Blood-red sunsets etched with palm trees’ black silhouettes…The world’s largest dunes, deep ochre and carved by the wind over five million years…The world’s oldest desert descending to a raging sea, a vastness supporting just three people per square kilometre – but a multitude of other life.
This is Namibia, the planet’s second-least populated country, after Mongolia. Surely one of its most staggeringly beautiful.
I was last there in 1989, mainly to report on the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections and transition to independence. A photographer and I drove the country’s length and breadth, speaking to Namibians of all sorts: priests in Katatura township, near the capital Windhoek; German hoteliers descended from nineteenth-century colonials, when the place was called German South West Africa; Afrikaner farmers; soldiers from the ruthless South African army unit, Koevoet, who’d fought in the border war; members of the Himba tribe up north, near the border with Angola. The people were fascinating, seemingly committed to fair elections that SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation, the independence movement turned party – was predicted to win, and did. The landscape was, and is, in a class by itself. Jaw-dropping. Surreal. Seemingly infinite. Haunting.
Starting in the south, the two most scenic attractions are the Fish River Canyon, second in size only to America’s Grand, and, 405 km further north, the massive dunes of Sossusvlei. Pyramids of red sand, much more ancient than Giza’s, they comprise the southern end of the Namib Desert. At 325 metres high, Big Daddy is Sossusvlei’s tallest dune, drawing thousands of climbers; further north, Dune 7 is the Namib’s – and the world’s – tallest, rising 58 metres higher. Red due to an iron oxide coating, the dunes are known as ‘star dunes’, referencing the shape they form when the wind blows from all directions. The dunes ring a salt and clay pan – the ‘sossus’ or dead-end ‘vlei’, or marsh – scattered with dead acacia trees. Otherworldly, as though Salvador Dali painted them there. The desert-adapted game that may appear – perhaps a herd of gemsbok running across the sands – may seem like a mirage. From the heights of a hot-air balloon, the red earth undulating below, you may think you’re dreaming.
Travel north and you reach the Skeleton Coast, 500 km of windswept, deserted beaches littered with shipwrecks and bones of whales and seals – hence the name. Rimmed by dunes, where desert meets sea; often in fog, as the cold Atlantic collides with the warmer shore. From the quaint German colonial town of Swakopmund to the Angolan border, this untamed stretch of sand is yours to wander, leaving the only human footprints in sight. Creatures you may encounter include lion and brown hyaena hunting huge colonies of Cape fur seals; gemsbok, springbok and smaller antelope; giraffe; elephant – as well as flocks of flamingoes. In the glorious isolation you may, for a fleeting instant, feel like a Khoikhoi strandloper, an ancient hunter-gatherer beach-walker whose middens of shell, bone, potsherds, and ash you may discover.
A few hours inland lies Damaraland, a desolate, mountainous landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest – or the moon. Its ruddy basalt mountains – some flat-topped like mesas – are cut through by valleys and river beds, usually dry. Its desert-adapted wildlife astonishes: where it seems life could barely thrive emerge elephant, lion, zebra, a variety of antelope, and many other species, including the Critically Endangered black rhino, roaming the grasslands. Tracking them on foot in the Palmwag Concession – home to the last truly free-roaming black rhino on Earth – is a thrill like no other. But Damaraland doesn’t stop there. Its cultural riches include hundreds of ancient Bushman petroglyphs and some rock paintings at Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and at Brandberg, Namibia’s tallest mountain, the renowned White Lady rock painting. Also taking you back through time is the Petrified Forest 50 km west of Khorixas, home to fossilised trees 280 million years old – as well as the octopus-like welwitschia, a plant endemic to the Namib, sometimes called a ‘living fossil’, given that some are 1 500 years old or older.
In the far north of Namibia – fronting the Skeleton Coast to the west, the Kunene River to the north, and Ovamboland and the famed Etosha National Park to the east – lies the Kaokoveld, home to the semi-nomadic Himba tribe, an unforgiving desertscape relieved by the permanent waters of the Kunene. Almost a blank slate upon which incredible journeys can be written. Once part of the Herero people, the Himba migrated south in the sixteenth century, but broke away only in the nineteenth century when an epidemic killed most of their cattle and left them destitute. Their name, in Otjiherero, means ‘beggar’ – alluding to their pleas for help after the devastation. An encounter with the Himba today is deeply enriching: learn why the women paint themselves in red ochre, made from crushed hematite and fat; why the women cannot bathe in water, and cleanse themselves with smoke; how holy fires burn in every village to communicate with the ancestors and honour the supreme being, Mukuru; how it’s taboo to cross the ‘holy line’ running from the chief’s hut past the holy fire to the cattle enclosure, unless invited by the village.
On my visit 31 years ago, we met just one Himba in a vast emptiness, along the banks of the Kunene, where he was herding his family’s cattle. We’d driven for hours and were nearly fainting from the heat. The river looked enticing. As we started stripping for a swim, the small boy, in traditional loincloth and plaited hair as if frozen in time, faced us with pantomime. Scrawny arms outstretched before his face, he opened and closed them like giant jaws. We had no common language, but the message was clear. The crocs were waiting for us. An image – along with the endless desert and the wild sea, the rolling red dunes, the blinding blue skies and nights rich with stars, like the subterranean diamonds found there – that remains unforgettable.
Written By Melissa Siebert