Lost in Africa: Great Escape to NamibiaAdventure Travel, Bus, Cabins & Camping, Fitness & Workouts, Group Travel, Namibia, Passports & Visas, South Africa, Wildlife & Animals — By Jen B on December 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm
By Courtney Brooks
LG International Travel Correspondent
Expired visas are the best excuse for a road trip…
A few weeks after arriving in Cape Town I ran into a problem. South Africa only gives visitors 90-day visas, and mine was about to expire. Last year when I came here I got a volunteer visa for six months, and had to jump through about a million hoops in order to get it: a chest x-ray for tuberculosis, fingerprints at a police station, and a huge stack of forms to fill out. I had heard that it was easier just to come to South Africa on a 90-day visa and apply to extend my stay once I was already here. I had neglected to figure out what kind of visa I would need – I no longer qualified for a volunteer visa and technically wasn’t studying at a South African school so I couldn’t get a student visa either.
Luckily, here you can extend your “holiday visa” for an additional 90 days by going to home affairs. But I still had a bad feeling about the whole thing and was subconsciously putting off the trip to home affairs for as long as possible. Finally, with my visa expiring on Tuesday I went to home affairs the previous Thursday morning. Bad idea. My plane tickets to leave South Africa were actually for slightly more than six months after I arrived in the country, and they wouldn’t extend my visa for that long. Also, the loophole where you could go to another country in Africa and get stamped for an additional 90 days had apparently been closed. One of the people there advised that if I left the country for long enough to only have 90 days left when I came back in, I could get a 7 day stamp at the border and then apply to have it extended for 90 days. Otherwise, I would have to go back to Europe, which was definitely not in my budget. So I called two girlfriends who I thought might need their lives spiced up.
Me: I am getting kicked out of the country. How do you feel about going to Mozambique on Sunday?
Them: Sure. Our boss is out of the country anyway.
We met up that night for a drink (or five) to make plans. We would have to take a bus because the only plane tickets left were about $700 just to Johannesburg, where we would have to catch a bus to a neighboring country anyway. Also, Mozambique required a visa, which we didn’t have time to get, so Namibia it was. We thought about taking a guided trip, but they were a) really expensive, and b) not really our cup of tea. So we decided to do the trip on our own.
On Sunday we caught a 21 hour bus from Cape Town and arrived in Windhoek, Namibia, the following morning, with absolutely nothing organized from there. We spent the first two nights in a hostel meeting other travelers and getting advice on where to go. Windhoek was an odd city – it felt bustling even though only about 300,000 people live there. We made tentative plans, rented a car and bought some CDs for the long hours we were about to spend driving through the desert. I wouldn’t suggest staying in Windhoek for more than a couple of nights because besides a few museums and bars we didn’t find that it had too much to offer as compared to the rest of the country. But definitely check out Joe’s Bill Garden, a very cool restaurant with great game meat like ostrich and kudu, and a fun vibe.
After Windhoek we headed to Swakopmund, a little coastal town that felt like a German outpost. It had almost the vibe of a sweet little town in Cape Cod, but boasted both beaches and sand dunes in driving distance. We drank our first good coffee in months (unfortunately South Africans generally drink instant) and went sandboarding. You can either try sandboarding standing up, which is a lot like snowboarding but slower, or laying down on a little piece of greased plywood and hitting up to 70 kilometers an hour – terrifying, but fun.
We also bought camping basics while we there – a tent, three sleeping bags, and cooking equipment – because once we headed out into the really rural areas there were only B&B’s and game reserves. Buying camping equipment and staying at campsites was going to cost about the same as staying at a B&B, so we decided to be adventurous and camp out. Plus, this way we would be prepared to go camping in South Africa later if we wanted.
Next we drove to Sesriem, where we ran into our first problem. As I was driving on a dirt/sand road through the desert (which realistically we probably shouldn’t have been doing in a Toyota Yaris!) my friend Johanna looked out the back window and saw that the trunk of our car was open. We pulled over quickly to check that all our bags where still there, and then went to slam it. It wouldn’t shut. We spent the next fifteen minutes wishing we had brought duct tape, rope, or really anything more practical than the thermal blankets I had bought on a whim at the camping store. We also hadn’t seen another car for a couple of hours. As Johanna tried to loop our towrope around the trunk we saw another car coming from down the road, which quickly pulled over to help us. A bunch of South African men got out, and within ten minutes had tied our trunk shut, complete with a big red bow. They even duct taped the sides shut, all the while cracking jokes about finding three American girls stranded in the desert. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
We arrived in Sesriem, which is famous for its beautiful sand dunes, in the late afternoon and went for a long drive at sunset. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We camped that night, accidentally draining our car battery by plugging it into a light while we set up our tent. Two wonderful tour guides from next door not only agreed to jump our car for us, but helped us push it up a hill because their giant tour bus couldn’t fit in our campsite. As much as we liked to think we were on this big independent road trip of ours, if it hadn’t been for random acts of African kindness I would probably still be stuck somewhere in Namibia with the rental car.
We left early the next morning for our last stop: Etosha National Park, a nine-hour drive from Sesriem. We stopped in Windhoek on the way to trade in our beat-up car, which still had the trunk tied shut, and pick up a new Toyota Corolla. The first night we took a short drive around the park and saw elephants and zebras, and the whole next day we drove around visiting water holes where the animals congregated to beat the heat. The highlight was when an elephant walked up directly behind our car (seconds after I had been sitting out the window taking pictures) and paused beside our window to look at us. In my panicked state I vaguely remember yelling something about Jurassic Park.
Moral of the story: Always have your visa in order, and don’t wait until the last minute to apply for an extension…but traveling has taught me that everything works out for the best in the end.
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