Tucked away on the south-western corner of the continent, it offers everything that the more popular African destinations do – teeming game parks, landscapes that range from deserts to mountains, and adventure opportunities aplenty. Throw in a great infrastructure, stable economy, low crime rate and good value for money, and it’s hard to believe that it took a trip from Brad and Angelina to open the world’s eyes to it. The Namibians were so delighted by the couple’s visit that they declared a national holiday.
We’d driven up from South Africa, chewing up the hours and kilometres with word games, lukewarm Coke and tired jokes about the great wide outside.
We stopped first at the Fish River Canyon, second only in size to the Grand Canyon, where the plains of southern Namibia drop 500 metres to the riverbed below, which is cut up into dizzying pillars and rock walls like an inverted mountain range.
From there it was a long, hot drive to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It’s on the sleepy side, but then daily temperatures hitting over 40?C will do that to you. Windhoek’s traditional markets, German architecture and squat stone fort encapsulate the history of the country – millennia of tribal life disrupted by brutal German colonisation, South African rule, United Nations intervention and, finally, independence in 1988.
It was at Joe’s Beerhouse that we really settled into the spirit of the place – a hick lovechild of a German beer hall and an African safari camp where we tucked into warthog eisbein and kudu kebabs, washed down with fine local lager. It was ideal preparation for a journey into the desert.
The Namib is one of the world’s oldest deserts. Its deep red sands have crept across stony plains for 50 million years, nurturing some of the world’s more bizarre wildlife: barking geckos, beetles that harvest fog, and two-leafed trees no higher than your ankle that can live for thousands of years.
The best view of it all is from the top of a sand dune. The vast red dunes of Sossusvlei are so large that they have names, and Dune 49 is the daddy of them all, towering more than 300 metres over the most unlikely of oases – a marshy patch of desert that marks the death throes of the Tsauchab River.
A group of regal-looking gemsbok watched in bemusement as we struggled to the top of the dune in the pre-dawn gloom, flopping down to empty sand from our shoes and pockets as the sun rose huge and red over the rocky plains.
From Sossusvlei we headed north, zooming along stony roads, counting off the wildlife on the bullet-scarred road signs – beware of elephants, beware of guineafowl, beware of warthogs – then dusted ourselves off in exotic-sounding one-horse towns such as Khorixas, Solitaire and Otjiwarongo, where we stocked up on cold beer, German cakes, and biltong (thick slabs of cured meat as salty and dry as the desert).
As we hit Damaraland, the desert gave way to crazy landscapes -ancient rock formations, sculpted into waves and organ pipes, that have inspired humans for millennia. At Twyfelfontein we marvelled at rock paintings and engravings – animals, footprints and symbols painstakingly chipped into the deep orange rocks by the people who once lived in this harsh environment. Archaeologists are still puzzling over their meaning today.
The purity of the light combined with dust from the desert can create surreal effects on the landscape. We camped beneath the Brandberg – which means burning mountain – and watched sunset colours playing off the orange, yellow and black of the rocks as we scavenged for dead wood for a campfire. Later we lay in our sleeping bags staring up at millions of stars in perfect silence, save for our agoraphobic who stayed in the car, muttering to herself.
Where the desert meets the sea, things get more interesting. ‘The Land God Made In Anger’ is how one local tribe described it. For shipwrecked sailors, it became known as The Skeleton Coast. Faced with a walk of hundreds of miles across the desert they were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.
We were glad for our 4×4 as we whipped down dust roads through the dunes. The coast is an inhospitable place, the long beaches lashed by heavy surf and blanketed for much of the day in thick fog; the bleached skeletons of whales and seals, together with the occasional rusting hulk of a stricken ship highlight the thin line between life and death here. And yet animals survive – chaotic seal colonies, ghostly hyenas, and, if you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of elephant or rhino in the dried-up riverbeds nearby.
By the time we reached Etosha National Park, our friend was starting to get into it. One of the world’s greatest game parks, it’s a slab of bushveld dominated by the dusty white basin of Etosha pan, which disappears into a hot haze, animals looming in and out of focus in the distance. For an agoraphobic, it’s the ideal place to test your resolve.
There’s a purity in the starkness of the Namibian landscape, a simplicity that pulls the animals and plants into sharp focus.
We stood beside the cars, looking out to the pan, and breathing in the silence. Namibia is a country that embraces you and dwarfs you in equal measure, and secretly we all knew we’d have to return.
The discovery of diamonds in the southern Namib desert brought with it miners, moneymen and property developers aplenty, resulting in a rash of towns in the most unsuitable places.
In their heyday, these outposts boasted ballrooms, schools, hospitals and even southern Africa’s first X-ray station. But the post-World War I crash in the diamond market spelled doom for the industry and the towns slowly died, abandoned to the desert.
These days they’re no more than shells desiccated by wind and battered by sand, vainly holding out against the elements.
There are a number of ghost towns near Luderitz – itself home to some remarkable German architecture from the days of the boom. Kolmanskop and Elizabeth Bay are the easiest to visit and make for a good day trip – expect to see grand old buildings emerging from shifting sands, half-buried telegraph poles, and houses filled to their windowsills with red sand as they’re slowly being swallowed by the encroaching dunes.
The Orange River, on the border with South Africa, offers excellent multi-day raft trips that include white-knuckle rapids, lazy swims and nights out beneath the stars.
In the saddle
Several tour operators offer multi-day horse-riding trails in the wilderness areas or in private game reserves – a unique way of seeing the landscape and wildlife, and allowing access to areas that vehicles can’t reach.
Swap snow for sand
The dunes outside Swakopmund are some of the highest on the planet and you can ride down them on snowboards or masonite toboggans. The thrills are plenty, despite the absence of ski lifts. Mmm, taste that sand!
It’s not the most environmentally friendly of activities, but quad-biking is a thrilling way to explore the sandy wilderness. Only go with accredited ethical operators.
Two feet and a heartbeat
It’s a harsh environment, but experiencing the desert and canyons on foot will bring the landscape to life. There are excellent multi-day trails in the Fish River Canyon, while treks around the Brandberg offer the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming in mountain pools in the middle of the desert. Always go with a guide – preferably as part of an organised group – and be prepared for tough conditions.
Full of hot air
Ballooning is arguably the best way to admire the desert and its wildlife. Pre-dawn lift-offs will have you seeing the dunes in a new light; the near total silence makes this almost spiritual.