The Cessna touched down on a gravel airstrip in northwest Namibia and left us, alone in a scorching, rugged landscape of buttes and rocky mountains, all dry and arid. My first impressions were of isolation and barrenness. Anthony, a young African and our guide for the next few days, met us in an open-sided Land Rover, and we bumped and swayed along a rocky trail and a dry riverbed — no roads here — for thirty minutes, seeing no sign of human habitation until we reached Damaraland Camp.
‘Camp’ is hardly the word for the spacious, elegant main lodge and ten comfortable, permanent tents that awaited us. In the lounge, smiling African staff greeted us with welcome drinks and refreshing cold towelettes. Glancing around, I saw a swimming pool, dining room, fireplace and bar. The lodge was open on one side, catching every breeze and offering panoramic views of the rugged landscape. Then we were shown to our “tents,” which had decks, luxurious king-size beds draped with flowing mosquito nets, desks, flush toilets and showers. In the daytime the tent sides were open and the wind whistled through. Solar panels provided lighting and electricity.
Anthony roused us at six the next morning and we were off on a safari. A dozen oryx with long lethal horns cantered in single file along a ridge. Springboks, delicate and ballet-like small antelopes, grazed here and there. The Land Rover followed the ephemeral Huab River, which meandered between rock cliffs and was mostly dry. A dozen baboons scampered on a cliffside.
“We’re getting close,” said Anthony pointing to huge round footprints in the dust and fresh dung the size of soccer balls. Rounding a bend we suddenly found ourselves next to a herd of 11 elephants, foraging amongst the trees and bushes. These desert-adapted elephants can travel long distances in their search for water. A large bull joined the herd of females with their young, greeting the ladies by touching their trunks. A little baby Jumbo, only two weeks old, wandered like a midget amongst the large legs of the adults.
We turned a corner and only ten metres away, coming straight at us, were four enormous and very powerful elephants, trunks swaying and ears flapping ominously. Anthony veered into the bush, leaves and branches whipping through the Land Rover. But we escaped safely out of the behemoths’ path. We watched for a couple of hours, enchanted by how the elephants interacted as they foraged, continuously moving toward some distant water hole.
As the mid-afternoon temperature crept over 100°F, the land lay quiet as we headed back to camp. En route, we saw more than 20 baboons in an ana tree. About 40 springboks stood quietly, crowded together in the precious shade of a tree. And soon we were back at camp.
That night, we had a surprise. The guides led us on a walk and using ultraviolet lamps showed us scorpions, glowing ominously. Then we ate dinner in a traditional boma, or corral, under a brilliant star-filled sky. The camp staff announced the menu in both the Damara click language and Afrikans and performed traditional songs as lanterns flickered on the linen-covered tables.
In the morning we hiked a trail through the rocky, stark hillside near the camp. Anthony explained that life flourishes even under these harsh conditions. Birds flitted as he pointed to a Welldechia plant, which can live more than a thousand years but only has two leaves. Then he squeezed the leaf of the dollar plant, which oozed a fluid. By eating the leaves, oryx and other animals can go for months without visiting a water hole.
In the late afternoon we went for a drive. Four ostriches performed a mating dance, the late afternoon sun lighting up their feathers. We passed a small village where goats were being corralled for the night. Stopping on a rise with a view to the western horizon, which was turning into blazing purples and oranges, Anthony set out drinks and hors d’oeuvres for sundowners, a safari tradition.
Next morning, as the plane bumped down the runway, I gazed out the window, sad to be leaving and astonished that this stark landscape can support such richness of life.
If You Go:
Information on Namibia: www.namibiatourism.com.na
Wilderness Safaris: www.wilderness-safaris.com
To Book Damaraland Camp: TravelBeyond.com