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Sands of Time

Text Deborah Louw Photographs Jac de Villiers This story nearly didn’t get written. When you’ve spent time in 360 degrees of vastness so remote and wild that descriptors like arid and immense don’t seem adequate, it’s a challenge to do it justice in words. And so it is with Namibia. From the red sand sea of the Namib Desert to the rocky reaches of Damaraland and the vast Etosha plains, this is big, empty country, impressive almost beyond speech. To experience it fully is not feasible if time is short – it covers an area the size of France and Great Britain combined – but visit three distinct regions and you’ll get a sample of what’s on offer, whether you’re looking for the Big Five, endless desert or just some soul space. From Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako international airport, it’s 350km by lonely gravel road to the famous unspoilt grandeur of the Namib-Naukluft National Park – formerly a karakul farming area but, since independence in 1990, now exclusively set aside for tourism. In fact, tourism – the fastest growing sector of the economy – has become a valued asset whose effect on, and contribution to, the environment is carefully nurtured. Namibia was the first country in the world to include protection of the environment in its constitution and 15 per cent of the land now falls within the dual portfolio of the Minister of Environment and Tourism. KULALA Who knew there could be such beauty in such aridity? Put your bag down at Kulala Desert Lodge in the Wilderness Reserve bordering the Namib-Naukluft and head out onto the wraparound veranda to enjoy the dust-and-light show around you. Everything – sky, wilderness and space – is big … and quiet. You can hear the silence, which is broken only by the occasional murmuring of a dune breeze moving through the sands. The lyrical names of the flora and fauna disguise the harshness of life here: camel thorn tree, dune lark, the Namib star bush… This is an unremittingly tough place, where the only way to live is by developing creative adaptation skills. Endemic creatures like Rüppell’s korhaan survive on the scant moisture from the vegetation and the fog that sometimes drifts in from the Atlantic more than 80km away. Because Kulala Desert Lodge enjoys a right-at-the-gate location, you can be rolling through the dunelands in a jeep to Sossusvlei when the Park opens at first light. A dune climb is on every visitor’s itinerary and for good reason: the massive dunes, red from their iron-oxide content, reach 350m in some places and provide compelling views. Later, after an alfresco lunch at the edge of the Dead Vlei, followed by tea and pastries or a snooze by the pool back at the Lodge, you can take a guided sunset drive to either the dramatic Sesriem Canyon or a rocky hilltop. Snacks of dry wors and nuts washed down by G&Ts that emerge miraculously from the guide’s ever-present cooler box are sensational accompaniments for a desert sundown. A large (what else) bed in your thatch-and-canvas chalet is deeply comfortable, but if you haven’t had your fill of the night sky, just ask, and a bedroll will be made up for you on its flat roof instead. In keeping with the Wilderness group’s tread-lightly philosophy, there are solar panels for light and heating (and a bucket in the en-suite shower to catch excess water, which is then used by lodge staff for cleaning); and everything is recycled. FROM DUNELAND TO DAMARALAND The most efficient and scenically impressive way to travel across Namibia is by charter plane. It’s a breathtaking ride to fly from the Geluk airstrip near Kulala in a tiny single-engined Cessna, some 1 000 feet above the largest dunes in the world in the oldest desert in the world, to the Atlantic. At the coast the plane turns north and follows the dune-flanked shore, past innumerable seal colonies, Sandwich Harbour (home to thousands of flamingoes and pelicans) and Walvis Bay to Swakopmund. And then inland over the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountains, to Damaraland. The Damara people say that God threw down all the rocks that were left over from creation here. It looks that way. Lonely landscape is punctuated by prehistoric water courses, open plains and granite hills. Classified as desert (less than 100mm rainfall a year), it nevertheless supports wildlife – desert-adapted springbok, ostrich, elephant and oryx, Namibia’s national animal. A precedent-setting collaboration between Wilderness and the local community of the Torra Conservancy has won international awards for Damaraland Camp. Tented, thatch-roofed cabins (each with its own solar panel) are cool, roomy refuges from the heat; bathrooms have generous showers, big towels and ecofriendly toiletries. Camp manager Ivan points out that there’s no room for error in this wilderness: everything has to be well organised and anticipated – supplies are trucked in only once a week from Windhoek. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the menu. Fresh fruits, muesli, eggs and bacon for breakfast, braaiied fish, plentiful vegetables, limitless supplies of recycled bottled water, well-stocked wine fridges… ETOSHA/ ONGAVA Complete your Namibian odyssey by treating yourself to a night or two in supreme luxury. Little Ongava, on a dolomite clifftop in the Ongava Private Reserve bordering Etosha, consists of only three free-standing suites and a lapa. The suites are beautifully appointed and filled with African art and artefacts, from Bamileke stools and Kuba wall hangings to William Zulu and Walter Battiss prints. An expansive day bed in your own sala simply invites reclining, there’s a private rim-flow pool with views over the animals on the plains below, and the only guests you’ll see are the inquisitive dassies who peek at you from the branches overhanging the outside shower. (There’s also an indoor shower if you prefer a little more privacy.) Meals are served at the lapa or on the deck overlooking a busy waterhole, and you can help yourself any time of day to the contents of the bar. Engaging, knowledgeable staff are always in cheerful evidence to answer questions or give an impromptu wildlife refresher. This is not Bush Lite. The 22 000km2 Etosha National Park is the real deal, one of the world’s premier wildlife reserves, where four of the Big Five (only buffalo are absent) roam freely alongside eland, warthog, hyena and springbok, and a profusion of birdlife. According to Namibian conservationist, vet and commercial pilot Conrad Brain, this is a place where the only shooting done is by camera – the disease anthrax works as a natural population-control mechanism, keeping herds manageable without human intervention. As well as the satisfyingly visible wildlife, there’s the Etosha Pan – a shimmering, massive, salt-encrusted spread that’s an awesome spectacle in itself. But do go there and see for yourself. Switch off your mobile, disconnect from Facebook and allow yourself to be immersed in the silent movie that is Namibia. The experience will be unforgettable, and words may just fail you. THE WILDERNESS STORY Wilderness has a slogan: ‘our journeys change people’s lives’. But this is not a flavour-of-the-month trend – the group has been operating in Namibia (and elsewhere in southern Africa) since 1987. With a conservation estate of 2.7 million hectares, employing some 750 people, 99 per cent of them Namibian, Wilderness is deeply involved with rhino relocation, cheetah conservation, wildlife rehabilitation and skills training. It also runs a Children of the Wilderness programme, in which it closes its camps to tourists for a few weeks each year and turns over the facilities to at-risk youngsters for wildlife education. (One orphan boy – Teapot, 12 years old – said it best: ‘If I knew it would be so nice in camp, I’d have brought all my belongings, so I could stay here forever.’) TRAVEL DIRECTORY • Air Namibia operates flights between Windhoek and six destinations in southern Africa, as well as international destinations. airnamibia.com.na. • Namibia Tourism Board, 011-702-9602, namibiatourism.com.na. • Wilderness runs camps, lodges and adventure safaris throughout Namibia, including Etosha, Damaraland, Sossusvlei and Skeleton Coast. wilderness-safaris.com. • Wilderness Air operates charter flights within Namibia. Visit wilderness-air.com. This article was originally featured in the April 2011 issue of House and Leisure.