Heat waves over the sea of sand: Caroline Seed drove a Nissan into Namibia's white-hot wilderness, confident that a cold beer was close at hand

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My companion held up a whale bone, and we surveyed it critically. Bleached white, pitted with grey pockmarks, it looked like a giant starfish with a body the size of a watermelon. It was rock hard, and although it didn't bear any resemblance to the sand ladder we needed, we agreed it would do.

Our vehicle was buried axle deep in soft sand, its nose yards from a recent victim of the booming Atlantic Ocean. A fishing vessel lay gutted on the deserted beach, its wood and steel skeleton jutting through the sand. It made the name Skeleton Coast particularly apt. The ground was carpeted with bones; from hyenas, jackals, birds, seals and whales. The only thing that marred our enjoyment of such a wild and dramatic environment was the thought of one four-wheel-drive Nissan and two English tourists joining the two- million-hectare graveyard.

In Namibia, it is almost impossible to feel at risk, let alone in any mortal danger. We had spent the previous night in an area dubbed 'the last wilderness in Africa' dining from a menu as long as your arm, sleeping in an immaculate, whitewashed bungalow next to a spotless swimming pool. It was difficult not to believe we wouldn't be doing the same the next evening.

We had been dabbling in the desert, taking day trips through it without feeling its keen edge, and as we dug like desert rats to free our car, we saw the rough, hot country as it really was: dangerously inhospitable.

As we built our impromptu road out of bones and driftwood, it wasn't easy not to dwell on the fact that we hadn't sighted another vehicle all day. The only living thing we had seen since entering the Skeleton Coast Park had been the attendant on the gate; and the only other evidence of life was a giant mound of desert elephant droppings sitting by the road like an upended stack of flower pots. Feeling optimistic, we diverted ourselves by looking for diamonds; there are rumours of rich deposits in the area. We never found any stones, but a crisply-uniformed park ranger did find us, and introduced himself with the nicest words we had heard all day since being offered fried eggs and zebra sausage for breakfast. 'Would you like a hand?' He grinned cheerfully at us, his mirrored sunglasses reflecting two sunburnt faces nodding frantically. It took six of us 10 minutes to push the vehicle on to firmer ground. And nine of those minutes were spent attempting to quieten the ranger's three San (Bushman) assistants who were doubled up in laughter over our attempts to build a B-road in their waterless backyard.

Four hours later we were in Swakopmund, about 240 miles away, propped against the heavy wooden bar of the Hotel Europa Hof, with tall, frosted bottles of strong beer clutched in our sweaty hands. With its green lawns, bright flower gardens, shops, restaurants and half-timbered hotels, Swakopmund made our skirmish on the Skeleton Coast fade like an over-heated dream. In a trance, we walked around the broad, dusty streets, drinking in the town's distinctly Continental air. It was as if by some magic process a peaceful little German town had been uprooted and set down half a world away in an alien landscape of desert and pounding Atlantic surf.

The following morning we sat in thick sweaters outside the Cafe Anton, filling up on Black Forest cake and apple strudel, barely able to see the palm trees on the other side of the street through the fog. The Benguela Current, sweeping up the coast from the Antarctic, enters the sub-tropics and creates a thick, cool mist that rolls in sporadically during the day, blanketing the town in salt grey for an hour or so before rolling out again.

After obtaining a permit from the Nature Conservation office, we topped up our water containers and headed into the Namib- Naukluft Park, which sprawls over some 80,000 square miles of desert. It was, unsurprisingly, another dry and barren region, but the ground and stones were covered with an astonishing variety of lichens, some like black fragments of dead plant material, others grey-green cushions of dried out moss, all of them dependent on the fog to survive. Lichen grows extremely slowly (less than 1mm a year) and if you happen to leave the road, which your permit states is strictly verboten, it will, the locals sternly tell you, take the ancient desert anything up to a century to recover from your tyre tracks. We were inclined to believe them when we saw an ox wagon trail, decades old but looking as if it had been made that week.

There were no animals, no birds to be seen as we meandered away from the mist and into the plains. Only the occasional giant plant, Welwitschia mirabilis, broke up the brown-grey monotony, squatting on the scorching rocks like overgrown aspidistras with their two leaves entwining tortuously. One specimen came up to our waists, and a sign in the ground beside it announced that it was more than 1,500 years old, making us wonder if it had lived so long because not one single part of it is edible.

As we headed south, grey earth blew up in a long cloud behind us, and billowed around the Nissan, pouring through the cracks in the windows and doors. It settled on the dashboard, in the glove box, up our noses and in our hair, and after an hour everything was coated with it. We travelled entirely on dirt roads with potholes, corrugations and long boulder-strewn tracts of floodways, making the Nissan bound about like a kangaroo.

Sometimes the desert was white or yellow and sometimes it looked like a moonscape, with thick bands of dolerite blacking the hill tops. Mostly it was ash grey and flat, with low-slung hills on the horizon. Often it was entirely empty but then a line of bobbing black dots would appear, a herd of ostrich pacing in search of food. Sometimes the vista was broken by spiky quiver trees, which get their name from a Bushman practice of using the bark to hold arrows. Then there would be more flat desert, and in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest village, we would see a man walking through the desert with a quiver of small arrows tipped with milkbush poison slung across his bare, brown shoulder. Sometimes we would see a man carrying nothing at all, but walking purposefully as if he didn't want to be late for an appointment.

We arrived at Sesriem in the middle of a dust storm. No matter how shallowly we breathed, our throats were thick with the fine red dust within minutes. The temperature felt hotter than anything we had experienced. We sweated litres without realising it, the moisture evaporating the instant it reached the surface of our skin.

The guest house in Sesriem was still being built so we proceeded to erect a tent in the gale. It was time to stop day tripping. Despite the desert doing its best to prove how hostile it could be, it was no match for German engineering. Piped water not only ensured hot showers in a spotless toilet block, but a small swimming pool. With whoops of delight we dived in. It was as warm as bath water.

As the sun went down, the storm lessened. We bought cold beers from the kiosk and sat on a stone wall by our tent, revelling in the dry, dusty heat, the lager washing a clean trail down our throats. We watched a pale yellow hill of sand nearby gradually turn a rich apricot, then orange and red and finally black. Forks of lightning spiked out of the sky behind it.

Well before dawn the next morning we struck camp, checking our shoes for scorpions while shivering under an inky sky. Half- asleep, we drove to Sossusvlei, wondering if our night excursion to see the sun rise over yet more desert was really necessary. We were blearily thinking about tea and toast when the sand dunes appeared. It was a sight we were totally unprepared for: a sea of sand rising up in massive, rippling waves out of the flat plain.

Dawn spilt soft rust over the ocean of overwhelmingly huge dunes, outlining miles of knife- edged crescents against the sky. Each dune was monumentally imposing, some made us crane our necks as we walked barefoot at their bases. With cool sand feathering our toes, we kept a sharp eye out for side-winder snakes which hide under the sand, but spotted a small herd of oryx instead. Eight large antelopes, with long, straight horns and black stripes on their spines and legs, warily swished their tails and flicked their big ears at us. We settled in a patch of bone-melting sun to watch them grazing on tall reed-like grasses.

It was still relatively early when we started back to Sesriem., As we drove dreamily along we saw a group of tourists trying to push their truck through the sand. Strident German voices shouted commands through the still desert, but the truck wasn't moving.

We stopped and leant out of our windows. 'Have you got a sand ladder?' the tour leader asked us breathlessly. We hadn't but we cheerfully handed him part of a whale vertebrae.

Getting there: the only direct flights between the UK and Namibia are on Air Namibia, twice weekly from Heathrow to Windhoek. A discounted return fare from Bridge the World (071-911 0900) costs pounds 538. Quest Worldwide (081-547 3322) has a fare of pounds 513 on Lufthansa via Frankfurt from London, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow.

Getting around: Namib 4x4 Hire in Windhoek (010 264 61 220604) rents a Nissan Patrol for Ndollars 328 ( pounds 60) per day.

Money: local currency is the Namibian dollar (Ndollars ); Ndollars 5.50 equals approx pounds 1.

Red tape: no visa required by British passport holders for a three-month stay.

Recommended reading: the most up-to- date guidebook is the Spectrum Guide to Namibia ( pounds 12.99), published three weeks ago. Less glossy and more practical, however, is the Guide to Namibia and Botswana ( pounds 10.95) by Chris McIntyre and Simon Atkins, published in May 1994 by Bradt Publications.

Further information: Namibian High Commission, 6 Chandos Street, London W1M 0LQ (071-636 6244).

(Photograph omitted)

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