We're home! After a weekend we all agree has been one of the best vacations any of us have ever had. There's so much to tell, and I think the best way to give an organized account of our adventures is by describing our schedule. Here goes:
A typical day for the most part! Until...
- 10:30pm- I took a brief nap around 9pm, woke up at 10:20pm, hugged Heba goodbye for the weekend, and then ran to meet the others in the MaP parking lot. We piled into the seven-passenger van rented by Gifa, our taxi driver; and with that, we were off!
- 11:30pm- We jumped out of the car at the Bots/South African border to go through immigration. I was thankful Jack—who had crossed the border several times before—was with us for this, since Gifa had to stay with the car and the rest of us were clueless. A departure survey and a few questions later and we were admiring our new passport stamps. I had never crossed a border on foot before, and it was so bizarre looking up at the stars during the freezing walk between the Batswana and South African customs buildings and knowing we were in no man's land.
- Through the night- A few interesting parts of our drive include seeing signs with red circles on them, which Gifa informed us meant that we were in hijacking zones. "Oh, heavens," responded Fred, our English friend. Another INCREDIBLE moment was when someone from the back had to pee, so Gifa pulled over at the side of a deserted South African highway lined on both sides by tall grasses. Siqi and I climbed out of the van so the person could get out; and as we craned our necks looking at the millions of stars, all of a sudden a shooting star dropped out of nowhere and streaked through our line of vision! It felt like the most serendipitous moment ever—I've never seen stars like that before, and I never EVER thought I'd see a shooting star in the middle of the night along a highway in South Africa.
- 4:00am- We finally arrived at the ZA airport in Johannesburg! It had been a loong drive, made a bit more uncomfortable by the fact that I was in the middle seat. I hadn't slept at all, which made me a bit apprehensive about maintaining my energy level throughout the upcoming packed day, but was excited to feel as though our trip was starting. We wandered a bit while searching for our correct terminal (it's a MASSIVE airport), went through customs and security, and then settled down at Mugg & Bean for breakfast. Harsh had brought lamb biryani from Embassy for a snack during the car ride, but the rest of us were starving. Craving eggs as usual, I ordered an eggs benedict that made my life. The eggs were WARM (!!) and oozy (at MaP, if the hard-boiled eggs aren't completely solid the kids say that they're undercooked) and perfect. Also, since this was an international airport, the restaurant accepted multiple forms of currency, and we ended up paying in a ridiculous combination of pula, rand, USD, and pounds. While I felt guilty about it at first, our waitress had a fancy calculator that allowed her to count all of these without too much of a hassle. (I also realized it was my half birthday! 20-and-a-half, woohoo!)
- 6:40am- Take-off! Some of us read and others napped while waiting to board, and then all of us pretty much closed our eyes and listened to music on the plane to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. One scary moment at the Windhoek airport occurred when everyone was withdrawing Namibian dollars from ATMs, and my bank card REFUSED to work! I was secretly freaking out, but an airport employee directed me to another ATM that thankfully accepted my Bank of America card.
- 10:10am- Everyone gaped out their windows during our flight from Windhoek to Warvis Bay, as our 30-person plane flew over nothing but sand. While waiting in the Windhoek airport, Jack and I realized with some alarm that we knew nothing about Namibia, and frantically skimmed through a few touristy books for more information. The most surprising tidbit—amidst many about Namibia as a colonized territory—was that its population density is ~2 people per square kilometer, the second-lowest of any country (behind Mongolia). And as we passed over the emptiness of the Namib desert, it was so eerily clear how few people inhabited the country.
- 12pm- We touched down by the one-room airport at Walvis Bay, bought cups of coffee from the adorable little cafe-restaurant that occupied the majority of the airport, were driven by our taxi company to Swakopmund (about 45min away), and got our first look at the Airbnb. Even the drive from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund took my breath away: endless sand on the right side of the road, and crashing waves on the left. There was no way to tell when the sand of the beach ended and the sand of the desert began. So I 100% fell in love even before laying eyes on our RIDICULOUS Airbnb: It. Was. SO. PERFECT!!!!!!!! First of all, right on the beach. Every bedroom in the house, as well as the living and dining rooms, had perfect views of the raging surf. We had a blast for at least twenty minutes just getting our feet wet and running from the waves, which I think was my favorite memory of the day, since that's what I envision when I picture summer, and so far this summer has been winter spent in a landlocked country. Anyways, in the house, there were two full bathrooms, two (?) spotless kitchens, a washing machine and dryer (both of which I was SO happy to see, though none of us actually used either), and the most complicated security-arming system ever. The first thing the woman told us was that people WILL break into the house if we don't lock all doors and windows and activate all the motion sensors and whatnot, so we were super careful about completely shutting the house down whenever we left. And we were located literally at the most convenient place in all of Swakopmund: within eyesight of The Tug and The Jetty, two main tourist restaurants in town right on the beach, and a ten-minute walk from a Pick 'n Pay, ATM, etc. It was such a great feeling arriving at a BEAUTIFUL house after more than 12 hours of traveling to the country next door.
- 1pm-5pm- Adventure part 1! I had booked us a three hour combo of quad biking and sandboarding in the desert dunes, and the company sent a big van right to The Tug's parking lot to pick us up. And thus started one of my best memories of this entire summer so far. Do I know how to drive? Kind of. Do I like driving? No way. Did anyone ask me these questions when they handed me a helmet and told me to start test driving my ATV? Nope. So off I went, pressing the accelerator down all the way for the majority of the drive, and terrified of needing to turn. It was SO much fun. We were completely surrounded by sand dunes, and raced each other up and down even though our guide had instructed us to stay in a line and follow his tracks. I loved feeling the wind pass over my helmet (lol) and speeding over the desert with only sand and sky in sight. We had a number of us get stuck a number of times in the sand, and one scarier accident when two people flipped off their quad bike while going down a steep hill. Everyone was really good about watching out for each other though, especially by taking turns flanking someone who was nervous about going too fast. After two hours of quad biking, our guide broke out some thin boards from behind his ATV and began greasing them in the sand. I had been most excited for sandboarding, since the idea of driving initially freaked me out; but while flying down the dunes on my stomach was a blast, I hadn't anticipated that for every time we slid down the dunes, we would have to climb back up. This was the workout part of our day: competing to see who could slide the farthest down an extra high dune, and then struggling to scale the soft, sliding sand with full, heavy sneakers.
- 5:30pm- We got dropped off by the quad biking/sandboarding place back at The Tug parking lot and decided to go straight to dinner, instead of going through the effort of showering and changing first. We made it through the restaurant's delicious bread and fried calamari appetizers when all of a sudden, exhaustion hit all of us at once. We ate pretty quickly and quietly and then headed back to the house to veg. After rock-paper-scissor-ing for a showering order, we cleaned up and settled in. None of us were drinking the tap water plain, so I used a hot water heater to boil a batch of tea, and enjoyed curling up on a couch with a blanket from my bed, a steaming mug, and "The Namesake" while some of the others watched a EuroCup rerun. By 10:30pm, Jocelyn and I were in our rooms for the night for our first time sleeping in about 24 hours!
- 6:15am- Wake up! We had a sea kayaking tour in Walvis Bay scheduled for 7:45am, and we were being picked up by two taxis at 6:45am in order to get there. Naturally, we arrived at 7:45am having had no breakfast; and the guys at the tour place let us quickly run next door to a cute nautical-themed cafe and grab coffee and sandwiches to go. Next, they drove us through salt holdings and along the beach, pointing out jackals, flamingoes, and surfers as we went. And when we found a nice spot with hundreds of sunning seals, we all hopped out, climbed into double kayaks, and paddled out to join the babies playing in the waves. They were so cute! While they didn't ever come up to kiss our hands (as the guide said could happen), they seemed to enjoy biting our paddles; and one jumped up out of the water and nibbled Jazil's arm. Jazil and I were very proud of being solid kayakers; and our speed especially came in handy when that one aggressive seal started following us and we were forced to retreat.
- 1pm- Jack had heard about a huuge sand dune called Dune 7, which is supposedly the tallest dune in southern Africa. Naturally he and Harsh decided that they wanted to climb it; but much to our confusion, whenever we asked a local how long it took to climb, they'd respond, "Five minutes." What?? Even scaling the dune after sandboarding down it yesterday took us at least ten, and a LOT of effort. How could it be possible to climb the tallest dune in southern Africa in five minutes? WELL, it turns out that there are TWO sand dunes that just so happen to be called Dune 7, and the one near us—between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay—was the shorter of the two. So we had a blast racing up this dune, which apparently a lot of people climb for fun, since there were a number of people climbing alongside us, on our hands and knees, and then walking along the ridge to the tallest peak. Sprinting down, too, was the best feeling ever! Super liberating. I started off running at a good speed but not as fast as I could; and the decline pushed me to the point right when running could almost become falling. Here was the view from the top, looking down on our taxis:
- 2:30pm- Jazil, Siqi, Jocelyn, Fred, and I piled into one cab and headed back to Swakopmund. Harsh and Jack had realized that there was a taller dune behind the one we scaled and decided to stay behind and climb it. This was the start of a crazy afternoon for three separate groups! Back at the house, Siqi, Jocelyn, Fred, and I showered and then headed into town to get a look around, withdraw more money from an ATM, and grab snacks from Pick 'n Pay (many stories here but won't get into it). Jazil, on the other hand, headed for a little office by The Tug where he scheduled a SKYDIVING trip and proceeded to jump out of a plane. Namibia is apparently the 3rd most beautiful place to skydive (behind Mount Everest and New Zealand) for its views of desert, savanna in the distance, and ocean; so he can now he's done it. And Harsh and Jack, of course, were having philosophical conversations while wandering through the desert. Everything sounds fine on the surface but the fact that none of us had cell phones that worked in Namibia and there was only one house key made things significantly more stressful!
- 5pm- Dinner at The Jetty. We made a reservation on Friday evening, when we initially tried to eat at The Jetty but were turned away. Siqi, Jocelyn, Fred, and I SPRINTED there after our grocery shopping shenanigans and were relieved to see that Jazil, who was already there, had survived terminal velocity. Harsh and Jack, however, were nowhere to be found. As time passed, from 5pm to 5:30pm to 6pm, we became increasingly worried but tried not to talk or think about it too much. Possibilities running through my head for what had happened to them included: 1) their taxi driver left, meaning they were stranded in the desert, 2) they got in a fake cab and were kidnapped, 3) someone fell down a dune and was in a hospital, 4) they actually went to climb the real Dune 7, etc. So naturally it was the BEST feeling of the day when—after Jazil ran back to the house to see if they were waiting there—Harsh and Jack walked into the restaurant, sweaty and covered in sand but smiling ear-to-ear and saying something about the Zimbabwean border (they were kidding but I bought it). I really appreciated all of us being back together, and also that we were now able to order and eat! We all splurged and got three-course meals (Jazil got four, including the restaurant's onyx—a type of antelope—special) that were delicious. It was a great end to a super busy two days, and a huge step up from caf food!
Literally 24 hours of travel. I won't get too much into this, but we spent the morning cleaning the Airbnb after a late night of music and talking and snacks, and arrived at the airport at 12pm only for them to tell us that our flight left two hours ago. It turns out that the flight had been pushed forward, but none of us had been notified. Thankfully, Air Namibia—fleet size: 10—is extremely accommodating and warm and officially my favorite airline ever, and they told us to hang out in the cute little cafe that IS their entire airport and that they'd get us a direct flight to Joburg (as opposed to flying Walvis Bay -> Windhoek -> Joburg, as was our original itinerary). So that's what we did. We were all exhausted, so after drinking some coffee and eating a sandwich I rested my head on a picnic bench with my back to the sun and closed my eyes for a while. A few hours into our five hour wait for the 4:50pm Joburg flight, we started getting restless, so we walked into the desert and ate Doritos in the sand.
Eventually, we made it to Joburg. As kind as Air Namibia was, this delay was stressful for two reasons: 1) Jack hadn't been able to buy tickets on our flight, so he left Walvis Bay earlier this morning and was supposed to meet us for our WIndhoek flight, 2) Gifa, our taxi driver, was meeting us at Joburg at 5pm, and 3) the South African border closes at midnight. I assumed Jack would know to board the flight and meet Gifa at Joburg, but I was worried that Gifa might not see us and leave us stranded in Joburg, or that he'd pick up Jack and leave. Ultimately, we ended up meeting both Jack and Gifa at the Joburg airport at around 8pm, which meant that we would not be able to make the South African border (a solid five hour drive) by midnight. So we sat down at a restaurant called Steers and I ate a bacon avocado cheeseburger with onion rings and sweet potato fries and a Sprite (we were starving, since we pretty much skipped breakfast and lunch, besides sandwiches from the Walvis Bay airport cafe and plane food).
Gifa had struck a deal with the airport police officers that allowed him to park in a certain area for three hours, but around 11pm we had to get going. So once again, we all piled into the car and arrived at the border just as it opened at 6am. We were going slow, partly because there was no rush, but mostly because Gifa's taxi was kind of messed up and we had to stop every twenty minutes to pour fluid into something under the hood. One time, when he was refilling whatever kept emptying out, all of us got out of the car to admire the stars. We could see the Milky Way and everything—it was incredible. And there was another shooting star! I missed this one, which I'm bummed about, but basically everyone else saw it and was really excited about it. Boooo.
Not gonna lie, the ride back was a bit (read: EXTREMELY) terrifying, as Gifa had driven six hours to Joburg and was now driving eight hours back and he was sleepy. His head would bob down and we did some drifting across lanes, but the highway was empty so it was kind of fine?? I closed my eyes because it was freaking me out, BUT we made it back in one piece at around 7pm Monday morning! All of us were COMPLETELY wiped, and thankfully it was a slow morning for me so I was able to nap and recover. It was so nice reuniting with Heba, too, and filling her in on all of our adventures.
What a trip! All in all, one of the most exciting vacations and weekends I've ever had. I have so many awesome memories, and already looking forward to the next two weekends at the Delta and Vic Falls!