Surfing and elephant-spotting on a wild, self-guided tour through the southern African desert.
Self-drive safaris are the new way to get lost in this south African country, where things get wild in Rhino Gulch and even wilder at the Raft bar.
by Adam Fisher
Ding! The GPS on the dash flashes a new instruction: “Off-road to elephants and flash floods.” I’ve been driving for hours through the Namib Desert on salt-tarred roads, across the savanna in search of black rhino, but a herd of elephants definitely warrants a detour. I stop along the bank of the Ugab River and get out to look around. After letting half the air out of the tires for increased traction in the sand, I plunge the jeep into the dry riverbed and drive downstream.
The riverbed is actually the best motorway in the area. With the air-conditioning blowing and the music pumping, I have a simple plan: to experience one of the last truly wild corners of Africa. The 4×4 is packed with a full safari kit, but what I don’t have is a safari guide. Instead, I’m bushwhacking with a few buddies — an old roommate from San Francisco and a group of marooned English sailors I met at a bar.
Namibia, a Texas-size country on Africa’s southwestern coast, is an adventure destination well known to travelers from Cape Town or London, but it’s still pretty exotic to the rest of the world. Yet it feels familiar to a Californian like me: On the coast, it’s SoCal waves lapping up against Death Valley dunes; inland, it’s Red Rock layered over Baja. It’s the Wild West with megafauna. Most Namibia itineraries include a trip to Fish River Canyon, Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon; the eerie moonscape of Sossusvlei; the Stone Age art of Twyfelfontein; and what is often referred to as the richest game park in all of Africa: Etosha National Park. These are each about a day’s drive from one another and can be linked up via a rough circuit, encouraging the development of “self-drive” safaris. Tour operators can help book places to stay along the route — all you have to do is pick up the car, and you’re off. Whether you spend your evenings beneath billowing white safari tents drinking sundowners poured by servants or atop your Land Cruiser in a sleeping bag pulling beers from the cooler, the real beauty of road-tripping in Namibia is veering as far off the beaten path as your nerves will allow.
I downshift and get out the binocs. Stereo off. Windows rolled down. The signs are all there: limbs ripped from trees, tracks on the sand. Around the next bend, I finally spot the herd of elephants, grazing a couple hundred yards away. We get out of the car and creep closer on foot. The problem with elephants is that they’re ninja enough to sneak up on you first. I hear an odd rumble to my left. “What’s that?” I ask one of my friends. “Dunno,” he shrugs. Moments later, a jumbo bull glides out of the forest. His movements are totally silent; the rumble was his stomach giving him away. He shoots us a quick glance, pinches off a kingsize loaf, and then disappears downstream as quickly as he came.
Civilization in Namibia comes in the form of a Jägermeister banner whipping in the wind 50 yards offshore from the dusty container port at Walvis Bay. It flies from a pole in front of a huge, rambling compound called the Raft — half barn, half boat — standing at the far end of a long pier. Built from massive beams of salvaged timber, the Raft is, in effect, the town square, a classic crossroads on a dusty frontier. Before taking off on safari, I spent several late nights there picking up bits of intel and treating my jet lag with copious amounts of alcohol. The bar is packed with adventure types of all stripes: aerosport junkies discussing the thermals that rise over the inland deserts, anglers and yachtsmen headed out to sea, surf bums on their way to explore the unnamed breaks of the Skeleton Coast. The king of these characters is Gary, the Raft’s owner. He’s famous among the locals for the uniquely crotchety way he announces last call: “Get the fuck out of my bar!” Gary is one of Walvis Bay’s leading citizens (it’s that kind of town), a man who, for most of his expat life, has refused to wear shoes. For the price of a Windhoek — the local lager — he gives me the lowdown.
War has devastated Angola to the north, and the townships of South Africa are overrun with crime. Namibia is peaceful and relatively crime-free. Namibian society is divided between a wealthy ex-colonial class that lives in the urban centers and the tribal population, herders mostly, relatively untouched by modern life. The first world lies cheek-by-jowl with Livingstone’s Africa, which makes the country both colorful and remarkably easy to navigate.
For most first-timers, the country’s highlight destination is Etosha National Park, a game reserve so thick with animals that it’s impossible not to see elephants splashing around and antelope bounding high. But as any local at the Raft will tell you, the real fun is beyond the game fence. Skeleton Bay, for example, isn’t mentioned in the guides or included on any tourist map, but the Surfer’s Journal declared that there are two things you need to know about it: “It’s inhospitable as all hell” and “it may be the most perfect left in the world.”
Skeleton Bay turns out to break practically in sight of the Raft. It looks like a wave-porn screen saver: a conveyor belt of perfectly laid watery pipe, each wave rolling closed like a zipper. I drive slowly down the beach (after, again, letting half the air out of my tires), following a surfer riding a wave for more than a mile. The beaches in Namibia, like the dry riverbeds, are basically roads. Though the break at Skeleton Bay is too gnarly for the likes of me, there are dozens of friendlier-looking spots along the 20 miles of sand separating Walvis Bay and Swakopmund to the north. They are all empty. The best estimate is that Namibia, which has a coast as long as California’s, has a total of two dozen surfers living in the country, which is why you better not forget your board. “The nearest surf shop?” my bartender at the Raft says when I ask about rentals. “One thousand miles away.”
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