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The Road Less Travelled: A Holiday in Namibia

by Travelbag on 19 February 2020, 09:02AM

Namibia is a mood board of magnificently arid deserts, sweeping dunes and animal-packed salt pans. On a recent holiday to Namibia, Mike MacEacheran discovered a new side to sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s what he found.

Namibia

Sossusvlei, Namib Naukluft National Park

Up too early, I’m barefoot on a blood-red dune primed in pink dawn light. It would have been so easy to stay in bed under canvas, but if the advice from our guide is anything to go by, a speedy get-up-and-go is non-negotiable when visiting Sossusvlei in Namib Naukluft National Park.

You crawl, mole-like, out of your sleeping bag and climb a 170-metre-high ridge. The going is slow (two steps forward, one step back), the light wind whipping sand against your legs. A scimitar-horned oryx trots by. On the horizon, the sun floods the day, spilling light onto a five-million-year-old desert, as empty as it is vast. This is not your typical safari holiday in Africa.

I had something else in mind when I came to Namibia. The red dunes of the Namib Desert have the bones of Southern Africa, but they also have the soul of Arabia. The colours — a fruit bowl assortment of orange, tangerine, apricot and peach — have more in common with the mystery and romance of the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, than they do with the savannah grasses of the Maasai Mara. You expect Lawrence of Arabia on a camel’s back here. Not Timon and Pumbaa at Pride Rock.

I’ve joined a nine-day escorted tour of this overlooked African destination – a place that’s three times the size of Britain, but with a population of just 2.5 million. It’s also the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa (which explains some of the world’s oldest dunes) and it brims with stupendous sights. To the west of the capital Windhoek is Swakopmund, a wind-buffered beach destination that juxtaposes skydiving, sand boarding and surfing with colonial architecture. In the other direction is tradition-steeped Damaraland and Etosha National Park, home to bleach-white salt plains and thriving pockets of safari animals. It’s Africa’s greatest hits, just without the bumper-to-bumper crowds.

I make it to the top of Dune 45 – its name derived from its distance in kilometres from the park entrance – in time for the big reveal at 6am. A few others have followed in our footsteps and we take in Sossusvlei’s desert landscape with sunglasses on, the desert lighting up inch by inch. It is an Oscar-worthy performance and as exquisite as it is ephemeral. After 30 minutes, the strange tussle of colours and shadows subsides and a two-tone palette takes over — bright orange against an unwaveringly-blue sky.

Sossusvlei

Swakopmund

Despite the sometimes stifling heat — today it’s 35°C — it’s a good idea to spend as much time as possible exploring Sossusvlei before heading to the coast. There are dunes and desolate salt and clay pans to discover by 4WD and the surprise package is the rich fauna that survives in the heat. There are reptiles, ostriches, springboks and barking jackals, particularly around Deadvlei – a clay pan broken up by memorable sun-blackened thorn trees. We see a solitary oryx in the distance and do what tourists do: take a number of hazy, over-exposed photos.

We drive on, reaching Swakopmund in time for dusk on the edge of the desert. The city was settled by the German Empire in the late 19th century as part of German South West Africa and the European legacy is a series of flourishes including German bakeries (for traditional buns and brötchen) and cold German pilsners brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot purity law of 1516. Still today, Namibian beer is regarded as the best in sub-Saharan Africa.

Understandably, this handsome colonial port is appealing to holidaymakers for beach and bar time and it’s visited by overseas travellers for its abundance of white-knuckle outdoor desert pursuits. Posited as the adventure capital of southern Africa, operators offer hot air ballooning, fat biking, skydiving, surfing, flightseeing, horse riding and more. Its location on Walvis Bay, caught between ocean rollers and rolling dunes, adds an extra dimension to Swakopmund and when we arrive the town is packed with colourful bars overflowing with the t-shirt and short brigade. There is nowhere else like this in the country.

Swakopmund

Etosha National Park

The road to our next stop takes us through the remarkable Mad Max terrain of Damaraland, introducing some of Namibia’s other more untamed landscapes (appropriately, George Miller’s Oscar-winning Fury Road from 2015 was filmed here). Camping one night at the shadowy foot of Spitzkoppe – a peculiar, pyramid-like cleft of red rock – we grill on campfire embers before rising early again for a sunrise hike to its bald summit.

In the surrounding sand lands, caught between the middle of nowhere and the Namib and Kalahari deserts, we see horizons filled with knuckle-shaped mounds that rise abruptly and little else. With the area facing an increase in luxury tented camps — impossible to see, but somewhere out there in the distance — the biggest issue is getting people to preserve the tranquillity of such an exotic, alien corner of southern Africa.

By the time we reach Etosha National Park, and its sun-scorched wildlife plains and waterholes, the windshield of our tour bus has filled with snapshots of storybook Africa. A giraffe’s head pops up above the savannah woodlands. A black-backed jackal, snapping from the undergrowth, races onto the road in front of us. More cars and coaches appear and soon we are absorbed back into what most people regard as fully coloured-in Africa. Here the days are for animal-packed game drives and meetings with bush elephants, gnashing lions, skittish warthogs, gawkish blue wildebeest, awkward ostriches, pinstriped zebra, black-skin rhino, bat-eared foxes and sneery jackals. Plenty more besides.

Despite the 4WDs, there is still enough of the desert grit that drew me to Namibia in the first place. On our last night, a honey badger, on the hunt for scraps, rustles behind my tent and keeps me on edge for hours. Still, it’s no matter. Because Namibia is no push over. You don’t come here for long lie-ins and days lounging by a pool. Its most precious moments — those you’ll remember in the years ahead — are different. You come for the remoteness, for the mind-clearing skies and mysterious sweeps of the desert, and to feel the sun break into the day from the dark.

Etosha National Park

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