Forbidding Beauty

An air safari across the unearthly desert expanses of Namibia, still one of the most remote corners of Africa.

It was a cloudless day-as it is for nine months a year in Namibia-and visibility from our Cessna 210 was just about perfect. We were flying north, parallel to the Skeleton Coast, and peering over the pilot's shoulder at the instruments I could see that we were cruising at 135 knots (155 mph) 200 feet above the surf. Immense orange sand dunes swelled up on our starboard side, while to port the heaving Atlantic was populated by thousands of Cape fur seals, packed together in restless rafts.

There was no beach: The Namib Desert began abruptly where the ocean left off. And the only signs of human activity were the bleached and shattered remains of huts, abandoned by diamond prospectors 70 or 80 years ago.

"Shipwreck coming up." Ray Rothlisberger pointed through the windshield at an approaching dark shape and then banked steeply to give us a better view of the ribs of a rusting freighter, now half-buried in sand. The Skeleton Coast acquired its ominous name thanks to the combination of an exceptionally powerful current flowing up from the Antarctic and an unremitting onshore wind. They can easily drive the unwary skipper into the shallows and produce endlessly shifting sandbars, an additional hazard to navigation. Any seaman unfortunate enough to be marooned here is faced by hundreds of miles of desert. Like much of Namibia, the Skeleton Coast is a place hostile to human life, but one of miraculous and unearthly beauty.

After circling for a couple of minutes, Ray resumed his original course and began a gradual climb. "We have to go up to about 1,500 feet," he explained, "because of the flamingos at Sandwich Bay. They get upset by low-flying aircraft, so the wildlife people have put in an altitude restriction." As it grew shallower, the water below changed from oceanic blue to luminous turquoise, overlaid with kaleidoscopic patterns of pink as thousands of flamingos took to the air, merged, separated, and again alighted to feed.

Since the end of apartheid I have been to southern Africa more than a dozen times, but this was my first air safari. I was in the middle of a week-long circuit that would take me from the desert flora and fauna of the NamibRand Nature Reserve to the desert elephant of Damaraland, via the world's tallest sand dunes at Sossusvlei and the stark and forbidding Skeleton Coast. Although Namibia has a modern and efficient road and communications infrastructure, a light aircraft, usually a single-engined Cessna 210, is by far the most pleasant and practical way to get around. Distances between the principal points of interest are generally long, 300-400 miles, and while at 8,000 feet the air is pleasantly cool, down on the desert floor temperatures routinely soar to over 100 degrees. But the primary reason to fly is that Namibia's majestic landscape is best seen from above-and it is landscape more than wildlife that is the attraction here, although there are areas, like Damaraland, where the wildlife viewing is extremely rewarding and quite unlike that found anywhere else in Africa.

Namibia was a German colony from 1884 until the end of World War I, when authority was transferred to South Africa by a League of Nations mandate. Although a colony for only 35 years, the country still shows conspicuous signs of German cultural influence: The main street of Swakopmund, one of the larger cities, remains Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse to this day. Initially, South African rule was little more than a continuation of the colonial order, but with the introduction of apartheid things began to change. The first clashes with the black population took place in 1959, and a year later the South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) was formed. In 1978, United Nations Resolution 435 declared further South African occupation of the country to be illegal, and full-scale warfare ensued. SWAPO was aided by the Angolan government, which in turn received Cuban and Soviet support, while in retaliation the South Africans backed the rebel Angolan forces of Jonas Savimbi. For 20 years a merciless conflict dragged on. But then Nelson Mandela walked free and the SWAPO guerrilla leader, Sam Nujoma, returned from exile to become president of a newly independent country. Nowadays Namibia is a relatively fortunate place. Although hot and arid, with little productive land, it is sparsely populated-one and a half million people occupy an area approximately twice the size of California-and blessed with immense mineral reserves, including huge deposits of gem-quality diamonds. And while the government has recently-and foolishly, in my opinion-gotten itself involved in the brutal civil war in neighboring Angola, the fighting is on the border, far from the principal areas of interest to visitors.

My air odyssey began in Windhoek, a clean, well-organized city of around 250,000 people. There I met Rothlisberger at Eros, the engagingly named domestic air terminal for light aviation. Now the managing director of a successful air charter business, he had spent five years in the '80s flying various military aircraft (and dodging Sam 6 ground-to-air missiles) over Angola. A tall, fit, suntanned man from a family of Swiss origin, Rothlisberger exuded a sense of calm professionalism and inspired instant confidence. Usually I enjoy traveling in small airplanes, but on the brink of flying over Namibia's exceptionally rugged and unforgiving terrain, it was reassuring to feel nothing much could go wrong that he wouldn't be able to handle.

A scorched, ocher-colored landscape unscrolled beneath us as we headed down to the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a desert wilderness area to the southwest of Windhoek. Namibia claims to have the oldest desert in the world, and the tortured rock formations beneath us seemed to bear that out, having clearly been gouged and eroded for hundreds of millions of years. I was greeted on arrival by Stephan Brückner, a third-generation Namibian whose grandfather had abandoned Prussia back in the 1920s.

"He began our family's connection with the country," Brückner explained in fluent English tinged with a German accent, "but it was my father who fell in love with this particular area. He came down here to escape the pressures of his business and bought a simple farm."

Staring at the surrounding desert, which seemed to combine elements of Arizona and the planet Mars, I expressed some disbelief that agriculture of any kind might be possible. Brückner laughed. "You're right. The grazing is so poor, farmers found they could raise only Karakul sheep, a desert species from central Asia. The land was overgrazed, and then there came a succession of droughts. All the sheep died, so then they shot wildlife to sell as meat. The only place the wild animals were protected was on my father's farm."

As we talked, our Land Rover began to climb slowly up a steep red dune, wallowing in the soft and shifting sand. It was rarely possible to get out of first gear, and in particularly difficult sections Brückner was obliged to stop, reverse, rev up the engine, and take a run at the track. Eventually we reached a vantage point, where he jumped out and began to scan the landscape with binoculars. Overwhelmed by the silence, grandeur, and apparent emptiness of the setting, I merely sat and stared. After a while I became conscious of my mind's habitual background noise being replaced by an expanding sense of calm and freedom.

My reverie was interrupted by Brückner handing me the binoculars. "Down there you'll see springbok, a herd of oryx, a pair of bat-eared foxes, and six or seven ostrich." Disbelieving, I followed the line of his pointing arm. And there they were. Clearly the desert was not the sterile place it appeared to the untrained eye. "Now that springbok numbers have recovered to a sufficient level," Brückner went on, "we're reintroducing cheetah. Just two males at first, followed by four females as soon as the males have established their territories. We've already got around sixty hyenas, and there are leopard up in the mountains, though we hardly ever see them."

As we continued our drive, Brückner explained the scope of his present project. Back in 1984, having witnessed the systematic elimination of the local fauna, his father decided to buy out as many of the bankrupt farmers as possible and to establish a private conservation area. The family now owns six farms, which make up approximately half of the NamibRand Nature Reserve's 734 square miles. The other fifty percent was sold to foreign investors.

"We've employed three head rangers who used to work for the nearby national park, and at the moment we're selling off a limited number of concessions to safari operators in the hope that the money from eco-tourism will permit us to open a research center for desert ecology."

It was late in the afternoon when we finally arrived at Wolwedans Dunes Lodge. ("The name literally means 'where the wolves dance' in Afrikaans," Stephan explained. "The first European settlers called the hyenas 'dancing wolves.' ") Purple shadows clothed the mountains opposite, and the fast-dropping sun ignited the dunes to an orange blaze.

With accommodations for 18 people, the lodge, opened in December 1998, is one of the first ventures in Namibia specifically aimed at an affluent international market. (The Brückners have operated a less expensive and rather more spartan tented camp since 1994.) Given the extreme remoteness of its location, Wolwedans' level of comfort is remarkable. The whole lodge, both public areas and guest chalets, has been constructed on stilts that rise five or six feet above the surrounding desert. (This ensures solid foundations and a free flow of air, as well as the exclusion of snakes and scorpions.) A 450-foot borehole delivers a reliable supply of water, while solar panels power the pumps and provide electric light. The chalets themselves are spacious and stylishly decorated,with facilities that would be no disgrace to a city hotel. And, in addition to a bar and dining area, the lodge even boasts a small library. Clearly it all represented a major capital investment, and I suggested as much to Stephan. "It was expensive to build," he replied, "but actually it's the constant attrition of the environment that is our biggest problem. We'll have to spend up to 100,000 Namibian dollars a year ($15,200) on wood maintenance alone."

During my stay at Wolwedans it was evident that Brückner had few qualms about such a new and potentially risky business venture, and that he felt confident of his place in Namibian society. Unlike South Africa, which opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way of transcending the evils of its apartheid past, Namibia preferred simply to draw a line under it and, as far as possible, to let bygones be bygones. It is presently impossible to say which approach will prove more successful in the long run, but many Namibians, black as well as white, insist that race relations can only suffer from the revival of past traumas.

Little more than an hour's drive from Wolwedans, the respected South African company Wilderness Safaris has recently opened Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, another property designed to appeal to the steadily increasing numbers of affluent overseas visitors. Having unpacked and settled in, I strolled out onto the main terrace in order to contemplate the routinely stupendous Namibian panorama. Along the horizon lay an enigmatic brick-red smudge. "That is the first ridge of dunes in the Namib-Naukluft Park," my guide, Iain Derrick, explained. "Actually they're about forty miles from here, but they're up to a thousand feet high, which is why you can see them so plainly. All the sand originally came from the Kalahari. Over millions of years it was washed down the Orange River into the Atlantic. There the current piled it back onto the beach, and the prevailing wind progressively blew it inland. If you look around, all these rocky outcrops are actually the tops of mountains, the bulk of which has been buried."

The following morning I was roused an hour and a half before sunrise. The moon having set, I stumbled my way to the main lodge by flashlight. Overhead, the stars and planets burned down like the streetlights of some vast celestial metropolis. Bending down to peer through the eyepiece of a small astronomical telescope, I discovered that not only Jupiter but also its four principal moons could be seen with astonishing clarity. "The bushmen claim they can see the four Galilean moons-Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto-with the naked eye," Iain Derrick remarked, handing me a welcome cup of coffee. Having finished a light breakfast, Iain and I piled into a Land Rover for the 45-minute drive to Sesriem, a small, dusty settlement at the entrance to the national park. There I found Eric Hesemans, a lean and athletic man apparently in his mid-30s, standing next to a deflated hot-air balloon that was spread out like a giant, brightly colored tablecloth.

"Today we go," Eric remarked, flinging a handful of fine dust into the air to demonstrate the relative absence of wind. "Yesterday was no good, but this morning is ideal. In Namibia you can fly a balloon for 330 days a year. There are no houses, no main roads, no power lines. It's easy to land, and the visibility is usually perfect. From March until May, if you go up to around 1,500 meters [4,920 feet], you can see the coast sixty-nine miles away. In fact, the only real problem is the strength of the sun and the ultraviolet light. It means the life of the balloon itself is very short, maybe only eighteen months-which is a problem, as they're really expensive."

The strengthening predawn light incited Hesemans to action. He began shouting instructions to his staff in a polyglot mixture of German, English, French, and Afrikaans. At first, two giant electric fans blew cold air into the canopy, but after about 15 minutes the main burner was ignited and the balloon quickly swelled and heaved itself from the desert floor. I clambered aboard, and Eric once more fired the burner. A six-foot flame shot skyward, and the balloon began to slide sideways, imperceptibly at first, just a few inches above the surface of the desert. However, within a couple of minutes the Land Rover was just a child's toy, 2,000 feet below. As soon as we were well and truly aloft, I asked Eric how exactly he had managed to end up in the Namib Desert making a living as a balloon pilot. He had been born and raised in Zaire, he replied, his family being of Belgian origin, but during the course of his work as a wildlife ranger he had made the mistake of arresting a poacher who turned out to be a relative of the late "lamented" President Mobutu.

"Which is how I found myself in need of a new career. I tried ballooning back in Europe, and the first time I went up I was hooked. So I trained for a commercial license. Namibia was an obvious choice because it's relatively safe and well organized. In fact, compared with most African countries, it's a paradise."

It was at this precise moment that the first flaming rim of sun appeared above the horizon, setting fire to the immense Sossusvlei dunes. Being carried along at the speed of the wind, we experienced complete silence and no sense of movement. It was as if all the familiar rules of time and space had been temporarily suspended, and not for the first time in Namibia I was possessed by a magical sense of unreality.

Ray and his Cessna were waiting at the Sesriem airstrip, and we were airborne almost immediately, bound for the Skeleton Coast. Having shown us fur seals and flamingos, Ray, anxious that I should have a complete experience of the region's extreme desolation, took off his headphones to announce that he intended to land on the beach up ahead. He circled a couple of times to make absolutely sure this was indeed the place, made a studied final approach, and we came down with a soft thud, the wheels breaking the surface by little more than an inch. Having clambered out, I asked Iain Derrick about the famous Skeleton Coast lions, the topic of innumerable television wildlife documentaries, which used to live in the dunes and prey upon the fur seal colonies. "The last one was seen about eight years ago," he replied. "Unfortunately, they would sometimes wander way inland, where they would then get poisoned or shot." Looking around, it seemed improbable that anything could ever have survived in a setting so utterly bleak. I said as much, but Iain merely pointed to a line of tracks heading off down to the shoreline. "Hyena. Quite fresh. This morning, maybe."We sauntered down to the ocean's edge, where the South Atlantic breakers collapsed and foamed with an unceasing roar. And there, right on cue, we discovered a colossal natural shipwreck-the bleached, splintered skeleton of a whale.

Building up sufficient speed on a beach to get airborne takes noticeably longer than usual, but just as I was beginning to think we would be continuing our trip overland, the Cessna hauled itself into the air and we headed off northeast toward Damaraland and the valley of the Huab River. If the Namibian landscape to date had been spectacular, then the scenery around Brandberg, at 8,442 feet the country's highest mountain, is so extraordinary as to be virtually indescribable. Geological strata in myriad shades from yellow through orange to purple lay piled one on another, while along the horizon stood strange wind-sculpted peaks, enigmatic fortress towers from another planet entirely. The final minutes of our three-hour flight followed the bed of the Huab River, a ribbon of sand twisting through the wilderness. For eleven months a year the Huab is dry, but in January or February rain clouds blow across southern Africa from the Indian Ocean and, having first deposited their rain on Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, are finally snared by the highlands of central Namibia. Sometimes this results in a flash flood and the Huab becomes a rampaging torrent 250 yards across. Long after the last pools have evaporated, though, enough water remains trapped beneath the sand to allow plants to flourish, which in turn provide food for the desert elephant.

Ray lined up his final approach with conspicuous care and landed on an almost invisible dirt strip with a rattle of stones and an impressive cloud of reddish dust. A waiting vehicle then drove us to the nearby Damaraland Camp. Opened four years ago within the so-called Torra Conservancy, an area intended to protect the environment as well as generate funds for local health and education projects, it turned out to be a tented camp for people who don't like tents. Guests stay under canvas, but the accommodations are unusually spacious, with good bathroom facilities and solar-powered showers. There is also a small but extremely dramatic swimming pool, carved out of an adjacent hillside.

Until a few years ago the local Damara people regarded the desert elephant as a complete menace-a single night being quite sufficient for a herd to wreak utter havoc in their fields-but now attitudes have changed entirely, thanks to the money derived from tourism. Though the elephants may wander for a considerable distance, some are invariably to be found close to the camp due to the artificial water holes that have been dug for the local cattle. However, it still took us a couple of hours, methodically following their plate-sized tracks, before we came across a group of eleven contentedly browsing pachyderms.

For three years now the elephants have seen a vehicle nearly every day, and as a result they appeared unconcerned by our arrival, although a large bull did briefly fix us with a challenging stare. As well as possessing the ability to survive for extended periods without water, desert elephants are slightly smaller in stature than the common variety and have significantly larger feet (for walking on soft sand). Due to the iron-rich Namibian soil, their hides are often reddish in color, and owing to the hardship of their environment they tend to breed several years earlier than their more fortunate cousins elsewhere. Other than that, they are essentially the same animal. We sat watching for more than an hour: Aside from the occasional rending of branches, the loudest noise we heard was that of the elephants' stomachs rumbling.

Back at camp I fell into conversation with staff member Margaret de Vries and, having exhausted the subject of elephant viewing, began to ask her about the local Damara people, their way of life and hopes for the future. "Oh, I'm not a Damara," was her reply, "I'm a Riemvasmaker. We are from near Uppington, on the edge of the Kalahari, in South Africa."

So how did she come to be in Namibia, 750 miles away? I inquired.

"In the apartheid time the South African government wanted to build a military airfield, so my people were thrown off their land and sent up here," she replied, laughing at the recollection of this neo-Stalinist outrage, with no apparent residue of resentment or racial animosity.

It was a moment that struck me as emblematic. Blighted by war for generations, Namibia is making a fresh start. Although undeniably a country with its fair share of economic and social problems-the fishing industry is in decline, AIDS continues to ravage the most productive sector of the population, and there is sporadic fighting along the northern border with Angola-the overall mood is defiantly upbeat. Crime is now under control; race relations appear markedly more harmonious than in neighboring South Africa; the press is still free to be disrespectful of the government; and investment is modernizing the economy and creating new opportunities for employment. Generally speaking, it is an encouraging picture. Indeed, something cheerful out of Africa for a change!

Andrew Powell, a London-based contributing editor, wrote about the Explora en Atacama lodge in Chile in Departures' last issue.