Namibia Revels in Great Untamed Spaces

The southwest African nation offers unmatched views, abundant wildlife, solitude

When the colonial powers of 19th-century Europe carved up Africa among themselves, Namibia was not high on anybody's shopping list.

To the Europeans, South West Africa was an arid and inaccessible place, a great stony plateau sandwiched between two deserts. Its people, if you could find them, were stone-age bushmen or fiercely independent Nama and Herero cattle herders.

Occasionally, groups of hardy Boers (Dutch-speaking white farmers), lured by the empty horizon, would load their ox carts and disappear north into what they called "the thirstlands." But the cost-conscious British authorities passed on the chance to add Namibia to the neighboring Cape Colony, so it was left to Kaiser Willhelm to claim the region for Germany.

The resulting century of guerrilla warfare and struggle for independence saw the native peoples acting as pawns in no less than three superpower conflicts - the European scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, World War I, and - until 1989 - the cold war proxy battles of Cuba, Angola, the United States, and apartheid South Africa. Tens of thousands died. And then, eight years ago, Namibia's 1.6 million inhabitants found themselves suddenly free and at peace.

Today Namibia is one of only two or three African countries that are truly free of conflict, but its vast uninhabited spaces, harsh deserts, and rugged terrain still give it the air of an untamed frontier. It remains a true wilderness, but without the human predators that make independent travel so difficult - and often expensive and hazardous - in other African countries.

The open road and the high desert skies are what Namibian tourism trades on - the American West, with lions and elephants. The way to see it is by the great network of paved and unpaved roads, on which it is possible, in many places, to drive for two or three hours without seeing another car.

The capital, Windhoek, with its clean, lively streets and graceful German architecture, is where most expeditions begin. It may lack the living-on-the-edge glamour of Nairobi or Johannesburg, but it is cheap and safe, with first-world standard phones, banks, and infrastructure. But with the wilderness calling to the north, south, east and west, few foreigners stay long.

For many, the first stop is the Etosha National Park, a six-hour drive north of Windhoek. More than 20,000 square kilometers (about 7,687 square miles) in size, Etosha is rated as one of Africa's greatest national parks. It is one of the last places to see the endangered black rhino. Lion, giraffe, elephant, leopard, zebra, ostrich, hyena, jackal, cheetah, springbok (gazelle), and various African antelope are also found there.

At the heart of the park is shimmering Etosha Pan, the 5,000-square-kilometer (about 1,921-square-mile) dried bed of a fossil lake that now fills with water only in years of good rain, and then for a few days at most. When it does, millions of flamingos converge on the pan to feed on minute crustaceans that hatch in the brackish water.

Within the park there are three public rest camps, spread across a 124-mile arc in the south. Run by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, they offer a variety of good accommodations - including inexpensive but comfortable huts and fully serviced campsites - as well as shops, restaurants, and gasoline.

Namutoni, the most easterly camp, is built beside a white-washed German colonial fort, complete with Beau Geste-style watchtower. These days, the ramparts are manned by visitors, who climb up at sunset to watch the sun sink into the pan.

Etosha's network of dirt roads, which links the three camps along the southern edge of the pan, is easily traversed in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. The northwest Kaokoveld region, however, requires heavy-duty transport.

Filling the angle between the northern stretches of the Namib desert and the Angolan border, this region of bushy plains and rough mountains is the remotest area of Namibia, visited only by the intrepid and well-equipped.

From Kamanjap, where the paved road ends, it takes four hours of concentration, gravel, and dust to get to Opuwo, capital of the Kaokoveld and the last chance to buy gas and groceries.

This is the home of the Himba herding people, among the most conservative ethnic groups left in Africa. Most men and women still dress in the traditional fashion, smearing their bodies with red ochre and fat to protect them from the heat and sun. The women, naked from the waist up and wearing animal-skin kilts and intricate leather, copper, and shell ornaments, are an unusual sight as they browse the shelves of the main supermarket in Opuwo, dropping Western consumer goods into wire baskets.

Most Himba still pursue a seminomadic lifestyle in the interior. Anthropologists say they are among the most successful subsistence farmers in Africa.

The question is whether they can stay that way for long. Eager to obtain cheap energy, Namibia's government wants to build a large dam at Epupa Falls on the Kunene River on the border with Angola. Environmentalists say that this will destroy the Himbas' fragile economy by flooding the precious corridor of trees, bush, and grass along the riverbank.

At Epupa Falls, Omarunga Camp offers good meals, sightseeing, and comfortable tented accommodations, and there is also a serviced campsite run by the Himba community. Elsewhere, you camp in the wild. The local advice is to pitch camp well away from the dried water courses where nomadic lions and desert elephants move by night. Old bush hands will tell you that animals seldom attack people in tents. Having spent a night listening to a male lion roaring a mile away, I can say that this is an interesting theory to test for yourself.

Helpful Tips For Travelers To Namibia

* Citizens of the United States and Canada do not require visas for Namibia. Passengers from the United States can fly with South African Airways five times a week from Miami or New York, connecting through Cape Town or Johannesburg. Alternatively, British Airways and Lufthansa offer flight connections through London and Frankfurt.

* All major credit cards and traveler's checks are accepted throughout Namibia and most medium or large towns have banks and ATM machines that can advance money on overseas credit cards. The Namibian dollar, currently worth just over 20 cents, is freely convertible.

* The climate is hot, dry, and healthy in most of the country for much of the year.

* The Namibian tourist office in New York has further information about hotels, safari companies, and rental of vehicles and camping equipment. Contact Kartagener Associates at (212) 465-0619.

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