Take a left on Robert Mugabe ...                


Take a left on Robert Mugabe and just keep going,” the rep said. And that was the last person we saw all afternoon.

     Write about the people, they say. But what if there are no people? What if the country is so empty you can drive for hours and not see one person, no evidence of habitation, certainly no cars?

     Then you have to write about the acres of silver grass stretching without break to mountain horizons so distant they seem blue. A low-haunched jackal slinking across the pink road. Baboons staring in amazement from roadside posts as you drive by. Giraffes grazing the tree tops, two languid cheetahs resting in the shade of a bush and a warthog hurrying along a gully, busily going somewhere.

     As are we. In theory. Somewhere called Doro !Nawas. Later we learn that the exclamation mark indicates the glottal click of the Kung-Ekoka language, but for us it is entirely appropriate, as we have no idea what lies ahead. If anything. After four hours driving, the mountains are no nearer, the baboons no less surprised to see us pass. But the sun is beginning to sink, turning the land gold and the African sky a blue so deep and so wide that it seems incredible that the rest of the world still exists.

     With some relief we pull in at a lone gas station. “Where is everyone?” we ask the attendant. He laughs. “Only ten people live in Namibia,” he says. “And they share one car between them.”

     And then the wide open savannah gradually gives way to low elephant-skinned hills and the road curves, then bends, the concrete peters out and we are on dirt track, bumping nervously across dry river beds, while beside us springbok and impala leap away through the long grass.

     Once we pass a small village, tiny straw huts with corrugated iron roofs. Goats and sheep are corralled under a big acacia tree and skinny, beaming children and lolloping dogs race out and run beside us. We ask directions and delightedly everyone points straight ahead into the setting sun.

     We can’t see Doro !Nawas camp, camouflaged against the dusky hills, but they see us from a long way off, trailed by our plume of dust, and by the time we get there Alwin is standing at the entrance with a silver tray, on which two hot flannels and two glasses of sweet sherry stand in incongruous splendour.

     Perched around a small hill, the red mud, khaki canvas and reed thatch rondavels are eco-friendly and part run by the local community. Inside, crisp white linen and elegant furniture make our stay comfortable way beyond expectation. The view out over the purple, mountain-rimmed plain takes our breath away. And, the following day, so do the desert-adapted elephants.

     Lister, a local Kung guide, found them for us washing in a small pond. An extended family of eleven under the beady, watchful eye of an enormous matriarch. For hours we watched their mud slapping, water spraying ablutions, just them and us, until eventually the matriarch led them off, cool now and mud encrusted, marching solemnly away across the prairie, destination unknown.

    And then the storm came. So quickly it caught even Lister unawares. He had just laid a checked cloth and sundowner glasses on a tiny fold out metal table when the skies darkened. A wind rose up from nowhere, driving us back into the landrover. And then the rain. Sheets of water, so hard and so noisy we couldn’t hear ourselves speak.

     And then it was gone, leaving the ground pink and steaming in the sunset.

     The following morning we are off again, past prehistoric rock carvings and petrified forests. Now the river beds are torrents and almost immediately we get stuck mid stream. And for once another vehicle appears, a rusty pick-up, and two guys tow us out with a rope that breaks twice. We solemnly shake hands. “Test your brakes,” they shout after us. After that we wade in each time to check where to cross.

     We are heading south, to the Erongo mountains, where dassies play among the boulders and Verreaux’s eagles drift high overhead on wide, fingered wings. And then the longest drive of all, across the Namib desert, now carpeted with yellow flowers after the rains, ostrich, impala and kudu grazing happily in the relentless sun.

     Crossing the Tropic of Cancer we arrive in Solitaire, crammed suddenly with a lorry load of young Overland trekkers, descending on the lonely outpost like locusts, cleaning it out of ice cream and sodas.

     And then they are gone, and once again we are alone, this time in the towering red, deeply shadowed Sossusvlei dunes. Alone in this magnificent, empty country. And no one to ask where to head for next.

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This is a piece Helen wrote recently about Namibia which was shortlisted for the Observer Travel Writing Competition. It was previously published on the Bradt Guides. 

As well as doing some travel writing Helen also writes articles and features. See her: blog for more of her views and pieces for readers and writers.