There was a moment, as we came in to land at Windhoek airport and gazed out of the window at mile after mile of nothing stretching to the horizon, when I wondered what on earth we were doing there.
Namibia is a long way away, nobody flies there direct from London and it’s a very big country with not much in it. What was wrong with two weeks in Greece?
Nothing, apart from the fact that the cost of our fortnight there the previous summer had nearly made me cry.
We chartered a yacht, but our idyllic week was marred by complex negotiations with teenagers intent on diving off the very top of the mast (“I don’t think so”) and tomb-stoning off cliffs (“Obviously not!”).
This year I thought I’d opt for something theoretically less stressful – a long road trip with a fair degree of adventure and new sights and sounds every day.
However, I had my reservations. Our eldest son Jack had just turned 18, our daughter Louisa was almost 17 and our youngest son Sam was 15 at the time.
Teen Terror At The Thought Of An Electronics Ban
They have never been huge lovers of long car journeys, and like most teenagers are inseparable from their phones and laptops.
Our brave and bold suggestion for the trip – a total ban on electronics – was not immediately popular. I sweated a lot in the weeks before our departure over how it was going to work out.
The plan was to fly to Windhoek, then drive six hours north for a four-night stay in Etosha National Park.
We would then spend a couple of days at Etendeka, a tented camp a few hours beyond the limits of the park, before heading to Swakopmund on the coast for quad-biking and whatever else might keep the boys out of trouble.
After that, we would head for the great dunes at Sossusvlei, then Klein Austin Vista with its hillside chalets, followed by a canoe trip down the Orange River. Our last major stop would be the Fish River Canyon before returning to Windhoek and flying home.
From my point of view, I knew I would love it. I have family in southern Africa, spent a year teaching in a mixed-race school in Cape Town in the dying days of apartheid in the mid-Eighties (an era in which my interest in politics and indeed journalism was forged) and rounded that period off by heading north to Namibia to find a weird colonial curiosity in which you could buy Adolf Hitler mugs and editions of Mein Kampf in some corner stores.
A Mental Freedom
I found it very strange, empty and lonely and, its grotesque politics aside, by far the most intriguing and beautiful place I had ever been. I’d always wanted to go back.
It has to be said that it doesn’t knock you out from the off. The capital Windhoek is easy enough to get around, but despite some curious colonial-era architecture and a pleasant climate, it is a city you wouldn’t drive to the ends of the Earth to see.
But once we were out on the open road, setting our sights on those distant horizons, Namibia’s appeal was clear to all of us.
This is a land of vast open spaces, incredible landscapes and rugged, beautiful mountains.
There is rarely any phone signal, let alone 3G, and thus no email, Facebook, Twitter, or hassle from the office. I can’t remember the last time I – or indeed all of us – switched off so comprehensively.
It was a holiday with more mental freedom than we are likely to find anywhere.
Then there is the big game.
One of the great joys of Namibia is that you don’t have to spend a fortune going to a swanky private park to see it. Etosha, our first port of call, is arid in August and the other dry months of winter. This means you don’t have to chase after the animals because, if you park yourself at one of the many watering holes, they come to you.
The first place we stopped at was full of elephants drinking, washing and fooling around. The excitement inside our car nearly blew the roof off.
We spent our first night in Etosha at Okaukuejo Camp, where we sat by the floodlit watering hole for hours. Some elephants came and faced off against the white rhinos for a while. We drank a few beers. Nobody was bored.
But the highlight for us was the park’s newest camp, Dolomite, which sprawls across a ridge with stellar views of the plain and is not fenced, so you have to be escorted to your rooms after dark.
Our children got to stay in the Presidential Suite and its view of the watering hole below was second to none. I could have spent the entire holiday sitting on that balcony watching the elephants roam across the veld.
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Bizarre Moonscape Encrusted In Red Sand
Our next stop was Etendeka, a private tented camp perched in a wide valley a few hours from Etosha. You eat and walk here with the other guests, a social experience. We met some very nice Londoners and a couple of highly entertaining Dutch families, including a pair of politicians (is there no escape?).
It was a lovely spot, but more startling was the drive beyond it as flat-topped volcanic hills gave way to a bizarre moonscape encrusted in red sand and finally to the roaring waves of the Atlantic seaboard and the barren beauty of the Skeleton Coast.
Swakopmund rises from the desert like a mirage, a neat, palm-fringed town built in the days when Germany was attempting to fashion an empire from this remote part of Africa. Its beaches are now lined with condos owned by German pensioners who come to spend their winters here and are known locally as “The Swallows”.
As you walk down Bismarck Street, past Villa Wille and up towards Bistro Zum Kaiser, it is easy to see the appeal. The shops are swankier than you might expect and restaurants like The Tug at the near end of the pier are excellent – thanks in part to The Swallows, who have helped Swakopmund thrive.
The town now markets itself as the adrenalin capital of Namibia, and there is no shortage of things to do. We went quad-biking and sandboarding in the dunes beyond the town’s limits, then drove down to Walvis Bay to watch the flamingos gather along the seashore.
But we also spent many happy hours idling in the sun in the back garden of our hotel, Villa Margherita, the kind of chic guesthouse you would normally find on the French Riviera.
The next stop on our journey south was Sossusvlei, the closest thing Namibia has to a mass tourist destination. Its giant red sand dunes, rising from the arid salt pans, are a startling sight. It was a long way to the top of the largest dune in the baking heat and I can’t say we enjoyed the walk, but the view from the summit was spectacular and the descent about as much fun as you can have on a family holiday.
It may sound weird, but running down a sand hill fast is hilarious.
By contrast, the final leg of our tour was a four-day camping trip down the Orange River from Umkulu base camp, in Noordoewer, near the border with South Africa.
Since we had to carry everything we needed – food, tents, clothing – on our canoes, this was life stripped to the basics but rich in simple pleasures: the gentle sound of oars in the cool river; clear sunny skies; majestic mountains; brisk and sometimes challenging rapids; and truly incredible bird life.
The landscape is like something out of an old Western movie and part of the terrain we passed through is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Nearly Blind Survivor Of Snakebite
This is due partly to the wide variety of species still found here, partly to the unique existence of nomadic herders who scratch the most marginal of all livings from the land.
We met only one, who had been almost blinded by a spitting cobra a few months before our visit; his sight had been saved with the help of a plant remedy passed down from previous generations.
Our four days of escapism were spent swimming in the river, sleeping around the fire under the bright stars and sampling bush food conjured from crude pots by our knowledgeable guide, Gavin.
It is unclear how he managed to keep his canoe, overloaded with half our kit, upright in the rapids, though he did lead us into one tight spot with a walk to an abandoned (and illegal) diamond mine.
We were just searching for our fortune in the rocks when a group of Namibian officials turned up to mount a spot inspection.
They had driven a very long way on rough tracks and were itching to make an arrest. It was a little tense for a while, but we eventually talked our way into a friendly exchange of email addresses and Twitter handles and went our separate ways.
That was Namibia all over. It provided a lot of adventure with very little risk, the people were friendly and the children felt an unprecedented sense of freedom.
Despite a great deal of driving, there were absolutely no complaints about the length of time spent in the car or even the electronics ban (we may try that again). Who would have guessed that talk could be so much fun?
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This article was written by Tom Bradby from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.