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“Sossusvlei is one of my top ten unmissable African sights” Freewheeling 12 Travel Namibia Iwill never forget the moment I crested a ridge on the road between Swakopmund and Windhoek. In a sudden, breathtaking panorama, the vastness of the Namibian landscape opened up before me. Dry and undulating, the horizon stretched out for miles in every direction. The sky arced above, impossibly blue, streaked with wisps of white cloud that made it seem even higher. I felt my spirit soar as the mountains and the flat dry grass plains unfolded. It reminded me of the sensation I had years ago when flying over the Moroccan coastline on the journey back to South Africa from Europe. Crossing that boundary between sea and land, where the turquoise Mediterranean gives way to deep, folded mountains and harsh, primeval rock formations, I knew I was on my way home at last. Africa’s uniquely rugged, uncompromising landscape defines the continent, all the way down to Table Mountain. Its geography of grandeur never leaves the soul, no matter how far you travel or how long you stay away. The call had come out of the blue. A German television company wanted me to help them research a travel documentary in Namibia. I would spend the next three months driving in and out of the country, often on my own, scouring the back roads for quirky, unusual places and people. I had some experience of 4WD driving in South Africa and Botswana’s Central Kalahari, but I’m certainly no expert. Frankly, the thought of driving so far and for so long on my own was slightly daunting, but I welcomed the challenge. I knew I was unlikely to encounter real danger. Namibia is mostly a safe, friendly and efficient place in which to travel. Still, breaking down or getting lost alone is no fun, and I hoped that wouldn’t happen to me. My first journey was into the far north to meet the Himba people who live on the Angolan border. “If you value your kidneys,” said Marlien, a lodge owner who I met on the balcony of her lovely home in Windhoek, “don’t drive too fast. The roads are filled with small dongas that you hit quite unexpectedly.” She was right. The sand roads in Namibia are

Travel Namibia 13 well maintained, but in the north an extinct riverine system has left thousands of small gullies (dongas) all across the landscape. I drove first through Ovamboland. Here, the main roads are mostly tarred; a 4WD is not essential, but it does help in getting to some of the more remote destinations. The towns and villages are small and far apart. Most of the local Ovambo people live in tiny communities of thatched huts and cattle and goat kraals made of acacia logs stuck upright into the sand. There is a harsh, shimmering beauty to the sun-beaten landscape. The flat pans in this region are known as oshana and the tall, exotic-looking palms are known as makalani. The roadsides are dotted with cuca shops with names like Lucky Bar, Back of the Moon and 7 to 7, where you can speak to the locals over an ice-cold Coke or a bottle of Castle beer. One night I found myself at a tiny lodge, enjoying a Russian sausage and chips, some Tassies red wine in a thick glass, and the unexpected sound of Jim Reeves crooning “You’ll never be unhappy again”. I drove further north and west to Opuwo in Kaokoland, where I came to Himba country. Here most people still live in a traditional way, smearing ochre and butter fat over their bodies and wearing loincloths, handmade jewellery and distinctive hairdos. They are a people straddling the past and the present. Many are still semi-nomadic, moving seasonally with their cattle in search of grass and water in the dry months, but returning to their villages in the rains. If you have a 4WD, extra petrol and two spare tyres, I recommend the relatively tough and very stony drive along the old South African army road which follows the Kunene River along the border between Namibia and Angola, from the Epupa Falls – a mini-version of the Victoria Falls – to the spectacular Ruacana Falls. The Kunene is one of the most remote and picturesque rivers in Africa. Here, green waters glide past vegetation-covered islands and crocodiles sun themselves in the shallows close to the pale sandy banks. Seeing a full moon throwing a silver glow over the dark flowing waters Breathing space – capturing Namibia’s vast desert views. MAIN PICTURE: STEVE DAVEY