Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Aus and Sossusvlei: Horses, Horses, Horses!

Since leaving Ai-Ais, we’ve seen herds of wild desert horses in their natural habitat and galloped through the desert on not-so-wild horses.  As you’re probably aware, we really like horses, so have thoroughly enjoyed the past few days.

Aus: Wild Desert Horses

After the Fish River Canyon, our next major destination was Sossusvlei, famous for its large red sand dunes.  However, the drive between these two locations would be far too long for one day, necessitating a stopover.  Even though Aus was not the most direct stopping point between the locales, it was the only one boasting a large population of wild desert horses – clearly the place to spend the night.

If you're wondering what wild horses are doing in the middle of an inhospitable desert, you're not the only one.  There is no definitive consensus regarding the origins of these horses.  The herd is likely comprised of animals lost by the German army during WWI, others lost in a shipwreck, and yet more horses escaped from a local farm after the baron owner left to fight in WWI and never returned after the Battle of the Somme.  Over time, they have become adapted to the desert; however, a man-made watering hole located near our accommodation at Aus ensures their survival during times of severe drought.  Currently, the number of individuals fluctuates between 80 and 180 horses.  Over a picnic lunch, we spent at least an hour watching the horses (and a few lone oryx) come and go.  Some arrived in larger herds and others straggled in on their own (likely bachelor stallions).  Although they act much like domestic horses out in a paddock, they have unusual habits more akin to those of wild animals.  They appear more territorial and slightly more aggressive, among other differences.  They are also, not surprisingly, somewhat skinnier than regular horses.  

Sossusvlei: Tame Desert Horses

Two nights at the Desert Homestead and Horse Trails was next on the agenda.  As the name implies, this lodge in the desert near Sossusvlei includes stables and a variety of riding trails.  We decided to dedicate Tuesday to riding, spending the morning on a champagne breakfast ride and the late afternoon on a sundowner ride. 

Like pony trekking in Lesotho, riding in Namibia does not have many rules, at least if the guides decide that you’re an experienced rider.  However, the equine experience here is certainly not as rustic as pony trekking in Lesotho -- these rides bore a closer resemblance to a scene from Out of Africa. (Side note: Apparently there was a coup in Lesotho after we left!)

After a quick coffee, we mounted our horses as the sun was rising (Gio on Sgt. Pepper and Steph on Daisy).  Lucky for us, we were the only ones who thought it was worth it to get up early to ride.  Once again, our guide decided we were experienced based on our attire and we began to canter across the desert plains shortly after leaving the paddock.  Spotting oryx and impala, who were unfazed by our presence, we were soon galloping across the plains with the mountains and dunes an ever present and never ending background.  After over an hour exploring the vast property, it was time for breakfast – rather than bringing some bread and jam brought in the saddlebags, a full breakfast had been set up for us, including champagne.  Better than Sunday brunch in NYC!

Only Sgt. Pepper was unimpressed.

On our way back to to the lodge, we took a detour to see a few giraffe, incongruous in the desert landscape (there is apparently just one type of tree they browse on).  Steph also "chose" to dismount when Daisy tripped going up a dry riverbank and would have purchased a beer for Giorgio (customary when choosing to dismount mid-ride/falling off), but he has all the Namibian dollars.

Following our morning gallop, we gave our already sore muscles a break before the afternoon ride.  The Desert Homestead is an oasis in the middle of the desert, with a pool and lounge chairs set up to take advantage of the incomparable views.  It’s almost like going to the beach!  Soon enough, it was time to mount up again.  The manager had promised that he would take us on a separate ride from the other guests -- the long way to the sundowner location at a gallop instead of the short way at a walk.  He was perplexed when a Swiss couple, insisting they were also experienced riders, inserted themselves into our small group (apparently, a lot of people lie about their riding experience).  Soon enough, the five of us trotted out of the paddock and were en route to sundowners, with a few stops for photos and nature explanations, as well as a pause at a thorny bush for Steph to obtain a “crop.”  At one point, we rode up a mountain for a better view of the sun setting across the dunes in the distance.

As the horses stumbled on the loose rocks and occasionally refused to proceed, we wished we still had our sure-footed Basotho ponies who love ascending and descending mountains.  The final gallop/race to the sundowner location was exhilarating, so much so that Steph and her horse proceeded past the designated stopping point and had to double back.  (After obtaining the thorny crop earlier, the two of them had come to an understanding about the appropriate speed for the ride.)  Gin and tonics (we are about to reenter a malaria zone after all) were a welcome break after the fast-paced ride.  As the sun disappeared behind the dunes, our group headed back to the lodge (the short way this time) in the lingering twilight.

As we rounded the edge of the mountain, the twinkling lights of the lodge and surrounding bungalows welcomed us all back for a candlelit dinner on the terrace.   

Ai-Ais to Aus to Sossusvlei: Desert Road Trip

In addition to equine adventures, our road trip adventures driving north on the Namibian gravel “highways” continue.  For two days in a row, we woke up with long drives ahead of us, each day spreading out our large Namibian road map to double-check the 4 - 5 hour route, particularly the presence of gas stations.

On the way to Aus, Giorgio expertly navigated a "two-lane highway" bordered by the Orange River on one side and mountains on the other.  (Fun fact: Not only is the Orange River the border between South Africa and Namibia, it also starts in Lesotho and was the site of one our picnics while pony trekking.)  The road was so closely hemmed in by water and mountains that in most places, it was only wide enough for one car, with occasional sharp blind turns between mountains.  Until we reached a mining town with a gas station, we saw more people carrying firewood than other cars.  After the gas station, the road became tarred (although this did not increase the number of other vehicles sighted other than mining trucks) and we sped through the desert, with the occasional tumbleweed crossing our path.

The Aus to Sossusvlei road was yet more demanding, or at least longer.  When we first examined the map, we didn't see a gas station en route.  Although the Nissan could have made the 400 km drive without refueling, it's always better to be on the safe side on Namibian roads.  However, upon a second review of the map, we spotted the small town of Betta along with the gray gas station symbol.  Both guidebooks mentioned this town, and its gas station serving apple cake.  We passed through another "town" of similar size en route to Betta, but didn't see any evidence of habitation.  Would the promised gas station be there?  When we actually pulled into Betta, it turned out that the gas station was the sole purpose of the town, whose inhabitants were limited to the gas station attendants, the horses that galloped across the road in front of our car, and various cows.  We also weren't disappointed by the promised apple cake.

Leaving Aus, we had entered an area of vast plains with cattle grazing on large farms.  As we approached Sossusvlei, the scenery gradually became a desert again.  Extending into the distance without any turns, the road was bordered by mountains and sand in more colors than we thought possible.  Occasionally, a weathered tree would protrude from this landscape, the sole vegetation other than a few scraggly bushes.  Despite this lack of vegetation, oryx were slowly making their way across the terrain and a herd of zebra had found a home.  

We’re staying in Sossusvlei for another two days, taking a break from ponies to see the red dunes.  Stay tuned for updates after we climb the dunes!


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