Tales and Trails of the Namib Desert
The wonder of our planet’s endurance is clearly visible in Africa’s Namib Desert, the oldest desert on earth. I loved what I saw of this amazing part of Namibia on this trip; and I’m just waiting for the next opportunity to find out more!
Part 1: Sossusvlei
Namibia in Africa encompasses an area one and a half times the size of France, but with barely two million inhabitants. At luxury safari operator Wilderness Safaris’ intimate camps, you’ll barely see a soul, making it a great place to connect with yourself or loved ones; a place of restoration or reflection.
From Windhoek International Airport in the Namibian capital, we flew in a small plane – with a pilot named Maverick, no less! – in an area of the southern part of the Namib Desert called Sossusvlei. Light aircraft flights are a fundamental part of luxury travel; they allow you to cover great distances to reach remote and unique settings. In this case, every flight we took was surprisingly scenic. It is inconceivable that a country could present such a variety of landscapes. On the way to Sossusvlei, the sky and sand offered ever-changing and awe-inspiring scenes for the duration of the trip. Eventually we dived down to the rolling red sands.
From the conveniently located luxury camp of Little Kulala, you take a journey through the corridor into the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where towering dunes cover an area of 20,000 square kilometers. It’s a place where you can’t help but be intrigued by the geological conversation. To summarize; the desert is the result of the transport of sand by the wind from the Kalahari. The high quartz and iron content gives it a rich red color.
A “vlei” refers to a place where water collects. We were lucky enough to see Sossusvlei with water – a sight limited to once or twice a decade! However, the nearby and famous Dead Vlei has been dry for over 900 years. With no moisture or bacteria to decompose the trees, they continue to bake in the sun timelessly. Here they stand in the white sediments, brought down by rivers centuries ago, and backed by the ocher desert.
A lady in red
From our high ascent of the “Big Daddy” dune, we watched a woman in red, moving through the austere vlei below. What a flamboyant image she cut! Stopping to chat, I was reminded how visiting a place like this is an equal privilege for the people of Namibia.
In preparation for her adventure, she had even researched what color would work best for her photos. Then she sewed her own red prom dress with a vision to take stunning selfies! Then she drove at night from a distant city to discover this wonder of the world. The image of her billowing scarlet chiffon contrasting against the extraordinary backdrop and cobalt sky will stay with me forever.
The Little Kulala lodge offers a haven of peace in this arid setting. Mauve and pink upholstery carries through the colors seen in the surroundings outside. Each guest suite has a private rooftop terrace to enjoy the sunrise or sunsets.
The sunset in Namibia is remarkable every evening. As the golden sun dips below the horizon, the sky becomes a kaleidoscope of colors. Horizontal stripes of liquid orange blend with indigo. The predominant pink tint comes from fine particles of desert dust. The cloudless sky, far from it all, promises intense starry nights so remarkable that the camp staff offers the option of a second bed – outside on your private terrace.
During the day, the lodge’s quad bikes provided an exhilarating way to traverse the vast terrain. We enjoyed the scenic scenery, while seeing native birds, oryx, zebra, ostrich and jackal. It is obvious that nature works patiently all the time here. The simplest sight of grass seeds carried by a light breeze prompted our guide to show us how these then burrow themselves like little screws into the earth. They will lie dormant for years, if necessary, until the rains finally come, allowing them to sprout and bring new growth.
Part 2: Serra Cafema
Flying north to our next lodge took us over Namibia’s highest mountain, Brandberg (2,573 meters). I felt like I could reach out and touch her. The land below seemed rugged, mature, grounded, and unbeatable. We went further, and on evidence of the Gondwana split. The ice age seemed incomprehensible in such heat, but you could see where the glaciers had moved in the past.
Upon arriving at the remote dirt airstrip in the remote Hartmann Valley, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Transferred to a vehicle, we drove through areas that were previously molten lava and more open desert plains. Our guide pointed out where the metamorphosis of minerals in linear deposits has repeatedly etched the landscape. Large sharp shards of rock protruded, and crystal-like pieces of broken quartz abounded.
The sanctuary that is Serra Cafema lodge stands on the verdant banks of the Kunene River, which appeared as a bright green ribbon in a rocky moonscape when it first appeared. Birds abound and relaxing lounge chairs beckon next to the pool, inviting gin and tonics overlooking the river that forms the border with Angola. On the other side of the banks, a steep cliff rises. It features quartz veins in the rocks, with visible zigzag patterns etched by the movement of tectonic plates eons ago.
A visit to the local Himba people provides insight into the customs of this semi-nomadic tribe. The Wilderness Safaris team follows a strict code of conduct on engagement with rural communities. It offers meaningful and authentic interaction without imposing on these indigenous people.
Part 3: Hoanib
Hoanib offers a sleek, contemporary lodge with pale olive tented covers above individual luxury suites. Elephants, lions and the rare desert-adapted brown hyenas are the most popular sightings in this harsh landscape. These predators can travel great distances. The greatest threat to them lies in their interactions with neighboring communities, as they are tempted by the easy picking of livestock. Huge efforts are made to glue, track and protect the few lions to avoid human interaction. For me, seeing a lioness and an elephant in the desert was inconceivable. A rare phenomenon.
It takes a day trip to shore (consisting of an informative day’s drive through the sand and then an eight-minute flight back) to understand the connection between this desert environment and its proximity to the sea. The winding, dry, sandy river bed along the way shows where the water sometimes goes to the sea in torrents from the interior. In addition, the steep slope of the river bank sometimes reaches the height of a three or four story building, the result of the flood making its way towards the ocean, before disappearing again into the sand.
The Skeleton Coast
The puzzle comes together when you see where the Hoanib River meets the coast – aptly named the Skeleton Coast. While the desert is extremely hot, the hostile coast is bleak, as an icy fog descends on the freezing waters of the Atlantic. A colony of thousands of seals made me feel like I was in a David Attenborough documentary. Sharks, vultures and hyenas all feed on the abundant seals. Two of the area’s resident lionesses have even become adept seal hunters, traversing the vast desert to reach them on the rocky shore.
Pebbles churning in the crashing waves are the result of polished gemstones from the rough rocks seen in the dry riverbed near the camp. Their rattle was far more peaceful than the barking, honking and growling of seals. With its whale bones and screaming seagulls, this place is dark and barely habitable. Even metal from a 40-year-old shipwreck returns to its rusty mineral state in the salty air. It’s not called the Skeleton Coast for no reason.
But you’ll return to the quiet comfort of the lodge, knowing more, as you peacefully savor the comforts of Wilderness Safaris’ luxurious suites in a unique location that’s more than ordinary.
Getting to Namibia
A flight to Windhoek is just over two hours from Cape Town and Johannesburg. Namibia is a peaceful and tranquil destination, ideal for a self-guided adventure. You could also consider combining this geology-focused trip with a traditional safari in neighboring Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe or South Africa.
If you need a hotel while in transit, the Am Weinberg Boutique Hotel in Windhoek offers a comfortable stay, with state-of-the-art facilities in a restored heritage building. Visit gondwana-collection.com/accommodation/the-weinberg.
Wilderness safaris and conservation
Recognizing the intricacies of walking through sensitive terrain, among nomadic cultures and vulnerable wildlife, Wilderness Safaris allocates a portion of each night spent to conservation, while another goes to community betterment programs. If a trip with this group will change your life, it will also change the lives of those less fortunate than you. It will give meaning to your trip to Africa and have a positive impact on educating young people to protect their magnificent natural heritage. Learn more at wildsafaris.com
This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can buy the latest issue or subscribeso you never miss a copy!
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