Namibia: Desert, ghost town and the Skeleton Coast

Reporting from Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Griddle-hot deserts, time-forsaken ghost towns, prismatic canyons and endless ribbons of lonely highway: There's nothing quite like a road trip across the Southwest to get the gasoline pumping in an American's wanderlust-ful heart.

But what's perfect for America's bottom-left corner works even better here in Africa's. Welcome to Namibia, on Africa's western coast between South Africa and Angola, where the deserts are hotter, the roads are emptier and America — at least when Brangelina aren't visiting — couldn't be farther away.

Like any good road trip, my first tour of Namibia started as a means of avoiding school. I was a 24-year-old doing graduate research in Kenya in 1998 when I booked an escape to Cape Town, South Africa. By the time the plane landed, I was so entranced with my guidebook's entry for neighboring Namibia that the only sensible option was to rent a car and make for the border.

This year, I finally persuaded some friends to return with me. We had to modify the road-trip motif to fit our busy, not-so-twentysomething circumstances: We skipped the long drive from Cape Town and flew straight to Windhoek, Namibia's capital, and we rented a sensible minivan (although in America it would be more like a large golf cart). The music needed updating too: Nirvana was out, Fleet Foxes in. (ABBA, of course, is timeless).

Every Southwestern road trip requires some seriously vertical scenery, so our first stop was Fish River Canyon, two days' drive south of Windhoek. It's practically unheard of outside Namibia, but the scale at Fish River is second only to the Grand Canyon. Here, though, there are no acres of parking, tourist-packed buses or IMAX theaters — just a small, deserted viewing platform. You're free to wander as far as you like along the unfenced canyon rim, alone with your thoughts on what might as well be the edge of the world.

For the physically ambitious, there's a five-day hike into the canyon. (Alarmingly, maps depict an "escape route" halfway along.) Otherwise, it's sundowners — the hallowed safari tradition of a stiff drink at dusk — back at the ranch. We stayed at the eclectic Canon Lodge, with individual cabins hidden among house-sized boulders (think Flintstones) on the edge of a vast plain. The lodge offers guided walks, friendly staff and a welcome refuge from Kalahari-sized insects that looked serious enough to take down a cat. (They're crickets, apparently, but their attitude is more Predator.)

Next stop for us was the blessedly cricket-free town of Luderitz, on Namibia's Atlantic coastline. The drive from canyon to coast is an all-day affair — a few hours on bone-shattering gravel roads and then a long, joyful cruise down the B4, a highway so straight and empty that keeping your hands on the steering wheel seems a formality.

Despite Namibia's superficial similarities to the American West, no one would mistake this landscape for Arizona or Nevada. Maybe it was the ostriches ambling along the roadside. Or maybe it was the emptiness. Namibia is about twice the size of California, with just 5% of the population. Here, "rural" means 100-mile runs of highway that are devoid of human habitation. We would regularly stop the car and walk a short distance into the desert, silently marveling at how much nothingness could fit between us and the unfathomably distant horizon. Never before, I'm sure, have we been so far from other people.

If that sounds haunting, wait till you get to the coast. As you get closer, the sand turns from yellow to a lunar sort of gray. The shore here, infamous among mariners for five centuries, is often wreathed in treacherous fog. Farther north, where it's known as the Skeleton Coast, the whitewashed ribs of old shipwrecks still appear, half-buried in storm-shifted sands.

Amid this desolation was our improbable destination: Luderitz. Namibia was once a German colony, and in Luderitz the heritage is as obvious as it is unlikely, with German bakeries, Bavarian architecture and more umlauts on street signs than you can shake a bratwurst at. "Random" is the only word for this 19th century German village sandwiched between hundreds of miles of scorching wastes and the icy Antarctic currents that pound the coastline.

With its perky Bavarian townscape amid such inhospitable surroundings, Luderitz is an attraction all its own. A half-hour south is Dias Point, where a replica of the cross laid in 1488 by explorer Bartolomeu Dias (the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope) keeps a lonely guard.

Just outside Luderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop, an abandoned diamond mining settlement that time and the desert are reclaiming. You're free to wander through the sandblasted buildings even as the dunes sift through their doors and windows. Walk into one of the living rooms half-filled with sand or scramble carefully up the half-rotted staircases to bedrooms where wallpaper, decorations and the occasional windowpane remain intact.

Twelve hours after driving out of Luderitz, we approached Namibia's best known attraction: Sossusvlei, in Namib-Naukluft National Park, an otherworldly landscape filled with endless waves of the world's largest and most photogenic sand dunes. The colors — dizzying red and flaming orange against a background of crystalline blue skies — are even more impressive than their size.

No matter how magnificent the dunes, it was time to counteract a week of rough motels and dusty all-day drives with a little luxury. There are few better places in Africa to do this than the area around Sossusvlei, home to some of the continent's ritziest hide-outs. The priciest of all, Wolwedans — a resort composed of several lodges and ultra-luxurious tent camps — is rumored to have refused Brangelina and their entourage rather than rebook its other guests. Cheaper but still wonderful is the Sossus Dune Lodge, which provides the easiest access to the famous dunes.

We chose Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, which like many resorts here is a short ride from Sossusvlei, in a valley all its own. The free-standing suites are nestled high along the valley rim, ringed with mountains and dunes nearly as spectacular as those at Sossusvlei. The shimmering plains beneath the lodge had the same calming effect as water: Think Post Ranch Inn but with antelope instead of whales.

Plan at least a day to explore Sossusvlei; many travelers come halfway across the world just to see these dunes. Hot-air ballooning is a pricey but memorable way to capture their magnificent geometry from on high, or you can take an airplane flight to see not only the dunes but also the historic shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast.

Photographers will want to be duneside near dawn or dusk to capture the low light and sharp shadows. Then they should ditch the camera and shoes and start climbing: Your inner child hasn't encountered a sandbox this awesome in quite a while. The edges can be frighteningly steep, but — as I proved — if you stumble, you'll simply slow to a comical stop in the thick sand.

When you're done with the dunes, every lodge offers late-afternoon game drives to spot zebras, ostriches, jackals and antelope. And, of course, the stars. One evening, our guide parked atop a hill, assembled a bar and starting pouring drinks just as the first brilliant pinpricks of the southern night sky appeared. Away from nearly all light pollution, the Milky Way was soon as obvious as the moon, a silent river of stars across the heavens. Champagne, good friends, star-struck zebras silhouetted on the horizon — it was night life Namibia-style, we decided, and the ideal antidote to the long road we'd traveled.

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