Back to civilization... but oddly, German civilization
Mary mentioned in her last entry how quickly the Namibian landscape has changed as we've gone from north to south and traveled through the Kaokoland region. I dare say that after a week or so we kind of got used to it. But then we entered the city of Swakopmund (which I refuse to call "Swako" no matter how many other travelers do) on the coast of Namibia. We've jokingly been referring to Swakopmund as "the Emerald City" because it's been the light at the end of the tunnel following our bush camping adventures. But I think encountering the great Oz at the Emerald City would have actually been less of a culture shock than the actual Swakopmund. Honestly, if you closed your eyes and were dropped in the middle of Swakopmund, Africa is the LAST place on earth you would guess you were. German architecture, cobblestone shopping streets, art shops, bakeries. Sadly, though, no lederhosen.
Besides being a sweet oasis of apple strudel (and shopping) for Mary, Swakopmund was also our "Adrenaline Stop, Part Deux" (see our Victoria Falls blog entry for Part One). On the docket were sandboarding and quad biking on the nearby sand dunes, and our first ever sky dive. We managed to get through them all unscathed, although we can't say the same for one of our traveling companions, Lee, who achieved legend status in our eyes by the time all was said and done.
We were mildly concerned about our first activity, sandboarding, when we found out that the only equipment involved was a thin plank of wood about 2 feet by 4 feet. But we were still on such a high from our good night's sleep and warm shower that we grabbed our boards with a smile and made the arduous climb up to the top of the dunes. It was a little windy, but the view was gorgeous: rolling dunes as far as the eye could see in three directions, and then the Atlantic ocean off to the west. Our activity leader briefed us at the top, essentially by saying "You can reach speeds up to 80 km/h, but wiping out doesn't really hurt too bad... who wants to go first?" And away we went. We made about 8 runs down the dunes, unfortunately having to climb back up the dunes each time. We both managed to eclipse 70 km/h on our final runs, but neither one of us could beat the top speed of our 63-year old friend Lee, who checked in at 75 km/h, got thrown off her board twice in the process, and still kept climbing up and sailing down. By the end of the day she was bruised an battered, but she did it all with a smile on her sand-covered face.
Quad biking, our second activity, was a fantastic experience as well. It was a 2-hour sunset ride through the gorgeous dunes that are only a few miles from the city itself. Again, the views of the dunes as we rode up, over and around them were amazing. The colors and shadows created by the setting sun were truly spectacular, and even though we knew that our German utopia of a town was just a few minutes away, it really felt as if we were riding off into the middle of the desert. We were going along great for about an hour and a half, enjoying the scenery and taking pictures, when a sudden sharp turn around a dune threw a twist into things. This sharp turn was made even trickier by the fact that we were riding into the setting sun, and our friend Lee rolled head over heels down the dune! We all rushed down to make sure she was OK, which she was despite the bike rolling onto her head (thank you helmet). And after a few minutes to collect herself she was off again at the head of the pack.
And then that left skydiving. Ah. Ever since the trip started we had been talking a big game, to ourselves and to skydiving addict Skanky, that we were going to do our first ever sky dive when we got to Swakopmund. By the time the day came, the weather was perfect so there was no turning back. We hopped in the car and headed out to the desert where our plane would be taking off from. Wearing sweet pink and yellow flying suits and clear goggles, it certainly didn't feel like we were going to be jumping out of an airplane... it felt more like we were going to be filming an 80's music video. But the plane's arrival and getting strapped into our parachuting gear quickly got us into skydiving mindset, and we took a deep breath and got into the plane with our tandem divers and camera men. So in total there were six of us crammed into a tiny tiny cabin. There were arms, legs and cameras everywhere, and at one point I tried to adjust my foot to aid circulation and actually ended up moving Mary's foot by mistake.
So there we were, on our way to 10,000 feet over the Namib Desert. Mary was all smiles and hamming it up with the crew, while I was basically saying prayer after prayer to my Dad and trying my best to look calm on video and enjoy the scenic flight leading up to the jump. It really was a beautiful flight: blue skies with puffy white clouds, golden sand dunes and miles of ocean coastline surrounded us. After about twenty minutes, we starting prepping to jump. Mary was set to go first. We unraveled our limbs, gave each other a quick kiss, and she and her tandem diver and camera man scooted toward the open door. Before I knew it, she was gone, hurtling towards the desert below. Being the only other jumper on board, there was no point in procrastinating from there. "You ready?", I was asked. "Let's go!", I said, with less authority than I probably imagine. But I really was eager to jump at this point, if for no other reason than to regain the feeling in my lower legs.
So we made our way to the door, wind howling through, and I dangled my legs over the edge. My brain balked for a millisecond as it tried to process the fact that I was exiting an aircraft without a tarmac directly below, but I knew it was time to jump. I gave the thumbs up, and the next thing I knew I was tumbling through space, watching the plane disappear above me. From that point on, it all happened incredibly fast. The 30-second freefall was unlike any other feeling in the world, an incredible rush that seemed to last for about three seconds. Then the chute opened, and I had the next five minutes or so to process the previous 30 seconds, wave to Mary who was also in the air, and enjoy the view from up above the dunes. Wow.
Lee and Alex then went up right after the two of us. Alex is a veteran skydiver and had no issues tossing himself out of the plane. Lee, always up for something new, did her first ever sky dive as well. So in the span of a day and a half she 1) wiped out on a sandboard going 75 km/h (fastest of our group), 2) rolled down the side of a sand dune in a quad bike, and 3) did her first sky dive. Oh, and I should also mention that when she first arrived in Africa, the car she was traveling in from the airport struck a kudu. Unbelievable. Lee, you are a true adventurer.
Well that about sums up Swakopmund, aka the German oasis in the middle of Namibia. From here we move on down to Sesriem and the red dunes of Sossuvlei and Dune 45...