I stood atop the sand dunes looking out across the waterless sea, wondering where the winds are leading the Namib Desert. Pools of shadow collected in the troughs of the curvaceous vista, inspiring reverence for the world's oldest wilderness of sand. Forty-five seconds and a great big granular grin later, however, I was at the bottom of "Little Nellie," the first of half a dozen gritty slopes. I came here to sandboard.

Ten km and a world away from the bright lights and little city of Swakopmund, Namibia, tourists fork out $20 for three hours of up-and-down adrenalin thrills that locals have been getting free for years. The fee raises the eyebrows of many local residents who are as disinclined to pay for a mouthful of sand as anyone in, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Japan Alps would be to shell out for a frost-bitten ride on a piece of wood down some snow-covered hill.

But there I was, along with 20 other intrepid tourists, breathless from both the climb after the first run and the view itself, gazing at the golden face of "Briget," a little bigger and a little bolder than her sister. I was determined to make the most of this forbidding coastal stretch, christened the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area.