One perk of being married to a journalist, and being a journalist oneself (yes, perks, you read it right) is that once in a blue moon you’re dealt a winning hand. Recently, one of these rare lunar events occurred – and my wife Nicole and I headed to Namibia on a nine-day self-drive safari.
EVERYBODY SHOOTS THIS: Nicole takes a break as Alan bags the 'Tropic of Caps' in Namibia. It's currently at 23° 26' 16" - but drifting north at 15m a year. So, actually, it's not the right place any more. Sorry guys!
Our itinerary: A Windhoek-Etosha-Damaraland-Namib desert round trip. Our brief: To enjoy it. The cherry on top, our wheels: a great white 3.0d V6 Nissan Pathfinder.
As we set out for the first leg of the journey I soon adjusted to the upgrade from my normal runabout to the Pathfinder. First there was the feeling of competence. You just know that whatever you dish out to the car, it’ll take it.
Its set-up generates easy familiarity (even for someone whose previous Nissan experience was a 1.4 Sentra) and after customising the cockpit it soon felt like the car was an extension of my ability to own the fast last on the B1 highway out of Windhoek.
My wife, too, soon felt entirely at ease and had loaded Coke cans into the cup holders, popped in No.1 of eight audio CD’s of 'The Hobbit', and had arranged alternative entertainment options on the back seat (including a book entitled 'His Needs, Her Needs: How to make your marriage sizzle' which she thought we should read together en route).
It was going to be a road trip to remember.
GOING DOWNHILL: This road stretches out near Kulala Desert Camp, round the corner from Sossusvlei.
The best part of pulling up at Ongava Private Tented Camp right next door to Etosha (a lion-spotting being a close second) was being ushered into a parking bay by the manager and staff and presented with a silver tray of iced face-cloths with which to refresh ourselves.
RHINOS + BABY
“Oooh, we should remember this for when people come to visit,” my wife suggests. Safari-lodge a la Cape Town; I can see it being adopted into front-door etiquette en masse.
The heat of 37 degrees convinced us that the very last thing we wanted to do was head on to a soft jeep track in an open Land Cruiser that afternoon, but we went anyway. Like braai-smoke, the dust cloud was invasive, but after an hour of eating dust a rhino pair and their baby rumbled into view. Off went the engine and out came the double G&T’s as they grazed nearby.
There’s no better way to round off a sunset game-drive.
Another day of tented luxury later and we were picking up a memento from a roadside stall. It had been two days since we’d seen a shop and it backfires expensively if the days-to-shopping ratio becomes too large.
Bilbo had almost escaped from Gollum when, en route to a Doro !Nawas Desert Camp, we hit a dirt road. That’s not unusual but usually the cruise control isn’t set at 120km/h. I’ve only ever experienced movement like that in a boat; the Nissan pitched sharply down and bounced immediately up again before coming right, with my seat belt and grip on the wheel my only contact with the car for a second or two.
HEADING FOR CAMP: A brief stop before we head down towards a Damaraland plain and Doro !Nawa Desert Camp.
I won’t bore you with the advice I heard from the passenger seat, I’m sure you’ve heard it before but I will say the car remained in a straight line, and eased to a stop – I hoped that would be the steepest part of my off-tar learning curve.
The only time I had to get on one knee during the trip was to help change another pseudo-SUV driver’s wheel; there’s nothing like hauling out the Chuck Norris of tyre-irons to panel-beat your confidence back into shape. From then I let the car do the talking and the entry-level tricks of gearing down and maintaining a steady speed over stretches of soft river sand, or allowing it to power through uncertain terrain, kept the comments to a minimum
Either that or the book was paying off.
MAKING THE GRADE: Desert road-graders are sometimes the only other vehicles you will see for hours.
“We strongly recommend that you rather go with one of our guided tours, it’s dunes like that, that you drive on,” the lady behind the Walvis Bay information desk said, pointing to a large screen as a 4x4 double-cab ramped off a steep dune.
COOKING IN THE CABIN
Unfortunately that was the closest we got to driving in the dunes ourselves after the US dollar prices ended the discussion.
I wouldn’t wish the job of a Namibian road-grader on my most annoying colleague. With instruction from the marriage book as the soundtrack on the desert road between Swakopmund and Sossusvlei I fought the temptation to set the aircon to Arctic Gale after seeing the driver cooking in the glass and metal cabin.
The joy of watching one approach and drifting into its freshly-scraped lane was completely unexpected.
It’s incredible how you can wake to sunrise over the Namib, the centrefolds of the iconic rusty dunes eating up your camera’s memory card, and sleep in your own bed that evening. I couldn’t have had a more spectacular backdrop to ‘How Not to Drive Offroad 101’ or to develop a taste for double G&T sundowners for that matter.
LAST LIGHT: Alan and Nicole share their final sunset in the Namib.
If you get the chance to join a self-drive Namibian safari, don’t pass it up.