NAMIBRAND NATURE RESERVE, Namibia--Deserts come in many forms:
sand, of course, ideally with towering dunes; rock and gravel,
sometimes with crystals brightening the color scheme, and baked
earth where pretty flowers incongruously manage to push through the
The southern African
nation of Namibia is blessed (or cursed) with all of the above. In
fact, 50% of the country's 318,250 square miles is desert.
To begin with the Namib Desert's most dramatic views, clients
can drive or take the aptly named dune hopper, a five-seater
Cessna, south from Windhoek, the capital, to Wolwedans Dune Camp,
situated smack in the midst of the NamibRand Nature Reserve's
sands.During the flight, the terrain below changes from clumps of
vegetation sprouting from dry riverbeds to striated mesas and
canyons in shades of rust, gray and tan, then finally, to sand.
In the southwest, Wolwedans, a member of the prestigious Classic
Safari Camps of Africa, fits its wild setting perfectly.
Comfortable tents sit perched on wooden platforms, the better to
keep out drifting sands. Each houses twin beds, a luggage stand, a
small night table and a solar lamp. A bar, a lounge and a dining
room are in a separate building nearby.
Land-Rover excursions pass low dunes, clumps of "bushman" grass,
white-trunked shepherds' trees where browse lines mark feeding
animals' reach and fairy circles, pockmarked spots where nothing
grows. Clients might spot oryx, zebras, ostriches and up to 120
bird species. The main attraction, however, is the expansive desert
Rates run $135 per person, double, including meals and
excursions. Fax: (011) 264-61 220-102.
From Wolwedans, a one-hour drive leads to Sesriem, gateway to
the world's highest dunes, reaching 1,200 feet. Here, Karos Lodge
offers attractively furnished, spacious bungalows with amenities
unexpected in this desolate setting. Rates are $101 per person,
double, including two meals. Fax: (011) 27-11 484-6206
Dune-viewing requires an early wake-up call to catch the best
play of light and shadow on the curves and angles of these
sculptured mountains of sand.
Nearing Sossusvlei, site of the highest dunes, the dirt and
gravel road gives way to pure sand. Ahead and on both sides, the
sand giants rise, some topped by multiple pyramid peaks and others
by gentle lines. Excursions allow time for roaming, climbing or
quietly absorbing the scenery. Then, breakfast is served under a
scraggly tree before visitors head back to the lodge and respite
from the scorching sun.
For desert of a different sort, drive along the northwestern
Skeleton Coast. Visitors enter this national park through gates
emblazoned with skulls and crossbones--appropriate for a coast that
brought death to hundreds of explorers whose ships were wrecked on
its treacherous sandbars.
Only the southern section of the park's 4 million acres is
accessible to tourists, but the loneliness of its gravel plains and
low dunes set the scene for equally solitary sights: a rusting oil
rig, now a roosting place for cormorants; Terrace Bay, a former
mining settlement; concrete pier posts and nothing else at
Toscanini, once a whaling station, and the sad remains of wooden
ships still rotting on the shore.
Amid the barrenness, knowledgeable guides point out garnets and
agates; tubular red lichen forming designs on black rocks; Tshama
melons, round yellow balls attached to long, skinny vines crawling
along the baked earth, and the bones of a jackal or other
East of the Skeleton Coast lies one of Africa's most awesome
scenic regions, Damaraland. Ancient granite mountains, slowly
drifting "walking dunes," forests of petrified driftwood, fields of
dolerite, and engravings etched into rust-red sandstone rocks by
Bushmen millennia ago make for an ever-changing panorama.
From Sesfontein, clients with four-wheel drive vehicles can
drive along the dry bed of the Hoanib River in search of desert
elephants and rhinos. The former are surprisingly easy to find.
Though not a distinct species, these elephants have adapted to
their harsh environment and can go as long as five days without
water. Oryx, arguably the most beautiful antelope, roam here, as
well. Often called the perfect desert animal, the oryx can survive
with very little water.
Kaokoland, to the north, is a dry, sparsely populated land. Half
of its inhabitants are Himbas who live in clusters of
beehive-shaped huts made of mud over a frame of bent saplings.
A handsome, nomadic people, the Himba coat their skin with a
mixture of red ochre, fat and herbs. The women's elaborate hairdos
also are heavily caked with ochre. Female attire consists of
leather skirts, rows of copper bracelets on arms and legs and
massive collars formed of ochre and palm oil with tiny pieces of
beads or metal pressed into the circle.
Clients without four-wheel-drive transportation can arrange to
visit a Himba settlement from Fort Sesfontein Lodge. Here, 13 guest
rooms are housed in a former German fort. Rates are $56 per person,
double, with breakfast. Book through local operators.
In the northeast, Namibia's most famous desert dwellers, the
San, or Bushmen, make their home. From a base at Tsumkwe Lodge,
clients can visit a San village where they follow several hunters
who inspect snares, set traps, make fire by twirling a stick over
dried grass and dig up larvae that they squeeze onto arrows for
Whether the men have donned their beaded loincloths and hoisted
their duiker-skin bag of arrows for the tourists does not matter;
dress and activities are 100% authentic. So is the settlement, a
collection of curved huts made of grass over a frame of laced
The lodge's five teak bungalows are simple but have en suite
baths. The owner is very knowledgeable about the Bushmen and can
arrange excursions. Rates are $49 per person double with full
board. Fax: (011) 264-67 220-060.
The desert adventures can be arranged by Afro Ventures. Fax:
(011) 264-61 220-609.
For information on Namibia, call Kartagener Associates at (800)