Namibia's sands of time

By Jennifer Grimwade

Jennifer Grimwade is bowled over by bustards and entranced by elephants in Namibia.

Driving through the Namib desert with its constantly shifting sand dunes is a dramatic experience. Photo / Thinkstock
Driving through the Namib desert with its constantly shifting sand dunes is a dramatic experience. Photo / Thinkstock

Moving sand dunes, rock engravings, big bustards, desert-adapted elephants, huge mirages, black rhino, waiters singing in harmony and camps run by locals. No wonder Namibia is now high on the savvy traveller's wish-list.

Political stability and a low crime rate makes Namibia an African traveller's dream. Even the tap water is safe to drink and upset tummies are rare. What's more, the Namibian dollar is pegged to the lowly valued South African rand, so our dollar goes a long way.

The tourist industry is young, and consequently has its pros and cons. You are not greeted by sharks selling fake antiques, you are not hassled, but even travelling with the country's most highly regarded operator we have five breakdowns. To the credit of Wilderness Safaris, the back-up is always quick and efficient, as it should be in this remote, harsh land.

The 2000 kilometre Namib desert runs along Namibia's Atlantic coastline. To the uninitiated, this may sound dull but it is exotic and exciting, and the contrast in scenery is dramatic.

Often mineral rich, the colour of the sand may be pink, purple, fawn, orange, red, even black. And it is certainly not flat. As well as the infamous sand-dunes, which come in all shapes and sizes and are constantly moving, are vast, invariably dry river beds, deep canyons and weird looking hills and mountains.

Some mountains' original flat tops have eroded into conical peaks and some have even tipped on to their side exposing ridges of horizontal stratum. The only consistency is the minimal, if any, vegetation.

Many of Namibia's wild animals, including the desert-adapted elephant, are fascinating because they can survive in relentlessly arid conditions. And, as the desert is not cluttered, it is an ideal place for bird-watching.

The endemic Ruppell's Korhaan inhabits the desert and has the call of a croaking frog. Flocks of flamingos are so thick that in flight they paint pink streaks across turquoise lagoons adjacent to the sea.

Whales, dolphins and large colonies of Cape fur seals flourish in the nutrient-rich Benguela current running up the Atlantic coast.

The Sossusvlei sand-dunes are such a spectacle. The road there is the busiest in Namibia. Driving down the Corridor of Dunes at dawn, watching the massive sand-dunes changing colours is a memorable experience.

Trying to climb the dunes is even more memorable. Big Daddy is nick-named the Crazy Dune by the locals, not because it is one of the highest sand-dunes in the world at 1023m, but because only crazy tourists try to climb it.

From a distance it looks a push-over, but up close it is not so easy, especially when your feet sink into the sand at every step.

But the sand doesn't slow down the Formula One Beetles, Onymacris unguicularis, scuttling across the dunes, covering the sand with their delicate tracks.

Equally sprightly are the shovel snouted lizards, with fluorescent yellow feet and brilliant orange tails darting around under acacia trees with roots up to 40m long.

The oryx can canter so quickly across the dunes it is often called the thoroughbred of the desert. Even if it only rains once a decade, oryx survive quite happily. A member of the gazelle family, it is the most desert-adapted animal and can withstand a body temperature up to 47C for eight hours.

The Sossusvlei dunes are so vast and enthralling it is not surprising Conde Nast Traveller considers chartering a Sossusvlei hot air balloon flight to be one of the world's top 20 tourist attractions. Regretfully there is a price tag as big as this reputation and many people baulk at paying $500 each.

Luckily for us, we are travelling by light plane with Wilderness Safaris and fly, at less than 100m, from Sossusvlei across the sweeping belt of sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast, where the dunes literally roll down to the Atlantic.

It is a spectacular flight with endless colourful curves, ripples, lines, basins, waves and mountains of sand.

What a stark contrast to our next port of call in the northwest, Damaraland. It rains more frequently here, but not necessarily each year. Vegetation is sparse and occasional trees poke through piles of basalt and mica schist rocky outcrops.

It's a rough Land Rover ride along the stony track into the remote Wilderness Safari Damaraland camp where guests are housed in eight comfy, permanent tents. We are immediately greeted by the young and enthusiastic Corbiana. She makes such charming, witty and sophisticated conversation, we could be meeting in a trendy bar in Paris.

However, Corbiana, like the entire Damaraland Camp staff, comes from a nearby village where she lived in a shack and grew up herding goats.

Cheetahs, lions and leopards frequently preyed on their herds and elephants smashed their water taps, consequently the Damara resented all wild animals. Impoverished, the Damara considered game was fit only for eating.

Now the tide has turned. In the 1990s some 80,000ha were designated to be the Torra Conservancy, home to approximately 800 semi-nomadic Damara.

Legislation empowered this previously disadvantaged community to protect, manage and benefit from the wildlife. Legislation encouraged responsible tourism, craft, employment and protection of this fragile environment.

The World Wildlife Fund established a successful Game Guards Project with local men paid to foster and protect wildlife from poachers.

In conjunction with Wilderness Safaris, the Torra Conservancy built the Damaraland Camp. Besides providing much-needed employment and esteem, a percentage of all earnings is returned to the community.

The Damara are efficient, extraordinarily happy and happy to mix with their international guests. The evenings are joyful happy occasions; good food, first-class service and interesting conversations. This bonhomie culminates in beautiful harmonious singing.

The camp is not far from Twyfeltonien, Africa's largest-known collection of rock engravings, and the Huab River, home to the rare desert-adapted elephant.

More than 2000 images are engraved into the scattered piles of soft sandstone at Twyfeltonien. The San bushmen and local animals are well represented, but there are also carvings of flamingos, seals and penguins, animals which no longer exist in this now arid environment 200km from the coast.

Not surprisingly, the largest petroglyph is of an elephant, and elephants still roam this remote region. Although every visitor to Damaraland hopes to see the rare desert-adapted elephants, they are not all as fortunate as us.

Thanks to our determined Damara guide Raymond Roman, we track 12 elephants grazing the banks of the dry Huab river. They are so close to the jeep we don't need our binoculars.

They look similar to their cousins, but due to calcium deficiency, desert-adapted elephants tend to have broken tusks. To survive, they have a huge home range of 80km, can exist longer without water and have less destructive eating habits.

It is easier to sight elephants in Namibia's famous game park, Etosha. Created around an enormous pan, an ancient empty lake, Etosha National Park was Africa's first national park. Today, Etosha is one of the continent's largest parks.

During winter's dry season between May and November, countless animals congregate at the water holes. It is not unusual to see zebra, herds of elephants and leaping black-faced impala. It is uncommon to sight the endangered black rhino, but I was lucky enough to spot a bull grazing in thick scrub.

We are also thrilled to see the Kori bustard, the heaviest flying bird. Etosha has a huge variety of birds and more than 100 are migratory, including the colourful European bee-eater.

Besides its vast bird population, Etosha is a haven for snakes. Of the 50 species, many are not poisonous, but Etosha is home to the poisonous puff-adder, the spitting cobra, even the black mamba - the only highlight of Namibia I was happy not to encounter.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Windhoek International Airport lies 45km northeast of Windhoek. Usually there are quite a few taxis at the airport and rental car outlets.

Currency: The Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African Rand. ATMs are available in the capital Windhoek. Credit cards widely accepted.

Safaris: African Wildlife Safaris are representatives for Wilderness Safaris. Phone 03 9696 2899 or toll free 1300 363 302.

When to go: Peak season is from August to December.

What to read: Footprint Namibia Handbook.

- NZ Herald

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