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It’s the only place on the planet where the dunes of the world’s oldest desert meet the crashing Atlantic surf; a German colonial legacy set against a lunar landscape.
It’s Namibia…and no journey through Southern Africa would be complete without a visit.
Namibia has been on my list ever since Matt Lauer stopped there a few years ago on “Where in the World is Matt Lauer.” I know, I know, I seem to get a lot of my travel inspiration from Matt and it doesn’t always pan out (see Seychelles), but watching him explore those incredible dunes in the Namib Desert was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I just had to see it for myself.
Since Africa is a major focus for this year’s 9th annual Round the World trip, I figure there is no better time to add Namibia to the itinerary.
But after a little research, I realize that I can’t get to the major airport, Windhoek, on Skyteam. So I would need a separate flight, outside my RTW ticket if I fly. And even if I do book a flight to Windhoek, it appears that the places I actually want to visit are hours away. And driving on your own is roundly discouraged.
I needed a better plan. Enter, MSC Cruise Lines.
The easiest way to see Walvis Bay Namibia
After more intense research, I discover that MSC has a 4-night itinerary out of Cape Town to Walvis Bay Namibia – just the part of the country I most want to see!
With a return visit to Cape Town already on the agenda, it seems the perfect, no-hassle opportunity for a more relaxed visit to Namibia by luxury cruise liner.
You may remember that I’ve sailed with MSC once before as part of my 30-day summer trip around Europe and the Balkans.
My friend Shannon and I had an excellent time onboard the MSC Splendida cruising around the Mediterranean for a week visiting ports of call like Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Mallorca and Tunisia. Though the other passengers on that voyage were primarily Italian (MSC is an Italian-owned company), we found that to be a refreshing departure from the older, family-oriented demographic on most Caribbean sailings.
So, I booked the Namibia cruise (and another sailing to Mozambique – more on that next week). And after spending a few glorious days in Cape Town I’m excited to board the MSC Sinfonia and start heading up the African coastline.
The World’s Most Beautiful Port
On the day of embarkation, I’m greeted at the port by MSC rep, David, who will be my point person for the week (for marketing & publishing purposes).
After a leisurely tour around the ship to see all the facilities (spa, theater, disco and restaurants) I head straight to my cabin to check out my new home for the next four nights.
I am pleasantly surprised by the size of my Balcony Suite cabin; it even has a walk-in closet! When you’re living out of a suitcase for 6 weeks, these are the kinds of things that excite you. With 4 nights in one place, it feels oddly luxurious to unpack a little and actually put things in drawers.
After settling in, I meet David back on the pool deck to watch Table Mountain disappear in the distance as we sailed away. Honestly, Cape Town has got to be the most beautiful cruise ship port in the world.
Our next stop is the theater to hear Cruise Director, Stephen Cloete, give his “Welcome Aboard” talk. The Cruise Director’s talk on the first day is always full of useful information and Stephen doesn’t disappoint.
But what I find the most interesting is the breakdown of nationalities onboard.
Just one lone American?
As it turns out, of 20 nationalities represented…I am the only American. Of the 1,961 passengers, 1,877 are South African, 29 are from the UK, 20 from Namibia and a handful of folks like me are from other nations.
Of course, I’m pretty used to being the only American in the room (or in the hotel, or on the island). So this doesn’t faze me one bit, in fact I find it kind of fun.
A challenge almost, the lone representative of my home country on a floating UN (albeit one heavily favoring South Africa).
A splendid day at sea
Our first full day is an entire scheduled day at sea.
I take full advantage of the chance to relax and do absolutely nothing. Days like this are one of my favorite things about cruising, you can do it all or nothing at all. I choose to rest up for my big day ahead tomorrow in Namibia.
A Day in the Dunes of Namibia
As Namibia’s lone commercial port, Walvis Bay is one of the country’s most vital cities for commerce.
It also has a unique appeal for visitors offering a variety of natural attractions. Including easily accessible dunes and one of the largest flocks of flamingos in all of Southern Africa.
For my one day ashore in Namibia I want to spend as much time exploring the dunes as possible. So after researching a few local tour operators, I ultimately elect to book through MSC’s excursion desk.
They have a good selection of options and I figure it’s the best way to get maximum time ashore. After all, the ship can’t leave you behind when you book your excursion through them.
The Living Desert Expedition
I booked the “Living Desert Expedition,” is a 5-hour desert exploration by 4×4 through the 20 mile-long dune belt between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.
The purpose of the trip is to learn about conservation issues and the geological structure of the desert. Plus, you get to meet some of the Topnaar people – a semi-nomadic desert tribe.
Of course, all of that quality educational content is carefully balanced with some adrenaline-filled dune-bashing in the 4x4s!
After clearing Namibian immigration on the ship, I disembark and easily find my group on the pier. I am shocked when I realized there are just 7 of us for the day. (How is it possible more people didn’t choose this excursion, I think to myself?)
But I’m thrilled that we just have an intimate group – two guides/drivers and two spacious vehicles for the day. It doesn’t seem like the typical cruise ship excursion at all, much more like an exclusive private tour.
Our guide, John, with Photo Ventures Namibia (ironically, one of the local tour companies I contacted in advance to inquire about an excursion) loads us into two vehicles. And in just a few minutes we are entering the dune belt.
A visit to the Topnaar tribe
One of our first stops is a visit to the dwelling of a local Topnaar tribesman. The Topnaar tribe originally settled along the mouth of the Kuiseb River and relied on herding goats for survival. But they adapted well to the dry Namib desert environment and today make a meager living off the Nara melons found in the river valley.
The tribesman has dozens of melon husks in a pile on the sand. Two tables off to the side hold seeds and fruit baking in the sun – both of which are sold to generate income. Once dried, the melon’s fruit provides 3 times the food energy value of the raw fruit.
While we speak to the tribesman, John heads off in search of a desert gecko to show us. And sure enough he finds one. The tiny little translucent creatures are so sensitive to sun and heat that they can die with just a few minutes of direct sun exposure.
As John holds it carefully shaded in his palm he explains that they only go out in search of food after dark.
A grisly discovery in the dunes
Not far from the Topnaar settlement, we come across our first site of human remains.
In 1933, a severe drought followed by a massive flood killed hundreds in the valley. And though the bodies were all buried, desert winds have shifted the dunes over the years regularly unearthing new human skeletons.
Though the actual “Skeleton Coast” refers to shipwrecks and is hours south of our current location, it seems we’ve found our own (far more eerie) skeleton coastline.
And finally, some dune bashing!
To shake off the gore of all the human bones, it’s time to let loose on the dunes for a bit.
John does not disappoint in this department and adeptly navigates us to the steepest and most scenic dunes our 4×4’s can handle. We charge up dune after dune and then practically float down the other side as the soft sand billows up in front of us.
Once we even go backward over the rim of a dune with no idea what’s on the other side (well, luckily John knew). Meanwhile, the 2nd 4×4 rounds the dune head first straight toward us. Lots of girly screams are heard all-round (and not just from the girls) as we summit and drift down each new bank of sand.
The Salt Works and Flamingo Lagoon
Next, we drive over to get a look at the massive Salt Works plant which provides over 90% of South Africa’s salt.
Vast pans concentrate salt from seawater by evaporation. It’s actually a bacteria used to expedite the evaporation process that makes them look like shallow pink lakes.
And speaking of pink…our last stop before returning to the ship is to see the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. Flamingos flock to pools around the Namib Desert coast, especially the Walvis Bay area. The greater wetlands area around Walvis Bay Lagoon supports over 40 species of bird. And with a population of over 150,000 it’s home to the greatest concentration of shore birds and seabirds in Southern Africa.
Back on board later that afternoon I spend some quality time removing sand from anything and everything. Then I join David for dinner to rehash my excellent day.
Back at Sea
The next day, as we sail our way back to Cape Town, I have one last day to enjoy the comforts of the ship.
I also have a $100 on-board credit (courtesy of booking through Expedia) that is burning a hole in my shipboard card. I decide to make use of it to experience the Aurea Spa so I schedule a Balinese massage. Not surprisingly, it’s a perfectly relaxing way to spend the morning.
That afternoon, I join David for lunch. I also have a few questions for Cruise Director, Stephen, so we track him down in his office.
South African cruising
I’m curious about the history of MSC and how it compares to other cruise lines. And also about the unique aspects of the South African market.
Stephen started with MSC in 1997 and traveled the world as an entertainer. He later returned to his home country of South Africa as Cruise Director on the Sinfonia. An Italian company sailing the South African market since 1995, MSC has the world’s newest fleet of ships. It’s also the largest privately-owned cruise line in the world.
Fun Fact: The Sinfonia was built in 2003 and Christened by Sophia Loren who serves as the Godmother to all of MSC’s ships.
Since MSC is the only cruise line both regularly sailing from South Africa and visiting Namibia (five times per season), they dominate the local cruise market.
But why don’t more people do the excursions?
I was surprised at how few people participated in excursions. When we docked in Walvis Bay it was approximately 200 of nearly 2,000 passengers, just 10%.
I’ve always considered cruises primarily as transportation. And for me the Sinfonia is a convenient, relaxing way to visit Namibia. Yet for many South African passengers it seems the ship itself is the destination.
Stephen explains that there are a few reasons for this. First, with Namibia literally in their back yard, many South Africans have already visited the country. So for them, the cruise ship amenities and the experience of a few days at sea is the real purpose of the trip.
Others do get off the ship but don’t do organized excursions. Preferring instead to tour around on their own. Or just do a little shopping before re-boarding the ship. (That’s generally me on other cruises.)
And still others, a little over 20%, elect to simply remain on board for the entire day.
Another pleasant surprise?
Another thing that surprised me on the Sinfonia is just how inexpensive everything is.
All prices on-board are in US dollars negating the need for any conversion math for me (thank you MSC, I hate math). And I almost don’t believe my eyes when I first peruse the wine list. It boasts a wide variety of excellent South African wines (and a few imports) ranging in price from $2.00 to $5.50 per glass.
A glass of wine on a cruise ship for $2.25!
Between that, the spa and a dune-filled day of adventure in Namibia, I wonder if the Sinfonia crew will have to kick me off when we dock in Cape Town tomorrow.
Wrapping up an amazing visit to Namibia
I can’t help but think what an incredible value this entire trip is. Not to mention, how many Americans (and Europeans, Canadians, etc.) make the long journey to visit South Africa and never realize they can take a super easy side trip to see a country as amazing and inaccessible as Namibia.
I can’t believe I’ve visited Cape Town twice before and never knew this was an option. And I’m supposed to be good at this kind of stuff! But hopefully my experience (and the fact that I’m writing about it) will help other people planning a trip to South Africa.
So, if you’re headed to Cape Town, be sure to venture over to Namibia or Mozambique while you’re in the neighborhood.
My advice? Don’t miss the boat.
Disclosure: While I did pay full retail price for my cruise, I also reached out to MSC prior to sailing and they were kind enough to provide assistance with a number of things. In addition to having David on hand to answer any questions during my sailing, the Living Desert Excursion and internet access were provided courtesy of MSC Cruise Lines.