Just Desert? Not in Namibia

© Driving across Damaraland

Trek along the Dorsland trail northwards into Namibia and you are bound to discover a lot more than just desert. Jacques Marais explored this vast country and found a veritable playground brimming with affordable adventure and leisure options.

Not surprisingly, most people imagine Namibia to be a vast and arid landscape on which the harsh African sun beats down for just about 365 days a year. Those who delve deeper though, venturing beyond the towering dunes and sandstone canyons, will discover a diverse country blessed with fragile wetland systems, thundering waterfalls, mysterious inland lakes and haunting desert tribes.One of Africa's largest countries, it is impossible to do justice to all Namibia has to offer in a single article, so we decided to make it easy on you. In the next five pages we have highlighted ten sure-fire active and leisure options that epitomises the best our north-western neighbour has on its desert menu.

Game, Sit and Watch

Hit the well-traveled tourist route to The Great White Place (the Ovambo meaning of the word Etosha), a national park nearly 23 000km.sq in size and rated as one of the world's greatest wildlife reserves. Here you will be able to get up close and personal with prime big game specimens prowling an arid savanna habitat surrounding a vast white, clay pan. Summer rains occasionally transforms the pan into a shallow lake where flocks of up to a million flamingos may be scattered like confetti while, on the shimmering horizon, herds of elephant and ungainly giraffe loom large against a landscape of stunted trees and rocky outcrops.Spiral-crowned kudu, strutting kori's bustard and glossy gemsbok teem in thriving abundance, skittishly aware of their constant proximity to the soft pad of lion prides of lion and lissome cheetah. Etosha offers various accommodation options, ranging from camping to thatched bungalows in three rest camps; the historic Namutoni in the east, the centrally situated Halali and Okakuejo in the west.

Adventures in Wanderland

Maybe not quite as big as the kloof in Uncle Sam's backyard, but certainly a heck of a lot cheaper to get to (and with a refreshing lack of fast food outlets to boot, if you'll excuse the pun). The Fish River Canyon has gouged a gargantuan scar through the ancient bedrock of Namaland, stretching more than 161km from its top end to Ai-Ais to create one of Africa's most popular hiking destinations.Take a giant tramp for hiking kind along the gruelling 90km trail, traversing a contorted sandstone, shale and lava gorge dating back more than 800 million years. Although the Fish River Canyon remains Namibia's premier hiking destination, many walkers are these days opting for lesser-known but equally arduous treks such as the 120km Naukluft Hiking Trail, the three-day Ugab Trail or the Uniab Delta walk.

The Art of Hard Rock

Grind it out with gravity as you gear into vert mode within the surreal scenery surrounding Bushman's Paradise. Once a stronghold of tribal San shamans, these granite inselbergs form the Pondok mountains, a bizarre range of granite domes protruding like plump breasts from the Damaraland plains. Rock climbers from the world over journey into this desolate hinterland to climb the exceptional routes traversing the blood-orange domes of Groot Spitzkoppe, at 1 800m the highest of the Pondok peaks.Most visitors to these mythical mountains come to enjoy the splendid isolation and spirituality of a place resonating with a trance-like energy reminiscent of a truly African Uluru. Overnight camping is permitted in a limited number of sheltered sites; otherwise get in touch with Walker's Rock & Rope Adventures on Tel. (+264-64) 40 3122 to arrange a day trip filled with mountaineering mayhem.

Grand Canyon Bathing

Tramp into the early dawn from Ai-Ais, passing placid river pools reflecting the amber grandeur of the Fish River canyon. Early Khoi tribesmen once walked this meandering riverbed and, like them, you are bound to glimpse clouds of steam floating above whispering reed beds. Enjoy an authentic African spa bath by immersing yourself in one of these natural springs, soaking up the natural minerals coursing up from the bowels of the earth.Lie back and stare up at the wide expanse of the Namibian sky, tracing the flight paths of eagles and buzzards cruising the air currents until your stresses soak away into the endless expanse. Escape the soaring temperatures by retracing your footsteps to Ai-Ais Resort, plunging into one of the bracingly cool pools to conclude your session of desert therapy.

Wave Play

Go completely coastal along the chilly Atlantic, escaping the gritty heat of terra firma to surge into an exhilarating aqua playground where dolphins splash along the edge of an eerie desert wraithed in mist. The freezing Benguela current along Namibia's 1400km coastline sustains a marine environment teeming with abundant underwater life, enticing you into exploring a diverse ocean paradise.Launch your sea kayak from Dolphin Beach near Swakopmund, heading south along the windswept shoreline in the direction of Walvis Bay. Drift on the tidal currents into the Walvis Bay Lagoon which forms part of one of Africa's most important wetland systems, delighting in the flutter and flash of up to 80 000 sea birds.

Sands of Silence

Slip-slide beyond Sesriem along the gnarly gash of a gravel road before stomping into the singing sands of what is reputed to be the highest sand dunes in Africa (not quite true, as they rest upon a sandstone base). Nevertheless, Sossusvlei remains a place of uncanny spirituality where you are able to sense the presence of generation upon generation of San warriors upon the dry-as-dust desert breeze.Here the Tsauchab River battles in vain against the harshness of the Namib desert, gamely filling the expansive clay pan to form a vlei that shimmers like a mirage for no more than a few months every decade or two. Camp at Sesriem (or book into the Movenpick Sossusvlei Lodge if budget allows) and explore the fascinating dunescape from there. Climb to the top of the towering dunes or book a sandboarding trip for a day stoked with thrills and spills.

Caprivi Cool

Goodbye desert and hello water world! Navigate your way northwards to where the Caprivi strip extends a probing finger along borders with Botswana, Angola and Zambia to tickle Zimbabwe right in the Matetsi Safari area. An excellent tar road (courtesy of a best-forgotten border war with the Rooi Gevaar) traverses the Kavango region to cut through the quim of the Caprivi, allowing easy access to what is probably Namibia's best kept tourism secret.Here the Okavango, Kwando, Linyanti and Zambezi Rivers caress a verdant vitality into the landscape. Arid plains are replaced by a lush landscape resplendent with wetland marshes, flood plain forests and densely vegetated river islands. 4x4 is the name of the game and a trip through four countries in one day is possible - contact Hannes Pretorius on zambezi@info.bw for more information.

Important Travel Information

Currency: Namibian Dollars Exchange Rate: One-on-one to the Rand (which can be used in most transactions) Language: Afrikaans, English and German are all official languages
Transport: Excellent roads, a reasonable rail network and charter flights between major centres
Health: Low Malaria risk in the northern region and rivers here are often infected with bilharzia
Crime: Low risk country by African standards Climate: Mild winters (with freezing nights), but temperatures red-line from October to April
Local Time: Greenwich Mean Time plus 0 hours
Entry Requirements: A valid passport, but as a South African you do not require a visa
Further reading: Struik GLOBETROTTER Guide to Namibia by Bill & Andrea Revilio
by Jacques MaraisCopyright © 2002 Jacques Marais. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.
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