A bullet-hole-ridden sign like this may look ominous, but the road trip through Namibia couldn’t have been friendlier. (All photos courtesy of Bill Fink)
I sheltered from the desert sun behind my modified off-road truck. In front of it, crow-like carrion birds shrieked atop rusted trash-filled oilcans beside a road sign pierced by a dozen bullet holes. Across the road a burned-out husk of a car sat flipped on its roof like a remnant of a recently fought battle.
It felt like I was on the set of a Mad Max movie. I was on the set of a Mad Max movie. On a sun-blasted highway in central Namibia, I was midway on a road trip through the landscapes of the just-released Mad Max: Fury Road — the fourth in the series of postapocalyptic desert vehicle epics begun with Mel Gibson in Australia in 1979. But in this sequel there’s a twist — due to unseasonable rains and greenness in Australia, the film set was moved to the deserts and rocky canyons of Namibia, in southwest Africa.
The rugged Namibian terrain.
As I rode in the custom Land Rover, part of a Namibia Tracks and Trails tour of the country, it seemed like the Mad Max filming was ongoing, what with the wrecked cars and the impossibly hostile landscape dotted with jury-rigged vehicles, shanties, and uniquely adapted local villages. But no, this was just another day in Namibia; we hadn’t reached the actual battle sites from the movie.
Namibia is a country that’s uniquely suited to host a Mad Max film. It not only has the bleak desert landscape punctuated by dramatic sand dunes, jagged rocky peaks, and hidden dry riverbed paths, but the country has a car culture of long-range driving and camping adventure. For one of the most popular activities, “self-drive” holidays, visitors rent a sturdy off-road vehicle to handle the variety of terrain that the country offers — from well-maintained highways to rutted dirt roads and seemingly infinite scrublands.
Not a movie scene: Remnants of vehicles littered the landscape.
Just 30 miles from the coastal city of Swakopmund, our truck rumbled through the appropriately named Moon Valley, with its cratered landscape, and we stopped at the Goanikontes Oasis. In the midday heat we learned that the oasis name in the local Nama language meant “place where you remove your fur coat,” as nomads from the cooler mountains traveled down here for a summer retreat.
Leaving the oasis, we drove to actual Mad Max film locations, bordering the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Our guide pointed out the spots where insane stunts took place, with motorcycles having launched off ramps, sailing over 18-wheel trucks and landing on the edge of rocky outcroppings along our road. We saw no residual evidence of the movie here, the landscape actually better tended than along regular highway roads, as the film crew was required to follow exhaustive environmental cleanup regulations. We were told of trees and shrubs being covered with painted netting during the filming, made to look like rocks in order to accentuate the desert setting. In some places, the landscape seemed almost too clean, lacking the smaller plants and grasses seen in undisturbed territory.
The oil-can-designated boundaries of a local’s property.
On the edge of the filming area, a row of old oilcans were embedded in the ground, wrapped with barbed wire and lethal-looking metal poles. Remnants from the movie? No, just someone’s property line, part of the inherent Mad Max-ness that infused the countryside. Our group stopped at one local man’s “farm,” which consisted of a goat pen and a burned-out building housing only his tent and his modified old truck, which served as a gun rack for his wooden rifle with a scope. From the rafters hung air-dried strands of meat from an unknown animal. The only sounds were the bleating goats and an eerie metal-on-metal screech of a broken windmill rattling in the wind.
Camping under the dunes.
Thankfully, our own camp was a bit less apocalyptic. We parked for our evening meal next to towering sand dunes, and under the protective shell of a huge tent, we dined on grilled steaks and fresh vegetables and relaxed around a campfire. We camped in a prepared site for a couple of nights under spectacular starscapes and searched out safari animals by day, driving for hours alone on long desert roads.
The only road warrior we encountered in the shanties.
Unlike the scary natives on Mad Max’s Fury Road, our hosts in Namibia were invariably friendly, from the Afrikaners and Europeans running coffee and cake shops and brewpubs to the native ethnic groups of Himba, Damara, and Ovambo who made up the vast bulk of the population. Outside of Swakopmund, we took a township tour of what from a distance seemed like a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome concentration of menacing shanties made from jagged bits of metal and wood. But as we approached, smiling kids rode up on ragged bikes to say hello, and we passed through well-maintained streets that were as orderly as they were poor. We tried some native dishes (grubs, yum!), listened to a local singing group, and right on the edge of the desert of Mad Max territory, felt as welcome as if we were at home.
So while Namibia has all of the landscape and some of the funky vehicles and housing that inspired those in the movie, if you’re in search of battles, chaos, and mayhem amidst this scenery, you’ll just have to wait for the next film sequel.