In this first of a two-part Namibia feature, Solange Hando heads south of Windhoek, the ‘windy capital’, to explore Namibia’s wildest landscapes.
Stretching 1000 miles along the bleak Atlantic coast, Namibia is like nowhere else in Africa, a near-empty land squeezed between two deserts, Kalahari to the east, Namib to the west, divided by a Great Escarpment and a central plateau where mountains rise over 8000 feet. Home to 2.5 million people, it is the driest country in the sub-Sahara but claims an impressive variety of wildlife.
Most visitors go straight up north to the top viewing spots in Etosha but the first leg of the journey revealed amazing natural wonders where local life roamed and grazed away from it all.
Beyond the capital at over 5,000 feet, a sleek road meandered down to the plain where silky bushman grass waved in the breeze and camelthorn trees popped up here and there, silhouetted against the blue sky. Dry riverbeds made their way across flat land and after crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, we approached the Kalahari, spreading into neighbouring countries as the largest continuous expanse of sand on earth. But the Kalahari is a semi-desert with grazing land after the rains and a sandy savannah supporting many species of plants and animals.
The overnight stop was the Anib Kalahari Lodge, an eco-friendly place with palm trees and pool, in the middle of nowhere, offering a sundown drive on the edge of the desert. So off we went through the bush, so rich in colours and scents, gazing at huge weavers’ nests – each one sheltering up to 300 birds-, the termite mounds, as deep as they are high, and the larger creatures, blue wildebeest rushing through clouds of dust, courting ostriches, a lonely oryx with stunning antlers, the national animal, and lots of springbok who took no notice of us. High dunes beckoned, flaming red above the savannah, and the 4×4 bounced up to the top, in time for a magnificent sunset over no man’s land.
Fish River Canyon
Next morning we travelled through steppes as vast as the sky, wandered in the rugged ‘quiver forest’, a national monument with ‘upside-down trees’ and eerie sub-volcanic rocks, and reached our new lodge, ‘Canyon Village’, by the end of the day. It was a Wild West sort of place with a mule cart to carry the luggage and thatched cottages nestling crescent-like against rocks and cliffs. Nothing for miles except red boulders and sand and the usual sign ‘ beware, locals on the move’. When darkness fell, the sky was full of stars and the Nama Deity promised a peaceful night and an exciting day at the Canyon.
Starting in the Namibian mountains and interrupted at times, the Fish River flows into the Orange on the South African border, beyond the canyon bearing its name. Second, only to Colorado, it’s 100 miles long, over 16 across, 1800 feet deep in places and protected in the Transfrontier Park shared with South Africa. Hiking in the gorge needs several days but up on the ridge, you can follow the dizzying trail from one viewpoint to the next. No shops, no barriers, just an awesome moonscape burning under the blazing sun and a mere ribbon of water carving its way across a tortured land. Yet along the rim, wild lobelia and fire lilies blossomed among yellow devil’s thorns and when a gust of wind ruffled your hair, it felt like a dream.
The Namib Desert
‘Today we’re heading north, about nine hours, I’ll show you the wildlife along the way’.
My guide come driver was brilliant, eyes everywhere, one hand on the wheel, the other pointing out zebras, giraffes, kudu, elephants, a snake eagle gliding over the vineyards. We feasted on the best apple pie in Namibia before tackling the gravel roads and the scenic mountain pass over the Tsaris. Far below was our ‘Desert Quiver Camp’ where the night echoed with mysterious sounds, shuffling, grunting, munching right by my hut, the last one on the semi-circular site.
The Naukluft National Park was only minutes away and soon after dawn, the dunes greeted us with shifting light and shade, gentle colours from lilac to gold, a solitary oryx, a couple of ostriches in a clump of trees. The road takes you through the breathtaking ‘dune corridor’, past Dune 45 you see on every postcard, then it’s a rough track to Sossusvlei and a bewildering sea of red dunes all the way to the Atlantic. Ready to climb? Of course, ‘Big Daddy’ was waiting… no path, just a steep crumbly ridge, two steps up, one down, dig your heels in the footprints ahead of you, they say, but when a sudden sandstorm wipes everything off, what do you do? Slide on your bottom all the way down and you land in the ghostly Deadvlei, a dried-up oasis, dazzling white and sprinkled with dead trees. It was an astounding experience and among the some of the highest dunes in the world, I felt no bigger than an ant.
On The Coast
Back over the Capricorn and 200 miles north from Quiver Camp, there was time to relax in Swakopmund, an attractive coastal resort built in colonial times, surrounded by the Namib desert on three sides. I didn’t plan to swim or lounge on the sand – just as well, mist and fog sweeping along the coast as they do about 180 days a year- but there was plenty of excitement.
First, it was a ghost-like catamaran cruise, pelicans drifting in and out of sight, dolphins vanishing before you knew it and a Cape fur seal colony, 32,000 strong on this stretch alone, squabbling along the shore. Abandoned ships lay topsy-turvy in the shallows and an invisible bell tolled a gloomy warning. This was the start of the Skeleton Coast battered by strong currents and fog all the way to Angola.
But by mid-afternoon I was on cloud nine, flying low over the Namib on a five-seater propeller plane. Dunes in ever-changing shapes and colours, rolling inland as far as you could see, rising mountain-like along the shore, a luminous oasis, a glistening pool, the dark Kuiseb canyon, the wilderness had no bounds. I loved these southern lands, so pristine and powerful, and now I was ready for the second leg of an incredible journey across Namibia.
All images (C) Solange Hando
Tell Me More About Namibia
Namibia Tourism for more information on this and other holidays in Namibia. for more information
Lufthansa runs regular flights from London to Windhoek (1 or 2 stops)
Jules Verne Namibian options include the Grand Tour, south and north