Nothing prepares you for Africa. For the thick red dust, the sticky, sultry air that envelopes you, for the white sun that beats down upon every bare shrub, every desiccated branch. Nothing prepares you for how unprepared you will be.
It’s a bit like marriage.
As a little girl, I had been an avid fan of Out of Africa, the film based on the life and writings of Baroness Karen Blixen. The film captures, beautifully, the last exciting time in the last wild place on earth, and it made me feel as if I really missed out on something wonderful by being born too late. I wanted to see the gorgeous vistas for myself, but I never got down to it. Until someone else brought it to me.
Nishant, my then-fiancé, had worked in Africa with the UN, and was intimately aware of her ability to contradict and astonish. We had spirited discussions, in the run-up to our wedding, on how we would do Africa, and we were determined not to be conventional in our approach.
Now he was my husband, and we were here. Him with the certainty that we would “maximise” our Africa experience, by driving 4,000 km through Namibia and then South Africa. Me armed with a Steig Larsson novel, a backpack that weighed more than I did and a firm conviction that he was insane.
At Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, the first thing we did was pick up our gleaming white 4x4 Nissan pick-up truck, who we christened “Walter”. Neither of us had ever driven a vehicle this size before, and we were as terrified as we were excited.
Windhoek sits in a basin between the Khomas Highland, and the Auas and Eros mountains, in almost the exact centre of Namibia. Jonker Afrikaner, a Nama leader, named the area ‘Winterhoek,’ after the farm in South Africa where he was born. Windhoek, or windy corner, is a corruption of this name. It’s home to approximately 200,000 people.
Nishant discovered we had no cable to link our iPod to Walter’s stereo — “Four thousand kilometres and no music? How could this happen?” — and spent the next morning feverishly scouring electronics stores. I took off on a sedate walking tour.
Despite a recent large increase in population, the city centre is clean, mostly trouble-free and full of German-style buildings, a reminder of Namibia’s colonial history. Alte Feste (old fort), once the bastion of German colonists, now houses the National Museum, dedicated to the freedom struggle and independence. You will find yourself remarking over and over, how “un-African” the city is: Wide roads, calm traffic, modern shops and malls, the best hotels in the country.
That evening, we headed toward Etosha National Park, one of Southern Africa’s most important game reserves. Etosha (“Great White Place”) is dominated by a massive mineral pan, part of the Kalahari Basin, the floor of which was formed around a billion years ago. It is vast, barren and breathtakingly beautiful. We camped there for two nights, saw lots of game, and downed several bottles of champagne. Good thing too, because the toilet was outside, in the bush, not something I could deal with sober.
From Etosha, we headed south, towards Damaraland. A short distance down the national highway, we drove through a rather large pool of water. And Walter had a seizure and died. We were in the middle of nowhere. Well, anywhere in Namibia feels like nowhere: It’s twice the size of Germany with one-tenth the population of the Mumbai metro area. You’re alone a lot.
We called the emergency rescue services, and they promised to send help “now.”
Six hours later, we were still waiting.
This is something you should know about Africa: There are three kinds of “now”. The first, most deceptive: “I’ll be there now” (the one we had got); it means “sometime in the next 12-15 hours…perhaps.” The second, which the rescue service gave us on our eighth call: “Just now.” This means about six hours. The version you should persevere towards is the remarkable, double-barrelled “Now now.”
Eight hours later, a rotund, overly-cheerful Afrikaner was smiling at us in his rear-view mirror as he towed us to nearby Outjo. Our car hire was good enough to supply us with a new 4x4 immediately. This one we name “Cory Bustard” (pronounced “busshhtaard”), after a gigantic, freakishly ugly bird species we had grown fond of. (You will spot them frequently; I once got out of the car by the side of the road only to almost step on one.)
Damaraland, and most of the drive to it, boasts glorious desert scenery, magnificent rock formations, archaeological sites and abundant desert fauna and flora. Think the surface of Mars, with life. You’ll find black rhino, and desert elephant, both very dangerous species, which only adds to the allure. A quick lunch at the Mowani Mountain Camp, nestled high up among granite boulders, overlooking the Aba-Huab Valley, and we went off to see the sights.
Twyfelfontein (“Doubtful Fountain”) is one of the most famous rock engravings site in Namibia; more than 2,500 images have been recorded, as well as several paintings. What haunts me still however, is the Petrified Forest. The trees are about 250 million years old, and were deposited by a flood from the north. The trunks do not have any branches or roots — they were all washed away. You can see around 50 of them, the longest more that 30 metres. I was beginning to understand why Africa had stayed in my heart so long. Its topography is primal; seeing it in person made me realise that its vivid, terrible vastness is beyond what the mind can conjure and film can capture (sorry, Sidney Pollack). I was beginning to see Africa for what it really was, not what I had wanted it to be.
Next stop: Swakopmund, 350 km away. The exhaustion of the wedding festivities was beginning to tell, and Africa was giving us too much to absorb. Yes, the long drives were enjoyable, with so much time to think and reconnect with each other and ourselves. But we badly needed to rest and recoup.
Swakopmund turned out to be ideal. It is now one of my favourite places in this world, reassuringly nostalgic yet bizarrely inappropriate. It really does not belong in Africa; it is not raw, nor majestic, nor awash with colour. It sounds and smells of nothing but the ocean. It is a popular beach resort, surrounded by the Namib Desert on all sides.
During the First World War, Germany lost Namibia to South Africa; the country remained a colony until 1990, when it won its independence. But the German and Afrikaner settlers were allowed to stay, and Swakopmund is home mainly to their descendants (you will find very few black or coloured Namibians here).
From here, you can drive south, down the stunning dune-lined coast, to Walvis Bay, the Cape Fur Seal Reserve (the world’s biggest mainland breeding colony), or the Rossmund Desert Golf Course, one of only five all-grass desert golf courses on earth. Swakopmund itself is best known for extreme sports. You can do everything: Balloon rides, dune buggies, sky diving.
Oh, and it was Valentines Day. Nishant had entirely forgotten — “But I thought you said you didn’t believe in it!” — and I was furious.
But the town’s weird charm soon cajoled me out of my poor humour. Nishant, however, stayed in the doghouse.
I was loathe to leave Swakopmund. But the next leg of our journey was to be my favourite. We were finally going to the Namib Desert, the reason why most tourists visit this strange and beautiful country. It is the oldest desert in the world, stretching 1,000 miles along the Atlantic coast.
We headed inland via the Namib Naukluft Park, through the fascinating geological rock formations of the Kuiseb and Ghaub canyons. The land is barren, populated only by the rare mountain zebra. But there are year-round settlements at Sesriem, where our desert camp was: Twenty fully-equipped luxury safari tents, with twin beds, granite-tiled floors, compact lock-up kitchen compartments, and — thank the lord! — en suite bathrooms. There was even a swimming pool.
We were right next to the famous Sossusvlei, a clay plan in the middle of the desert, and home to the highest red sand dunes in the world (over 300 metres high). Of course, we had to climb one.
The best time to view the desert is at dawn. As the sun rises over bleak, serrated mountain edges, the colours change, moist pink turns to rust; the air is crisp and cool. The desert is alive. Antelope are out to graze, and jackals. The sand hosts an entire ecosystem, from chameleons to spiders and scorpions that make their home within the dunes.
Oscar, our guide, a black Namibian who was ebullient at 5 a.m., waited and watched as we climbed Big Mama, the second tallest dune in the world (the tallest is Big Daddy). I asked Oscar if he’d ever climbed Big Daddy. “I try, many times. One man, he do it. I ask him, how long it take you? And he say to me, ‘Brother, it ain’t easy.’”
Nishant and I wanted to scale up the tourist height, just enough to feel good about yourself. Armed with water-bottles, shielded by Ray-bans, we started up. There is a narrow ridge that forms when sand collects on top of itself, and you have to walk on that path, literally picking your foot up each time it sinks into the soft sand. Ten minutes into our ascent, I was sweating like a little pig. We plodded on, and eventually did make it. (Brother, it ain’t easy.)
Image: Nishant Lalwani
The view at that height was stunning. Here, far away from home, in one of the most arid parts of the world, I was now a true adventurer! Then I realised I was really high up and got a bit nervous. My romantic, thoughtful husband cut in: “I’m hungry. Can we go down, please? Also, are you ok? Your right eye is twitching every time you look towards the ground...”
Do you know how you come down a sand dune? In my case, screaming your bloody head off. Because you have to run down the slope (well, half-run, half-surf); if you don’t, you’ll sink. I must also say Nishant has more pictures of my hair on our return than of me throughout the honeymoon. But we made it back for the hearty breakfast Oscar had prepared for us as reward, under a camel thorn tree.
The next morning we took a balloon ride over the desert, as a wedding gift to ourselves. The rides aren’t cheap but they’re unforgettable. Drifting over the dunes silently allows you to take in all the raging contours of the desert in one very memorable, frame.
That night, after dinner, we sat on the little porch jutting out of our tent, shared a bottle of wine and stared at the mountains and the stars that surrounded us. Occasionally, a jackal would wander by.
The next day, we would leave for Windhoek, from where we’d continue on to South Africa, 2,000 km south. Which is another, long story.
And yes, Nishant promises to never forget Valentine’s Day ever again. Here’s to happily ever after.
Map: Hemal Seth
IF YOU GO...
How to Get There
Most international flights fly into Windhoek’s Chief Hosea Kutako International Airport, which is 42 km from the capital city. These flights connect to Namibia via Johannesburg.
Best Time to Go
October through December and in June
Things to Do
Gemsbok is a type of game meat that is only available in Namibia. Fuffvlei and Sosussvl are two must-see places in the Namib Desert. Swakopmund, a seaside resort, is also worth a visit.
You must experience a hot-air balloon ride over the Namib desert at sun rise. Also try out dune climbing.