Road trip with Bench Africa: The only way to appreciate Namibia's unique, melancholic beauty

If ever there was a place that confirmed T.S. Eliot's famous quote, "the journey, not the destination matters," that place is Namibia. Larger than NSW but with only two million inhabitants, Namibia is southern Africa's outback. Which means, of course, that if you wish to do an overland journey there, innumerable hours of driving simply cannot be avoided.

This certainly made me think twice about taking the cross-country approach. Especially since, each time I mentioned my upcoming trip to anyone who had been to Namibia, I'd be asked, "How are you with carsickness?" or "Do you know your travel companions really well? You're going to have a lot of time to talk." I'd titter nervously, pushing the thought that I did suffer from motion sickness – and that I was travelling alone, with only my Namibian guide as company – to the bottom of my suitcase.

Those countless hours in the car, however, ended up being a highlight of my journey. Rather than dreading the drives between lodges, usually set about six hours apart, I anticipated seeing how Namibia's picturesque landscapes would shift each day as we wound through the desert.

As my Bench Africa guide – an intelligent, gregarious Namibian named Nestor Nghuunduka – and I drove from Etosha National Park to Damaraland, I was able to watch Etosha's lunar emptiness, its white limestone and salt-bleached soils, gradually shift to the ochre palette of Damaraland, dotted with sculptural sedimentary rock structures and mud-hut villages.

Days later, during the five-hour drive from Hoanib Valley to the Skeleton Coast, I watched as shale mountains gave way to hills carpeted with soft grass, then to swelling sand dunes as we approached the Skeleton Coast, with its wild seas, whales bones and shipwrecks.

The closer we got, the denser the clouds and fog became, and the more I surrendered to the coast's eerie, foreboding atmosphere. I realised that easing into these landscapes by road, rather than parachuting suddenly into them by air, gave my mind time to catch up to my body, and to properly appreciate Namibia's unique, melancholic beauty.

It left time for surprises, too, for witnessing things en route I would never have had the opportunity to see otherwise. On our way to the Hoanib Valley, we stopped at a remote Himba village and met the tribeswomen, who demonstrated how they bathed in smoke, and applied ochre paste to their skin to give it its distinctive red sheen and protect them against the sun.

The following afternoon we pulled over for an alfresco lunch beneath a towering rocky outcrop – just the two of us, a portable picnic table laden with salads and meats, and the soft desert wind. Another morning we stumbled on some of Namibia's mysterious "fairy circles", disc-shaped patches of barren earth that dot the savannah grasslands, the cause of which scientists have yet failed to explain.

The best part about these drives, though, were the long, rambling conversations that accompanied them. As we drove through Namibia's arid vacancies, Nestor told stories – about fighting off a leopard with his bare hands during a safari, about his late mother and how she fought in Namibia's independence movement against South Africa, and about the intricacies of Namibia's tribal systems.

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In between, there were luscious stretches of silence, during which I let my mind unfurl as I watched Namibia – with its giant termite mounds pointing at the sky like crooked fingers, and its trees groaning under the weight of haystack-sized, century-old weaver bird's nests – whip by. And you know what? It was all so wildly entertaining, so beautiful and soul-soothing, that I didn't get carsick once.

TRIP NOTES

Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Bench Africa.

MORE

traveller.com.au/namibia

namibiatourism.com.na

TOUR

Bench Africa's 12-day True African Safari itinerary includes climbing sand dunes, sea-kayaking with seals and dolphins on the Skeleton Coast, tracking elephants, visiting Himba settlements, game viewing in Etosha National Park and more. From $6742 a person. See benchafrica.com

FLY

South African Airways flies from Perth to Johannesburg daily (11 hours), then connects to a two-hour flight to Windhoek, Namibia, using codeshare partner Virgin Australia. See flysaa.com

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