Namib Desert hosts variety of plants, animals, scenery

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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 cracks.

NamibiaThe 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.

Southwest region

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 landscape.

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 (Johannesburg office).

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.

Skeleton Coast

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 unfortunate creature.

Damaraland

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

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.

Northeast region

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 poison.

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 branches.

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) 524-7979.

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