Magazine article The Spectator

Beautiful Game

Magazine article The Spectator

Beautiful Game

Article excerpt

With the world's gaze fixed on South Africa this month, Joanna Hunter glimpses the beauty of its overlooked neighbour Namibia

Since its independence 20 years ago, Namibia has been one of Africa's last secrets. Without any troublesome politics or a World Cup to host, it has stayed out of the headlines. Those who know it gush about it - and understandably. It's an example of everything one might hope for in Africa: dangerous wildlife, bizarre and beautiful flora, yawning deserts - and you can even find diamonds just lying on the ground (although, admittedly, you can be imprisoned for picking them up). World Cup tourists will fly over it in their hundreds of thousands, oblivious to its beauties.

Gifted from Germany to Britain as part of the 1918 war reparations, Namibia was managed by South Africa until its independence in 1990. A few shared languages, one tied currency and a fondness for wurst aside, the two countries now bear little resemblance to one another. Namibia can claim two decades without major conflict, a relatively low crime rate and a genuinely free press. It also boasts some of the cleanest public loos that one can visit. The sum of this, as I am told by Manfred Pfeifer, our guide, as he fixes me a large gin and tonic to toast the sun setting among the dunes of the Namib desert, is that Namibia is known as Africa for Beginners.

He tells us most tourists head north to Etosha, a national game park where you have every chance of spotting the 'big five' (or 'big nine', depending on who is doing the counting). Others go in search of the desolate beauty of the magnificent Skeleton Coast, named after the many ships that had the misfortune to be wrecked on Namibia's desert shore. But ours is to be a whirlwind (or as much of a whirlwind as you can manage on grit roads across a country almost four times the size of Britain) tour across the sparsely inhabited deserts of the south.

Perhaps the most striking part of Namibia is its hauntingly empty, open landscape. It has barely two million people, and most of them live in the north; on the five-hour drive from the tiny capital of Windhoek to the area around the dunes of Sossusvlei, we pass only seven cars, and when we stop at Solitaire, a glorified petrol station famed for its apple pie, it feels almost like a metropolis. After a few days we are begging Manfred to take us to a village. 'There are no villages!' he points out cheerfully. 'There are no people! This is the desert!'

Four deserts, in fact: we travel across the Namib desert, the oldest desert in the world (80 million years old, apparently) to visit Sossusvlei, the highest sand dunes in the world and, my favourite, the Dead Vlei, a white clay pan in the middle of the dunes dotted with the carcasses of dead trees which has all the surreal serenity of a Dali painting. …

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