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,
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
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
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
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.”