x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Skeletons in the sand

Into the wild Namibia's coastline is scattered with bleached whale bones and remnants of wrecked ships.

"For me, flying is like driving a car," says Bertus Schoeman, as we set off from Windhoek over crumpled sandstone hills and rust-red dunes. "Of course, there are more checks to do than in a car but after 30 years it's an automatic thing." Bertus and his three brothers run the ultimate air safari: a four-day journey along Namibia's fabled Skeleton Coast flying a four-seat Cessna light aircraft at only 60 metres above the land.

Before the advent of GPS and radar, the coast of Namibia was one of the world's most treacherous for mariners, who struggled to navigate through the shifting sandbanks and thick fogs that roll in without warning. "If you were wrecked here, you were dead," says Bertus. "There was nobody to guide you through the desert to safety." But the lure of diamonds brought prospectors from Germany by ship in the 1880s. We fly low over their wooden houses, kraals and wagons, abandoned nearly a century ago. "At first there were so many diamonds that they swept them up with brooms," says Bertus. "Later, on moonlit nights, they would lie on rocks and look for telltale glints in the crusty sand."

We fly over our first wreck, the Edward Bolan, a supply ship for the miners that ran aground in 1909. Its steel hull can still be seen and the channel they dug to try and refloat it. Dark shapes appear in the jade green sea. "Sharks," says Bertus as he dips a wing for a closer look. There are dozens of them swimming up the coast. From March to September, Southern Right whales pass by here, too. We fly over the fishing fleet at Walvis Bay and the colourful seaside resort of Swakopmund before landing on a remote beach for a picnic lunch among the bleached whale bones and bits of wrecked ships that litter the shoreline.

I really do begin to feel that I am travelling in a flying car. We land on air strips that are little more than faint sandy paths and bump to a halt on valley floors where Bertus and his brothers have simply cleared away the bigger stones. Bertus needs only 100 metres to come to a halt safely. Namibia is a geologist's paradise, full of ancient rock structures that intrigue even the novice: crushed and contorted mud, eerie basalt plains similar to Mars and flat-topped lava mountains that turn crimson in the setting sun.

What constantly astonishes is how much life there is in this seemingly waterless land: oryx, zebra and springbok standing on ridges to catch a cooling ocean breeze. The world's oldest fossil plant, welwitschia mirabilis, a diminutive relative of the pine tree, can live for a thousand years on moisture from the fog that occasionally rolls in. Elsewhere there are pebble plains covered in red or green lichen.

Bertus lands and takes me on a walk to see beautifully executed cave paintings of hunters and animals drawn by Bushmen long ago. Only the Schoemans know their locations, often finding the caves by chance as they scrambled over the fractured rock on camping trips with their diamond-prospector-turned conservationist father Louw in the 1960s. It was Louw who lobbied successfully for the creation of the Skeleton Coast National Park in 1971.

A few rivers reach the sea, verdant lifelines for the desert-adapted animals and the Himba people who herd a few cattle and goats and live in simple beehive-shaped huts. They wear only loin cloths, their ochre-painted bodies adorned with intricate beadwork necklaces. The Schoemans fly in all the supplies for their private camps where guests stay in comfortable domed tents and dine on delicious oryx stew. Bertus is a keen amateur astronomer and one evening he sets up a large telescope to take a closer look at the explosive colours of the Milky Way, invisible to the naked eye. We are entranced.

As we head north, we fly over giraffes with tiny babies, desert elephants plodding back from a waterhole and colonies of Cape seals that stink even from above. Sometimes we fly so low that Bertus puts the wheels down in case we really do touch the ground.Near the border with Angola is shipwreck central. When the Dunedin Star ran aground here in 1942, it took 26 days to rescue the survivors stranded on the beach. The sand is littered with enough wooden planking to stock a dozen timber yards and broken spars from sailing ships, some dating back 300 years.

Our final camp is beside the Kunene River, which curls through a landscape of fractured gneiss peaks and plunging couloirs. It could be the Alps except that the pistes are orange sand. We land in a wide flat valley where Bertus keeps a Land Rover and set off down a heart-stoppingly steep black run of a sand couloir to the water's edge, where a speedboat is waiting to whisk us upstream past sunbathing crocodiles and water-sculpted rocks to tents set high above the gorge.

Later that evening I watch a shooting star trace a blazing arc across the ink-black sky. It seems a fitting end to a very special safari run by a family passionate about sharing their love of this true wilderness.