Namibia takes its name from a Nama word meaning “vast place of nothingness.” But the reality is breathtakingly different.
Picture a watering hole, about 20 ft. by 20 ft., rimmed with stones. An elevated circular wall rings us off from it. Greenery is sparse. There is an expectant hush in the air, and pin-drop silence among the fifty or so avid wildlife watchers seated around the hole. Our guide points suddenly to the horizon, and we strain our eyes to see what he is seeing. Slowly, three giant moving creatures take shape — a herd of elephants coming down for its evening drink. As cameras go off in frenzy, the elephants are soon joined by giraffes, several zebra, springbok, and much later, wildebeest and a rhinoceros — our first taste of a Namibian safari. We are in Okaukuejo, one of Africa’s most famous watering holes. It’s situated in Etosha National Park, home to the starkly beautiful Etosha clay pan, formed millions of years ago by the drying up of a lake. We had arrived just that morning in Windhoek, the Namibian capital, and were driven straight down to Etosha, impatient to sink our teeth into everything this gorgeous country had to offer.
Spectacular sightings await us on nearly every game drive. Three lionesses and their 12 cubs walk alongside our jeep, as the proud male stretches in the morning light. This gives my husband Aditya a spectacular shot — white mist erupting from a lion’s yawning maw. That very afternoon, two magnificent cheetahs chase away a flock of vultures muscling in on their kill 15 ft away from our jeep. When we aren’t tracking the big game, there are plenty of other equally delightful sights to keep us occupied. Rainbow-hued birds like the Lilac Breasted Roller lie in wait for the grub shaken loose from roadside bushes by our jeep. Turquoise starlings are everywhere, even keeping us company in the lodge’s open dining area. Tall “secretary birds” (so called due to the black “pens” that are stuck in their “hairdos”) stalk peremptorily through the yellow grass. Nursing baby zebras and grizzled hyenas feeding off carcasses hide in the bushes as we whiz past in our covered vehicle.
From dramatic Etosha we head south towards Damaraland, to camp in mobile tents and search for desert-adapted elephants and lions. The mellow Etoshan beiges give way to a harsher landscape of blacks and browns, in which ancient dolerite and sandstone hills undulate into deep valleys. At the base of one of the hills lies a petrified forest. There are no traces of humanity for miles around, and our vehicle is the only one in sight as far as the eye could see — all adding to the sensation that we have travelled backwards in time a million years. At the sound of our vehicle, a huge pride of ostriches take to their heels, running with surprising elegance, and giving me the deliciously creepy feeling that we’ve wandered into a desert version of Jurassic Park.
Our camp is nestled cozily in a little glade of acacia trees, past rocks eroded into symmetrical blocks by millennia of wind and water. It’s a tiny beehive of activity, replete with mess camp and tented shower cubicles. It is increasingly windy, and the temperature dips very low as we bundle ourselves into the 4x4 to search for whatever animal may come our way. However, the animals seem to have more sense than us, and have stowed themselves away from the gale. For two days we search high and low for the desert-adapted lions and elephants, and are rewarded for our patient sleuthing on the third day, spotting a lone lion framed against the stone hills, and a large herd of elephants browsing peacefully amid the dwarfed trees.
From Damaraland, we head west to the Skeleton Coast. The eerie name is a reminder of the time of whaling schooners and slave ships, when bleached human and whale bones littered the beaches. On its western periphery, the Namib Desert runs along the south western Atlantic coast of Africa for 2,000 km and stretches across three countries. The coastline it creates is called the Skeleton Coast. After a half-day’s drive, we arrive at the seaside town of Swakopmund, which has preserved its colonial German architecture well. We stay at the Swakopmund Hotel, a converted railway station whose façade is a national monument.
The Skeleton Coast treats us to two unique safaris. The first is a marine safari on the Atlantic, where we spot cape fur seals (who actually waddle onto the boat in search of the guide’s bucket of fish), beautiful red-eyed, white-bodied pelicans trimmed in yellow and lavender, shy schools of dolphin and the merest glimpse of whales. The second is a desert safari, dubbed “the Little Five of the Living Desert.” From the thrill of big game, we have swung the other way and attuned our senses to looking for the tiniest of treasures — cartwheeling spiders, sand-diving spiders, translucent geckos that look like E.T., hardy chameleons, skinks and sidewinders.
Our next stop is Wolvedans, down south in the private NamibRand Nature Reserve. It’s a short hop by Cessna, and at a steady 9,000 ft, we notice that the grassland contains small circles of barren earth — “fairy circles”, which have confounded science for a long time. The latest theory is they are caused by gases making their way from the earth’s surface upwards, but no one knows for sure.
Serene Wolvedans provides the perfect foil to the high drama of the Etoshan, Damaran, and Skeleton Coast landscapes. The lovely southern light brings out the lavender and yellow of the different grasses, sparkling against the smooth red-brick dune sand. The feast of rich colours against the clear blue pudding bowl of a sky, and the friendly quiet that pervades the landscape fills the heart with a deep peace. It doesn’t get better than this, I think, but I hadn’t yet seen the dunes of Sossusvlei.
A 15-minute Cessna flight takes us to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It is bitterly cold, and we don fleece-lined plastic ponchos to protect us against the biting early morning winds, looking like something out of a bad movie ourselves. At Deadvlei, 700-year-old acacia trees stand starkly in the middle of a clay-white pan, dead, but unable to decay for the lack of moisture in the air. The climate and surroundings make it uninhabitable, and for that reason the dunes retain their proud facades, undisturbed by human interference.
Namibia derives its name from a Nama word that means “vast place of nothingness.” It is also called “The Land God Made in Anger,” suggesting that no one would want to live here. It is true that desert conditions make life challenging — even the most luxurious lodges we stay at have a little admonition to guests not to waste water, with the threat that it will be cut off if use exceeds a certain quantity. The desert conditions ensure that Namibia is very sparsely populated (around two million). That’s a territory four times the size of Great Britain hosting, say, a quarter of Bangalore’s population. Gives you an idea of the scale of things, doesn’t it? And that is why Namibia is so beautiful — for the most part, homo sapiens has not been able to meddle with it beyond redemption.