Glaciers, rainforests, canyons – all epic natural wonders to behold, but for me there’s something even more wondrous about deserts: vast, empty and parched landscapes where life struggles constantly to survive. It was the sight that greeted me from my aeroplane window as I crossed the Angolan border into Namibia, sprawling endlessly into the distance before merging with the blank African sky.
After living so long on this damp leafy island I couldn’t wait to be down there in the middle of it, enduring its heat, wandering its dunes and searching for the signs of life I’d only seen previously on wildlife documentaries. That was this time last year, when I was lucky enough to be visiting on a work assignment , and coincidentally exactly a year later I happened to be watching another documentary – Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe on BBC2 – in which he visited two different parts of Namibia to illustrate the scientific theories of space and time.
Both locations were encompassed by the ancient Namib, the world’s oldest desert at 55m years old, in Cox’s almost poetic words: “A world sculpted by the sun, which drives the winds that shape its dunes, its light painting everything a deep orange”. It was gratifying to see him display the same sense of awe and fascination with this primeval natural wonder.
I had to wait at least 24 hours after landing to experience it myself as I was spending my first day and night in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital and first point of entry by air, which by notable contrast sits high among the rolling hills and tufty grasses of the central highlands, serving as a magnifying glass over the land’s history, geography and demography.
First and visibly foremost Windhoek is a beacon of Namibia’s colonial past (the country was annexed by Germany in 1884 before gaining independence from South Africa under British rule in 1990). The surviving legacy is German colonial architecture, street names and restaurants, and although English is the official language you can speak German just about anywhere.
The city centre was unanticipatedly clean, modern and well laid-out, with tree-lined avenues and bustling shopping precincts lending it a noticeable cosmopolitan vibe. Another eye-opener was how this, its largest city, has a population of only 250,000, emphasising how sparsely populated is Namibia – seven times bigger than England but with only a 25th of its population (two million to England’s 50). There really is a lot of space to play in.
The next morning I finally set out by car on the long straight road into the big bad Namib. Windhoek’s verdant valleys soon segue into its unending golden expanse, with nothing else around except the unbroken horizon and hazy road ahead, my first ever opportunity to re-enact classic movie shots in my head of a lone car speeding through a barren desert landscape. It feels euphoric, if in time a bit lonely, and the thought of breaking down in the middle of this immense furnace becomes unnerving – there’s no breakdown rescue out here.
Welcome distractions begin looming around me in the form of wild animals I’ve only ever seen at the zoo, like zebra, giraffes and ostriches. Almost six hours and a hundred photos later the wide blue Atlantic opens up the horizon, heralding my arrival at Namibia’s coastal ‘summer capital’ of Swakopmund – my base to explore the Namib at its more hospitable, breezy quarters.
Wedged between desert and ocean, ‘Swakop’ is a magnet for Namibian holidaymakers, as well as South Africans and (mainly German) Europeans, whose clipped accents resound against a backdrop of pastel-painted colonial buildings to create even more of a peculiar Bavarian flavour than in Windhoek. But behind its quaint houses and souvenir shops the vast ancient desert eerily waits, beckoning you towards it like a siren.
I re-enter it on foot after sunrise. Disappointingly though , I discover that the morning winds and fog-banks formed from ocean air hitting desert suddenly make the region feel like England on an overcast day, so it’s no longer the epic scorching terrain I’d been anticipating.
It were these fogs and winds that afflicted the ominously-named ‘Skeleton Coast’ further north, highlighted by Professor Cox as the notorious site of innumerable shipwrecks, some of which can be found as far as 100m inland as the desert moves slowly westwards into the sea, reclaiming land over centuries. The spectacle of some of the huge sandblasted steel skeletons is even eerier when you hear how the crews knew they were doomed the moment their vessels ran aground, by the sight of bare desert stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction.
Sobered by the same sight I decide to vent some steam through some high-octane sand-based activities offered by entrepreneurial local businesses taking advantage of this special terrain. I first hire a quad-bike to carve up the dunes at full throttle, following a quad guide to hurtle through what reminded me of the Tatooine pod-race circuit in Star Wars, then performing so-called rollercoaster manoeuvres – zooming up a dune’s steep slipface, turning at the apex and tearing back down at arse-tightening velocities.
Next morning I’m back driving through the dunes, this time much more carefully in a camouflaged jeep with a local wildlife expert whose ‘Living Desert’ tours are aptly titled – what appears to be an empty land, bereft of life, has another world thriving beneath its surface. After spotting the tiniest trace of track or movement (a ‘bushman newsflash’), he slams the brakes, races out and plunges his hands into the sand, emerging with a writhing pissed-off snake or lizard. Your own personal Steve Irwin show – a must for every visitor, and like everything here very cheap (livingdeserttours.com.na)
Later that day I’m freefalling through the desert sky at terminal velocity, having gathered enough courage for a skydive. For me the worst part’s the 20-minute light-aircraft flight 10,000ft over the sands with an open doorway presenting what you’re about to jump into, but after the intensity of freefall then relief of landing you understand why it’s the prototypical adrenaline rush all thrillseekers must chalk off their bucket-list. Chalking mine off over the Namib made it even more memorable.
That evening I’m granted yet another perspective – the Namib by night – joining my tour-operators for a barbecue and overnight camp beneath the dunes. The amount and quality of local meat thrown on that barbie hit home how voraciously carnivorous are Namibians – I had ostrich, zebra and crocodile on one plate. Vegetarians need not apply.
My abiding observation that night, enhanced by countless Windhoek Lagers (Namibia’s national brew), brings me back to Professor Cox: the desert is one of few places on earth you can see the stars properly. Through clear, cloudless and unpolluted air, miles from city lights, you appreciate why it’s called the Milky Way.
In the sobering light of my final morning I exploit the desert one last time, whistling down its steeper dunes on a sandboard with some local sandboarders. It completely inverts the snowboarding experience, swapping white mountains and icy air for golden slopes and sweltering sun. Unclipping my boots after the last descent, adrenaline subsiding, I feel I’ve wrung every last drop of recreational activity from this giant sandpit.
Since that week in the sands, the feeling has always persisted that I’d only spent a fraction of time seeing a fraction of Namibia, a country which despite its colonial past remains authentically African, with so much untouched land you feel like one of only a few visitors ever to have set foot there. Whether driving through its desert or freefalling over it, tearing down its dunes or sleeping beneath them, the experience it offers is incongruously life-affirming for a place normally associated with the struggle for survival.
As Professor Cox put it, the Namib was there long before we arrived and still will be after we’ve gone. To visit this behemoth of space and time is to see one of Earth’s most underrated natural wonders.
Kris flew with Air Namibia; activities and accommodation were organised by Namibia Tracks & Trails (namibia-tracks-and-trails.com)