Marked by the desert

Marked by the desert

No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match."

Legendary British explorer Wilfred Thesiger may have been writing about Rub' al Khali; the vast ‘Empty Quarter’ that stretches across the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, but his words are echoing through my mind as I stand atop a dune in Namibia’s barren Skeleton Coast National Park.

To the west, the barchan dunes march inexorably northeast towards Angola, driven by the relentless south-westerly winds that lash this barren coastline throughout the year. It’s a landscape that’s ever changing, yet perfectly timeless.

“They can move up to 15 metres a year those dunes,” says our guide Kallie from over my shoulder, as if reading my thoughts. Growing up in a village not far from our tents at Wilderness Safaris’ luxury Skeleton Coast Camp, it’s not surprising that he has a sixth sense for bringing this landscape to life.

Which is just as well, because the Skeleton Coast isn’t a place you’d likely choose out of a holiday brochure. It’s by turns both swelteringly hot and icy cold, inviting yet unwelcoming. As AA Gill once wrote about the Kalahari, it feels like the desert has it in for you.

And indeed, the few animals that eke out a living here are supremely adapted to this forbidding ecosystem. It might be a national park but you shouldn’t come expecting the Big Five and herds of wildebeest. If you’re not keen on sand, or if you’re mildly agoraphobic, perhaps you should rather stay home.

But deserts – for me at least – have an irresistible allure, and the Skeleton Coast is one that’s made a deeper mark than most. Perhaps it’s the dramatic approach: almost all guests fly in from Damaraland, soaring down over endless dunes. And with just two flights a week in or out, there’s a splendid feeling of isolation when you step off that Cessna Caravan. You’re here for the duration; you’re committed… like Thesiger and his Bedu guides.

Except where Thesiger slept in the open under a blanket, Wilderness Safaris knows a thing or two about luxury in the wilderness. Set on an island in the dry Khumib riverbed, about 20km inland, the camp’s six Meru-style tents host only a dozen guests at a time.

There are few frills, but you’ll find homely and spacious canvas suites with private balconies and sweeping desert views. Meals are served in the open-plan lounge and dining area where driftwood, washed up on a sea of sand, adorns the west-facing deck. Once the sun has dipped behind the dunes, guests gather at the communal dinner table to swop tales from their days in the desert.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you should visit. Why you must visit… because despite the homely cooking and warm welcomes, the rustic-chic accommodation and ice-cold G&Ts, the real thrill is leaving it all behind and heading west.

Except, at first, we didn’t.

When Kallie explained that for our first full day we’d be heading inland, I grumbled inwardly. Why did we come to the Skeleton Coast to head for the hills? I want sand dunes and seas, not hill and vales! But, not for the last time on the trip, Kallie would be proven right.

Inland, a lonely road leads across a moonscape of dry mountains and drier plains. Months after the last proper rains fell; the Oryx that canter away from our vehicle appear to be grazing on little more than dust. Even the famous fairy circles – bare patches in the grasslands, perfectly concentric and the work of hungry termites – are faint in the hot days of early summer.

After an hour or two the emptiness is little changed; we’re still one lonely vehicle with little more than pronking springbok and skittish oryx for company. But by mid-morning we reach the reason Kallie headed east this morning: the Hoarusib Canyon; far and away one of the most spectacular landscapes in Namibia.

After ogling an ancient welwitschia we spend the morning slowly making our way upstream; the gravel road continually criss-crossing the burbling Hoarusib River. It’s life-giving water that attracts a vast menagerie of animals into the canyon. Just half a kilometre away the land is harsh and unyielding, yet in the canyon it’s all lush grasses and smiling springbok. Unsurprisingly the area’s desert-adapted elephants like to congregate here too, at one point blocking our path and forcing us on a detour.

And the birding is as impressive as the game watching, with both migrants and endemics to keep twitchers happy. Flocks of Common Waxbill flit amongst the tamarisk trees, while Olive Bee-eaters flash past in a blaze of green. Blacksmith Lapwings and Common Moorhen splash in the shallows as a pair of Verreaux’s eagles float effortlessly on the abundance of thermals. We lunch under an Ana tree as an Augur Buzzard soars overhead.

The world's oldest desert

The canyon ends in the village of Purros, where a self-drive campsite and tourist-oriented Himba settlement attract overlanders keen for a taste of the Skeleton Coast. But with our camp situated slap-bang in the middle of Wilderness Safaris’ private desert concession I’m looking forward to more than a taste the next morning. I’m going back for seconds.

The Namib Desert – Kallie tells us as we drive out after breakfast – is the oldest in the world. For the past 55 million years its been quietly guarding the western shores of Namibia, keeping all but the hardiest of man and beast at bay.

Like the sperregebiet further south, hard men once mined these dunes with the glitter of diamonds and amethyst in their eyes. Few of the former and barely enough of the latter ensured that the mining camps have since been left to the desert, the sands unmarked by picks and shovels.

Today it’s only antelope tracks and a few lonely roads that mark the gravel plains and dune fields. Closer to the coast, the tracks from rare Brown Hyena are often seen, although spotting their owners requires a little more luck.

Over the course of the morning we drive circuitously towards the coast, wandering slowly across the sands to discover a menagerie of life invisible to the untrained eye.

Every so often Kallie – without warning – screeches to a halt and tears across the dunes like a man possessed. Moments later he returns with another desert marvel: a Namaqua chameleon burying its eggs, a Shovel-snouted lizard that dives head first into the sand to escape pursuers. Evidently Kallie dives faster. About the only desert fauna we’re a wary of is the Sand Snake. Although harmless, it’s lightning-fast race across the sand is unnerving, and best observed from a distance.

We spend an hour at one of the park’s famous ‘Roaring Dunes,’ the hot, dry slip-face of the barchan setting off a reverberating hum when disturbed by a gaggle of bum-sliding tourists.

“We’re lucky today,” says Kallie. “The fog didn’t really come in last night. The dunes have to perfectly dry for them to roar. If they’re even a tiny bit damp, you can forget it.”

And the Skeleton Coast is famous for its fog, formed when the hot desert air meets icy sea breezes off the Benguela current. The thick fog may have thrown countless ships ashore here, but it’s also a life-giving source of moisture for the plants and insects that carefully collect and store precious droplets each morning.

As we finally reach the coast a bank of fog is building offshore; the desert creatures will feast tonight, I think to myself. In front of me, the Atlantic looks as barren as the desert behind. But the freshly caught kabeljou flapping in our cooler box, destined for the camp kitchen, puts paid to that fallacy. And in the dry sands there’s an equally astounding array of life; perfectly adapted to this hauntingly beautiful – yet hostile – land. You only need someone to show you where to look.

As we head back to camp, I think old Thesiger was quite right. Our tyres may be leaving their impermanent tracks in the sands, but the searing sands of the Skeleton Coast have left their mark on me for good.

First Published: 2012-03-28 Indwe magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.