Driving across Namibia can be tricky, but the reward is inspiring landscapes. With environmental protection written into its constitution, Namibia is an ideal destination in the UN’s year of sustainable tourism.
It’s as if you can see all the way to the horizon. Not a hint of haze in the crisp, clear, see-through air, not a person in sight. Wide-open flatness. A sparse, almost abandoned landscape, extending for dozens, perhaps hundreds of kilometers. In the distance, cutting a clear profile, a tree, a boulder, some hills, the occasional mountain.
Landscapes did nothing for me when I was younger. But they do now – and there are few more beautiful than Namibia’s: the breath-taking view across Fish River Canyon in the south, the flimmering horizon of the Etosha Pan in the north, the Kalahari’s soft red dunes in the east. Pictures do little justice to these panoramas – you have to see them for yourself.
Experiencing these landscapes, however, often requires a robust pair of hands and a solid sense of adventure, as we found out on the C27 road leading from southern Namibia up past the Namib Desert to the legendary dunes at Sossusvlei. The landscape is truly spectacular, with the browns and yellows of the Tiras and Numib mountains on one side and the reds and oranges of the Namib on the other. But the views come at a price.
Approaching Betta, and then all the way to Sesriem, the C27 was the worst gravel road we faced. We endured five 5 hours of full-concentration driving, with the vehicle shuddering over the rippled sand, gravel and stone surface, both hands gripping the steering wheel to counter any drift on the loose soil beneath, as we wove left and right to find the smoothest path and avoid the bigger stones.
Eventually we did hit a big stone, puncturing our back left back tire. We pulled over in the middle of nowhere and got to work with the spare, gazing anxiously into Namibia’s wide open plains in the vain hope of assistance.
Astonishingly, another vehicle did appear, slowing to enquire whether we were okay. We later heard how crucial that kind of solidarity can be – from an Italian man who limped past us at a lodge, his head heavily bandaged. Driving north on the C27, two dozen kilometers out of Betta, he had lost control of his vehicle, which swerved wildly and flipped. Within minutes, he told us, there was a small swarm of other vehicles providing assistance. Some complain about the state of Namibia’s rural roads. But it’s worth considering that the country’s only been independent since 1990. And the rough state of some roads (many others are in good condition) is a key part of its unspoiled charm.
It also matches government efforts to keep large swathes of the country as close to their natural state as possible. Environmental conservation is anchored in two articles of Namibia’s constitution (91c and 95l), and it’s an African leader in wildlife protection. Around 17 percent of its territory has the status of a national park, game reserve, conservancy or other form of protected area. If you include private and communal conservation areas, that figure jumps to 46 percent.
Ecological awareness was visible wherever we went, whether it was the solar panels on lodge rooves, waste separation schemes or the use of brilliantly simple jam-jar solar lamps. Namibia has earned international recognition for this in recent years, receiving Africa’s fourth-highest ranking in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report, including above-average marks for environmental sustainability.
However, the countryperforms less well in areas such as equality and education. This is partly due to the legacies of German and South African colonial rule, which locked many of the country’s huge farms into white ownership. Reforming land ownership is a complex and contentious issue, and, to its credit, the Namibian government has refrained from confiscating land, as in Zimbabwe.
In the tourism sector, an increasing number of game rangers are black Namibians, like 27-year-old Ndumba Lioni, who told us with great dedication and background knowledge why the bat-eared fox has such large ears: to hear the slightest movements of underground insects. Or like 42-year-old Rodney So-Oabeb, who helped us appreciate Etosha’s “white elephants.” These magnificent animals simply cover themselves with the park’s dry white dust to protect themselves against ticks and the sun.
For minutes on end, Rodney also spoke of a rare black rhino whose movements and habits he’d come to know intimately. As he drove us across the savannah, his eyes constantly roamed the horizon for signs of the endangered animal.
“He’s probably watching us right now, we just can’t see him,” he said. At a nearby waterhole, we waited and waited. And as the sun descended, we began to wonder whether we’d manage to leave the park by the required time: Etosha’s guards are notoriously intolerant of late leavers, clanking the park’s gates shut once the sun has set.
“He should come through that break in the bushes,” Rodney assured us, as we scoured the area for any signs of the huge animal. Then, sure enough, it trotted thirstily through that break in the bushes, somewhat irritated by the crowd of tourists clicking away as it passed towards the waterhole.
We were late to the exit gate, arriving two whole minutes after they’d been shut. The guards left us to stew in our juices for 10 more minutes before imposing a fine and giving us a loud reprimand.
As we waited, the sun dipped swiftly below the horizon, splashing its soft colors across the rugged landscape. With predators now waking from their shaded slumber, that struck me as one of this desert nation’s contradictions: the most beautiful of backdrops for its animals’ daily struggle against scarcity and death.
Read more: After Namibia, could other former German colonies demand reparations?