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Capturing the landscapes of Namibia

This article, by Nushin Elahi, was published in the Independent newspapers and online at iol.travel.co.za on October 25 2003.

Namibia is one of the continent's favourite tourist destinations for visitors from South Africa. It is a strange country - a geologist's dream. Bands of multi-coloured mountains, lunar-looking rock formations, vivid contrasts of black quartz outcrops against the plains, jagged outlines beside rolling contours and, of course, the rippling Namib dunes that are visible even from outer space.

Distances are vast; the landscape is huge and unforgiving. This is a country where nature does not allow man to believe he is in control. Ignore it at your peril.

It is the Africa that Pretoria artist Alice Elahi adores, the one that makes the man-made achievements of the so-called "civilised world" pale into insignificance. Based in Pretoria, the lure of the desert has not lost its magic for her for over 20 years. Time and again, she escapes the confines of city life and heads for the wide open spaces she loves, returning about a month later with a sheaf of watercolours, exhausted, but exhilarated.

This year she celebrates this ongoing passion for Namibia and the Skeleton Coast with an exhibition entitled Portrait of a Landscape, in which she hopes to show the many facets of this spectacular country.

'Namibia has simplicity - you can say so much with so little'

"Namibia is an abstracted landscape. It has a simplicity - you can say so much with so little. It is not beautiful in the way the Cape or Switzerland are. The area has a strange beauty about it. It is not obvious, and in fact, when you see it under a blue sky, it can be boring. It is the strange magical quality of the light shifting and the shadow of the mist and clouds.

You have to search for it, and it is not easy to paint, but when it works, it is so special."

Noted as an artist for her paintings of the sea, Alice Elahi's pleasure in the Skeleton Coast lies in the combination of desert and sea. "The colours are unique in the world. The apricot of the feltspar rock, the maroon garnet crystals you find on the beach of Mowe Bay. There is the strange zebra patterning of the dunes at Torra Bay and the pink flats north of Terrace Bay, the plains of shimmering quartz crystals near Ugab.

"The surfaces have an amazingly beautiful tactile quality: the quartz and gravel and the colours and patterns they make."

When she first went there in the early '80s, the country was certainly not geared for tourism. Over the years, Alice has acted as an unofficial tourist guide, helping those who saw and loved her work to experience the landscape for themselves. Nowadays, though, it is relatively easy for people to find and book accommodation in the more remote areas with the help of the Namibian Wildlife Resorts.

For the first 10 years of her travels into Namibia, Alice drove there in a tiny Mazda 323, which she fondly remembers digging out of the sand at various times, and a Ford Sierra.

"You don't need a 4x4," she says, adding quickly, "although they are God's gift in deep sand." Indeed, the first time she took a 4x4 up from home, two of the tyres were punctured on the rocky road near Sessriem, and she had to reroute her trip to get tyres in Walvis Bay.

'The desert is a lonely place but I never feel anxious there on my own'

"If people just take the time to get out and take in the landscape, they can see it all," she says. She is very aware of the need to spend time experiencing the impact of the empty space. All her watercolours are done in the open, and Alice has trudged up many a dune with her art equipment to get the best view - there's no taking shortcuts and painting from the road.

"The desert is a lonely place but I never feel anxious there on my own," she says. "People will always stop and offer help. There is a sort camaraderie between travellers, because no matter how fancy your car, it could be you that is stranded."

She has come back over the years with many a colourful story too. One of her most vivid memories is when a companion on a boat on the Kunene River stepped on "a long, hard, knobbly thing" that turned out to be a crocodile.

"They are a particularly aggressive species there, and we kept getting stuck on sandbanks and needing to be pushed off. The river was crawling with crocodiles. I didn't think we would get back without someone losing a limb. And then one vehicle had a flat battery and the other no starter motor. I began to wonder if we'd get back at all."

There was the time that the person who was to collect her was so engrossed in a rugby match 20km away, that she decided to abandon her art materials and trudge out of the darkening river canyon - what her friends laughingly refer to as "Where the lions roam" because Alice came back from a day's painting to hear that lions had been sighted there.

© Estate Alice Elahi