27th Oct 2012 3:24pm | By Jonny Newton
Burning across the towering red dunes of the Namib Desert is unlike anything I’ve ever done before; or, indeed, am ever likely to do again.
Looking out across the endless sandscape, its vivid palette and unearthly emptiness make me feel like I’m on another planet altogether.
It’d be almost serene if I hadn’t chosen to explore what are among the world’s tallest dunes in the fastest, most exhilarating and loudest manner possible – on a quad bike.
After what amounts to a perfunctory briefing and token explanation of how to operate my manual six-geared beast, I speed off into this sandy playground, throwing myself into the belly of dunes, before hurling my machine up their sides and riding the ridges.
This is no gentle trundle around the park – the sea of dunes that make up the Namib Desert can reach heights of around 325m. That’s why the most popular sport in these parts is sandboarding – daredevils often hit speeds of 80kmph as they slide down.
However, having never been much cop on a board, I’ve plumped for some motorised action instead.
Hemmed by the blustery Atlantic and the ‘Skeleton Coast’ (so-named for the whale and seal bones that covered the shore when the whaling industry was active), this area is usually accessed from the seaboard town of Swakopmund, which has a reputation as Southern Africa’s ‘adventure centre’ to uphold. And it does not disappoint.
Aside from getting sandy, there’s a raft of other adrenaline-inducing opportunities, from sky diving to shark fishing.
But, ultimately, it is the dunes that people come here for, and after my day of hurtling up and down them, I can absolutely appreciate why.
As the sun starts to sink, long shadows accentuate the summits, and I soak up expansive views deep into the desert and far across the ocean. It is a truly special, one-of-a-kind experience.
Namibia is relatively new to this world, in that it only gained independence from South Africa in 1990.
It has gone from being oppressed under SA’s apartheid rule to introducing a parliamentary democracy as Namibia and, in an even more progressive move, is one of the few countries in the world to have conservation and protection of natural resources in its constitution.
This fascinating blend of preserving tradition and moving forwards with the modern world is perhaps encompassed most surreally in my next adventure. Scoring an invite into the homes of the Himba people is often a highlight for travellers to Namibia.
This ethnic group of cattle herders has pointedly welcomed tourism in recent years and, unlike many ‘cultural villages’ on the tourist trail, where tribespeople are bussed in for a day of trite ceremonial dancing to amuse visitors, the Himba welcome backpack-saddled wanderers into their real homes.
However, my experience with the Himba proves to be even more illuminating.
Because I’ve doggedly driven through miles of featureless scrub to Otjikandero Himba Orphan Village Project in Kaokoland, northern Namibia, to meet Jaco Burger, a white Afrikaans goat farmer, local chief of the black semi-nomadic Himba people, and gay rights campaigner.
The story of this thirty-something, openly gay farmer is pure Hollywood. As a child, Burger struck up friendships with Himba workers on his father’s farm, and later in life was ‘adopted’ into the tribe by a chief.