Family and friends asked the question when I told them that three longtime travel buddies and I would spend a week of our sixteen-day African vacation exploring one of the continent’s newest nations, still mostly undiscovered. The four of us are part of a larger adventure-travel group of old pals who’ve known each other for fifteen years or more. We plan a yearly trip, and those who can make it do. Over the years, we’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and trekked in the Annapurnas.
We’d traveled to Africa before, but this contingent was ready for a different kind of trip. We didn’t want the usual week of game viewing, although we wanted that to be part of our experience. Namibia promised something unique. It offered mysterious landscapes and deserts, beaches and mountain trails, ominous-sounding spots like the Skeleton Coast, and one of the great world-class game parks, Etosha Pan. And although we couldn’t find anyone who’d been there, one of our group, Andie, had done enough research to know it would offer the best of Africa and some surprises.
One of the last African nations to shed its colonial status, Namibia lurched into independence in 1990 and has grown into a democratic and safe nation. (Sporadic civil unrest in neighboring Angola has made travel to Namibia’s entire northern border, including the Caprivi and Kavango regions–not part of our itinerary–somewhat risky. See information box.) Formerly called SouthWest Africa and governed by South Africa, it is situated just northwest of South Africa, bordered by (besides Angola) Botswana and Zambia, with a 994-mile Atlantic coastline. Though four times the size of the U.K., Namibia has only 1.6 million residents, leaving hundreds of miles of unspoiled land. “I hope there’s enough to do and see,” mused my friend Frank, a TV producer used to daily deadlines. “Something tells me you’re about to be seduced,” I replied.
Flying on a six-seat Cessna within the country seemed the best way to avoid hours of driving. It also would give me, as a private pilot, the chance to take the controls of our plane. Although we lined up our pilot, plane and itinerary with Abercrombie & Kent prior to leaving the U.S., it’s possible to arrange for a private plane upon arrival in Windhoek, the capital city.
The quickest way to get to Windhoek is either by the Air Namibia or Lufthansa flights that leave from Frankfurt three times a week or by way of Johannesburg (our route), where there is frequent service on a number of carriers for the two-hour flight. Within minutes of landing, we’re loaded onto our modern, air-conditioned van and en route to the city.
Windhoek sits smack in the middle of the country. Its architecture, food and customs still resonate with the influence of its 1890s German settlers. In fact, although English is the official language, one can hear German spoken by many locals in shops and restaurants.
The Hotel Heinitzburg, our charming and comfortable castle atop a hill overlooking the city, features fourposter beds and other gracious furnishings. The restaurant, on a wide terrace beside the pool area, offers a lunch menu that includes schnitzel and a selection of German beers as well as springbok, continental fare, South African wines, local beers and maybe a warm breeze to break the noonhour heat.
Our plan is to fly to four distinct regions of the country: two days in the Namib Desert, one of the oldest in the world; a day on the legendary Skeleton Coast; two days in Damaraland; and two at Etosha. We’re met at Eros Airfield, the smaller regional airport, by our twenty-eight-year-old pilot, Anthony Allan. He will travel with us for the week, also acting as our guide, alongside the local guides, answering questions and tending to our various travel needs.
Seventy minutes from Windhoek, we begin our bumpy descent into a vast, 11,000-acre scrubby flat plain. In the distance, we spy a short airstrip with a Land Rover parked on it. We’ll drive a few miles to the Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, run by Wilderness Safaris, a first-rate Namibian-based outfitter. The desertscape below is sprinkled with shepherd bushes and the famous quiver, a spiky and almost prehistoric-looking tree indigenous to Namibia. After deplaning, we’re driven to the camp, with nine huts built 2,500 feet above the desert, resting in a granite formation.
At the central dining/living-room hut we’re greeted with hot face towels and fresh fruit juice. The guest huts feature mahogany and cane furniture, sisal carpeting, tiled bathrooms, a private plunge pool and, best of all, spectacular views of the desert below.
From this campsite, we drive to the Sesriem and Sossusvlei areas in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Because the nearest village is 112 miles away, our accommodations come with a paramedic and a helicopter. Yet out in the middle of nowhere, we’re content, with solar-heated rooms, drinkable water, a stock of fine wines and well-prepared foods, from hearty stews to homemade creme caramel. Over our two days here, we make forays in search of oryx, springbok and the Tok Tokkie beetle. And we close each day with a drive–gin and tonics in hand–stopping to watch the brilliant African sun descend into the neighboring foothills.
The park, massive even by African standards, covers more than 19,216 square miles and is one of the continent’s largest. Running along the Atlantic Coast, it offers some of the most haunting and sensuous scenery anywhere. Here, at the main jump-off point for Sesriem, are curving and swerving dunes some 1,148 feet high.
We set off to climb “Big Daddy,” a dune that surrounds Deadvlei, an old salt pan with dead acacia trees–some more than 500 years old. At first, the climb looks like a fifteen-minute scamper. We soon learn what an intense workout it really is as we sink at least eight inches with each step. An hour later, we’re at the top, triumphant though exhausted and awash in dissolving layers of SPF 15. “I feel like the English Patient,” says my friend Tom, his head wrapped in his T-shirt, turbanstyle. Fortunately, there are smaller dunes that can be hiked–and you can still catch the view across the desert.
The next morning, on day three, we proceed north toward the Skeleton Coast, named for the treacherous seas that have created more than their share of shipwrecks over the centuries. The coastline’s ancient hulls resemble steel corpses in the desert sand. Descending to get a better look, we come across abandoned diamond camps and saltworks. Wild flamingos glide below us, and every minute or so, we fly over seal colonies on the rocks along the coast.
The final fifty minutes of our flight take us over Brandberg, the highest mountain in Namibia and a destination in itself. On this leg, I get to test my flying skills, taking the controls and keeping us on our steady northward course. Unlike the crowded skies of America’s Northeast, there are no sounds over the radio here. (In fact, during our week we saw only one other plane in the sky. This was our own private Namibia!) As we approach Damaraland, I happily cede the controls to Anthony for the landing on a dirt runway.
Our destination is D-Camp, a safari camp made up of nine step-in tents with en suite bathrooms that have stone floors. The amenities include soaps, lotions and crisp linens. The camp is a co-op venture between its operators and local residents. After a delicious dinner that begins with a menu recitation in the native language–rife with clacking and clicking sounds–we assemble in the main tent, which looks fresh out of colonial Africa in its sumptuous yet practical decor. There our local guide, Rhyan Brislin, tells us about the next day’s excursion, a search for elephants adapted to desert life.
Rising early, we take to the sands, past the poisonous milk bushes that dot the landscape. Rhyan, considered one of the best guides in these parts, does an excellent job of tracking. In just over an hour, we find an elephant amid the bushes and stay with it for an hour.
D-Camp is a beautiful spot to stay for a couple of days, while you hike in the neighboring hills or search for Welwitschia, a species of plant found only in Namibia that lives for more than a thousand years but produces just two leaves.
Often called the Place of Mirages, Etosha, our next stop, offers the spectacular scenery and animals you’d find in most African parks, but without the usual crowds. We encounter giraffe, zebra, cheetah, lion and rhino, along with black-faced impala and the Damara dik-dik. As with most parks of this kind, the best time of year to see game is during the dry season, July through October at Etosha.
Our group settles into the private Ongava Lodge, with its own landing strip and game reserve. We’re driven from the strip to the lodge, which has a private game-viewing deck and ten simple but stylish chalets that we all find completely comfortable. On a more traditional safari here, Douw Stein, a fourth-generation Namibian, finds us plenty of game to observe and photograph during our two-day stay.
On the flight back to Windhoek, we realize that our second week in Africa could easily have been spent exploring such places as the Fish River Canyon, second in size only to the Grand Canyon; the Waterberg Plateau Park area, with its dinosaur footprints; or Bushman-land, a conservancy where small groups can take hunting trips into the bush. We arrive at dusk, all of us quiet but instinctively knowing what we’re feeling. As we descend into our Eros landing pattern, we’re nearly overwhelmed by the fresh memories of the dunes and the desert and the friendliness of the people. We’ve sampled Namibia’s magic–and hope not too many others will. At least until we’ve had a chance to be entranced by it once more.