Friday 17 January 2020

Namibia's Desert Song: From stunning dunes to the Skeleton Coast

Spectacular stars, stunning sand dunes and the haunting Skeleton Coast greet Sarah Siese on an epic wilderness safari

Giraffes are just some of the wildlife to spot in Namibia
Giraffes are just some of the wildlife to spot in Namibia
Into the wild: The Schoeman brothers’ Cessna 210
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune in Namibia. Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images.
One of the luxe huts at Omaanda lodge

Sarah Siese

The hairs on the back of my neck prickle with anticipation as I await the next shooting star.

Lying on the roof of my adobe-style lodge, under a goose-down duvet that's keeping out the desert chill, my sky-deck screen is putting on quite a show: the Milky Way, no less, is traversing the heavens.

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Over a couple of days, I've come to realise that my lodge and conservation operator, Wilderness Safaris, really does mean wilderness. And that Little Kulala, the luxury camp of just 11 villas hosting me in the Namib Desert's private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, has taken the trend for 'experiential travel' to a whole new level.

I awake to a dense fog, mingling with the cycle of off- and on-shore winds, raising the water content in the desert bush and, as I look closely, I can see that life does exist here. A black-backed jackal has been out protecting its territory during the night - its footprints lead to a jittery oryx sipping from a waterhole, with the colour of embarrassment painted on its neck.

The landscape is insane: a palette of coal black and rich terracotta that turns iridescent orange in a blink, and mounds of gleaming limestone shale lined with sedge-green petticoats and 50 shades of chino-beige. It's also blisteringly hot (my flip-flops actually begin to melt in the midday sun), and so quiet I can feel my thoughts zinging around my head like a pinball machine. There's space for some big thinking here, and time to let the dross of the humdrum disintegrate.

The main draw is Sossusvlei, thought to be the highest sand dunes in the world. Camp staff wake me before the scorpions have even yawned and we head out, bleary-eyed, onto the road. Well, they call them roads but they're really just great chalky lines drawn in the sand, a little reminder that this whole area once lay beneath the Atlantic Ocean, now some 50km away.

Dawn breaks as we arrive, the first rays of sunshine changing the hues to a bright russet, in spectacular contrast to the hauntingly beautiful shadows of the Dead Vlei's trees. Deep in the cathedral of dunes, our group splits in two: some veer right towards the ethereal depths of the clay pan, while a handful of adrenaline- pumped hikers race against the rising heat, scaling all 280m of the highest accessible dune, Big Daddy.

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Into the wild: The Schoeman brothers’ Cessna 210

But Sossusvlei is just the warm-up act. I've really come to see the haunting beauty of the Skeleton Coast, the holy grail of Namibian safaris. Littered with shipwrecks, colossal whale bones and abandoned shacks, the only proper way to experience it is with the four Schoeman brothers - Namibia's Indiana Joneses - who know it like the back of their hands.

Taking off from remote landing strips in a 1970s Cessna 210 (above), they fly a whisker above the deserted coastline, pointing out wrinkled rock faces 1.2 billion years old, searching for secret oases and desert elephants. The plan is to spend three days exploring, and three nights camping in remote bush camps along the way.

The temperature soars as we fly south. André, our pilot and brother number two, points to the abandoned cities of fairy circles thought to have been built by termites, skirting some mind-blowing metamorphic rock scattered with trailing oryx, which can go for months without water, hydrating from grass. We land on a strip of earth and watch André squeeze droplets of water from a squat-looking shrub.

Back in the air, I watch dunes build into their archetypal pyramid shape. Skimming the coastline at 'see' level, 150 feet above the water, I can practically hear the pockets of sea lions known as Cape fur seals. There's an ox wagon in the middle of nowhere - probably once used to carry diamonds washed downstream. I learn that it takes water that falls in Sossusvlei 2,000 years to reach the coast. Inland, towards the salt pan, we spy a whalebone carcass - how far the shoreline has moved! Shortly after, there's a thousand-strong flock of pink flamingos directly underneath, and dozens of giant cargo ships in Walvis Bay.

At times, morning fog smudges the horizon and the desert merges with the sky and I can't tell which is which. Heading north, the land flattens and the ocean rollers become gentler and shallower. The salty sea fret continues along Namibia's 'French Riviera', Henties Bay, where a Japanese fishing trawler has recently hit the rocks - just the latest in a line of shipwrecks. It's good flying weather and there are all kinds of unusual things to look at: coal-sized chunks of black ferrous silicate send our compass crazy; a Bushman's Candle plant, which André sets fire to like frankincense.

We land on the beach. Yes, the beach. Hyena and jackal footprints pattern the sand, along with seal bones and crab shells. The Skeleton Coast is a bleak, washed-out beauty - where the sun, sea and wind have bleached even the mussel shells. The lone gull won't find a meal here.

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One of the luxe huts at Omaanda lodge

I awake at dawn to the alarm call of the yellow-breasted bokmakierie, feeding on the desert muesli that blows across the land; the detritus plant material, or saltbush, feeds all life. There are plenty of scorpions and angry bearded ants (more ominously known, if you're male, as ball-biters) about. André talks about a bird called an LBJ - it takes a while before I realise he's referring to the little brown job on every twitcher's short list: the tractrac chat. Back in the air we gaze at great hamburger slabs of basalt and sandstone fused together by pressure.

André allows me to take the yoke towards Terrace Bay, where we land on an actual airstrip for the first time and climb onto the roof of a rusty old Land Rover. Travelling bumpety-bumpety along the pebbled beach up into the roaring dunes (and they do actually roar), we put our noses to the sand and wonder at the kaleidoscope of garnets, malachites, quartz and even diamonds.

Back in the air, with the golden hour's distinct light, I spot giraffe, oryx and, most thrilling of all, a wandering desert elephant. The land sparkles with a fairy dust of mica deposits, and rocks lay themselves out like a garage sale saying "buy me today". We spot two humpback whales and a calf breaching just north of Cape Frio.

After all the excitement, the soothing shades of the Kunene plains combined with the open Hartmann Valley are like a gin and tonic at the end of the day. Even the call of the shy Namaqua sand grouse sounds like it's saying "glass of wine". The Kunene is one of Africa's cleanest rivers, home to 79 species of fish, but to reach the camp we need to take one of Namibia's most precipitous roads. My stomach clenches at 38 degrees but André knows he can push it to 45 before we go arse over.

Each day feels like a crescendo, only to be surpassed the next. Four days feel like a lifetime. More than anything else, it's the complete and utter silence that turns my Namibian journey into a letting-go, a shedding of the stresses of work like a snake releasing itself from an old skin. Every afternoon a sandstorm whips up devils of swirling, flesh-biting stings that are gone as quickly as they began, returning the landscape to its 20:20 brilliance. The scene is so extreme, it bleaches all remnants of what feels like my 'other life'. And each vista imprints onto my heart.

This is quite simply the most extraordinary thing I've ever done in Africa.

Get there

Sarah was a guest of Steppes Travel, which has four-day Skeleton Coast Safaris with two nights at Little Kulala from £6,890/€8,185pp including internal flights, meals, drinks and safari activities.

See steppes.co.uk and skeletoncoastsafaris.com for more.

Where to stay in Windhoek

At some stage you'll need a night or two in the capital. Zannier Hotels' new and swanky Omaanda has 10 huts (from approx. £560/€665 per night full-board), just 30 minutes from the airport. zannierhotels.com/omaanda

What to pack

Namibia is a true year-round destination with less extreme seasonal changes than other parts of southern Africa. The cold Atlantic Benguela Current envelops the Skeleton Coast in fog for a few hours in the mornings - so pack jumpers as well as shorts.

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