Windhoek - I know two Lynnes who had important tips to offer for my first trip to Namibia. First Lynne said: “Don’t trust a dry river bed to set up camp”. Second Lynne said: “Don’t be tempted by isolated roads for alfresco hanky panky. If you get caught, you’re bound to pass the same car somewhere along the line because there are only that many roads in Namibia.”
That pretty much sums up the story of a big country with a small population (about 2.3 million people). It’s a whole lot of gravel road and even more desert. But it’s the sand, solitude and solace that bring visitors to this part of the world.
You slow down in Namibia, you take your time. You know you’re gearing down the minute you land at Hosea Kutako international airport, 45km from the capital, Windhoek. There were only about four planes on the tarmac the day I arrived, all bearing the national carrier’s logo. Passport scanning hasn’t arrived yet in Namibia, so it takes a few minutes to fill in arrival forms, but time balances out because Namibia has daylight saving, so if you’re arriving from Jozi you’ll earn an hour.
In Windhoek, street placards brag about the arrival of 4G, but crafters expertly carving out dried-out palm nut seeds are a million miles away from ultra-high-speed downloads. Himba women covered in traditional otjize – the ochre, ash and fat paste – vie for tourist attention, but cellphone pouches dangle from their necks.
There are a lot of statues of important people dotted across town, giving Windhoek a 1970s feel. The shopping centres have also not had a revamp since JR was last big on TV, yet shops stock Europe’s latest espresso machines and imported sauerkraut without a single English word printed on the label.
You can easily find street parking along the main drags and there are no car guards or parking meters nagging you for change. Rands work as legal tender with equivalent value to the Namibian dollar.
Put your tongue to the test by saying “how do you do” in Nama, even though everyone speaks English. German and Afrikaans will also do, as will a smile.
The smoking sections of restaurants are the far corner of the room – just like the peeing section of the public pool. You don’t pay for plastic bags at stores and if you sweet-talk your way past the police you can get into the parliament buildings even when parliament is not in session. The building is still known as Tintenpalast (the Ink Palace in German) and N$5 (R5) will buy you a decent cup of coffee.
Street names, though, reflect the changes to this place that started out as a settlement founded by Jonker Afrikaner of the Orlam people in 1840. In the colonial era Britain annexed Walvis Bay but the Germans looked to the hinterland in the 1880s.
By 1890 they had established a fort (called Alte Feste in present-day Windhoek). Today the fort is a museum. It’s musty, rundown and dated but it still presents something of the Namibian story.
After World War I it was the South Africans’ turn in Namibia, and the country became independent only in 1990. Street names reflect the change, with Kaiser Strasse becoming Independence Avenue and other streets getting names like Fidel Castro Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue.
The gothic-styled Lutheran Church built in 1910 remains the capital’s focal point, but controversial North Korean investment in recent years has translated into the erection of the gilded monolith, eerily devoid of see-through windows. It’s meant to be the memorial museum of Namibia but locals give it the disparaging nickname of the mole tooth.
But it’s outside of Windhoek that you want to be. Not even 15km from the capital the city is a memory. The open road becomes your only travel companion for kilometres on end, cellphone connectivity quits on you and the tar becomes gravel – just as second Lynne had said.
It quickly becomes clear that 4x4s were made for Namibia, not Sandton and Parkhurst. Even if your destination is 270km away (like the drive between Swakopmund and the Naukluft Mountains) it’s at least a four-and-a-half hour trip as you rattle along the gravel. And believe the locals when they say fill up whenever you can.
Slow driving matters here. You drive through conservation areas without realising it. Hartmann’s mountain zebra (the stripier cousins of the ones common in South Africa) graze alongside gemsbok and ostriches.
Going even slower you’ll see chameleons and desert geckos warming themselves along the road as flocks of Namaqua sandgrouse males take off with droplets of water on their belly feathers.
And if you’re driving you’ll find mountain passes soon enough. Be warned, as small inclines can end in steep drops straight into dry river beds, just like first Lynne warned.
For every dip there’s another incline and as inclines go, it’s the Gamsberg Pass you should see. It’s the longest and the highest in Namibia, rising to around 2 347m above sea level. The Gamsberg Mountain looks like a desert version of our own Table Mountain.
But the roads will get you to your destination. For my first trip to Namibia my destination check-boxes included the coastal tourist haven of Swakopmund; the quiet peaks of the Naukluft mountains; and the red dunes and dried clay and salt pans of Soussusvlei.
Swakopmund retains the imprint of its German heritage, with buildings like the baroque-styled Haus Hohenzollern or spatzle as the starch option with meals in restaurants. Many roads here are still sand and still wide enough for ox wagons to make U-turns. They’re also wide enough to let through views of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s the cold breeze off the Atlantic that creates the fog belt – the lifeline for the Skeleton Coast’s sand dunes that creep up on Swakopmund.
Fog brings water and life to the hidden ecosystem of desert succulents, sidewinders, beetles, chats, mice and jackal on the dunes. The dunes also draw adrenalin junkies surfing the peaks and troughs of sand, and film-makers having a second go at the Mad Max movie, this time starring Charlize Theron.
Further inland are the Naukluft mountains, which are part of the Namib Naukluft National Park, one of the continent’s largest national parks. In the mountains you can hike into the heart of silence, descend into gorges of quiver trees, stand in the shade of a fossilised dune and watch a moonrise over a bare landscape.
About 45km west of the Naukluft mountains is another tourist drawcard: the red desert of Nambia’s postcards and travel websites. The sand here burns like it’s from the Devil’s own sandpit. To survive Soussusvlei you need a lot of space on your memory card, good shoes and sunscreen. You’ll also need a few tourists to push you out of the sand, and your SA passport is useful to score SADC discounts for park permits.
There’s lots that’s unforgettable about Namibia: sand that swallows butch 4x4s like marshmallows dunked in a mug of hot chocolate and dunes called Big Daddy standing red and proud at 325m.
You’ll remember time differently, too. Midday is desert mirages turning skeletons of camel thorn trees into wavy shards of bark. Night time is marked by stars crowding horizons and the celestial smudge of the Milky Way changing its arc above your head.
Things are slowed down in Namibia; slow enough for me to pause and give two thumbs up to our northern neighbour. - Saturday Star