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Sand dunes, wildlife await Namibia visitors

ETOSHA, Namibia - Two prides of lions stretched luxuriously in the midday sun, casting an occasional lazy glance at crowds of zebras, impalas and giraffes waiting anxiously for a turn to quench their thirst at the water hole.

ETOSHA, Namibia - Two prides of lions stretched luxuriously in the midday sun, casting an occasional lazy glance at crowds of zebras, impalas and giraffes waiting anxiously for a turn to quench their thirst at the water hole.

Nearby, plume-puffing ostriches stood in the shadow of mud-caked elephants in the shimmering afternoon heat punctuated only by whirlwinds of dust. In the distance, herds of wildebeest and gemsbok emerged on the vast salt plain.

Typical scenes on an average day in Namibia's Etosha National Park, which is home to rare black rhinos and the world's largest population of cheetahs. It's a place where a single photo frame captures multiple species of wildlife, shaming its more famous neighbor - South Africa's Kruger Park.

"Thank goodness for digital cameras," I thought as our two oohing and aahing daughters clicked away endlessly and jostled for the best vantage point at the car window, which was hastily closed as a male lion heading for a shady bush sauntered way too close for comfort.

We visited in late September, the end of the six-month dry season when the landscape takes on almost ghostly qualities as dust and sand envelop the scrub and vegetation. It's the best time for instant, quick-fix game viewing - in contrast to the hours sometimes spent in the Kruger. Although visits are possible all year round, it can get uncomfortably hot between November and February.

Etosha is deservedly the highlight of a visit to Namibia, a country dominated by the Namib and Kalahari deserts and roughly the size of France and Germany combined, which is attracting growing numbers of tourists - especially from Europe - lured by safaris and sand. Endless, endless sand.

And above the sand?

Ballooning, paragliding, skydiving and rock-climbing adventures abound as the southern African nation seeks to carve out a niche market among well-heeled tourists in search of the wild and adventurers thirsting for the spectacular.

Nearly 850,000 tourists visited Namibia in 2006, according to official statistics, a rise of 7 percent on 2005. Small fry compared to the numbers who flock to Paris or Rome, but in a country with a population of less than 2 million, this translates into big bucks.

It's not just the "Brangelina factor" - although Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's decision to have their daughter Shiloh in the seaside resort of Swakopmund certainly helped catapult the little-known corner of Africa onto the international map.

It's also because Namibia remains wonderfully unspoiled, an "insider's secret" tempered by increasing accessibility through regular nonstop flights from Frankfurt and London as well as daily connections with South Africa. Cars are few and far between on its fantastic, tabletop roads - one of the happier results of brutal German colonial influence and apartheid-era South African control that ended only with independence in 1990.

It's clean, safe - at least by African standards - and the food is simple but tasty, with game being a staple on many menus. Our daughters - having declared they wanted to become vegetarians - sneaked seconds of the gemsbok steaks but drew the line at zebra.

There is a high quality, though fairly limited, choice in guest houses, farms, hotels and posh safari lodges, as well as camping for the budget-conscious. Prices are comparable to those in South Africa, since the Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African rand, which can be used everywhere.

Accommodations in Etosha were upgraded ahead of the park's centenary celebrations in September. Locals complained that prices also rose, but even so they are cheaper than the privately run lodges around the park and offer unrivaled nighttime game viewing around the water holes in the camps. Bed and breakfast in a double room at a waterhole chalet in Okaukuejo - near the western entrance to the park - is $104 per person.

It's easy to travel independently, though car hire is expensive. It can be cheaper and easier to go with an organized tour in their all-terrain vehicles, which are equipped for long desert drives.

Budget camping tours - with equipment included - cost as little as $100 per day, while 10-day luxury safari packages, including internal flights, can be up to $10,000.

Namibia's coastline is long and desolate. Its best-known resort, Swakopmund, remains heavily influenced by its German colonial past. It was hard to share in the enthusiasm for a Bavarian-style beer festival. And the town's designer shops and kitsch held little allure after the raw beauty of Etosha.

By contrast, the sand dunes were breathtaking between Swakopmund and the port of Walvis Bay (which is also the starting point for journeys to Napoleon's island exile, St. Helena, for those with an extra couple of weeks on their hands).

The majesty of the Swakopmund dunes apparently is insignificant to the famous, much photographed star dunes further south at Sossusvlei, deep in the Namib desert.

Sadly, we didn't have time to make that long trek.

"Next time," I vowed. "Next time." *