[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]n a narrow strip of beach, the South Atlantic to the right and towering sand dunes on the left, I’m in a convoy of 4x4s trundling along the so-called Sandwich Harbour. Except that this moniker is a complete misnomer – you’d find no BLTs here (it’s named after a ship), and it’s never been a port, but a shallow lagoon facilitating small whaling boats, abandoned around the late 1800s after the waters silted up.
These days, the carcass-littered shore is where old seals come to die. The odd house sits forlorn, whittled down to its bare foundation through a century of erosion. As the sun sinks fast over the horizon and the roaring waves pull threateningly near, I pray that my car doesn’t meet the same fate. Progress remains gruelling. The soft, saturated sand tugs the wheels in frantic directions but flounder at your own peril. Once the wheels dig deep into the quagmire, only a tow truck can winch you out. And when the tide comes in, it takes no prisoners.
But this is not how it ends. Not us, not today – Davy Jones has to wait. After what seems like an eternity, we bash to the top of our dune destination in time to embrace the blazing sunset and a wondrous view. The ocean beyond stretches on for thousands of miles until it meets Brazil; the desert before us spans an area the size of Taiwan. We haven’t encountered another soul for hours. Namibia might be half the world away from Singapore, but I feel like I’m already on a different planet.
I am at the glorious close of an eight-day driving tour, organised by DBS Insignia Visa Infinite for its clients, to observe what people with million-dollar credit limits do when not busy working to build financial standings that allow them to qualify for such cards. By invitation only, it’s an exclusive piece of kit. Although DBS has kept mum on the exact privileges membership entails, we hear that Michelin-star meals and visits to Bordeaux are part of the package. For this jaunt, the travel concierge arranged the flights and other bookings, and presented each participant with a leather-bound itinerary.
With me are three couples who often travel as a group – a supercar distributor and two industrialists plus their wives – and a pair of female legal-eagle friends and one of their mothers. It’s an eclectic group, but what binds them together is a love of motoring. Back home, they drive Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches; this week, their transport is the BMW X5.
Of course, there are excursions on the side, but, for these folks, visiting a game reserve to see a lion comes as naturally as stopping by a plantation off the North-South Highway to pick up durians. This is front and centre a road trip, for which Namibia, with its ever-changing landscape of endless savannah, craggy mountain ranges and foggy coastline, proves a splendid platform.
It begins at the capital Windhoek seven days earlier, where we make a pit stop between the airport and the Okapuka Ranch to pick up some pre-paid SIM cards. Singaporeans never seem to completely switch off; they just happen to be somewhere exotic while working “offsite”. Somebody has brought two laptops, one as a backup in case the other breaks down.
We meet our two guides, who accompany us throughout the trip. Mike, from Munich, is a motorcycle enthusiast and part-time patent lawyer. When he gets bored of scouring blueprints for loopholes, he flies out here to Namibia as a freelance instructor for BMW. His sidekick is George, a native Namibian who appears to own no shoes, is endowed with an uncanny knack for changing flat tyres in under five minutes and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush animals, with a specialisation in rhinos’ toilet habits.
Lying some 1,600m high up in a mountain range in the centre of the country, the former cattle ranch is set in 10,000ha of farmland, with accommodation in enchanting huts surrounded by wildlife. Some, like warthogs, springboks and antelopes dare venture near, but farther afield are shy animals such as alligators, zebras and rhinoceroses, which we get to view on a game drive in an open-topped Land Rover. One surreal afternoon, I witness from my window two giraffes whizzing pass, chased by a quad bike.
It is also the launch pad from which we head out west towards the Atlantic Ocean and back again, traversing on- and off-road over terrain such as sealed tarmac, gravel, dirt, sand and riverbed. The epic journey covers a total of 1,300km.
Mike familiarises us with the X5 on days one and two as we negotiate the gravel roads on hills around the lodge. The ex-test cars are shipped from Germany, complete with left-hand-drive (Namibia’s a right-hand-drive country), an autobahn pass on the windscreen cracked and faded from the relentless sun, and Munich plates. Here in Africa, they will perform three years of hard labour before being crushed and buried in the desert.
They are completely stock, save for the centimetre-thick steel plate bolted beneath to protect the underbelly from rock punctures. Sensitive electronics such as the park distance control and the adaptive cruise control have had their fuses pulled; the persistent dust, which gets everywhere – and by that I mean everywhere, on the dashboard, in the glovebox and in suitcases – will rapidly destroy the sensors anyway.
We set off early on day three towards the Erindi private game reserve. The dual-lane, single-carriageway is well-paved and the motorists disciplined, but having the steering wheel on the wrong side makes overtaking a hairy affair. Traffic is heavy for African standards, for this is the main route towards the coast where the country’s – and the region’s – busiest port sits, and hence attracts copious numbers of trucks and articulated lorries. I spot a car transporter rumbling towards town, filled to the brim with second-hand vehicles, including an ex-Singapore-registered Nissan Sunny with its SFY-series number plate.
Soon, the tarmac gives way to a dirt track, and we reach the home to more dangerous mammals like elephants, hippopotamuses and lions. You can’t miss this new vibe. The guard, kitted out in army fatigues, slippers and a shotgun over his shoulder, welcomes us as we drive through iron gates, past forests of broken acacia trees. They were trampled on, I’m later told, by the pachyderms in a display of machismo, as if they were weeds. One nail-biting flat tyre later, we make it to the reserve’s Old Traders Lodge, where we sign papers that, in effect, devolve all responsibility from the hotel should we get mauled.
The entire compound is like a zoo in reverse. Surrounded completely by electric fence, it is we, not the animals, who are caged up – except for Frikki the resident waterbuck, with whom I met face to face. I double-check the locks that night.
We spend the evening and the following morning on game drives, where we manage to score two of the Big Fives: two lions, Shadow and Goldie; and an unnamed family of four elephants including a newborn that Louis our ranger says nobody else has seen before. We almost nail the leopard, he tells me, as he adjusts his tracking device in a vain attempt to zoom in on the fading signal. He trails the animals via their VHF-collars, waving around an antenna that looks like that from an old TV set. The limited range cuts both ways: they don’t use sat-nav because poachers use it to eavesdrop from afar.
Day four: time for something a little different. A farmer tending to his flock of goats stares at us with no small dose of incredulity as we reposition our convoy of expensive cars from a perfectly good road and onto the parched riverbed that runs parallel to it. The rivers in Namibia, a nation chronically short of water, are ephemeral. Major ones are dammed at the source to preserve the life-giving liquid. Those that overrun during the wet, or more appropriately, less-dry season will flow for a bit before vaporising in the desert heat.
Driving on the Omaruru is counter-intuitive. The crusty sand, baked by the sun, is deceptively hard. But an inch underneath, shielded from the 35-degree heat, the sand layer remains damp, amorphous and unamenable to traction. It’s a terrain most treacherous: you’ve got to feather the accelerator, keep pace once moving and never, ever brake (you roll to a stop). God help you if you rip through that gossamer veil while stationary. It’s like driving on a giant molten lava cake.
After a lunch stop at a vineyard, where two grown men from our group spontaneously decide to ride the see-saw in the playground, we reach Ai Aiba, a resort famous for the rock paintings nearby that hunter-gatherers drew using blood as a pigment and urine as an oxidant over hundreds of years.
Less well-publicised is the fact that there’s no Wi-Fi or mobile reception. Barring one spot in the restaurant. If you stand on one foot and hold a fork to your forehead. Except when it drizzles. A mild state of panic breaks out among the Singaporeans. We somehow manage to survive this calamity as we head to the next attraction after a night’s rest: the Living Museum of the San bushmen. We are shown how they start fires using twigs, set traps for birds and fashion jewellery out of ostrich eggshells. You know, the way things were before Apple invented the iPad.
We depart from the stifling heat of the arid mountains as we meander down the Swakop river, past an abandoned copper mine with a moonscape stained in green oxide, towards the coastal settlement of Swakopmund, where we devote days six and seven to partaking in the dune-bashing excursion, before heading back to the Okapuka Ranch to catch our flight home.
The rocky mountains transforms into a sandy desert. The temperature dips to 20 degrees, aided by the cold Atlantic wind. But that is also what causes the area to suffer almost no rainfall. The air current is deflected in an updraught where it meets the hot inland air, creating a persistent fog that shrouds the coastline 300 days a year but, ironically, blocks any precipitation from reaching terra firma.
That night, we are treated to a surprise dinner in the middle of the barren desert, a catering setup of candles, proper table linen and fine wines, completely civilised and incongruous with the surroundings. We sit under the stars by the bonfire losing ourselves in chats on anything and everything from bootleg whisky to crazy things people did in previous tours.
Yes, there is still the boat ride tomorrow where we will see seals, pelicans and seagulls visiting our vessel for handouts of fish. Or the cookout on the final night at the ranch, where in that grand Singaporean travel tradition, the lawyer’s mother will fry up a sumptuous mee goreng rivalling the best at Geylang Serai, using nothing but chilli sauce and cup noodles pooled together from the group’s cache.
But for a moment, nobody’s checking e-mail on Blackberries. Our laughter intermingles with the cries of a faraway hyena. It may have taken a while, but everybody seems to have settled in the vacation mood.
DBS Insignia Visa Infinite is by invitation only. For more information on DBS Insignia VISA Infinite Card, contact DBS Insignia Service Ambassadors at (65) 6327 8088.
For the BMW Namibia Multiday Tour and other BMW tours and courses, visit www.bmw-drivingexperience.com.