In Namibia, you can surf down towering dunes, visit stunning national parks and drift over mile after mile of unspoilt wilderness by Cessna plane, microlight or balloon. And that’s just for starters. No wonder it’s consistently voted Africa’s top adventure destination. What’s more, you can go it alone: with good roads and efficient services, a little independent thinking is all it takes to put yourself in the driving seat – literally – and discover this inspiring country at your own pace. Hamilton Wende checks his map, loads up with supplies and gets behind the wheel.
I will never forget the moment I crested a ridge on the road between Swakopmund and Windhoek. In a sudden, breathtaking panorama, the vastness of the Namibian landscape opened up before me. Dry and undulating, the horizon stretched out for miles in every direction. The sky arced above, impossibly blue, streaked with wisps of white cloud that made it seem even higher.
I felt my spirit soar as the mountains and the flat dry grass plains unfolded. It reminded me of the sensation I had years ago when flying over the Moroccan coastline on the journey back to South Africa from Europe. Crossing that boundary between sea and land, where the turquoise Mediterranean gives way to deep, folded mountains and harsh, primeval rock formations, I knew I was on my way home at last. Africa’s uniquely rugged, uncompromising landscape defines the continent, all the way down to Table Mountain. Its geography of grandeur never leaves the soul, no matter how far you travel or how long you stay away.
The call had come out of the blue. A German television company wanted me to help them research a travel documentary in Namibia. I would spend the next three months driving in and out of the country, often on my own, scouring the back roads for quirky, unusual places and people.
I had some experience of 4WD driving in South Africa and Botswana’s Central Kalahari, but I’m certainly no expert. Frankly, the thought of driving so far and for so long on my own was slightly daunting, but I welcomed the challenge. I knew I was unlikely to encounter real danger. Namibia is mostly a safe, friendly and efficient place in which to travel. Still, breaking down or getting lost alone is no fun, and I hoped that wouldn’t happen to me.
My first journey was into the far north to meet the Himba people who live on the Angolan border. “If you value your kidneys,” said Marlien, a lodge owner who I met on the balcony of her lovely home in Windhoek, “don’t drive too fast. The roads are filled with small dongas that you hit quite unexpectedly.”
She was right. The sand roads in Namibia are well maintained, but in the north an extinct riverine system has left thousands of small gullies (dongas) all across the landscape.
I drove first through Ovamboland. Here, the main roads are mostly tarred; a 4WD is not essential, but it does help in getting to some of the more remote destinations. The towns and villages are small and far apart. Most of the local Ovambo people live in tiny communities of thatched huts and cattle and goat kraals made of acacia logs stuck upright into the sand. There is a harsh, shimmering beauty to the sun-beaten landscape.
The flat pans in this region are known as oshana and the tall, exotic-looking palms are known as makalani. The roadsides are dotted with cuca shops with names like Lucky Bar, Back of the Moon and 7 to 7, where you can speak to the locals over an ice-cold Coke or a bottle of Castle beer. One night I found myself at a tiny lodge, enjoying a Russian sausage and chips, some Tassies red wine in a thick glass, and the unexpected sound of Jim Reeves crooning “You’ll never be unhappy again”.
I drove further north and west to Opuwo in Kaokoland, where I came to Himba country. Here most people still live in a traditional way, smearing ochre and butter fat over their bodies and wearing loincloths, handmade jewellery and distinctive hairdos. They are a people straddling the past and the present. Many are still semi-nomadic, moving seasonally with their cattle in search of grass and water in the dry months, but returning to their villages in the rains.
If you have a 4WD, extra petrol and two spare tyres, I recommend the relatively tough and very stony drive along the old South African army road which follows the Kunene River along the border between Namibia and Angola, from the Epupa Falls – a mini-version of the Victoria Falls – to the spectacular Ruacana Falls. The Kunene is one of the most remote and picturesque rivers in Africa. Here, green waters glide past vegetation-covered islands and crocodiles sun themselves in the shallows close to the pale sandy banks. Seeing a full moon throwing a silver glow over the dark flowing waters and the stony hills is an unforgettable way to drift asleep at the river’s edge.
I bought a large hand-made Himba knife in a leather scabbard as a souvenir. At a garage near Ruacana I stopped to fill up and clean the grass seeds out of my radiator with my new knife. “You have a katana,” the attendant said to me with a smile, curious that I was using a local artefact. I felt an excited chill as he uttered the word ‘katana’. It is the Japanese name for the samurai sword; the word was brought to the Himba by the Portuguese explorers whose caravels landed in Namibia and Angola from the late-1400s onwards, fresh from their search for Marco Polo’s fabled Jipangu, or Japan. Our modern world is full of connections that are older and more complex than we know.
I returned to Windhoek for a much-needed rest. It has a population of just 250,000 or so, but there is a cosmopolitan feel to its streets that blends Namibian, European and South African influences in equal measure. Curio stalls selling anything from ostrich eggs to copper bracelets stand alongside old buildings which would look at home in Bavaria or on the banks of the Rhine. Kwaito music mingles with African gospel. Tourists and locals sip coffee or lager at pavement cafes while traditionally-clad Herero women stroll past in magnificent wide-skirted dresses and pointed headgear.
Etosha is an easy day’s drive north of Windhoek. It’s one of the largest game parks in Africa, with huge, flat open spaces which make for perfect game-viewing. Better opportunities for photographing wildlife are hard to find. It was founded in March 1907 by the German governor von Lindequist. In only two days in Etosha I managed to see the usual zebra, warthogs, ostriches and so on, plus three lions, two of them mating, a herd of elephant coming down to drink at a waterhole in the late afternoon, two male impala fighting and a herd of giraffe galloping across the dusty pan against the backdrop of a scarlet and bronze sunset – a perfect African moment.
The Beau Geste-like ramparts of the old colonial Fort Namutoni shimmer in the heat across Etosha’s famous salt pan, which at nearly 5000 square kilometres is a sight in itself. Driving along its edges, the contrast between the dry salt depressions and the last of the shallow puddles left over from the rainy season makes for an exquisite, complex pattern of colours and textures which leaves you understanding the value of water in this fragile semi-desert. The open views to the horizon are breathtaking and unique.
South of Windhoek, the countryside seems vast. In the centre of the Namib-Naukluft Park is Sossusvlei, one of my top ten unmissable African sights. The delicate, layered splendour of the desert at sunrise or sunset is exquisite. If you can afford it, a balloon flight at dawn is an experience you will never forget. Hanging silently and utterly still over the dunes as the sun comes up behind the curve of the earth, you look down at the combination of desert sands, atmospheric dust and long, sloping rays which create colours that you will never see anywhere else.
From Sossusvlei I drove out of the desert through the Namib Rand private reserve. The distances are long and the scenery so vast and ancient that driving through them, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows across the veld, was exhilarating. I played my Buddha Bar compilation at full volume as I drove through the pristine, mountainous terrain that was layered blue and dove grey in the ever-nearing horizon. Alone in the car with the music and my own thoughts, the outward journey turned inwards, until it took on a solitary, almost spiritual quality.
As the sun was setting crimson and turquoise, I came to the tiny town of Aus and the grassy plains that lie to the south and west. Klein-Aus Vista Lodge is worth an overnight stay to see the wild desert horses that roam the southernmost tip of the Namib Naukluft. There are many rumours about the origins of these horses. Some believe that the animals are descended from cavalry horses that were abandoned by the German Imperial Army. Another theory is that they originally escaped from a stud owned by Baron Captain Hans-Heinrich von Wolf - the original owner of Duwisib Castle. A third suggestion is that their descendants escaped from a shipwreck on the coast. The truth is probably a combination of all of these theories. Over succeeding generations, the horses have become truly wild and researchers have discovered slight genetic modifications that enable these horses to endure thirst and the stress of desert life better than ordinary horses.
West of Aus is Lüderitz, an almost forgotten German colonial enclave surrounded by desert dunes. There is a peaceful melancholy to this windswept coastline, where mist comes unexpectedly up off the cold Atlantic ocean and the road signs warn you to beware of the violent sandstorms that can scour the paintwork of your car. Lüderitz was the site of the first German settlement in Namibia in 1883, although the first Europeans to land here were the crew of Bartholomew Diaz who landed here in 1488 and erected a stone padrão, or cross, to mark his ‘discovery.’ Lüderitz is a quaint, somewhat eccentric town, but the oysters here are worth the trip alone. They are small but suffused with a rich metallic tang. I ate mine with such obvious enjoyment one night that my dinner companions were embarrassed by the ‘erotic’ grunts I was making as I swallowed them down.
Just outside Lüderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. Once it was a thriving diamond mining town where water cost more than champagne and diamonds sold for millions of rands on the tiny stock exchange. The town died almost as quickly as it had sprung up, leaving the desert to slowly reclaim the buildings. Wandering through the abandoned, sand-filled houses is a strange experience: doors are jammed open by drifts of white sand, light switches still wait to be tripped, broken glass tinkles in the slight breeze.
Here, with the sinking sun softening the light, I stood at an empty window that opened out onto the immensity of the wind-blown desert beyond. I remained there for a long time, just looking. There was something I wanted to remember about that image – something haunting and surreal – a reminder of the unique beauty of this land. In the meeting of sky and earth, its vast wildernesses coloured by mythical, dust-wrought sunsets and desert moons, it retains a purity that exemplifies the quintessence of Africa.