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Through Lattice Windows: Never-ending Namibia

...There are so rarely clouds in the Namib - it rains heavily only once every two years or so - that one is almost guaranteed excellent stargazing conditions. We were especially fortunate to be there at a time when the moon, though fairly full, only rose late, thereby giving us an inky dark sky to look up into...

Leanne Hunt and her husband were thrilled by a holiday in Namibia.

As a way to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays, my husband and I planned a short holiday to a destination that neither of us had ever been to before. We chose Namibia because it was close enough to reach for a brief stay and exotic enough to captivate us. Namibia is the second most uninhabited country in the world, outranked only by Mongolia, and it has the odd characteristic of desert lying right next to the coastline. The so-called Skeleton Coast was something that had evoked curiosity in me since childhood.

Armed with cameras, sunglasses, hats and boots, we boarded Air Namibia in Johannesburg on Friday morning and were delighted to find ourselves travelling on one of the airline's two new airbuses to Windhoek. The flight was incredibly quiet from where we were sitting in front of the wing. Smart Namibian stewards and stewardesses served us a satisfying breakfast of omelette with cheese and potato slices, fruit salad and yoghurt. We lost an hour in flight due to the difference in time zones and landed at 6.30am, just as the landscape was beginning to brighten.

We had ordered a high-clearance vehicle from Avis Car Rental in view of the mileage we would be doing on desert roads. On arrival at the desk, however, we were informed that there were no high-clearance vehicles left and that we would have to take a Toyota Corolla instead. Fortunately, my husband is a businessman and knows how to get his way. He stood there, shaking his head as the woman stammered her way through her apology, and eventually admitted that there was, in fact, a Kia Serento available. Relieved, we stocked up our four-by-four with bottled water, bread rolls, cheese and grapes - not forgetting paper serviettes and bags to store rubbish in on the road - and set off.

We were well prepared for the long hours of driving we would have to do through arid landscapes. My husband has an iPad and an auxiliary cable which plugged directly into the car radio. Before leaving home, we had downloaded the audio version of the book "Wool" to listen to as we drove. Strangely enough, the setting of the story echoed the dry, dusty surroundings quite closely, bringing the narrative to life and accentuating the dominant theme of survival in an inhospitable environment. We only got half-way through the book in all our thirteen-odd hours of driving, but it kept us riveted throughout and gave us lots to talk about when we were sitting around having drinks or eating at a restaurant.

In Swakopmund, we stayed at the Swakopmund Hotel, a lovely building with big rooms and attractive lawns full of palm trees. The porters and front desk staff were charming, greeting us by name and making us feel very welcome. They encouraged us to book two tours while we were there, and we were glad they did. The Marine Tour, leaving from Swakopmund but taking place in Walvis Bay, was brilliantly run by a young woman named Martinette, who interacted with the seals and pelicans to give us a close-up view of both. Aboard the beautiful catamaran Mehandri, we got to see - and hear - a vast seal colony of 60 000 seals, an oyster farm, a wrecked Chinese fishing boat, various container ships and trawlers in the harbour, and of course, the ubiquitous dolphins that love to swim in the bow wave of the boat. On our Desert Tour in the afternoon, we travelled into the Nakloof Nature Reserve to look at several rare species of plant, such as the "Living Stone" and the Welwichia, drive through a dry river bed, climb a high sand dune and listen to the music of iron-rich rocks. It was amazing to stand on the high point of the dune and listen to the roar of the ocean in the distance, a true example of nature's variety!

From Swakopmund we drove inland to Kulala Desert Lodge, a very different hotel in that it was set unapologetically on a sandy plain with absolutely no trees or grass. Here you really get the sense of being out in the arid wilderness. The accommodation is in tented chalets with ceiling fans and insect netting on the windows but no air conditioning. In the heat of the afternoon, the coolest place to be - apart from the pool - is in the stone-floored bathroom with its concrete walls and roof! Water is, of course, a luxury in such a climate and we were grateful to have sufficient supply for drinking, showering and mopping down our overheated bodies. Despite the intense heat, though, we were determined to take advantage of the activities on offer. My husband did a morning tour of the great red dunes of the Namib and the deadpan at Sossusvlei. I joined him for an afternoon guided tour of the nature reserve where we spotted lots of springbok, oryx, ostriches and bat-eared foxes, along with the occasional jackal and crow. From the top of the mountain we watched the sun go down over the vast and barren landscape, and for me, that was the definitive moment of the trip. I had a sense of looking out over the world, surveying the possibilities lying open to me and identifying what I wanted as my life moved forward into the second fifty-year phase. With the sun setting on the past, I know much more now than I did before, and I have a far better impression of what I wish for on the spectrum of lushness and aridity.

We did some stargazing on the last night there. I generally only see one or two stars in the sky on a good night in the city, but in the darkness of the outback, I counted as many as six or seven. My husband, whose eyesight is normal, if a little weak with age, thrilled at the sight of the whole Milky Way. There are so rarely clouds in the Namib - it rains heavily only once every two years or so - that one is almost guaranteed excellent stargazing conditions. We were especially fortunate to be there at a time when the moon, though fairly full, only rose late, thereby giving us an inky dark sky to look up into.

We were almost late checking in for our flight back to Johannesburg, owing to the slow drive on rough roads and the constant temptation to stop for photographs. In our rush to leave the car at Avis Car Rental, we didn't remember to remove all our belongings from the various hidey-holes and pockets. It was only after we had gone through security that a call came over the intercom for my husband to report at the company desk, and he was so flustered by the stress of being late that he almost ignored the call, thinking they probably wanted him to hand in a piece of paper which he had brought with him. Fortunately, he thought to look up their telephone number on the iPad and call them, because it was his camera and prescription sunglasses he had left behind. What a loss that would have been, especially after spending so much time and effort taking beautiful pictures to remind ourselves of our celebratory trip!

For anyone who is considering a trip to Namibia, I can highly recommend it as a novel and gratifying experience. The towns are neat with the influence of early German colonisation. The restaurants are good, the coffee shops well up to scratch by international standards. As for the local people, they are friendly and welcoming, and in our case, willing to go out of their way to assist me when my husband wasn't around to guide and dish up for me. We thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of the country after coming from the busyness and pressure of Johannesburg, and if it is African wildlife you are after, Namibia offers a distinctive variety with ample means to view them.

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