Namibia, the land of never-ending color, rock formations and haunting emptiness, is a vast and barren region in the south-western corner of the African continent — wedged between Angola to the north, Botswana to the east, South Africa in the south and the foreboding Atlantic Ocean to the west. Remarkably, only two-million people call this place home.
The many faces of Namibia weaves an equally wonderful tapestry, threaded by a dozen cultural groups, including the Wambo, who comprise nearly half the population; the Herero, historically a nomadic pastoralist people; and the San bushmen, hunter-gatherers by tradition. There are also a number of Namibians of European decent, reflecting the land’s occupation by Germany and South Africa before independence in 1990.
Namibia contains one of the oldest deserts in the world; the largest canyon, second only to the Grand Canyon; and is also home to the world’s highest dunes, towering over their nearest rivals in Arabia.
I started my Namibian experience in the south at the remote and immensely appealing hamlet of Luderitz, a tiny fishing village forgotten by time.
The barren beauty of the desert landscape offsets the colonial architecture, revealing its Bavarian history as the first German settlement in South West Africa, the name Namibia was formerly known by. Luderitz began life as a trading post, a fishing port and guano-harvesting town. Then diamonds were discovered in a neighboring town in the early 1900s and Luderitz enjoyed a sudden surge of prosperity. Now that the diamonds are gone, Luderitz again finds itself shrouded in solitude between the encroaching tangerine colored dunes and the inhospitable South Atlantic Ocean attacking its shores.
My first impression of Luderitz was that of a slightly run-down and tired old lady. Its character comes from the eclectic selection of colorful colonial homes, churches and buildings complete with turrets, gables and bay windows.
Heading a few miles out Luderitz, towards the ghost town of Kolmanskop, I became mesmerized by the sand blowing over the road. It made for difficult driving conditions as I could not see where the desert began or the road ended. Once home to several hundred affluent colonists who lived in large, stately homes, Kolmanskop is now abandoned. The numerous grand and elegant dwellings which remain are now eroded by the winds and are gradually becoming enveloped by the encroaching Namib sands.
Further south, and some distance inland, lies the spectacular Fish River Canyon. At its base, the Fish River twists and turns, its clear water tumbling over rocks. In the early morning you can hear the bark of baboons echo around the rocks and small buck dart up gullies. Wild life teems in the area — kudu, leopard and mountain zebra, whose tracks you may come across, but seldom see, secret themselves away from humans. From the top of the canyon the view can only be described as breathtaking. There are no shops or kiosks, only a bench in the shade. You may find your camera unable to do justice to this natural magnificence.
From the Fish River I traveled north and found the famed dunes of Sossusvlei, home to the world’s highest dunes. Viewed from a hot air balloon at sunrise, I could see why this country was considered a photographer’s dream as around me, and beyond the horizon rose immense apricot colored dunes. Below I saw a lone antelope making its way up a dune, when he reached the summit he tossed his head then stabbed at the sky with gigantic horns. As I passed overhead, he looked up, snorting defiantly at my intrusion.
A few hours later I headed north to Namibia’s summer capital, the old coastal town of Swakopmund — one of the most surreal spots in the country. Approaching the town at sunrise I witnessed the arrival of the morning fog, born out of the sea. It washed over the beach then rolled along the sleepy town’s roads, first obscuring the gutters, then the sidewalks, finally blurring the buildings themselves. The mist had a distinctive seagull smell about it and my line of sight was shortened, which made my heart uneasy when all I could see was the Bavarian spires and the only sound was the constant boom of the sea. But the fog soon dissolved before the scorching sun, revealing a town which is an eclectic mixture of Bohemian and Bavarian architecture and home to an intriguing mix of artists, hippies, strait-laced descendants of German settlers, stately Herero women in Victorian dress, and hard bitten miners, game rangers, safari operators and fishermen. Swakopmund is a little corner of old Bavaria wedged between a barren wilderness and an inhospitable coastline.
I boarded a light aircraft and traveled north of Swakopmund to the golden dunes of the Skeleton Coast. This rugged coastline is home to an immense seal colony, flocks of flamingos and skeletal shipwrecks — the strong currents, treacherous fog and shifting underwater sandbanks marooned many early explorers. Most of these relics are strewn along the misty, unending stretch of coast — a gripping sight and spectacular photography.
I continued on to the secluded Serra Cafema Camp in the extreme north of Namibia, bordering Angola, were I decided to treat myself to a few days of luxury. Sipping champagne and languishing in my private pool I contemplated the sunset, rugged mountains and sand dunes about me and felt certain this had to rank as one of life’s ultimate indulgences. Serra Cafema is built on an island of Albida trees and overlooks the Kunene River — home to Africa’s rarest bird, the Cinderella Waxbill. This peaceful and spacious rustic camp is one of the most remote in Southern Africa and has a Himba settlement nearby, allowing interaction with some of the last nomadic tribes in Africa — an unforgettable cultural experience.
At breakfast the following morning the camp’s guide, Moses, advised the small Japanese tourist group and me that we would all be going for a boat ride down the Kunene to watch crocodiles basking on the river banks. Knowing the perils which lay ahead I took the sensible precaution of aestheticizing myself with several glasses of red wine, a suggestion I shared with my fellow travelers, who were all unusually subdued when climbing into the boat. I felt certain we were all quietly aware that this very morning we would all meet our certain deaths. All with the exception of Moses, who clearly feared nothing. By the time we returned to camp I was almost calm. The Japanese tourists, now exhilarated, continued with numerous activities — quad biking on the dunes and a 4x4 safari game drive. I opted for recovering next to the pool.
The following evening I boarded a light aircraft bound for Gobabis, which is on Namibia’s eastern border with Botswana. The flight itself was without incident but a perplexing problem arose when the pilot could not find the runway on which to land. He was convinced someone had forgotten to switch on the runway lights before going home. After numerous fly by’s an alarm sounded, soon followed by an audible “oh-oh”, which was by no means comforting as the alarm indicated a fuel shortage. A moment later the pilot shrieked and announced that he had found the runway. He tilted the plane so steeply that I sometimes still sit upright in bed at 3am thinking about it. I was again comfortably certainty that I was going to die and then, I saw the runway. The plane landed hard and felt as if it was broad-siding. For a long and frightening moment I felt certain the plane would disintegrate, but the pilot held it together. After a small eternity we came to a stop just outside of a hanger and that was where I made a silent promise, a promise that however many years were left to me and wherever my travels took me, the only way I would ever be killed by a light aircraft is if one fell on me.
Still feeling a little weak, I slowly walked towards the chauffeur and vehicle parked adjacent to the hanger, sent for me by the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary. Harnas is the only sanctuary of its kind in Africa and runs a working guest program, which was especially designed to fulfill most eco-tourists dreams of working in the wild. Harnas is located on 100 square miles of land as has been fenced by its international patron, Angelina Jolie. As a result, Harnas has successfully released many wild animals that have undergone full rehabilitation. Angelina filmed part of “Beyond Borders” on Harnas where she met and fell in love with ‘Goeters’, a domesticated cheetah belonging to the owner, Marlice Van Vuuren: “We built Angelina a little home on Harnas and hope she’ll visit us again soon.”
In the morning a San-bushman guided me to the waterhole where we silently observed numerous wild animals converge to the waters edge. He told me of the animals the sanctuary saves, rehabilitates and then releases back into the wild. We walked past the nursery and I watched in amazement as one of the working guests bottle fed a frisky lion cub.
My last day in Namibia was spent in its cosmopolitan capital city, Windhoek. This is a city that has successfully combined innovative modern constructions with old German colonial architecture. The town centre is a pedestrianized walkway with shops and market stalls. Several sidewalk cafés in this area make for great ‘people watching’. In fact, I found there to be such diversity I could easily have sat there all day. As capital cities go, this is one of the safest and most relaxed in Southern Africa and a perfect place to start or finish a Namibian holiday.
I left Namibia with a little sand in my pocket and full appreciation of her beauty. There much more to experience and many places to see, but for this middle-aged traveller, with now somewhat frayed nerves, I needed to head home — although, this was an extreme vacation I would definitely repeat.