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Off the beaten track in Namibia
MORE Singaporeans than ever are travelling to Africa for holiday. Luxury vacation specialist Quotient Travel Planner's managing director Javiny Lim, for instance, says her company now offers four times as many such tours compared to five years ago to cope with the demand.
The vast majority of these travellers transfer between safari camps on light aircraft, but self-driving is gaining popularity among those seeking a native experience outside of the usual tourist hotspots.
There are even group tours in countries such as Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focusing on the driving experience itself, complete with high-end cars, qualified instructors and guides, and premium accommodation.
I was on such a programme last November that took us on the return journey between the Namibian capital Windhoek and the pretty seaside town of Swakopmund over eight days. The cars were current-model diesel-powered BMW X5 sport utility vehicles, with a German instructor and a local guide, who also doubled up as a mechanic to fix flat tyres so that we did not have to dirty our hands.
We spent the first two nights at the Okapuka Ranch, a cattle farm-turned-game reserve 30 minutes from Windhoek, familiarising ourselves with the cars on a series of drives over the hills that surround it.
The exercise set us up for the 1,300km epic drive that took us on all manner of terrain, across endless savannahs, over parched riverbeds, up towering sand dunes and, on one enchanted evening, onto a steep stone formation in the hunt for the perfect backdrop for a sundowner. The pace was leisurely. Each driver - there were two to a car - covered around 100km a day, interspersed with adventure activities and side trips. We generally reached our daily destination by mid-afternoon, after which we were free to explore the local area or participate in guided game drives on open-topped Land Rovers.
Two of the latter were part of this tour package: one at the Okapuka Ranch and another at the Erindi Private Game Reserve. While Namibia is not as brimming with wildlife as Botswana famously is, you can still expect to encounter the same variety of creatures, such as giraffes, springboks, alligators and - if you are lucky - all the Big Five animals: African lions, African elephants, Cape buffalos, African leopards and white/black rhinoceroses.
At both these locations, our accommodations were in fact built within the park itself and separated by electric fence, so there was ample opportunity for close-proximity photography with less-bashful animals such as warthogs and waterbucks.
Also included was a boat ride in Walvis Bay off the coast of our last stop, Swakopmund. Its temperate climate was a welcome respite from the inland 35-degree C heat. There, we spot pink flamingos, seals and penguins and fed sardines to seagulls and pelicans.
On the cultural front, we viewed ancient rock paintings and called on a "living museum", a settlement where the San bushmen continue to live in the traditional way, the men hunting with arrows and animal traps and starting fires with twigs, and the women crafting jewellery out of ostrich egg shells.
We also had lunch at a vineyard - one of a surprising handful in otherwise barren Namibia - established by an immigrant German couple to produce table wine from Colombard grapes as well as a variety of schnapps made from desert plants such as dates and cacti.
The focus of the tour, though, was on the driving experience. The highways were safe and well maintained, and the motorists typically proficient. But the best fun we had was off road. We learnt, for example, how to turn a dried-up riverbed into our personal shortcut. Walking on this surface one could be deceived into thinking how soft it actually was. While the top layer is packed hard due to the relentless sun, just an inch underneath laid a foundation of mushy sand. So in order not to get hopelessly stuck, one had to move off and slow down gently - and never to hit the brakes, which will break through the gossamer veil.
Or how to safely tackle sand dunes, some of which were 50 metres tall and 36 degrees steep. The trick was to keep pace while heading up, slow down for the crest, and brake to allow sand to accumulate at the front tyres of the car, gently taking you back to the foot of the dune. One previous, over-zealous participant, I was told, ignored orders to slow down, sending the car airborne and into a roll. The car was a write-off, but the driver walked away unscathed. Still, between shuttling around Africa in a thin metal tube and experiencing all that it can offer on the ground, I know which I would choose.