It’s dead quiet. Not a breath of wind, not birds, not a soul to be seen. Lunar landscapes full of gravel, flat tableaux and impressive granite rocks alternate. No mountain or sand dune is the same. Namibia is the land of space and is synonymous with desolation, ruggedness and survival, which is precisely why it retains its authenticity.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photos: Henk Bothof
From nowhere, he applies the brakes. Guide Kallie Uararavi stops the car and gets out. Asking glances follow him. He walks to a small sand dune and, after a few strokes of the sand, beckons: “Look, this is the entrance of the Dancing White Lady, a poisonous spider who weaves a small door of sand with her web and thus closes her 50cm long tunnel. Surprised we look at each other. How the hell did he manage to spot that from a moving car? The spider’s traces are tiny and the sand door is not visible to the naked eye at all either: “I’m going to dig her out, she’ll be able to make a new house within a couple of hours. Be careful because she can jump.” Kallie starts digging out heavy sand and after five minutes the sand tunnel slips into the mass. With a stick he looks for the spider. Suddenly the first white legs emerge. “Voila, isn’t it a picture?” As if he were taking his cat on his lap, the guide carefully places the Dancing Lady on his hand, which does not move with a fin.
Kallie is one of two guides in the remote Skeleton Coast Park, an inhospitable area in north-western Namibia that covers 350,000 hectares of land. The country, which lies on the southwest coast of Africa, has been oppressed for centuries by German, British and South African rule. Namibia only separated from its neighbour in 1990. The country has an area the size of France and Great Britain combined, with only two million inhabitants.
In the northwest there is hardly a living soul to be seen. The future of the concession run by Wilderness Safaris is still unclear. The orga-nisation is in fact still in consultation with the government whether their Skeleton Coast Camp is maintained for the use of tourism or whether it is offered elsewhere in the area. In any case, it is possible to fly over the area with a private plane and outside the park it is allowed to travel on your own.
Wilderness is a large tour operator within Southern Africa, which cooperates with the Dutch travel agency Untamed Traveling. The former primarily employs local people who work and fight for the preservation of flora and fauna in an honest and sustainable manner. They have their own Children of the Wilderness and Wildlife Trust foundation where wildlife projects, educational research and management are set up and carried out with various partners. The organisation also manages the only concession in the Skeleton Coast, which is 200 km long and 40 km wide. It can only be reached by airplane and the accommodation has room for only twelve guests. A strange sensation, to stay in the desert. Here water is a luxury.
If you want to see the sea lion colonies of Skeleton Coast (about 7000 specimens), you can only do so through the concession. The colony of the lower Cape Cross, near Swakopmund, is rather a tourist attraction. The Skeleton area is more authentic, but more difficult to reach. For more than three hours, the 4wheel drive jeep drives towards the coast, where endless golden sand dunes loom. Rich minerals, such as the red Vespa and protected Lichen plants lay an impressive colour rug over this vast landscape. And everywhere are oxidised basalt. Sometimes the view is flat, other times hilly. Despite the fact that the dunes are not as high as in the more famous Sossus valley, it is a great adventure to drive over the round slopes. When the car stops on top of a dune, the nose of the car points straight down. Luckily, Kallie puts the jeep in reverse… Not at all! He then drives forward. At an angle of almost 90 degrees, the car descends as if in a diving flight. We scream with excitement. Especially the three people sitting on top of the car almost do it in their pants. Kallie is lying in a dent. “Haha, that’s how the surprise effect is always the biggest.” Safe on the ground, he drives on his dead field to the next dune. The guide knows all the secrets of the dunes and knows exactly how the car reacts: “But you have to be careful, because the wind can change a dune every day. On a yearly basis this is even 2 to 15 meters. If you’re not precise enough, the car can sink right under you and braking is disastrous. Last year an experienced ‘dune driver’ died in the south. The sand can be very treacherous.”
Jumping and splashing
Eventually, the wild coastline of the Atlantic Ocean is in sight. The white foam heads hit the rocks wildly, while thousands of brown sea lions are relaxing on the beach. As soon as they notice the cars, they shoot into the water one by one. Only twice a week they are visited by people, which keeps them at a distance despite their curiosity. Wilderness wants to disturb the peace of the animals as little as possible and therefore uses a strict protocol.
An extensive picnic with delicious salads and spicy meat overlooking the sea lions playing feels like a real treat. There are many youngsters who watch their visitors in a half jumping and splashing way. The sad thing is that there are also ten young animals lying dead on the beach: “The parents often go fishing for a few da-gen and stay away too long for their offspring, who die of hunger. They are an easy prey for hyenas and jackals”, according to the other guide, Godlot Hawaxab.
Back in the interior, a completely different spectacle unfolds. For miles there is a lunar landscape full of gravel and flat scenes and impressive granite rocks alternate. High gorges adjoin the wide, dry Hoanib and Hoarusib rivers. Namibia is the land of space and contrasts, because no mountain or sand dune is the same. If you want to see wildlife, it is better to visit neighbouring Botswana. Around the riverbeds are some shy desert elephants, Hart-mann’s mountain zebras, ostriches, giraffes, antelopes, jackals, and with luck hyenas and felines to spot. These animals have adapted to the wild laws of nature. The national pride, gemsbok Oryx, knows how to dig water out of the ground or how to drink moist fog from crops. Desert elephants even easily walk 70 kilometers a day in search of food and water.
Kallie has been following the herd’s trail for over three hours. It is searching for a needle in a haystack, the chance to see elephants is only 30 percent. The guide is determined to drive on. The droppings and footprints become fresher. The ‘African massage’ of the shocking car increases because of the large boulders that cover the bottom of the dry river. “Stop,” says photographer Henk Bothof. At the foot of a mountain a young ostrich is stuck in a mud pool. The photographer does not hesitate; takes off his pants, socks and shoes and jumps together with the guide into the mud to save the animal. The young bird is completely exhausted and can easily be picked up and washed clean. Kallie and Godlot think he will be fine. His parents have already been spotted with binoculars in the neighbourhood. Three strong men they lift the animal and take it a little further to safety. While the heroes scrape the warm mud from themselves and then get into the car-pen, the ostrich has started to move. Another good deed done.
There’s still no elephant to be seen. The jeep drives for miles in the burning sun. The walky talky starts to buzz. Godlot’s voice sounds excited: “We found them! It is a group of about nine elephants.” Finally the long journey is rewarded. Despite the drought, there is enough food for the elephants, which consists mainly of shrubs. The bees have also adapted to the limited water over the centuries and have been able to survive for a few days without liquid. Their trunks and tails are longer than the African and Indian ones, their ears have a different shape and their build is more compact. One specimen is apparently itchy and starts to rub its behind ponti-fically on a tree stump. The herd gradually moves on to a more overgrown part of the riverbed. “We miss the bulls. There have to be at least two more men”, says Kallie peering through his binoculars. At an appropriate distance he drives past the herd. Around the corner the males of the group emerge, chewing on Acacia branches. Mission accomplished and quietly enjoy.
Save the Rhino
Even rarer than the desert foil, is the black rhino. The prehistoric animal can be seen with luck in the lesser-known Damaraland, which is located 200 kilometres above Swakopmund. The Palmwag landscape consists of a hilly savannah, table mountains and inactive craters, surrounded by yellow-green desert trap slates that are filled with the poisonous Milkbush, a common shrub.
The compact Wilderness Desert Rhino Camp has been in existence since 2003 and is part of the Palmwag concession which covers 1365 km2. Several black rhinos can be found in the park. Because of the still active straw press, the interest groups are cautious in revealing the number of animals that live in the entire Palmwag area. National Geographic showed in an article that in 2011 more than 400 black rhinos were killed in Southern Africa because of their valuable horns.
Luckily the rhinos in Damaraland are doing better. There the population has doubled compared to the early 80’s, when Wilderness joined forces with the Save The Rhino Trust SRT) and the Ministry of Environment and Toe-rism. Local trackers Martin Nawaseb, Denzel Tjiraso and Victor Useb of the SRT, monitor the rhinos daily. They have given the animals names and agreed with Wilderness that guests may only attend a treasure hunt four times a week at an appropriate distance. With a jeep they drive around one of the four water polar zones where they go on research: “Look, here’s a fresh trail. The print is deep and without sweeping. The toes point north and the manure is fresh,” says Martin pointing to the ground. “See also this broken branch. A rhino has been here recently.” Back in the car they follow the track along the bumpy dirt track, until it disappears criss-cross in the high yellow lawn. Victor and Denzel jump out of the car. Both walk in one direction and check the direction they have to go by the shape of the tracks. Little by little they get a grip on it. After an hour Victor grips his binoculars: “He must be around here. Yes, look at the edge of the bush there!” Enthusiastic the trackers get in the car and drive towards the impressive little man, who is called Ben. When a Rhino flees after a while, he easily reaches a speed of 70 km, they don’t take any chances to get rid of it. “This is an aggressive boy, we have to be careful”, Denzel whispers. At a distance of about 100 metres, the rhino smells the approaching company and walks towards us with great steps. “In the car, now!”, Victor shouts to the guests when the rhino approaches the jeep at only 60 meters. Martin creates a diversion by standing in the field a bit further down the road. At a distance of only 40 metres, Ben fiercely rushes at him and scrapes his legs in the sand. Martin is standing still. He knows exactly how the animal reacts and that he will take off after a few threatening movements. Yet the adrenaline rises, because the colossus is very close by. After a minute he gives up and indeed runs off on a trot. What an experience! When Ben’s silhouette disappears on the horizon, the trackers note down his characteristics.
Back in the camp, Wilderness manager, nature curator and above all adventurer Chris Bakkes will sit down at the table. He runs five locations in Namibia. After several jobs as (anti-grown) ranger at the South African Kruger park and roaming through Southwest Africa after he lost his arm to a crocodile bite, he fully focuses on the preservation of the parks. You know, the biggest problem in Africa is that the wildlife gets too little space. It’s not about the species that live there, it’s about the environment that’s available or that needs to be created. The black rhino, elephants and cheetahs need large living areas. One rhino moves on about 10,000 hectares of land. We have 1.4 million hectares here, so fortunately this is a good breeding ground. A good habitat is the future, which is why animal species survive. Fortunately, the time of shooting animals is behind me. I don’t want to go back to the Kruger or Etosha. It is a zoo. This is the real wilderness. There are no fences or asphalt roads here. This is pure nature.”
The South African does recognise that commercial parks are important and must be preserved. It only serves another purpose, which he does not aspire to. For years he had to shoot certain animals because of overpopulation. “It’s awful, as a ranger you shoot more game than you help. If there are too few lions in certain areas, there will be too many springboks or zebras. Nature becomes unbalanced. However, this is too often abused. Shooting game is easy to make money. Here we do not hunt. Wilderness makes money with sustainable tourism and is committed to environmental conservation. They lease the land from the government and are responsible for its conservation.”
Another ‘wilderness’ can be found further south. This is particularly visible from the air. Beyond the imposing Brandberg, the highest peak (2573m) in the country, the environment changes into endless desert hills. The more the coastline approaches, the flatter the area. The first shipwrecks appear at the tide line. The desert flows into the undulating sea, as a union between body and soul. With its 80 million years, the Namib Desert seems to be the oldest in the world and with 50,000 km2 the largest national park in Africa. The park actually consists of three areas: Namib-Naukluft, Namib Desert Park and the adjacent Sperrgebiet. The latter was the diamond concession of De Beers, since 1908 forbidden area. Now it has been renamed an exclusive national park that is accessible to a very limited public.
Now it has been renamed an exclusive national park that is accessible to a very limited public. The dune area around Sossusvlei turns red and apricot-like, supplemented with white salt pans. Here you can find the highest sand dunes in the world, such as Duin 45. The mountain is 390 meters high and a challenge for hikers and kite surfers. Sossus is derived from the African Nama language and meansplace where water meets. Vlei stands for more. Both refer to the sporadic rains that converge in the Tschauchab River and remain in the dry valley. As a result, the clayey soil flourishes with various crops.“The sand from the dunes consists largely of silicon. The red glow comes from a thin layer of iron oxide. The sand is supplied from the Kalahari via the east wind. Thanks to the cold air flow from the Atlantic Ocean, plant growth is possible. Although Sossusvlei is located 50 kilometers inland, the mist of the morning mist reaches the desert and offers enough water for jumping gemsbok, ”said guide Willie.
While tourists with cars and buses are pushing in front of the main entrance, there is no dog to be seen at the private entrance of the beautifully situated Little Kulala lodge to the park. The first rays of sunshine color the dunes red-brown. The road remains empty until just before Deadvlei, the salt pan that formed a branch of Sossusvlei almost a thousand years ago. After a short walk through the dunes, the bare dark brown branches of the centuries-old Acacia and Camel maple trees appear. Willie tells us that despite all the drought, the dead trees have been over-ended all these years because of roots that are deep underground. At half past seven it’s dead quiet. Not a breath of wind, not birds, not a soul to be seen. Not a breath of wind, not birds, not a soul to be seen. This place, with its cracked clay soil -liam sand- is reminiscent of a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali. The view from one of the neighbouring dunes over the ‘dead lake’ is spectacular. In line with Deadvlei, lies Cayonvlei, where the stratification of stone and mineral is particularly visible. Here, on the edge of the dune, it becomes clear how large the wings are and how immense the area is. Walking through the loose sand over the high rim, behind the mountains the first hordes of tourists appear in the distance.
Na een korte wandeling door de duinen verschijnen de kale donkerbruine takken van de eeuwenoude Acacia- en Kameeldoornbomen. Willie tells us that despite the drought, the dead trees have been standing up all these years because of roots that are deep underground. At half past seven in the morning it’s dead quiet. Not a breath of wind, not birds, not a soul to be seen. This place, with its cracked clay soil -liam sand- is reminiscent of a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali. The view from one of the neighbouring dunes over the ‘dead lake’ is spectacular. In line with Deadvlei, lies Cayonvlei, where the stratification of stone and mineral is particularly visible. Here, on the edge of the dune, it becomes clear how large the wings are and how immense the area is. Walking through the loose sand over the high rim, behind the mountains the first hordes of tourists appear in the distance.
Only forty kilometres further inland the contrast is again great. The sand dunes have been replaced by richly vegetated lead and rough hills with the Naukluft Mountains in the distance. Willie drives up, and follows a romantic winding road that leads to a valley surrounded by rocks. The cliché, ‘alone in the world’, easily rolls over the lips here. In the early morning sun, the untouched land rises far to the horizon, revealing all its colours. Hypnotised by this mysterious landscape, time seems to stand still. This is the ‘real’ Africa: no stress, no agenda, no obligations. Only peace and quiet.
Book a ticket to Frankfurt from Schiphol or Brussels for a transfer to the capital Windhoek. We flew with Air Namibia. This airline offers various night flights so that after arriving in the morning, time is saved by flying on or renting a car. Namibia is easily accessible by (4wheel) car, but keep in mind that in case of breakdown or lack of gasoline, it takes a long time before help comes. Travelling is also safe. There is only 1 hour time difference.
Because of the enormous distances and remote areas, small Cessna planes are the easiest means of transportation. There are five, ten or fifteen per-person aircraft available, mostly connected to tour operators. Wilderness Safari’s also has its own airline. The crates fly daily routes. The crates fly daily routes. The northern coast of Skeleton Coast, for example, can only be reached by airplane. It is a special experience to see the landscape in all its forms at an altitude of only one hundred metres.
Staying at a high level of luxury is possible at Little Kulala. The natural materials of the restaurant and the eleven separate lodges are stylishly adapted to its dazzling surroundings. While dining on the terrace you can enjoy the ostriches, springboks and jackals that visit the waterhole a few tens of meters away. Even when floating from a private Jacuzzi, lounge sofa and partly glass bedroom, the view of the savannah is beautiful. Finally, the delicious kitchen and friendly staff make the stay a true oasis.
Desert Rhino Camp
Damaraland, about 30km from Palmwag. The panorama of the open valley full of yellow plants and Etendeka mountains in the background forms a picturesque scene from the wooden veranda. The eight canvas tent lodges are surrounded by nature and have chic en-suite eco bathrooms.
For information and bookings about the lodges and travel in Namibia see: Untamed Travelling, (0031) 0487 540367., (0031) 0487 540367.