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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 and I just had to see it for myself.
Since Africa was a major focus for this year’s RTW, I figured there was no better time to add Namibia to the itinerary. After a little research I realized that I couldn’t get to the major airport, Windhoek, on Skyteam so I would need a separate flight (outside my RTW ticket) if I flew. But even if I did book a flight to Windhoek, it appeared that the places I would actually want to visit were hours away and driving on your own was roundly discouraged. I needed a better plan.
Enter, MSC Cruise Lines.
After more intense research, I discovered that MSC had a 4-night itinerary out of Cape Town to Walvis Bay Namibia – just the part of the country I was most interested in seeing. With a return visit to Cape Town already on the agenda, it seemed 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 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 was 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 was greeted at the port by MSC rep, David, who would be my point person for the week. After a leisurely tour around the ship to see all the facilities (spa, theater, disco and restaurants) I went straight to my cabin to check out my new home for the next four nights.
I was pleasantly surprised by the size of my Balcony Suite cabin; it even had 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 felt oddly luxurious to unpack a little and actually put things in drawers.
After settling in, I met David back on the pool deck to watch Table Mountain disappear in the distance as we sailed out of what has got to be the most beautiful cruise ship port in the world. Our next stop was 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 didn’t disappoint. What I found the most interesting was the breakdown of nationalities onboard.
As it turned out, of 20 nationalities represented…I was the only American. Of the 1,961 passengers, 1,877 were South African, 29 from the UK, 20 from Namibia and a handful of folks like me 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 didn’t faze me one bit, in fact I found it kind of fun. A challenge almost, the lone representative of my home country on a floating UN (albeit one heavily favoring South Africa).
The next day we had an entire day at sea and I took 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 chose to rest up for my big day ahead 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 wanted to spend as much time exploring the dunes as possible. So after researching a few local tour operators, I ultimately elected to book through MSC’s excursion desk. They had a good selection of options and I figured it was the best way to get maximum time ashore since the ship never leaves you behind when you book your excursion through them.
I booked the “Living Desert Expedition” which was 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 was to learn about conservation issues, the geological structure of the desert and to meet some of the Topnaar people – a semi-nomadic desert tribe.
Of course, all of that quality educational content would be carefully balanced with some adrenaline-filled dune-bashing in the 4x4s!
After clearing Namibian immigration on the ship, I disembarked and easily found my group on the pier. I was shocked when I realized there would be just 7 of us for the day. (How is it possible more people didn’t choose this excursion, I thought?)
But I was excited that we just had a small group, two guides/drivers and two spacious vehicles for the day. It didn’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) loaded us into two vehicles and in just a few minutes we were entering the dune belt.
One of our first stops was to visit 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 had dozens of melon husks in a pile on the sand while two tables held seeds and fruit baking in the sun – both of which can be sold to generate income. Once dried, the melon’s fruit provides 3 times the food energy value of the raw fruit.
While we spoke to the tribesman, John went off in search of a desert gecko to show us and sure enough he found 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 held it carefully shaded in his palm he explained that they only go out in search of food after dark.
Not far from the Topnaar settlement, we came 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 was hours south of our current location, it seemed we’d found our own (far more eerie) skeleton coastline.
To shake off the gore of all the human bones, it was time to let loose on the dunes for a bit and John didn’t disappoint in his knowledge of the steepest and most scenic dunes or the 4×4’s ability to handle them. We charged up dune after dune and then practically floated down the other side as the soft sand billowed up in front of us.
Once we even went backward over the rim of a dune with no idea what was on the other side (well, luckily John knew) as the 2nd 4×4 rounded the dune head first straight toward us. Lots of girly screams were heard all-round (and not just from the girls) as we summited and drifted down each new bank of sand.
Next, we drove 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 and a bacteria used to expedite the evaporation process makes them look like shallow pink lakes.
And speaking of pink…our last stop before returning to the ship was 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 is the greatest concentration of shore birds and seabirds in Southern Africa.
Back on board later that afternoon I spent some quality time removing sand from anything and everything that had gone into the desert with me before joining David for dinner to rehash my excellent day.
Back at Sea
The next day, as we sailed our way back to Cape Town, I had one last day to enjoy the comforts of the ship. I also had a $100 on-board credit (courtesy of booking through Expedia) that was burning a hole in my shipboard card. I decided to make use of it to experience the Aurea Spa so I scheduled a Balinese massage which was a perfectly relaxing way to spend the morning.
That afternoon, I joined David for lunch and had a couple of questions for Cruise Director, Stephen, so we tracked him down for a few minutes in his office. I was curious about the history of MSC and how it compared 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 before later returning 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 and is the largest privately-owned cruise line in the world. 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 I was surprised at how few people participated in excursions when we docked in Walvis Bay (approximately 200 of nearly 2,000 passengers, just 10%).
I’ve always considered cruises primarily as transportation and for me the Sinfonia was a convenient, relaxing way to visit Namibia. Yet for many South African passengers it seemed the ship itself was the destination.
Stephen explained that there were a couple of reasons for this. First, with Namibia literally in their back yard, many South Africans have already visited the country. So for them, yes, the cruise ship amenities and the experience of a few days at sea was the purpose of the trip.
Others did get off the ship but didn’t do organized excursions preferring to tour around on their own or just do a little shopping before re-boarding the ship. And still others, a little over 20%, elected to simply remain on board for the entire day.
Another thing that surprised me on the Sinfonia was just how inexpensive everything was. All prices on-board were in US dollars negating the need for any conversion math for me (thank you MSC, I hate math) and I almost didn’t believe my eyes when I first looked at the wine list – 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 for $2.25!
Between that, the spa and a dune-filled day of adventure in Namibia, I wondered if the Sinfonia crew would have to kick me off when we docked in Cape Town the next day.
I kept thinking what an incredible value this entire trip was and how so many Americans (and Europeans, Canadians, etc.) make the long journey to visit South Africa never realizing they could take a side trip right from their doorstep in Cape Town and see a country as amazing and inaccessible as Namibia.
I couldn’t believe I’d visited Cape Town twice before and never known 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 open their eyes to the possibilities for other adventures in Southern Africa.
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.