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NAMIBIA UNBOUND

Jono David is an American freelance writer who lives in Japan

I knew there was something special about this land when the immigration officer at a wind-swept border crossing asked me for a pen. “Sorry, I don’t have one,” I said with surrendering hands, looking to another tourist for help. “Well,” replied the civil servant, “if I don’t take your details, I can’t let you into the country.”

His smile gave away the joke, but it was true: He was pen-less. Yet his banter, surprising for a border agent, was an appropriate welcome to this country of unexpected delights.

Namibia is a vast and mostly desolate region in the southwestern corner of the African continent. Formed by all manner of geological cataclysms--earthquakes, volcanoes, retreating glaciers--it resembles in many ways the American Southwest. The stark landscape of interminably shifting hues of sand and scrub, pinnacles and canyons stretches 700 miles from Angola in the north to South Africa. Tellingly, the country is twice the size of California yet only 1.7 million people call it home.

The faces of Namibia’s inhabitants weave an equally eye-catching tapestry, threaded by a dozen cultural groupings. Most prominent are the Ovambo, who make up nearly half of the population; the Herero, historically a nomadic pastoral people; and the aboriginal San. There are also many Namibians of mixed race and European descent, reflecting the land’s occupation by Germany and South Africa before independence in 1990. For visitors like me who come here to mingle in search of someplace completely different--I am an American living and working in crowded urban Japan--Namibia is as fascinating as an ever-changing kaleidoscope.

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Namibia, formerly South West Africa, is new to democracy and fairly new to tourism. Its big attractions are its parks, wildlife and wilderness. There’s an excellent road system, and the parks are well maintained. But, even though I usually travel alone, I was persuaded that the sights are best seen with a guide and a group, at least for first-time visitors.

Scores of outfitters with long experience elsewhere in southern Africa have added Namibia to their tour offerings. After a lot of time on the Internet, I settled on an agency in London that represents a big safari outfitter based in Johannesburg. I’d have 2 1/2 weeks in Namibia, altogether two months in southern Africa.

Our group of 17, led by an Afrikaner guide, was amiable enough, but I have to confess, I was so involved with my own experience of Africa that I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to make meaningful friendships.

We traveled in a customized vehicle, half truck and half bus; it looked like a garbage truck with floor-to-ceiling windows on each side.

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Our first stop in Namibia (we crossed the border from South Africa) was Fish River Canyon, said to be second in size only to America’s Grand Canyon. Daring myself to stand on the rim of the chasm, I felt I could see all 100 miles of the gorge’s length. I imagined taking wing and swooping down on the murky green thread hundreds of feet below.

The next day I looked out upon the golden plains of Excelsior Camp, a “guest farm” where we stayed a few hours’ drive from Fish River Canyon. Once again I took an imaginary flight, soaring in the thermals with birds of prey high above the boulder-dotted grasslands that once were the bottom of a primeval sea. It was out here on the edge of the Namib Desert that I caught my first glimpse of the sand and stone world so different from the savannas and forests elsewhere in southern Africa. Among the landmarks were Chocolate Mountain’s rocky cone and the Songs of Music Mountain, the boulders of which chime different notes when struck by smaller stones--a real rock concert. Or so the locals say.

With the desert clouding in our vehicle’s wake, we rocketed further into the heart of Namibia through landscapes as picturesque as, well, pictures. Long drives here are rewarded with visions of otherworldly colors and shapes that might have been lifted from a surrealist’s canvas. Our destination was Sossusvlei, arguably the country’s most magnificent territory.

Sossusvlei is a magnificent sweep of ochre dunes that tower as high as 750 feet above the parched land for hundreds of square miles, stopping at the edge of the Atlantic. These hills are in perpetual motion, evolving at the whim of the wind. Standing atop a razor-sharp crest looking out across the waterless sea, I wondered where the dunes would take me if I had years to ride them.

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Surprisingly, Sossusvlei is full of life. Even though the wind ceaselessly sweeps the sands, we saw the tracks of snakes, lizards, ants and beetles. Hardy animals also live here, such as the blind golden mole (it has no eyes or ears), gemsbok (oryx) and ostrich.

We shared their world for two nights at Sesriam, a campsite on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft Park.

The general rule is to make camp by dusk, but we had tarried at the dunes, and the desert night turned abruptly cold as we set up in darkness.

The typical camp has designated areas for those who make advance bookings, sometimes with considerable distance between campsites. All the places we stayed at had toilets and showers (usually with enough hot water).

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Everyone pitched in with all chores, from cooking to taking care of the vehicle (not maintenance, though, which wasn’t needed). The guide generally set the menu. Usually we had cereal, bread and coffee or tea for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and lots of meat for dinner, with vegetables and sometimes pasta.

In Sesriam and other desert spots, the nights were quiet--no sounds of animals, as in the game parks.

The rhythm of the day was set by the caws of roosting birds, which woke me to a flawless dawn beneath a cobalt dome.

The third day, we drove north, mostly on gravel roads, through a landscape of jagged mountains and gorges cleft by dry riverbeds.

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Rock formations beyond number and type made me wish I had taken geology more seriously as a kid, for if there ever was a geologist’s heaven, this was certainly it.

At a stop in the area of Namib-Naukluft Park called the Moon Landscape, I peered down from the edge of a high plateau. An extraordinary vista drifted weightlessly below, dotted with hikers who appeared as diminutive as the beetles on Sossusvlei’s gritty slopes.

A day that had begun under crystal blue skies was turning cloudy, full of mist and positively cold. Our destination that night was Swakopmund, a seaside resort, and I had entertained visions of taking a dip. But six miles out, a cold curtain dropped between desert and coastal plain, the work of an offshore river, the Benguela Current, which influences much of southern Africa’s climate.

By the time we pulled into the town around 5 p.m., I was eager to sleep in a bed, talk to some locals, shop for keepsakes and have someone cook for me. It was another discovery: I was still a city boy, happy to be surrounded by civilization. I even had e-mail.

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How odd it was to trade the barren, sun-baked sand scapes for palm-tree-lined streets and architecture lifted straight from German suburbs circa 1920.

It wasn’t hard to see why this town of 25,000 hosts hordes of holiday-goers from across the region, and increasingly from Europe. The water is too cold for swimming, and the days are often misty--a terrific break for people living in sultry African climes. And during Europe’s winter, Namibia is steeped in a tropical summer. A relaxed atmosphere prevails in open-to-the-street cafes and along the seaside promenade. The Germanic legacy of hearty food and beer is another big attraction.

Swakopmund is not only where sea meets land and town meets desert, it’s also where cultures mix and viewpoints often clash.

“I’ve done more for Namibia than most ‘real’ Namibians,” declared the German emigre working in the store where I bought a souvenir. What she meant by “real” I didn’t know, and her tone made me decide not to ask. She had said she came to Namibia 40 years ago. In my month in southern Africa, I talked with many whites who now are governed by blacks, and most of them spoke with an edge of resentment at losing their dominance. Yet almost everywhere, I noticed whites doing the office jobs and blacks doing menial work.

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Down by the promenade, I struck up a conversation with a black man from the Caprivi Strip, a finger of land in the remote northeast often penetrated by Angolan forces. “I moved here with my family about a year ago because of the fighting there,” the fellow said. Skirmishes had recently claimed the lives of several tourists and proved a good enough reason for me to drop Caprivi from my itinerary. “I like it here, but it’s not my home,” he said.

Two days of modernity actually had me craving wilderness. On the road again, we drove north through the West Coast National Recreational Area, a 120-mile-long strip of rugged, virtually empty coastline. We stopped at Cape Cross, where Portuguese navigator Diego Cao landed in 1486. Europeans found the coast so inhospitable--no natural harbors, no fresh water, the Namib impenetrable--that they avoided it for four centuries. But they did sail past, to South Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. The frequent fog caught so many in shipwrecks that this became known as the Skeleton Coast.

With such a ghostly name, my imagination was spooked even years before I made it here. But I found the Skeleton Coast, like Sossusvlei, full of life, with a remarkable range of flora and fauna adapted to the unmerciful habitat.

Maybe too full of life. Around Cape Cross seals come ashore to breed by the tens of thousands. And seabirds are so numerous, guano once was a profitable export. (Diamonds still rank No. 1.) The stench was enough to cut short my photo plans.

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Not far inland, about five millenniums ago the aboriginal peoples made a record of the beasts they saw and hunted. Today, this rock art draws archeologists and curious tourists. We stopped at one center, Twyfelfontein. Although 2,500 images have been cataloged, all the enthusiasm the young guide could muster was expressed as “here are some elephants, and on that rock there are some giraffes and rhinos.” It occurred to me that she probably didn’t know much more than I had gleaned from my guidebook, and she apparently didn’t want to know more. It was just a job under a white-hot sun.

The ancient gallery only made me impatient for Etosha National Park, one of southern Africa’s most celebrated hunting grounds. (We were only shooting photographs.) Our initial sighting of zebra, ostrich, wildebeest and springbok vying for a drink at a sunken water hole compacted all my anticipation into a tight and tidy memory ball. In that second I realized the romantic dream and accomplished the long-held objective of watching African animals in the wild. I had been on safari.

But the wilds of Etosha tamed my expectations, too: Animals are the true lords of this land. Yet where once they ruled a free-roaming stage across the continent, the kaleidoscope of wildlife survives today largely within the protected spaces of game parks and nature reserves. Sadly, fences hold the only hopes of survival for many of these animals.

Reluctantly, I had to leave the animal kingdom and the desertscapes behind for the modern city of Windhoek and, from there, the border crossing to Botswana.

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This time I had a pen with me. An immigration officer summoned me with her nod, authoritatively whacked an exit stamp into my passport and remarked, “Thank you for visiting Namibia.” I smiled back. “Thanks for having me.” Then, offering my pen, I said, “Please take it. So you can let the next tourist in.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK

Breaking Ground in Namibia

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Getting there: Delta, United, TWA and American airlines book flights to Windhoek, usually with two stops (plane changes) en route. Typical fares in February start at $1,551 round trip.

When to go: The winter months of May through September are generally dry and cool.

Where to stay: Escorted safari or camping tours are advised for first-time visitors. Full-service hotels are few; two that can be recommended are:

Hotel Safari, P.0. Box 3900, Windhoek. A big, modern place with pretty grounds, upscale touches. Telephone 011-264-61-240-240, fax 011-264-61-235-652, Internet https://www.safarihotel.com.na Doubles run from $42 to $65.

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Hansa Hotel, 3 Roon, Swakopmund. Handsome, genteel; built around the city’s original train station. Doubles about $55. Tel. 011-264-641-400-311, fax 011-264-641-402-732, e-mail hansa@iatrica.com.na.

Getting around: A 12-day tour of Namibia, starting and ending in Windhoek, costs $895 through the outfit I used, Drifters Adventours, P.O. Box 48434, Roosevelt Park, Johannesburg, South Africa; tel. 011-27-11-888-1160, fax 011-27-11-888-1020; https://www.drifters.co.za.

The Namibia Tourism office offers a wealth of information about tour choices and outfitters on its Internet site, https://www.tourism.com.na.

The M-Web Africa home site, https://www.mweb.com.na, has useful links as well as news, weather and local color. Another informative site is https://www.africanet.com.

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For more information: Embassy of Namibia, 1605 New Hampshire Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20009; tel. (202) 986-0540, fax (202) 986-0443, e-mail embnamibia@aol.com.


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