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Frommer's guidebook editor Marc Nadeau joins host Kelly Regan to discuss camping and traveling through Namibia where, by day, Marc tours dunes and mountains and by night stargazes beneath the Milky Way. From the capital Windhoek to vast desert-like expanses, Marc shares what it's like to explore this little-visited but visually and naturally stunning destination.

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  • The Namib Desert: One of the oldest deserts in the world. The rust in the sand gives the dunes a brilliant quality!
  • Wildlife: Oryx, springbok, ostriches, black-backed jackals, desert elephants and giraffes.
  • Stargazing: With hardly any lights on the horizon and unobstructed views of the sky, it is a popular nighttime activity all across the country.
  • The Skeleton Coast: Shipwrecks have been piling up on the coastline for hundreds of years. Their remains offer great views from the sky!
  • Etosha National Park: With lush vegetation and a variety of wildlife, it's the closest to a typical African safari you'll find in Namibia.
  • Ostrich: A unique delicacy that actually doesn't taste like chicken!
  • Camp Accommodations: Surprisingly luxurious with amenities, showers and a comfortable bed to sleep in.
  • Research Your Options: Flying safaris cover everything and have great value; safaris by Jeep or van take a little bit longer, but they give you a much more intimate look at the country as you drive through it.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of travel destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi and welcome to the Frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guide. I'll be your host. My guest today is Marc Nadeau, an editor here at Frommer's who is one of the more adventurous travelers on our staff. You might remember he has been with us before to talk about riding elephants in Thailand. He has toured Angkor Wat and donned a costume for Carnival in Curacao. But today, he is here to talk about his recent trip to Namibia and what makes it a compelling, if somewhat unorthodox or surprising, travel destination. So, Marc, welcome back, it's always great to talk to you.
Marc Nadeau: Always good to talk to you too.
Kelly: Well, first you know, give us an overview of where you went in Namibia. You stayed in three different camps across the country, correct?
Marc: That's right. I stayed in the south, I started out in a desert camp and then I gradually moved north to where the scenery is a little bit more lush to a camp that had desert elephants and then to the north to where it was really a whole lot more lush where we saw tons and tons of animals. But the whole, kind of, picture, was just an adventure where we were going to places where there were just no people around. Just an empty country. It was quite beautiful.
Kelly: That's why I thought this would be a good conversation to have with you because many travelers may not be familiar with Namibia. It's a relatively large country. It's just on the Atlantic coast north of South Africa and statistics show that it's also one of the top three least densely populated countries on the planet. I think maybe only Mongolia might be less densely populated, I'm not sure.

You said when we were talking that that's actually part of the appeal. You said that you felt like you were going through an empty country. Can you describe that a little bit, that feeling as you were traveling around?
Marc: It's really phenomenal. You land in the capital of Windhoek and there is literally nothing around. I don't know what world capital you could find where there is nothing but field ground. The airport is only about 30 minutes outside of downtown.
Kelly: [laughs]
Marc: It's just desolate. You find the capital and then you go out on a little puddle jumper plane. You just fly over vast expanses of emptiness. It's like this stony, deserty sort of terrain.

When you land at one of these camps you land on a dirt airstrip and there is just a safari jeep waiting for you. There is nothing there but your camp and you are there sort of one with nature.

And maybe there's 15 or 20 like-minded travelers at the camp with you but you really have this chance to hear nothing but the wind rustling through the grass.
Kelly: Yeah.
Marc: It's just like going back in time where's not even the airplane contrails above you. I mean, you're just out there.
Kelly: [laughs] You're just out there as you said, just one with nature. So the first camp you said was in south Namibia, in the Namib desert. Tell us what it's like there. What do you see? The landscapes are pretty distinctive with very deeply colored sand, right?
Marc: Right. The Namib desert is one of the oldest deserts in the world. Actually the iron oxide in the sand has actually rusted over the years. So you have these these incredibly deep orange sand dunes which if you are there at sunrise or sunset are just brilliant in the early morning light.
Kelly: Sure.
Marc: They're casting these really dramatic shadows on each other so it's visually just a really stunning kind of place. When you are out of the sand dunes you get a tree here and there but it's silhouetted against these kinds of stark rock mountains. It's sort of amazing that any wildlife can live there. You just feel so small because these dunes are huge and these mountains are just massive. You just feel like you're living on this little piece of Mars.
Kelly: [laughs] Right! Right! Right!

You said that's its amazing that any animals live there. What kind of animals did you see while you were there?
Marc: We saw a lot of oryx, a relative would be the ibex maybe, a big sort of antelope, some springbok. Some ostriches and some black-backed jackals. So for us, first timers to Africa, we were thrilled just to see some of these animals around. And it was amazing how close you could get. They weren't skittish at all because they aren't hunted there. So it was pretty amazing just seeing how these animals live in these places. For eight months out of the year they don't get any water and some years they don't have...
Kelly: Yeah.
Marc: They don't have any access to any at all.
Kelly: Right. So you told me earlier that the best part of this experience in Namibia was the incredible stargazing that you found in the evenings. That was your primary and preferred nighttime activity. So describe what that was like.
Marc: That was completely incredible Kelly! Every evening after dinner we would go out on the deck of the lodge and look up at the stars. You never really get this in America, even way out west, where there isn't much development, where you can look up and distinctly see the Milky Way. With a pair of simple binoculars that you use for seeing animals you can point them at the right area of the sky and see nebulae. It's pretty amazing stuff.
Kelly: Oh!
Marc: Really amazing stuff. That's what we would do all night. Sit there and count falling stars and you could see weather satellites jetting across the sky. It was really amazing. One night we were lucky enough that the manager of the camp we were staying at knew a lot about astronomy and everyone was really interested in it. So we turned off all the lights in the whole camp and he pointed out everything. And it was incredible because there were no other lights on the horizon at all. It was just us and the stars.
Kelly: Right. You said it felt like you were at a higher elevation, it almost felt like they were close to you.
Marc: Right, right. The lodge itself was at, I think, 2000 meters? The Namib desert is incredibly dry so even though it was quote, unquote, the "rainy" season, the humidity level was maybe five - 15% so there was really nothing between you and the stars.
Kelly: Right, it's just completely unobstructed. That's incredible! And it's too bad because, well, not bad, but those are the kind of moments that stay with you for such a long time but it's not like you could take a picture and say "here's me stargazing in the pitch black and look, here are the stars I took the pictures of!"
Marc: Right.
Kelly: It's not a photographic kind of souvenir, it's just the sort of moment that lives with you.

So that was the first camp. From there you flew in a bush plane to the second camp. I really want you to talk about the scenic flight you took to the second camp because you flew over what's known as Namibia's Skeleton Coast. I'm curious for you to tell people how it got that name and what kind of stuff you saw while you were flying over.
Marc: We took off from nearby the camp where we were staying. We flew over the sand dunes, which was beautiful in itself and then we started getting toward the coast. Namibia has the Skeleton Coast of course because there's tons of ship wrecks there. Dozens and dozens along the coast because the currents there are very treacherous. So over the past 200 years, or 300 years, there's always been wrecks piling up on the beaches. The original wooden wrecks have mostly rotted away but you see these kind of skeletal remains of interiors of the ships.
Kelly: Yeah.
Marc: Like a big spine sticking out of the sand, so it's really amazing to see that from the air especially because the current is constantly bringing sand up from South Africa. So some of these older shipwrecks actually look like they are in the middle of the desert which is really this eerie quality.
Kelly Regan: Right, they're not on the coast. They look like they are quite far inland.
Marc: Yeah, yeah, exactly. You take these pictures of this thing that looks like it is in the middle of the desert.

[laughter]
Marc: It's definitely strange.
Kelly: Yeah, really. Someone's fever dream of somehow escaping the desert by sailing out.

[laughs]
Marc: Exactly.
Kelly: Yeah. So you go to the second camp which was Damaraland Camp. Right?
Marc: That's right.
Kelly: So when you got to the second camp which was Damaraland Camp, you were saying that the company that manages the camp, which is called Wilderness Safaris, actually has quite strong involvement in the community to the extent that you can talk about places so remote having communities, I guess.

[laughter]
Marc: Right.
Kelly: As you were saying how sparsely populated it is. But can you talk about their involvement in the local community and how that came out in your experience when you were there?
Marc: I mean, really, Wilderness is one of the great outdoor companies operating in Africa right now. They are really known as an industry leader. Just with their professionalism in the way they treat their employees and the way that they give back a lot to their local communities.

Really had a lot of conservation projects. The community we were in, there is a boarding school nearby, which they donate money to. And the camp was conceived actually as a partnership with the community. So they've taken local people who previously were goatherds and living a sustenance lifestyle and they've trained them to manage the camps.

They've trained them to be guides, cooks, whatever. So they have a great new source of income. They are able to get educations for themselves and their children. I guess one of my illuminating moments was when we were talking with a camp manager.
Kelly: Right.
Marc: She'd been a goatherd for years and she always wanted to better herself. Finally this opportunity found in her lap to work at this camp. She was able to buy beds for her whole family for the first time in her life. So it's just makes you realize, wow, one company...
Kelly: Just making a difference.
Marc: ...making a difference. And the happy thing about that is it's not just limited to her that's benefiting, it's her family, it's her community at large. Because this Damaraland Camp, they've actually just sealed a deal with them where Wilderness and them will co-manage the camp for a period of fifteen years and then..
Kelly: Right.
Marc: ...ownership converts to the community at-large.
Kelly: So then they take over full control and it becomes an integral part of this community's economy.
Marc: Right. Exactly. So it's really a fantastic way to go about developing some of these lesser developed areas and giving people a great opportunity. The ownership and pride these people had in the camp was just palatable. They were so happy to be doing what they were doing and really felt like this gave them a great opportunity which it really does.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marc: So I thought that was very encouraging at a time when not everybody is after that ethical part; that they are kind of spearheading that.
Kelly: Yeah and it's a big issue in places that are lesser developed when Western companies come in. Often times you hear people talking about these similar kinds of issues with all inclusive resorts and islands like Cuba where the people who are living on the island aren't really getting the benefit of the profits that are generated by these resorts. They're taking them back out of the country again.

So to hear a company working in partnership with the local community is very encouraging and it helps one of the things we always like to talk about which is it helps the sustainability of the tourism industry in Namibia. You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation the desert elephant. I think here is where you saw the desert elephants. Right?
Marc: That's right. Yeah.
Kelly: What's different; why is a desert elephant different from a regular elephant? I guess, for lack of a more scientific term?

[laughter]
Marc: Well, I guess they're actually not, technically a sub-species of the African elephant. But because they live in this harsh desert environment, they don't necessarily get quite as big as an African elephants do in other regions. They lack some important minerals for their tusks so their tusks tend to break and their not quite as big.
Kelly: Oh, right.
Marc: But, it's still pretty massive. It was incredible to see them.
Kelly: And you were able to get pretty close to them, right?
Marc: Yeah. I mean it really was astonishing to me. I guess the Damaraland Camp was in the most, quote, unquote, urban area we were in while we were on safari.

[laughter]
Marc: And the town consisted of maybe four or five buildings and a school.
Kelly: Right.
Marc: It was sort of a blink and you miss it sort of place. But we were driving along a paved road and all of a sudden we crest over this hill and there is a whole herd of elephants right next to the road grazing in the grass.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Marc: So it was incredible. So we slowed down the car and coasted up to where they were. The elephants were just doing their thing. We were so close that we could actually hear their ears swinging back and forth as they fanned themselves.

[laughter]
Marc: So it really was quite the experience.
Kelly: That's pretty close. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, that's great. You've also talked about, while you were at this camp the evening entertainment was really less about the stargazing as you had in your desert experience. But that the staff actually got together for these impromptu performances. Can you talk a little about that?
Marc: Yeah, we had dinner. Fantastic dinner at the camp and after dinner the whole staff did this surprise impromptu performance of singing and dancing. It was really just so cool because it was completely unexpected. They sang traditional songs for us and just a wonderful kind of welcoming. They just really wanted to share a little bit of their culture with us. It was really kind of just a special moment.
Kelly: That's great. That's great. OK. So that was kind of this slightly desert, slightly more lush experience. Then you kept going North and at the third place, you took another flight to Ongava Lodge which is next to Etosha National Park. Is that right?
Marc: Yeah, that's right.
Kelly: Yeah, and this was really the most lush of all the places you had been. Correct?
Marc: Yeah, that's right. It was more of the landscape you would associate with a typical African safari. So there were lots of trees around and grassland. Of course with that, there was so much more biodiversity than we'd encountered anywhere else.
Kelly: Right.
Marc: So we were able to see just such incredible things. We saw, instead of seeing one or two springbok and a few kudu walking around, we would see a herd of like 1, 000 springbok. It was just incredible. And tons of zebras and they're not skittish at all. So they were right next to our safari jeep.
Kelly: Wow.
Marc: I think one of the most magical moments was, our first evening there we went on an evening game drive. As we were getting to this clearing, all of a sudden, this herd of 10 giraffe and just started grazing on these trees out in this clearing. It was just the most incredible thing because no matter how many TV documentaries...

[laughter]
Marc: ...you see.
Kelly: How many Discovery channel shows.
Marc: Nothing prepares you for this completely unlikely creature. You know.
Kelly: With it's giant neck.
Marc: You know, it's three stories high. It was just an amazing magical moment.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. No, that's incredible. I remember my first encounter with a real live giraffe and just thinking, the one thing I always remember is that their tongues are black. And that was, for whatever reason, that was incredibly surprising to me, but their tongues are like beet-black, and when you're watching them eat, you're like, "Oh, wow, I didn't expect that, " so it's a little, kind of small thing to notice, but it's what I always remember.

You also saw lions while you were here at this particular lodge, is that right?
Marc: Yeah, that's right. They have a ton of lions in the area, actually, so yeah. We were able to see two male lions right on our evening game drive, and they were actually stalking a herd of wildebeests, so the wildebeests were all kind of protective of their young, and they formed a circle around the babies, and were grunting and just trying to fend them off, and the lions are just kind of stalking around them.

But the sun was setting, so we never got to see any final dramatic plays on what happened, but it was really interesting to see this kind of timeless African scene playing out before us.
Kelly: Right.
Marc: And of course we had gin and tonic sundowners as we were watching this, so it only made it better.

[laughter]
Kelly: Right, right. The Darwinian byplay of nature goes down much better with a gin and tonic.

[laughter]
Marc: Basically.
Kelly: Oh, that's funny.

Speaking of kill or be killed, you ate a lot of game while you were there, some very unusual kind of meats. Can you talk a little bit about which ones you particularly liked?
Marc: Yeah. I was really sold on ostrich. I thought it was just surprisingly delicious. It doesn't taste anything like a bird, so it's like one of the few things you could say it did not taste like chicken.

[laughter]
Marc: It was actually more like a nice veal or something like that, so that was really a favorite. And there's also an African venison sort of meat called kudu, and it was absolutely delicious as well.

Yeah, those meats are really great. At one of the lodges we had, well, this last one actually, we had a chance to eat mopani worms, which are allegedly a delicacy.
Kelly: Did you say "worms" at the end of that phrase?

[laughter]
Marc: Yeah, yeah.
Kelly: OK.
Marc: Yeah, but I..
Kelly: Did you eat it?
Marc: Yeah, I did not eat it, actually.

[laughter]
Kelly: OK.
Marc: I'm just like, there are some things, I'm not quite that daring. That was one of those moments.
Kelly: OK. Well, I still applaud you for trying the different game dishes. I think that's quite adventurous enough.
Marc: Oh, yeah.
Kelly: That's funny.

So, we're almost out of time, but I figure we should end with some kind of practical consideration. As I said at the start, you were visiting these three camps, I mean, this is a pretty swank experience, am I right? The accommodations were quite luxurious.
Marc: Oh, yeah. Completely. We were constantly amazed at how they managed to get such beautiful furniture and beds and all the kind of amenities you would expect out to these incredibly remote areas, but it just made the experience so much more comfortable that you always have a nice, comfortable bed to sleep in, you always have a shower. It makes you feel a little more human in the morning, as opposed to just sleeping in a tent.
Kelly: Yeah.
Marc: So it was really just phenomenal just to have that great experiences in nature, but at the end of the day to be able to go back to your lodge and have a very civilized dinner with wine, a nice dessert, so it was really wonderful to do that.
Kelly: Yeah.

How much would a trip like this cost for somebody who was coming from the U.S.? Can you talk a little about the prices and sort of what you get for the price as well?
Marc: Yeah, sure. I guess the trip we did was a flying safari, so it was three camps, each for two nights, and everything was included, so the cost for a trip like that would be just under $5000 per person. It may sound a little steep at first, but you have to remember, that includes all of your meals, all of your drinks while you're there, all of your guides, laundry daily. All of your needs are met.
Kelly: And all of the internal flights once you get there.
Marc: That's right, that's right.
Kelly: Right?
Marc: Yeah. I mean, it really works out to be, for the experience, quite a good deal. I guess one of the ways where you could get more value out of that is to do an overland sort of safari.
Kelly: Right.
Marc: And for one of these, you could do like a 10-day, nine-night trip, and you'd have, of course, the same sort of experiences in the lodges, maybe you'd stay at a few rustic kind of camps in-between. But you would pay, for something like that, just under $4000.
Kelly: Wow.
Marc: I guess $3, 700 per person.
Kelly: OK. And that would be traveling by Jeep?
Marc: By Jeep or by van. And the advantage to that would be, you would be able to see more of the country on the ground. You'd have a slower pace. So it'd give you more bang for your dollar if you have the time to spend there. So I mean, either way it's a great value.
Kelly: It's interesting, the longer trip would be less money, but I think you would also have to assume, most likely you're spending more time in transit, so as you said, it's a slightly slower pace.

So you're on the ground, kind of going from place to place as opposed to just hopping in a six-seater plane and taking off and getting to the next destination.

And then, these costs that you're quoting, they don't include airfare from the U.S.
Marc: No, that's right. From the U.S. it's about $1, 200, I guess, to fly to Johannesburg, and then you have to fly from Johannesburg to Windhoek, which would add a few hundred dollars more to that. So it's a bit of money getting there, but once you're there, you're in an incredibly rural place, and your experience is really going to make up for the travel time and hassles of getting there.
Kelly: Sure. Sure, no, completely.

Well, I think that's all the time we have for today, and we have a little bit of bonus content for you, for this podcast. Earlier in our conversation Marc had referenced, at the Damaraland Camp where he was staying, that he was treated to an impromptu a capella vocal performance from the staff.

Marc, you have a recording of this. Can you give people a lead-in to kind of describe what it is they're about to hear?
Marc: Right. This is just the staff of the camp singing one of their traditional songs for us over dinner, so it was a delightful little experience.
Kelly: OK. So here we go, enjoy this little sound clip of the folks of the Damaraland Camp in Namibia.

[musical interlude]
Kelly: Been talking with Marc Nadeau, who's an editor here at Frommers. He just got back from a trip to Namibia, and he's telling us all about his incredible experience and the animals he's seen, and the animals he ate while he was there.

So Marc, thank you so much for coming over and having a conversation with me. I really enjoyed our chat.
Marc: Yeah, thank you. Me too.
Kelly: Join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.

[music]
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