The road sign says it all. “Sand!” I suppress a giggle, looking at the dunes to the left and right of the main road. “No kidding?!” I mutter, as we continue bumping our way north, in the middle of a desert, far removed from the comforts of home and surrounded by, well, lots of sand.
Welcome to Namibia. It used to belong to South Africa, and in many respects not much has changed – it is still very “Sefrican” with everyone speaking “lekker” Afrikaans, albeit with a funny accent. And the currency is common rated with the rand. But there’s an equal amount of German influence – this was, after all, one of Germany’s last great outposts in Africa and the language is still widely spoken.
However, while the culture and languages of its former “protectors” are widely in evidence, that’s where any similarity ends. Namibia is still very much undeveloped – indeed, only 2% of its roads are tarred. And that’s why I am bouncing around in a trusty, hired 4×4 combi… because that 2% ran out hours ago!
Yes. The highways and byways of Namibia are little more than dirt or, more appropriately, sand tracks. Which means if you are doing the old self-drive thing you absolutely need a 4-wheel drive and a greatly reduced tyre pressure to avoid spending time changing punctures. Which we’ve already done five times in two days of travelling.
But once you have the transport issues under control, Namibia is a fabulous, albeit vast place to explore.
Which is what I constantly remind myself as we continue to bump and grind our way south from Swakopmund – one of only a couple of happening places on the coast – to the one-horse town of Solitaire.
It’s day five of a nine-day tour and my backside has become accustomed to the vibration of the seat beneath it. My mind begins to drift like the never-ending sand outside the window… It all began in comfort on the tar road from Windhoek to Otjiwarongo, stopping en-route to take in the thrills of the predator rehabilitation project at Okonjima.
Then came the almost extra-terrestrial journey through the lonely landscapes of Outjo and Khorixas to the surreal moonscapes of Twyfelfontein. Here I survived a trek deep into the wastelands on a Unimog searching for desert elephants and wondered at the rock engravings made by ancient tribesmen seemingly before time began, before hauling ass across half the Namib to the fishing grounds of Henties Bay and the cool winds of the Atlantic. These transform the climate in a matter of kilometres from scorching desert heat to a biting cold requiring several more layers of clothing. It’s a chill which persisted until well past Swakopmund, but which has now vanished as we once more head for the deep desert and the towering red dunes of Sossusvlei.
But first, a night in Solitaire at the only place in town – Solitaire Country Lodge. It’s plain, it’s basic but the food and service are six-star, especially the apple pie which has, apparently, put the place on the map.
The run to Sossusvlei starts before sunrise with a packed breakfast from the lodge. It’s cool outside and as the first rays poke their heads over the towering cliffs of the Namib Naukluft we arrive in Sesriem. From here it’s hell-bent for leather to get to the vlei before the sun gets a grip, which it does very quickly in these parts. It’s strictly 4×4 country here, with deep red sand clawing at unsuspecting wheelbases. And deep red sand towering hundreds of metres in all directions, flowing like solid waves across the desert.
At last I’m standing in the middle of the sensational vlei. It’s 9am and the temperature gauge is fast approaching 45 degrees C. It’s an incredible heat, and yet things live here – gemsbok, geckos, goshawks. It’s the highlight of the trip and well worth the endless bumpy miles to get here.
By 10 am the temperature is virtually unbearable, so we hastily eat a packed brunch and make our way to Sossusvlei Lodge, at the gate to the Namib Naukluft National Park, our home for the night. By the time we check in the wind has picked up, and the interior of the lodge’s tents are something akin to a sauna, so I take a nap on the mercifully cool, tiled bathroom floor with a wet towel over me for added natural “air con”.
Late afternoon brings with it a game drive into the surrounding dunes and an incredible “surprise” dune dinner, set up amongst the rocky outcrops with a roaring fire and sumptuous braai and buffet. Above us, the most incredible night sky I have ever seen.
Tomorrow brings the all-day drive back to Swakopmund and an overnight on the Desert Express back to Windhoek, from which it’s home to sunny SA. But for now, it’s just sun. And sand. And suddenly that road sign makes perfect sense.