Namibia: Having a sand blast

How much fun can you find in the desert? Well, if you've got a piece of wood, a parachute and a quad bike, a lot - as Ed Caesar discovers in Swakopmund
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The Independent Travel

It should come as no surprise that Swakopmund, on Namibia's battered west coast, has become a site of pilgrimage for adventure sports lunatics. The town, like many extreme outposts - New Zealand's Queenstown, for example - is a remote, inconsequential-looking place dwarfed by the dangerous beauty of its natural surroundings. A small gathering of 35,000 souls in German-influenced concrete houses, on wide, sandy streets, Swakopmund is ringed by hundreds of miles of Namib desert on one side, and the raging Atlantic Ocean on the other.

But if the desert is something of an oppressive presence on the town - obscuring car colour; finding its way into your smalls; delivering all-day exfoliation - it is also one of its greatest assets, providing rare opportunities to do a wide variety of stupid things. Sand-boarding head-first down a dune, for instance. Or driving a quad bike up the sand mountains of the Namib. Or throwing yourself out of a plane from 10,000ft to watch the Viennetta ripple of the desert come closer and closer at an alarming rate.

It was then to Swakopmund, that my girlfriend and I set out to spend a weekend engaged in all this sandy fun. A remote town in Namibia is, one might think, a little far for a couple of days. But with Air Namibia's Friday night flight direct from Gatwick to Windhoek, and a Tuesday night flight getting you to London before work on Wednesday, and no jet lag to contend with, a long weekend is now possible.

We arrived early on Saturday morning, picked up a hire car, and, taking Namibia's near car-free concrete road to the coast, were in Swakopmund by lunchtime. Namibia's premier adrenalin destination, we soon discovered, was an odd medley of competing physical and cultural influences. This was never more evident than when we were checking into our weekend bolthole, Sam's Giardino.

The hotel - a friendly, hugely popular Swiss chalet on the edge of the Namib Desert, where a massive Bernese dog called Einstein is employed as the customer relations manager (he has his own office), and the owner specialises in South African wine tasting - is founded on strange principles. But no one bats an eyelid. What we soon realised is that Swakopmund is a place where opposites attract: the sea and the sand, the European and the African, the sedate and the swift. By the end of the weekend in Swakopmund, it would have come as no surprise if the most popular hotel in town had been a luxury Mexican igloo.

There was no time, though, to drink in the weirdness. After a light lunch provided by our garrulous Swiss host, we were off to drive quad bikes in the dunes for two hours with a group called Desert Explorers. A jauntily coloured minibus arrived to pick us up from our hotel - "quad-bikers?" enquired the driver - and took us to an office in town. Wrong office, as it turned out. Wrong minibus, too. Still, there seem to be only two companies for any activity in Swakopmund - two for quad-biking, two for skydiving, two for sand-boarding - so this kind of confusion is common and easily solved. There are more than enough thrill-seeking Europeans for everyone.

After a brief safety instruction from our cheery instructor, Johannes, during which our group of four first-timers gleaned that it was important to "go fast uphill", and little else, we were off. My girlfriend and I were driving semi-automatic quads that delivered an unsettling degree of grunt right underneath our cushioned backsides. They also required a certain amount of skill to operate, which is why Chloe, after some spluttering and stalling, traded hers for a beginner's automatic five minutes into our adventure. Annoyingly, her automatic was almost as fast as my hog, and twice as easy to operate.

The drive itself was exhausting and exhilarating. The sky was an icy blue, and under it, the dunes looked moonscape perfect. And, as we became more confident of traversing the various cliffs and dips of the dunes without ending up a mangled heap of sand and flesh, our instructor presented us with increasingly challenging routes to master. Switching the engines off, we did a "no brakes, no gas" plummet down a 60ft near-vertical sand-face. On the way down, the only thing you can hear is your internal engine beating at twice its normal rate.

After a 10-hour flight, a four-hour drive, and not enough sleep, two hours on the quad bikes was more than enough. But you get the feeling Johannes would do this all day. After we parked the bikes, he smiled like a wet-eared neophyte and said: "It's fun, yah?" Yah, it is. What makes you feel less guilty about the biking is that this kind of activity, harmful as it could be to the rare birdlife, plants and insects that inhabit the desert, is heavily regulated, and limited to a tiny section of the Namib. And the following day the tracks we had made would be gone.

After a stunning plate of Brobdingnagian king prawns at Swakopmund's best fish restaurant, The Tug, that night, and one of Sam's legendary Swiss breakfasts (four different types of muesli) in the morning, we were picked up by Swakop Sandboarding. Our instructors were three relaxed characters called Constantine, General, and Simmy. They took us to a site at the bottom of a massive dune, half-way between Swakopmund and the fishing town of Walvis Bay, and showed us the basics. As we had chosen lie-down sand-boarding rather than stand-up, it was all very simple. You lie on a thin 4ft piece of cardboard that General called "your high-tech speed machine", keep your elbows up, and steer with your feet. The hard bit is walking to the top of the dunes in the first place. Following in the footsteps of the instructors, who all have the cardiovascular capacities of mountain goats, we trudged up through sand so fine it was almost liquid.

Simmy told us we could "chill out" at the top, but it was not a choice, it was a grim necessity. Having caught our breath, we limbered up for our first run, which General reassured us was a gentle breeze down the easiest slope. You're only an inch off the sand and a crash would hurt, but is unlikely. It's like surfing without the skill.

In the two and a half hours we spent on the dunes we did six runs (and seven uphill walks) culminating in the two most extreme slopes, "Cool Runnings " and "The Donkey Ride". Cool Runnings is so called because it's the fastest - with a run-up, you can reach 85mph - and The Donkey Ride because, with its rocks and bumps, it throws you around like a mule. It was so much fun we didn't want it to end.

"It's the easiest sport in the world," said Simmy, with a huge smile. "Just a piece of wood and the dunes."

Skydiving is not the easiest sport in the world. It takes dozens of jumps and hours of training to be an expert. Luckily, when you do a tandem jump attached to the front of an instructor, at Desert Skydiving, it's your co-jumper who does all the work. There is something very comforting about this. "I'm sure they don't want to die either," said Chloe, as we went through our 20-minute training.

Our two instructors, Bernt and Anthony, are 13-year veterans of the sport, and at reassuring nervous parachuting virgins. They told us everything that was going to happen - we would go to 10,000ft, then jump out of the open door of a plane, essentially - and made us feel like we were in good hands. They also gave us tight jumpsuits, and a predictable line in "no strings attached" gags, which was slightly less comforting. What you quickly realise is that, as the bottom half of the skydiving pair, your only role is to look terrified. It is a role I grasped with relish. As we ascended to 10,000ft in our tiny door-less Cessna, it was easy to forget that we were shortly going to be exiting the plane. The view of the desert, of the ocean, of the tiny towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, gives one a sense of Namibia's emptiness and natural drama.

After a 25-minute scenic flight, we had reached 10,000ft, and it was time to jump. Chloe went first. Bernt and I shuffled to the door. It was at that moment that a thought entered my head. Tomorrow morning, I would either be driving out of Swakopmund after a heart-stopping weekend. Or I wouldn't. And with that, Bernt pushed me out of the plane.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with the Namibia Tourism Board (0870 330 9333; www.namibiatourism.com.na) and Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com). Expert Africa can organise a similar trip from £808 per person. This includes return Air Namibia flights from Gatwick to Windhoek, five nights' B&B and car hire. Activities in Swakopmund can be arranged for an additional cost. Windhoek is served by Air Namibia (0870 774 0965; www.airnamibia.com.na) direct from Gatwick. BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com ) fly from Heathrow via Johannesburg. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Windhoek, in economy class, is £18.

STAYING THERE

Sam's Giardino Hotel, Swakopmund (00 264 64 403 210; www.giardino.com.na). Doubles start at N$840 (£61), including breakfast.

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