Namibia's arid south offers travellers a string of dream desert destinations . Jacques Marais explored this ancient land of contrasts to discover a country where the Rand will still buy you a full hundred cents worth of adventure.Travel north along South Africa's desolate western escarpment and you will pass through the colourful Namauqua and rugged Bushmanland regions before reaching a verdant gorge carving a jagged course through the arid landscape. Forged by the mighty Gariep River, this valley separates South Africa from Namibia, a vast and sparsely populated country once cheekily regarded as the fifth province of our country.One of Africa's success stories, Namibia attained its independence as recently as 1990 and soon embarked upon more than a decade of ongoing prosperity and stability. This equilibrium, together with its endless dunescapes, wide sky vistas, abundant wildlife and solid infrastructure, position it as a favoured tourist destination for South Africans yearning for a cosmic, cross-border escape.
Negotiate the gravel highways north of Noordoewer to explore the spectacular Fish River Canyon, rated the world over as Namibia's premier geological attraction. Bold adventurers hike into the heart of this 160km long ravine (second in size only to America's Grand Canyon) to lose themselves in the cragged solitude of a gorge more than 1800 million years old. An arduous, 85km trail starts near Hobas to traverse a breathtaking tumble of amber sandstone, shale and lava before reaching the Ai-Ais resort at the southern trail head.According to popular myth, a band of itinerant Khoi people noticed a peculiarly low cloud suspended above a river pool here one chilly morning. Upon closer inspection, they found the water to be steaming hot, causing great excitement and exclamations of Ai-Ai! to echo into the morning air.This then is the origin of the name of the mineral springs, a small oasis consisting of campsites, self-catering accommodation, a fuel station, shop, thermal spa and invigorating outdoor pool. Enjoy a session of desert therapy by lazing in the rejuvenating mineral baths or explore the river in search of one of the more natural sulphur springs.
Continue west towards the coast from Damaraland along the ramrod straight, tarmac strip, setting course for the icy waters of the Atlantic ocean. As Namibia's foremost beach destinations, the towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay annually draw crowds of tourists intent on escaping to the moderate temperatures brought about by the cold Benguela current.Wander through the streets of Swakopmund to revel in the ornate architecture and delectable German confectionery available from street cafes, or to Dolphin Beache you may explore the coastline in a rented kayak. Inland adventures abound as well, with quad biking excursions into the vast dune sea stretching from Dune Seven ery popular with visitors.
You will be well advised to remember that these softly undulating coastal dunes qualify as one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, so stick to existing tracks to avoid unnecessary erosion or damage to the environment.
Walvis Bay also features one of the African west coast's most important inter-tidal wetland areas, with up to 80 000 birds, including chestnut-banded plovers, curlew sandpipers, flamingos, pelicans and sanderlings, sheltering in this nature reserve during summer.
Go desert tripping along the back roads beyond the Namib dunes and you will be able to savour the mind-expanding spaciousness of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the third biggest national park in Africa. This barren thirstland encompasses part of the oldest desert on Planet Earth, and Goanikontes oasis is just one of many unexpected surprises you may discover.
Dwarfed by the awe-inspiring Khan and Kuiseb River gorges, the camping area at Goanikontes shimmers into view along a remote gravel road bisecting this 50000 square kilometre national park.
It is within this extreme desert environment that the ancient welwitschia mirabilis flourish in tenacious abandon, with one huge specimen estimated to be at least 1 500 years old. Dinosaurs once stalked these extraterrestrial hills (often referred to as The Valley of the Moon) and their footprints, together with extraordinary examples of rock art, are beautifully preserved within the grandeur of this ageless land . Further south along the eastern border of the Namib-Naukluft, near the settlement of Sesriem, you will reach the soaring dunes of Sossusvlei.Their ever-shifting shapes and curves reflect the late afternoon light in a thousand shades of amber and apricot, etching dead trees in harsh contrast against ochre seas of sand. During seasons of exceptional rainfall, the Tsauchab River spills into the pan, creating a magical desert oasis which will inexorably drain away under the onslaught of the sun until only expanses of dry, cracked mud remains. Until the rain comes again and the desert metamorphose once more, enticing you to return to this ever-changing and ancient land.
Climate: Mild winters with below zero, nighttime temperatures; extreme heat from October to April.
Visas: None required, but remember to take along a valid passport.
Health: Malaria is a risk in the north, beware of exposure and dehydration in the desert.
Currency: South African Rands are accepted throughout the country.
Exchange Rate: One SA Rand = One Namibian Dollar.