Windhoek - It’s flat, it’s white. Its name means “Great White Place”.
The midday heat’s shimmering mirages give it the air of an alien land in another galaxy. The fine powdery white sand gets into the smallest nooks and crannies. You certainly don’t believe the Etosha Pan and its surroundings could be home to much animal or plant life.
But when you start to explore the forbidding landscape, you discover that this 23 000km² national park in northern Namibia is home to myriad fauna and flora.
You won’t find them on the pan, though. That dried-up 120km lake, which occupies about 4 800km² of the park, is not where the animals congregate. They prefer the waterholes - some seasonal, but most man-made - that dot the bush fringes of the pan.
On a single day’s drive through Etosha, we were rewarded with magnificent sightings of animals.
Imagine seeing 17 giraffe, 11 elephants as well as kudu, oryx (gemsbok), springbok, zebra, impala, eland and warthog at the Chudop waterhole, near Namutoni, in an hour. It was certainly a sight to treasure.
Our good fortune continued as we found the Kalkheuwel waterhole, about 20km from Chudop, was another wildlife haven.
Here, there were more than 20 elephants, probably more than 50 zebra, and a variety of other game.
The cherry on top came at the end of the day’s drive , at the Ombika waterhole, just before one leaves through Andersson’s Gate after passing the Okaukuejo resort.
The day drive through Etosha gave us the opportunity to call in at the three rest camps run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts - Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo.
Although they have changed and grown bigger since I last visited them many years ago, they were somewhat rundown and the facilities were disappointing.
It seems many visitors choose to stay in the lodges on the fringes of the park rather than stay in the national resorts. This was one of the things we noticed on the extended road trip we took through Namibia.
We chose to drive into the park from the magnificent Onguma Game Reserve Lodge near the eastern boundary of Etosha.
Onguma, a collection of attractive and imposing buildings in the Afro-Moroccan style, is a true oasis with a spectacular, lit waterhole teeming with fish and overlooked by the lodge’s dining area.
The dining was elegant and memorable, with well-cooked game on the menu - an item we found at all the lodges at which we stayed.
Not only did we see a fair variety of game, but a number of interesting birds, including a magnificent eagle owl.
The following morning we were treated to the enthralling mating ritual of a large kudu bull and a young ewe, an attempt that proved unsuccessful - at least while we were watching.
Namibia is still Big Sky country, it is still wild, it is different from anything else you will see in southern Africa and it should therefore be on your bucket list, as it was for me and my wife, Meg.
It’s not a trip to be undertaken lightly: the distances are vast (some people are deterred by this, it is true) and many South Africans consider it too remote for a holiday visit.
Mind you, it is a comparatively short trip by air - two hours from Joburg or Cape Town, opposed to between 12 and 14 hours by road along the most direct routes.
Our group of four couples decided that a 10-day road trip through this starkly beautiful country with its diverse cultures would allow us to tick off those bucket lists.
Two couples flew in, one couple were living in Windhoek and the fourth took the long road from Knysna that added several days to their holiday.
We all met up that first night for dinner at the well-known Joe’s Restaurant in Windhoek.
This restaurant, with its off-the-wall decor, proved a big disappointment for food and service. It was packed with diners and this possibly contributed to the situation.
The next morning we set off on the first leg of our adventure: a drive to the Omaruru Game Lodge, where we arrived during mid-afternoon.
This was in time to see the cheetahs and leopard - in separate enclosures - being given their evening meal before we had sundowners and dinner, followed by the experience of touching two rhinos while they were feeding on seedpods at the waterhole adjoining the lodge’s restaurant.
One of the rhinos, Chookie, had an unusual companion, Natalie, a goose that stayed up close and personal with its huge friend. Also at the well-lit waterhole were a host of other animals.
Our game drive the next morning was also unusual in that five elephants - females Nina and Laura and three of their offspring - came to our Land Rover for breakfast, evidently knowing the sound of the approaching vehicle meant a bale of lucerne and assorted fruit, which they picked out of our hands with their trunks.
Then it was on to Etosha and its amazing, other-worldly air.
From the game park, we headed south to what would be one of the highlights of the trip: the Vingerklip.
Basing ourselves at the Vingerklip Lodge, the best we visited during the trip, we could take in what is the most dramatic rock formation in Namibia - the 35m Vingerklip or Finger of Stone, which rises majestically above the ancient landscape known as the Ugab terraces.
It is situated just off the C39 from Outjo to Khorixas, and surrounded by miles and miles of nothing - or so it seems.
The lodge buildings are in a stunning setting, blended into the rocky outcrops near the Vingerklip.
One may walk to the Vingerklip or drive there if you have a 4x4.
We took the latter, easier, route and only had a short climb to the foot of this imposing sedimentary rock pillar that is being worn away by wind, sand and water.
You are not allowed to climb the rock formation, which is on private land surrounded by a game fence.
Vingerklip is sometimes confused with another pillar of rock in Namibia. The second finger, which was near Keetmanshoop, was known as Mugorob or the Finger of God. It was 12m in height and collapsed in December 1988.
The beautiful and well-equipped Vingerklip Lodge also offers first-class cuisine.
Those who don’t have a fear of heights may climb a metal staircase affixed to the side of the mountain, to the Eagle Nest restaurant on the top, where they may enjoy a meal.
There is also accommodation for a couple wishing to have a special and memorable experience staying on a mountain top.
On our final stop before returning to Windhoek, we spent three nights at a B&B, Meike’s Guest House, in the German-era holiday resort town of Swakopmund.
This allowed us to experience a number of activities in this town and in nearby Walvis Bay, while also going to several eateries, including the magnificent old Hansa Hotel dining room.
Good news for nature lovers is that there are strict rules regarding off-road driving in the coastal region in the Swakopmund and Walvis Bay area.
A new nature park, Dorob (Dry Land), was gazetted in 2010.
Covering 41 500km², it is 1 600km in length and stretched between 50km and 100km inland. There are strict controls and operators have to be licensed and stick to the tracks in the desert plains to avoid doing damage to the environment that cannot be erased.
Our first outing was into the desert with the Living Desert touring company. The aim was to show us the Little Five desert creatures.
We saw the white lady spider, geckos, a legless lizard and a sidewinder snake - but the tour operator could not find a chameleon for us.
However, it was absorbing listening to facts and figures about the fauna and flora that exist in the desert, some of them unique to the area.
The following day was beautiful, clear and fairly warm, ideal for our sightseeing trip into Walvis Bay on a catamaran, Silver Wind.
While we were heading for Pelican Point, we were visited by tame pelicans and a huge seal, after their morning snack of fish.
Our charming guide from Catamaran Charters was a fount of knowledge and amazing statistics: cormorants, of which there are about 70 000 in the Walvis Bay area, weigh on average about 500g, but can easily eat more than their body weight when, as a flock, they feed on schools of fish.
Pelicans weigh about 10kg and eat more than 1kg of fish a day.
Add the voracious appetites of the hordes of seals, and the fishing stock in this region takes a big hit every day!
We were also fortunate to cruise alongside two dolphins.
That afternoon we went for a drive around the huge commercial salt pans, where it was amazing to see the crystals forming geometric shapes.
On our way there we saw masses of rose-coloured flamingos standing on one leg and involved in the apparently never-ending search for food in the shallow water of coastal lagoons.
Next on the bucket list was a visit to the famous Dune 7, which is also near Walvis Bay. It is reputedly the highest dune in the world and two energetic members of our party successfully scrambled up the steep slope to the top, where they said the view was amazing.
Thankfully the tough new off-road driving regulations mean there are no longer motorcycles and quad bikes roaring up and down the dune.
That was enough exertion for our touring party for one day as we are all in the senior citizen category.
However, for the younger generation, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay offer many other activities, ranging from guided quad bike tours to hot-air ballooning, horse riding, go-karting, and a paint ball and adventure park.
Our farewell dinner that evening was at the historic Jetty 1905 restaurant, set way into the bay on a long jetty that was built by Germans and completed in 1905 for the off-loading of ships.
The fine dining restaurant not only had an unusual location, but served good food.
Our last day in Swakopmund, a Saturday, was spent shopping and enjoying the pavement cafe life before hitting the long, straight road back to Windhoek.
We had time for some sightseeing in Windhoek, where we visited the recently opened and imposing gold-coloured Independence Memorial Museum. It showcases the struggle for independence, which Namibia achieved in 1990.
Namibia is a fascinating place, with a variety of unique landscapes.
If it is not on your bucket list, it should be.
* The author paid all expenses on this trip; there were no “freebies” in exchange for possible publicity.
Tips and hints
Namibia is a clean and tidy country and an excellent example to South Africans about pride in keeping towns, cities and highways clean; the plastic bag is certainly not a national flower there.
Namibians people are friendly and helpful. The wide range of food and drinks ensures enjoyable meal times!
If you have a foreign-registered vehicle make sure you have a national sticker affixed to the rear (for South Africa, it's ZA). There are permanent and temporary roadblocks and this transgression carries a hefty fine. Keep your Namibian third party insurance form in your car as failure to do so can also result in a fine.The author paid all expenses on this trip; there were no “freebies” in exchange for possible publicity.
Facts and figures
It has a land area of 825 615km2 with a population of 2.3 million people, making it the sixth least densely populated country in the world after Mauritania, Suriname, Iceland, Australia and French Guiana with 2.56 people per km2. It is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa and relies heavily on groundwater. Average rainfall is about 350mm a year.
The country's first inhabitants were the San, Damara and Namaquas who arrived there in the 14th century. The Namib (from Nama - “vast place”) coastal desert is one of the oldest deserts in the world - 55-80 million years old.
English is the country's official language, but Afrikaans and German are widely spoken.
Windhoek is the most populous city with 322 000 people living in the national capital.
Most of the territory became a German Imperial protectorate in 1884 and remained a German colony until after World War I. In 1920, the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN) mandated the country to South Africa.
It is now a peaceful democracy having obtained independence from South Africa in 1990. However, Walvis Bay, which was annexed by the British Crown in 1878 and then taken over by South Africa in 1910, was only handed to Namibia in 1994.
Tourism contributes 14.5 percent to the GDP and 18 percent of employment. Other major contributors are mining (uranium, gold, silver and base metals) and agriculture.