Namibia is not the tourist Africa of game parks and locals decked out in quaint native dress, said Elinor Burkett in The New York Times. Its hardscrabble towns feel “like the last redoubt of white colonial Africa.” But for the most part Namibia is a forbidding, starkly beautiful country, twice the size of California, where only the occasional gecko “suggests that you’re not the last vestige of life on a seared and waterless planet.” The Sossusvlei sand dunes, among the world’s highest at more than 1,000 feet, extend along 400 miles of coastline and 80 miles inland. This is an area without even a radio signal “to relieve the silence, no town to break up an empty plain.” Yet it is also a place of such otherworldly magnificence that Namibia “should be at the top of any serious traveler’s want-to-visit list.”

Namibia was a German colony until World War I, and the Teutonic influence is still strong. Opuwo, a dusty town 100 miles south of the Angolan border, is a textbook example of “the paradoxes of modern Africa.” At the OK Grocery, bare-breasted women dressed in goatskin miniskirts ogle “the rich German-style cream cakes on display.” Just an hour away, the “surreal seaside town” of Swakopmund seems like a miniature Bavaria by the sea. Blond customers fill the pubs and trendy restaurants. Schnitzel and bratwurst are standard fare, and much of the architecture is “late-19th-century Munich.” Yet this mirage-like Europe “vanishes barely a mile” outside of town. Beyond lies the desolate wilderness of a country with only 2 million inhabitants, many of them nomadic herders.

Exploring the back roads in a rented 4x4, we drag-raced ostriches. At Sesfontein, we lunched at an old fort seemingly left over from the movie set for Beau Geste, which starred Gary Cooper as a French Foreign Legionnaire. Wending our way up Brandberg Mountain, the country’s highest at 8,440 feet, we visited a gallery exhibiting 6,000-year-old San petroglyphs, then checked into the luxurious Mowani Mountain Camp for wine and “a much-needed massage.” Namibia may consist mostly of “nothingness,” but nothingness has never seemed so fascinating.