Every once in a while, a backpacker’s travel stars align so beautifully so as to create an experience that transcends the realms of realistic expectation and enters the pantheon of personal globe-trotting immortality. The mere mention of a city or, even more rarely, an entire country that has merited inclusion into this exclusive group induces a smile of zen-like serenity and a short pause in conversation as the waves of pure memories lap gently on the shores of my travel subconscious. To New Zealand’s breath-taking nature, the unconditional hospitality experienced on my Turkish culinary odyssey, and my world-favourite city of Porto, a fourth name must be added: Namibia – the desert wonderland.

Elevation to such exalted status can only be achieved by mixing a perfectly balanced cocktail using every single one of the following ingredients, and in precisely the right measures: exceptional travel companions; natural beauty to repeatedly drop jawbones to the ground; inspirational accommodation and sensational weather; food and drink to match both context and mood; and finally, the little moment-specific je ne sais quoi that can only ever be exclusive to the destination – a night out of legendary proportions, an unexpected explosion of action-related adrenaline or a sprinkling of spontaneous romance, for example.

With only limited time in which to appreciate such a vast country and my usual lack of automotive mobility, I opted to book a six day Safari & Dunes tour with the local backpacker hostel travel company. This may yet turn out to be the best decision of the entire African trip, for a better combination of nationalities and characters will be difficult to find. In Ajay, my fellow Londoner, I feel as though I may have found a future travel buddy as well as a comedy double act partner; Donna and Mark are two Aussies I would go out of my way to visit on my next tour Down Under, if only to relive the entire tour via their 2,563,991 iPad photos; Jonnathan and Julia, our two honeymooning Uruguayans became my de facto back seat beer partners and helped me release my inner latino; our two sweet German girls, Valerie and Julia, provided the youthful exuberance; and Andrea, the feisty Mexican with whom I shared an all too rare instant complicity as well as a real zest for life, travel and white wine.

Team Incredible

With a wonderful group dynamic cemented almost immediately, nature, food and drink, and the weather took the baton with great aplomb. We were regaled with a superb mix of roadside picnic lunches amid a backdrop of barren desert landscapes, fine dining in the quirky German Atlantic seaside resort of Swakopmund, clambering through rugged canyons formed by seismic shifts in the regional tectonic plates, braais amongst the animals of Etosha, plodding up and careering down the martian-like sand dunes at Sossusvlei – a sequence of unforgettable activities and moments that combined to create an experience so much greater than the sum of its parts.

The final touch, however, was applied on an exceptional last tour evening at the best accommodation of the trip: sunset beers in the pool and an open air dinner at our beautiful isolated desert lodge, followed by a group celebration of wine drinking worthy of a Beaujolais Nouveau launch party. The last, late night and most indelible moments of the tour were spent gazing in exquisite company at the incredible Namib Desert canopy of constellations, shooting stars and a suitably lacteous Milky Way. Chapeau, Namibia, chapeau.

Even as my last day in Windhoek threatens to descend into post-tour solitude morosity, a chance hostel dormitory encounter leads to an unexpected invitation to the Hilton Sky Bar roof terrace and provides the most fitting finale to an already sublime experience. Over an unbackpackerlike dinner of sushi with champagne, we watch as horizon reds, oranges and yellows turn into city twilight and night stars in a gentle warm breeze. We exchange travel plans, life hopes and loves past, present and future with the openness of strangers who will meet for one evening only.

So as the sun sets over Namibia for one last time, I know that I will never return here in a physical sense. I cannot. In my mind, however, I will forever be revisiting every animal, every dune and every star with a smile. A pure smile.

The dune conquerors, no tourist route for these guys…

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

Nice spot for a picnic…

The tough life of a humble backpacker

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