Flying up near the Angolan border alongside Namibia’s Hartmann Valley, we caught sight of a lone oryx with its long, straight horns. There’s a reason Namibia chose the oryx as its national animal when it gained independence in 1990. In the desolate place where we saw it, and indeed in much of this savagely beautiful land, most other animals would be dead. Not the oryx. It can live on almost no water and withstand murderous heat by channeling blood to its nostrils to cool itself down.
It must be said that Namibia is mostly nothing, which explains why Germany had to be backed into colonizing it in the late 1800s. “Most places count farm density in cows per hectare,” says Micato Safaris guide Hendrik Groenewald, who moved from South Africa to Namibia 23 years ago. “Here, we count hectares per cow.”
But what a majestic nothing it is, grand and primeval like a planet the day after creation: its vast salt pans that spring briefly to life after violent rains before subsiding again into endless white salt; its lunar canyons and saw-toothed crags; its sand dunes rolling unchecked until they hit the sea.
Animals? Namibia’s got ’em, but they’re not the reason to come. You come for the country’s grandeur and the fact that it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before—in or out of Africa. Grandeur, of course, imposes certain inconveniences. If you want to take in the full scope, you’ll have to travel considerable distances, which means hopping from desert airstrip to desert airstrip by small plane. God clearly wasn’t thinking of easy tourist access when he made the place. (To get an idea, glance at a map, find the capital, Windhoek, smack in the middle of Namibia, and look up and to the left. In my nine days, I covered the entire northwest pocket in four stops.)
Fortunately, humans have options unavailable to the oryx for enjoying the otherworldly landscape, no evolutionary adaptation required. Hidden behind prehistoric rocks or the bend in an unlikely river are sumptuous encampments that blend into the environment while insulating you from its harsher elements. The camps are discreet, but what they lack in outer pizzazz, they make up for in interior posh and the highest standards of comfort.
We started out from Windhoek in a four-seat Cessna 210. It was me, Alan Petersen, my brilliant guide (his ancestry is Javanese, Scottish and Bushman) from Micato Safaris, and our young pilot, Marius Hugo (who grew up on a farm between Windhoek and Swakopmund, on the coast). An hour and a half by air straight north and we touched down at the Etosha pan.
Etosha means “great white place,” and boy is it that: 75 miles of cracked white lake bed. When it rains, which happens rarely, the whole pan shimmers under a thin sheet of water. The water nourishes a hardy ecosystem of plants and scrubby trees and the birds and beasts who feed off them.
We’re staying at The Fort at Onguma, one of five splendid camps just outside Etosha National Park. From the exterior, The Fort’s adobe walls and modest battlements recall an old German outpost built in 1906 at nearby Namutoni. That’s where the similarity ends. Inside the main house and 12 mini suites, each in its own outbuilding, all is cool comfort. The deep-brown walls, the leafy-green fabrics and the simple wooden furniture give the high-ceilinged rooms a shady elegance—shady like a tree, I mean. Forget about architectural authenticity: Rough-hewn beams share space with delicate Moroccan fixtures and latticed windows. Who cares? It works. Small grace notes are everywhere—lit candles scattered around the room when you return from dinner; on cold winter evenings, a fire in each room’s stone fireplace.
You’ll spend much of your time watching “bush TV” from the veranda outside the rooms and main lodge: a reality show of the comings and goings of giraffes, wildebeests, springbok, dik-diks and lions around a watering hole just beyond.
There are takeaway lessons for humans and antelopes alike. “Better to be a dik-dik than a springbok,” says Venantius Venali Xan-Khaob, our genial guide from the local Damara tribe. “If you’re a small dik-dik, you can live in the scrub where the lions can’t get you, and you may die of old age. If you’re a springbok, eventually somebody’s going to get you.”
Just beyond the Etosha, to the southwest, the topography changes dramatically, turning mountainous and arid. Animal life dwindles to the oryx, some ostriches and the very rare desert elephant, who nibbles the scrub that lines what once were rivers.
Twyfelfontein means “doubtful fountain,” so named by a white settler, David Levin, who bought the land around here in 1948 and tried to farm it for 15 years without much luck. What draws people to this remote place today is animal life of a different kind. The granite cliffs around Levin’s farm swarm with engravings of rhinos, kudu, giraffes, hippos and birds. They were carved there by Bushmen several thousand years ago, making Twyfelfontein an important unesco archaeological site. The stone animals radiate primitive juju from a time when nature was bigger and people were smaller. Fingers waggle from giraffe heads, and a lion’s tail sprouts a human hand. Nobody knows for sure, but they think these might represent shamans in a trance, fusing with nature.
That transcendent aura stays with us as we settle into Mowani Mountain Camp’s thatched-roof open-air rooms. The spirit of those shamans has seeped into Mowani’s design: The camp is meant to fuse with its surroundings, not stand out from them. Indeed, it’s hard to tell Mowani’s humpy domes from the local rocks. As the sun comes up, I contemplate an infinite landscape littered with humongous boulders that might have been crumbled by the hand of God.
Hugo meets us at the airstrip the next afternoon for the flight up to Serra Cafema camp, near the Angolan border. We fly over the Hartmann Valley and the Marienfluss. The region is the heart of Namibian nothing, with a population density of roughly one person per square mile—just a sixth of the sparse national average.
After 45 minutes bumping along the dunes, we look down from a high outcrop onto a startling vista: Far below is the Kunene River, a slim ribbon of deep green winding through the ocher peaks. Across it is Angola. Serra Cafema’s rooms are propped on wooden stilts among the brush and trees by the riverbank, as dramatic a setting for a hotel as any I have seen. The rooms are large and tasteful, and each is open to the river, whose low hiss ensures perfect sleep.
Petersen and our guide, Gert Tsaobeb, a wiry Nama local, and I set off upriver in a motor launch. Goliath herons, the largest of the species, lift off heavily as we cruise by. I can tell as soon as we arrive at Serra Cafema that Petersen is very pleased about something. Politics is never too far off in this part of the world, and Petersen, whose ancestry is Javanese, Scottish and Bushman, has a lively sense of justice. He’s been through most of the camps in southern Africa many times, and what pleases him are all the Namibian faces he sees now, from management on down. He pumps the hand of a fellow named Fly who had been a sweeper last time Petersen passed through and has since moved up to waiter. “At the beginning, this place was all staffed by South Africans,” he muses as Fly brings over a tasty springbok fillet for dinner. “I’m glad to see they’re promoting native people from within.”
The next morning, we finally run into a few locals. Almost lost among the dunes are several huts built out of sticks and held together with clay and cow dung. A small group of seminomadic Himba live here off and on. When we pass, five or six women are sitting around a fire, puffing on pipes and looking very much at ease. They are striking, their hair done up in elaborate coils and their bodies smeared with a mixture of reddish ocher ground with cow fat that serves as ornament, sunscreen, insect repellent and perfume.
Why do they live in this barren place instead of down near the abundant river? Because the river’s abundance also brings danger. The head Himba woman was washing by it one day, and when she bent over, a big crocodile bit deep into her breast. Staff from Serra Cafema drove her seven hours to the hospital at Obu, and her life was saved. She’s been called Crocodile ever since.
Compared with where we’ve just been, Swakopmund (population: 42,000) is the big city. Founded in 1892 as the main port for German southwest Africa, the colony lasted only until 1915, when South Africa took over. But Swakopmund can still feel a little like a Bavarian village. It has pastel colonial houses that have a kind of Hansel-and-Gretel tidiness, and German is spoken everywhere. We sample first-rate bratwurst at the Brauhaus just off Hendrik Witbooi Street—the street is named for a king of the Nama people who died in 1905 fighting the Germans.
Swakopmund is squeezed between sea and sand, and it lives under a misty blanket when the cold ocean breezes and the hot desert winds mingle overhead. During summer, its oceanfront hotels fill up with vacationing South Africans. I see seafood on a menu for the first time since leaving home. Namibian oysters are firm and sweet, and a revelation to an oyster lover like me. But a few blocks away, the high desert dunes roll right up to Swakopmund’s back door. From my window at the Desert Breeze Lodge on a Sunday morning, I see a small congregation of worshippers walk into the dunes as if they were entering the Old Testament.
On our last night, Micato Safaris throws a small party out in a dry gulch of the Swakop River, which is what they call an ephemeral river: Some years it flows, most years it doesn’t. Over the millennia, the river has carved out a labyrinth of canyons and gullies, making it a popular place to shoot movies, particularly those set after the apocalypse. (Crews had recently finished shooting Mad Max: Fury Road with Charlize Theron, due out next year.)
The dinner, however, is distinctly pre-apocalypse. There’s wild asparagus from the Swakop riverbed and a tender beef fillet in black peppercorn sauce. Among the guests are well-known Namibian photographer Margaret Courtney-Clarke and her Italian husband, Alessandro Alessandroni. Alessandroni turns out to be the guy who did all the virtuoso whistling for Ennio Morricone’s legendary spaghetti-western scores. “I do the whistling, he gets the millions,” says Alessandroni, with a sweeping Italian gesture. As we savor our meal in these German-African badlands, Alessandroni whistles up Clint Eastwood and the Italian-American Old West. That pushes my envelope for the surreal, but then Namibia can do that.
Micato Safaris can arrange this nine-day itinerary (from $13,900 a person) or customize one for your needs; 212-545-7111; micato.com.