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Trunk and disorderly; What do you do when a herd of elephants surrounds your car on an African safari..cross your fingers and wait, reports JILL MAIN.

Byline: JILL MAIN

AFTER endless hours poring over African guide books I'd learned a few tips I hoped would safely see me through my first visit to the continent.

Never look a snake in the eye... if a lion runs at you stare it down and... if a rhino charges find the nearest anthill and run round it (don't ask me why).

But what I hadn't brushed up on was what to do when a herd of 25 elephants surround your hire car.

Which is a shame because just such a situation occurred a few days into our holiday to Namibia.

There was nothing we could do but sit shaking with fear and wait... and then wait some more.

For 40 nerve-jangling minutes to be precise.

When the herd finally did decide to lumber off back into the trees in Etosha National Park, my boyfriend and I sat in silence for a moment, thrilled and mesmerised by our brush with the world's largest land mammal.

But then that's the magic of a selfdrive safari to Namibia. You never know what is round the corner - literally.

When people talk about fly-drive holidays the first place which springs to mind is usually Florida - but never Africa.

When we landed after a 10-hour flight from Gatwick, the last thing we felt like doing was heading to the Europcar desk and picking up our hire car.

But this feeling of apathy quickly turned to dread when we were led to the car park only to find we didn't have a rugged 4x4 to take us safely around but a little Toyota more suitable for the school run than a safari. By now we were past the point of no return, so with a full tank of petrol, a simple map and fingers firmly crossed off we went into the unknown.

Surprisingly, it couldn't have been easier. Locals drive on the same side as the UK, most of the main roads are tarred, plus they're long and straight with virtually no traffic. Better still there's no time difference between the UK and Namibia, so no nasty jet lag.

Plus with temperatures in August - winter here - rarely getting above 23C (73F) even in the midday sun, there's no worry about getting heat exhaustion.

A trip to Namibia is truly getting it away from it all. It's four times the size of the UK but with a population of fewer than two million. So it's possible to spend hours and even days driving around without seeing a soul.

But for our first venture into the great unknown we spent just 30 minutes in the car - which brought us to Windhoek, the capital. There we checked in to a wonderful boutique hotel called the Olive Grove.

With polished concrete floors and Moroccan-themed decor, it could give any of its European counterparts a run for their money.

The rest of the city, too, is a strange blend of Europe and Africa, with lots of buzzing bars, restaurants and boutiques, outside which market-stall holders sell carved wooden giraffes and elephants. It was only when we stopped for lunch at The Gourmet restaurant and found crocodile soup on the menu alongside a beef lasagne that the differences become apparent.

For the next two days we headed south through stunning desert scenery.

Four hours from the capital we spent the evening at the Zebra River Lodge, a cosy hideaway set in its own reserve in the Tsaris mountains.

When we arrived, after the long drive along dusty mountain roads, we were greeted with a warm smile and an icecold beer on the terrace of the lodge as we watched the sun go down.

After a night relaxing it was back in the car to go and see the area's key crowd-puller - the red dunes at Sossusvlei.

The dunes are part of a "sand sea" that runs for 400 miles along the coast and stretches up to 80 miles inland.

It's totally empty and inaccessible except for a single road, which pushes 60 miles into the middle of the dunes.

And it's on this road that we found ourselves at 6am one morning after leaving our luxury "tent" at Kulala Wilderness Camp and driving for an hour as the sun rises causing the desert floor to take on a firelight glow.

The dunes begin to rise up by the sides of the road and soon tower more than 300 metres.

Then seduced by the beauty of the area and perhaps light-headed from lack of sleep, we decide to climb one.

We start plodding up the ridge, slipping and sinking into the fiery red sand. After an hour-and-a-half we reach the top and the views are truly stunning - a vast expanse of apricot-coloured dunes as far as the eye can see.

Inspired by our our adventurous climb we decide to up the ante and come back the next morning to take an hour's flight over the dunes to the coast.

For pounds 80 each we squeeze into a tiny light aircraft alongside two other tourists and two very young-looking pilots. It's so small it actually manages to make the hire car look roomy.

It is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Flying low over the dunes we get a bird's eye view of their vast expanse and occasionally spot an Oryx (a hugehorned antelope) galloping across the sand. When we reach the Forbidden Coast, so called because it's virtually impossible to reach, the plane turns on its side, swoops low and flies a few feet above the crashing waves.

After Sossusvlei we head north and set off on what is to be our most gruelling drive - six hours on skiddy gravel roads, to the coastal town of Swakopmund.

It's a surreal experience after days spent in the dusty desert. The first thing we notice is the giant Beck's brewery and the streets lined with cafe bars and shops.

When Hollywood A-listers Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt decamped here for the birth of baby daughter Shiloh last year, it was thought the pair were searching for the calm and peace only the desert could bring.

While that may be true in part, a quick visit to local adventure sport specialists Desert Explorers reveals Brad spent a great deal of his time hiring quad bikes to race over the sand dunes.

But our own adrenaline rush comes a couple of days later in Etosha National Park, the country's premier safari park, two days' drive north.

You stay inside the park in one of three government-run camps, and after your evening meal you spend the evening not in a bar or nightclub but watching the local wildlife come to drink at a floodlit water hole.

The gates to the Halali rest camp open at sunrise and after a quick buffet breakfast we head out in our car to start spotting big game.

When we park up at a waterhole just half an hour's drive from our camp it doesn't take long.

Within minutes the animals start coming and it's a roll call David Attenborough would be proud of - a family of giraffes, a herd of zebra and even a lone male lion.

But then everything scatters and the waterhole becomes deathly quiet for a five minutes.

It's then we are treated to the incredible sight of a family of elephants, complete with little calfs, running from the trees one by one and in a line.

They stay for well over half an hour and treat us to the sight of them squirting each other with the cooling water before trundling past our tiny car.

They say elephants never forget... and after my close encounter with the herd I won't either.

What's the deal?

JILL Main travelled with Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, www.expertafrica.com). A tailor-made 10-night itinerary costs from pounds 1,507pp (based on two sharing) and includes scheduled flights, accommodation and car hire.

AIR Namibia flies from Gatwick to Windhoek on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings (www.airnamibia.com.na or call 0870 774 0965) return flights from pounds 525 including taxes.

FOR further information on trips to Namibia go to www.namibiatourism.com.na or call 0870 330 9333.

CAPTION(S):

Hold on tight... Gill and boyfriend Tom reach for the sky; The red dunes at Sossusvlei are awe-inspiring; After the dunes Swakopmund is a surreal experience; An oryx takes a breather after racing across sand; Luxury... our 'tent' at the Wilderness Camp; Pictures: ALAMY/ PICTURES COLOUR LIBRARY
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 30, 2007
Words:1413
Previous Article:A holiday for our dogs too; INSIDE GUIDE.
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