My laboured breathing is amplified in my ears, my strained calves burn and sweat stings my eyes. Each exhausting step sinks backwards, making progress slow. The footsteps of those who’ve gone before me imprint the ridgeline like vertebrae winding steeply up to the pinnacle.
Finally, at the top, I absorb the enormity of the endless rust-hued dunes. Climbers beginning the ascent far below are mere specks, like ants exploring a kids’ sandpit. The rising sun lights the front dune faces, while the opposite sides remain in shadow. The contrast accentuates the precise rims and curves, as if a ribbon has been frozen mid-twirl.
The area’s drawcard is Deadvlei, a lake bed of stark white clay dotted with fossilised 900-year-old camel thorn trees. Big Daddy looms over it, so we decide to take the shortcut in. My guide Richard and I giggle at each other’s slow-motion astronaut walk down the steep bowl of the dune. Our steps create lava-like momentum, pushing us down effortlessly. With its sticky combo of sand and sunscreen, my skin resembles a sugared donut. The dark forest sculptures are striking against the saturated hues of the red dunes, vivid blue sky and crackled white ground.
Kulala Desert Lodge is a 45-minute drive away, thanks mainly due to rough off-road terrain. A line of 23 kulalas (it means ‘place to sleep’ in Swahili) sits between the dunes and Naukluft Mountains. With moulded clay huts camouflaged in a barren landscape of rock and sand, the camp resembles the Flintstone village. By mid-morning the stifling desert heat coupled with a stiff breeze creates an atmosphere a little like the interior of a fan-forced oven.
The constant winds make flying in quite the adventure. Wilderness Safaris operates a fleet of small aircraft and they’re ferrying me to four camps across Namibia. I make it to the Kulala airstrip on a plane no bigger than a minivan. The turbulence is epic. I check my seatbelt for the fourth time, but each air pocket causes my butt and the seat to break contact. This is not a mode of transportation for the faint of heart, but the vast distances can only be conquered by air.
Leaving behind the ocean of scalloped dunes, I next fly to northwest Damaraland along a coastline cloaked by low-lying cloud. The tiny dirt airstrip is barely detectable as we weave down through peaks of the Etendeka Plateau, distinct because they look as though they’ve been lopped off by a chainsaw. The scenery, with the ground layered with rubble and boulders, resembles the surface of the moon.
Desert Rhino Camp has eight tents spread around a communal hub. Aside from the canvas walls, there is little else that resembles a typical canvas abode. A queen bed overlooks 270-degree views and the shower has a private outlook.
As its name suggests, this camp revolves around the critically endangered desert-adapted black rhino, with 90 per cent of the world’s remaining population living primarily in northwest Namibia. Opened as a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and Save The Rhino Trust, the camp has an unfenced 300,000-hectare concession with 16 rhino regulars calling it home. On the black market, the species’ horn fetches a staggering US$60,000 a kilo, so each of the residents here has been dehorned for its own protection.
We’re up at 5.30am and the trackers get a head start detecting any morning activity, while we hang back in the jeep awaiting further instruction. Two trackers follow the riverbed on foot, assessing tracks and dung for recent visitors. They can expertly decipher fresh imprints and identify the sex from how the dung has been spread. Several hours pass before we get the signal to accompany them. Walking single file between the trackers, it’s a mission to keep up. My ankles bow painfully with each unstable step. It feels as if I’m clumsily navigating across a field of tomboller marbles.
We spot a skittish young female, called Nane12, trotting near a hillside. She pauses regularly to stare us down. Since she’s known to be a little cantankerous, we keep our distance. It feels instinctively wrong to stand, unarmed and far from a safety vehicle, exposed to an animal weighing a tonne. Later we have a lucky second encounter with Don’t Worry, a 28-year-old male who has certainly taken his name to heart. When we join him on the riverbed, he’s only 70 metres away. This prehistoric-looking creature seems cobbled together with leftover pieces from the animal production line. He carries a hippo frame, splayed elephant feet, pug-like excess skin folds, cute bear ears and a flimsy rat’s tail, all capped off with a face that weirdly resembles ET. He’s definitely seen us but continues to swagger along, seemingly content with our company.
In the morning, all the staff members gather to farewell me in song. The Damara click dialect is a poetic flow of foreign words punctuated by pops and clucks. I have no idea what they are singing, but I could listen to it all day. The collective strength of the voices makes for an emotional send-off, and I’m still thinking about it as we clear dung piles and shoo animals from the runway. This time we’re taking off on a three-flight skip to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, my northernmost destination.
This oasis is a pinprick on the vast remote desert. The unique design of the camp – stretched sail roofs shaped into abstract waves – is visually striking against the apocalyptic setting. Within the tents, there’s a designer beach-house vibe, but I’m soon distracted from the luxe fit-out when a procession of six elephants approaches a waterhole right outside my window. Unpacking is abandoned as I watch them, their trunks curling and scooping refreshment into their mouths then spraying it over their backs. Light grey skin darkens and mottles before the elephants douse themselves with a cooling coat of dirt. The dexterity and capability of their trunks is mesmerising.
These are not the camp’s only four-legged visitors. Standard camp rules dictate you must be accompanied by a guide after dark, but, just as we’re about to head to dinner, I’m told we must instead jump in the jeep for what would be a 30-second walk. Headlights reflect eyes in the dark, quickly exposing two thirsty lionesses cutting through camp to the waterhole.
It’s a five-hour drive to the infamous Skeleton Coast, although expedition might be a more suitable description. The dry Hoanib River provides a natural highway snaking west, its towering banks of compacted sand resembling a rock canyon. The smooth ride ends as the tyres enter deep dirt troughs and thick saltbush. Driver Reagan swerves erratically through the tight course, noisily scraping the paintwork as we go. After a quick pit stop to let air out of the tyres, we hit the dunes. Kilometres of sand smother the mountains, with just a few peaks emerging. Reagan manhandles the steering to straighten up after the vehicle fishtails. As the jeep tilts on the steep, soft slopes it feels borderline reckless. Three attempts are needed to gain enough momentum to conquer one monster dune. During an insane vertical drop, Reagan cuts the engine and we simply slide down.
Our first sighting of Mowe Bay is a welcome one. The Skeleton Coast is famous for the shipwrecks buried along the shoreline, but most are much further south. Here, however, the desecrated carnage of the Suiderkus is strewn across the rocks, showing how savage this stretch of ocean can be.
Lunch is set right on the pebbled beach beside the pounding waves. This has to be rated as one of the world’s hardest-to-reach restaurants. Fortunately there is a shortcut home. A 10-minute scenic flight offers an unbeatable perspective of the tiny trail we’d earlier cut through the infinite landscape.
Heading inland, Ongava Tented Camp is my final destination. Ongava is a 30,000-hectare private reserve bordering the renowned Etosha National Park. After days of muted tones and few signs of life, the dense mopane scrub is a jolt to the senses. My guide, Shilongo, takes me out at sunrise, which is primetime for observing herds of zebra, impala and wildebeest grazing in the open. He brakes suddenly thanks to a telltale sign. The animals have stopped eating and are staring in the same direction. As we wait, anticipating a visitor, the congregation becomes increasingly agitated, snorting and huffing in alarm. Panic ensues as dozens of impala sprint out of the thicket. A minute later two lionesses saunter into the clearing and pad towards the animals. The snorting becomes frenzied as the predators get tantalisingly close. The prey scatters and the defeated lionesses turn to us as if questioning where the hunt went wrong.
Completely unfazed by human companionship, they let us trail only metres behind as they repeat this flawed but fascinating hunting exercise. These inexperienced youngsters clearly have no chance of breakfast. We cheer when they finally slink off in order to try an ambush. But they get sidetracked, tackling each other to the ground.
Playful growls escalate into an outburst of guttural grunts. We follow the lions into the bush to find a pride of 13 reuniting as if it’s Christmas Day. It’s an affectionate tangle of bodies rubbing and intertwining. With the temperature rising, lounge mode kicks in. Cubs knead mum’s belly as they guzzle milk, adolescents intently lick their paws, elders doze. These oversized felines display such familiar behaviour it’s easy to forget the threat that lies within patting distance.
Ongava means rhino in the Otjiherero language and, here, black rhinos are known to charge jeeps. Thankfully, you can instead walk with the much larger white rhino. Nearing sunset, we leave the vehicle behind to accompany a mother and baby. They see us but are seemingly unperturbed, although Mum constantly manoeuvres herself between us and the inquisitive youngster. Shilongo quietly sets up a sundowner picnic on the jeep bonnet. As I sip a Savanna cider, we’re joined by yet another pair. Four enormous rhinos are so close that each bite they take while grazing is audible as grass is ripped and chewed. You couldn’t ask for better company during a final Namibian sunset.
South African Airlines flies to Windhoek in Namibia, with connections via Perth and Johannesburg.
For overnight stays in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek Country Club Resort offers secluded four-star accommodation on the edge of the city. Standard rooms start at about US$170 a night.
African Wildlife Safaris offers seven-night all-inclusive packages that include accommodation at four camps and private flights. Prices start at about US$7000 a person departing from Windhoek.