Off the beaten track in Namibia

So famous is Namibia’s tourist-trodden self-drive circuit, it’s known simply as ‘Route One’. Chris Haslam veers off track to discover the destination as it once was…

Vingerklip finger rock
Vingerklip finger rock, Namibia by Getty Images

There are many things in Namibia that can kill you,’ announces the welcome video cheerfully, as a lion, a Cape cobra and a scorpion flash across the screen.

‘But the biggest killer,’ chirps the narrator, ‘is speed.’ Cue a montage of wrecked rental vehicles – identical, but for the broken glass and torn steel, to those in the car rental depot. The backpackers who’ve spent the safety briefing scrolling on their phones go pale. A German lady hisses at her husband: ‘You told me Namibia was safe.’ But despite this sobering introduction, Namibia really is Africa’s safest, most effortlessly explorable nation. Self-driving in Namibia makes it easy to be intrepid. Part road trip, part safari, it’s two bucket-list trips for the price of one. It’s affordable, too, with flight-inclusive self-drives much cheaper than in South Africa. And, at the wheel of a 4WD, the driving is epic.

Etosha National Park Namibia,
Animals reflect in the sunset in Etosha National Park Namibia, by Getty Images

It’s for these reasons that so many excited visitors fly in to Windhoek, ready to depart on the famed tourist trail they call Route One. It heads southwest to the dunes of the Sossusvlei, then loops north for the adrenaline sports and Baltic-style seaside charms of Swakopmund. From here, it’s a six-hour drive further north to reach the wildlife of Etosha National Park. But Namibia is fifth on the list of the world’s emptiest countries (with just three people per square kilometre), so it doesn’t require many tourists to feel crowded.

Two decades ago, I wandered the Sossusvlei like a lonely ghost in a Dalí landscape. These days, such solace is impossible. There’s a car park full of coaches, overland trucks, and that backpacking couple. Instagrammers queue at the Deadvlei for a photograph with the skeletal camel thorns. There’ll be huge Chinese tour groups enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen on Swakopmund’s prom and, as you watch lions drinking at Etosha’s Okondeka waterhole, you might hear that German lady whisper ‘Ist es sicher?!’ (‘Is it safe?!’) To experience the cinematic desolation and spectacular wildlife that Namibia is famous for, you need to leave the herd. But it’s not as daunting as it sounds. All you need is the ability to read a map, an awareness of your limitations in what can be a merciless land, and the desire to find places so wild, so lonely and so alien, they’ll make you breathless. Scared, even. Just as Namibia is supposed to.

Little Him boy wearing traditional jewellery
Little Him boy wearing traditional jewellery by Getty Images

So, back to the safety video. Which you definitely need to watch. After which you’re shown around a brutish Toyota 4WD. There’s the sat nav, the sand jack for digging yourself out of trouble, the tyre deflator, the spare jerry cans, the spade, the axe, the fire extinguisher, the worryingly comprehensive first-aid kit and a tracking device that can monitor your speed: 120kph on tarmac roads and 80kph on gravel, where most accidents occur. Exceed that and your insurance is void.

‘A lappet-faced vulture watches from a rock. I know what he’s thinking’

Then there’s the optional rooftop tent. I’ve never taken one because deep down I know there’ll be a night when I’ll forget I’m sleeping 2.5 metres off the ground, leave the tent to mark my territory and break my neck. And then get eaten by hyenas.

I start my journey with a 520km drive up the B1 from Windhoek to the Damaraland and Huab Lodge, a halfway house on the road to nowhere. For the first three hours, the road is smooth, shimmering tarmac. Then I reach Outjo and take the C35, the first of the bone-shaking gravel roads. Two hours later, at a lonely spot marked by a large, dead python, I turn onto the D2670. It’s mostly dust, so I use the tyre deflator to get more grip. A lappet-faced vulture watches from a rock. I know what he’s thinking. It’s just 30km from here to the lodge, but it takes an hour.

I thought that two nights at this eccentric little camp — eight thatched huts overlooking the dry bed of the Huab River — would be enough, but I was wrong. The birdlife is astonishing: I count 26 species from my terrace and, as we’re drinking sundowners, nightjars are hunting around the bar. At dawn, the riverbed is a alive with wildlife: oryx, giraffes, zebra and kudus commuting along its sandy path. That afternoon I spend a thrilling four hours following the spoor of a huge leopard that ultimately does what leopards do best and vanishes like a Cheshire cat. A giant eagle owl watches wisely from a tree. I know what she’s thinking, too. It’s only as I’m leaving that I notice the swimming pool and nearby hot spring. I told you two nights wasn’t enough.

Moon rising over a dry river valley in Namibia
Moon rising over a dry river valley in Namibia by Getty Images

Four hours east, past the gold mines and cattle farms of central Namibia, a track off the B1 brings me to the Mundulea Nature Reserve: 120sq km of former cattle country that’s being returned to nature. Black rhinos, cheetahs and giraffes are among the species that have wandered back in, accompanied by zebra, roan antelopes and black-faced impala.

It’s dark by the time I arrive. Entering the camp is an experience somewhere between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Apocalypse Now. Bleached skulls, flickering hurricane lamps and twisting paths leading to big, simply furnished safari tents. By the campfire, owner, guide and conservationist Bruno Nebe is expounding on pangolins. On another fire, sorcerer’s apprentice Patrick is cooking a three-course dinner — baking bread in an oven made from an old fire extinguisher. Apart from some iffy solar, there’s no electricity. No phone signal. No wi-fi. Owls, jackals and a distant leopard provide the background music to a safari camp so remote that Bruno only opens it when he has enough bookings to justify the expense. Lucky for me, then, that Tim and Pauline are here.

Early retirees from the UK, they did Route One last year, but knew instantly there had to be more to the world’s most beautiful nation. So this year, they rented a 4WD and went off the beaten track. Together, we spend three days walking with Bruno. It’s like being shown Africa by Gandalf. He dodges jade-green boomslang snakes lurking on low branches, tracks his beloved pangolins with a radio antenna and, at one point, drops a rock into a dark shaft in the karst and blithely mentions that he doesn’t know how deep it is because when he climbed down he ran out of rope before he hit the bottom.

A black-backed jackal
A black-backed jackal near the Vingerklip Lodge Namibia by Getty Images

I part company with Tim and Pauline in the dusty, low-rise town of Otjiwarongo. They’re off to explore the rock paintings of the Erongo Mountains. I’m heading northwest into the Kunene, an otherworld of unclimbed peaks, sparkling gravel plains and river canyons running into a fogbound dune belt, where they disappear before reaching the cold Skeleton Coast.

‘If you get lost, break down,
or upset the elephants, it can
be a one-way trip’

With skill and the right kit, you can self-drive the Kunene. But if you get lost, break down, or upset the elephants, it can be a one-way trip, so it’s best to park the car and call Caesar Zandberg, one of the three best desert guides in Namibia. If you thought your rental 4WD was well-equipped, wait until you see Caesar’s chariot: a 4.5-litre turbo-diesel V8 Toyota J7 Land Cruiser with a snorkel, twin fuel tanks, solar panels on the roof and enough kit to turn any shady corner of the Kunene into a luxury tented resort. 

I join Caesar a week after unusually heavy rains have hit the Kunene. On past visits, the place has been as dry and bleached as a lost tourist’s bones, but it only takes a centimetre of rainfall to unleash life. The hills and plains are covered in bushman-grass baize, and streaks of bright yellow devil’s thorn flowers stretch for miles like an industrial custard spill. Most excitingly, the Hoarusib River is flowing, bringing waters of life from the Giraffe Mountains. Caesar drops T-bone steaks the size of telephone directories onto the wood-fire grill, tosses a salad — a Caesar one, obviously — and refills my drink. He gazes across the ephemeral river to where a couple of Himba kids are minding their goats. ‘There’s good grazing everywhere now,’ he says. ‘That means the oryx, zebra and giraffes will disperse into the far valleys, so we’ll have to drive further and look harder to find them.’ I’m delighted to hear that, because the further we go, the less company we’ll encounter. A reliable way to estimate how far you’ve come from civilisation is to calculate your distance from the nearest Starbucks. Standing on a nameless hilltop in Kunene, I’m guessing the nearest skinny almond caramel macchiato is 1,800km away in Jo’burg. I mention this to Caesar, but he doesn’t know what Starbucks is, much less a macchiato.

The view from here is of apparent lifelessness, but look closer: this hill and its neighbours are cut with the spiral scratches left by generations of oryx, antelopes and zebra who’ve come in search of the bonsai-sized commiphora shrubs that sprout on the summits, sucking moisture from the fog. It’s an astonishing sight. We spot an oryx, and, far, far away, the dust plume of another vehicle.

Four-wheel drive in Namibia
Four-wheel drive in Namibia by Getty Images

‘Bloody tourists,’ sniffs Caesar, watching the distant speck through binos. ‘They’re overrunning the place.’ That night, we camp in a side-valley of the Hoanib River. A campfire and a gemsbok ragu turn this starkly beautiful spot into the suite of my dreams, with 50-metre sandstone walls and a ceiling made of stars. We’re discussing how the scarcity of game makes the few sightings we’ve had — that oryx, three zebra and a pair of giraffes — even more memorable. At that very moment, a pair of black-backed jackals, led by their noses, turn up and stand just close enough to the fire that we can see itwws reflection in their eyes.

Next morning, Caesar stops the Toyota in the exact middle of nowhere. ‘The elephants are coming,’ he says. We scan the heat haze for 20 minutes, and then, one by one, emerge nine dusty pachyderms — mothers, aunts and kids — following an ancient path across the plain to the dune belt and then, well, no-one really knows.

I only spend four days in the Kunene, but it feels much longer. Time slows down in the desert. Your senses grow sharper. Water tastes sweeter and your appetite becomes lion-like. Mysteries abound: the Hoarusib, flowing wide, deep and fast enough yesterday to wash away a two-tonne Toyota is dry as a bone today, and above Clay Castles — a surreal canyon of Petra-like natural caves — a long-dead explorer has spelt ’26 Jan 1919′ in rocks scoured clean by the west wind. There are moments of wonder — the frog living in a shrinking puddle at least 80km from the next water source; the slash-like trail of a Peringuey’s adder left on a dune — and moments when you realise you’re probably walking where no human has ever been before.

This adventure has its downsides. Souvenir shopping is limited to rocks sold by Herero herders, or the Himba pillow — a wooden affair like the devices to prop corpses’ heads in mortuaries. The joys of queueing and of socialising with other tourists are absent, and when you do emerge from the parched back of beyond, you may find humanity a bit irritating. But then, if you got off Route One in the first place, you probably always did.

Words by Chris Haslam.

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