HELLO NEIGHBOUR - JSE MAGAZINE

HELLO NEIGHBOUR

Namibia is a country as diverse as it is welcoming. What’s more, it’s right next door

HELLO NEIGHBOUR

Despite being shaven headed and filthy, it was still easy to spot Charlize Theron across the broad expanse of the barren uranium opencast mine at Klanbergen, just outside Swakopmund. Surrounded by adoring media, the global superstar was taking time out from eviscerating villains in Mad Max: Fury Road to talk about her love of, and dedication to, Africa as a whole and Southern Africa in particular. But then an admission – she revealed, between touch-ups of muck and crud, that she had come very late to Namibia, and wished she had discovered it sooner.

In this Theron echoes the sentiments of many. Most visitors leave their Namibian journey until all other regional trips have been exhausted – and then wish they had begun their exploration sooner. There are myriad reasons why the country provokes such strong feelings.

Namibia is, in a world crowded with excess, the ultimate minimalist destination. It boasts genuine variety in its attractions but just as importantly offers ease of access, excellent infrastructure, an ethos of tidiness and relatively good value for money. The wider world seems to have grasped this – the WEF’s 2015 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report has placed Namibia fourth in Africa (behind SA, Mauritius and Morocco) for price competitiveness and environmental sustainability. Indeed, tourism is now the country’s third most important industry behind mining and fishing, injecting $600 million into its annual GDP.

Theron’s movie is based largely in and around Swakopmund, a growth area of tourism as the world discovers the austere beauty of the Rossing mountains and the Moon landscape of the Swakop river system. Easy to reach from Walvis Bay and the capital Windhoek, Swakopmund is also the gateway to one of the continent’s largest seal colonies, with 100 000 basking Cape fur seals at Cape Cross. In Namibia, the population is just under 1 million, and charter boats take visitors through a tumult of swimming pinnipeds off the coast at Walvis Bay.

If Swakopmund is the destination du jour of the international safari set, the primary Namibian attraction remains the dunes of Sossusvlei on the border of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, some 350 km south-east of Windhoek. The entry point to Sossusvlei is the tiny wide-spot-in-the-road village of Sesriem, a destination in itself, famous for its canyon, through which it is possible to walk. While nowhere near as grand as the Fish River Canyon further south, Sesriem has a otherworldly charm of its own, made all the more special by the fact that few expect it, intent as they are on the almost 400m-high sand behemoths of Sossusvlei down the road.

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That singular intent has two other victims – the NamibRand Nature Reserve and Namib-Naukluft National Park, both astonishing stop-offs on the way to the dunes but missed by many. NamibRand in particular has an unforgettable magnificence, a coming together of the Nubib mountains, the vast plains of the eastern Namib with their fire-red sands and fields of grasses, and a scattering of Oryx gazella and cheetah.

More broadly, this intersection of the oldest desert on the planet – with the savannah regions of the interior and the fold mountains – is also one of the most arresting landscape vistas on Earth.

Between SA and the central region, Namibia’s landscape is peppered with primordial features and the more recent remnants of human folly. Chief among these man-made curiosities are Kolmanskop and the entirely bizarre Duwisib Castle, further south.

This intersection of the oldest desert on the planet is one of the most arresting landscape vistas on Earth

The former – famous for its abandoned early 20th century houses – is a rapidly eroding glimpse into the mining past of a ruined village. The diamond yield beneath its sands was discovered in 1908 and lasted just 13 years, though it took another 38 years for the town to be entirely abandoned.

One of the reasons it lasted so long was the captivating German architecture and excellent infrastructure, as well as the proximity to the coast and Lüderitz, just a few kilometres away.

Duwisib Castle is another kind of folly entirely, built on defiance rather than dreams of wealth. Around the same time Kolmanskop was colonised, Hans-Heinrich von Wolf – a captain in the German military – constructed an audacious 22-room castle 600 km south of Lüderitz, near Maltahöhe.

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Everyone who visits it inevitably asks the question… Why? The short answer is he built it to appease his fearsome spouse Jayta. Having being defeated in a particularly embarrassing battle in the Nama-Herero uprisings of 1907, Wolf returned to Germany and met his wife-to-be. Jayta insisted that the only way for him to restore his honour was to return to Africa and build a castle that would stamp his authority on the landscape, erasing the memories of his previous actions. Wolf relented and returned to the Maltahöhe area to create his monument to German military might.

Five years and a lot of work later, the couple returned to Europe where he fought in World War I. He was killed at the Battle of the Somme and Jayta never returned to Africa, instead selling the castle to a Swedish family. Today it is a museum – and a very curious one at that.

If Duwisib and Kolmanskop represent the limitations of human longevity, the Fish River Canyon, further south near Hobas and the SA border, is a symbol of nature’s endurance. The 650 million-year-old, 500m-deep, 161 km-long schism is one of Africa’s biggest – equal in grandeur to Ethiopia’s Blue Nile and Tekezé canyon gorges. The canyon is popular with hikers in the winter months, but aircraft flights are also available for the not-so-fit.

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North of the central region and Windhoek is the wilder, though much-visited, game-rich regions of the country – Etosha, Kaokoland, the Waterberg plateau and the Kavango river, in the area once known as Caprivi but recently renamed the Zambezi Region. It is possible to fly to Etosha, the gateway to the north, but the overland trip from SA is far more rewarding and a holiday in itself.

The established route is along the Okavango Trans-Kalahari highway from Lobatse through Botswana all the way to Buitepos on the Namibia border. Beyond that, the C22 through eastern and northern Namibia takes travellers to the Kaokoveld, across to Etosha and on to Victoria Falls.

The return route is through Botswana, edging the Okavango Delta and Chobe Game Reserve, then back down to Francistown, Gabarone and through to Gauteng. The round trip is a 5 000 km safari on mostly excellent gravel roads, particularly in Namibia, which prides itself in the condition of its untarred routes.

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The north’s chief attraction is naturally the Etosha National Park, a 22 750 km² sanctuary famed for its 5 000 km² salt pan, which attracts thousands of flamingos after heavy rains. It’s also the best spot in the subcontinent see game in the dry season, when thousands of animals congregate on the vast plains. The trademark thornbush and woodland savannah also make for a sparse landscape, all the better for easy game viewing.

Etosha is also increasingly known for its luxury lodges, most of which edge the national park in exclusive, private conservancies. Arguably the finest is Wilderness Safaris’ Little Ongava, perched atop a spine of rock overlooking its own reserve and the larger park further afield. The entire lodge is sold as a single unit, with the less expensive, larger Ongava Lodge lower down on the granite hogsback.

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Viscerally beautiful, essentially empty Kaokoland is home to the desert lions of Hoarusib

East and west of Etosha are the rarer, less-explored regions of the Zambezi and Kaokoland. Head east and the Kavango river, later the Zambezi, drains the Angolan highlands and discharges its estimated 1 000 mof water per second into the grateful Okavango Delta. Go west and the viscerally beautiful, essentially empty Kaokoland is home to the northern Skeleton Coast and the desert lions of Hoarusib and elephants of the Huab.

In this unlikeliest of places, Wilderness Safaris have another surprise – the recently built Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in the Palmwag concession, straddling the Skeleton Coast National Park. Eight tents make up the camp, reached by light aircraft, and activities include elephant safaris and a flight up the desert coast, complete with seal colonies, shipwrecks and weirdly coloured pebble beaches.

It is rare for a traveller to ‘do’ Namibia in just one visit – the geography of the country and its attractions recommends a number of different trips, ideally a southern and central trip as well as a separate northern expedition. The beauty is that whichever or wherever, few leave untouched or unchanged – Namibia’s trump card is its essence, rather than the sum of its parts.

By Peter Frost
Images: Gallo/GettyImages, Ongava Lodge