x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Girls gone wild in Namibia

A drive through the Namibian desert, believed to be the oldest in the world, reveals a silent and unspoilt wilderness of astonishing beauty.

Giraffes in Namibia's Etosha National Park. A drive through the Namibian desert, believed to be the oldest in the world, reveals a silent and unspoilt wilderness of astonishing beauty.
Giraffes in Namibia's Etosha National Park. A drive through the Namibian desert, believed to be the oldest in the world, reveals a silent and unspoilt wilderness of astonishing beauty.

It seemed to be a pretty big adventure. Two women driving into the Namibian wilderness in a small saloon with a few litres of water, some boiled sweets and Amy Winehouse for company. Fortunately, Namibia's roads are the envy of the rest of Africa: there are few cars, even fewer lorries, and carjacking is unknown. A two-hour drive north of the capital, Windhoek, lies Erongo, a small lodge of spacious canvas tents high on a granite kopje. Below us the land unfurls like a map. Our guide, Gelasius, takes us on a nature ramble across a rust-red boulder-strewn landscape to cave paintings made 2,000 years ago: a man launching a javelin, women dancing in feather ra-ra skirts, a giraffe walking along. The figures are full of vitality, their lines reminiscent of Matisse's blue nudes. Above the cave entrance four rock kestrel chicks peer down at us from their nest.

Namibia's small towns are friendly places. There is none of the unease that strangers feel in similar communities in South Africa. Visiting nearby Omaruru, founded by German missionaries in the 19th century, is like stepping into the pages of a Ladies No 1 Detective Agency novel. Everyone enunciates English with studied precision like the heroine of the novels, Mma Ramotswe, and has time for a chat, from the man who mends our slow puncture to the carvers turning mopane wood into warthogs.

Herero women sashay down the main street in traditional printed-cotton crinolines with horn-shaped hats. They look like extras from Gone with the Wind. One woman asks Brenda where she got her 1950s' tea-dress with its big red roses. "It is sooo beeauuutifool", she says. Brenda tells her it's home-made. "Always the best; you are so lucky to have such a good choice of fabric." We drive west into the Namib desert, where flat-topped buttes and clusters of rock chimneys rise from the red gravel plain. It is a place of extraordinary beauty reminiscent of Monument Valley in Arizona. Many of Africa's largest mammals have adapted to survive in this hostile terrain including elephant, zebra, oryx and black rhino. Families of springbok pose on spines of rock to catch the breeze.

In 1970 there were 65,000 black rhino in Africa. They have since been hunted to the edge of extinction, much of the valuable horn bought by Yemenis and turned into hilts for ceremonial daggers. Now there are fewer than 4,000 rhino and quite a few are hiding out in this remote corner of Namibia with 24-hour security. An all-terrain safari vehicle transfers us to Desert Rhino Camp, which specialises in tracking rhino on foot. But first we must find them. After several hours meandering up hill and down dale, driven by our guide Kapoi, it is Brenda who spots a hump that doesn't look quite right in the landscape.

It's Hoaketi and her five-month-old son Harry. We don't even need to get out of the vehicle. Hoaketi is walking our way, pausing occasionally to nibble a bush and for Harry to catch up. The canvas atop our vehicle slaps in the wind. Hoaketi is only 30m away now and her ears have started twirling madly as she tries to identify the sound. Kapoi looks tense too and is holding the key in the ignition. Hoaketi snorts and does a mock charge.

"If we reverse, she'll charge us all the way because we're moving", he whispers. "We won't get hurt but she might injure herself on the fender." We hold our breath. Hoaketi is nearly as tall as me and her horn is very sharp. Our vehicle has open sides. Fortunately rhinos have very poor eyesight. Confused, Hoaketi trots round in a circle, surprisingly nimbly for something weighing 1,400kg, and then heads off in the other direction. Harry scurries after her.

Back at the lodge, we find our fellow guests have had close encounters of their own. Marco has seen a leopard and two cheetah in a dry river bed. Jane and Paul have award-winning photographs of oryx posing on a blood-red hillside at sunset. We dine on oryx steak, rather a strange menu choice in a conservation lodge but they are not a protected species - yet. Etosha, the country's largest wildlife park, is a drive-through like South Africa's Kruger but much less crowded. To the left is the blinding white salt pan where flamingos come to breed; to the right waterholes hidden in acacia and mopane woodland. Although Etosha cannot equal Kenya's Masai Mara for guaranteed big game sightings, there is plenty to reward the observant visitor: nervy giraffe, baby wildebeest, doe-eyed kudu, and all kinds of birds of prey posing on dead branches.

We can hardly believe our luck when we spot two cheetah crossing the park's main road. We follow them in our car as they eye up a young springbok. The springbok is soon swept up by its mother and the cheetah obligingly walk on to the salt pan for the perfect photo opportunity. From Etosha we head south again into the lush Otavi Mountains to stay at Mundulea, a private nature reserve. It is owned by Bruno Nebe, born in Namibia of German descent, who worked as a photographer for the Stern magazine before returning in 1990 after the country gained its independence from South Africa.

Bruno bought Mundulea from a German cattle rancher in 2002 and took down the internal fences to create a 130-square-kilometre wildlife refuge. It was six months before he saw his first wild animal. Now there are more than 2,000 head of game including rhino, leopard, cheetah, wildebeest and rare black-faced impala. Trying to recreate a balanced ecology to support the whole cast of wildlife found here 200 years ago isn't easy. "I bought 60 springbok from a hunting ranch and within six months cheetah had killed 43 of them", says Bruno. "The springbok just weren't smart enough. But those that were left bred fast and now we're up to 58 again. And because these youngsters have learnt they must watch out for cheetah, leopard and hyena they're less vulnerable."

It is a heart-warming story and illustrates Bruno's passion for wildlife conservation. We see how grasses can be as beautiful as roses - and as varied. We learn that the life cycle of the crimson velvet mite is an ecological miracle and that a fit rhino will bite twigs at a 45-degree angle as cleanly as a butcher's knife. Like many of the top guides in Africa, Bruno's greatest love is birds. There are 240 species at Mundulea including some of Africa's most colourful: the violet-eared waxbill and the blue-cheeked bee-eater. We watch a pair of anxious waxbills trying to distract a Jacobin cuckoo.

"She wants to lay eggs in their nest," says Bruno, "but hers will hatch a day early and kick the waxbill eggs out using protrusions on their wings." As we watch the tussle, a bronze-winged courser plays hide-and-seek with us. Chancing on theatricals like this is what makes walking through the African bush such a pleasure. Mundulea's bush camp is a work of art. Stockades made from fallen branches cradle four large canvas tents. Bruno has made all the furniture himself including the oryx horn towel rails in the open-air bathrooms. I shower watching a courting pair of paradise flycatchers flit through the trees above.

Meals are served on a highly-polished section of tree trunk beneath a canvas awning. Bruno is cook too, preparing delicious stews, soups and roasted vegetables over an open fire in three-legged cast-iron pots. Over dinner he expounds on the evils of hunting, such as how shooting rare roan and sable antelope for their trophy horns reduces the quality of the gene pool by taking out alpha males before they have the chance to sire enough offspring.

The Namibian government has given Bruno six rhino to look after including Hooker, the last member of the chobiensis sub-species, which was banished from Etosha for chasing cars. "We're hoping he'll cover all the females," says Bruno, "and then his daughters so we can save this sub-species. "I don't want to find myself reading a book to my grandchildren about rhino and lion knowing they'll never see them in the wild and that I did nothing to try and stop their extinction."

It is a sentiment we would all agree with but which few of us will do anything about. Bruno is a rarity, a man with an almost impossible mission, and I find myself handing over all the dollars I have left to help look after Hooker's offspring. Back among the clean, colourful and orderly streets of downtown Windhoek, Brenda and I congratulate ourselves on driving 2,000km without incident through a silent unspoilt wilderness of astonishing beauty. Above all, we didn't have one moment of worry about our personal security - a rare thing in today's southern Africa.

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