Thursday 14 November 2019

Namibia: Lose yourself in delightfully desolate deserts

Namibia gets into your soul, says Jacinta McGlynn, on an African safari with a difference

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune in Namibia. Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune in Namibia. Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images.
Lions hunting antelopes Etosha NP Namibia Afric
Sip drinks at sun down
Braii
Jacinta at a wine lodge in Namibia
Plane flying over Namib Desert, Namibia
A Himba tribeswoman outside her village

Jacinta McGlynn

Travel in Africa and it seeps into your bones. It's special. Namibia is definitely special. Quintessentially African yet wholly unique, Namibia gets into your soul.

Namibia is north of South Africa (from whom it gained independence only in 1991) and south of Angola; the huge country of Botswana lies to the east, with the Kalahari Desert finger-tipping its flank.

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It has its own vast tracts of desert: the Namib is the oldest desert in the world and boasts some of the highest sand dunes on the planet. Let me introduce Big Daddy (325m tall) and even Big Mama (a few metres smaller)! Swathes of ochre, tan and lemon yellow sand undulate, cupping the horizon, falling with gazillions of glittering particles like a rich, sinking carpet underfoot. A scorching hot carpet - a foolhardy stroll in flip-flops is not to be recommended. That was almost 24 hours in A&E!

This southern sandy region of Namibia is Sossusvlei; its neighbouring area, Deadvlei, is also home to stunning sand dunes, but more iconic again are dead trees which stand petrified and stark in their sandy graves with withered branches clutching aimlessly skywards. They sweep across the arid landscape to serve as landmarks for the lonely traveller.

A chilling sight except for temperatures hovering in the 30°Cs.

We drive along the Skeleton Coast, named for the myriad ships which foundered along this treacherous stretch of the Atlantic. We spot the wreck of the Zeila just offshore - a stark reminder for mariners.

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Jacinta at a wine lodge in Namibia

I particularly loved the pit stops at villages to watch local life in all its colour, with shop fronts and clothing in vivid Technicolor. A jaunty cart, complete with donkey and driver, is the Kalahari Ferrari!

As the country is huge, we resort to private aircraft to negotiate the distances. Some roads are pretty good, but quite a few are unpaved and it's not unheard of to get stuck in the sand. We flew Desert Air and Scenic Air, both wonderful with outstanding pilots.

The topography is rugged, and a flight over the salt pan (allegedly the size of the Netherlands and visible from space) is astounding. Sprinkles of acid green from a few hardy trees are dotted among the terracotta-coloured hills and, if you peer closely enough, you might spot a lone ibex or a few impala wandering far below.

Gorgeous geographical features aside, a bird's-eye view of Namibia provides proof positive that the country is enormous and is largely unpopulated. Definitely a place to lose oneself. Or find oneself...

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Lions hunting antelopes Etosha NP Namibia Afric

One of the many highlights of the trip was a visit to Okonjima, the home of AfriCat, where lame, injured or orphaned big cats are rehabilitated and ultimately freed back into the wild. This experience of walking with cheetah was unbelievably moving. We had the rare opportunity of watching a cheetah enjoy her impala kill. A leopard walked in front of our jeep, and a lioness (replete from a huge wildebeest kill) and two curious cubs watched us from a distance.

In Etosha National Park in the north of the country, a wildlife experience is an absolute given. We saw hundreds of giraffe, and learned the collective noun for them (a journey). Dazzles of zebra danced past us regularly; herds of elephant wandered in the bush, and elegant groups of eland skittered around the waterhole.

We could have been forgiven for becoming a bit blasé because after a while, it was almost commonplace to witness leaping dik dik (tiny little antelope), impala, springbok, kudu, wildebeest, giraffe and warthog.

The sky was like an old bruise, blushing pink and streaking citrus at the edges as we sipped our sundowners, watching yellow weaver birds flit from an enormous communal nest. We considered how privileged we are. In the face of nature, this beauty beyond words was quite humbling. At the waterhole, dizzying flocks of birds hovered and skimmed the water for a sneaky sip. Magical, moving and emotional.

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A Himba tribeswoman outside her village

Etosha National Park is a pristine place. Animals roam freely and super-knowledgeable guides are passionate about ensuring the natural habitat is preserved. They care for the wildlife and are determined to conserve this fragile space for posterity.

At Etosha Mountain Lodge (our gorgeous home for two days) and at stunning Safarihoek, I was heartened to learn that wealthy individuals invest in private game reserves for philanthropic reasons and genuinely care for the environment.

Namibia cares for conservation, so the planet is in good hands here. Staff make visitors keenly aware of being eco-friendly, so we're green to our fingertips. We're greeted at the lodge each day by traditional song and dance, performed by staff. It's highly charged and emotional stuff.

Swakopmund is a seaside town, tailor-made for fun and adventure. Referred to as the adrenaline centre, try sky-diving or get private plane pilot instruction or opt for safari jeep rides amongst the dunes.

Swakop is very Germanic. Ice-cream-coloured buildings with orderly, tidy streets belie the township on the outskirts which is rather more authentic. Jumbles of lean-to shacks, dusty roads and open markets are busy and alive.

I'm fascinated by some of the Himba tribe in town who plait ropes and make beaded jewellery to earn some money from the tourists. The Himba women are tall, handsome and bare-breasted, with clay-matted hair in terracotta-coloured braids. They wear grass skirts and huge neck ornamentation. Not encouraged by the townies, the women nevertheless pose for photographs and bear witness to a life that is so removed from our own.

Here be dragons. We eventually arrive at a place of utter enchantment called Damaraland, where locals use the unique click language of Damara. Doro Nawas was the camp where we stayed. We even met a herd of desert elephants, very distinct from bush elephants as they have adapted to a desert environment. The Namib Desert threw up her wonders and secrets as we sipped yet more sundowners, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking a lunar-type landscape and viewed yet more lonely stretches of a thirsty land…

An extraordinary experience. I urge you to visit Namibia. It is awesome in the truest sense.

Take Two: Top attractions

Tasty braii

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Braii

Carnivores have hit the jackpot in Namibia. The typical 'braii' is the way to go, where delicious meats and veggies are barbecued over hot coals. Springbok, kudu and buffalo steaks are the order of the day. This is sometimes a bit difficult to swallow if you've just seen them roaming in the bush, but it's survival of the fittest out here.

Sundowner

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Sip drinks at sun down

Every evening, drinks are wheeled out to a perfect viewing spot where G&T, cooled wine or soft drinks are sipped while watching the sun slip slowly over the horizon. Moving from a glowing orange ball to golden sparkles, the blackest sky twinkles with a million stars, and the world is simply immense. A perfect end to the day.

Getting there

* Obeo Travel organises trips to Namibia. Headed by Rannveig Snorradottir and her local team, Johann van Niekerk and David Botha, they bring love of Namibia, experience and expertise and lead you every step of the way.

* Obeo are represented in Ireland by Worldchoice Travel Agents, Fahy Travel Galway, Kane's Travel Longford, Shandon Travel Cork, O'Leary Travel Wexford, Atlantic Travel Letterkenny, ASM Marketing Dublin.

* We travelled from Dublin via Doha into Windhoek with Etihad Airways.

NB: This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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