Sunday Express, December 5, 2010

Land where the silence is golden

DUNCAN CRAIG is seduced by the big skies, dramatic landscapes and boundless wildlife of Namibia as he ventures from the eccentric coastal town of Swakopmund to the endless sea of dunes of the ancient Namib

A COUPLE of final bursts of the burner and we were airborne. Eric, part-mad professor, part-Indiana Jones, slipped into some well-rehearsed patter as his waving ground crew slid away beneath us. “It’s going to be a spectacular sunrise, ” said the balloon pilot, “and up here we’ll be the first ones to see it.”

The brightening sky to the east was indeed smouldering with the promise of a dramatic dawn but it was the fiery reds to the west that were monopolising attention: the towering dunes of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert, lit up by the first rays of the day. In awe-struck silence we floated towards this vast ochre sea.

In Namibia, silence is a constant companion. Six days earlier my wife and I had arrived at the splendidly provincial Windhoek International Airport and stepped out into a perfectly still, starlit night. The country is one of the least populated on Earth. It is four times the size of the UK with one-thirtieth of the population, meaning light and noise pollution are disarmingly low.

We’d mapped out a triangular itinerary of city, coast and desert, a self-drive tour taking in the highlights of mid-Namibia. The five-hour drive to the coastal town of Swakopmund along the evocatively named Trans-Kalahari Highway gave us a taste of Namibia’s big skies and boundless wildlife. Giraffe, ostrich and springbok were all ticked off. So too oryx, majestic antelopes that, with their black-and-white face markings, white socks and thrusting horns, resemble ancient horses done up for battle.

Incongruous does not even begin to describe “Swakop”. Looming out of the hostile plains, it is a bewildering blend of mining town, seaside resort and heritage village. Its nucleus of vividly painted Bavarian architecture is the legacy of Namibia’s colonial past as German South-West Africa. Around this, a homogenous suburban sprawl houses miners from the nearby uranium plants and holidaying Windhoekers who decamp here in the summer months in their thousands to escape the stifling heat inland.

We based ourselves at the peripheral Beach Lodge. The wrecks of the notorious Skeleton Coast, which extends north from Swakop, provide the theme for this contemporary yet cosy hotel. Photographs of skeletal, sandbar-snagged hulls backed by forbidding dunes adorned the walls of our three-storey room, its twin balconies close enough to the shore to catch the spray of the lively Atlantic rollers.

The long drive south showcased a desolate landscape of canyons, ephemeral rivers and endless gravel plains

The German influence in Swakop is everywhere, from the gap-year students from Berlin serving you “bienenstich” (bee sting) cake in the traditional coffee houses, to the lively Brauhaus restaurant with its “bierkeller” vibe and black-eagle flags draped from the beams.

There’s a cluster of attractions. The century-old lighthouse is worth a visit. As is Peter’s Antiques, a museum that masquerades as a shop packed with authentic tribal items. The “love bows” here raised a smile, tiny bow-and-arrow sets fired by bushmen at prospective partners’ bottoms to gauge their romantic interest. Pick up the deflected dart and you are enamoured; ignore it (as my decidedly nonplussed wife did) and you’re fresh out of luck.

Swakop is a satisfying base for outlying trips, from getting “swandy” (sandy and sweaty) while sandboarding on the southern dunes, to heading inland to see rock art etched on “inselbergs”, granite monoliths rising from the plains. Spitzkoppe, a two-hour drive, is the pick of these, a wonderful place to hike, climb and revel in the peace.

The long drive south showcased a desolate landscape of canyons, ephemeral rivers and endless gravel plains. The first and only stop came four hours in, at the edge-of-the-world town of Solitaire. There’s little more than a petrol station and bakery here, the latter serving, somewhat bizarrely, an continent-renowned apple pie.

We’d passed barely two vehicles in the preceding hours, yet the queue for these famous slices was 10 deep. A signed copy of Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Down book attested to a celebrity following.

The Namib-Naukluft Park is immense. At 20,000 square miles, it is three times the size of (everyone’s favourite area comparator) Wales. The big draw is Sossusvlei, a spot deep in the dunes accessed via a 40-mile road through the dry Tsauchab river bed.

One of the many advantages of staying at Kulala Desert Lodge, on the park’s western boundary, is that it has its own gate to this strictly controlled area. We set off pre-dawn, our diminutive guide Albert fighting a losing battle to illustrate the evolution of the Namib with a marker pen on the Land Rover Defender’s quivering windscreen.

The dunes are prosaically numbered. Dune 7, Albert casually mentioned 10 minutes into our roadside viewing of it, is thought to be the biggest in the world at 1,270ft. Dune 45, with its curving, razor-sharp ridge, is one of the pin-ups of the Namib. We joined the specks padding up its spine and through sweat-stinging eyes took in the views from the summit.

We bedded down on the chalet roof, barking ghekkos and shooting stars luring us to sleep

At the road’s end, Albert led us on foot to a distant promontory. There we stopped, spellbound: the white clay pan of Dead Vlei stretched out before us, stark against the encircling dunes and pierced by the skeletons of lifeless trees baked over centuries by an unblinking sun. Quiet and reflective, we wandered among this arboreal Pompeii.

Kulala consists of an arc of thatched chalets radiating from a central lodge. The beds are inviting – and rarely used. Most guests take the “sleep out” option, bedding down in purpose-built sections on the chalet roofs. Barking ghekkos lured us to sleep, while our early wake-up call for ballooning was accompanied, right on cue, by a shooting star.

Eric actually built Kulala, he informed us as we took to the skies a short while later. His piloting matched his architectural prowess. Mountain-skimming fly-pasts and mid-air rotations for optimum camera angles were followed by a tidy landing in an impossibly remote spot. Seemingly from nowhere, a champagne breakfast appeared.

Ever the showman, Eric decorked the bubbly sabrage-style with a “panga” (machete) as we tucked into a feast of homemade pancakes and lean, tasty zebra meat.

Our final stop was Wolwedans, a selection of exclusive camps spread across a 185,000-hectare private reserve. The drive from its gate to reception, a former sheep farm, took 50 minutes, the onward leg to Boulders Camp, our base, a further two hours.

It’s the sort of seclusion that A-listers crave. It certainly suited former guests Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron. Boulders, the newest camp in the Wolwedans portfolio, consists of four raised tents at the foot of a “koppie” of large granite rocks. Camping this is not. Four-poster beds, rainforest showers, leather sofas, five-star service and a menu of delicate, delectable creations that belie the harsh, arid setting.

Pickings were slimmer for the bushmen who once eked out an existence here, we learned during a walking safari with our irresistibly jolly guide, Quentin. It ended with a sundowner atop a boulder with views across the bewitching landscape to distant basalt mountains.

“Listen to that, ” he said suddenly. We strained our ears for a faint rustling or perhaps a muted bird call. He beamed. “Total silence.”

* GETTING THERE:
Expert Africa (020 8232 9777/www.expertafrica.com) offers a 10-night self-drive Namibia trip from £1,834pp (two sharing), including one night at Olive Grove, three nights at Beach Lodge (both B&B), two nights at Kulala Desert Lodge (half board) and two nights at Wolwedans Boulders Camp (full board). Price includes Budget car hire and some activities.
Etihad (0800 731 9384/www.etihad airways.com) offers return flights from London to Johannesburg via Abu Dhabi from £466.
Air Namibia (0870 774 0965/www.airnamibia.com. na) offers return flights from Johannesburg to Windhoek from £361.
Champagne balloon flights can be organised through Expert Africa. From £392pp.
Namibia Tourism: 020 7367 0965/www.travelnamibia.co.uk