"Empty" is the word most often used to describe Namibia - so very beautiful and so very empty.
It has also been called the Land God Made in Anger and the Land of Great Drought, and while neither makes the country sound like a particularly alluring holiday destination, both are somewhat apt. In comparison to the relative lushness of its neighbours, Namibia is almost eerie in its starkness; endless dusty riverbeds; scrublands that stretch to the horizon with only a single tree as interruption; towering mounds of sand barely moving in the hot, dry wind. Everything is built to giant scale, but there are no giants here to enjoy it.
In an age of 40-storey skyscrapers, six-terminal airports and eight-lane motorways, there is something incredibly luxurious about all that space. Namibia is nearly twice the size of France but with a population of just two million people, many of whom live in the small, sun-scorched capital, Windhoek, and the knowledge that you could drive for a day in any direction and not see another human being is titillating. Or terrifying, depending on how sturdy your Land Rover is.
Many visitors choose to see Namibia by car, although there are plenty of planes that hop from camp to camp. Topographically, the country varies wildly - the imposing sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the west, the sun-blistered flatlands of the Kalahari in the east, the astonishing Fish River Canyon in the south. Then there is Swakopmund, the incongruously German beach resort set on the Skeleton Coast, the animal-filled Etosha National Park and Damaraland, the vast, rugged province in the north of the country.
It would have taken weeks that we do not have to drive the length and breadth of the country, so for our six-day trip we have decided to combine wildlife with landscape by plotting a route from Windhoek to Damaraland, followed by the Skeleton Coast and back.
Driving in Namibia is not for the faint-hearted. A few miles out of Windhoek, the tar road gives way to dirt - reducing our speed to no more than 30km/h - and the sun seems to sizzle every surface.
Our first stop is the Desert Rhino Camp, in the beautiful Palmwag Concession, a 450,000-hectare game park of rocky terrain and pockets of high yellow grass. Desert Rhino is luxurious in the way you want an African bush camp to be; the teak and brass outdoor shower looks over the yellow-grass plains; comfortable beds keep you warm in the cold desert night as the canvas tent flaps in the wind; strong gin & tonics are served on the sweeping verandah as the sun sets.
The routine will be familiar to anyone who has visited the African bush before, starting before dawn with a game drive. And while this isn't typical Big Five country, Namibia has sizeable lion and elephant populations, a quarter of the world's cheetahs and, as the camp name suggests, a growing number of black rhino. But they're spread out in that vast emptiness, which means you don't get an overwhelming sense of animal life when you arrive.
Lulled into a false sense of security and drunk on the spectacular and seemingly deserted landscape, we persuade our guide to let us walk up a nearby hill to watch the sun set over the distant Etendeka Mountains. But night falls quickly in this part of the world and we soon realise we have stayed too long. As we scramble back to camp in twilight, I feel a lurch of fear. Fear that proves justified the next morning, when we wake up to see a black-maned lion stretching lazily in the morning sun, metres away from the dirt track we followed.
Our next stop is Hoanib Skeleton Coast. Located in a broad valley where two tributaries of the dry Hoanib River meet, the camp straddles the western Palmwag area, an area of vast craggy mountains, gorges and riverbeds dotted with emerald green fever trees, and the iconic Skeleton Coast National Park, which encompasses one of the world's most pristine shorelines.
The harsh, rocky landscape and drifting orange sand dunes seem desperately arid but the rains have come recently, and if you look closely you can see tiny shoots of green amid the red rocks. Larger pockets of emerald life colour a nearby gorge.
I spend hours on my shady wooden verandah watching the gemsbok (large antelope) delicately pick their way down the vertical ravines. In a muddy riverbed, klipspringers and duikers (smaller types of antelope) feast on the clusters of green grass, jackals skulk along the orange earth and warthogs bossily trot towards small pools of water. Over drinks one evening, we see a breeding herd of desert elephants wallow in the mud before continuing their long march north. But more often than not, there are no animals, just an endless expanse of hot dry earth in a setting so beautiful it almost looks like art.
Driving for hundreds of kilometres without a sign of human life makes you militant about your petrol, water and food supplies. The Land Rover comes with a fridge freezer, which was packed with as much fresh food as we could fit inside before we left Windhoek. More often than not, the only food for sale in the shops in the small towns along the way are boerewors sausages and tomatoes. On the evenings in which we camp, we build a fire and cook stews or potjies (small pot meals), although some campsites have a braai (barbecue).
Emptiness implies silence but in Namibia that is not always the case. On the long drive back to Windhoek, we park our Land Rover under a cluster of acacia trees and camp for the night. High up in the branches, sociable weavers have made huge, untidy nests filled with tiny openings where they all. At dusk, they noisily find their spots, popping their heads in and out to mark their territory. But as the sun sinks, six rosy-cheeked lovebirds arrive to commandeer the weavers' nests, and the subsequent clash creates a cacophony.
But more than the birds, the animals or the stylish camps, it's the colours of Namibia that stand out. At dawn, the sand transforms into 100 shades of lilac while the distant mountains look dark purple. At midday, the shadows in the red rocks are jet black while the quiver trees that grow up around them are emerald green. In the evening, the sky is turned scarlet by the rising dust. At night, the millions of glittering stars that punctuate the inky sky look almost silver.
Weeks later, while walking down a cold London street, I find a clump of sand in my bag. The glowing orange granules look entirely incongruous in my grey surroundings, making it hard to imagine that place as spectacular as Namibia even exists in the modern world.
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies from Hong Kong to Doha and, after a change of aircraft, from the Qatari capital to Johannesburg. South African Airways operates flights from the South African capital to Windhoek, Namibia.