A bird's eye view of Namibia's hauntingly beautiful Skeleton Coast
Flying above shipwrecks, whale bones, seal skeletons and the world's highest sand dunes
As I rise from the dune, I wipe a kaleidoscope of garnets, malachite, quartz and even diamonds from my nose. They’re tiny, but the sand is literally sparkling with gemstones. This is in complete contrast to the two grey slivers on the map of the African continent, which illustrate its driest biomes: one runs horizontally across the Sahara, the other runs vertically along the oldest desert in the world – the Namib. Together, they look like the least hospitable places on Earth.
A place for big thinking
Namibia’s entire Atlantic coastline is buried by desert, which explains why, despite being the fifth-largest country on the continent of Africa, it is so sparsely populated. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that this arid wilderness is so rich in gems, and is the first country in the world to incorporate the protection of the environment into its constitution. Then again, in the desert, everything is precious.
For budding conservationists, a trip to Namibia is life-changing. Excursions, such as the ones offered at Little Kulala Camp, make everyone put down their phones and see things in real time. The landscape here is insane: a palette of coal black, rich terracotta that turns iridescent orange in a blink, and mounds of gleaming limestone shale lined with sedge green petit-skirts and fifty shades of “chino beige”. It’s also blisteringly hot (my flip-flops actually melt) and so quiet that I can feel my thoughts zinging around my head like a pinball machine. There’s space for some big thinking out here.
Rooms at the safari lodge are a mirage of luxury, complete with rooftop sky decks where you can watch the Milky Way traverse the heavens, and natural interiors that blend with the denizens of the desert. Dense morning fogs intermingle with the cycle of offshore and onshore winds, raising the water content in the desert bush. When 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.
Into the dunes
The main draw here is Sossusvlei, thought to be the highest sand dunes in the world. Travellers are encouraged to get up early to catch the first rays of dawn, when the plane of the sun changes the hues to a bright irony-russet, in spectacular contrast to the shadows of the trees in the adjoining Dead Vlei salt pan.
Sossusvlei is just the warm-up. For African cognoscente, the haunting beauty of the Skeleton Coast is the holy grail of safari. And there’s only one way to do it: with the piloting-quatro of the Schoeman brothers – aka Namibia’s Indiana Joneses. Taking off from bumpy remote landing strips (aka grass) in a 1970s Cessna 210 is definitely more intrepid than your average look-and-point zebra encounter.
We fly a porcupine’s whisker above the sweeping sands of the deserted coastline, which is littered with shipwrecks, colossal whale bones and seal skeletons, with the Atlantic’s big blue yonder. This is the Schoemans’ backyard and they know it like the back of their hands, pointing out rockfaces that have wrinkles to prove they’re 1.2 billion years old, and secret oases that act as elephant magnets.
Luxury redefines itself here as: what you need, when you need it. It is sometimes as fundamental as a glass of water. Meals are freshly prepared in the bush, eaten perched between hairy-footed gerbil and scorpion tracks, or in a thatched al fresco dining room with far-reaching views across the plains. Breakfast is as mundane as porridge, or as exotic as smoked kudu meat with wholemeal bread baked in a coffee can.
The temperature begins to soar as we fly south. André, my pilot and brother number two, points to the abandoned cities of fairy circles, thought to be built by termites, skirting some mind-blowing geology (mainly metamorphic rock) scattered with trailing oryx, which can go for months without water, getting hydration from grass. We land on a strip of earth and I watch André squeeze droplets of water from a squat-looking shrub like a Bear Grylls toughie proving his point.
Back in the air, the dunes begin to build into their archetypal pyramid shape, made by the eastern winds as they hit the western front. Skimming the ocean coastline at “see” level, 150 feet above the water, I can practically hear the pockets of sea lions known as cape sea seals. When Africa separated from South America 150 million years ago, great chasms appeared, filling the long lava cracks that scar the coast with purple garnets and brackish pools of water. Diamonds have long been scraped from this bedrock, and the earth is dotted with abandoned camps along a gravel plain.
At times, the morning fog smudges the horizon and the desert merges with the sky. 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 came too close to the coast and hit the rocks – just the latest in a line of shipwrecks; it won’t last long.
We land on the beach. Hyena and jackal footprints pattern the sand, along with seal bones and crab shells. It’s 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.
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, or saltbush, feeds all life. André keeps talking about a bird called an LBJ – it takes a while before I realise he’s referring to the little brown job that’s on every twitcher’s shortlist, the tractrac chat.
Day three and it’s time to take the yoke towards Terrace Bay, where we land on an actual airstrip for the first time and climb on to the roof of a rusty old Landy. We travel bumpety-bumpety along the pebbled beach up into the roaring dunes (they actually roar).Back in the air we gaze at great hamburger slabs of basalt and sandstone fused together by pressure. 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; and somewhere, the camouflaged Rüppell’s korhaan is making a croaky goose-like call.
Airborne again with the golden hour’s distinctly feminine light, I spot giraffe, oryx and, most thrilling of all, a wandering desert elephant. Heading up to the watershed and the blushing dunes of Little Sossusvlei (meaning smelly water) we learn that while members of the local Himba tribe never wash, they use a local plant as a kind of Vicks perfume and antiseptic.
The land sparkles with a fairy dust of mica deposits and rocks lay themselves out like a garage sale saying “buy me today”. Unexpectedly, we turn left. The Schoemans marked the track decades ago with an abandoned giraffe and rhino skull and, at Leyland’s Drift, we discover a hidden canyon of clay castles, where the riverbed is banked with grotesque mountains of sand in fairy-tale shapes and sizes. An intimidating troop of baboons and a circling buzzard keep us moving.
After all the excitement, the shades of the Kunene plains combined with the open Hartmann Valley soothe the soul. The Kunene is one of Africa’s cleanest rivers, with 79 species of fish, but to reach the camp, you need to take one of Namibia’s most precipitous roads. He’s already judged the mettle of my nerves on the roaring dunes, but it’s a big compliment to André that I stay in the jeep.
Each day feels like a crescendo, only to be surpassed the following day. Four days feel like a lifetime. More than anything else, it’s the complete and utter silence that turns the journey into a “letting go” experience, one where you can shed the stresses of work like a snake releasing itself from an old worn skin. Few places leave one so short of words. Every afternoon, a sandstorm whips up devils of swirling flesh-biting stings that are gone as quickly as they appear, returning the landscape to its 20:20 brilliance. The scene is so extreme, it bleaches all remnants of what feels like your “other life”. And each vista imprints on to the heart.
Updated: November 9, 2019 05:10 PM