I walked out into the desert just as the sun was beginning to show above the mountains. I’d been advised not to step out of my bungalow in north-west Namibia while it was dark: there were lion tracks only a few steps away. But now a spotted eagle owl was flapping out of the bushes and beating its broad white wings across the dry emptiness in front of me, and the world was reborn and golden.
A guide at the lodge, Johan, had offered to take me on a walk across the red-dirt silence, and as we set off in the early light, he pointed out rhino tracks in the dust, and a path laid out by a mountain zebra. “Try not to step close to a rock,” he said – the landscape was nothing but rock – “there could be a horned adder underneath it.”
This wasn’t music to the ears of someone who has phobic dreams about serpents even of the non-venomous kind. Namibia was, in fact, proving a challenge on every front to a decidedly urban creature who generally finds his delight amid the late-night commotion and cosmopolitan excitements of Havana or Beirut. A landscape of wild pigs and a Skeleton Coast had never held much appeal for me.
But I’d been invited to give a talk in the southern African wilderness and the price of admission, I’d been told, was nine days of rattling across the desert. And as Johan led me through the stillness, gauging the wind with his fingers, pointing out black desert rhinos where I saw only rocks. I realised it wasn’t just all I was seeing that was opening me out, but also all that I couldn’t see or do.
For once, I was living at a speed not determined by smartphone and text message and flashing bulletin; for days on end I heard no klaxon or siren or beep. The world was coming to me unedited, subtle and alive, and even though that made for challenges – was that a twig poking out from under the rock or a poisonous snake? I noticed that I never needed to check the time in Namibia. Every day lasted a hundred hours.
“Listen,” said Johan, stopping with sudden intensity. “The roar of a lion! That’s a sound you’ll never forget. You feel it more than you hear it, no? It vibrates inside you. You can catch it five miles away.”
Days earlier, the sound that vibrated most loudly across my life was the news headlines scrolled across the TV screen, announcing the same non-event they had announced nine months before on TV. It’s funny how challenges shift. My biggest challenge on holiday used to be filling the days till they burst. But what had looked to be the biggest challenge of a trip to Namibia – a country twice the size of California but with a population a fifth that of Greater Los Angeles – was turning out to be its biggest liberation.
Within minutes of landing in the capital, Windhoek, I was stepping into a nine-seater plane to fly low above undulating sand dunes before touching down again not far from a river where four elephants were drinking from a water hole.
We landed on a dusty airstrip in the middle of nothing, and a muddy jeep was waiting to bump me along a barely visible path and deposit me at a remote camp in Damaraland in north-central Namibia, 60km inland from the Skeleton Coast.
That night, at a long table under the stars, the lodge’s regional manager threw back her head and cried, “Wow! Wow!! Wow!!!” Johan was pointing a laser torch to pick up patterns in the planetarium sky. Next morning, a villager called Bravo was picking up a piece of elephant dung and explaining how, as a Himba tribesman (he pointed out the palm frond-and-mud hut where he lived in his off hours) he heated up the mighty droppings and used them to cure headaches and nosebleeds.
I knew that humans could restore the wild, but I’d never guessed that wilderness could so vividly restore humanity. As the days stretched on, I was freed from my customary vicious cycle – that I’m in such a hurry, I can’t see what a hurry I’m in. After a few days offline, I could see more clearly the two lawsproblems of being online: so long as I’m looking at a screen, I can’t see the larger picture; and so long as I’m connected to Beijing, Washington DC and Antarctica, I’ve lost all connection with what’s around me. As Johan instructed me in the forgotten luxuries of looking and listening, I realised that Namibia was giving me zoom-lens and wide-angle in the same breath, partly because I carried no camera.
I walked through damp fog encircling the Hansel-and-Gretel cottages of Swakopmund – blond Germans were still everywhere – and visited a harbour town on the Atlantic only a few minutes from the desert. I came within a few feet of a leopard, crouched under a bush, and saw a pangolin bundle itself into a scaly ball that not even a lion could penetrate. I heard about the conservancy system that has given Namibia new hope: poachers, who know the land as they might a lover’s lips, have been appointed to be its caretakers, and villagers learn that they can earn more from sparing a rhino than from selling its horn for half a million Namibian dollars.
The Queen of Wows, as I thought of her, told me how she’d ascended from doing the laundry at the lodge to overseeing a string of lodges across the region, and thereby supporting nine siblings and her father back in the village. Bravo explained how the dung showed that an elephant had passed through an hour ago, moving to the west. I couldn’t instant-message these pieces of information to a soul, which meant that they stayed inside me, reverberated in the silence and took root.
The average person reading this article will take in more data today than Shakespeare did in his entire lifetime. Which means they aren’t really taking in much at all.
In the desert I was returned to a human scale and the pleasure, at times, of there being nothing I could possibly do. At the end of my nine days in the wilderness, I noticed that I’d made exactly one phone call – from the capital, to remind my wife when I was coming home – and I hadn’t heard a word about presidential tweets, terror attacks or Kardashian body parts.
The workers at a 90-room hotel one morning couldn’t find a way to open the cash register, which seemed an excellent augury; the international arrivals area at an airport turned out to be a tent. Were I Bravo or the Queen of Wows, I might well be hugely grateful for all the possibilities that Skype and smartphones and 24-hour news channels open up. But I was coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, an accelerating world gone dizzy with weapons of mass distraction, and it was almost shocking to encounter the world – the self – I seldom have time to notice these days.
As we continued on our near-silent walk, Johan told me how he’d worked for three years in a bank in the city, until the woman he fell in love with asked him what made him truly feel rich. Slapped awake, he retuned to the stillness and a life outdoors. And I told I him how, when I began travelling, 30 years ago, most of us were hungry to get as much information as we could about the world; but now that the world is vibrating in our palms around the clock, all we seem to long for is the chance to get away from too much information and back into a clearing in which we can remember what we care about.
I looked out at the mountains above the ochre path and realised that the old saw may actually be true: luxury is measured by all you can afford to do without.
• Pico Iyer’s most recent book is The Art of Stillness (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). To order a copy for £6.79, visit guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846
Fly from Heathrow to Johannesburg (BA, Virgin Atlantic or South African Airlines, from about £600) or Cape Town (BA), then take a two-hour connecting flight to Windhoek (South African, from about £200). Or Intercape runs intercity buses, a cheaper but much longer option at 23 hours.
Ashanti runs a dozen budget safaris in Namibia from Windhoek. They range from a weekend in Etosha national park or Sossusvlei in the Namib desert (from £340), or six days combining the two (from £725), to a 10-day grand tour (from £1,185).
Best time to go
Wildlife viewing is best from June to Oct, so prices are highest; average maximum temperature is 25C but desert nights can fall below freezing. The weather is mild in April and May (28C); Dec to March is hot and humid (over 40C in the desert) with storms.
Black rhinos, elephants, giraffes, lions, Burchell’s zebra, springbok gather at waterholes in Etosha; the Skeleton Coast hosts cape fur seals in their thousands along with black-backed jackals and brown hyena; oryx, ostrich and wild horses can be seen in Sossusvlei.
Dune 45, an 80 metre-high sand dune in Sossusvlei; Fish River Canyon, the biggest canyon in Africa; ancient rock carvings at Twyfelfontein; and Swakopmund, a town established by German colonists on the Skeleton Coast.
£1 = 17 Namibian dollars (N$). Basic lunch (inc a drink): N$104. Beer: N$23