Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.

Life in the Desert

Damaraland-Kudus

Kudus manage to exist on the sparse vegetation.

Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.

Damaraland-Welwitschia.

The welwitschia plant traces back to Jurassic times.

At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.

Mountains of Burnished Gold

Namibia-Damaraland

The colossal sandstone ridges are ablaze in the setting sun.

We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.

Damaraland-giraffe

Angola giraffes have adapated to the arid rockly terrain.

Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.

Damaraland-Desert squirrel.

The desert squirrel uses its bushy tail for shade.

 

The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.

Damaraland-Desert elephants.

Desert elephants are constantly on the move in seach of water.

By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.

An Uncertain Spring

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Valley.

The sandstone valley of Twyfelfontein holds one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Africa.

The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein engravings.

The engravings include a diversity of animals and foot prints.

However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Lion Man.

Twyfelfontein’s most intriguing figure is known as the Lion Man.

The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.

One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.

Damaraland-Vista

Prehistoric Damaraland vista.

Good to Know

  • Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

The ocean mist that hovered over Swakopmund when we arrived yesterday has lifted this morning. The sun is shining over the quaint pseudo-Bavarian seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, just the right preface to an early harbor cruise. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Walvis Bay, the country’s main deepwater commercial harbor 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, the fog has rolled in again. The horizon is an eerie line of black shadow ships fading into an uncertain curtain of gray gauze.

A Morning on the Water

Walvis-Perican lighthouse.

The Pelican Bay lighthouse emerges from the morning fog.

A slick catamaran, the Silvermoon, pulls up to the jetty, and we are off. A trio of white pelicans make their characteristic wobbly landing on the roof of the cabin and invite themselves for the ride. We pass oyster farms, a delicacy for which the area is famous, on our way to Pelican Point, the sandy peninsula that protects Walvis Bay from the assault of Atlantic Ocean. Next to its landmark lighthouse, a 34 meter (112 foot) high cast iron structure built in 1932 and still in use, the point is home to a resident colony of Cape fur seals estimated at 60,000.

Walvis Bay-Cape fur seal.

Cape fur seals put on quite a show near our boat.

Beyond the point, we sail toward a line of ships and oilrigs that have come from the offshore drilling fields of Angola for maintenance and garaging. This is a unique opportunity to get a close look at one of these giant drilling platforms. The tour ends with a copious tasting lunch of fresh local oysters (yes, they are delicious) and other regional seafood specialties as we return to port.

 

 

Walvis Bay-Lagoon.

The Walvis Bay Lagoon is host to thousands of flamingos.

Back on solid ground and with the sun now high overhead, we stop by the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of southern Africa’s major coastal wetlands and migratory bird sanctuary, where thousands of flamingos are busy feasting on crustaceans.

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton Coast Experience

Skeleton Coast-drilling wreck.

Not all wrecks came from the sea. Deep in the dunes, this is all that remains of an aborted attempt to drill for oil.

We head north the next morning. Within a half hour from the center of Swakopmund, all signs of life fade away. Ahead of us is an endless dirt trail between rolling dunes and pounding surf. This is the West Coast Recreational Area, the southern end of the windswept strip of desert that covers the 500 kilometers (300 miles) of Atlantic coast from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, now known as Skeleton Coast. Long before it got its sinister moniker from the bones that once filled the shore, remnants of the whaling industry’s heydays, early Portuguese explorers were referring to the area as “the Gates of Hell.” Enough said. Today the skeletons that remain are most likely to be those of twentieth century ships that fell victim to hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog.

Namibia_Skeleton Coast_Zeila,

The fishing troller Zeila, stranded on 25 August 2008 just south of Henties Bay.

An hour into the trip we stop to check out one of these skeletons, the Zeila, a rusting fishing trawler stranded in 2008. Now just another convenient perch for passing seabirds, it is slowy disintegrating under the relentless battering of the ocean. Moments later, we come upon the incongruous sight of a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s Henties Bay (population 8,000), which owes its existence to the discovery of a rare fresh water source there in 1886, and its prosperity to current day anglers who find it a bountiful fishing destination. We stop just long enough for gas and continue on to Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross-Seals.

Cape Cross is home of one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in southern Africa.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Henties Bay, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in southern Africa (150,000 to 210,000, depending on who you ask). Either way, it’s a hugely impressive sight, and an aggression to other senses. The stench of guano hanging over the site is overwhelming, as is the din of continuous bleating from this enormous herd of sea mammals. Cape Cross owes its name to the first European known to have set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486, Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, who erected a stone cross on the spot. The original cross found its way to Germany 1893. It can be seen today in the New Hall of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. An exact replica was erected in 1980 on the spot where the original once stood.

Skeleton Coast-Dunedlin

The British cargo-passenger liner Dunedlin stranded on 29 November 1942 south of the Kunene River.

After a windblown picnic lunch on what has to be one of the longest beach in the world, contemplating the remains of the Dunedlin Star, a British cargo ship stranded in 1942, , we enter the Skeleton Coast National Park at its southern Ugab Gate. Said gate is actually a double portal emblazoned with giant skulls and crossbones, a none too subtle “don’t say we didn’t warn you” message. We continue on, undaunted. After another two hours of empty sea and sand, we take a sharp turn to the east, to emerge at the Springbokwasser Gate onto an alien planet of cone-shaped mountaintops, brushed with copper by a relentless sun. After the Khomas Highland, the Great Dune Field, and Skeleton Coast, I had been wondering what our awesome Wilderness Safaris guide Jimmy Limbo could possibly do for an encore? We’ve just reached the answer. We are about to enter surreally magnificent Damaraland!

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. An historic building in its own right, it is ideally located in the historic center of town and within a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . Tel: + 264 64 414 200.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Catamaran Charters depart every morning from Walvis Bay Waterfront, Atlantic Street, Walvis Bay, Namibia. All their catamarans feature on-deck seating as well an a large interior lounge. All their tours are led by experienced local guides. Contact: e-mail dolphin@iway.na, tel. +264 (0)64 200798.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

On the third morning of my journey across Namibia, I leave behind the red sands of the Great Dune Field and head north along the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Craggy mountains still dominate the landscape, but at their base, what was barren desert when I entered the area two days ago is turning into something like a green five-o’clock shadow. I now understand the excitement of Jimmy, m amazing Wilderness Safaris guide, at the very prospect of rain.

Welcome to Solitaire

Namib-Oryx new grass.

Oryx are drawn to the new grass.

The wildlife is out in force at this promise of new grass. Small herds of springboks join the ubiquitous oryx. We also spot our first zebras and blue wildebeests. After a couple of hours of bouncing on a washboard dirt road leaving a massive trail of dust in our wake, we pull into Solitaire. The tiny desert outpost at the junction of the two gravel roads that are the main tourist routes in the area, is a de-rigueur stop for travelers. The place is right out of a 1950’s western movie set. It announces itself with deteriorating carcasses of vintage American cars scattered in the sand around the compound, and sign that goes straight to the point. “Welcome to Solitaire”.

Originally built in 1848 as a sheep farm by a Mr. van Collier, Solitaire was named by his wife, or so the story goes, both because there were diamonds in the area and the place fit the name (definitely the middle of nowhere!). Since then, it has developed into a gas station, the only place to get fuel on 340 kilometer (210 mile) trip the between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, a post office and general store, and a bakery.

The Moose McGregor Desert Bakery

Namibia-Solitaire_1.

Solitaire is a must stop for anyone traveling through the area,

The bakery is the main attraction these days, its apple pie famous beyond the borders of Namibia. It’s more like a crumble actually, but lets not quibble. It too comes with a story. Three decades or so ago, a Scottish adventurer, and a man bigger than life in every way, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor came into town and never left. He was a wonderful baker who started to sell baked goods, including the aforementioned pie (from an old family recipe, of course), and the word spread around the world. Sadly, Moose passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on. His meal-size squares of delicious Moose apple pie, served right out of the pan and still warm from the oven, are clearly the reason why a stop at Solitaire now figures on every tourist itinerary.

Tropic of Capricorn

Namib-Kuyseb River.

The ephemeral Kuiseb River meanders through the canyon,

Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Solitaire, we pass the Tropic of Capricorn. Then the road starts climbing in twist and turns, going around drop-offs sufficiently steep they warrant the first guardrails I have seen on this trip, to the top of the Gaub Pass. I take in the spectacular view of the stark schist rock face the Kuiseb Canyon below and black badlands undulating from its rim to the horizon as we snake down toward the river. The canyon was formed five million years ago, when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the river chiseled a narrow gorge through the Great Escarpment.

Namib-West of Kuiseb.

West of the Kuiseb Pass, the desert is framed by  mountains..

Today, the Kuiseb River is a sluggish ribbon of opaque brown water in no rush to vanish into the dunes some 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream. Yet this is an exceptional sight, since for most of the year this ephemeral river is no more than a broad, dry sandy riverbed.

One more arduous climb on the other side of the canyon over the Kuiseb Pass, and the landscape goes through another metamorphosis as we head west toward Walvis Bay. We are back into the desert, flat, empty, endless; 140 kilometers (85 miles) of desolation framed by the distant outline of rocky outcrops worn smooth by an eternity of sand and wind.

Walvis-Oil rig.

The ouline of an oil rig appears from the mist off Walvis Bay.

Suddenly the gravel road turns to tarmac, and an immensity of colorless water rolls through the sea fog, with the eerie outline of an oil-drilling platform suspended above it. Walvis Bay, the only deepwater commercial seaport in Namibia, is also a servicing and parking destination for rigs and ships from the offshore drilling sites of Angola to the north.

 

 

The Swakopmund Time Warp

Namibia-Swakopmund.

The onion dome of the Swakopmund Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

It’s another half-hour ride up the coast to Swakopmund, where we enter yet another time warp. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, in the haydays of German South-West Africa, this resort town remains a living monument to its colonial past. It may be one hundred years since Germany relinquished the control of Namibia, but its cultural influence remains entrenched throughout the town. From the onion dome of the Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church to the neat, white-trimmed pastel buildings and the German street signage in angular Gothic script, all of it channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Even the ocean mist, which lifts only briefly today, conspires to give the town the feel of a small, off-season Baltic coast vacation town that time forgot.

Swakopmumd-Hansa Hotel.

The Hansa Hotel (circa 1905) retains its old-world atmosphere.

The Hansa Hotel, where we spend the next two nights, is right in character. The oldest hotel in town (circa 1905), it is an integral part of the local architectural heritage. Although fully renovated in 2014, it retains its traditional old-world atmosphere, with welcome twenty-first century additions such as air-conditioning and reliable WiFi throughout. Its central location, a few minutes’ walk away from everywhere in the historic center and the waterfront, is ideal to explore the city at leisure.

 

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . + 264 64 414 200.
  •  Wilderness Safaries  is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa, recognized for its responsible tourism practices over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Solitaire

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Early wake-up call this morning. As I walk into the chill of the desert night toward the pale light of the refectory tent, my sleep-addled brain tries to take stock. This is Day Two of my journey through Namibia. I am at the tiny Kulala Adventurers Camp, deep in the Namib, the legendary desert that gave the country its name. And I have a sand dune to scale by 7:00 am.

A Namib Dawn

Namibia-Kulala dawn.

A springbok welcomes the dawn in the Kulala Wildernes Reserve.

It’s taken me years to get here, but I am finally about to see the sun rise over the highest dunes on the planet. The reality of the moment doesn’t fully sink in until we, my four fellow adventure travelers and I, are bumping along a sand trail that only our guide, Jimmy Limbo, can detect across the shadow landscape of the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve. The sky begins to glow with pre-dawn light and shortly thereafter we reach the private Wilderness Safaris entrance into the park. It’s precisely sunrise, the official opening time of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Although “our” gate follows the same schedule as the public Sesriem Gate, it has the huge advantage to be a good 25 kilometers closer to the dune field and not subject to any entrance formality delays. For almost one hour, we have the rare privilege to experience the intense silence and awesome grandeur of the oldest desert in the world in exquisite solitude.

Namibia-Naukluft sunrise.

Sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains.

Jimmy drives straight to the Elim Dune, the farthest inland dune, somewhat off the main track that leads from the Sesriem Gate to the heart of Sossusvlei. It is sprinkled with tufts of dry grass that help a bit with the climb. And it offers a unique view of the sun rising over the Naukluft Mountains and the sea of apricot dunes rippling to the horizon.

 

Beyond the Sunrise

Namib-Dune 45.

Dune 45 is arguably the most photographed dune on the planet.

As the sun begins to arch up, we get back on the road more traveled, the 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of asphalt maintained by the park from the Sesriem Gate to a central parking area in the heart of the dune field. There, self-drive tourists must park their car; only serious all-wheel-drive vehicles allowed beyond this point. Other visitors may either hike or use a shuttle to go to further into the dunes. Our “Wilderness Mobile,” an imposing custom designed all-terrain Land Cruiser, gets more than a few covetous glances as we go by.

A lone centuries-old camel thorn tree suggest we are nearing the Sossusvlei area.

Jimmy points out Dune 45, thus named for the sensible reason that it stands 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the entrance gate. Located fairly near the road, with an unusual S-shaped edge and a few picturesque trees lining its base, the 170 meter (560 foot) high dune is one of the most photographed in the park. And climbing is allowed, which also gives it supporting cast status in adventure travel anecdote throughout the world. We snap shots of the celebrity from every possible angle, but no taker for a climb among our lot.

Namib-Big Daddy.

Big Daddy is the ultimate hike in Sossuslvei.

Then we come to Big Daddy. At a height of 330 meters (1050 feet), it is the highest dune in the park and one the highest in the world. I do believe one of us does climb some or all of it. I am too busy dragging myself up a much less impressive incline to get to the Deadvlei (Afrikaan for Dead Lake) pan to take notice.

 

 

 

Namibia-DeadVlei,

A surrealist landscape 900 years in the making.

Once a small basin moist enough to allow camel thorn trees to grow, Deadvlei dried up some 900 years ago due to climate change and encroaching dunes. Today, in the relentless mid-morning sun, the vision of skeletal remains of dead trees rising from the cracked white clay floor against a backdrop of orange dunes looks like a colossal surrealist fresco.

 

Life in the Namib

Namib-Oryx.

This Oryx enjoys the remains of yesterday’s rare downpour.

I’ve come to Namibia for the scenery, not expecting to see much wildlife in such a barren land. Yet the regal Oryx, these desert antelopes with majestic sword-like horns that I had only come across once before in the Kalahari, are everywhere. In spite of the scorching midday heat, we see them repeatedly on our drive back across the Kulala Reserve. We also spot ostriches strutting nonchalantly across the sand, and the occasional springbok. We even get a glance at a silver-back jackal stealthily on the prowl.

A magical Kulala sunset.

After lunch at the camp, I spend  the early hours of the afternoon on the shaded porch of my tent, taking in the stillness of the desert. Its endless vistas of rock and sand look like an overexposed photo in the harsh light of the overhead sun. Then, as it begins to dip down and the landscape regains its full power, Jimmy has one more treat in store for today, a sunset drive to the top of a nearby ridge. He muscles the truck expertly up a perilous rocky slope that I would find hard to handle even on foot, to the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view that redefines infinity. And where we sip our sundowner cocktail while dusk swallows up the horizon.

We enjoy a hearty braai, the traditional southern African barbecue, under the stars,  accompanied by a chorus of barking geckos. Tomorrow, we head north toward the Atlantic Coast and Walvis Bay.

Namib-Kula Sunset 2.

 

Good to Know 

  • A Dune Primer – The Great Dune Field around Sossusvlei is thought to have formed some five million years ago, when sand colored by iron oxide washed from the Orange River in the Kalahari to the sea. The Benguela Current drove the sand north, then northwest winds blew it back inland and began shaping the dunes. The quartz sand that made the Namib dunes shimmers in different colors; the more intense the shade of red, the older the dune. The wind constantly reshapes the dunes, depositing the sand on the windward side. It then slides down on the leeward side (the slip face), which is therefore the steeper side of the dune.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades, recognized for its responsible tourism practices. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arranged my journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo-traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Namibia had been on my radar screen for over a decade. On successive journeys across Africa, the name popped up now and then, usually around the fire at some remote camp. That is when strangers brought together for a day or two by the chance of converging itineraries exchange their most memorable travel experiences. The recurrent tales of parched deserts, mountain-high dunes and eerily fogbound coastlines insidiously worked their way into my mind. Namibia began calling my name in an insistent crescendo.

Namibia - Great Escarpment.

Going over the Great Escarpment feels like an encounter with the edge of the planet.

But there was a major catch. These rugged Namibia cheerleaders spoke of self-drive adventures and sleeping under the stars. My own idea of wilderness travel doesn’t include venturing into one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet at the wheel of a rented four-wheel drive and pitching my own tent at the end of the day. It looked like Namibia might forever remain the top destination on my Africa wish list.

 

Wild About Africa

Then, while researching for a recent article on the economics of solo travel, I came across Wild about Africa, an offshoot of U.K. based Expert Africa, a trusted specialist in high-quality custom-made safaris, and a pioneer in Namibia travel since 1991.

Namibia-Kulala Adventurer_1.

The Kuala Adventurer Camp offers a unique experience of the Namib Desert.

This younger sibling (created in 2003) offers small-group (maximum 7 participants) road trips in custom-designed, guide-driven land cruisers. Accommodations are ideally suited to my idea of “roughing it”: fully staffed tented wilderness camps exclusive to the group, with the occasional hotel or guesthouse stay thrown in where required by the itinerary. Their “Namibia Wilderness Safari” includes everything on my wish list, plus a couple of destinations I haven’t even thought about. The virtually all-inclusive in-country pricing is reasonable and the solo traveler’s upgrade nominal (86 British pounds or 110 U.S. dollars at the time of my visit). I want in!

Namibia-Windhoek Schweringburg,

The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, retains incongruous of its German colonial past.

I promptly dispatch a query, and things keep getting better from here on. The response is near instantaneous, and in spite of the onset of the year-end holidays (admittedly the most awkward time of year to start planning a complex trip), all my questions are thoroughly addressed, often in real time. The amazing Sabina Hekandjo, clearly a Namibia expert in her own right, becomes my new best friend. Within a few weeks, an exhaustive personalized booklet recapping every point of information I could ever need to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure lands in my mailbox. A detailed map of the country and a copy of the award-winning Bradt Guide to Namibia are thoughtfully included. Let the countdown begin!

Where It All Falls Into Place

It’s late afternoon when I land in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, dazed after 24 hours of non-stop travel from Europe via Johannesburg. A greeter from Wild about Africa’s local partner, Wilderness Safaris, takes over. Once delivered to my comfortable guest house in a quiet suburb of Windhoek, I manage to stay awake just long enough to meet my guide, Jimmy Limbo, who drops by to introduce himself and recap the main points of my journey of the next twelve days. I meet my traveling companions the next morning, two friendly couples from Australia and the U.K. respectively.

Namibia-Wilderness Truck.

Our custom-design Wilderness Safari vehicle is masterfully handled by guiding expert Jimmy Longo.

We pile into a custom-designed, extended-cab land cruiser with a pop-up roof, three stepped rows of seats and six slide-down windows, so each passenger gets unrestricted views and photo opportunities. In addition to the 12-volt cigarette lighter charger, the dashboard includes two USB ports to recharge cameras on the go. The rear of the vehicle features a locked luggage compartment and a refrigerator stocked with drinking water and picnic lunches. With its oversized tires and high off the ground chassis, this is one impressive all-terrain truck!

A Tropical Bavaria

For the moment, however, it is smoothly gliding over the asphalt of downtown Windhoek, and I get my first real look at this most unlikely African city. No colorful chaos here, cacophonic crowds or free-for-all traffic that define most African capitals.

Windhoek- Christ Church

A Windhoek landmark, the Lutheran Christ Church is a remainder of Namibia’s colonial past.

Namibia’s largest city (population of 368,000, close to 15 percent of the country’s total of 2,500,000) is a well-groomed, modern provincial town shaped by its colonial past when the country was known as German Southwest Africa. Along the neat avenues lined with palm trees, the orderly traffic flows at the regulated speed of synchronized traffic lights. I take in the skyline where new steel and glass commercial and public buildings incongruously mingle with crenellated medieval towers. Jimmy points out the neo-Romanesque Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church), topped with a sturdy pseudo-Gothic 24-meter (79-foot) spire, circa 1910. Spread across a verdant plateau of the central highlands, some 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) above sea level, and framed by the brush-covered Auas mountain range, Windhoek brings to mind a misplaced tropical Bavaria. I am hitching to get on with “the real Namibia.”

Off The Grid Into The Desert

Khomas Highlands-Rock Formations

Sculptural rock formations rise from roadsite brush.

I don’t have long to wait. Within the next 20 minutes, the asphalt abruptly gives way to to a dirt road that meanders through the soaring amber-colored schist ridges of the Khomas Highlands. In this landscape eighty million years in the making, the rock formations are eye-popping. Occasional ancient rockslides rise out of the brush like gigantic modern sculptures. I start snapping away non-stop.

 

 

Khomas Highlands-Meerkat.

A meerkat stands guard by the roadside.

We are heading southwest toward the Namib Desert, another five-hour drive on washboard gravel roads, so Jimmy tries to keep photo stops to a minimum. Nonetheless, a moment later he pulls to the side and points into the brush: “meerkat,” he announces. Two of them actually, their slender body erect on a rock, in their familiar standing-guard position. Scenery is definitely the main event in Namibia, but we get interesting wildlife sightings as well, birds mainly, such as a colony of social weavers busily adding an extension to their already tree-sized common nest, and bright russet-colored chestnut weavers for whom nest-building is all about hanging out (quite literally, upside down).

Namibia-Kulala rain.

The Kulala Wilderness Reserve after the rain.

After a quick roadside picnic lunch under a shady camelthorn tree, we continue on over the Great Escarpment, and down in the gravel foothills of the Nautkluft Mountains. Then the unexpected happens. Clouds start building overhead, and ahead of us a wide telltale opaque gray vertical stripe reaches down to the mountaintops. Rain! My heart sinks. I’ve been waiting for decades to experience to one of the most parched deserts on the planet. It cannot rain on the day I get there! Jimmy, on the other hand sounds excited as the clouds keep building and huge drops start splattering our windshield. He says something about the start of the rainy season. What rainy season? Isn’t this place supposed to get barely 100 millimeters of rain in a good year? I keep my peevish thoughts to myself.

Namib-Kulala light.

The landscape changes color with the light.

By now, we are steadily moving through a middle-of-nowhere landscape of lake-size puddles that the parched earth has yet to absorb, featureless save for the black shadow of a mountain range. But shortly after the downpour subsides, the topography returns. We are now in a broad valley, and the mountains on both sides go from black to purple to a warm golden brown as the sky clears up. A right angle turn reveals a half-dozen tents tucked along the base of the mountain. We are in the heart of the 18,5 hectare (46,000 acre) private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, at the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. And this is the remote Kulala Adventurer Camp, our home for the next two nights, with its friendly staff of two.

Desert Advendure At Its Breathtaking Best

Namibia-Kulala Vista.

The setting sun turns the mountains into burnished gold.

My tent is a cozy three-meter by three-meter dome, raised on a large, canvas-covered wooden platform, with two comfortable cots clad in crisp white cotton bedding. At its rear, the full bathroom with a solar-heated shower and flush toilet is conveniently supplied with a stack of thick cotton bath towels and a full range of biodegradable toiletries. At night, lighting is provided by solar-powered LED fixtures. But the best feature of my desert abode is the front veranda, where I can take in the pyrotechnics of the African sunset on the valley, and the mountains and dunes beyond. The sun has returned just in time to bathe the landscape in burnished gold. Then the sky begins to blaze in every shades of crimson to purple before suddenly fading to black.

At dinner, a wholesome, freshly prepared three-course menu, Jimmy announces the morning schedule: wake-up call at five (!), breakfast at five-thirty, departure by six, which, he explains, will get us in the Sossuslvei dunes area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park just in time to watch the sun rise over the most famous sand dunes on the planet.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – For overseas visitors, Hosea Kutako International Airport, located a 45-minute drive east of Windhoek is the main entry point in the country. Visitors from most Western and Asian countries may enter Namibia visa-free for up to 90 days.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced quality small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa. They are a fully-bonded member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa. They offer private access to over 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Kulala Wilderness Reserve

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Nestled in the heart of the famed 5,400 square kilometer (210 square mile) Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of the oldest and most pristine in South Africa, and with an unfenced border to the western boundary of the legendary Kruger National Park, Motswari Private Game Reserve is a safari-goers’ dream. It is teaming with the iconic Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) and a supporting cast of over 140 other mammals and 500 varieties of birds.

To Conserve and Protect

South Africa - Motswari rhino.

Motswari takes an active part in supporting rhino protection.

In the local Tswana language, Motswari means “to conserve and protect.” Motswari Private Game Reserve has been living up to its name since the Geiger family acquired the property in 1992.
From the onset, the original owner, the late Paul Geiger, focused on wildlife conservation, environmental management, and the creation of meaningful employment and growth opportunities for the local communities.

 

 

South Africa - Motswari elephants

The look of environmental protection excellence.

On the public stage, this has earned Motswari an impressive number of prestigious accolades, including its on-going accreditation by Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa (FTTSA), a distinction the property first earned in 2008. Motswari also achieved Gold Class status in 2013 on the Heritage Environmental Certification Program (based on internationally recognized sustainability and responsible business initiatives), making it the only environmentally certified lodge in Timbavati.

 

What does this mean to me, the tourist? A lot actually. Beyond the personal satisfaction of knowing that my visit contributes in a small way to supporting a shared environmental and social ethos, choosing Motswari has a considerable positive impact on the quality of my safari experience.

A Family Country Estate

South Africa - Motswari main lounge

The main lounge.

The first thing I notice as I settle in is the relaxed atmosphere of the property. The décor, an unpretentious mix of comfortable rustic furniture, local safari antiques, crafts and random personal mementos, has the charm of a family country estate that has developed organically over time. The lounge and dining area open onto a free-form swimming pool overlooking the river and the bush beyond. There, as in the nearby library, intimate seating arrangements invite to settle in, chill out and enjoy the view.

South Africa - Motswari, Duiker

All the bungalows are named after bush animals. Mine is Duiker.

My own bungalow is a light-filled circular space with large French doors that open onto a private terrace overlooking the dry riverbed. It is furnished in an uncluttered, retro-style mix of rustic wood and rattan furniture, with a sumptuously comfortable king-size bed swathed in mosquito netting taking pride of place. But nothing retro about the vast en-suite bathroom with its deep built-in bathtub and separate walk-in shower with rain showerhead and great water pressure. Or in the thoughtful details at my fingertips to ensure a comfortable stay, from quality biodegradable toiletries to electrical outlets conveniently fitted with universal adapters to accommodate North American and European plugs.

South Africa - Motswari library.

The library.

Another detail that enhances the enjoyment of my safari is what is not found at Motswari. (Spoiler alert – here comes one of my pet peeves). There had been a trend in recent years for upscale properties to include such sophisticated urban amenities as elite spas, painstakingly curated antique artifacts boutiques or haute cuisine restaurants with pre-dinner visits to in-house wine cellars.

 

South Africa - Motswari pool

The pool overlooks the bush.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the occasional bit of over-the-top pampering, in its own time and place. In the bush, however, I find it an unwelcome distraction from my wilderness experience. On behalf of safari purists everywhere, thank you Motswari for keeping it authentic.

 

The People Factor

In incorporating responsible tourism as a key principle in its operating philosophy since its inception, the property has created a close-knit community where some employees have been with the lodge all of their working life and others are now second generation staff members. All are regarded as members of the extended Motswari family and feel enormous pride in their lodge. This is reflected in the positive way staff and management interact with each other and with the guests. I take with me warm memories of the genuine friendliness and concerted attention to details from the entire team to ensure that I enjoyed a memorable visit.

South Africa - Motswari leopard.

Guiding excellence means repeated leopard sightings.

The people factor is not just about superior service. It is inscribed in the success stories of staff members who, with management support, were inspired to follow their passion, and went on to raise the bar in their chosen field to deliver outstanding experiences for the guests. People like Godfrey Mathebula, the now Assistant General Manager, Motswari Private Game Reserve, who grew up on Java, Paul Geiger’s original property, where is parents were caretakers.

South Africa - Motswari leopard with kill.

This elusive male has concealed his kill high in a tree.

The Geiger family supported him through school, then gave him a job in the maintenance workshop before his passion for the bush led him to the guiding field. After passing with a near perfect score the first level certification of the prestigious Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGSAS), he began guiding, went on to pass every level of certification available, become Motswari’s lead guide, and set a very high standard for every guide that followed.

 

Outstanding Game Viewing

South Africa - Motswari lionesses

After the hunt, two lionesses groom each other.

With the property’s privileged location at the unfenced edge of Kruger National Park, its 150 square kilometer (60 square mile) swath of traversing right within the game-rich Timbavati Nature and its long established wildlife conservation efforts, my guide could have ensured daily Big Five sighting with relatively little effort. But that’s not the Motswari way. Less than an hour into my first drive I am reminded that regardless of the abundance of game and birdlife, it is the guiding team that ultimately makes the difference between routine game viewing and an unforgettable experience.

South Africa - Motswari lion kill

A male lion and his buffalo kill.

My guide and tracker are among the best I have come across anywhere. With them every drive is a front row seat to the ever-unfolding drama of the African wilderness. We track through dense bush a leopard stealthily returning to the tree where it has concealed its fresh impala kill. We witness a territorial dust off between two males leopards, so sudden that the pursued has literally propelled itself to the top of a 20 meter (65 foot) yellow acacia by the time we spot its discomfited pursuer.

South Africa - Motswari elephant and calves

An elephant cow and two calves.

We observe at close range the dynamics between two male lions feeding on the carcass of a young buffalo, and lionesses and cubs from a resident pride grooming off each other the traces of a recent kill. Then there are elephants, large breeding herds of them on the move with their nursing calves, mud-encrusted rhinos crashing their way out of a waterhole, and cheetahs on the prowl.

 

 

When we eventually return to the lodge, still buzzing from the experiences of the past few hours, it is to sumptuous brunches cooked to order or to formally served dinner or braai (South African barbecue) around the boma’s central fire pit.

Amazing Grace

South Africa - Motswari teatime

Teatime is announced with a song.

Meals are a never-ending feast here. And another Motswari people success story. Young Grace Mnisi discovered her passion for cooking when she joined the kitchen staff as a kitchen assistant right after school in 1996. She steadily worked her way through the ranks to pastry chef and sous-chef and finally head chef in 2004. Along the way she has ranked for Best Food among the top lodges in the country in national Bush Banquets competition and even found the time to earn herself a Professional Chef college certification. Today, Amazing Grace, as Chef Mnisi is often called, and her kitchen team treat the guests throughout the day to imaginative meals beautifully prepared from fresh local products. Her cuisine focuses on South African specialties with subtle international accents.

 

South Africa - Motswari, boma.

Dinner is served around the fire under the stars.

Dinner is always a delicious three-course course affair, served plated at candle-lit tables under the stars. But I have a special fondness for the teatime ritual. Served in the lounge just prior to the departure of the afternoon game drive, it is announced by the sound of female voices singing in the close-harmony style for which South Africa is famous. The voices belong to the kitchen staff who regally walk in bearing large trays and bowls of delicious salads, relishes, meats and savory and sweet pastries that are promptly arranged onto a long buffet table

A Better Place to Be

For three decades now the owners of Motswari have managed the property according to principles that would later be summarized in the 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism as caring for the wildlife, the land and the local community to “create better places to live in and to visit”. Thank you to everyone in the extended Motswari family for making it one of my best safari experiences ever.

Good to Know

  • Motswari has been owned by the Geiger family for two generations. Current owner is Marion Geiger. The property is managed by Newmark Hotels, Reserves and Lodges. Motswari Private Game Reserve. motswari.co.za e-mail: reception@motswari.co.za or reservations@motswari.co.za. Or call: + 27 (0) 21 427 5900.
  • It is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg or 75 minutes from Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport .
  • Accommodations consist of 15 bungalows that can welcome a total of 30 guests.
  • Complimentary WiFi service is available throughout the day and evening in the public areas.
  • First designated as a protected area in 1898, Kruger National Park became South Africa’s first national park in 1926. It is also one of the largest, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 square miles) in the northeastern corner of the country. Two dozen private reserves that share an open border with the western boundary of the park contribute an added 18,000 square kilometers (700 square miles) of unfenced land dedicated to conservation where the rich game population of the overall Kruger area can roam at will.
  • Collectively known as the Greater Kruger National Park, these private reserves are home to a number of upscale lodges ruled by charters that strictly limit the number of guests and game viewing vehicles allowed on their land to ensure that their guests enjoy an optimum game viewing experience as well as activities such as nature walks as well as off-road and night drives that are not allowed within the boundaries of the Kruger National Park.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motswari Private Game Reserve

Page 1 of 3123