Namibia desert tour review: Swakopmund, the adventure capital

"It won't kill you," guide Dayne Brain says. "But the pain of the bite will make you wish that it had."

It's a warm early winter morning and we are roaming the velvety sand dunes of Dorob National Park, behind Swakopmund, Namibia's most popular seaside resort, on a Living Desert tour.

As our small group of Aussies, Kiwis and Brits admire the dunes, guide Brain, who grew up in nearby Walvis Bay, and his offsider Matthias Limba, a black Namibian from the country's north, search for the surprising array of creatures that make a home in the desert.

THE MORNING NEWS

"Ninety per cent of what we find out here is by tracking," says Brain, after gathering up the small hooded adder that we are admiring in his hat. "The dunes are like the newspapers, full of lines displaying the morning news or what happened the night before."

We've reached Swakopmund near the middle of Peregrine Adventures' 15-day Classic Namibia expedition, having begun in Windhoek, travelled north to Etosha National Park for some extraordinary wildlife experiences and wound toward the coast through the central plains of Damaraland.

It's been an exciting, well-paced tour, led by jovial black South African guide Johannes Lekoloane, with passengers from Melbourne, Sydney and London bonding over puns and wonder at Namibia's landscape.

Our two nights in Swakopmund include today's "day-off" from travelling, spent on local tours, enriching our knowledge of this section of the Atlantic seaboard, south of the treacherous Skeleton coast.

TOWN ON THE DIRTY RIVER

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Swakopmund is a "prettified" German version of the name, given to the river flowing to the coast here, by the region's original bushmen inhabitants.

"The bushmen called it 'dirty anal river' because of its muddy waters," Brain says. "So when the Germans arrived they changed it slightly and added 'mund' meaning 'mouth' to it.

"So Swakopmund literally means 'mouth of the dirty anal river' ".

First settled in 1892, Swakopmund became a strategic port for German south-west Africa, with administrative and company offices established in the town. It is cute in a slightly baffling way, its German colonial architecture and modern buildings neatly arrayed behind a beach, a pier, a red and white lighthouse and a palm-tree-lined promenade.

The German heyday didn't last long. Following the First World War, South Africa moved in, the new overlords leaving its harbour to fill with silt.

NAMIBIA'S ACTION CAPITAL

Nowadays, besides being a seaside resort, it has become Namibia's adventure capital, with skydiving (at a premium), sandboarding, surfing and fishing on offer. I'd add attempting to swim in the tempestuous Atlantic, off the pebbly main beach, with its sudden drops in level, to that list, although there is a more sheltered cove in front of the lighthouse.

The Living Desert tour is thrilling in a different way. It starts, counterintuitively, at a mass graveyard just inside the park where skeletons from 1695 horses and 944 mules that were shot and buried in the desert in 1915 due to an outbreak of glanders disease poke from under the sand.

The dunes here are also criss-crossed by the remnants of train lines, constructed by settlers, like the "2nd railway" that lasted from 1934-1984 before being swallowed by sand.

THE LIVING DESERT

If there are notes of death and disintegration in Dorob National Park, inscribed as a national park in 2010 to protect the Damara tern, a delicate bird that nests here, there is plentiful life too, if you know where to find it.

Among low bushes, Brain and Limba soon discover two Namaqua chameleons, the only type adapted to the desert.

As we watch the younger male, khaki but tinged with red, Brain explains how their colour changes to reflect different temperatures, darker in the heat of the day and lighter when it's cooler. Their colour also demonstrates emotions and is used to communicate, red for interest or warning and light for relaxation.

"Scientists can't figure out the chameleon's individually controlled eyes which can swivel 180 degrees, or how their brains calculate two images," he says.

The chameleon also has a "ballistic tongue" that it shoots out toward food with 50 gravities of force, a suction cup on its end clamping onto the prize.

The juvenile horned adder they find is only 15 centimetre long. Adults grow to 45 centimetres and wait with their bodies buried in the sand for weeks before pouncing on passing prey. It is the first of two venomous snakes Brain discovers, the other being a feisty female "sidewinder", making a break for it by swivelling swiftly across the baking hot sand.

We also come across a sand diving lizard, impeccably adapted to its environment, with two bladders, one for water storage, and with the equivalent of runners' spikes on its back feet to help climb the dunes, and a blind and deaf Namib legless lizard that swims through the silica and hunts by vibration.

MAD MAX

There is time too to clamber the 30 kilometre by five kilometre dune system, familiar from the movie Mad Max – Fury Road that was filmed here when rains rendered its original Australian locations too green.

It's a mere overflow from the main dunes advancing inexorably across coastal Namibia, from south to north. The sand arrives on the coast through a series of rivers flushing it from mountainous South Africa and it is then shoved inland by strong Atlantic currents and anti-cyclonic winds. The dunes, shifting up to 60 metres a year further south, will eventually overwhelm Swakopmund.

For now, the dunes are a curvaceous mass of peaks and valleys, rippled and coloured cream or caramel and reddened or blackened, depending on how much iron oxide is in the sand. Brain demonstrates this by running a magnet across a dark section, picking up a furry covering of iron.

Although the tour doesn't unveil another deadly desert resident, the hairy thick-tailed scorpion, it does uncover ET. Or at least that is what the Namib web-footed gecko looks like when photographed close up.

So the engrossing Living Desert comes to an end, leaving us all impressed by the variety of creatures Brain and Limba find in an apparently empty environment.

SNAKE PARK

Back in town by lunchtime, I'm driven by curiosity to Swakopmund's Snake Park, not far from the seafront. Once terrified by snakes, I'm now able to delight in their serpentine movement and at mind-boggling statistics about their toxicity.

The newly arrived Angolan cobra is the fiercest looking exhibit, striking the glass of its cage repeatedly when people walk past, and I ogle two big black mambas, Africa's most feared snakes.

In the afternoon, Christine, a Melburnian travelling on the Peregrine adventure, and I, join another tour that promises to show us "the real Namibia".

TOWNSHIP TOUR

Owned and operated by black Namibians living in the township, it is led by excellent young guide Nande Junias and takes us to Mondesa, which houses 40,000 of Swakopmund's 60,000 inhabitants.

Created by the South African apartheid system in the 1950s, Mondesa was designed to divide and rule indigenous Namibians. The Ovambo people, the country's majority tribe, to which our guide Junias belongs, were allocated houses with one bedroom and an outside toilet, the Damara tribe members were given houses with two rooms, a lounge and kitchen, and the minority Herero (originally Himba) people were given houses with three bedrooms.

Although unemployment is high in Namibia, few people are idle. In Mondesa, we stop first at an open area where street vendors sell dried chillis, sardines, spinach, sorghum for home-made beer, and kidney beans for snacks.

Our next visit is to a Herero home, where we meet 18-year-old Opana, who tells us about the origins of the colourful costume she's wearing, a version of the Victorian dress in which German colonists dressed their black female servants.

The costume represents the body of a cow, their twin-pointed hats mimicking the horns. Usually worn only for ceremonial occasions, when donning it, Herero women sashay down the street impersonating a bovine amble.

Answering a query about gender roles, Opana says: "Traditionally the man is the head of the house but the woman is the neck."

After a quick, friendly game of soccer, featuring me, Peter from the Blue Mountains, and several young Didier Drogbas, we adjourn to Dantago craft workshop.

Here we meet Latoya, who tries to teach us some of the Damara's tongue-clicking language and laughs at our ineptitude. We buy bracelets, cushion covers and necklaces, the proceeds of which go to the artisans.

The tour ends with dinner at a township shebeen, where we drink milky home-brew and taste fried mopane worms, an African specialty.  We also try oshingali, a mashed bean dish similar to hummus.

Finally, we are serenaded by a local a capella choir, ending our day "off" in Swakopmund on a high and melodious note.

The writer paid for both tours but travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures and with assistance from South African Airways.

TRIP NOTES

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Peregrineadventures.com

namibiatourism.com.na

FLY

South African Airways has daily flights from all Australian cities to Namibia. Passengers fly from Perth to Johannesburg and on to Windhoek. Fares from the east coast from $1720, including taxes. Flysaa.com or call 1300 435972

TOUR

Swakopmund is at the mid-way point of Peregrine Adventures' 15-day Classic Namibia trip from Windhoek, with regular departures through 2018. From $6145 a person, twin share. See: peregrineadventures.com/namibia/classic-namibia-107738

Living Desert tours with Batis Birding Safaris cost $N700 (approximately $71). Batisbirding.com

Hafeni "Cultural Township Tours" cost $N500 including dinner at Hafeni traditional restaurant in Mondesa. Drinks extra. Tel- +264 64 461 706. Email: hafenictours@gamil.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

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