Ghostly haunts of a classic desert

Weird and wonderful is how Namibia was described to David Baddiel. This, he found, was an underestimate

LAST summer I was asked to make a film for the TV series African Footsteps. The idea, I was told, was to film well-known people with particular connections - emotional, spiritual, familial or political - with various African countries, on a visit to that country: Paul Boateng was going to his father's Ghana; Viv Richards would visit South Africa for the first time since his refusal to play there; supermodel Anna Getaneh was to return to Ethiopia.

I have virtually no connection with Africa. I like the odd bit of Youssou N'Dour, have eaten a yam, and know African elephants are the ones with big ears; but I'm not sure any of that qualifies as a connection. I can only imagine they ran out of proper African-related types, and for some reason I was top of the B list. B in this case stood for Bugger-All To Do With Africa.

However, ever since I started working in television, I've wanted to get a travel gig. Whatever you may occasionally hear from presenters on The Travel Show - "It's actually very hard work, and you never to get to see any of the country" - the fact is, you know and I know it's a free holiday. A free holiday with someone else sorting out all the flights and hotels and taxis and insurance. So if they'd asked me to go to Kendal to review the latest Mint Cake-making techniques, I'd have been pleased; on being offered Africa, I was - if you'll excuse the literary reference - like Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses screaming, "yes I said I will I said yes".

When I was younger, for various reasons (most of them to do with relationships) I never travelled, as many of my friends did, to South-East Asia or India or South America. As a result, I've always felt a gap in my spirit; they've seen things I'll never see, I thought, these people who are now lawyers and teachers but were previously backpackers. Africa, at a stroke, seemed to surpass all these other places for adventure, taking me suddenly to the top of the travel experience tree: mud huts and music, calabash and colour, Serengeti and sun. Namibia, of course, turned out to be nothing like that.

I chose Namibia because one of the most travelled people I know, Harry Thompson (the producer of Have I Got News For You?), told me it was a weird and wonderful place. As a result of German colonisation, he said, it had very good roads. This seemed as good a recommendation as any. Originally, I wanted to do a very ignorant safari. I wanted to stand in front of lions and giraffes and bushhogs, and talk about them with all the confidence of David Attenborough but none of the knowledge. Namibia, though, transpired to have many other backdrops against which I could stand and talk nonsense - a good thing, since safari fatigue quickly set in once we were in the Etosha National Park, home of most of the wildlife.

When you first go out on safari and see a giraffe, say, you think you're stepping into Born Free. Two days later you're completely blase: all the giraffe, springbok, wildebeest, zebra, elephant and lion in Africa could be performing a cabaret in front of you, and all you'd want them to do would be to get out of the way of the bloody car.

We took in the whole country, driving around randomly and stopping to film spontaneous explanations whenever the landscape threw up oddities. Some were natural - like rocks that looked like giant Rice Krispies - and some man-made: Heath Robinson ferris-wheel windmills; railway stations with their names chalked into the mountains; a place marked on the map as Solitaire, which, when we got there, turned out to be just a garage owned by an enormous moustachioed German called Moose, stocking its own range of T-shirts. The place is an improviser's goldmine, a fantasia for the imagination.

The interesting thing about making a film by inventing nonsense as you go along is this: strangely, you do end up painting a coherent portrait of the country. Gradually, you realise that within the random stuff you keep stumbling upon, there are keynotes. In the case of Namibia, these are wind and sand. Big, solemn signs reading "WIND" and "SAND" are constantly spotted at the side of roads. I'd say the wind howls wherever you go, but howling is only a small part of its repertoire. In some places it sings; in others it hums in the background like a generator; in the scrub it screeches and is impossible to distinguish from the jackals.

The patterns of the wind are painted in detail by the sand, swirling in irregular arcs across those well-built German roads. Ten miles in from Luderitz - a perfectly preserved 19th-century German town, all coffee shops and Bismarck memorabilia - is the deserted township of Kolmanskop. Sitting incongrously on the edge of the desert, this was once a rich diamond community. Now it is a ghost town: a proper, classic ghost town where you can imagine ghosts hang out. Every derelict dwelling - from the large mansion houses at its edges to the workers' terraces in the centre - is swamped with sand. Chairs, beds and wardrobes sit 4ft up in the air in rooms filled with sand, their legs half-submerged in the grains. The theatre is lined with the stuff; in the bar (which, surreally, has a skittles alley at one end), the bottles on the shelves are filled with it, providing no relief at all for the thirsty ghost.

The source of all this sand is the Namib desert. If Kolmanskop is a classic ghost town, a movie ghost-town, then the Namib is the equivalent in deserts. It's a real "man-in-white-rags-crawling-over-the-dunes-whispering-'Water- water!'" desert. Perhaps because of this, it crops up all the time in adverts. There's one for a car, in which an Aborigine stands on one leg in what's meant to be the Australian outback. In fact, it's Sossuv-lei, at the centre of the Namib, where the dunes are the size of mountains, the highest in the world, and so red they look sunburnt. I stood there in a black suit, something I wore all the time as part of a seriously unhealthy running gag about buying the wrong sort of safari suit. I thought I would die from the heat, and took my trousers down between takes.

When I first arrived in the capital, Windhoek, strangeness didn't abound. I drove through its Dutch-looking streets to a bar in the centre, where I heard someone say, "You can never discount Big Ron Atkinson." At first, I thought it was an aural hallucination, but then I looked up: on the television was a round-up of the previous weekend's Premier League Action, presented by ex-Manchester United goalie Gary Bailey and Terry Paine of Southampton. And, following that, all of Coventry v Aston Villa.

English football, I soon learnt, is massive in Namibia and southern Africa generally.

When we were in the Etosha, we were given the services of a ranger, George, whose entire being was concentrated into knowing where animals would be at a given time. Lions here at five o'clock, elephants watering at three, the big white hippo sometimes he come to Mokuti at dawn; this, literally, was all George would talk about for two-and-a-half days. Then, suddenly, driving across Etosha's salt plains in search of an ostrich for me to chase, he piped up in the back of the car: "Why you think Venables is still picking John Barnes for England?" That was his only other interest, English football, despite the fact that Venables is still picking John Barnes for England.

Ostriches, incidentally, are Namibia's main foodstuff - and nice it is, too, rather like very lean steak. Apparently, because of lower cholesterol levels, it is about to be exported in large quantities to the US. "Invest in ostrich" is the message - which is why I was planning to chase them while waving a frying pan in the air.

George was one of few people I met in Namibia; people are sparse, so sparse it can be frightening. On the road from Walvis Bay to Etosha, a winding stretch through endless plains of narrow rock, we encountered no other traffic in an hour-and-a-half of driving. When we got our first puncture - from one of millions of tiny pebbles that form a layer along this very un-Teutonic road - no one passed while we were changing the tyre. A further hour of driving, and still no traffic, we got another puncture.

As I waited for the tyre to be changed, I realised it was our last spare. If it went down, that would be it: we'd be dead. Eventually, a car would come and spot, lying among the prehistoric plants that sit on the plains like huge insects, five skeletons and a discarded jack.

The other Namibian I met was our fixer, Cecil. He looked like a Dutch hippie to me, but he was, apparently, coloured. With apartheid ruling in Namibia until its liberation in 1991, Cecil had been unable to go to art school because he was not white enough, and unable to join schemes to airlift talented young blacks out of the country because he wasn't black enough. In the end, he saved up enough money to spend one semester at art school in New York, sleeping in Central Park and the subway. I asked him how he dealt with the crazies there, and he said he just used to turn to them and say: "I am your lord Jesus Christ" and they'd run away.

When he came back, Cecil was kidnapped by guerrillas while trying to make a film in Angola and had to walk the 700 or so miles back to Windhoek. Aged about 25 now, he is one of the wisest people I've ever met. On hearing about my tangled love-life, he'd say: "That's life man: no one's got a compass". When asked why he never reported the police for various types of brutality he'd suffered, he said: "Who to? You can't tell the snake about the snake." This type of self-expression is not available to you if you've grown up in Cricklewood.

Just as I did, you probably think things are sorted now in southern Africa - Mandela, free elections, apartheid just a memory. Where's the problem? Well, in Windhoek for one. The town is still rigorously divided into three areas - white, coloured, and black - and walking around the town, it's clear that, economically, that's entirely a descending scale. Beyond the black area is another, poorer black area, set very firmly on the other side of the autobahn. I'd seen this so often on the news - families grouped together under corrugated iron roofs, children staring emptily at the sky, a whole community living on a rubbish dump - but it still made my insides droop to be among it.

This feeling of unease, the impression that things are still not quite right, wasn't helped by something I found in a small gift shop in Luderitz. Among the plastic lizards and photo-calendars, I stumbled across a little swastika medallion - part of a collection of Nazi memorabilia. Vorsprung Durch Technik, I thought, as we set off down another good road.

! David Baddiel's 'Footsteps in Namibia' will be broadcast on BBC2 on 17 August at 8pm

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: The African Travel Centre (0171 387 1211) has direct flights from London to Windhoek, Namibia's capital,for pounds 590 return and organises tours of the country.

TOURS: Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) has a 17-day safari costing from pounds 1,500, including flight and accommodation. Temple World Tours (0181 940 4114) has fully inclusive Namibian safaris for around pounds 1,950.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Namibian High Commission, 6 Chandos Street, London W1M 0LQ (0171-636 6244).

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