The most sublime places in the world. No 3: Namibia

Desert, dunes, wildlife, wild coast – a southern Africa dream

In this series, I’ve been choosing places I either know very well or I’ve visited quite recently. The exception is Namibia, which I have been to only once, and that 14 years ago.

It’s quite a new destination on the travel map – it was even newer then. The shockwave begun when the apartheid regime fell in South Africa was still rippling around the region. In terms of visitor numbers, South Africa itself was an immediate hit. But the experience of mass safari tourism there, and further north in Kenya, persuaded both Namibia and Botswana to take a different route.

The still-fashionable argument that by concentrating on premium visitors you both maximise your revenue and minimise the impact on your land (see my earlier piece on Bhutan) was very strong in those days. So when I visited, a new generation of luxury safari lodges was opening.

I won’t talk about them here, because 14 years is a long time in luxury lodge land and much has changed. But if you are planning a trip to Namibia you won’t be short of superb, isolated, interesting, dramatic places to stay.

The sublimeness of Namibia? This is a dry, empty, elemental land where the desert meets the sea. At Sossusvlei there are sand dunes. In fact, a whole industry is supported by these sand dunes; but then they are epic, even more epic that the Empty Quarter’s: deep orange ridges rising in the case of ‘Big Daddy’ to 325m. 

Part of the Sossusvlei industry when I was there was rescuing tourists from their cars. If you forgot to lower your tyre pressures, which I did, you soon got bogged down – which I also did. Out came the rescue squad. You paid your dollars, and on you rolled on your chastened way.

Hiring a car required some courage in 2006. GPS  hadn’t mapped the country and our phones didn’t have it anyway. On the way to a lodge on Christmas Eve, we realised the directions on the itinerary were somewhere between inaccurate and plain wrong. We found ourselves driving in the bush at dusk. This is not a good idea in wild places. A kudu, a huge antelope, ran across the path. We just stopped in time. We drove on – two more galloped out. The second headed for the windscreen. I turned the wheel and it took out the wing mirror.

We limped on and somehow found the lodge. Never had a pre-Christmas drink tasted better. The kudu galloped off: I hope it wasn’t badly hurt.

Beyond the curious German colonial town of Swakopmund, we ventured across the Etosha plain. Like Australia, this is a mysterious landscape of heat haze and scrub. Unlike Australia, you’ll be lying in your tend and hear the thud of a lion’s footprints outside. The guttural breathing seemed to go on for hours as I held the in-tent klaxon tight. 

Etosha’s ‘ghost elephants’

Re: Brand America

While the US presidential election was still in doubt, I wrote a somewhat downbeat assessment of where Brand America is after the Trump Years (a name for an epoch we still couldn’t use at that point). 

Most Marklands readers agreed, some of them quite fervently. Only one (American) subscriber unsubscribed.

But the critique that gave me most pause for thought came from William Pecover, the former chairman and CEO of Haymarket Publishing in the USA, and, though you won’t find this on his official profile, an occasional teammate of mine on the five-a-side football court.

I suspect William didn’t agree with much in the piece, except two things: my choice of song and the observation that the ‘Trump Effect’ on tourism is vastly exaggerated. I noted that while some international visitors might boycott the country because they disapproved of its leader, their overall numbers are negligible (‘you might have added they mostly live in West London,’ he added).

He made the point that after the Second Gulf War there was similar talk about the damage to Brand USA.

William writes:

Thomas Friedman, the NYT commentator, near the top of global hand-wringing charts, went round the world trying to understand just how much the rest of the world hated America. And, of course, what he found talking to students was that, despite the rhetoric, the place they most wanted to study and live was, well...America. And, after the inevitable decline in overseas tourist numbers in the aftermath of 9/11, visitor numbers to the US rose dramatically in the rest of the Bush years from 2003 to (41.22mm) to 2008 (58.01mm). We've heard it all before....

That led us to a wider conversation about whether ‘good’ countries do, or should, attract more tourism and a perennial topic among travel writers: at what point do we decide a country is so bad that we refuse to publicise it?

This is a big subject I’ll need to return to – and Substack has an email word limit.

Envy Corner: Jan Morris

Jan Morris at home in Llanystumdwy. Rick Pushinsky, Eyevin/Redux

Many better travel writers than I have written feelingly and well about the death of Jan Morris. I agree with most of them that her masterpiece is Trieste. Its full title  is Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere: and I wonder if anyone has ever written a better subtitle? It must have been hard to write a text that lives up to it, yet it’s one of the those books where you sense the author can’t wait to get back to their desk to pick up where they left off.

I don’t feel the way about all her books; and with, say, Oxford and Spain, you sometimes get enumeration at the expense of narrative (not that a Jan Morris listicle isn’t the very best kind of listicle).

I suspect The Matter of Wales is well down the list of her sales, but it’s my other favourite. She nails a spirit of a land that is essentially un-nailable. The closing chapter, imagining a free and independent Wales with its capital in Machynlleth is the kind of nationalist rhetoric I can live with: Garibaldi rather than Bolsinaro.

The line of hers that I most shamelessly use is from her little essay on Sydney – a book I’ve managed to lose, so you are relying on my memory.

She writes about the light in Sydney: the flat, hard light, a light in which, compared to European cities, ‘the dust of ages’ is absent.

That is spot-on and it explains why so many travellers have a problem with New World cities – and why others want to escape there.

Songs that take you places


African Jazz Pioneers

I wanted a soundtrack to go with my Namibia piece. I could have gone for something ethereal and expansive; but reviewing the Marklands playlist, it’s beginning to lean a bit too far in the ethereal and expansive direction.  Time for something to get the adrenaline going when you’re driving along those long, long roads.

I don’t know what I like most about South African jazz like this: the punchy brass riffs, the joyous backing vocals or the guitar track dancing to its own tune. Maybe it’s just the way they all fit together.

Oh, and wait for that key change. It’s a killer. 

How was Dubai?

My big piece on Dubai led the Daily Mail travel section this week. I’ll have more to say on the place in this space soon.

MJ having a very authentic Bedouin adventure…

All geared up

Breitling Colt watch

I suspect I’m typical of a certain of a certain kind of male consumer. Maybe when there’s a big birthday, we feel impelled to splash out on a really nice watch. Then that’s us done with jewellery for a decade/lifetime.

But one day in the nearly Noughties, I was passing through Dubai. I went mad and succumbed to a Breitling. Fortunately even in the throes of my madness, I vastly preferred the entry-level Colt model to the others.

It’s still on wrist nearly two decades on. Passing back through Dubai, I thought this was a neat symbolic moment to upgrade. But no: I still prefer the plain, solidity of the Colt, or, as the Breitling site puts it, its ‘understated efficiency’  (you can feel the copywriters struggling a bit there).

I guess I’m just an entry-level kind of guy.

Let’s end with…the Welsh word of the day

Hiraeth is also the Welsh word for any day: a kind of homesickness, a longing for something sublime you can’t define. In German, Sehnsucht. In English? Our practical tongue has no such word.

Need more Welsh words in your life? Go here.