You may have heard of it, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to point out Namibia on a map, and even more to spot its flag or to name its capital. (It’s Windhoek, by the way.) Yet for my money, it’s one of the half-dozen most attractive countries on earth. In fact, if I feel the urgent need of sun and sea in a few years’ time, I shall be very tempted to pack up and settle there. The pound isn’t much against the euro now, but against the Namibian dollar it’s riding high, and living there is extraordinarily cheap.
Namibia isn’t Africa as you probably think of it. The towns and cities (well, city) are clean, tidy and peaceable. This is one African country that doesn’t suffer from over-population; it’s huge. The standard journalistic scale of national measurement usually contains three gradations: countries are either the size of Wales, France or Western Europe. At 318,000 square miles, Namibia is a third bigger than France. It’s smaller than Nigeria or Pakistan and quite a bit smaller than South Africa; but all three of those countries are bursting at the seams, while Namibia is virtually empty: its total population is only 2.1 million.
It’s also heart-stoppingly beautiful. Whether you venture to the Namib Desert, with its red sand and gigantic, designer-scaped dunes, or trek across the Kalahari, or spend time in the heavily German-influenced towns, or sit by the watering-holes in Etosha National Park or the Fish River Canyon, or battle against the wind on the immense sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast, you will see some of the most magnificent sights on the entire African continent.
I once flew from south to north across virtually the whole of Namibia in a small private plane, and every time the pilot and I saw some sign of human life we would shout out and point: it was that rare. This means no pressure on land, no competition, no angry demands for sequestration of property. There’s enough for everyone, with a huge amount left over. As a direct result, Namibia is a stable, relatively prosperous, multi-party democracy: exactly the kind of thing a lot of people seem to think Africa doesn’t produce.
South Africa, its neighbour and former colonial power, is wonderful, but the pressure of population there has created one of the highest crime rates in the world. In Namibia, by contrast, violent crime is rare. Ovambo, Kavango, Herero and Damara live peacefully alongside the seven per cent who are white.
I suspect most Brits aren’t particularly aware of Namibia because we never really owned it; I say “really” because in 1920 the League of Nations gifted it to Britain as part of the spoils of war, but the British handed it directly on to South Africa, in gratitude for its willingness to fight alongside Britain during the First World War. Before that, Namibia’s rather nasty colonial master had been imperial Germany, and after the massacres, punishments and tortures which accompanied the Kaiser’s rule it was quite a relief to be governed by the Union of South Africa.
This advantage disappeared after 1948, when South Africa adopted apartheid, and eventually there was a vicious colonial war there. Today, Namibia still looks and sounds like a province of South Africa, though with architecture that is clearly German in origin. It’s got a lot of the good things of South Africa, with none of the bad.
Namibia’s size and emptiness can be a problem. Once, when I was doing some research on the Bushman, who are well treated in Namibia by comparison with the brutality with which its neighbour Botswana treats them, a Dutch nurse volunteered to drive me the 300 miles to a Bushman camp I wanted to visit. (They prefer the term “Bushman”, by the way, as it is traditional. The politically correct “San” is almost as derogatory, but because it’s in a language we don’t understand, we think it’s more acceptable.)
As she was driving, the nurse pointed out the place where a couple she knew had broken down in their car, and who had died of thirst. I tend not to suffer from too many phobias, but found myself feeling the pressures of agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces.
But there are some open spaces which are magical. Once I stayed in a house at Cape Cross, on the Skeleton Coast. The aquamarine waves broke on the white sand with deafening loudness, and the sea birds screamed overhead. I wandered along the shore, picking up the calcified white vertebrae of unknown creatures, singing or shouting anything, in the knowledge that no one could hear me. One of the things I remember shouting was “One day I’ll come back to live here.” Perhaps I will. – This story was first published in the Telegraph edition of 22 November.
• John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His latest book, We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, has just been published by Bloomsbury.