A Space Odyssey
Words Seth Wood
Clocking only 2.5 people per square kilometre, the world’s second most sparsely populated country is famous for its desolate beauty and wide open spaces. But there are many more reasons to visit Namibia than just solitude and abundant legroom.
Named for its desert – Namib means ‘open space’ in the Nama language – Namibia is defined by humblingly empty expanses of arid, uninterrupted wilderness. Despite this stark image, look a little closer and you’ll find a richly varied country patterned with surreal colours and vivid textures and home to abundant wildlife, including the world’s largest cheetah population, seal-hunting lions, desert-dwelling elephants and more than twenty antelope species. Oryx feature on Namibia’s coat of arms and there are large elands and pint-sized Damara dik-diks. Closer to the scorching earth, you’ll discover hardy lizards, millennia-old welwitschias and lichens adapted to withstand the most extreme of extreme conditions. A self-drive mission with plentiful provisions and a few extra jerrycans of fuel is the perfect way to lose yourself here. Consider these extraordinary adventures along the way.
Surf a sea of sand
From moonscapes of sun-baked clay to majestic dunes of burnt orange sand, the Namib-Naukluft National Park stretches between the Welwitschia Plains just east of Swakopmund to the southern Namibian border. It is magnificently unconquered, with spectacular geographic diversity and a rare palette of wondrous colours. Among its most captivating scenes is that of the Sossusvlei dunes towering above Deadvlei – a petrified land sprouting the skeletons of camel thorn trees, twisted and buckled like dancing skeletons frozen in time.
A vast portion of the Namib Desert is made up of ever-shifting dunes that stretch along the coast and have been designated the Namib Sand Sea, last year accorded World Heritage Site status. With some of the world’s highest dunes, this area has popularised sandboarding, dune-surfing and even sand-skiing (Henrik May holds the world speed record at 92 km/h).
For your own dose of sandy action, there are several outfits offering excursions into the dunes. The folks at Alter Action started the area’s first professional sandboarding company in the 1990s. With them, you can try out tobogganing, lie-down boarding and hard-core stand-up boarding down slopes with misleadingly innocent names such as Lizzie and Dizzy.
Alter Action Sandboarding, Swakopmund +264 (0)81 128 2737, www.alter-action.info
Float above it all
Adjoining the Namib-Naukluft Park, just south-east of Sossusvlei, NamibRand is one of the biggest private nature reserves in Africa. Here, you may spot herds of oryx from the breeze-swept comfort of a dawn-patrol hot-air balloon, floating above the earth as the sun casts its early rays on mysterious 'fairy circles’ – bare patches that speckle the grassy plains and dune valleys like UFO landing sites.
Back on the ground, look out for the dancing Anchieta’s dune lizards – nimble creatures that spend their days hopping from one side to the other to avoid their feet burning on the hot sand. Set off on foot or horseback and, with some serious luck, you will glimpse desert-specialised gerbils, golden moles, bat-eared foxes, termite-eating aardwolves and other unique arid-region wildlife.
Declared Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012 (for its unpolluted night skies) the 202 000 ha conservation area also boasts star-filled heavens and a variety of locations from which to appreciate them. The most lavish accommodation is to be found at &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, while Wolwedans has several slick camps, including completely romantic self-catering pads. A closer-to-nature way to experience the reserve is with Tok Tokkie Trails, offering guided slackpacking hikes, good meals and warm beds beneath the stars. Remember to wake up early and wave at the balloons passing overhead.
Paddle through a brittle land
A much gentler way to experience the brutal beauty of the Richtersveld is by floating and paddling down the Orange River. Following a path carved through arid mountains along the Namibia–South Africa border, you’ll spend the mornings drifting through a stark, rock-strewn land, surrounded by mounds of ancient volcanic debris. Beautifully desolate, the raw, rocky peaks are dotted with tall aloes, gnarled quiver trees and half-mens plants (revered by the Nama as embodiments of their ancestors, forever frozen as half-human, half-plant).
Mostly, you’ll be gliding peacefully over gently flowing water, the silence pierced only by the caress of paddles dipping into water, the plop of jumping fish, and the whoosh of goliath herons launching their bulky bodies into the air. When the water is high (March and April are prime), fast-water channels can get canoes airborne. When the water is low, however, exposed rocks make navigation tricky. You paddle between six and seven hours a day, stopping to rest in the afternoon. You’ll camp on a deserted embankment, sleeping beneath an ebony sky laden with stars and exploring the hills for abandoned diamond mines and the remnants of forgotten settlements. A few days of this, and you will forget the world you left behind too.
Felix Unite River Adventures 087 354 0578, www.felixunite.com
Tackle the Canyon
Said to have been created by the whip of a dragon’s tail, Africa’s largest canyon provides the stage for a legendary hike as well as an annual ultra trail run. Competing runners, like hikers, must be entirely self-sufficient – there are no showers, no dirt bins and no campsites here. Unlike hikers, though, they must complete the 96 km Fish River Canyon Ultra within 24 hours. (South African trail-running prodigy Ryan Sandes has done it in under seven.)
The gentler hiking pace stretches roughly 86 km over five days, a rewarding walk characterised by the immense scale of the ravine’s rock faces. In places, the canyon is 27 km wide, stretching around 160 km from Seeheim to |Ai-|Ais in the arid Richtersveld (about half of this constitutes the official trail). Susceptible to flash floods in late summer, for much of the year the canyon floor dries up into a chain of long, narrow pools. Leopards and African fish eagles prey on sharptooth catfish, while Nama padlopers (‘thunderstorm tortoises’) hide in rock crevices, emerging only after the rains. You emerge at the hot-springs resort of |Ai-|Ais, with hotel rooms, camping and a shuttle service back to the start at Hobas. Or, you can make like Ryan and hit the canyon running.
Due to flooding and extreme summer heat (up to 48°C by day), permits to hike the canyon are only issued from May to mid-September. You need a group of at least three, plus certificates of fitness to apply. Bookings for 2015 open 1 May 2014.
Catch and release leopards
If Discovery Channel has you craving a more hands-on wildlife experience, participating in a 12-night conservation project in the Khomas Hochland west of Windhoek, may be for you. Volunteers are afforded the rare opportunity to help track and capture leopards and fit them with GPS collars to record their movements. Honoured in a recently published National Geographic Traveler Tours of a Lifetime list, these expeditions gather valuable research data on leopards, as well as on cheetahs, caracals and elephants, through camera trapping, monitoring and game counting – all useful for the protection of wildlife.
You don’t need to be a scientist or have special qualifications to take part, other than being able to walk about 5 km a day in rough terrain. Starting out from Windhoek, expeditions (with a maximum of 12 participants) are conducted by an experienced leader and scientist. They’re neither luxurious nor boot-camp primitive – organisers ensure you’re comfortable, safe and well fed. There are six scheduled expeditions this year, each costing £1 860; the first commences on 3 August.
Biosphere Expeditions www.biosphere-expeditions.org
Disappear into another world
In Namibia’s remote, sun-baked north-west, amid arid gravel plains and some of the country’s highest mountain ranges, women of the nomadic Himba tribe harvest berries from rare Kaoko knobwood trees. Grinding them with red ochre and butter fat, they smear the mixture on their skin and hair as a natural cosmetic that protects against the sun, keeping their skin young while imparting a pleasant fragrance. Scenes like this happen in Kaokoland, one of Southern Africa’s last true wildernesses, a seldom-visited area that’s nevertheless easily combined with a tour to the Skeleton Coast, a wondrously desolate place of swiftly changing moods, dense coastal mists, scattered shipwrecks and rolling dunes, all magnificently unspoilt.
Southern sections of this coast can be reached by car but, ultimately, you want to get into the remote wilderness areas north of Terrace Bay. This means a different kind of trip altogether, as these regions are only easily accessible by small plane. Skeleton Coast Safaris has for 20 years organised trips run by the Schoeman family of conservationists. They use light aircraft to hop between remote beaches and private airstrips, showing you the Ugab rock formations, the yellow sandstone and red lava of the Huab River Valley and stunning vistas of the desolate, dune-backed coastline.
It’s up there with Africa’s most exhilarating trips, sleeping in dome tents at a different tiny, permanent camp each night, either alongside the dry Huab River or on the Kunene’s banks. Crucially, there are also potential sightings of desert elephants and endangered black rhinos, as well as visits to Himba settlements, where you might ask to sample the ladies’ cosmetology range.
Haunted by the wind and knee-deep in Namib desert sand, ghostly Kolmanskop is a real-life ghost town steadily being reclaimed by the encroaching dunes. Abandoned in the mid 1950s, less than 50 years after a diamond rush brought a slew of fortune seekers, it was during its brief heyday a Germanic village with an infrastructure far beyond its needs. Besides Africa’s first tram, it boasted a casino, public swimming pool, theatre and skittle alley. Now it’s quite possibly Namibia’s oddest tourist attraction, and occasionally used as a backdrop for TV and movies.
Kolmanskop is about 10 km from the southern coastal town of Lüderitz, on the edge of the restricted diamond-mining zone, the Sperrgebiet.
Lüderitz Safaris and Tours +264 (0)63 202 719
GOOD TO KNOW
When to go
Winter (June to October) offers respite from the heat, but autumn provides more opportunity to witness changes in the desert landscape after late-summer rains, so March through May is also good.
There are direct flights between Johannesburg or Cape Town and Windhoek, and between Cape Town and Walvis Bay. Check with Air Namibia, British Airways, SAA and SA Express for various options.
It’s less than 700 km driving from Cape Town to the Namibian border at Vioolsdrif, manageable in a day – or two, at a gentler pace with a stop-off in the Northern Cape. From Johannesburg, it’s around 1 400 km.
South African passport holders do not require visas for holiday purposes. You will, however need a valid passport (unlike the old days, when an ID book was sufficient).
For more information about travel to Namibia, visit the official Namibia Tourism Board site at namibiatourism.com.na.
All government-run reserves, camps, lodges and hiking trails are booked through Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Call the Cape Town office on 021 422 3761 or visit www.nwr.com.na.
You can also arrange all-inclusive tours, camping trips and safaris in Namibia through Wild About Africa. Visit www.wildaboutafrica.com.
Of the few lodges in Namibia’s far-flung north-west, Epupa Camp is definitely the most luxurious option reachable by road. Overlooking the Kunene River near the Epupa Falls, it’s set within a life-giving oasis of baobabs, makalani palms and wild fig trees.
Surely the ultimate getaway, though, is Serra Cafema. This rustic-luxe lodge of eight raised canvas-and-thatch villas rests beneath shady albida trees in a riverine forest at the end of the vast Hartmann’s Valley, overlooking Angola. Guests set off by boat, on foot or by 4WD, exploring the extreme contrast between stark desert and lush riverside, with outings to the Himba communities that exist in almost complete isolation.
Source: AA Traveller