In this photo essay, Lee Litumbe (@spiritedpursuit) invites you to journey to Namibia with her to marvel at the diverse, luscious landscapes, learn about and build relationships with local Namibians, and enjoy the freedom and excitement that travel brings.
Tell us about your travels to Namibia. What drew you there?
While on a business trip a few years ago, my Mom had the opportunity to visit Namibia and the country’s surreal landscapes left her awestruck. I listened intently, mesmerized as she shared her experience driving through the Skeleton Coast, detailing what it felt like to witness the staggering sand dunes of the Namib Desert juxtaposed against the piercing blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a description that struck a major chord within me. It wouldn’t be until I secured a killer deal on airfare late last year that my opportunity to visit would finally come. Elated, I spent several hours combing through every blog, forum, and article I could find, hoping to absorb as much information on the country as I could.
Thanks to my research I found that, like all African countries, Namibia is extremely diverse, boasting a rich cultural history and a plethora of contrasting landscapes made up of deeply colored deserts and sand dunes, vast plains, massive salt pans, boulder-like hills, and pristine beaches. Not to mention its friendly people, astounding night skies, and expansive wildlife! But despite my excitement, I had major concerns about the trip due to the distance between my home in Atlanta, GA and Namibia. Getting to there would prove to be an adventure in and of itself. Atlanta to NYC: 2 hours. NYC to Johannesburg: 16 hours and 30 minutes. Johannesburg to Windhoek: 2 hours. Bringing my total flight time to a whopping 20 hours and 30 minutes. And that’s just one way. But I was determined. I decided I was up for the challenge and would simply jam-pack all that I could into the ten days I would be there, just to be able to witness for myself those remarkable landscapes my Mom spent years telling me about.
You’ve been fortunate to travel a lot – just in the last year, we’ve followed your journeys through Costa Rica, Alberta, California, Cameroon, and Mexico. What made travel in Namibia different than travel in some of the other places you’ve ventured to?
Within the last year, I made a commitment to myself to focus only on doing things that bring me joy and to invest in more experiences; a decision that has completely transformed my life and led me to visit quite a few remarkable places. That said, traveling to Namibia was an experience unlike any of my others to date, due mainly to my decision to travel overland. In an effort to cover as much ground as possible, I opted for a self-drive as opposed to a guided tour, setting my sights to explore Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and maybe, just maybe, Kolmanskop. It was a drive filled with unique photographic opportunities. The lonely winding desert roads we drove along were the charm that made the long distances between each destination masterful, especially at sunrise when the sky was painted in soft pinkish blues and delicate bits of fog. What a delight it was to have a front row seat to watch as all sorts of wildlife casually went about their daily rituals. Though perhaps the most charming part of the ride was watching herds of oryx cross the gravel road ahead of us as we patiently gave them way. A moment I will not soon forget.
Admiring all the springbok grazing lazily and ostrich running rampant in the distance were also major highlights I felt privileged to see. To see the Namib’s shifting sands, mountains and gravel plains extend the entire length of the horizon, right from the comfort of our car, was amazing. As I saw and experienced one iconic landscape after the other, it was difficult not to feel like I was living within one of the many magazines and coffee table books I’d read beforehand.
What expectations did you have or what assumptions had you made prior to traveling to Namibia and how were those met or subverted?
The only expectations I had were those surrounding my hope that the landscapes would live up to the hype – and of course, the reality surpassed all that I’d anticipated and imagined. Beyond that, it was important to me to find a way to expose and connect myself to the people and cultures in an authentic and genuine way. In my research, I learned about the Himba and Herero people, and hoped to gain more insight into their lifestyles. My vessel for that was found through Thomas Mpande, a gentleman I originally hired as my driver but who later became my friend, guide, and most valued resource. Through his guidance, I was able to delve deeper into their culture and learn firsthand about the deep and controversial history of the country’s people in Katutura, a township located in the heart of Windhoek City, where I would find what I considered the pulse and soul of Namibia.
Why were you so struck by Katutura and the history of its people, and what made it the pulse and soul of Namibia?
Katutura, whose name translates to “a place where people don’t want to live” in the local Otjiherero language, was originally created during the apartheid regime when roughly 7,000 black Namibians were forced to give up land they owned and move to the isolated settlement. Though no longer oppressed, the township is still home to two thirds of the city’s population, with most individuals living in overpopulated metal sheds.
Driving down Eveline Street (also known as “the street that never sleeps”), I found colorful shops, lively bars, and hair salons filled with patrons. In Single Quarters was a thriving meat market where most locals go to eat Kapana, grilled beef served with a chili pepper sauce, indulge in Mopane, a dried protein rich caterpillars known as a local delicacy, and just socialize and mingle with one another. Meeting Herero women, dressed in their traditional brightly colored voluminous Victorian style dresses and uniquely shaped hats was not something I would have been able to do had I decided not to visit Katutura. The most striking part of the experience was simply trading stories with new people and exchanging positive energy. Especially in an area that most people dismissed and I had been vehemently warned against visiting.
It sounds like your time in Katatura was positive and you’d encourage other travelers to visit there, too. What are some other highlights from your time in Namibia?
The astounding beauty that exists within this region is what Namibia is most famous for. I would strongly suggest climbing any one of the staggeringly tall dunes within Namib-Naukluft Park. You can choose between one of the world’s tallest dunes, Big Daddy, which boasts a height of about 325 meters or the more popular and widely photographed Dune 45, which stands just over 80 meters high.
Another iconic attraction within the region is the clay pan Deadvlei, which translates to English directly as “dead marsh” (vlei being Afrikaans for marsh). Nestled directly below Big Daddy, the surreal landscape is characterized by its pitch-black camel thorn trees that have been dead for over 900 years contrasted against a cracked bleached-white floor. The alien landscape is truly a photographer’s paradise, with the surrounding red rusted sand dunes serving as the most striking backdrop to the now barren forest.
Swakopmund/Skeleton Coast/Walvis Bay
It was life-changing to witness the rare sight of a sea of desert dunes colliding against powerful waves of the ocean within one single landscape. There are also a host of activities available around the area, including sky-diving, quad-biking, and camel riding. You can also decide to simply take in the city life and lively beaches in Swakopmund City, or admire the large flocks of flamingoes as they roam the beaches in Walvis Bay.
Etosha National Park
Due to its distance and my time constraints, I was unable to visit this national park and game reserve for myself; however, I would highly recommend it as a must-see destination. A wildlife utopia, this park is home to hundreds of varying species of mammals, including the black-faced impala as well as several threatened and endangered species like black and white hippos.
Bonus: Kolmanskop – Another major attraction for photographers (and a destination I wish I had time to visit myself), this abandoned town, built by the Germans, hosts buildings that have been completely consumed by desert sand.
Why travel? What do you love about it and why is it a priority in your life?
In my day-to-day life, I rarely wake up with the intent of watching the sunrise, or rush to find the best spot in Atlanta to see the glorious strokes of reds and oranges created in the sky while the sun sets. I never take the time to explore new routes and neighborhoods, hoping to meet eccentric locals that can share interesting tidbits about their life with me. Sometimes, I don’t even make eye-contact with strangers that walk past me because I’m in too much of a rush and fear they will want to stop and chat. Travel frees me of these habits and reminds me to appreciate both the mundane and the exciting, while encouraging me to engage with those that surround me. The thrill of navigating new worlds, salivating over different culinary experiences, connecting with local and foreign people, and trying new things is what excites me most about travel.
Making travel a priority in my life has also helped me improve my trust for others and restored my faith in humanity. By allowing myself to constantly explore environments that leave me vulnerable, I have found that most people are innately well-meaning. Given the opportunity, a stranger is more likely to help you – sometimes going as far as to welcome you into their home for a meal if need be – as opposed to trying to steal from or take advantage of you. We really do live in a beautiful, welcoming world.
What are your travel goals for 2015?
One of my biggest goals for 2015 (and beyond!) is to challenge myself to explore more countries within Africa and the African Diaspora, and to educate myself on the history of the people and cultures that exist within them. I’m passionate about showing others that Africa is not defined by the poverty, conflict, disease, and socio-political issues that are constantly projected by the media, and I am consciously working towards documenting Africa in a way that will attract more investment and tourism, not just charity. A few countries in particular that I’m hoping to visit in the near future are Haiti, Senegal, Zambia, Mozambique, and Morocco.