The long and winding road

2013-09-18 11:00

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Driving across Namibia reveals landscapes that beat your breath out, rather than taking it away.

The highlight of a road trip is usually the driving, occasionally the destinations, but rarely both. In Namibia, you won’t have to forsake one for the other.

Namibia’s lush tropics roll into barren desert before hitting the tempestuous coast via wave upon wave of inland dunes.

A glance at the map is testament to its panoramas: official ‘scenic routes’ are highlighted in green and stand out like a mass of squirming serpents, making Namibian driving holidays more pleasure cruise than hard slog.

Travelling north from the capital, Windhoek, is by far the most boring leg of the journey. Mile upon mile of scorching tarmac shoots into the distance, lined on both sides by wire fencing demarcating private farms.

Unlike many African countries, pedestrian activity in Namibia is scant and driving all day can yield only a handful of passersby.

Triangular warning signs for warthogs punctuate the boredom, but never any warthogs themselves. Occasionally, giant orange termite hills loom over the thick green vegetation, garnering attention until the disappointing realisation - that it wasn’t a giraffe - sets in.

Reliable roads end and incredible vistas begin in the flagship Etosha National Park. The Etosha pan, which takes up the bulk of the reserve, dazzles in the morning sun.

These views are squint-inducing, as the dehydrated ancient lake spreads into the horizon.

The white featureless plains are occasionally broken up by regal oryx or dusty wildebeest. Blue collides with white on a flatlined horizon, the expanse of which can leave a residual feeling of human insignificance.

The magic really starts when heading west into Damaraland. The one-horse town of Kamanjab marks the end of good roads. Tarmac immediately gives way to a baptism of spine-jarring gravel, but as the track degrades the landscape blossoms.

Extreme scenery calls for an upgrade of warning signs as the comical warthog silhouettes are replaced by impressive elephantine outlines. The Grootberg Pass climbs peacefully and peaks spectacularly.

Unpredictable tracks wind down and through green hills, traversing river crossings and passing isolated evidence of habitation.

As the road turns southwards from Palmwag, swathes of valleys and mountains converge. Shredded tyres litter the fringes of the trail, testament to those who have passed along this unforgiving terrain.

Capitalising on the environment, enterprising locals have intermittently established roadside shacks specialising in rubber repairs.

The road dances through Damaraland, past ancient San rock art in Twyfelfontein and Ice Age trees that have been slowly compressed to stone. Rolling hills quickly give way to Flintstone-esque granite peaks that pepper the ever-browning scrub. Mountainous outlines ebb into the distance as the horizon flattens out once again.

The imposing Brandberg massif glows in its fiery hue, with multiple peaks outlined crisply in the dustless sky. It is here that hikers and campers flock to explore the multitude of nooks and crevices hidden along its face.

A little further south, and at the end of hazardous undulating tracks, sits Spitzkoppe. This is the most impressive of these errant granite pinnacles.

Towering 1 000 metres from the ground, it pierces the atmosphere with flowing rock. Once an active volcano, only the solidified molten core is left standing after millennia of soil erosion.

Scrambling up is hard work, but rewarded with 4 000-year-old rock paintings and 360-degree views.

Turning westward towards the coast brings better roads across the Namib-Naukluft Desert. This weird stretch of land is what gives the iconic Skeleton Coast its name. Barren, stark, bleak, desolate and uninviting for 80 straight kilometres, it is easy to understand the helplessness of shipwrecked sailors in years gone by.

Swakopmund, on the same latitude as Windhoek, is a quaint colonial town built in the German tradition. It emerges from the drab landscape like a mirage, made more obscure by the garish colours of its buildings.

The manicured lawns, neat grid layout and towering pines bear further witness to its eccentricity and German efficiency.

The majestic dunes that lick its southern perimeter are best explored by quad bike.

A two-hour trip deep into, onto and around this tempestuous inland sea drain adrenaline reserves. Huge sand walls are easily tackled by these light and powerful machines, and the spectacle from dune summits of the Atlantic far below is intoxicating.

Leaving the coast to reach the tourist board pin-up of the red dunes in Sossusvlei and Deadvlei is another journey of contrast. The landscape rocks back and forth like a prizefighter, from the empty Namib-Naukluft Desert to the lush Kuseib Pass, which is a Teletubby wonderland of wispy grass swaying on slate hills and cutting ravines.

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to explore this shifting landscape. The low light exaggerates shadows along clean dune summit lines, and crowds are at a minimum.

Energy is consumed whilst clambering up, as feet sink into the sand, doubling the exertion of each step. The effort is an investment, with the return being the silence of absolute isolation, complemented by views of endless peaks and troughs.

Aiming east on the home straight means only a few more hours until a return to tarmac. The B1 highway, the black artery of good road running Namibia’s length, is greeted like a long lost sibling.

After days of crunching gravel, tyre-deep sand and running water, tarmac feels like business class. The stretch back to Windhoek is a pleasant cruise that flirts with the western fringes of the great Kalahari Desert.

A holiday here is a win-win situation, where the prizes for hedonistic drives are astonishing destinations. Best of all, it can be repeated without fear of boredom.

Seasonal change is drastic; greens turn brown, flowing rivers become dry beds, migrating birds are replaced by thirsty game, and quenched deserts yearn forwater once more.

Make the most of it

1. A good time frame to complete this trip is 7-10 nights.

2. Accommodation is plentiful, varied and accessible, from luxury to camping.

3. Namibia is great to visit any time of the year. Roads are in better condition during the dry season (May–December), but passable in 4X4 vehicles during the wet season.

4. Invest in a good road map and always seek local advice on the state of roads ahead. Fill your tank when you can; carry cash as cards are rarely accepted.

5. Car and truck rental agencies are plentiful in Windhoek. Namibian-owned vehicle rental companies include Aloe Car Hire (http://www.natron.net/aloe/Home.htm)

6. Bookings for tourist spots can be made through the Namib-i info centre (www.natron.net/tour/swakop/infoe.htm)

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