BY SARAH KHAN
The New York Times
Iwoke to the gentle prodding of a flight attendant asking me to raise my window shade for the landing in Windhoek. I complied and was immediately assailed: a bolt of white fury forced my eyelids to contract in submission, never to open again. Or, at least, not until it was time to deplane.
A road trip across Namibia is an education in its own right, filled with trials, pop quizzes and even the occasional all-nighter spent stargazing.
Lesson 1. The Namibian sun is every bit as potent as you’ve heard.
At midday, the orb that lights the Namibian sky blazes so fiercely that the landscape resembles an overexposed photograph.
Namibia has been called the Land God Made in Anger — or, less poetically, the Gates of Hell — but I wonder if the Land God Forgot About might be more accurate. On a road trip through more than 2,400 kilometers of its stark terrain, it seemed as though Namibia’s blueprint had been carefully conceived but abandoned midthought: dried-out riverbeds left thirsting for water; rolling savannas devoid of vegetation; towering mounds of sandy dunes shifting aimlessly for millenniums. God blessed Namibia with plenty of light but didn’t bother bestowing many places to find respite from it.
And yet … God wasn’t completely neglectful, either: In few places can an earthy palette appear so kaleidoscopic. What could have been a drab monochromatic topography is instead beguiling, with shades of white, red and brown galvanizing under the early morning and twilight skies.
2. As soon as you’ve booked your flight, book your 4-by-4.
After consulting a map, I narrowed down a circuit encompassing the mighty Sossusvlei dunes, the quaint beach town of Swakopmund and the notorious Skeleton Coast — it is said it is so named because it’s where ships and whales come to die, studding the shore with their sun-bleached remains — before veering inland, through the mountainscape of Damaraland, back to Windhoek.
Another feature lacking in Namibia: good, tarred roads. Barring a few major highways, most of Namibia is linked by jarring dirt thoroughfares of variable quality, which means a four-wheel-drive is a requisite if you’re brave enough to drive. My friends Sabiha, Safiyyah, Aadila and I secured a silver Toyota Fortuner, and christened it Dusty.
3. A group of women road-tripping through the brutal terrain is an unusual sight.
We set off from Cape Town over South Africa’s Women’s Day weekend. It was a fitting tribute to girl power, but from hotel staff to gas-station attendants to fellow travelers, people we encountered seemed pleasantly surprised by the makeup of our entourage — and occasionally a bit concerned.
But while we might have been the first group to hit Namibia’s desert to a soundtrack of “Barbie Girl,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and assorted Bollywood tracks, testosterone is not a requirement to go hurtling down rugged terrain with a plume of dust billowing in your wake.
4. Sleep at thousand-star hotels.
From Windhoek, we drove four hours through featureless plains and undulating hills before taking a break. To call Solitaire a town would be generous. It bloomed on the horizon just when we needed it, and we lingered over a slab of Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery’s famous apple crumble.
That night we checked into the Namib Dune Star Camp. Nine solar-powered cottages are perched atop the dunes, and each queen-size bed comes on wheels so it can be rolled out onto the deck for the evening. That night, I slept swathed in a glittering blanket of stars, with the sound of the wind whistling through the dunes remarkably reminiscent of the ocean.
5. If you get the opportunity to run down a dune, take it.
“Do you have a rope?” the man asked us the next afternoon.
We’d just arrived at the Sossusvlei dunes, an hour in from the Namib- Naukluft National Park entrance, and were deflating our tires to make our way through the last few sandy kilometers of off-roading. The shuttles that ferried less intrepid visitors were running their last rounds. He gestured to another Toyota Fortuner, stuck barely 50 feet away. “We’re finishing up for the day,” he warned. His message was clear: if — when — we got into trouble, we were on our own.
We sailed past Dusty’s kinsman foundering in the dirt, revving into our destination in 15 minutes.
Ascending to heights of more than 1,000 feet, Namibia’s ancient dunes are among the tallest in the world. “They look like mountain ranges,” Sabiha had remarked when we first spotted them on the horizon.
The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world, and at 1,066 feet, Big Daddy, the tallest dune in the area, is the one we chose to conquer. We reached the summit in an hour and a half. Directly below lay the notorious Deadvlei: the desiccated clay pan, or “dead marsh,” petrified white earth studded with carcasses of acacia trees crisped into charcoal stumps. The effect is macabre, surreal, like a Dalí painting come to life — except it’s utterly devoid of life.
6. Know how to change a flat tire (or at least how to hail for help).
6b. Always spring for tire insurance.
That afternoon we pressed on from Sossusvlei toward the Atlantic — but first, an age-old rite of passage. Every Namibian trip has at least one flat tire written into its destiny; we met our fate an hour out of Walvis Bay. We saved time by playing the damsels-in-distress routine everyone expected of us, knowing that four women with a flat wouldn’t be stranded for long. And we weren’t.
7. The moon lies about 32 kilometers east of Swakopmund.
If you ask for directions to the moon, you are likely to get blank stares. We realized this on our way out of Swakopmund, searching for an area marked simply on our map as Moon Landscape.
“Are you sure they didn’t just mean … this?” I asked Safiyyah, gesturing to the same barren terrain we’d been seeing throughout Namibia. “No, this isn’t what the moon looks like!” she shot back.
When we finally found it, the scenery was as lunar as advertised. Just when you think Namibia’s terrain is unlike anything on earth, it goes celestial on you.
8. Namibians can be a trusting people.
We returned to Earth by way of Cape Cross, a remote outpost that’s home to a tidy lodge, a smelly seal colony and little else, driving along a road lined with testaments to Namibian ethics. The fields surrounding the highway shimmer with salt crystals, and enterprising souls have gathered and cleaned the most beautiful, displaying them on unmanned stalls. Prospective shoppers pull over, select their favorites, consult a price list and drop the appropriate amount into a peanut butter jar, presumably to be collected in the future.
9. Always yield to elephants.
Driving in Namibia is not for the easily distracted: A high tolerance for monotonous roads and an ability to focus as an uninterrupted terra-cotta canvas unfurls around you is imperative.
Safiyyah and Aadila had just dozed off in the back when the occasional elephant-crossing sign I’d noted with amusement became all too real. A few seconds earlier and we might have gotten a trifle too close for comfort; a few seconds later and we would have missed them entirely.
THE NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOS/JOAO SILVA