Three decades have passed since Namibia gained independence. Gavin Bell returns to relish the country’s ‘infinite stillness’
They were dancing in the streets in spirited celebrations of the birth of a nation, but the vast, empty land around them was silent.
Thirty years after Namibia cried “freedom” from generations of Imperial German and South African rule, it remains a sparsely populated wilderness of dreamlike vistas and infinite stillness that is a balm to the soul. Three times bigger than the UK with fewer people than Greater Manchester, its endless deserts, gravel plains and game-rich national parks offer a great escape from urban life.
As a foreign correspondent in the Eighties I relished visits to South West Africa, as it was then known, as a respite from the chaotic collapse of apartheid across the border in South Africa. This was, and remains, a safe country. Even when I was reporting on the independence movement I was struck by the people’s calm and measured approach to life, as if imbued with their land’s ancient serenity. Just cruising the quiet, single-lane road to Windhoek from the airport was enough to instill a Zen-like calm.
Since then, the once-sleepy capital has emerged from colonial slumber to become a modern multiracial African city with ring roads and a striking new monument. Its landmark building used to be a German Lutheran church, an elaborate mishmash of neo-gothic and art nouveau architecture on a hill overlooking the city centre. Now it is dominated by the Independence Memorial Museum, a towering structure that looks like a giant three-legged alien spaceship.
Inside, the museum features three floors of exhibits tracing the freedom struggle from its inception to the day that the newly released Nelson Mandela arrived to join the festivities. After perusing patriotic images of fighters and civilians in revolt, you can retreat to the top-floor restaurant to take in the splendid panoramic views of the city and surrounding hills.
The 30th anniversary celebrations due to take place today were cancelled after a couple of Spanish tourists tested positive for coronavirus, and in these uncertain times who knows what the next year will bring, let alone the next 30. But since independence, the Namibian economy has been transformed by a huge growth in tourism. Under South African apartheid rule, tourism was a no-go in the territory. The few visitors were usually Germans curious to see the land their Imperial forebears ruled with an iron fist until they were kicked out during the First World War.
Thirty years ago, I loved visiting Swakopmund, the Atlantic beach resort on the edge of the Namib desert that loomed from sea fog like a ghostly Imperial German time capsule. It was easy to imagine mounted schutztruppe trotting down the sand-strewn streets.
Today, it has sadly lost much of its old charm with new housing and shopping developments; Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse is now Sam Nujoma Avenue and the German officers’ brothel has become a hotel. But it is still a chilled end-of-the-world town with welcome sea breezes after the relentless heat and dust of the desert.
The terrace of the refurbished Strand Hotel is the place for a pleasant lunch by the main bathing beach, and as a Scot my favourite dinner spot is The Tug, a shoreside restaurant designed around the original bridge of a tugboat built in Port Glasgow that served in Namibian waters until 1984.
Back then, tourist facilities outside the capital and the seaside resort of Swakopmund were basic to say the least. But go pretty much anywhere in the country today and you will find high-quality lodges and guest farms in even the harshest landscapes.
With the 30th anniversary of independence looming, I recently felt the pull of the empty lands, as strong as ever – so I packed up and headed south to BüllsPort Lodge and Farm, bordering the Namib-Naukluft National Park, a haven for beef cattle, mountain zebras, pedigree horses and passing tourists.
Dropping down from the central highlands I soon found myself in the Namibia of old, with gravel roads that seem to run to the edge of the world, and distant dust clouds that signal rare passing vehicles. My speed slowed, and with my windows down the miles rolled by to Eric Clapton Unplugged. It was as if I had drifted back in time, in the familiar and reassuring embrace of a land where time is meaningless. It was good to be back.
The Naukluft mountains rear from parched plains like a petrified tidal wave and BüllsPort is spread in their rocky heights and thorn bush plains below them over 10,000 hectares. Namibian farmers measure their livelihoods in centimetres of grass. No rain, no grass, no farm, so hundreds now depend on tourism.
Naukluft is in its eighth year of drought and like hundreds of other farms, this one has turned to tourism to survive. On arrival, farmer Ernst Sauber, the third generation of his family to own BüllsPort, revealed that over the years, he has had to sell most of his cattle and invest instead in upgrading his 14 guest rooms, creating hiking and mountain bike trails, and offering horse riding and farm drives. “I am a farmer born and bred,” he told me. “But when I look at my income, I am not a farmer. We rely on tourism, and in better years we farm.”
But his German wife Johanna says she is “living the dream”. As a horse lover, she always wanted to breed prize-winning thoroughbreds and her Hanoverian breeding mare was recently judged the best in Namibia. She also placed three of her other horses in the top 10, making her stable of pure bloods some of the best when it comes to lessons and horse safaris.
Having checked in and looked around, I took a stroll by a spring-fed stream in Quiver Tree Gorge, a primeval fissure in towering walls of dolomite where nothing much has changed since the dinosaurs pulled out. All was silent save for chattering of rosy-faced lovebirds, buzzing insects and the sigh of a gentle breeze.
There is a sense of entering a secret, holy place here, a spiritual sanctuary, which in a sense it is for wildlife. My guide David spotted the spoor of mountain zebra, a couple of klipspringers, and rock eagles hovering over the crags. Leopards prowl the heights and occasionally rhino wander in from the neighbouring national park, but we were left in peace to dip our feet in the stream and chat about life in Namibia.
David was born and raised on a nearby farm and has three young children. “Life is difficult for us,” he told me. “Often there is no work and transport is a problem, some places you must hike. So tourists are good; they bring money and create jobs for us. If there are no tourists, the farmers can’t afford workers.”
BüllsPort not only provides jobs, but supports a primary school for farm children in nearby Nabasib, and visits can be arranged to hear the school choir. My visit coincided with a tree-planting ceremony by an NGO that provided 30 saplings for fruit, shade and indigenous growth.
It warmed my heart to see the children playing around their new trees, but school principal Fritz Plaatjes revealed that providing food, accommodation and learning materials for children in rural areas was still a challenge. “The government is trying, but it is not enough,” he said. “We need help from private people. If you live far from the government, truly spoken it is not something to praise about.”
Back at BüllsPort, Ernst explained the challenges of farming. “We try to maintain a stable game population, but finding a balance between wildlife and livestock sharing grazing in droughts is tough, and in the end we have to depend on tourism.”
Which is how the country has changed, and how this genuine Namibian farm stay experience has come to exist, offering up al fresco dinners by candlelight beneath a huge umbrella thorn tree with kudu and zebra pot roast on the menu.
Days end as peacefully as they begin. When night falls the sky is filled with stars and the desert song of Namibia is endless silence, as it has always been.
Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com) has a range of tailor-made trips to Namibia. An eight-day self-drive holiday combining the Naukluft Mountains, the Namib Desert and Swakopmund costs from £870pp sharing. The price includes accommodation, car hire and some meals and drinks; international flights cost extra (£785 return in economy with South African Airways).
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