An early morning mist created by the frosty Atlantic Ocean and the warm desert air of the Skeleton Coast is rolling towards us. We’re in Damaraland, an otherworldly region of Namibia surrounded by the Huab River Valley and the brooding Brandberg Mountains. At 5:30 am the temperature is already 90 degrees and likely to hit triple digits by noon. On our first drive of the morning, our local guide tracks down a herd of elephants roaming around the vegetated area of a dry riverbed. Standing on its back legs just 10 feet away from our Land Rover Defender, we see one of these majestic animals stretch its trunk skyward to reach the very last leaf on a tree. We are less than nothing to him. He can’t even be bothered to glance in our direction.
With its massive granite koppies, deserted beaches littered with ghostly shipwrecks, prehistoric San (Bushman) rock paintings and open grasslands, Damaraland is a fascinating destination in a country of breathtaking beauty and splendor. Here, food and water supplies determine the movement of wildlife and you consider yourself lucky if you encounter the endangered desert elephant or, rarest of them all, the black rhino. In Namibia, you go to Etosha National Park to see the highest concentration of wildlife. But that’s not in our itinerary. My husband and I are here because of my obsession with sand.
You see, I have a thing for deserts. I’ve checked off my list the Sonoran and Mojave, Argentina’s Patagonia, Chile’s Atacama and Australia’s Outback. All deserts, which cover about one fifth of the Earth's surface, are unique and adapt to their own particular elements. I’ve never met a desert I didn’t like. As it happens, next on my list is the Namib, which stretches some 1000 miles along the Atlantic Ocean coast, gets less than .4 inches of rain a year and is the oldest living desert on the planet. In these harsh environments, there are mesmerizing crescent shaped sand sculptures, fascinating traditions and survival techniques used by indigenous desert people and remarkable species of animals and plants.
The country has had a colourful and turbulent history. Starting in the 18th century, European missionaries opened up the interior and paved the way for traders who came later. The country was annexed by Germany before it was forced to give it up after World War I. A relatively young nation, Namibia gained its independence in 1990 after prolonged struggles under an apartheid South Africa. More recently, the country has attracted big Hollywood productions looking to create an otherworldly landscape (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 10,000 BC were shot here).
After leaving Damaraland, we spend a couple of days exploring Swakopmund, a town on the edge of the Namib Desert where bohemian chic fuses with Bavarian architecture and culture. Here, conservative descendants of German settlers rub shoulders with a diverse mix of artists, hippies and local Namibian Rastafarians who lead desert tours and teach sandboarding in the nearby dunes.
Driving south on bone-rattling gravel and sand roads for about five hours we finally arrive at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge where two smiling staff members greet us with cold washcloths and welcome cocktails before leading us to our luxurious stone and glass villa. Set on a private reserve at the foothills of a mountain, we spend the next two days quad biking the ochre dunes, hiking the jagged cliffs, stargazing with the resident astronomer and enjoying impromptu sundowners from the back of our Defender with our affable naturalist. Over gin and tonics and spicy samosas, we learn about this seemingly barren landscape that is, in fact, teeming with life. There’s the Stenocara beetle, which uses its wings to capture moisture from the morning mists. And the Welwitschia mirabilis, an unusual shrub-like plant that continuously grows just two long, strap-shaped leaves throughout its lifetime. Deriving moisture from the coastal sea fogs the plant survives the extremely arid conditions.
Saving the best for last, we end our Namibian journey with a visit to Sossusvlei, a postcard-perfect clay pan enclosed by the oldest (30 million years old) dunes and, to my mind, the most beautiful on the planet. Wind continuously reshapes the complex patterns of these colossal dunes, some of which soar 1,000 feet into the cerulean sky. Baring numbers instead of names, we drive by Dune 45, an oft photographed and popular one to climb. From afar, the long line of tourists making their way up the crest is like a procession of ants climbing a surreal orange knoll.
Before a picnic lunch under an ancient acacia tree, we make our way up the sand and look out across a dreamscape of swirling apricot dunes and dust devils. The best part is running down the side of the dune to the vanilla white pan, where a petrified forest has stood for hundreds of years.
Our last night we spend at Little Kulala, a spectacular lodge featuring 11 canvas-and-thatch villas decorated with exquisite fittings and fixtures, dreamy bleached decks with private plunge pools, indoor and outdoor showers and rooftop “skybeds” for romantic stargazing. Enjoying our last sundowners of the trip, we sit by the pool and listen for barking geckos calling out from their burrows at dusk.
WHERE TO STAY Wilderness Safaris, a destination management company specializing in privately hosted safaris and wildlife experiences in the most remote and unspoiled areas in southern Africa, operates 12 camps throughout Namibia and provides inter-camp air transfers. The company shares the resulting income streams with villagers and communities who live on the periphery of these reserves. Damaraland Camp features 10 tented rooms with queen beds, ceiling fan and ensuite bathrooms. Activities throughout the area are in 7-seater open Land Rovers, on foot and on mountain bike. The luxurious Little Kulala is within a reserve with direct access to Sossusvlei and ideal for visiting the dunes. Meanwhile, &Beyond Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge features 10 spacious, air-conditioned desert villas with glass-encased bathrooms, star-viewing skylights, private verandas, fireplaces and stocked personal bars. There’s quad biking, naturalist-guided game drives, desert walks and stargazing.
WHEN TO GO Best time to go is May through October, when it’s cool and dry. From November to March the summer is hot and heavy rains sometimes make the gravel roads to the Namib completely impassable.
WHAT TO PACK Bring comfortable, casual clothing in neutral colours. Sunblock, sunglasses and a hat are essentials. ExOfficio's BUZZ OFF line of apparel is the best solution for personal insect protection. Blundstone’s leather lined boots are as good in the Outback as they are in the Namib desert. Pack it all in a Fjallraven Kajka 100 backpack, which is sturdy, waterproof and features practical zippered pockets and wet/dry compartments to keep your clean clothes separate from the rest of your things. Don’t forget your Ray-Ban Aviator Classic sunglasses and camera. Nikon just reinvented its mirrorless camera through the Nikon Z mount system.
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