Safari in the land of sand

Namibia is exotic but accessible, as Scarlett MccGwire discovered

"Ooh, this is better than Wildlife on One," enthused seven-year- old Misha, as she spotted an elephant. We had been in Namibia's celebrated Etosha Park a mere 15 minutes and already zebra had casually crossed the road in front of us and we'd seen giraffes munching the tops of roadside bushes. Herds of springbok nibbled at the grass, friskily nervous. The five of us sat in the car, staring at real, wild African animals for the first time in our lives.

We had organised the trip on our own from London - saving ourselves money and allowing for much wider choice than is offered by a package - and we had been surprised at how easy it had been. The efficient Namibia Tourist Information had sent us an envelope containing a list of registered accommodation (government and private), brochures, a map, and details of car hire companies. With the aid of a guidebook, we had decided where we wanted to go, and bookings had been made by phone or fax. Every reservation was kept.

The car hire company advised us against a four-wheel drive for our itinerary, as the roads were so good. So we saved ourselves pounds 20 a day, but our rented car still cost nearly pounds 50 a day. They also gave us valuable advice on how not to flip a car, a tourist speciality: drive on dust roads at 80kph with two hands always on the wheel. In Namibia, which is five times the size of Britain and has only 1.6 million people, meeting one car every 10km is par for the course.

After arranging the flight, my first call was to book a "luxury" bungalow at Okakuejo camp in Etosha, near the waterhole. (The adjective reflects neither the standard nor the price.) These need to be reserved some months in advance; the alternative is a more expensive hotel outside the park. Etosha is open only from sunrise to sunset, so those staying outside cannot enjoy an evening at the waterhole watching the animals leisurely come and go. It is the surest chance of seeing the rare black rhino; a pair came down both nights that we were there.

We stayed two nights at Okakuejo, and two at the eastern camp, Namutoni. During the day we went on DIY game drives. We bought a map of Etosha which had seven pages of pictures of birds and animals, and we drove around, able to identify what we saw: such as kudu antelope, and warthog families, which run around in the long grass with their tails up like flags so that they can see each other.

Our summer is their winter and dry season, so the animals were easy to see as they congregated around or journeyed to the waterholes, all of which were marked on the map. The days were T-shirt and shorts weather, but the nights and early mornings were cold.

After Etosha we had booked two guest lodges: the tiny, remote Kaross Lodge, where Tammy and Uwe Hoth were happy to answer all our questions - from race and politics, to the habits and habitats of the animals - and Mount Etjo, more the size of an English country hotel, which had brought animals such as elephants and rhinos on to the farm for the tourists and, rather more dubiously, a large pen of lions, which were fed every night.

We had decided to stay three nights in each place, so the children would not find the driving too gruelling, particularly as every guest lodge has its own daily activities. At Mount Etjo the extra day meant we were able to arrange horse-riding. While at Kaross, which is at the western end of Etosha, we went into the closed part of the park with Uwe as a guide and learnt far more about the animals we saw than we could have done from any book.

The food was astonishing in both quality and quantity, at both places. Twelve-year-old Pascoe and his father liked to admire the impala and oryx during the day and savour them in the evening, to Misha's horror; 17-year- old Molly and I found the selection of vegetable dishes quite wide enough to fill us up. A fresh home-baked cake every afternoon made us feel completely spoilt.

Staying at Kaross, visitors are made to feel like guests, and all meals are taken together. The Hoths have started a foundation, Afri-leo, to save lions, which often escape from Etosha and are shot by farmers. Their first rescue was to buy five of the animals, including three cubs, which had been kept in dreadful conditions in a zoo, and at least give them some space; they can never be reintroduced to the wild. Meeting and learning about the lions was part of our stay.

We then made for the coast, taking in the colony of 80,000 seals on our way to the cold, clammy seaside resort of Swakopmund. You can choose from camel riding in the desert, viewing the flamingo colony in nearby Walvis Bay, or dune buggy riding.

Our last stop was Namibia's most famous landmark, the pink Sossusvlei dunes, at 300 metres reputed to be the highest in the world. It took a pre-dawn start to be at the park gates at sunrise, then a 65-km drive, followed by a 5-km walk for those without four-wheel drive.

Finally we stood on the crest of Sossuslvei, looking at the parabolas made by the surrounding dunes merging in red, pink and orange, and then we launched ourselves off to race down the side. It was one of those rare moments of total exhilaration for us all.

The only airline with direct flights from the UK to Namibia is Air Namibia (0181-944 6181). Until the end of October, the airline is charging pounds 445 return (including tax) from Heathrow to the capital, Windhoek, but after that the fare increases to pounds 693.

Lower fares may be available from discount agents on airlines such as Lufthansa and South African Airways, via Frankfurt and Johannesburg respectively.

Namibia Tourist Information: 5 Chandos Street, London W1 (0171-636 2924).

Daunt Books for Travellers (0171-224 2295) recommends the `Namibia Handbook' (Footprint, pounds 9.99).

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