Sands of the Namib

where I make like Mua'dib, Lord of Dune, on a visit to Namibia, the former German Southwest Africa, with a detour to Botswana and the Okavango Delta

It's not so easy to get to Namibia. There are direct flights from Frankfurt and London, but that's not much help to me. To help meet my mileage quota, I take Delta from Atlanta to Johannesburg (with a fuel stop in Dakar), where I overnight and finish the journey the next day. The final leg is on British Airways, where the "Executive Travel News" in the in-flight magazine advises on the "known medical benefits" of tanzanite jewelry: in addition to harmonizing the lobes of your brain, it reduces infections, clarifies thoughts and helps migraines; but don't forget to recharge them twice a month by soaking them overnight with rock crystals.

My arrival in Windhoek coincides with the end of Robert Mugabe's four-day visit. Having wrecked the economy of Zimbabwe (where the $100 bill is now worth less than a sheet of toilet paper), he is now giving advice to his neighbors. Apparently, they want to emulate his program of seizing the white-owned farms but without the negative publicity Mugabe garnered. The flags and posters are still up.

Windhoek was the capital of German Southwest Africa. Although almost a hundred years have passed since Germany was stripped of its colonies for losing WWI, it remains very Germanic. Atypically for an African city, it is clean and orderly.

I have time for a brief walkabout the city center. There are many handsome colonial buildings as well as a number of German monuments and statutes. At the intersection of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street is a 1901 church with stained glass windows donated by the Kaiser.

I have signed up for group tour camping safari. That evening we meet up. We are five: three krauts, a limey, and me.

At dinner I order the game special, kudu with crocodile starter. (Game = four legs; bush meat = two.)

Namibia is mostly desert. Windhoek is in the center the Namib is to the west of Windhoek and the Kalahari to the east. In the morning we start driving southeast. This is a big country; the roads are good but the distances are great. It takes all day to get anywhere. The driver is careful to avoid the baboons in the roadway checking out last night's road kill.

After lunch we stop at the very remote outpost of Solitaire, where I take a pass on the best apple pie in Nambia. Outside the store is a chalkboard with the latest news: Picassos worth $56 million have been stolen. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for them.

We enter the Namib-Naukluft National Park and reach our campgrounds at Sesriem. The principal reason I have selected this tour company is that the camping does not involve too much suffering. I have a large tent (approximately 7 ft. sq. and 6 ft. tall) to myself, and the campgrounds offer hot showers, flush toilets, and electricity. We have a guide/cook and a driver, both of whom assist with the setup.

As the campfire dies, the jackals are circling. We retire early to what we hope are jackal-proof tents.

We wake early and drive to Sossusvlei and Dune 45. This portion of the desert has the highest dunes in the world. Because the winds blow equally from the east and the west, the dunes do not drift. Also unusual is that the area between the dunes is hardpan, not sand. The sand is red, having blown in from the Kalahari.

Dune 45 is "only" 400' high, but the soft sand makes climbing it hard work. The nearby Crazy Dune (you have to be crazy to climb it) is 700', and others are even higher. From the top of Dune 45 we greet the dawn; just call me Mua'dib of the Namib, Lord of Dune.

A Bushman (the politically-correct term is San) leads us on a very interesting and informative walk through the desert. He knows how to find water from plants, which lizards and bugs are good to eat (apparently all of 'em), how to find diamonds on the surface of the desert (you use the moonlight), and how to read footprints in the sand (to him, they are as individually distinctive as fingerprints). It is a harsh environment ? in the summer the temperature can reach 130? and the sand 180?, hot enough to cook eggs. He takes us to Dead Vlei, where the subterranean water had disappeared and the dead trees are 600 to 1000 years old. From here to the ocean there is nothing but one dune after another. He once walked to the sea. It took him seven days.

Midday is too hot to do anything. In the late afternoon, we are supposed to explore a nearby canyon, but we are too lazy to leave camp.

On the third day we drive north. The scenery changes from Utah with oryx to New Mexico with ostriches. We cross the Tropic of Capricorn to lunch at Walvis Bay. A fine natural harbor, it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1487. It was later claimed by England, which required the Germans to construct an artificial harbor to serve their colony. Walvis Bay is a mostly industrial city, but it is home to an enormous flamingo colony. From the bayfront, there are flamingos as far as the eye can see.

In the afternoon we arrive at the resort town of Swakopmund, recently famous as the site of The Brangelina Event. It is a typical Bavarian seaside town, if there were such a thing, with the best collection of German colonial architecture anywhere. The streets are named after Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhem, and Moltke. This has got to be the only place in Africa where people patiently wait for pedestrian crossing signals even in the absence of traffic.

Swakopmund is also the adventure sport capital of Namibia. I try sandboarding. It is the same as snowboarding, except it's done on the dunes. Since I can't snowboard, I take the lie-down option: sliding down the dunes on a waxed piece of masonite. One is supposed to be able to hit 50 mph, but the radar gun clocks me at a pokey 40 mph, just below lift-off velocity. Stand-up looks cooler, but lie-down is much faster; after a while the others join us.

In the late afternoon I take an overpriced sightseeing flight over the lines of dunes back to Sossusvlei. The return route is over abandoned diamond mining camps and shipwrecks now far inland, sand dunes drifting over them like the waves at sea.

Our next destination is Cape Cross, another landmark in the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa. Home to a large seal colony, it has to be one of the smelliest places on the planet.

We continue through the Skelton Coast National Park. This is known as the Skelton Coast because of the large number of shipwrecks, many of which are still visible.

Our goal is the Etosha National Park, one of the great game parks of Africa. Founded by the Germans in 1907, it includes two of a string of forts built to keep the natives down and the Portuguese out.

Because it is the wet season, the wildlife is diffuse and hidden. Nonetheless we have some good sightings including leopard and lions.

After two nights at Etosha we head inland. We stop for supplies at Grootfontein, but do not detour to see the world's largest meteorite (66 tons) nearby.

We camp at Rundu on the Okavango River, which forms the border with Angola. I am tempted to take a dugout canoe and paddle across to get another tick mark on my countries-visited list, but I don't.

The next day we cross the border into Botswana to visit the Okavango Delta. The Okavango River is unique in that it flows away from the sea, ending in a vast swamp in the middle of the desert. An excellent wildlife habitat, it's like the Everglades with hippos.

We stay that night at the Delta Dawn Camp. Farewell hot showers and flush toilets, we will be spending the next two nights "wild-camping." To reach our bush camp, we take a 40-minute ride on speedboat, followed by two hours of poling in dugout canoes through the reeds and water lilies to one of innumerable islands. Footprints at our landing spot show that this locale is also favored by hippos. We are advised to pitch out tents one hippo-width apart.

We take a late afternoon guided walk. At this time of year when the water is high, the wildlife is limited to those animals which don't mind swimming, which includes elephants but excludes antelope and their predators. There are lots of traces of animals that are present been but not visible.

The guides cook their dinner over a campfire in a large black pot that is not quite large enough to hold a missionary. At night, I leave the flaps of my tent up, which allows me to admire the Southern Cross and The Milky Way, but no hippos slip by. The bush camp is kind of boring, but serves as a reminder of how horrible life must have been before electricity. (Good thing I brought my iPod.) On the third morning we return to the mainland with a necessary detour because the direct route is blocked by hippos.

After a much-welcome shower we rejoin the truck and drive south to Ghanzi, unofficial capital of the Kalahari. It is typical Africa: on one side of the road are substantial brick housing estates for civil servants; on the other side of the road are the mud and straw huts of their masters.

We turn west on to the Trans-Kalahari Highway, the road which leads back to Windhoek. The desert is surprisingly green: unlike the southwestern desert of the US, here it rains in the summer. The difference is here you have to brake for ostriches in the road.

At the border post back to Namibia, there are free female condoms in a box on the counter. Judging from the billboards and posters everywhere, they have about given up on persuading the men. You are welcome to help yourself, which I don't.

For my final night in Windhoek, I order the mixed grill: ostrich; kudu; oryx and crocodile, but request that the monkeygland sauce be served on the side.

My plane back isn't until the afternoon, so in the morning I visit the museum inside the old German fort that is the oldest building in Windhoek. The native uprising from 1904 to 1908 is portrayed as the first phase of the national liberation struggle. There is a long blank period, then a very glorious rendition of the armed struggle, i.e. guerilla war, from 1966 to 1989, which led to the election of the current government. Interestingly enough, the Germans colonials are depicted the bad guys but morph into the good guys because the East German government supported the communist guerillas.

Boy that was a fast two weeks! It's a long ride home, retracing my earlier route. I fly back to Johannesburg, change planes, and six hours later am in the air over Windhoek again, this time heading across the Atlantic. Due to prevailing winds, it takes even longer. Stuck in coach, I survive (barely), of which this report is proof.

Trip date: March 2007