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A long way down. Learning to drive the dunes Driving test 28 Travel Namibia ALL PHOTOS: MARY ASKEW

Travel Namibia 29 Dune rider You don’t have to stick to the roads on a driving tour of Namibia. In a 4WD you can learn to ride the incredible dunes of the Namib Naukluft Desert to rarely visited abandoned diamond mining towns and forgotten shipwrecks. No previous experience is necessary – just a sense of adventure, as Mary Askew found out. I can’t do it,” I gasped, staring down a seemingly vertical slope. “Trust me, it will be fine, just don’t put your foot on the brake or you’ll lose control of the back end,” said my grinning guide, Jacques. This was no ordinary driving lesson – there were no roads for tens of miles around, come to think of it there was nobody else for tens of miles. From my precarious viewpoint, crowned on the knife edge of a perfectly formed dune, I could only see wave upon wave of deep orange sand. We were in the northern tip of the Namib Naukluft desert and these were some of the tallest dunes in the world. I held my breath and with just a touch on the accelerator our 4WD started inching forwards down the dune’s slipface, sending everything that wasn’t strapped in hurtling into the foot wells. Then the most surprising thing happened – the dune started to roar, increasing in volume as we picked up speed until it sounded as if a jet was taking off right underneath us. I turned to Jacques who was still grinning insanely. “Isn’t it fantastic,” he mouthed over the strangely melodic noise. Apparently, not only is the sand of the Namib so old that the iron in it has literally rusted to give it its overwhelming colour, but the particles have a great deal of air trapped between them. When that air is forced out the resulting sound is so low and resonant it feels as if it is going straight through you. As we crested dune after dune my confidence behind the wheel grew. Jacques was always on hand, either sitting beside me or in a nearby vehicle on a two-way radio. Everyone got stuck at least once, even one of the guides who had driven in the desert hundreds of times. Rescuing each other’s vehicles was part of the fun and also taught us a lot about recovery - tips that came in useful during the rest of our driving holiday in Namibia. The Namibians are deeply protective of this area of their desert, where diamond mining ceased about 50 years ago and only a handful of people are now allowed in each month. With the right permit and the right guide you can drive through the dunes for a couple of days until you reach some old mining settlements. Everything is just as it was the day the last prospectors left, albeit