From the relative proximity of my home in South Africa, I’ve spent the past decade touring Namibia and have always loved the sparse, beautiful landscapes. From driving 4WDs with family across the empty Namib Desert to solo missions catching feisty tiger fish in the Zambezi River to watching Epupa Falls at sunrise from a stark rocky perch in Kaokoland, as goats from a nearby Himba homestead tinkled by in the breaking dawn.

I wanted to return in 2020 because we share a milestone birthday. Although lockdown thwarted travel plans everywhere, this year Namibia celebrated 30 years of independence – and I was also born in 1990. Quick to close its borders at the onset of the pandemic, Namibia reopened pretty early in the pandemic and travel possibilities perked up.

To kickstart the tourism sector's recovery, President Dr. Hage G. Geingob announced the International Tourism Revival Initiative in June 2020, and the Hosea Kutako International Airport reopened to international tourists on 1 September 2020. The government would implement "a targeted initiative for leisure travelers that [would] be reviewed biweekly and amended as necessary," the environment minister Pohamba Shifeta said.

I scrutinized evolving protocols from my home Johannesburg, waiting to make my move. Initially, travelers had to enter supervised seven-day quarantine at their destination lodging (although they would be free to engage in activities) and then be available for swabbing on day five of their trip. Following a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result, visitors could then be discharged from quarantine. Such restrictions soon relaxed, and from 21 October 2020, any person entering Namibia needed only present a negative PCR test result less than 72 hours old.

The 72-hour limit on the PCR test proved a dilemma. Usually, I drive to Namibia from Johannesburg, but that takes two days and could spell expiry. So I opted to fly. Ordinarily, a private charter flight company, Westair Aviation pulled a very 2020 stunt and pivoted, launching set flight dates between Johannesburg and Windhoek at reasonable rates (roughly N$2500/US$166 one way).

With relief, I received negative SARS-CoV-2 COVID-19 test results and set off solo for an eerily empty O.R Tambo International Airport to understand regional travel in southern Africa right now.

A woman stands on top of a lime green vehicle amid a desert landscape
Melanie visited Namibia to celebrate her and the country's 30th birthday © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Namibia and the pandemic 

At the simultaneous announcement of the International Tourism Revival Initiative in June, the World Health Organisation praised Namibia for its swift and efficient response to the global pandemic. Both its challenge and saving grace is Namibia's vast territory and low population count. State control, plus targeting potential inbound carriers, and mitigating community transmission aided in low COVID-19 case numbers.

Issued 14 December 2020, the latest government statement lists 16,726 people infected with the virus and 163 related deaths. Astonishingly low statistics compared to neighboring South Africa, which is nearing the million mark (same-day results registered 866,127 positive cases and 23,451 deaths). This means that in Namibia 669 of every 100,000 people tested positive compared to South Africa’s per capita rate of 1547 per 100,000 people.

Like back home in South Africa, it's mandatory to wear a mask in Namibia. Including aboard the airplane. The flight was half-full, but thanks to my single window seat in aisle A, there was no knocking elbows with fellow passengers, and I could minimize contact with others. (I was also pleasantly surprised to find familiar relics aboard; in-flight magazines were still tucked into the seat-back pocket).

Getting through screening, passport control, and baggage collection on arrival at Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek took about an hour. It would undoubtedly take longer with more passengers.

A retro gas station named "Solitaire"
Fueling up before a road trip through Namibia © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

A socially-distant road trip to the sands of Sossusvlei 

Craving swathes of open space and a wonderfully wild and empty place after being confined to a Johannesburg flat, my road trip route revolved around Namibia's most iconic destination - Sossusvlei. With its sprawling expanse of sand, Namibia is the third-least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia and Greenland in the second and first spots, respectively. Namibia is ideal for continued physical distancing.

Once thoroughly advised on tire replacement costs, punctures and wheel-changing methods, I hit the road in an outlandishly lime green Suzuki Jimny 4WD rental car from Namibia2Go - one among 14 vehicles waiting for the first return travelers. "We are slowly getting more tourists, especially from Frankfurt with Eurowings," one employee mentioned during the handover. It makes sense, given Namibia was recently removed from the restricted lists of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

True to tradition, I first stopped in at McGregor's Bakery. Stylishly littered with rusting old cars, it lies beside the old trading store and Solitaire fuel station. Prior to the pandemic, the parking lot often had dozens of functional vehicles and tour buses, but I was the sole, solitary vehicle on 4 December 2020. Ordinarily, the bakery produces 60-70 trays of warm, spicy apple crumble a day, but it had dwindled to just two or three. I then realized I hadn't seen a single car on the road in the past two hours.

An airy hotel room with a framed photo of a woman on the back wall
Inside a room at The Desert Grace © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

The state of Sossusvlei 

The government announced in September 2020 that travel cancellations had resulted in withdrawals amounting to N$115.7 million. A handful of lodges have reopened in the Namib-Naukluft area since lockdown, and my first check-in was The Desert Grace by the Gondwana Collection. This local hospitality group is one of the biggest tourism employers in Namibia, with a network of over 20 stays spread across the country and 1100 staff. The Desert Grace is one of their newest and most vivacious resorts – plus, it was open.

More than a mere hotel, I loved how The Desert Grace championed joyfulness – something we could all use right now – and staying here immensely gratified my inner child in the face of nearing another decade. The design prioritized all things pink with a fantastical flourish; flamboyant rosy ostrich feathers, neon lights draped above the bar (devilishly spelling out "One Night in Namibia"), and even watermelon and strawberry cereal at breakfast. I opted for the waffles with technicolor sprinkles, however, topped with whipped cream.

The resort chain had also adapted. Most attractively, there was zero cancellation fee or penalty until 48 hours before arrival (valid until 31 October 2021), and staff observed all sanitation protocols. At the buffet, gloved and masked waiters served my menu choices and, outside seating boasted views of a sunset flushed as blush as the interiors.

Pushing on to the Namib-Naukluft National Park gates the following morning, I found Sesriem a dusty construction site – workers were installing a new tar road. Driving a further 70km (43 miles), the NamibRand Nature Reserve was next. Customarily, this is where I come to escape the masses that tend to crowd Sesriem. Out here, light pollution (and thus people) is kept minimal. The largest private reserve in the country and one of just 16 International Dark Sky Reserves globally (plus the only one in Africa), its newest addition is Kwessi Dune Lodge.

Namibia Lonely Planet - December 2020 - Melanie van Zyl-15.jpg
Guide Gert Tsaobeb (aka Papa G) © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Staying at Kwessi Dune Lodge

Namibian managers Liezel Dreyer, and Thereza Kahorongo, were gracious hosts who took my temperature twice a day and ensured all guests employed masks in the common areas. Thereza enquired quizzically after my trip so far, "It must be like driving on the moon with nobody else around."

Between screenings, Gert Tsaobeb ("you can call me Papa G") guided us across the reserve, for I had now joined other international guests – couples from the US and Germany. Once a sheep farm, the NamibRand Nature Reserve has enlarged the desert boundaries by developing a wildlife haven. Seventeen former livestock farms have been rehabilitated over the past 30 years to form a continuous natural habitat free of fences to facilitate wildlife migrations.

"I am from this area. My father worked for sheep farmers,” Papa G shared on a break between quad biking across copper dunes. "I remember when sheep farming first stopped because there was a crash in the 1980s. How quiet it was. In these COVID times, it feels like that same ghost town."

In 2019, a total of 1,681,336 foreign travelers visited Namibia, and the average annual growth between 2015 to 2018 saw tourism numbers rise at a modest but steady 4%. It may not seem like a lot until you realize Namibia's total population is just 2.5 million. According to the latest statistics, tourism accounts for 10.2% of overall GDP and 100,700 jobs (14.5% of total employment) in Namibia.

A quad bike travels over sand dunes
Quad biking over Namibian dunes © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Ally Karaerua is the Managing Director of Natural Selection (titleholder of Kwessi Dune Lodge) in Namibia and told me, "The ripple effect of tourism is enormous. We don't have to, but we make it a policy to employ local people; most of our staff are Nama speaking from this area." He goes on to tell me how Kwessi Dune Lodge launched in March 2020 but was open for a mere week before closing due to lockdown – an enormous financial blow. "Some lodges are closed, which gives the open ones a chance to capitalize on the few travelers trickling in. We are the lucky ones."

Nearby, Wilderness Safaris also just invested in refurbishments to Sossusvlei's seminal camp, Little Kulala. I hear its story firsthand on an unforgettable hot air balloon ride with Namib Sky – an early 30th birthday present to myself. Namib Sky resumed operations in May, and all air passengers wore masks on the flight. Sure, it was spectacularly breathtaking to admire the desert's vastness from such a basketed vantage point, but the trip up was more interestingly a trip back in time too.

Company founder, Eric Hesemans, was a pioneer for tourism to this area. When they started flying in 1991, the Sesriem campsite was the only accommodation option. Once the airship was up and running, they needed a steadier stream of guests and so built Kulula Lodge. Now, there are over 30 stays sprinkled across the surrounding sands.

A man controls a hot air balloon while looking down over a mountain range
Dennis Hesemans taking flight in a hot air balloon over Namibia © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Eric's son Dennis piloted our balloon ever upward. "Usually, we fly every single day," Dennis told me between booming propane blasts and the soupy silence of the Namib Desert. "On busy days, as many as four balloons are going up in the morning."

Down on the ground again at Little Kulala, Wilderness Safaris guide Akser Simeon took me on one last excursion. The biggest attraction for guests here has to be the exclusive accessibility to Deadvlei, a dry but photogenic pan surrounded by towering dunes, so we set off through the lodge's private gate.

"These days, we see about 20 cars in the Deadvlei parking lot, but it's always in the morning", Akser said. We passed one car on the tar road, and although the shuttle still ferried guests to and from Sossusvlei, the frequency has dropped to two trips a day instead of the regular hourly schedule. It takes a one-kilometer walk to behold the skeleton trees that pierce the white pancaked valley, but my dreams of a quiet Deadvlei shattered somewhat when I spied streams of footprints set into the sand, scurrying to and from the site as well.

"Due to the remoteness of our camps, it is very difficult to get on-site testing as the company who does this goes by vehicles," Alexandra Margull, CEO of Wilderness Safaris Namibia, advised me. "Our air operations license does not allow us to transport the tests."

Returning home

For entry back into South Africa, I had to spend 48 hours in Windhoek to get tested for the virus's presence and wait for certification within the 72-hour gap required.

There was just one decent testing station in the capital, and the queue was outrageous at the Pathcare facility. Local travel was picking up as we closed in on the festive season, it seemed. According to my hazmat-suited-swabber (who emphatically advised against testing at a government depot and was not gentle in the nostril-prodding department due to processing hundreds of people in a day), so were contact cases. Even the beloved founding father of independent Namibia, Sam Nujoma, was diagnosed with the virus on 9 December 2020.

I sat at The Windhoek Luxury Suites (chosen for its five-minute proximity to the laboratory and fast WiFi to while away the days) frantically refreshing my inbox in a stressful afternoon wait. My flight was at 7.30 am, and the window was quickly closing. Would I make my flight back to South Africa in time? Would I have to fork out for a new air ticket? Would it be worth it?

The answer was, unequivocally, yes. Despite the streams of footprints, I spent one heavenly afternoon in Deadvlei accompanied only by Akser without another soul in sight. An absolute anomaly.

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