Namibia – Land of the Unexpected [opinion]

Previous, our Okonjima game reserve guide, paused: “You didn’t actually get out of the car, did you?”

I was relating the story of how we’d stopped the SUV next to a roadside sign with illustrations of two large game animals, one a leopard, to clown around taking selfies.

Sheepishly, I admitted we had, indeed, left the car.

Evidently, this was bad.

The sign, Previous explained, as if to a small child, is there because big cats are lurking in the immediate vicinity.

I countered, unconvincingly, that deer signs are everywhere in Canada, but are not considered an imminent warning.

“When a leopard sees you out of the car, your feet on the ground,” interrupted Previous, “he realizes you are weak.”

Important information on your first day in Namibia.

If you’ve never been to Africa, Namibia is a great place to start. It will get you hooked. Put aside news stories of Ebola (the epicenter of the disease is 5 000 km from Namibia), of well-intentioned pop saviours such as Bono (who is 9 000 km from Namibia, when at rest in Dublin).

Instead, imagine some of the scenery and climate of the American Southwest punctuated by rich concentrations of big game: 1 750 of the world’s 4 800 black rhinos are in Namibia there are 25 000 elephants, many of which can be found at 22 000 square kilometre Etosha National Park, and there are prides of several hundred lions.

Further west, a swath of one of the oldest deserts in the world runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, where you can find shipwrecks among the Skeleton Coast sand dunes, some of which can reach heights of 130 metres.

Mirages are not uncommon, sights are unusual. What appears to be a herd of elephants at a distance turns out to be run-of-the-mill Blue wildebeest close up. Driving three hours on gravel road from high desert to the Atlantic Ocean at Henties Bay, with white sand in every direction, I see false visions of water on the horizon. When I finally arrive at the sea, I’m not sure it is real. Then there’s the Welwitschia, a bizarre plant that lives only in the Namib Desert. It looks as though it is terminally ill and was run through a paper-shredder. But it is, in fact, perfectly healthy, and can live more than 2 000 years, surviving on fog droplets that drift in from the cold ocean current offshore.

Not for nothing is Namibia sometimes called The Land of Endless Horizons. Or the land of double-takes.

Independent only since 1990, Namibia is safe, tourist-friendly and sparsely-populated: just 2.3 million people live in a country, the size of which puts it somewhere between BC and Alberta in scope. I drove a rental SUV around the country for 12 days and encountered only warm hospitality. Once, a crew of volunteers helped me change my flat tyre. Wildlife sightings are not limited to the parks or reserves elephants, baboons, springboks, meerkats and other animals can be seen while you are driving between sites.

My packed itinerary took in 2 200 km. in a roughly counter-clockwise route through central and northern Namibia. I started and finished in the capital, Windhoek, a placid town of 350 000 worth a day’s visit at most. From there, I drove north to the nature reserve at Okonjima, then pushed further north to Etosha, centrepiece to any trip to Namibia. Next, I went south and west to remote Damaraland, Twywelfontein and 6 000-year-old rock carvings. From there I travelled on a long stretch to the coast, making sea-fall at Henties Bay. On the road between desert and ocean, I went on to Swakopmund, a German holiday town great for outdoor activities, from surfing to ATVs in the desert the nearby Moon Valley and Welwitschias, and the Namib Naukluft and Dorob National parks. From there, it was a short drive down the coast to Walvis Bay, where there’s sailing, kayaking and sand-boarding. After that, I returned to Windhoek.

Namibia has its problems. There is crime in Windhoek, though it pales alongside cities in neighbouring South Africa. There is a high rate of HIV, and there’s poverty both rural and urban. To experience the latter, visit Katutura, a settlement on the outskirts of Windhoek to which the apartheid-era South African administration (then in power) forced Namibians to move in the late 1950s and early 60s. Newer shanties have fastened themselves to the slum, which does without running water or any other public service. In the countryside, poachers kill rhinos and elephants. Namibians are proud of their biodiversity, which they rightly regard a national, and world, treasure, so poachers, and the Chinese backers who fund them, are considered among the greatest threats to the country’s future.

Three spots capture Namibia’s beauty and diversity. Okonjima is a sprawling 55 000-acre nature reserve in the Omboroko Mountains of central Namibia. It’s a multi-generational labour of love of the Hanssen family. In addition to providing custom safaris and an educational and big cat rescue program, they’ve built a range of accommodations throughout the reserve. These include campsites, villas and the brand-new “View” bungalows in which I stayed. Each has a private deck overlooking a watering hole, next to the “Lapa,” or gathering place, restaurant and lounge, which incorporates the faccedilade of a brick barn typical of the area.

Etosha Safari Lodge is a Bavarian pile dropped on an African plateau. It has a commanding view of the mopane-covered plains and nearby hills. It’s just a few minutes’ drive to the Anderssen Gate and the 114 species of mammal and scores of migratory bird species tat call the arid Park home. The animals crowd around just a few watering holes, amid a scenery that includes endless savanna and a dizzying, 120-km-long salt flat.

Perhaps most stunning is Pelican Point Lodge, a nine-suite boutique hotel opened in 2011. To reach it, you must take a 30-km escorted drive from Walvis Bay to what feels like the end of the Earth.

The hotel clings to a 1915 lighthouse on a long, narrow spit of sand. The land around it is quickly being reclaimed by the sea and is cut off at times from the mainland. It’s surrounded by colonies of Cape fur seals, congregations of two major species of flamingo, families of jackals and the occasional hyena. Power is on for only seven hours a day. Water has to be trucked in once a week, and the staff is marooned for a month and a half at a time. The experience is unique. – The Star

Alexander Wooley is a Virginia-based writer working in international development. He has contributed to the Toronto Star, to Foreign Affairs, and blogs for The Huffington Post. His trip was provided through Goway travel and the Namibia Tourist Board.

Source : New Era