On safari in Namibia, Brett Atkinson goes wild for towering sand dunes, rare lions and the cobalt coast
Dwarfed by a parked Boeing and Airbus, we're flying in one of Namibia's smallest planes to the planet's oldest desert. And upfront with South African pilot Gunther in Wilderness Air's nimble Cessna 210 is definitely the best place to watch the 55 million-year-old cinematic scroll of the Namib Desert unfolding below us.
Less than a minute from Windhoek's Hosea Kutako International Airport, the sky-high calligraphy of dry river beds contrasts with savagely sculptured escarpments while a hazy terracotta blur of red sand on the horizon hints at our destination.
Driving from the Namibian capital southwest to the Namib-Naukluft National Park takes about five hours through sparse desert, but we're landing at Sossusvlei's Geluk airstrip after 40 spectacular minutes. In Southern Africa's big-sky country, private air transfers to the best of Wilderness Safaris' remote lodges and camps are enjoyably efficient.
The Namib's also one of the planet's driest places, a fact relayed with subtle humour by Mateus, our guide for the next two days.
"Around here, the clouds are only for decoration."
I'm pretty sure the oryx and zebras grazing lazily beside the airstrip are for adornment and more practical purposes.
Home for the next two nights is Kulala Desert Lodge, a low-key but luxury option secreted on the edge of the famous Sossusvlei dunes. Affable camp manager Kafeas looks like a burly front-row forward for the Namibian rugby team and following his endorsement of the climatic advice dispensed by Mateus we sleep on the special open-air "sky-bed" on the roof our accommodation. The red blush of a Namibian sunset evolves to an endless night sky before segueing to the eventual indigo reveal of dawn.
Exploration of the surrounding area is via energetic adventures in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Sossusvlei's rolling sea of sand dunes extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, less than 100km away in a direct line, and framing the main road — actually the only sealed road. In this remote area are some of the world's highest sand dunes. Most popular for bragging rights is an ascent of the 350m-high Big Daddy. It's usually knocked off by over-keen travellers in about two to three hours, but we're perfectly happy to take in the dune's imposing, shadowed profile from amid the 800-year-old trees of Dead Vlei.
Translating to "Dead Marsh", the shimmering pan of white clay punctuated with the tortured skeletons of dead camel thorn trees is a legacy of the very occasional rains irrigating this remote area. Above us, a couple of keen hikers are approaching the final windswept ridge of Big Daddy, but we're equally content with a 45-minute scramble up nearby Dune 45 followed by our own desert irrigation of well-mixed sundowner gin and tonics from Mateus.
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From Sossusvlei, another private Wilderness Air flight transports us almost 700km north to an even more remote camp, this time following a short stop at the Doro Nawas airstrip where other travellers are linking to flights to Wilderness Safaris' 10 other Namibian properties. In Africa's fifth-largest and most sparsely populated country, sky-high scenery and horizon-stretching landscapes are just as memorable as experiencing some of Southern Africa's most unique wildlife. Welcome to a safari with a difference.
Our accommodation for the next two nights might be dubbed a camp, but this is also camping with a difference. Only reachable by plane and a rollicking 30-minute 4WD journey, Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp's desert enclave of seven luxury tented villas is framed by a natural rocky amphitheatre. Nearby, the meandering and wide Hoanib River leads all the way to the Atlantic surf of the Skeleton Coast, and the river's usual status of being devoid of water means it's a vital lifeline and migration route for the desert-adapted animals in this remotest of areas. Elephants, lions, oryx and springbok all seek sustenance and moisture from the scrubby vegetation lining the river, and over millennia have adapted to be smaller, leaner and more hardy than their cousins on the savannah of East Africa.
Expert Land Cruiser driver Ben is our guide to this landscape he's able to read like a book, and silky sand usually untouched by wind and rain is an indelible indicator of the presence of wildlife in what initially seems like an animal-free environment. Carefully deciphering the clues in the surrounding landscape - paw prints, animal scat - Ben steers us to an intimate encounter with Auntie and her niece Charlie, two of Hoanib's extremely rare desert-adapted lions.
Just metres away, the two big cats are resting in the afternoon shade of an acacia tree, stretching and scratching against the tree in an elegant feline yoga pose. Direct eye contact and raised ears mean they definitely know we're there, but Ben's advice to stay still and remain seated in the Land Cruiser means they only recognise the singular bulk of the open-sided vehicle. It's the kind of intense encounter perfect for recounting around the nightly fire pit back at camp.
A brace of the lions' extended family lives a few days' walk away in an oasis lake just kilometres inland from the Skeleton Coast. From the camp it takes us about half a day to get there on the ultimate Namibian (off) road trip negotiating the twists and turns of the Hoanib River, an exciting route Ben dubs "a Southern African superhighway". Giant dunes tower over the benign-looking oasis, but despite the dry continental heat there's zero opportunity for a swim. Secreted in the reeds framing the compact waterhole, the canny cousins of Auntie and Charlie have adapted to feed on fish, flamingos and maybe Kiwi travel writers.
It's early afternoon when we finally reach the Skeleton Coast, perfect timing to judge the temperature of Atlantic surf rolling in from Brazil — cold — before being surprised with a sit-down lunch that's magically appeared on the beach.
Equally surprising is the opportunity to fly straight back to camp from a nearby airstrip, a 15-minute Skeleton Coast snapshot taking in the cobalt Atlantic, a sprawling seal colony and the life-giving desert zig-zag of the Hoanib River.
: South African Airways links to Windhoek in Namibia via Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa.
DETAILS : For tailor-made safaris with Wilderness Safaris and small group escorted tours in Africa, contact the Africa experts at World Journeys; phone 0800 11731; i firstname.lastname@example.org ; worldjourneys.co.nz/africa