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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

The greatest escape: a Namibian road safari

We take a self-guided drive between safari camps in Namibia and find spectacular empty landscapes, a notable variety of wildlife and impressive infrastructure

The road trip. It’s one of our most persistent fantasies. Kerouac may have immortalised it, but almost all of us at some stage in our lives want to throw caution to the wind and just drive. To follow a point on a compass through a landscape of wide-open spaces, mountain vistas and that road, devoid of other vehicles, disappearing over the horizon into infinity.

The trouble is, nearly 70 years after Kerouac wrote On the Road, that highway to infinity tends to be clogged with fellow fantasists. Not so in Namibia. Outside the capital Windhoek – where even the morning rush-hour barely causes a hold-up – lies a land of truly surreal landscapes where empty roads provide a ringside seat to the dunes of the Namib Desert, the rust-red mountains of Damaraland, the coastal plains of the Skeleton Coast and the ancient dried-up lake bed of Etosha National Park.My wife, Sarah, first made a Namibian road trip 25 years ago in a Series III Land Rover when she worked in safari camps in her 20s. Our mission is to retrace her tyre tracks combining the experience of Namibia’s dream-like landscapes while enjoying its unique desert-adapted wildlife and staying at safari lodges along the way.

First stop: AfriCat Foundation

Our first stop is a private nature reserve in central Namibia, two hours from Windhoek, home of the AfriCat Foundation. Okonjima Lodge lies at the foot of the Omboroko Mountains, surrounded by acacia thornveld at the centre of the 22,000-hectare reserve.

AfriCat began as a family-run sanctuary for cheetahs and leopards rescued from gun-toting livestock farmers whose cattle were being killed by the big cats. Eighty per cent of land in Namibia is privately owned and human/animal conflict is common. Rescued and orphaned cheetahs and leopards are looked after in an inner sanctum before, if possible, being released back into the larger reserve where they are monitored to see if they can learn to survive in the wild.

In two days (far too short a stay) while being led by our inspirational bush guide, Craig, we track a white rhino on foot to within 30 metres and spend an enchanting couple of hours watching a cheetah mother and her cubs hunting as night falls. Not to mention the amorous exploits of Mawenzi, the reserve’s largest and most charismatic leopard.

Today, AfriCat is dedicated to the conservation of all large carnivores in Namibia and is renowned for its sustainable approach and the benefits it has brought to local communities. The ultimate aim of the organisation is to educate the younger generations into returning to old-style forms of sustainable farming where both cattle and wild cats can be protected before the latter are squeezed out of existence.

Epic landscapes

Back on the trail again and heading south-east – a combination of metalled highways (B roads) and well-maintained and graded dirt tracks (C and D roads) – we find ourselves mesmerised once more by Namibia’s epic landscapes. A university professor’s dream, the geological history of the planet seems to be laid out before us like a slow-motion 3D animation.

These buckled layers of rock form the Great Escarpment that borders the Namib Desert and were laid down under ancient oceans, then pushed up into flat-topped mountains of volcanic dolomite and basalt. Many of these exposed rocks were created before the super-continent, Gondwanaland, broke up about 300 million years ago.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, conversation as we bowl ever onwards tends to take the long view: man’s hubris (the dinosaurs lasted more than 750 times as long as homo sapiens have currently managed), our own individual irrelevance, the Anthropocene (the concept of a geological epoch brought on by man’s impact on the environment) and the urgent need to protect the world’s last remaining wild animals before it’s too late.

Damaraland. Photo by Caroline Culbert
Damaraland. Photo by Caroline Culbert

The roadside sights of Namibia never cease to fascinate. Himba and Herero tribespeople selling crafts; donkey-propelled carts from another era slowly making their way along nearby farm tracks; elephants, jackals and even three cheetahs.

All punctuated by pit stops in remote desert towns. These include the tiny outpost of Solitaire, where the rusted but colourful remains of classic cars from the 1950s are collected in an outdoor museum.

The oldest desert in the world

Our destination on this leg of the journey is Little Kulala camp, near the salt pans at Sossusvlei on the borders of the Namib, the oldest desert in the world. Here, 300-metre, rust-coloured dunes tower over dried-up lakebeds the colour of cream. Dotted across the pans are the fossilised remains of ancient trees, their branches like the wand-waving arms of skeletal wizards turned to stone by the wicked witch of the desert. The only thing missing here is Dali’s melting clocks.

Dead vlei pan in Sossusvlei. Photo by Dana Allen
Dead vlei pan in Sossusvlei. Photo by Dana Allen

In the early morning and the late evening, we watch groups of oryx coming to drink at the waterhole in front of the camp, their lengthened shadows on the dunes looking like two-horned unicorns. These wonderful creatures (otherwise known as gemsbok) look as if they have been lifted from the pages of a Harry Potter book. Give them wings and let them learn to fly.

Heading north, we spend a night at Swakopmund, an ex-colonial harbour town that is popular as a stopover destination with tourists on their way to the Skeleton Coast. Increasing in popularity as a centre for adventure sports (biking, quad-biking, sandboarding, sky diving, kayaking), the town has an extensive seafront playground complete with promenades, boardwalks, high-end real estate and seafood restaurants.

Wrecked ribs of ships

On the Skeleton Coast, as everywhere on our odyssey, we frequently stop at roadside car parks (usually empty) and follow whatever wind- and sand-swept trails we can find to a lookout point where the wrecked ribs of ships, both ancient and modern, punctuate the shoreline. At Cape Cross, where the Portuguese landed in 1485, we’re greeted by the extraordinary sight of 200,000 fur seals. Cuddly though they seem, their smell up-close and personal doesn’t have quite the same appeal.

It’s the combination of roads as straight as a die with the desert wilderness inland and the treacherous shifting sandbanks of the coastline itself that make road trips here so surreal.

Namibia, Namib desert, road B4 southeast of Luederitz. Getty Images
Namibia, Namib desert, road B4 southeast of Luederitz. Getty Images

Both driving and navigation are easy, often with more than 150 kilometres between forks in the road. The only imperative is the one rule that must never be broken: take every opportunity to fill up your petrol tank. It has been known (so we’re warned) for remote filling stations to run out of fuel themselves. And always carry enough cash, because some won’t accept credit cards.

As we reached Damaraland, we stop at the side of the road to watch a herd of desert-adapted elephants grazing before leisurely crossing in front of us. These animals have adapted their lifestyles to survive the harsh beauty of these sun-blistered, almost waterless desert spaces. Damaraland is one of the most beautiful regions in Namibia, a Martian surface of red soil punctuated with acacia thorn and splashes of the silvery euphorbia bushes alongside prehistoric water courses, open plains, massive granite kopjes and deep gorges.

Front view of Damaraland Camp main area. Photo by Olwen Evans
Front view of Damaraland Camp main area. Photo by Olwen Evans

In Namibia, local communities manage their wildlife through communal conservancies, working together with safari-camp owners who create jobs and provide a source of income for local towns and villages to fund schools and dig wells.

Two examples are Desert Rhino and Damaraland camps, where, with the expert guidance of trackers from Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), we come nose-to-horn with the critically endangered black rhino. As always when on a walking safari into the domain of potentially lethal wild animals, a frisson of fear clutches at our vitals. But suddenly, there they are: our small group standing transfixed in a mesmerised silence, the only movement the rising curve of rictus grins.

A rhino at Desert Rhino camp. Courtesy Wilderness Safaris
A rhino at Desert Rhino camp. Courtesy Wilderness Safaris

Rhinos have bad eyesight but an acute sense of smell, and even though they are upwind of us, they soon catch our scent. Almost immediately, we sense that they are more afraid of us than we are of them. Their sense of vulnerability is strangely moving. This is, after all, an animal weighing up to two tonnes with the body armour of a starship trooper. But that horn, made of the same stuff as human fingernails, but still revered in the Far East as a source of machismo and status, is both its greatest weapon and enemy.

Desert Rhino Camp tent bedroom with view onto plains. Photo by Mike Myers
Desert Rhino Camp tent bedroom with view onto plains. Photo by Mike Myers

Happily, rhino poaching in Damaraland is declining, although this is partly because of the fact that many of the rhinos have been dehorned to deter poaching. Although the SRT like to keep the exact numbers secret, rhino numbers are in the hundreds now, having previously declined to about 50.

Our next stop is the famous rock-art site of Twyfelfontein. Here, about 5,000 years ago, San hunter-gatherers carved images of desert animals into the rocks. There are more than 2,500 engravings, which include lions, giraffes, rhinos, zebras and ostriches. San rock art is also associated with shamanistic beliefs with images that are half-animal and half-human, including oryx with human feet, ostriches that look like people turned into birds and lions with five toes.

Another Damaraland wonder is the Petrified Forest, west of Khorixas, with its giant tree trunks turned to stone. Following the melting of the ice after an ancient glaciation, the trees were swept downstream by a large flood and covered with sand. Deprived of oxygen, instead of rotting, the wood petrified. Today, these giant trunks can still be seen, indentations of their bark as clearly defined as 280 million years ago.

Ongava, our final destination before heading back full circle to Windhoek once more, is a nature reserve adjacent to the Etosha National Park. Here, a trio of lodges include a tented camp at the bottom of a steep escarpment, the main lodge itself halfway up, and luxury Little Ongava on top of the ridge with stupendous views across the plains below. In contrast to neighbouring Etosha, which from a landscape point of view is flat and featureless, the reserve is far lusher and more visually appealing. The reserve’s game vehicles are also allowed to follow animals off-road which is forbidden in the park.

The waterhole in front of the tented camp is yards from the tents and a magnet for large groups of antelopes (kudu, impala, springbok) as well as zebras and giraffes, which come to drink throughout the day. Further up the escarpment, Ongava Lodge and Little Ongava have access to a hide that looks across another waterhole where both white and black rhino come to drink after nightfall.

On our last night, they are joined by a couple of cheeky porcupines, bush ballerinas adorned with their spiky tutus, and a family of warthogs, the comedians of the bush. Even Kerouac couldn’t boast that.

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Read more:

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Essentials
The flights

Return flights from Dubai to Windhoek, with a combination of Emirates and Air Namibia, cost from US$790 (Dh2,902) via Johannesburg.
The trip
A 10-day self-drive in Namibia staying at a combination of the safari camps mentioned – Okonjima AfriCat, Little Kulala, Desert Rhino/Damaraland, Ongava – costs from $7,000 (Dh25,711) per person, including car hire (Toyota 4x4 or similar), but excluding international flights, with The Luxury Safari Company.
When to go
The cooler winter months, from June to September, are best, especially for game viewing.