An epic journey – a weekend on the Desert Express!
It is 23 August 2019 and a day to remember. Today is the day, after not being on the rails for 5-6 years, that the Desert Express, will continue with its journey. I woke up full of excitement, as I knew I would be part of this experience, for the first time in my life. Making sure to be early at the train station, arriving 30 minutes prior to check-in, I realized a lot of other passengers were sharing the excitement and have checked in already.
Check-in was quick and uncomplicated, and our luggage received nice luggage tags, as this one gets from travel agents, with the room name on it. We were in Oryx Nr 3. Oryx being the wagon and 3 the room we were in. Some other wagons are Meerkat, Sprinbock, and Kokerboom.
Most passengers were waiting on the train station platform already and it was clear there was a lot of anticipation. However, the train was not there yet.
It was a mixed crowd on the platform, with couples, families and then there were the “Crazy 6″. Six Ladies celebrating the 50th birthday, and I knew, they could be a handful and are full of celebrating the spirit.
The Desert Express was somewhat delayed, but anticipation only grew whilst waiting and everybody got even more excited. During the wait a female Ovambo Cultural Group entertained the passengers with singing and dancing and even 2 of the“Crazy 6” joined in, to the delight of the cultural group, but as well as the passengers.
Finally, the Desert Express entered the train station and it was time for the passengers to embark on the train. The air at the station was crackling. Personally, I think most people just forgot what happened around them. Everyone was excited to get on board. Some last pictures on the red carpet before boarding the train were taken and then everyone was on board.
Inspecting our compartment, we noticed there were no beds, but only 3 nicely upholstered seats. After a closer look, we noticed that there are three fold-down single beds in the compartments, so all was well. The bathrooms, as on a plane, are on the small side, but we had to remember it is a train. Space is limited. I would, however, suggest when travelling with the Desert Express that it is advisable that only 2 people share a compartment.
Now we were on our way, first stop and adventure would be at Okapuka Lodge where a game drive was planned. It takes about an hour to get from Windhoek Train Station to Okapuka Lodge, so why not go to the Lounge and have a drink. Guess everyone had the same thoughts. The lounge was full, and George the Barman had his hands full to pour drinks for all. The spirit was excellent, and the passengers started to familiarize themselves with each other, over a wine, beer or cooldrink. Laughter filled the Lounge, and everyone was smiling.
Once everyone settled in, Johanna welcomed the passengers on the Desert Express and explained the procedures. The staff on board where friendly and helpful, and they were full of excitement, as “their” train was on the rails again.
A light lunch of tasty sandwiches was served in the restaurant, before arriving at Okapuka Lodge. All passengers disembarked and were seated on several game drive vehicles.
From the start of the game drive, it was clear that Namibia has the worst drought in years. It was dry, there was no grass and only 30km outside of Windhoek it looked like a desert. If it was not for the large Acacia trees, one would have imagined being in the desert already.
Shortly into the game drive, we already saw Eland, Oryx and Ostrich. As it went on it was clear that Okapuka boasts with a large population of Warthog. Our guide explained everything in detail together with a good sense of humour which entertained everyone on the vehicle. Finally, we reached the Rhinos. Wow, what a big animal this is. We had the privilege to have them only 2 meters from the car and everyone was able to take some amazing photographs. At the same time, a heard of Sable Antilope passed, while Rhino and Warthog were enjoying some fodder pellets together.
The game drive continued through the riverbed on Okapuka until we reached a Giraffe Cow with its calf. The calf was barely 1 week old. For sure the smallest calf I have ever seen. Everyone was in awe!
It was time to get back on the train, as there was still quite a distance to cover for the day. So slowly the game drives vehicles diverted their vehicles back to the train. The “Crazy 6” still needed the all-important photo on the locomotive, which was obviously granted and then everyone was boarding the train again.
In a slow pace, the train continued its journey towards Okahandja. Some passengers retired to their rooms, while others enjoyed some drinks in the Lounge. It was surprising to see how many wildlife was still to be seen roaming outside, but these are hard times and animals are thin and surely hungry.
The Desert Express had a short stop then again in Okahandja at the Station, where on the opposite side is the Closwa Biltong Shop. What a nice shop to say the least. Everyone bought some Biltong and Droewors or whatever the heart desired, and then embarked the train again. With some passengers running back to get some more.
Leaving the town of Okahandja the Desert Express turned west towards Karibib and again, people were sitting in the lounge or restaurant, enjoying a few drinks and were chatting away, whilst the sun was setting in the west. With the twisting and turning of the train, it was possible to enjoy the sunset and especially the Birthday Group enjoyed their time, meeting new people and getting them engaged in the celebrations.
At 19h it was about time for dinner to be served. Everyone freshened up and what a surprise, the “Crazy 6” were all dressed up with hats and scarves and whatever was available. The highlight was the fake eyelashes of one of them. Let’s be honest with each other, she had the most beautiful eyes of everyone on the train that night!
The train is laid out so that there are 2 dining areas. One near the lounge and one a bit further away to the front of the locomotive, which was the perfect setting for the Birthday Celebration, as it is a bit more private.
Dinner consisted of a 3-course menu, with a choice of Butternut Soup or Greek Salad for starters, Beef Fillet or Kabeljou (Fish) as the main course and finally Ice Cream with Granadilla or Apple Tart and Custard sauce as dessert. Being on the train the quality of meals received was exceptional. I cannot remember when last did I receive a steak so perfectly prepared. My start was a Greek Salad, where not much can be done wrong, but apparently, the Butternut Soup was divine. Everyone was just full of compliments. The desert also did not disappoint.
It was my privilege to sit with the birthday crowd, as I did their booking. There was a load of toasts with champagne and moving speeches. It was amazing to see how 3 sisters and 3 best friends are loving life and appreciating each other. Emotional words were spoken, lots of laughter and even tears of joy. Who would have said you can experience this on the Desert Express?
While most passengers opted for another drink in the lounge and then head to bed to get a good night’s rest, the “Crazy 6” with a few others enjoyed the ride and celebrated into the early hours of the morning. What is nice about the Desert Express, is that even if there is some noise, it does not bother anyone, as the sound does not travel through the train.
The train stopped for a couple of hours at the safe location of Kransberg Station, a few kilometres from Usakos for the night.
We also headed for bed just before midnight and after all the excitement of the day fell asleep immediately. At around 3h30 in the morning, the train continued its journey to Swakopmund, probably waking most passengers up, only to fall asleep again with the sound of the train travelling and swaying on the rails.
Breakfast was served around 7h in the morning, whilst the sun was rising. What a beautiful sight this was sitting in the restaurant, enjoying a good cup of coffee and having breakfast, which was again a superb meal served, by Salonika, Harold and the crew.
By this time most passengers were acquainted with each other and chatting away, while all waited for the train to reach Swakopmund. There was still the dune excursion on the itinerary, so once the Desert Express entered Swakopmund, it turned south towards Walfishbay, driving behind the dune bank that stretches from there up to Namibia’s coast. As the dunes slowly came nearer and nearer to the train tracks, we knew we are almost there to climb the dunes, and everyone rushed to their rooms to get cameras and more. By that time the train already slowly came to a standstill.
It was a slight easterly breeze that we immediately felt once we disembarked from the train, which means the heat is brought in from the desert with the wind. 30 degrees at least and only just after 8 in the morning. Whilst everyone was climbing dunes, I decided to take some photos of the location, the train and the desert as I climbed dunes 100 times before.
Everyone enjoyed the dunes, especially “Mr Google” (named by the “Crazy 6” due to his Google shirt) who raced up the dunes with his son. Both had to take a shower afterwards. There was this smell, haha!
Everyone boarded the train again and being thirsty George the Barman and Titus had their hands full, to get drinks to all. This is when the “Crazy 6” realized they were on a One-Way Trip and saddened by that, the Kleiner Keiler (Cherry Liquor) came out to reflect on the journey they had. Not to forget there were some Brandy Cokes involved.
The train was slightly delayed as we waited for a passenger train to pass us but then continued to Swakopmund which we reached at 11 in the morning.
The Swakopmund station is not really a station, to be honest. It is all basically only railway tracks and some real improvement is needed here. Nobody was bothered though as the train has decent steps, so disembarking is easy.
Here it was time to say goodbye to 10 passengers that left the train, including the Birthday Group, who was surprisingly quiet once their husbands came to collect them, for further celebrations at the Visfees (Fish Festival) in Hentiesbay.
The remaining passengers made their way into Swakopmund either by Taxi or as we opted to walk.
By now it was 37 degrees and I started wondering if we made the correct choice of walking. Having Rina from Boksburg South Africa and my daughter with me, it was nice, and I was able to show Rina something of Swakopmund, although we were only strolling through the main street, it made it worthwhile.
At the Jetty (Landing Bridge during German Colonial times) we had a refreshing drink on the balcony of the restaurant continued to the Mole for some Ice Cream and eventually took a taxi to the new Swakopmund Waterfront. It seemed like the time flew and now it was already 14h30. We had to get back to the train.
After the new passengers boarded, everyone got settled it was time again for the Desert Express to head east for the return journey.
The sand and heat got to most, and the option to take an afternoon nap was taken by almost everyone. During this time, I took the opportunity to talk to the staff on the train. As the train only drives every alternative week, it was interesting to hear what they do during the days, not on the train. It was astonishing to hear that the males, except for Harold, work on the maintenance of the railway tracks, and the ladies and Harold work in the office. They were all so proud of their train, the Desert Express. This is when I realized why they are so friendly, helpful and courteous. This crew is worth more than a couple of million dollars.
Sitting with the kitchen chefs I could not stop wondering where I knew Gabriel and Shorty from. As we talked about our pasts and life in general, Shorty suddenly asked me, Didn’t you work at the Alte Feste Restaurant in Windhoek 26 years ago? Then it made click in the brains. Shorty and Gabriel and I worked together many moons ago. And then I knew why they could cook so well! Talking about good old times and getting nostalgic, which is easy on the Desert Express, time flew by and it was time for the Sundowner and Dinner Stop at Stinkbank, between Arandis and Usakos.
At Stinkbank we all could disembark from the train, setup was made for dinner, Gas Lights were set up by the crew and the passengers enjoyed the sun setting, while the Chefs got ready to prepare the barbeque (braai).
Being an avid braaier myself I was sceptical of how the 3 would do it, as there are only 2 ways. Good or bad! I was especially worried, as the range of meats was quite big, from Lamb, Chicken, Pork, Beef Boerewors and then the Sosaties (kebab). Every meat must have its correct time to prepare and doing all the same way could end up in a disaster.
Once the meat was finished it was served with several salads and there was more than enough for everyone. And then for me the highlight of the journey. The meat!! I cannot remember when last did I have such an awesome barbeque. It was all prepared to perfection. Everyone was delighted (except for the vegetarians), but the meat was just really to the point. My hat is still off for the chefs, although 48 hours have passed. This alone would be a reason we would travel with the Desert Express again.
As everyone finished their dinner, the dessert was served in the dining room again. Malva Pudding with Custard sauce. What a delight….we even got seconds and if you asked nicely, the seconds were a double portion.
As dinner has finished and it was a long day for everyone, most passengers opted to go to bed, some still had a nightcap in the lounge and there still was somewhat of chatter whilst the train was on its way to Kransberg for the overnight stop. This time around though, most were settled into bed, before the train reached Kransberg.
During the stop at Kransberg, I woke up but being exhausted because of all excitement that the day offered I fell asleep instantly again. It was quite surprising for me as, the first night it seemed to be uncomfortable, as the beds are somewhat narrower and to be honest certainly not the longest. Being 1,8m however I fitted, and nobody complained about the length. Again at 3H30 in the morning, the train continued with its journey. Again, I woke up and though I am not going to fall asleep again like the previous night, but this morning I had the feeling, that this might be the feeling when your mother cradles you. Swaying somewhat, I must admit, it must be the best way I ever fell asleep again. I slept like a baby, only to oversleep in the morning.
Guess, it wasn’t only me who overslept, as arriving at breakfast only at 7h20 I was one of the first. Chatting away during coffee and breakfast (the best Omelette) everyone came to the same conclusion; the night’s rest was awesome.
Getting nearer to Okahandja, again it was possible to see wildlife next to the train. This time it was herds of Oryx in the riverbed. And they were fat considering the drought situation we find ourselves in.
At around 9 AM we arrived yet again in Okahandja Railway Station. This time we had the opportunity to visit the craft market. Being from Namibia, this was not the highlight of the journey for me. My daughter Irja loves Craft Markets however and what option did I have. Surely, we would go there and we grabbed Rina who was a Solo Traveller and strolled 5 minutes to the market.
Another day, another surprise. The craft market is proudly Namibian! Visiting this a couple of years back, we would find curios from Zambia, Zimbabwe even as far as Kenya and Tanzania. However, these days, you will find Namibian Crafts there. They are beautiful and there are interesting stories to be heard by the vendors. Do I have a favourite vendor after the visit? No, they are all special. From first sight, it looks like all offer the same but going through the stalls one does see there is a difference, even if it is slight.
This was our second last stop before the journey ended and then we were off to Okapuka Lodge yet again. Again, we had the privilege to see loads of wildlife on the route. At a post (watering place for cattle) a huge group of Baboons together with Kudu’s were quenching their thirst. What a sight. Unfortunately, we did see some carcasses as well of animals that did not make it through the drought.
Being a person that wants wildlife to be wild, the Cheetah feeding at Okapuka Lodge was somewhat not my favourite activity on the itinerary. When we arrived, again we found a place on their Game Drive Vehicles. All Land Rovers and being there for the second time, the jokes were going around that a Land Drover can be seen from the moon due to the gap in the door or the oil leak it leaves.
Getting to the 12ha Cheetah encasement we again were lucky to see Sable and Rhino. The Cheetah feeding spot does need some shade, but everyone waited for the cheetahs to arrive.
Being somewhat against holding a wild animal like a cheetah in an enclosed environment it became very clear to me why this is the case. All 4 Cheetah on Okapuka are orphaned. Meaning they do not have the natural ability to hunt and would die in their natural habitat. They were relocated to Okapuka from the Cheetah Conservation Fund, near Otjiwarongo and are all sterilised. 2 Brothers and Sisters. The males being 9 years old and the females 7. All in all, it was quite an experience.
Lunch was served at Okapuka Lodge, where we all enjoyed the Buffet served on Sunday Afternoons, which was delicious. Yet again it was a meaty affair, but that is how Namibia is. The Vegetarians did however also get an excellent meal from the kitchen.
It was now the time when all started to say, Hell No! This trip cannot end! We need at least 1 more night! It was now time for the last stretch, and we all knew the last stop would be departing the train for the last time. Somewhere still chatting on the last stretch, talking about the experiences, others were just staring out of the window wondering why it had to end already.
At exactly 15h on Sunday afternoon the train rolled into Windhoek Station again. We were back on time. I think everyone hated it. Talking to each other, most wanted to have an additional night on the train.
As every good thing must have an end, we reluctantly disembarked the train. There were tears and hugs. The staff was said goodbye, but it was not a final goodbye, it was a see you again. It was a special moment. We all are Family now!
To conclude and from personal experience, it is a trip of a lifetime. It is not too expensive; one does experience an awesome thing. Most importantly, I entered a confined environment with several other people. We all entered with that mindset. None of us knew what will happen during the next 3 days. What happened? We entered as strangers. We left as friends! Amazing!
Q & A and fast facts!
Q: Is the Desert Express a 5 Star Tourist Train?
A: No, the Desert Express is a 3 Star train with a 2 Star Price. With only a few improvements that will be made, it will be a 5 Star Train with the same rate.
Q: Is the Desert Express Expensive?
A: Absolutely not, considering what is offered it is a steal.
Q: How long is the journey from Windhoek to Swakopmund?
A: The train leaves around 12h – 12h30 and arrives in Swakopmund the next morning around 11
Q: How safe is my luggage on the train while being on any of the excursions?
A: We never locked our rooms. It was always safe,
Q: Were there any complaints?
A: Yes, there was a couple, where the gentlemen had loads of complaints. Being in the Tourism Industry for +20 years, I found these very unfounded and his behaviour not professional.
Q: How expensive are the drinks/food on the Desert Express?
A: Beverages on the train are very affordable. Cheaper than your normal restaurant in Windhoek. All meals are included on the train trip.
Q: Can you transport vehicles on the Desert Express, and if yes, how?
A: Yes, you can. Currently, however, the vehicles must be offloaded at the Walfishbay Train Station and you will need to be transferred there from Swakopmund.
Q: Would you do the trip again?
A: Tomorrow! Not more to be said.
How to do a booking and see pricing:
You can visit this link: https://www.namibiareservations.com/activities/ac-details/1/ac-details/desert-express
Or just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing and availability.
Desert Express is travelling the following weekends in 2019:
6 & 27 September
11 & 25 October
15 & 29 November
13 & 20 December
Desert Express is travelling the following weekends till end of March 2020:
7 & 14 February
20 & 29 March