Thursday 19 October 2017

Namibia: Wild days and starry nights

Hodge takes to the sand dunes in search of adventure in Namibia

The deck in the main area at Serra Cafema Camp, Namibia. Photo: PA
The deck in the main area at Serra Cafema Camp, Namibia. Photo: PA
A black rhino. PA

Katie Hodge

Rusty shades of gold, yellow and ochre merged softly, converging far away with the massive blues of an African sky.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw a hazy trail of dust lingering over my bike tracks while further back, it began to settle again on the baking floor of the Namib.

Ahead, there was nothing between me and the horizon. Harry, my guide, was gone and I was alone.

Stepping off the quad bike, I leant down to touch the warm, undisturbed sand and absorb my surroundings.

I heard the whir of the motor before I saw him: a blurred dot moving towards me. Fast.

"You see it?" He asked, as he joined me, swinging to the ground and pointing to a spot just yards from my feet.

A hare sat quivering in the dirt, camouflaged. Harry was a man of the desert and his eye missed nothing.

Moments later, we were back on board and tearing over the barren planes, this time towards the dunes. What had been a spectacular flat race soon became a roller coaster, with Harry guiding me confidently through the lunar landscape.

As the burnt orange dunes grew steeper, we dropped a gear. I kept my foot down as instructed - this was no place to get stuck.

Up we went, mounting a hillock of sand before gliding down the other side.

Harry grinned as I grimaced. But white-knuckled fear in the face of a 60 degree incline gave way to joy as the bike purred softly downwards, each time offering another jaw-dropping view.

Catching our breath as the late morning heat took hold, we paused to take in the surroundings. Below us stretched the Kunene River: a dash of vivid blues and greens breaking the monotony of yellows. And behind it, on the far bank, stood the imposing Serra Cafema mountain and Namibia's neighbour, Angola.

A thrill ran through me before we were off again, making towards the water and our camp.

Taking its name from the mountain, Serra Cafema is a series of eight thatched chalets, perched on wooden stilts among the reeds and rushes, barely discernable until you're upon them. And while, strictly speaking, it is not an oasis, there are few other words to describe it.

Sinking into plush cushions on the balcony outside my palatial room, I felt alone in the world. To all intents and purposes, I was.

The property, run by Wilderness Safaris, has been carefully designed so each chalet affords spectacular views across the river and into the unchartered wilderness of Angola.

Roughly 300km from the nearest 'local' settlement and save for the wondering eye of a passing croc, privacy is absolutely guaranteed.

The perfect spot to wind down and relax, there is also plenty to do at southern Africa's most remote safari camp. But sitting on hammocks, some just lie back and wait for Namibia to come to them. And it does.

Over breakfast, I watched bright yellow weavers flutter across the wooden terrace and above us, a rock kestrel traced an ark through the sky.

The water below looked deliciously cool, clear and inviting but, as game ranger and area manager Chris Bakkes made quite clear, rivers in Namibia are not for swimmers. He learnt the hard way.

He came face-to-face with two massive crocodiles after taking a dip and battled the pair out of the water. Miraculously he only lost one arm and is now something of a legend in the Namib.

"Welcome to hell," he had said with a wry smile when we met a few days earlier in the Palmwag Concession, a 450,000 hectare conservancy in Damaraland, on the central eastern edge of the world's oldest desert.

Climbing down from the tiny five-seater Cessna which brought us to the rocky scrubland, we had exchanged bemused looks. Our surroundings, bleached by the midday sun, were desolate.

At Desert Rhino Camp - another lodge run by Wilderness - we were greeted by Tire, a jubilant one-eyed Jack Russell. The explanation for his loss of sight: a run-in with a leopard, of course. I mentally consulted my insurance cover.

The camp, set in arid wasteland leased from the government, was established in conjunction with the Rhino Trust and is famously the place to see rare black rhino.

The trackers know the lie of the land - all 25,000 square kilometres of it - and after two hours on the ground, they struck gold: foot prints. Large ones.

Leaving the vehicles, we set out in silence. Some fifteen minutes later, we were 150 metres away and spellbound. Every movement was magical and we spoke only in whispers.

But minutes later, Chris beckoned us away. "Let's leave them to do their rhino thing," he said.

The aim was for an "undisturbed" sighting and unlike typical game drives, which can see tourists ferried in droves through national parks, here the animals quite rightly come first.

And though they can be harder to spot, given their complete freedom to roam, it's still not unusual to see elephants meandering through a valley or cheaters crossing your tracks.

My highlight? A baby giraffe. Head and neck poking out quizzically over a small hillock, it eyed us keenly for some time before staggering to its feet, teetering on spindly legs and stumbling towards mum.

Certainly more rustic than Serra Cafema, Desert Rhino camp still offers guests luxury under canvas and blissful respite from the scorching heat after a day out in the desert.

Hearty meals take place at a long wooden table, looking out at the desert. At breakfast, steaming cups of coffee set you up for the day and in the evenings, dinners are followed by drinks around the campfire, swapping tales of the day's adventures.

Other musts in Namibia include the massive dunes of Sossusvlei, in the Namib-Naukluft Park. These are rated as some of the best in the world and just flying over them is a staggering experience.

The more intrepid sorts may fancy taking on Big Daddy. Set in the 47-mile dune corridor, it's a veritable Matterhorn of sand, rising some 1,000ft above sea level.

It's at least an hour's climb and hard work - even at 8am when the temperature is relatively cool. But it's well worth a bit of sweat as the views from the top are truly spectacular: nothing but shimmering mountains of sand and flat valley floors, as far as the eyes can see.

And there's always the prospect of a ice-cold glass of wine afterwards...

Key Facts

BEST FOR: Desert, wildlife, sunsets and a true flavour of Africa.

TIME TO GO: Between April and September animals converge around watering holes and are easier to spot.

DON'T MISS: A full moon in April or September is truly magical.

NEED TO KNOW: Many lodges have no wi-fi and phone signal is scarce.

DON'T FORGET: Camera, suncream and a sense of adventure.

For more information, visit www.wilderness-safaris.com

Press Association

Editors Choice

Also in Life