people walked the streets and the perfect German architecture and brightly painted buildings left the place feeling like a deserted model town in the middle of nowhere. So much for our city vibe!
On our first morning, we woke up early for some activities: quad biking and sand boarding! Namibia has some of the largest sand dunes in the world, and offers a plethora of adrenaline rushing sand activities for tourists. We signed up for two hours of quading and 1 hour of lie down sand boarding.
The quads were so much fun. We raced up and down dunes, sped across straightaways and paused for morning photos on top of a hill overlooking the desert. By the time we stopped for boarding I was covered in sand. My hair, face, shoes: all filled with fine sand that stuck to me for the next week. Well, what more can you do but throw yourself down a sand dune at 60km/hour.
The sandboards they offered us were not boards at all. When I went sandboarding in Peru, the boards we used looked just like snowboards. These were just flat pieces of thin plywood that they heavily waxed up before handing to us. This is nuts. That means, for the entire slope, you have to pull up the front edge of your board, so that 1. You don’t crush your hands, and 2. You don’t dig your board into the sand, immediately come to a stop, and hurl yourself overboard. Alright, let’s do this.
Our first hill was not too high. It was average height and similar to some of the smaller hills I’d gone down before. But it was steep. Very steep. And as a bonus, it had a weird bump, that you couldn’t see, at the bottom of the hill that sent you flying. Good times.
Kelsi went first and absolutely flew down. I’m pretty sure Kels held the record for furthest slide down every hill, and this one was no exception. I followed behind her and was the first person to hit the invisible bump. I knocked my chin against the ground, but nothing serious. It was the older guy that came after me that smashed his face really hard into the sand after vaulting over the bump. He ended up with a bleeding nose and sand burn all over his knees by the end of it. But I have to give him props, because when we all hiked it up to the big hill, he followed along and was ready to go again!
The second hill was MUCH larger. Probably twice the size of the first hill. To add to that, it had a huge curve. The hill fell off at one side, causing the board to curve to the left or else end up flying off a cliff to the right. “What happens of we go off the edge?” We asked.
“No, no, that won’t happen” said the guide.
Then this Aussie guy named Reuben tried to explain why it was impossible to fall off that side. “It’s the natural curvature of the dune guys. There’s no way the board will keep going straight, it just can’t happen”
“Ok” we all agreed, then we set up to board down the mountain. The run was incredible. We got huge speed on the second hill, and a lot more distance than the first hill by far! The guide was right, the hill curved nicely to the left and we all ended up right were we should at the bottom. Success!
Because our group was small, we still had a lot more time to board before getting back on the quads. So we all decided to hike up the big dune one last time.
It was Reuben’s turn to go first. He pushed himself and his board gently over the edge, holding up the front of the plywood as he picked up speed. We all stood at the top of the dune and watched him go. He went straight as an arrow right down the dune. There was absolutely no natural curvature in this slide. He flew off the edge of the dune and straight down the right side where the drop when significantly more vertical. He tumbled down a couple rolls then lost his board and came to a standing position. We all thought that was it until he list his footing and kept falling backwards. His hat and sunglasses went flying from his head, and he did several more rolls before coming to a crashing halt three quarters of the way down the dune. Oh my god.
“Reuben!!!” We all called “are you okay?!”
No response. No movement.
“Reuben!!” We called down at him again.
Finally he shifted, turned his head and gave us the thumbs up. Our guide jumped on the quad bike and flew down the other side of the dune to try to find a safe way down to him. But by the time he got there, Reuben was standing up and laughing just as hard as we were.
“So much for the natural curvature of the dune, buddy!” We taunted from above.
Amazingly, he had zero scratches on him. He was just dizzy from the barrel rolls, and completely himself by the time we all reached the bottom. Still, it made for a pretty exciting morning on the hills!
After that it was back in the quads and we trekked the hour back home. When we arrived back at the base, Gina and I decided to head out on some camel riding for a half hour or so. I had never been on a camel before (or ever really seen one until we spotted a couple in Nairobi) but I am always keen to ride any strange or new kind of animal, so I was pretty pumped about the idea.
The thing I was shocked about was how TALL camels are!! I had expected them to be similar to a horse, but I was clearly mistaken. There legs are so long that I rode about one and a half times higher than a normal horse height. You even have to get on them while they are lying down, then wait for them to stand with you on their backs. The getting up and down part was actually the most exciting. They get up two feet at a time, which leaves you jolting back and forth in the little saddle. I thought I was going to fall off when the camel was trying to lie down. His front legs were on the ground while his back ones still stood straight. I was at such an angle I thought I was going to fly right over his head! Luckily, no embarrassing camel falls for me.
The ride was lovely though. We walked out through the desert, just the two of us and a guide. The beach was way off to the right, and rolling sand dunes to the left. Couldn’t have asked for anything nicer! (Except for the highway to get out of our view).
After our full afternoon of adventuring, we tried to explore the city. This was a fail, because, being Saturday, everything was closed. So we opted for heading back to the hostel for a couple drinks before a long night out on the town!
Sunday was also a let down as far as events. Gina, Anisha, Kelsi and I spent a lot of time wandering the deserted streets in a hungover daze, searching endlessly for a restaurant to fill our hunger pit. Sadly, as I said earlier, the entire city had its power shut off, so everything was closed until dinner. We did luck out and find a tiny cafe that had a generator running and was the only place in town serving food.
When the power came back on that evening, our whole group went out for our last final dinner in town together. We went to a restaurant called Napolitana that was incredible! And, strangely enough, one of the nightclubs we’d partied at the night before. Apparently the place becomes a raucous bar after a certain hour on the weekends. Either way, we stuffed our faces with homemade pasta and pizza and called it a night early! We had another early wake up call in the morning, then it was back on the road!

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An Oasis in the Sand


Huacachina is an oasis: literally. In 1999 only 115 people lived in the town, and I can’t imagine many more live there today. Only a couple city blocks long and wide, the town surrounds a small lagoon in the middle of miles and miles of sand dunes. The city is lush and green, with palm trees sucking the water from the single water source. One step out of town, there is only sand! The dunes create high cliffs of sand that tower over the city. While eating out on the patio, I often found myself wondering why the sky behind the palm trees was brown; it was always strange to have to horizon so far above eye level! At sunset, lots of couples and groups of young friends climb the dunes to watch the city in it’s final minutes of light. Huacachina is stunning! I had no idea that oases really existed, but this town is living proof.

I suppose I should let Adam write about the first day there, because I spent almost every second of it in bed with terrible stomach pains. I lost my appetite, but managed to drag my sorry ass to the table to share a dinner. I slept for 10 hours that night, drank litre after litre of water, popped all the drugs I brought and still felt like crap in the morning. So we had a slow afternoon. I managed to walk around the entire town before collapsing with exhaustion – which isn’t a huge feat in a town that has only 3 blocks. But the place was beautiful; it had grassy areas to sit down by the water where you could rent paddleboats or swim in the lagoon. A couple restaurants set up their tables and chairs right near the water for a fantastic view of the place. There was one luxury hotel right at the end of the water, and a bunch of lower budget hostels, each with their own restaurant and happy hour specials.

By the afternoon the pain had stopped and all I felt was lightheaded, woozy and restless. I was tired of sitting around sick and was determined not to let my illness get in the way of our timeline or adventures… So we signed up for extreme sports.

Sandboarding is a sport you can only do in very specific places in the world: Huacachina is one of those. It is exactly what it sounds like. Sandboarding is just like snowboarding, except A. The boards are shorter B. the bindings are simple and wrap around your shoes C. It is much more difficult to control yourself and D. It’s on sand dunes. So we left on our tour at 4:30 and drove off in a big, 7 person sand buggy. Our guide ripped up and down the dunes, scaring the living hell out of the two French Canadian girls next to us. You never knew when the sand was going to descend gently down, or cut off in a nearly vertical cliff: it made for quite the ride and the giggling screams of terror from Marianne beside me were so infectious we laughed most of the way there.

The dunes were unbelievable. They stretched out forever, climbing and falling in perfect slopes where the wind left them. The late afternoon sun left gorgeous shadows of contrasting light and dark brown against the blue sky. It was like looking over a brown ocean with huge waves crashing in on each other. 
After a half hour or so, after our eyes, ears and mouth were well covered in fine sand, we stopped at the top of a huge cliff of sand. “This is where you go sand boarding!” said our guide with a huge smile. Other groups had pulled up to the same spot and had pulled their boards out to the edge of the cliff. We looked over the edge, and straight down about 80m in a nearly vertical drop. NOPE, NO WAY, NOT A CHANCE IN HELL; there’s no way a person can go down that and survive! I turned to Adam and said “you’re on your own”. He looked down at the cliff with a little boy’s enthusiasm and grabbed a board. “You’re CRAZY” I said.

Now for those of you who know how awesome I am at Snowboarding, you should be surprised that I didn’t immediately go down the hill! Hahaha no, actually, my experience with flying down hills at huge speeds only occurs in nightmares. I would prefer to be sipping on a cold beverage at the bottom and wait, with a first aid kit, for Adam to show up. BUT, I also have a bit of an ego when it comes to being “too scared to do something” and Adam knows that about me; It didn’t take him long to convince me to do it. 
Standing on the board would have instantly been the death of me. I saw too many people get whipped around and flipped on their heads to try it. Adam obviously sand boarded down perfectly as if he’d secretly been practicing for six months behind my back! Showoff! So our guide showed me an alternate way of going down.
 Put your board down on the edge of the cliff, lie stomach down on top of the board, face first down the hill, gripping the bindings with your hands and feet flailing out the back. This seemed even crazier, but was my preferred option, so I lay down, and let the guide push me off the edge towards my impending doom.

Once over the edge I absolutely FLEW down; with sand whipping up into my face, I think I screamed the entire way to the bottom where I came flying up at Adam’s feet. I can’t believe he convinced me to do this on a day I was nearly puking my guts out only hours earlier!! But it was surprisingly fun!! I didn’t crash and I came out unscathed (unlike my wakeboarding experience in the Ilhabela that I still have scars from). We had to hike up through the sand to the next dune, which was much shorter than the first, and then finally a third before our guide picked us up.
 We then trekked over the hills in our sand buggy for a couple minutes before pulling up to another large dune. “Want to try again?” he pulled out the boards again as we walked to the edge of the dune to look over. I got instant butterflies. This was one on the biggest sand dunes I’d EVER seen. It was more vertical than the first and at least one and a half times as high. I was terrified! Perhaps I’d skip out on this one. The first guy to go down nearly came to a dangerous barrel roll finish as his board spun sideways at the bottom. His girlfriend flew down at record speed and came within inches of crashing into him. This did not look safe. Adam obviously grabbed a board, hiked up the hill to add another 10 ft in height and slid down the hill on his stomach, a trail of sand dust shooting out from behind him as he went down. I could barely hear him as he yelled what I can only assume were bragging taunts at me from the bottom. I hesitated a couple more minutes before the other Canadian girls (who chickened out themselves) convinced me I could do it. So once again, I came screaming down the hill towards the rest of my group! It was exhilarating and a little terrifying, but all in all I loved it! Successful afternoon on the slopes!

We trucked down to an area to watch the sunset over the sand and the whole place looked like a painting. It didn’t seem real to be sitting there watching the shadows change as the light disappeared. Then just like that, we all got back in the buggy and went back to our little oasis.

The next morning we had organized a winery tour with the two French Canadians from our dune buggy tour. Their driver picked us up at 11:30 and we set out to our first winery. Our guide, Jesus, spoke wonderful English and was a wealth of information about the brewery. The first winery was a family owned industrial winery. The family name, Picasso, is one I remember from home, but most of which were too expensive for me to afford in Canada. We walked around the grounds, learning all the techniques to make their world famous Picasso tempranillo wine and Pisco, the popular 42% liquor that is so common here in Peru. When we’d finished, we sat down to taste them all. We tried a red, white, rose and the Pisco. The wine was tasty, and the red tempranillo which had earned itself a gold medal in Peru and a silver in South America, was probably the best. However, I have to admit, Peruvian wine is not one of my favorites. All the wines we tried over the day had a certain similar taste to them that I am at a loss of how to describe. I suppose each country has this, and that’s how sommeliers can determine which country a wine comes from, but personally, Peru is not my favourite. We ended up buying a winning bottle of Pinot blanc from the winery that came highly recommended and was a great price. But that too left me disappointed: looks like those wine courses have made a wine snob of me after all!

The second place we went to was a family owned traditional winery. It was quaint, beautiful and everything was made by hand – or foot. They had huge concrete pits where people still stomp on the grapes to extract all the juices. Apparently once a year, on the March solstice, they have a big festival where people come to drink and dance over the grapes for the entire night to help make wine. We sadly missed this by only a couple days. Once the grapes are properly crushed, they are moved into clay pots and covered for fermentation. This winery only makes wine and Pisco once a year, not very sustainable that’s for sure. So it’s lucky that they also have a large field of various fruit trees, which also produce chutneys and pecan chocolate that is to die for! We got a tasting of several types of pisco, some dessert wines, a few types of chutney and the chocolate. It was a great way to end the tour.
 When we arrived back at our hostel we only had to kill a couple hours before catching our bus and moving onwards toward Nazca!