Ifelt my atheism wither and wilt in the heat of the Namib-Naukluft as we chugged through it in a battered old VW Beetle in 1990. The driver, a friend in recovery, stopped periodically to gaze at the abstract artwork shimmering around us and we’d sit, bathed in hot air, for the most part speechless.
Apparently stripped of life, this was a purely mineral world, with textures and colours that suggested a considered aesthete at work: lime green dusted pale yellow plains; burnt orange and sienna dunes offset against deep purple mountains; twists of molten black rock intensifying the blue backdrop.
I knew this was the world’s oldest desert – dating back 55 million years – but I hadn’t expected such a visceral experience: the history of mankind but a few grains in this vast ocean of sand.
Twenty-six years later, Namibia - setting for The Grand Tour's two-part festive special - is still my favourite place on earth. What other destination offers such raw beauty, such a variety of landscapes, and the luxury of experiencing much of it alone. And while it is for the most part arid, it is far from lifeless. Aside from game-rich Etosha, you will almost certainly encounter desert-adapted elephant and rhino in Damaraland, and even the Namib is home to an array of highly evolved creatures: from the tenebrionid beetle, that stands on its head at dawn to capture the morning fog, to the rapier-horned oryx, able to prevent moisture-loss by maintaining a body temperature of 45C, cooling the blood before it reaches the brain by flushing it through a delicate web of nose capillaries.
Namibia is twice the size of Germany, the colonial power that annexed it for only 31 years (1884-1915) yet left an indelible imprint on its architecture, cuisine and language. To create a suitably diverse two-week itinerary, I have concentrated on the best sights accessible on a road trip north from Windhoek. It’s a looping, scenic journey that takes you via Okonjima, home of the Africat Foundation, to Etosha, Namibia’s greatest wildlife sanctuary, then west to the sculptural massifs of Damaraland. From here you head south to the coastal town of Swakopmund, home to the best surviving German colonial-era architecture, and finally, you enter the heart of the great Namib desert. Most operators do this trip clockwise but I prefer to save the best for last – the place where I first fell in love with the country – admiring its fierce beauty from a private plunge pool.
This is a holiday that requires a fair amount of driving but, with arrow-straight gravel roads through vast and empty scenery, this is not driving as you know it. This is a transformative, meditative journey into an inner world that will deliver you home feeling – dare I say it again – spiritually touched, and fully regenerated.