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Destination: Namibia : High- Contrast Africa : In the land of Etosha, red sand dunes and vast stretches of savanna, colonial Germany has left its mark

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It is a land of unlimited vistas and boundless open spaces, where miles of savanna stretch as far as the eye can see. Where blue mountains and an ocean of red sand dunes border the incredible, bleak beauty of what is thought to be the world’s oldest desert. And, where hundreds of species of birds and animals outnumber by far the sparse population of humans.

For independent travelers who want to go to Africa, Namibia is the ideal setting for a two- or three-week driving trip. Namibia was colonized by the Germans, who came late into the African land scramble. Life here was harsh, with no room for the fripperies enjoyed by other Europeans in Africa. They named the country Sudwest Afrika and, although they were forced to cede the territory to South Africa during World War I, Germany left an indelible mark on the culture. In their capital city, Windhoek, they recreated Bavaria in a semi-arid valley ringed by stony mountains.

Today, their influence remains in the architecture, beer, bread and organization, which is underscored by the modern infrastructure left behind by the South Africans when Namibia became independent in 1990.

My partner, an Italian diplomat, and I live in a medieval-style German castle overlooking Windhoek. Now the official residence of the Ambassador of Italy, it was built by the German army in 1892 and used as an observation post in their war with local tribes. In early pictures of the house, soldiers patrol the dusty parapets, scanning the horizon for their Herero and Nama enemies. A hundred years later, the castle is surrounded by lush gardens and a swimming pool.

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And now those tribes, along with the Ovambo, run the country--the Germans and Afrikaners (who came up from South Africa during the years between World War I and 1990) are in the minority. (Apartheid was abolished in the ‘70s, although informally it flourished until independence.) On the crowded streets the voices are a cacophony of English, German, Afrikaans and African tribal languages such as Nama, with its clicks and musical sounds. (The official language of the country is English, although many people speak Afrikaans or German.)

High-rise office buildings and hotels, such as the Kalahari Sands, dominate the main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue, with the old German structures adding a quaint flavor to the atmosphere. There are ATMs at all the banks, and the lines to get money reflect the crowds on the sidewalks: Herero ladies with their banana-shaped headdresses and colorful Victorian dresses patterned after the missionary ladies, tour guides in khaki safari dress, business people in suits, tourists in shorts or jeans, or African diplomats wearing robes from Nigeria or Kenya.

With fewer than a million and a half people, Namibia is an environmentalist’s dream. Hundreds of species of birds and animals enjoy unpolluted air and water, vast horizons and freedom from the random destructive acts of civilization.

Most visitors find the sub-equatorial winter (May-August), with its bright cloudless days and crisp cool nights, to be an ideal time to visit southern Africa. (In the extreme heat of summer, certain attractions in the south are closed.)

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The place to recuperate from jet lag is Windhoek, where there are plenty of non-stressing things to do. The Kalahari Sands and Safari hotels offer four-star accommodations at $75-$100 a night, while smaller hotels such as the Continental, or bed and breakfasts such as Villa Verdi, are comfortable and less expensive.

In the center of town, the tourist information center offers brochures and information about camping, cars, etc. In contrast to the empty countryside outside the city, Windhoek is filled with pleasant outdoor cafes such as Sardegna and Le Bistro, and shops where traditional Namibian crafts and products are sold.

Bushman Art is both a shop and museum. In the back are an African museum and a large inventory of handmade rugs woven from karakul sheep wool. In the shop in front are handmade masks, jewelry, native hunting implements, bush hats, souvenirs, books, videos, postcards, carved animals and akipas , which are perhaps the most representative remembrance of Namibia. Akipas are large, old buttons carved in ivory or bone that has been soaked in urine to obtain a yellowish color. They sell for less than $30 to more than $150.

In the past, wealthy Ovambo tribesmen presented their wives with akipas to wear on elephant hide belts--the more akipas a woman wore, the richer her husband. Bone akipas are cheaper and readily available for those who don’t wish to have even antique ivory. Bushman Art sells both loose and mounted akipas , which are worn as necklaces. Herle Herma Jewelers in downtown Windhoek sells spectacular necklaces of akipas mounted in gold and decorated with native tourmalines.

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Many of the village women make colorfully embroidered cotton table linens that are sold at the Namibian craft center, along with ostrich eggshell jewelry and wood carvings. The embroidered pieces are real primitive art, featuring African animals and signed by their makers. A set of four place mats and napkins runs around $60.

The food in Namibian restaurants is quite good and far less expensive than in the United States. Grass-fed beef and game are excellent, particularly at places such as the Okambihi Steak House in Windhoek, where a meal with starter, main course and wine runs less than $30 per person. The coastal cities of Kolmanskop and Luderitz harvest delicious oysters that are sent fresh to Windhoek restaurants such as Gathemann or Furstenhof. Rock lobsters, known in Namibia as crayfish, are served at La Cave in Windhoek or Erich’s in Swakopmund--a full course meal of four lobster tails, rice, salad and sauces runs less than $25 per person.

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Probably the first priority for visitors to Namibia is Etosha National Park, among the most magnificent game preserves in the world. Although only two-laned, the paved highway is excellent and traffic is light, allowing travelers to drink in miles of hills and bushveld interrupted only occasionally by small towns. The trip with a stop for lunch at the Otavi Hotel should take about five hours.

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Along the way to Etosha are the Hoba Meteorite, the world’s largest, discovered on a farm not far from Grootfontein, and Lake Otjikoto, 700 million years old and said to be bottomless. At the end of World War I, the German army threw cannons, guns and wagons into its startlingly blue waters to keep them from the Allies. There are very small entry charges at both of these places, but the clean restrooms and cold drinks make the place worth it. Lake Otjikoto is right on the road outside of Tsumeb; the detour to the meteorite will add a total of two or three hours to the trip.

Located just outside the eastern entrance gates to Etosha, Mokuti Lodge is a three-star resort featuring well-appointed bungalows and good food, as well as private guided tours of the adjacent game preserve. Mokuti is a favorite of tour groups, but I like the government-owned Ft. Namutoni, inside the park, whose white towers rise above the 8,600 square miles of Etosha. For as little as $20 per person, the fort provides either rooms or bungalows; there is a very adequate restaurant, large swimming pool and camping facilities. The gates to Ft. Namutoni, as well as the entrance to the park itself, close at sunset and open at sunrise with no exceptions.

There are detailed maps of the park available in several languages, so you shouldn’t get lost. While driving slowly along the hard-packed roads or parked quietly at one of dozens of water holes, travelers can look for elephant, rhino, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, springbok and perhaps a lion or leopard.

A good place for lunch is Halali, another government-operated rest camp about midway across Etosha. The restaurant offers sandwiches and salads, as well as game specialties, and for overnighters there are facilities and prices similar to Ft. Namutoni’s. To the west, animals congregate at many more water holes, as well as on the vast Etoshapan (a dry lake the size of Delaware). By late afternoon, you should reach Okaukuejo Rest Camp, also a public facility, with its exciting floodlit water hole where elephants, rhinos and other animals come to drink at night. This is a good place to stay in case you didn’t see elephants during the day: They almost always come for a sunset drink.

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Turning south and west from Etosha, the next stop should be at Twylfelfontein. There, more than 2,000 bushman rock paintings date back to 3300 BC. At Khorixas the road becomes gravel and, before long, visitors will find themselves alone, enthralled by desert scenery stretching to the farthest horizons.

From Khorixas to the rock paintings is about 90 miles on gravel roads. We asked the restaurant at Ongava for a picnic lunch to eat on the way to Twylfelfontein, as we planned to be back at the Khorixas rest camp for dinner. Khorixas is a privately owned camp with prices a bit higher than the public facilities. A bungalow with four beds, a kitchenette and bath is about $50 a night. There is a pool, telephone, small bar and restaurant.

The drive west across the mountainous desert between Khorixas and Skeleton Coast on the Atlantic is a trip to be savored. Each vista is more exceptional than the last, with sand dunes mixing with rock hills and wind to form an ever-changing landscape. A stop in the “middle of the middle of nowhere” may allow a glimpse of wild ostrich parading through the countryside or a long-horned oryx running along the ridges.

The cold moist air at Terrace Bay on the Skeleton Coast is a welcome change after the daylong drive across the desert. The public bungalows lining the beach are cheap and comfortable and the restaurant food filling, even though there isn’t much selection. This is a harsh and invigorating beach, where stark white desert meets cold, dark ocean water. In this moonscape can be found jackals, desert elephants and even, on occasion, a lion looking for seals to eat.

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About 150 miles down the beach at Cape Cross, we saw and (smelled) about 200,000 seals. Their raucous cries filled the air as they jostled for sunning room among the rocks. About half of each season’s baby seals die from attack by jackals or from other natural causes. There is a strange little gift shop on the reserve at Cape Cross, with seal tooth key rings and souvenirs made from seal skin.

Sixty-five miles south, civilization beckons at Swakopmund, founded in 1892 and today an oddly charming German resort town right on the ocean. There are sophisticated seafood restaurants, such as the Tug and the Steamer, and bakeries such as Anton Cafe selling homemade strudels. The hotels range from the three-star Hansa to very pleasant public bungalows at Alte Brucke.

For winter travelers, the drive south and east across the desert to Sosslusvlei to see the ancient brick-red “dune-ocean” is fresh and delightful. In summer (November-February), Sosslusvlei can be blisteringly hot (110 degrees Fahrenheit) and is best enjoyed by exceptionally fit travelers or from inside an air-conditioned vehicle.

Recently I joined my son and some other people in their 20s for a two-day truck safari to Sosslusvlei. We camped near the dunes at Sesreim. Although we found the government campsites full, it didn’t matter. We slept on the ground just outside the gates to the new Sosslusvlei Karos Lodge, where visitors are comfortably housed in small bungalows with Bedouin-style canvas walls and ceilings for $75 per night, per person.

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Groups doing our kind of camping are usually, as we were, in a self-contained large truck, open on the sides with car seats for the passengers in the back. Namibian guides are very serious about the environment and clean up as they go. The food is usually very good, cooked over an open fire under blazing stars by Namibians with big appetites.

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GUIDEBOOK

Namibian

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Expeditions

Getting there: Southern California travelers have several routing choices: American and South African Airways fly from LAX to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a change of planes at JFK, for about $1,940. Windhoek is a short hop away, excursion fare, via South African Airways or Air Namibia for about $270 round trip. Or connect in London with Air Namibia to Windhoek; or in Frankfurt or Paris with Lufthansa to Windhoek; round-trip excursion fares are about $3,130. Flying time from LAX is about 20 hours, depending on routing.

Driving: Rental cars are available from Budget, Avis and local dealers such as Namib 4x4 and Kessler 4x4, which rent four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as sedans. While it is easier to reserve from abroad with an international company, many local dealers are more reasonably priced and provide reliable vehicles.

Where to stay: Government-run game parks and resorts are located all over Namibia, and provide excellent value for the money. Reservations are accepted up to 18 months in advance from the Director of Tourism and Resorts, Reservations, Private Bag 13346, Windhoek, Namibia, or by FAX from the U.S. at 011-264-61-221930 or Resorts Management, Private Bag 13306, Windhoek, Namibia, tel. from the U.S. 011-264-61-239066 or 011-264-61-239069; fax 011-264-61-239094.

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Namibia is dotted with rest camps and guest farms that offer family hospitality on working farms (ranches), many of which are stocked with wild game. Details of government and private rest camps, hotels, guest farms or camping facilities, along with prices, can be found in the annual Namibia Accommodation Guide for Tourists which can be ordered free of charge from the Director of Tourism (address above).

For more information: Contact the Embassy of Namibia, 1605 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; tel. (202) 986-0540. Or, the Permanent Mission of Namibia to the U.N., 135 E. 36th St., New York, N.Y. 10016; tel. (212) 685-2003, fax (212) 685-1561.


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