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Friday,  July 19, 2024 6:17 PM 

On Location: “Life-changing”: 8 takeaways from touring Namibia with Exoticca

On Location: “Life-changing”: 8 takeaways from touring Namibia with Exoticca
PAX unpacks Namibia, Africa with travel advisors and Exoticca. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Namibia. The driest country in sub-Saharan Africa isn’t exactly well known for its tourism, but maybe that’s part of the appeal.  

Located on Africa's southwestern edge, Namibia – pronounced nuh-mi-bee-uh – is bursting with natural wonders, fascinating history and exciting wildlife, as PAX learned during an exclusive tour of the country from June 14-21 with Canadian and U.S. travel advisors and tour operator Exoticca.

Starting and ending in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, with visits to central regions and the Atlantic coast, the guided experience revolved around sky-high sand dunes, ancient skeleton trees and jaw-dropping landscapes.

PAX joined travel advisors in Namibia with Exoticca. (Pax Global Media)

Dressed in layers – the trip commenced at the start of Namibia’s winter – our group ventured into “the unknown,” which is how Mike Quinto, managing director for Canada at Exoticca, who joined the adventure, describes the off-the-beaten-path destination.

“People don’t really know what’s going on here,” Quinto said. “Some think they’re going to see wildlife, others think sand dunes, other think beaches. The one thing about Namibia is that you’re going to get all of that.”

What’s it like seeing Namibia with Exoticca? Here's our eight takeaways from the trip.

1. Go for the wildlife

Namibia doesn’t have all of Africa’s Big 5 (unless you're in the north, at Etosha National Park, which is home to four of the Big 5 animals – lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, missing only the Cape Buffalo), but it’s still home to a cast of exotic creatures.

READ MORE: On Location: “Unknown” Africa – PAX unpacks Namibia with Canadian agents & Exoticca

During safaris and drives, you may spot giraffes, kori bustards (Africa’s heaviest flying bird), cheetahs, antelope (like oryx and kudus), wildebeest, meerkats, bat-earned foxes, ostriches and mountain zebras.

Giraffes spotted at Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

In coastal areas, such as the lagoons of Walvis Bay, you may even encounter the biggest flock of flamingoes you’ve ever seen.

2. Stay for the landscapes (and the thrills)

But it’s Namibia’s landscapes that glow. With copper sand dunes, cracked desert floors, waterless riverbeds, rich-blue skies, fiery sunsets and sublime stargazing, the scenery is a sight to behold.

Some areas, like the jagged rock formations that form the Kuiseb River in western-central Namibia, have been said to resemble the surface of the moon.

Namib-Naukluft Park in Sossusvlei at sunrise. (Pax Global Media)

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that Namibia has been used as a filming location for epic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Cell (2000), 10,000 B.C. (2008) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

At Deadvlei, a white-clay pan in between two monster-sized dunes in the Sossusvlei valley, skeleton trees with haunting branches, more than 1,000 years-old in age, form a dry barren forest. 

In Namib-Naukluft Park, the towering dunes, in shades of sienna, resemble watercolour paintings at sunrise.

The dead trees at Deadvlei are more than 1,000 years old. (Pax Global Media)

Catching sand dunes at sunrise at Namib-Naukluft Park. (Pax Global Media)

This barren region, which doubles as a camp site, is a gateway to one of the oldest deserts in the world – the Namib, which is said to be between 55 and 80 million years old.

Eye-catching landscapes in Namibia. (Pax Global Media)

The park is protected, but there are dunes that visitors can climb – like Dune 45, which is 45 kilometres from the park’s entrance. 

This is where thrills in Namibia spring alive. At 170 metres high, Dune 45 is a somewhat challenging uphill hike. You’ll fill your shoes with sand, but the epic views at the top are worth it.

Visitors climb to the top of Dune 45. (Pax Global Media)

Exoticca's Mike Quinto (left), Tracie-Marie Landry (centre) and Karla Shaffer (right) reach the top of Dune 45. (Pax Global Media)

For a higher-intensity climb, there’s “Big Daddy Dune,” a grander dune, measuring 325 meters high. It can take over an hour to reach the top, we’re told.

Later, thrills (and sand dunes) struck again as we piled into 4x4s for an afternoon of dune bashing – driving at increasing and decreasing speeds over sky-high sand hills – at Sandwich Harbour, a protected stretch along the Atlantic coast.

Riding dunes in 4x4s at Sandwich Harbour. (Pax Global Media)

It takes an expert at the wheel (which we had) to navigate this wild ride. With slightly-deflated tires, our vehicles roar, slid, slip and skid over some of the world’s highest sand dunes. A roller coaster! In the desert! 

The Atlantic Ocean and sand dunes at Sandwich Harbour. (Pax Global Media)

There are theories behind Sandwich Harbour’s name. Some say it’s derived from an English whaler called the Sandwich. Others argue it could be a corruption of the German word "sandfische,' a type of shark.

I preferred our guide’s theory. That the name refers to a narrow passage on the beach that vehicles drive on to access the area. The route has gigantic sand dunes on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You’re literally “sandwiched” in between the two.

The adrenaline rush subsides, mid-ride, as our 4x4s reach the top of an ocean-facing sand dune, called the “Kodak dune” because it’s a good picture-taking spot.

A toast at Sandwich Harbour. (Pax Global Media)

Here, drivers hit the brakes, prop a table and unpack trays of local eats.

Sandwiches, at Sandwich Harbour? No – savoury chicken wings, saucy ribs and mincemeat-filled sausages. And boozy beverages, like local cider beer. The ultimate sand dune picnic.

3. Four-star hotels feel like five-star stays 

Exoticca’s hotel partners are divided into three categories – Charm, Superior and Luxury.

Charm, Quinto explained, are three-star hotels that are “well-vetted, clean, and safe.” 

“They may not have the glitz and glamour of some hotels, but they come at an amazing price point,” he said.

“Superior” hotels are four stars, centrally located, and come with more amenities. This was our category in Namibia. It’s for clients who have a little more coin to spend on a nice hotel.

For example, in Windhoek, we stayed at a classy Mövenpick, which had a hot breakfast buffet and, true to its Swiss roots, offered a “Chocolate Hour,” where premium-grade chocolates were served.

Chalet-style units at Camelthorn Kalahari Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

Further out, in remote central Namibia, where lodges sit hours away from civilization (in turn, compromising some Wi-Fi connectivity), our four-star accommodations felt like five-star escapes.

There was Camelthorn Kalahari Lodge on Intu Afrika Game Reserve, with its 12 spacious chalets, a quaint pool, an open-air restaurant and fire pit. It’s set among majestic camelthorn trees, sand dunes, and sandy plains, where giraffes, ostrich and oryx roam openly.

Oryx roam the grounds of Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

We saw these majestic creatures during a jeep safari of the area – a section of the Kalahari (a vast desert of red and orange sand). The ride later turned into a sunset cocktail party at the top of a crimson-coloured sand dune.

Spacious accommodations at Camelthorn Kalahari Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

A toast, to travel! For travel advisor Rachel Bertrand of Travel With Rachel, this gathering, which overlooked the beauty of the desert, was the icing on the cake that day.

“That’s when it hit me that I was in Africa!” she said.

A sundowner cocktail party on Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

Camelthorn bridges back-to-nature style with Indigenous tradition. 

At sunrise, we join a group of young men on a guided bush walk, where we learn about the hunting and survival methods, and celebrations, of the San peoples, an age-old hunter-gatherer culture in southern Africa. It’s one of the oldest surviving cultures of the region. 

A guided bush walk at Camelthorn Kalahari Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

Next up was Agama Lodge, in Namib-Naukluft Park, between Solitaire and Sesriem. It was perfect basecamp for dune drives at sunrise and visits to nearby Dune 45.

Desert modernism at Agama Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

The property, an oasis of desert modernism, has 40 loft-style chalets, a restaurant (with an incredible buffet of homestyle cooking, such as pork belly, pumpkin soup, chicken curry and other game meats) and a chic infinity pool.

Here, everything faces the majestic Naukluft Mountains, where warthogs, cheetahs and mountain zebras live. At sunrise and sunset, the mountains magically change colours, from rose to scarlet.

Infinity pool facing the mountains at Agama Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

We stayed at traditional hotels, like the lagoon-facing Protea Hotel Pelican Bay (a Marriott), and historical spots, like the high-end Swakopmund Hotel, a former German-designed train station.

Swakopmund Hotel. (Pax Global Media)

“Every time we checked into a new establishment, it felt very intimate – like we were part of their family,” said Bertrand, providing a travel advisor perspective.

Our final stay was arguably the highlight – Okapuka Safari Lodge, about 30 minutes from downtown Windhoek.

Homey dwellings at Okapuka Safari Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

Set on a 7,300-hectare savannah, the property has a year-round outdoor pool, 42 homey chalets (the spacious suites come with French Press coffee makers and a variety of teas), and a whimsical restaurant decorated with ostrich feathers.

Okapuka means “small animal,” but expect everything but that. While on my way to breakfast one morning, I encountered a rather large ostrich.

Ostrich encounter at Okapuka Safari Lodge. (Pax Global Media)

All our lodges were spectacular, but Okapuka had a certain je ne sais quoi – and, surprisingly, it wasn’t even a Superior-level stay. This property, booked for the FAM, falls into Exoticca’s “Charm” category. Which it has a lot of.

Exoticca’s “Luxury” category, finally, offers true five-star hotels, like the Hyatt Regencys and Casa de Campos of the world. This is for clients who truly want to splurge.

4. Guests build their own adventure 

Exoticca’s touring style allows travellers (and travel advisors) to “pick and choose the type of trip they want to do,” Quinto said.

The days are flexible, offering optional excursions and free time. Exoticca’s trusty app keeps everything organized.

There are included activities – main events that tie into the tour’s theme (like Dune 45 and Deadvlei), but other excursions are add-ons, like our 4x4 ride through Sandwich Harbour.

“Agents can really tailor-make their client’s experience,” Quinto explained.

Cruising around Walvis Bay. (Pax Global Media)

For example: clients that aren’t thrill seekers, who prefer to do something other than dune bashing, can opt for a lower-key dolphin-spotting cruise around Walvis Bay (oysters and bubbly included).

A society of sea life shows up for this catamaran ride, including two Cape fur seals, named Bobby and Sparkle, that will jump out of the water, and onto the vessel, for snacks.

A pelican drops in to visit. (Pax Global Media)

A giant pelican – which, humorously, almost bit an agent’s head off – also landed on our watercraft. It waddled around like it was one of us, begging for fish. We named it Lady Gaga.

The highlight? Seeing thousands of barking fur seals, herded together at Pelican Point, a lighthouse that was built nearly 100 years ago. Here, arf, arf is the new hello.

Cape fur seals at Pelican Point. (Pax Global Media)

Or maybe your clients prefer a stroll? You can do that Swakopmund, a coastal city, established by German colonists in 1892. German-era buildings are still found in this tourism-friendly area, where great restaurants await.

One night, we dined at an Italian eatery, where an acapella group, called 8th Octaves A Capella, serenaded us with soul-lifting tunes. Songs we knew, from “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” They sounded incredible.

5. Some meals are included 

Are meals included with Exoticca? Sometimes. In situations where there’s only one place to eat, like in a remote hotel, meals may be covered.

But elsewhere, in cities where restaurants are everywhere, guests pay their own way.

Sampling Namibia's game meats at Joe's Beerhouse in Windhoek. (Pax Global Media)

Which isn’t a huge deal in Namibia, where Canadian dollars go a long way when converted into Namibia dollars or South African Rands (which are both accepted).

In most cases, meals cost between $4 to $6 CAD, and the beer cost less than bottled water.

6. Namibia is far and spread out (but worth the trek)

From Canada, Namibia is a long way. The Toronto-Frankfurt-Windhoek segment PAX flew involved nearly 18 hours of flying – plus a 10-hour layover in Frankfurt.

English and Oshiwambo-speaking Namibia is also massive (it’s some 825,000 km2) and only has some three million citizens. The population density amounts to three people per square kilometre. It’s spread out.

Transferring through Namibia's desert. (Pax Global Media)

When driving through gravel-covered desert plains, it can take six to seven hours (or more) to get places. It’s a bumpy ride, too, as paved roads come and go.

On transfer days, lunch options are limited to snacks and to-go items, like salami sandwiches and beef pies, at gas stations. It sounds tedious, but good things come to those who wait.

The days aren’t crowded either. Exoticca’s group sizes vary by destination, but in Namibia, tours are capped at 15 people.

Rhino spotting while on safari. (Pax Global Media)

7. Exoticca loves travel advisors 

Barcelona-based Exoticca – which was founded in 2013, but only started operating in North America’s B2B space in 2021 – operates with the trade in mind.

The company pays commissions on “absolutely everything,” Quinto said, from the airfare taxes to whatever is booked on a tour. It also doesn’t recall commissions if a client cancels, and pays bonuses through an incentive program.

Agents can also book airfare for their clients through Exoticca, which packages its trips. The company will handle flight logistics, too, including the interruptions. When a flight is cancelled, Exoticca waits on hold with airlines, not agents.

Exploring Sesriem Canyon in the Namib Desert. (Pax Global Media)

As for its lower-than-usual prices, Quinto said Exoticca has “a lot of buying power” and negotiates its contracts directly with airlines and hotels.

Fluctuating air fare, specifically, can sometimes change the price of a tour package, said Quinto. Why this happens is because Exoticca will obtain unbeatable net fares, but once those seats sell out, the price will then reflect the next available (more expensive) class, Quinto explained.

Hiking the desert to Deadvlei. (Pax Global Media)

Exoticca also does all its buying in local currencies, which means exchange rates may change a tour price.

“It's a complex way of pricing a product,” Quinto said, “but we're able to do real-time pricing and give clients the best deal available.”

Sharing a trade perspective, Bertrand called Namibia a “unique destination for the right client.”

“For clients seeking different landscapes, rustic accommodations, beautiful views and relaxing settings, Namibia is a life-changing destination,” she said. “Its nature and people will steal a piece of your heart.”

Rachel Bertrand of Travel With Rachel. (Pax Global Media)

8. Guides are local (and make trips unforgettable)

A good tour guide has the power to make a trip memorable. Our time in Namibia would have been very different had it not been for Claudius, also known as “Tickey,” our fearless leader.

Born in Zimbabwe, but a resident of Namibia for more than ten years, Claudius was our point person from the moment we arrived until departure day. 

He showed us Namibia through a local lens, identifying every animal, plant, sand dune, monument and drought-tolerant tree.

Claudius, aka “Tickey,” our resourceful guide. (Karla Shaffer)

He also introduced us to local cuisine. In Namibia, it’s all about game meats, such as zebra, springbok and kudu. And unique snacks, like caterpillars (dried mopane worms). Crunchy!

Claudius was also our driver, steering an air-conditioned mini bus, pulling over each time there was something interesting on the horizon.  He did the heavy lifting, too, loading and unloading our suitcases into a trailer at every arrival point. 

His knowledge, humour, kindness, passion and patience, collectively, was the beating heart of our adventure. 

It was Claudius’ parting words to us, during our last dinner together, that stuck. 

“You’ll never be a misfit in Namibia,” he said. “You’ll always be embraced.” 

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