Into the Great Wide Open of Namibia

© Just sand and sky and you. Namib Desert

Infinite sun-scorched fields stretch faraway towards stark granite mountains. The contrasts of the desert are astounding as endless acres of barren beauty roll beneath blue skies, across parched yellow plains to distant golden dunes.

We're on the Kulala nature drive, an off-road excursion through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Sossusvlei vicinity. The towering sand dunes for which the area is famous are some distance away, but right here, the magnitude of the desert is overwhelming.

'A few months ago when we had big floods, these were raging rivers,' says our guide Sam, as he drives us through the dried up Tsauchub and Aus river beds. 'Some of the guests staying at the lodge were stuck there for two weeks. But I don't think they really minded,' he smiles.

Sam is a wealth of information and points out the spoor of hyena, jackal, Oryx, springbok and wild ostrich as we stop at an area where hundreds of bitter tsamma melons lie scattered on the ground. 'You see that big nest in the tree? It's the home of social weaver birds where up to 300 of them live together.'

All the animal and plant life in the area have adapted to the harshness of desert life. Sam shows us the odd-shaped moringa tree, whose roots extend into the earth for 15 metres in search of water.

We crest a dune and stop at the top to watch the desert sunset. The view below is magnificent as the last rays of light bathe the Namib sand in a soft golden glow. All around me is wide open space. Namibia is a claustrophobic's dream.

With great distances to cover, and many special places to stop at along the way, travelling in Namibia is best done by private vehicle. Apart from the remote northwestern region of Kaokoland, most gravel and dust roads are well maintained and accessible by sedan vehicles as well as four wheel drive.

It's a cold winter dawn as we head along the N7 out of Cape Town. Our Land Rover's filled to capacity and the roof rack is stacked tight. Soon we're passing the green fields of Malmesbury and Moorreesburg, then Citrsudal where orange trees hang heavy with fruit.

After a petrol stop in Vanrhynsdorp, the scenery begins to change with the lush pastures giving way to arid scrubland. Under a deep blue sky, we continue north past Bitterfontein, carefully dodging shredded tyres and roadkill. At the next bridge, we cross the Swartdoring River and officially enter the northern Cape. Then we flash past Garies and Kamieskroon before stopping at Springbok for a break.

As we approach the border at Vioolsdrif, incredible rock formations break the barren landscape. Towering hills and columns of stone line the road with windmills blurring in the breeze. With the sun starting to set, we drive over the Orange River and into Namibia. We're headed for Hobas, a small camp site north of Ai-Ais, just ten kilometres from the Fish River Canyon. Dust rolls in great billowing clouds behind our vehicle as we continue into the darkening night.

The main attraction of Hobas is the viewpoint over the Fish River Canyon, the starting point for the famous five-day hike that attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. The spectacular trail is only open from April to September as the rest of the year is simply too hot with temperatures reaching up to 45° C.

The next morning I awake to the twittering chorus of birds. There's a strong wind blowing and twisting columns of sand sift along the plains. Strapping on my helmet, I set off with my mountain bike on the dusty road to the viewpoint. For miles around, there's no sign of humanity and with the wind whipping me sideways, I bounce along in the relentless Richtersveldt heat.

A group of excited hikers are about to begin their adventure and gaze in awe at the gaping beauty of the canyon floor below. It's a tough hour's hike down to the river and I stride gingerly down the boulder-strewn path. Great folds of rock carved out over time zig zag down the gorge, curving around corners out of sight.

Often I lose track of the path and have to clamber across valleys of stone. It's eerily still and the only sound that breaks the silence is that of rocks crunching beneath my boots.

After a knee-wrenching descent, I finally reach the sandy banks and stark beauty of the Fish River. It's been a hot hike and the green waters seem inviting, so even though the river is freezing, I dive in and swim to the other side. All too soon, it's time to make my way back up. The ascent is steep, so sweating and swearing, I slog my way over loose stones, stopping every few minutes to catch my breath. By the time I reach the top, the sun's last rays are illuminating the upper canyon walls in a rich golden light.

The sky is darkening quickly but I've still got an hours cycle back to camp. A lone tree stands silhouetted against rich layers of sky as I speed along the road. With no moon and the light fading fast, the tracks ahead are almost invisible and by the time I reach Hobas, I'm cycling in the dark.

The sky is darkening quickly but I've still got an hours cycle back to camp. A lone tree stands silhouetted against rich layers of sky as I speed along the road. With no moon and the light fading fast, the tracks ahead are almost invisible and by the time I reach Hobas, I'm cycling in the dark.

The next day we continue north into the great wide open. After several hours drive however, Sossusvlei and the spectacular sand dunes of the Namib Desert are still many miles away. So with the sun setting and our petrol showing empty, we stop for the night at the desolate town of Seeheim.

Situated just off the main road from Keetmanshoop to Lüderitz, Seeheim is simply a stop-over for most travellers, a diesel and dust town with one hotel and a railway track. A far cry from it's glory days of the early 1900's when there were three hotels, a police station, post office, garage and a bank. But Zirkie Kloppers, owner of the Seeheim Hotel, is upbeat about the future. 'Life here is good,' he says, wrapped up in his trenchcoat against the evening chill. 'I've got two businesses back in South Africa but soon I'm going to move here permanently. With my hotel and game farm, what more could a man want?'

We make an early start the next morning as it's a seven hour drive ahead to Sesriem. A stiff breeze is blowing and small bushes take on a life of their own as they cartwheel across the road. To enjoy travelling through Namibia, one needs to settle into the rhythm of the road. Time spent behind the wheel cannot be seen merely as a means of getting from one place to another.

With long straight roads, miles become meaningless so you relax, admire the scenery and enjoy the ride. The terrain changes again and sand dunes begin to appear as we edge closer to the great Namib desert. It's been a long dusty day and the Naukluft mountains are glowing when we finally reach Sesriem.

The Mövenpick Sossusvlei Lodge is the perfect place to recharge one's body after a tiring day in the car. The lodge is run on an eco-friendly basis. All electrical appliances are solar-powered and, with water at a premium, the bathrooms are fitted with showers instead of baths. After a hot shower in the luxurious Bedouin-style tents with adobe walls and cool slate floors, we gorge ourselves at the sumptuous open air buffet while watching the moonlit dunes.

Sesriem is the gateway to one of Namibia's top tourist attractions, the Sossusvlei dunes, where a sunrise excursion is essential to see the golden sands at their best. This morning, however, I'm on a journey of a different kind. It's a perfect calm dawn and the sun hesitantly makes an appearance as our hot air balloon imperceptibly begins to drift skywards. We're soaring up in silence, the only sound being an occasional burst of flame on the burner by our pilot Thierry. 'We never know in which direction we're going to go,' he tells us. 'It all depends on the wind .. and where ever it takes us, we land.'

We're soaring up in silence, the only sound being an occasional burst of flame on the burner by our pilot Thierry. 'We never know in which direction we're going to go,' he tells us. 'It all depends on the wind .. and where ever it takes us, we land.'

The beauty of the desert is never more evident than seen floating from above. Like a big bright bird, we coast effortlessly above the Sesriem canyon 600 metres below. Small tributaries of dried up rivers snake across the parched land and in the distance all one can see is great oceans of sand.

'I love my job,' smiles Thierry, as he ignites another burst of flame into the coloured canopy. 'I never get bored and even though it's the same flight, every day seems different.' The hour flies past and suddenly we're descending. All too soon, Thierry guides us back to earth and we land in the middle of nowhere with a bump.

The next day we're treated to harsh images of an achingly beautiful land. Dead contorted tree stumps protrude grotesquely from the cracked clay earth. This is Dead Vlei, one of Africa's greatest sights and the weirdest place I've ever been. Nearby, Sossusvlei is still partially filled with water from recent rains but Dead Vlei last held water over 500 years ago and the air is too dry for the petrified camelthorn trees to rot. I've never seen anything like it and I walk around the strange landscape stunned, shooting roll after roll of film.

It's a further five kilometres through deep sand to Sossusvlei itself. The recent floods have washed away parts of the road and those without 4-wheel drive do the route by foot. I hike to the top of a dune and sit down to watch specks of humanity dwarfed by the immense mountains of sand.

Namibia's premier holiday resort is the west coast town of Swakopmund. It's another long drive but eventually we pass the sandy wastelands of Walvis Bay and cruise alongside the Atlantic Ocean into a misty Swakopmund.

With extensive tourist facilities, German architecture and old world charm, Swakopmund is a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. Adventure enthusiasts are also drawn to the area by the host of adrenalin-charged activities taking place in the dunes. The Swakopmund Adventure Centre offers thrill seekers a choice of quad bike riding, sand dune surfing and tandem skydiving.

I'm off for an afternoon of quad bikes, four-wheeled Breezers that can reach speeds of 75km/h. We leave the Swakop River mouth and coast along mist-shrouded slopes, swerving through sandy tracks and powering up big dipper dunes. The sandy terrain is an ecologically sensitive area and the quad bike trips are run in a responsible manner. Riders are instructed to follow existing tracks and not go off on their own.

It's another world out here and within minutes, I'm totally hooked on the speed and sand. Enveloped in the mist, we stop for a drink at the top of a steep dune and our guide Dave gives instructions on how to handle the sheer descent. 'Hold the handlebars straight, don't pull on the brakes, leave the throttle alone and enjoy the ride,' he smiles, before disappearing down the slope. This one isn't for the faint-hearted so I take a deep breath and lurch over the edge.

'Yee...haaa!!!' I scream, careering down the heart-stopping dune before levelling out after the wildest ride of my life. In a thin jersey and short pants, I'm a little underdressed for the fog, but with adrenalin rushing through my blood, I don't even feel the cold.

One excursion no tourist should miss when visiting Swakopmund is the Welwitschia Drive, a self-guided route that starts 20 kilometres from town and features the giant welwitschia mirabilis plant. These unique plants are only found in the Namib and the biggest specimens are estimated to be about 2000 years old.

Leaving the tar road, the drive takes us through the gravel plains of the Namib Naukluft Park. Down below in the Swakop River Valley, the spectacular scenery has appropriately been named the Moon Landscape for the lunar-like patterns that cut across the land.

We make several stops to inspect the strange plants and the large lichen fields. The lichens survive on moisture from the fog that often blankets the area and are best viewed in the early morning before they dry out and lose their colour in the hot sun.

The next day, as we're preparing to leave for Damaraland, disaster strikes. Oil in my car is mixing with water and the top gasket needs replacing. Only problem is there's no parts available in Namibia so spares have to be flown in from South Africa.

Fortunately my vehicle's under warranty so after two days of irate telephone calls, Land Rover relent and hire us a car. Glad to be leaving the Swakop stress, we head north along the coastal road towards Henties Bay. From there, it's a short dusty ride inland to the rocky spectacle of the Spitzkoppe.

Known as the 'Matterhorn of Namibia', these imposing granite mountains rise some 700m above the flat surrounding plains and are a paradise for rock climbers and campers alike. After setting up camp, it's time for a Spitzkoppe sunset photo shoot. The scenery around me is spectacular.

Towering cliff faces dominate the landscape and I clamber around massive boulders that seem to have been scattered by giants at play. The wind drops and the setting sun casts slanting shadows across the golden slabs of granite. Soft hues of purple and pink dance across the horizon as a full moon rises over the distant peaks of Damaraland.

Sometime in the early hours of morning, a wild wind blows in, threatening to tear away my tent. At dawn it's still raging and with the wind chill factor, the temperature is well below zero. Despite the cold, I'm up for sunrise and spend two shivering hours photographing rock rabbits, tenebrionid beetles, lazy lizards and peculiar trees. Then we wait for the sun to warm us before packing up and heading on towards Twyfelfontein.

A Herero man on his donkey cart gives us directions to the defunct mining town of Uis and we continue along the rutted road full of big squashed spiders. The midday sun beats down relentless and near the Ugab River, a sad-looking lady sits at her roadside stall selling Herero dolls. 'Not many cars pass by here,' she says in Afrikaans. 'The best I can hope for is to sell three a month.'

By the time we reach Twyfelfontein, it's almost sunset. But there's still enough light for a quick visit to the rock paintings for which the area is famous. Two circular walks have been laid out along the slopes of the flat-topped mountain where more than 2000 rock engravings, some dating back 6000 years, have been recorded.

Back in Swakopmund, there's more car trouble awaiting us. Replacing the gasket hasn't solved our problem so Land Rover are flying up a brand new engine and extending our car hire for a week. Just enough time for a trip up north to Etosha National Park and a quick jaunt into Kaokoland. Known as 'the great white place' because of its immense clay pan, Etosha is one of the world's greatest game parks. After a six hour drive from Swakopmund, it's late afternoon when we enter the park through the Andersson Gate. This is the dry season and there's plenty of game around. In the short drive to Okaukuejo rest camp, we see large herds of zebra, giraffe, gemsbok, impala and springbok.

With the sun turning the dusty landscape a rosy red, we arrive at Okaukuejo water hole and are treated to a spectacular wildlife sight. A large herd of at least forty elephant are having the time of their lives, slurping up water and rolling around in the mud. With dust and spray flying everywhere, all backlit by the sinking sun, it's truly a special scene. There's not a sound from us humble humans as we watch with awe the magnificence of the gentle beasts.

The next two days are spent exploring the animal world. Early mornings are the best, when huge herds of Burchell's zebra line up at water holes to drink. We also witness a male springbok attempting to mount his mate and another pair, dueling with horns locked. But the most prolific viewing is still at the Okaukuejo water hole which is always abuzz with thousands of animals coming to quench their thirst.

Elephant, Oryx, Gemsbok, Giraffe, Wildebeest, Mountain Zebra and springbok drink peacefully side by side as a meditative mood slips over Etosha in the midday heat. On my last game drive, I'm lucky enough to catch sight of a lone Leopard padding along the road before it slinks away into thick grass.

There's just ten mintes of sunlight left, and the rest camp gates close sharply at sunset, but a leopard sighting is rare so I cut it fine and stay to catch another glimpse of the beautiful cat. No luck however and I get back to camp as the gates begin to swing shut.

Situated in the north-western corner of Namibia is one of the world's last true wilderness areas, the remote Kaokoland. This rugged place, home to the nomadic Himba and the unique Desert Elephant, is in most parts only accessible by four wheel drive vehicle and large tracts remain unexplored.

We're on limited time and our hired car is a normal sedan, so Opuwo is as far as we can go. A true frontier town, Opuwo is the only place in the region where petrol and provisions can be bought. Travellers heading deeper into Kaokoland are advised to be totally self sufficient and, if possible, to travel in convoy with another vehicle.

Although most of the Himba settlements in Kaokoland are situated well off the beaten track, there are some villages near Opuwo that can be visited with a guide. One of these is Omagotanga where I meet the village chief, Kamorambwa Ngumbi. 'Life is very difficult for us,' says the chief through an nterpreter. 'There is not much rain and our crops do not grow well. But we meet at the holy fire every day to speak with our ancestors and ask them for good luck.'

The men have just killed a goat and in a Himba village, nothing goes to waste. The skin is used for clothing, the bones to make necklaces and the horns of cattle are used to store their red ochre powder.

Time passes too quickly in the great outdoors. After a fleeting detour back to Swakopmund to fetch my car, we begin the long drive homewards. Our final camp site is near Noordoewer, on the banks of the Orange River, with South Africa just a stones throw away.

Night draws a black veil over the moonless sky. I stretch out under the studded heavens and count shooting stars as they streak through the Milky Way. From across the plains comes the call of a jackal. I lie there, relaxed, long into the Namibian night.

Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Jowell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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