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JULY 2005
Issue 062

Namibia: in a desert land

I knew there was something special about this desert land when the immigration officer at the windswept Noordoewer border crossing asked me for a pen. “Sorry, I don't have one,” I said with surrendering hands, looking to another tourist for help. “Well,” replied the civil servant, “If I don't take your details, I can't let you into the country.”

His ivory smile gave his joke away. But it's true; he was penless, and in retrospect, his unanticipated banter was as unpredictable as is his diversely blessed nation.

Namibia is a vast and mostly desolate region in the southwestern corner of the African continent. Interminable hues, rock formations, contours of the land, and a haunting emptiness amble 1,500 kilometres between South Africa to the south and Angola to the north and some two-thirds that distance from Botswana to the east and the forbidding Atlantic Coast to the west. Remarkably, only 1.7 million people call this place home.

Namibia's faces weave an equally terrific tapestry, threaded by
a dozen cultural groupings, including the Wambo, who comprise nearly half the population; the Herero, historically a nomadic pastoralist people; and the San, hunter-gatherers by tradition. There are also a number of Namibians of European decent reflecting the land's occu-pation by Germany and South Africa before independence in 1990.

My journey started on the serpentine bends of the Orange River. With the edge of South Africa standing tall to the left and Namibia ducking low to the right, 17 kilometres of canoeing showed me why Namibia has become such an allure for tourists: This place is beautiful.

The next day I headed north along a stretch of meticulously manicured gravel road to the Fish River Canyon, said to be second in size to only America's Grand Canyon. Daring myself to the rim of the 500-metre deep chasm, it seemed all 161 kilometres of the gorge's length were visible. From the heights, I imagined taking wing and swooping down on the murky green thread below, stretches of which were cut by a waterless winter. But as the sun set an orange-red, its liquid glow flooded the thirsty channel.

When the next day I looked out upon the golden plains of Excelsior Camp, a private farm a few hours' drive away, I again took an imaginary flight, soaring in the thermals with various birds of prey high above sweeping grasslands.

It was out here on the edge of the Namib Desert that I caught my first glimpse of the ochre sands, which create stunning contrasts of colour. The landscape is adorned by such unlikely accoutrements as the sweet rocky cone of Chocolate Mountain and the songs of Music Mountain, the boulders of which chime different notes when struck by smaller stones — a true rock concert.

From there, I rocketed further into the heart of Namibia through land-scapes as picturesque as, well, pictures. Long drives here are rewarded with visions of unrivalled colours and shapes in the earth that truly resemble something out of this world. And in Namibia, the gritty planet of Sossusvlei is arguably the nation's most beautiful heavenly body.

Sossusvlei is a magnificent sweep of ochre dunes, which tower as high as 305 metres above the parched land for fully 300 kilometres one way and 150 kilometres the other. Standing atop razor sharp crests looking out across the world's oldest wilderness of sand, I wondered where the dunes would take me if I had years to ride them.

Surprisingly, these mountains of sand are full of life and creature tracks, such as those of sidewinder adder snakes, dune lizards, ants, and beetles. But hardy animals such as ostrich, and gemsbok antelope also thrive here, seemingly self-sentenced to a life of arid encumbrance.

Later, I orbited a crack in the Namib-Naukluft Park aptly named the Lunar Landscape. Peering into its moon-like crevices from an elevated plateau, the extraordinary vista drifted weightlessly before an admiring crowd who appeared as diminutive as the beetles on Sossusvlei's slopes.

But the day was equally memorable for its scope: I was awakened at my Sesriam campsite by the rhythmical caws of roosting birds at dawn, the closest thing to a timepiece. The journey continued through expanses of wide and diverse lands, which seemed to change expression with every kilometre. Rock formations beyond number and type made me wish I had taken geology more seriously as a kid, for if there ever was a geologist's heaven, this was certainly it.

But I was also travelling through a meteorological time warp. A day that began under crystal blue and the flutter of daybreak's soft canary-yellow had turned cloudy, full of mist, and positively cold. Traversing the Tropic of Capricorn sometime around midday, I had wrongly believed I would be able to take an Atlantic dip at the seaside town of Swakopmund. At 10 kilometres out, the place seemed ominous and forbidding beneath an uninviting strip of cold front forming a clear boundary between desert and coastal plain.
Pulling into the Teutonic town round 5pm, I was eager to sleep in a bed, talk to some locals, shop for keepsakes, and have someone cook for me. I realised I was still a city boy. I was surrounded by civilisation. I even had email.

It was odd trading the barren sun-baked sandscapes for palm tree-lined streets and all the mod cons along their cosy lengths. I quickly understood why this town of 25,000 souls hosts hoards of holiday-goers from across the region, and increasingly from around the world. Not only does a relaxed atmosphere pervade in street cafes and along the seaside promenade, but it is situated more or less in the middle of the nation's rugged coastline making the place an ideal base from which to probe nearby attractions.

Swakopmund is not only where sea meets land or town meets desert, it's also where cultures mix and political views at times clash. “I've done more for Namibia than most 'real' Namibians,” declared the German emigré, as I paid for a souvenir. What she meant by 'real' I didn't know but I detected resentment in her tone at being governed by blacks. Like most whites in this mainly black land, however, she has likely enjoyed a life of considerable comfort a world apart from her adopted compatriots.

Two days of modernity actually had me craving wilderness. On the road again, I entered the National West Coast Recreational Area, a 200-kilometre long strip of rugged coastline. Stopping at Cape Cross, the landing site of Portuguese navigator Diego Cao in 1486 is also home to a massive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals. Stepping from my vehicle into the open air, I was punched in the face by a near vomit-inducing odour of guano so foul I thought I would die right then and there.

I pressed on into a place of legends: The Skeleton Coast. My imagination was spooked by this ghostly name years before I made it here. This 600-kilometre shoreline is one of the world's most notorious, taking its name from the remains of dozens of ships run aground and the bones of their crews who stood no chance of survival ashore the desert wilderness. But the Skeleton Coast is, like Sossusvlei, full of life, exhibiting a remarkable range of flora and fauna radically adapted to the unmerciful habitat.

By the time I reached Etosha National Park, I was full of one of travel's greatest attributes: anticipation. When the moment of that first safari sighting arrived, its magic enveloped me. Everywhere, animals!

I had just passed Andersson Gate into one of Southern Africa's most celebrated hunting grounds, but I was only here to shoot photographs. With the initial sighting of zebra, ostrich, wildebeest, and springbok vying for a drink at a sunken out-of-view water hole, I had at once realised the romantic dream and accomplished the long-held objective of watching African animals in the wild.

But game viewing tamed my imagination too, for the kaleidoscope of wildlife survives today largely, but by no means wholly, within the protected spaces of game parks and nature reserves. Sadly, fences lasso the only hopes of survival for many of these animals.

Reluctantly, I left the animal kingdom and the desertscapes, driving via the modern capital city of Windhoek and, from there, the Buitepos border crossing to Botswana. This time, I had a pen with me.

An immigration officer summoned me with her nod, authoritatively whacked an exit stamp into my passport, and remarked, “Thank you for visiting Namibia.” I smiled back. “Thanks for having me.” Then, offering my pen, I said, “Please take it. So you can let the next tourist in.”

Text & Photos: Jono David

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Ways & Means

Namibia is well-served by several airlines with good connections to and around Southern Africa with either direct or connecting flights to or near all capital cities. The national carrier is Air Namibia.

The winter months of May through September will bring the most favourable conditions, dry and cool, while other months are generally wetter, warmer, more humid.

Generally, passport holders of British Commonwealth countries plus USA and Japan will receive a 60-day or 90-day tourist visa upon arrival.

The word safari means more than game drives. It encompasses virtually any adventure outing. Generally, a safari takes one of the following three forms, and varies in length from a few days to several months:
• MOBILE: one or two night stays in temporary or permanent camps with basic facilities, traveling in
12-25 seat buses, catering mainly
to budget travelers.
• MOBILE PERMANENT: short stays
in various camps and lodges, often groups of 6-12 traveling in mini- buses or Land Rovers, a mid-range target.
• PERMANENT: stays in permanently tented sites or lodges, a base from which to explore the surrounding area by day, aimed at those with a need for daily creature comforts.

(including safari tour outfitters)
Private Bag 13346, Windhoek
Tel: 61-284-2366 • Fax: 61-284-2364 Email: [email protected]
Web: www.namibiatourism.com.na