Ricky Gervais used the idea of holidaying in Namibia as the punchline of a joke. Just the name conjures up images of, well, OK, not much. Now that I’ve actually been, I can say it’s a strange and fascinating place. It’s very big (bigger than Turkey), very empty (a tiny population of just over 2.5 million) and most of it is desert. We went on a ten-day camping expedition. There are a number of firms set up offering a range of itineraries and they are inexpensive.
We booked a tour with Wild Dog Safaris (since closed). For our dosh we got a guide, most meals included, a tent, a sleeping bag, a bus, and a driver. The guide was great, the meals were fine, the tent was ‘tenty’, the minibus was roomy, and the driver didn’t crash. You have to put your own tent up, though people will help you if you’re struggling. Essentially, it’s a road trip with the driver and guide cooking and everyone else helping out. Breakfast is OK, lunch a couple of sandwiches and most (not all) evening meals are cooked on the campfire. The bus stopped every day to pick up beer and wine. It’s not luxurious, but the package is a very economical way to tick an entire country off your bucket list.
The prime game reserve is Etosha National Park. It’s massive, and we saw plenty of animals; lions, zebras, elephants, rhino and even a honey badger. It’s not as rich in wildlife as some African parks because it is more prone to drought; but this can draw the animals towards places where they can drink. Okaukuejo waterhole is next to a tourist centre in Etosha and is a superb spot. At night the area is lit with infra-red light, giving startling views of game as they nervously approach for a drink. Seeing a baby rhino there with mum was a treat.
The vast deserts might be featureless at times, but they are serene places to camp and the night sky, hundreds of miles from light pollution, is wonderful. It is mostly desert and Namibia has enormous sand dunes, but they’re a tough climb. I was fifty feet from the summit of the world’s largest and just gave up. I was that knackered that I just sat down and watched the sunrise. The Sossusvlei conservation area is within walking distance and the salt pan, with its withered trees surrounded by red dunes, was a striking sight. I don’t think they should really be letting tourists wander around it unchecked, though it was a privilege to do so. Then again, I guess there’s never so many that they could do much damage. Which highlights another positive about the whole Namibian experience; it hasn’t been tarted up for visitors. There was no Sossuvlei Café or children’s play area. When you see Namibian women wearing silly hats, they’re not doing it for the punters, they just like silly hats.
The Skeleton Coast is also quite a place, not least because the climate change as you approach it is so rapid. The journey goes from dry desert heat to a clammy, cold, foggy beach in ten minutes. It’s as if the North Sea washed up on the coast of Greece, except that image doesn’t work because such a dramatic contrast of landscapes may be unique to Namibia. The beach and shore are littered with the ghostly rusting hulks of shipwrecks, which are forever battered by the fierce Atlantic waves. It’s an eerie and powerful sight. South of there, we went on a decent boat trip from Walvis Bay. I sat next to a pelican while a wild sea lion sat in my lap eating a fish. The trip was rounded off with champagne and oysters.
Wandering through Swakopmund in a dense sea mist later that night, looking for a place to eat, we stumbled upon the Hansa Hotel. We were close to giving up our search when the reception lights offered sanctuary like a mirage. After a week of camp food, we were ready for a treat; we weren’t ready to go back to colonial times. With its silver service, wooded panelled smoking lounge, white-gloved waiters and retired generals reading newspapers, it felt like a movie set. The food was stunning and inexpensive.
When our Wild Dogs Safari ended we met Peter-Hain Kazapua the founder of Uakii Wilderness Survival to carry on. This trip was about seeing Namibians rather than Namibia. We had already visited a Himba village, and it was a superb take on another way of human living. We stayed with a San community for a night and they took us out into the desert for a few hours the next day to show us how they found food and hunted. Peter-Hain’s assistant, Charles (a cattle herder himself), and the San elders were great guides. I’d have died of starvation and thirst within days in that harsh place; they’d put weight on.
We went to the city of Gobabis, but it was visiting the township on its perimeter that opened my eyes. I’ve seen poverty in Rwanda, Kenya, and Oldham, but this seemed even more dire. Their stricken shanty town is supposedly illegal, but there’s nowhere else for these ex-subsistence herders to go. Their grandparents left their traditional grazing lands seeking fortune in the city many years since. They did not find it.
We drove around in Peter-Hain’s 4×4 with the smoked glass windows, children ran after us and waved, some local youths begged Peter for work. We stopped and chatted at a makeshift garage. A woman brushed the dirt yard in front of her corrugated tin shack. She took such pride in it. She had so little but tended it with such care and dignity. I complain when I have to mow the lawn. So much for first world problems.
I doubt Ricky Gervais has been to Namibia. If he had maybe he would be less inclined to take the piss. The landscape is amazing and, at times, spectacular. Opportunities to see big game wildlife are abundant, Okaukuejo waterhole is particularly impressive. There’s a range of indigenous peoples and sharing time with them was an honour.
This review of our trip doesn’t cover everything we experienced. The moments of silently gazing at the wilderness are hard to describe, but they were many and sublime. Namibia was one of the finest holidays of my life.
Should you go?
Obviously, Namibia is an amazing place and I do recommend it; but there is a caveat. The kind of safari experience we had involved an awful lot of travelling down dusty roads through the wilderness. Hours and hours of it. You can read, chat, snooze or simply look out of the window. Some people would get bored to the point of stir crazy. I found it strangely relaxing. If you were unlucky with your travelling companions, it could be a drag to be cooped up with them in a safari bus for hours on end. We were fortunate in that our group of English, Germans and Italians got on well and we had a good laugh.
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