Matt Phillips has been fascinated by Namibia since his first foray a decade ago as a backpacker on an overland truck. Subsequent visits to the wildlife haven of Etosha National Park only inflamed his desire to return again, as did a remarkable flying safari along the Skeleton Coast with the legendary Schoeman family. On his latest trip he planned to embrace a different side of Namibia – one from behind the wheel.
My wife George and I met Darwin upon arrival at the airport in Windhoek. He was good looking, tall and white, and had rather nice looking new boots on – four of them to be precise. Considering how close we’d all become over the next couple of weeks, it was a masterstroke of Safari Drive to allow us to start out the relationship with our Land Rover on a first name basis.
We soon became even more acquainted with him once we reached the company’s headquarters in town. There we were guided through his incredibly organised nether regions, learning where each and every piece of camping, cooking and communication kit lived. Despite our newfound familiarity, Darwin sadly couldn’t join us for a steak at Joe’s Beerhouse or for a night’s rest in our room at the Olive Exclusive (though he would have comfortably fitted inside either). Mind you, I don’t know if we’d have let him into the latter with his boots on.
There were no such issues in Waterberg National Park – Darwin’s dirty treads felt right at home in the red sands of the park’s deserted campground. He was also welcome company around the campfire for dinner and quite the bedtime companion too. It was the first night either of us had slept atop a vehicle of any sort, and it was a memorable one. Winds howled, lightning crackled and the heavens opened. We were stirred, but not shaken. Well, that was until just after sunrise. George rolled over to look out the mesh opening just behind her pillow and was greeted by a rather inquisitive baboon staring her in the face. I’m still not sure who made which noise, but by the time quiet reigned the baboon had flown its rooftop roost and a smile had crept onto George’s face.
With the sun up and Darwin taking shelter under the large limbs of an acacia tree, we set out to explore some of the park’s trails on foot. The first two we tackled – Aloe Circle and Fig Tree Walk – were as easy and enjoyable as they were aptly named. With that in mind, we were rather looking forward to the Mountain View trail. As we clambered up boulder after boulder we’d repeatedly turn to gaze below, the view of the plains growing more dramatic each time. Much like the climb, the view reached its zenith once we attained the plateau. We strolled along the edge before stopping and sitting in silence, our feet seemingly hanging off the edge of the escarpment. The mountains in the distance looked like islands floating in a flat emerald sea.
Although possessing looks that could kill, Darwin did anything but. En route to the Erongo Mountains he screeched to an impressively abrupt halt in Otjiwarongo, saving the life of one very charismatic flap-necked chameleon. That said, most of the other wildlife along the way – warthogs, ostrich, helmeted guinea fowl, a tortoise and one large martial eagle – weren’t as trusting, and scattered (some more quickly than others) as we approached.
The landscape in the Erongo Mountain Nature Conservancy was a vastly different affair to that in the Waterberg. Gone were the steep bluffs and the angular, almost blocky outcrops. They were replaced by spherical, bulbous granitic monoliths dotted with what looked like a giant’s set of discarded marbles, some of which were balanced inconceivably on the plunging slopes.
Consisting of the private land of thirty separate owners, the 200,000ha conservancy was set out to protect its unique natural treasures and historical heritage. Although species like black rhino and black-faced impala have been recently re-introduced, we quickly realised that it is still the phenomenal landscapes and rock art that stand out. Not long after our arrival we ventured out with Kules, a guide from Erongo Wilderness Lodge, to visit a remarkable tear-shaped cavern adorned with numerous paintings that date back centuries, perhaps millennia. Striking images of springbok, kudu, giraffe, hunting parties and families (one even including a pregnant woman) are all featured on its storied walls.
Like the Waterberg, Erongo is best explored by foot (sorry, Darwin). So just after dawn the next morning we set out with Kules to investigate one of the nearby trails. Although the slopes seemed gentle, it wasn’t long before we were high above it all, standing atop the tallest outcrop and looking down over the morning mists and distant mountaintops. The lodge and its tents, nestling amongst the massive boulders, had disappeared into the remarkable backdrop. The soundtrack to the hike was just as surreal as the surroundings, with high trilling chirps of rock dassies here, barks of baboons there and the song of birds everywhere.
It wasn’t long before the rising temperatures drove us down from our mountain highs and back into the cool confines of Darwin. Keen to show off after a night by himself, he managed the steep descent from the lodge with aplomb before carrying us over the heavily corrugated tracks towards our next landscape-driven destination.
With each kilometre we drove Spitzkoppe grew larger and larger on the horizon. And by the time we arrived its granite peaks had grown to preposterous proportions, making the large acacia trees surrounding them seem like blades of grass. After we got Darwin settled underneath one such tree, we climbed up an outcrop to watch the 700-million-year-old setting bathe in the late afternoon sun. Soon the pink hues and stretching shadows cast by the 2000ft-tall mountain were gone, enveloped by the inky blackness that is the Namibian night. Later, with dinner done and the campfire extinguished, we took our second bath in as many hours, this time soaking up the light cast by the millions of stars filling the night sky. We had never felt so truly alone – and we cherished it.
Inspired, we couldn’t help but rise before dawn to watch the entire show again, this time in reverse.
With Darwin thirsty and us needing some fresh food supplies, we decided to make a quick cruise to the coast before heading further south. Swakopmund’s cool ocean breezes and frothy cappuccinos were a treat indeed, but we pushed on and pointed Darwin east as soon his tanks and fridge were full.
As the day’s earlier detour had been so successful, it wasn’t long before we opted for a second one. Taking us up through the northwest corner of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Welwitschia Drive is lined with points of interest relating to the park’s geological formations, biological marvels and human history. George had particular fun in the lichen fields, watching the organisms literally springing to life after she added a little water. Though I’m not sure the French couple in the lone vehicle we passed along the way understood quite what she was doing. After all, it’s not often you see someone gleefully pouring valuable water into the baking soils of a desert. Some of the viewpoints on the drive offered incredible vistas down into valleys of eroded landscapes that can only be likened to those on the moon. And even the bleakest of flats we crossed, devoid of all recognisable life, were captivating in their own right. One plays home to hundreds of endemic welwitschia mirabilis, living fossils that can reach over 2000 years old.
After our day of delightful diversions, light was growing short by the time we approached our campsite at the base of Bloedkoppie, another of Namibia’s striking rock formations.
Morning light revealed a Namibia I’m not particularly used to. After more than the usual rainfall during the previous wet season, the desert here was carpeted in long golden grasses. Zebra, springbok and ostrich wandered the gently rolling landscape, taking shade under the acacias, while vultures perched overhead – it felt very much like the plains of East Africa. The scene continued for hours as Darwin diligently followed the winding road south through the Namib-Naukluft. At points his noisy boots stirred flocks of birds resting in the swaying roadside grasses, causing them to fly upward and over us in what felt like a moving triumphal arch.
We didn’t cross paths with any other vehicles until the rocky confines of Kuiseb Canyon. It was there that Darwin clawed his way up to a dramatic viewpoint so George could look out for Carp Cliff, an important landmark described in Henno Martin’s book Sheltering Desert. Not long after the climb out of the parched canyon the three of us posed for posterity again, this time at the universal landmark of the Tropic of Capricorn. The roadside eventually took on a new look further south, varying between black outcrops of metamorphic strata and vibrant red dunes punctuated with tufts of golden grass. Although the dunes to our west continued to grow in size as we approached Sesriem Gate, the scale of them inside the southern section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park was almost off the chart, with some reaching heights of almost 400m.
As Darwin purred along the smooth tarmac road that bisected the shallow valley between the mammoth red dunes, exhausted-looking springbok stood in the heat haze, perhaps using the last of their energy to will the sun below the horizon early. With shoes off and shopping bag in hand, George and I managed to make it up Dune 45 (creatively named for its 45km distance from Sesriem Gate) and mix our sundowners just before the sprinboks’ wish was granted. The deep red shades of the sand seemed to be amplified with each passing minute until they were quickly snuffed out by the impending darkness.
We said a special goodnight to Darwin that night, as he had an important mission in the morning – getting us to Big Daddy before anyone else (there is just something about making fresh tracks in the sand). As we were sleeping within the park we already had a head start because we could leave as early in the morning as we wished, while those residing outside the gate must wait until sunrise to enter. However, we were aware that our fellow guests at Sossus Dune Lodge were leaving on the camp’s organised tour to Big Daddy at 4.45am. This was going to hurt…
So with bagged breakfasts in tow we drove into the darkness at an ungodly hour. By the time we sailed off the end of the tarmac at kilometre sixty and into the deep sand there were two sets of distant headlights dancing in the rear-view mirror. It was here that Darwin came into his own, his big boots spewing sand left and right as he carried his momentum doggedly forward. While our joyful enthusiasm could not be faulted, our parking certainly could be… we didn’t leave Darwin anywhere near the intended path.
However, after a little jogging, we were the first to sink our feet into the pleasantly cold, undisturbed crest of Big Daddy. The higher we climbed, the more overwhelmed we were by the play of colours and shadows on the intricate shapes of the dunes below. The rising sun also led to a growing wind, which created gorgeous plumes of sand billowing off the crest of each dune. With George happy to hunker down and take it all in, I decided to make my way up the sweeping ridge to the summit.
After almost an hour of constant slogging I was there, standing alone atop one of the world’s tallest dunes. I was as exhausted as I was exhilarated. Looking down I could see the petrified trees of Deadvlei, the crests of countless other dunes and a strange shimmering in Sossusvlei – I thought I could even glimpse the Atlantic in the distance, but that may have been a combination of fatigue and my imagination. It was no longer possible to make out George hundreds of metres below, but after just 15 minutes of jogging down the crest (thank you, gravity) I found her smiling right where I left her.
Back on solid ground, we strolled through Deadvlei before taking Darwin over to Sossusvlei to witness what is a once-in-a-10-15 year occurrence there – water. The flows from the year’s record rains had filled the pan, and along with them came a rare proliferation of birdlife to the area. The juxtaposition of this aquatic environment with the harshness of the desert seemed something of a miracle.
With the tour vehicles beginning to file in and our very own Darwin to take us out, we decided to hit the road for the next stop on our winter landscape escape, the NamibRand Nature Reserve.
Bordered on the west by the Namib-Naukluft National Park and by the arresting Nubib Mountains on the east, the NamibRand Nature Reserve covers an impressive area of 172,200ha. Established as a non-profit initiative to help conserve the distinctive environment and rich biodiversity of the southwestern Namib Desert, the reserve contains vegetated dune belts, sand and gravel plains, sweeping savannahs, granite mountains and imposing inselbergs. It is undoubtedly one of the most stunning settings in southern Africa.
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The reserve’s large populations of gemsbok, springbok and zebra can’t be missed, particularly around Wolwedans, while the lesser populations of kudu, giraffe, hartebeest, hyena, jackal, leopard and cheetah are much less visible. With the goal of long-term sustainability, the reserve is focused on high quality, low-impact tourism. In fact they’ve set put rigorous constraints on the number of tourist beds, limiting them to a maximum of one per 1000ha. That means each visitor has at least one million square metres to himself or herself. And as Darwin found out, Wolwedans also has strict rules regarding private vehicles – they can’t be used.
After an evening drive by our guide Aldred through the dune belts and past large herds of zebra and gemsbok, we joined some of the other guests for dinner. We had the pleasure of being served by an incredibly attentive staff, two of whom were members of the newly formed Desert Academy. Funded entirely by the Wolwedans Foundation, the academy was created with the support of the Namibian Tourist Board and the National Training Authority to give Namibians the skills needed to enter the nation’s hospitality industry.
Nothing against Darwin’s rooftop tent, but waking up at Dunes Lodge is something else. With the walls of the elevated canvas chalet rolled up, we were greeted (in bed) by an uninterrupted vista of the NamibRand’s dramatic desert and mountains. Needless to say, the start to the day was a delightfully slow one.
Early in the afternoon we rejoined Darwin for the drive out of Wolwedans to visit the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET), located in another section of the NamibRand. The non-profit trust has been running since 2003 and has taught thousands of students and community members how to conserve energy and water while reducing waste and protecting biodiversity. Part of the programme also involves illustrating to communities how they (and the environment) can benefit from harnessing one of Namibia’s greatest natural resources – the sun. Besides using traditional solar panels for the production of electricity, NaDEET promotes the use of parabolic solar cookers and solar ovens. The correct use of the latter two devices drastically reduces the need for wood, saving thousands of precious trees.
It wasn’t long after leaving NaDEET that the three of us were resting under one such tree. The giant acacia was rather grand and stood over most of the Hideout Camp, a private campsite set at the base of some dunes in the southern section of the NamibRand. Designed for a single group of up to eight people and two vehicles, the convenient site has a small wood-and-canvas block that holds a tidy toilet, a hot shower and washing facilities. Activities on tap included hiking and dune boarding, but as daylight was growing short we decided to let some of the air out of Darwin’s boots and explore the circular 4WD circuit. The sandy track was an interesting one, leading us through the swaying grasses of ‘Bat-eared Fox Plain’, down through the depths of ‘Sleepy Hollows Water’ and up past ‘Piccadilly Junction’. When we returned to camp the air was alive with the calls of cicadas and there was a small herd of springbok at the camp’s waterhole. Although we were hungry, we just sat and took it all in. The solitude was splendid. And after a couple of nights off, it was pleasing to be back cooking under the stars and over the campfire.
Camping the following night at Klein-Aus Vista was a vastly different affair, with the grounds home to several other groups of campers and self-drivers. However, we quickly found the serenity we were after on one of their hiking paths. Atop the 4km-long Sunset Trail, which led us high above camp, was a staggering 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape.
We saw another side of southern Namibia the next day, exploring the colonial past in the ghost town of Kolmanskop and the port of Luderitz. On our way back we stopped at Garub in an attempt to see the wild horses, and, as if sensing our arrival, a dozen of them appeared out of the distance. Before we knew it,
they’d quenched their thirst and were gone.
Darwin’s longest day on the road followed, taking us south from Aus past Rosh Pinah and down to the Orange River on the South African border. After days of parched, often gorgeously bleak landscapes, the lush band of foliage embracing the perennial river was a sight to behold. However, it wasn’t long before aridity reigned again – the drive north from the Orange River to Fish River Canyon covered some of the most barren ground we’d seen.
Not knowing whether Darwin was scared of heights, we kept him back from the edge of the world’s second largest canyon (there were some zebras patrolling the rim, so he had some company). The vertical drop was certainly a sobering one, of some 550m down to the twisting canyon floor. With such breathtaking scenes spread out below me, I’m not sure why I looked up. But just above us, twenty or so feet out from the canyon’s edge, was something small anchored in the sky. Despite the intense winds it was cemented in space, simply not moving an inch in any direction. As seconds turned into minutes, my confusion was compounded – I even started to look for wires, thinking it could be a child’s kite of some sort. And then it was gone, rocketing down into the canyon’s depths. Although the mystery had been solved, I still couldn’t conceive how any bird could maintain a stationary, rock-solid position in such turbulent conditions.
Going from the surreal to the sublimely silly, an hour later we were eating ostrich steaks in the company of a dozen classic cars from decades past,
in the Cañon Roadhouse.
The long drive back to Windhoek, interrupted with an entertaining evening at Bagatelle, was definitely the least interesting stretch of road on our two-week adventure. However, the lack of head-turning moments just brought into focus how many remarkable sights had actually rolled by us during our time with Darwin, a few of them taking seconds to pass, others stretching hours. While some journeys link destinations, others become them – and this was one such occasion.
Although I was certainly no stranger to Namibia at the start of this trip, I left feeling a new connection with it. I may have turned a key, but Namibia had opened its arms.