Sand and vision

With only stunning natural beauty for company, Jon Bowd drives through the deserts of Namibia

In 40C heat there are certain things that are recommended: cold drinks, air-conditioned rooms and frequent dips in either a pool or the sea. One thing unlikely to make the list is crawling on the ground while lifting heavy objects in the midday sun. Unfortunately, there isn't much choice when you have a puncture. The roads in Namibia range from silky-smooth Tarmac (a legacy of German colonial rule) to bone-shaking corrugated dirt tracks, and after a short drive on one of these pot-holed monsters the back-right tyre of our car was a misshapen mess of flayed rubber. After replacing old with new, we were left with the daunting prospect of a further 400km on the rough stuff with no spare.

In 40C heat there are certain things that are recommended: cold drinks, air-conditioned rooms and frequent dips in either a pool or the sea. One thing unlikely to make the list is crawling on the ground while lifting heavy objects in the midday sun. Unfortunately, there isn't much choice when you have a puncture. The roads in Namibia range from silky-smooth Tarmac (a legacy of German colonial rule) to bone-shaking corrugated dirt tracks, and after a short drive on one of these pot-holed monsters the back-right tyre of our car was a misshapen mess of flayed rubber. After replacing old with new, we were left with the daunting prospect of a further 400km on the rough stuff with no spare.

On all sides we were surrounded by red-rock desert scorched completely bare, and every 20 minutes or so we would drive slowly past a huge lorry, tyre lying shredded on the roadside. The closest house was 60km in the other direction and we had seen no other cars for two hours. The joy of travelling round a country bigger than both Britain and France but with fewer inhabitants than Paris had quickly disappeared.

Fortunately, the preceding week had been more comfortable. Namibia has fully embraced luxury eco-tourism, and can now boast accommodation that is the equal of anything available elsewhere in Southern Africa. Indeed, the tented camps in two of the country's best wildlife-viewing areas are about as far from the airbed-and-groundsheet version of an outdoor holiday as it is possible to get.

The tents at Ongava, a private camp that borders the huge Etosha National Park in the north of the country, boast huge double beds with blinding white sheets, massive wardrobes and roofless bathrooms that allow you to shower under the stars. Just so you don't forget that you're deep in the wilds of Africa, at night armed guards escort guests back from the dining area in case one of the park's many lions is looking for dinner. And Palmwag Rhino Camp in the vast empty canyons of Damaraland in Namibia's north-west has a main tent with a well-stocked bar, a leather sofa and standard lamps. Not bad for a place that is three hours by 4x4 from the nearest gravel road and five from the closest town with a shop.

Palmwag, in particular, is an object lesson in how to create accommodation that embraces the environment. Damaraland is one of the driest regions in the whole country (in a wet year annual rainfall might top 100mm) and the wind often blows in from the east across the Kalahari desert, sending the mercury soaring and firing the terracotta-coloured earth as though in a huge natural kiln. Water at the camp is scarce and drawn from a well, so each tent is limited to a maximum of two bucket showers a day. But just when you're thinking that maybe African camping isn't so far removed from a Scout trip to the Brecon Beacons, you step into a bathroom furnished in expensive looking wood, with a full-length mirror, porcelain sink and spongy towels draped over a rail made from a dead branch.

After a long, hot day on the plains searching for rhino, even a power shower would have had a hard time topping our pail-with-a-tap. And the meals were something else - four-course gourmet affairs with fabulous wine, when the sheer remoteness of the location would have made any burnt offering scorched over a camp fire acceptable.

Most people come for the wildlife, and Namibia's northern portion, from the Atlantic coast along the border with Angola to Botswana, is arguably bettered as an animal-spotting venue by only the Serengeti and the Okavango Delta. But where Namibia truly comes into its own is in the deserts of the south and west, where orange, razor-edged dunes soar up to 300m into the sky.

The icy Benguela current that flows up from Antarctica and hits Namibia's shores is so cold that virtually no moisture is released into the air. The result is the eerie desolation of the Skeleton Coast - hundreds of miles of shifting desert that buttress the shore, studded with the wrecks of a thousand ships that have run aground in coastal fogs. These fogs, caused by the current, support an astonishing variety of life in the Namib desert to the south, which extends across a huge area and includes the spectacular dunes around Sossusvlei.

After the incident with the puncture we were desperate to see some sign of life, and it is difficult to describe the sheer joy at the sight of the cinder-block office and whale jawbone that mark one entrance to the Skeleton Coast Park. While paying for a permit to drive through on our journey south, we were asked by a park employee whether we would mind taking some of his colleagues to the next gate 200km away. Keen for companions with more than the most rudimentary knowledge of car mechanics (it had taken my wife and I nearly half an hour to find the spare wheel), we happily offered up the seven spare seats in our people carrier. On arrival at the next gate, three hours later and having seen no other cars, I asked how long they had been waiting for a lift. Two days, they replied. Thank goodness we hadn't blown another tyre.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING TO NAMIBIA

The writer flew from London Heathrow to Windhoek via Johannesburg with South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com). British Airways and Virgin Atlantic also fly to South Africa; Lufthansa (0870 837 7747; www.lufthansa.co.uk) and Air Namibia (01293 596654; www.airnamibia.com) operate services to Windhoek via Frankfurt and Johannesburg. Air Namibia for has returns from around £650 via Frankfurt.

STAYING THERE

Etosha National Park is about 500km from Windhoek. Namutoni rest camp, at the eastern end of the park, is an interesting (if spartan) base. Contact the Namibia Tourist office (020-7636 2924; www.namibiatourism.co.uk). Ongava Tented Camp and Palmwag Rhino Camp are run and managed by Wilderness Safaris ( www.wilderness-safaris.com).

The writer booked flights, accommodation and car hire through Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk)

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