Indagare member Frances Schultz, a trustee of the Africa Foundation (www.africafoundation.org) and a New York-based freelance writer shares her impressions on Namibia and gives advice on how to visit the breathtaking Namib desert and Skeleton Coast.
Unlike so much of Africa changing at the speed of a Tweet, not much has happened in parts of Namibia. Oh yes, the capital Windhoek and coastal towns around Walvis Bay have developed dramatically in recent years, but the Namib Desert is as stark and stunning as it has been for millennia. This is why you go.
On a recent trip with girlfriends to southern Africa, I was especially keen to return to the country I’d first visited 23 years ago, a year before its independence and about 20 years before its brush with Brangelina celebrity. I was on a camping trip back in 1988, pitching my own tent and simultaneously quitting smoking. I don’t know which was worse.
Thankfully the Namib was a worthy distraction, and I’m happy to report it still is. It is the world’s second largest desert, after the Sahara. Fascinating and photogenic, then and now, is the area known as Sossusvlei. Sossus is a tribal word meaning “no return,” and vlei is the Afrikaans word for marsh. Some of the dunes are a thousand feet high—reputedly the biggest in the world—and magnificent to see, to climb, to slide down, and to draw—which I especially like doing.
It is a mixed blessing that a handful of luxury accommodations have sprouted since 1988, but as I have little interest in tent-pitching these days, I am grateful for all amenities. The Little Kulala (kulala means sleep) coddles its guests admirably given the harsh surroundings of mountains, dunes and desert. A Wilderness Safaris property, the thatched lodge and individual villas are designed to integrate with the landscape and the environment. Even though I could have gone hot-air-ballooning, or four-wheeling—all of which the lodge can arrange—I had to go out into those famously forbidding dunes and climb the one they call “Big Daddy.” And nearly died. Why was I thinking it would be fun to wrap myself up like Lawrence of Arabia and stagger up a very steep ridge of very soft sand that went on forever, in a windstorm? Having done it, I still don’t know. At least the coming down part was fun, half-running, half-floating down the hill, like running on the moon, I imagine.
The Namib is lunar-like, actually, and would seem equally hostile to life, but in fact certain species thrive there. Insects, scorpions, and snakes, for example, abound if you know where to look. (If you want to look for that kind of thing.) Underground springs and the occasional rainfall also sustain gemsbok, oryx, hyena, zebra, ostrich, giraffe, desert elephant and a few lion and cheetah as well.
Signs of life diminish with proximity to what is menacingly referred to as the Skeleton Coast. This most treacherous of shores owes its moniker to the near impossibility of surviving shipwreck upon them. For as perilous as are the seas, the endless desert meeting them obliterates any hope of sustenance there. (I hope one day that Steven Spielberg will make a movie of the book Skeleton Coast, by John Marsh, the true account of the 1942 wreck and 26-day-long rescue of the Dunedin Star, a more harrowing and suspenseful tale you’ll never read.)
Fortunately for us, there was Skeleton Coast Camp, also a Wilderness property, about 15 miles inland from the Atlantic. Because of its remote location and pristine landscape, the camp takes no more than 12 guests at a time and is only accessible by air. Our guide was Christiaan Bakkes, whose Dutch forebears came to South Africa in the 1600s. Rakishly handsome, 6-foot-5, red-bearded, whiskey-drinking, one-armed, and with a one-eyed dog named Tier, this fellow had “real Africa” stories to tell. In the morning, we made our way toward the coast, the Land Rover bumping and swerving across the Hoarusib River bed, looking for lion spoor and spotting two young desert elephant at play. The ocean, with its rocky point and seals flopping about, came as a relief after all that desert. A porpoise surfaced; crabs skittled about; and the stones worn smooth at water’s edge were beautiful. A few sporty types brought fishing poles; the rest of us opted for a walk after our picnic, trodding the three miles or so to the monument marking the grave of the brave Dunedin’s captain and mate who died in the aforementioned wreck, so that the dozens of others might live. A midden of whale bones forlornly heralded the site.
We were ready for a little lightening up. On to the roaring dunes! An hour’s drive from the coast, our vehicles crawled up a huge incline of sand and threatened to careen over the top. As we were 12 girls, squeals ensue. We did not careen. Piling out, we crossed a ridge forming a huge bowl, and suddenly a guide yelped and leapt out over the edge, his legs scissoring the air and landing, 15 or so feet down the hill. Squeals again. He proceeded to slide the rest of the way down, run back up like a rabbit, and instructed us to do the same. We were not so sure. Instead, like good little sissies, we sat with our legs in front of us, gripping the sand for dear life. As if. We start the slide. Woo-hoo! Then stopped and listened. It sounded like a plane taking off, no kidding. Something about how the sand particles slide across each other—the reason they call them the “roaring dunes.” Fear subsided. Some of us ran back up and did it again. I even ventured a leap, making it all of about three feet. A real daredevil I am.
We were delighted when Bakkes came back around for dinner the next night. He had promised to tell (only once) the story of what happened to his arm. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time to take his drinking buddies’ dare to swim to the other side of the river before the crocodile saw him. Less so, perhaps, since there was also a crocodile on the other side. Chris’s stories alone are worth the trip, but barring that, they are in his book, In Bushveld and Desert, A Game Ranger’s Life.
A significant part of Chris’s work today involves the indigenous peoples of the Namib: the Herero, and notably, the Himba. The Himba are a small nomadic, herding tribe who live in the northern Nambia and in southern Angola, isolated and remote. The culture is much as it has been through the ages. And though I have read there are villages in the Kunene region that have been built for tourists, the village we visited was not one of them. The women and men both go topless and wear elaborate hairstyles to signify their age and status. The women rub their bodies with a mixture of red clay and butter fat, which is both cosmetic and protective. They further adorn themselves with bracelets and necklaces made by their own hand. Special metal-beaded ankle bracelets are meant to protect from snakes. A few fat babies totter and play about. Older children, we are told, attend school. During the day the men are off tending their cattle and goats. At night, they come home, beasts and all. Their huts are of mud and sticks, and a shelter has been built to serve as a sort of open-air shop where the women sell their basketry, jewelry, and crafts. This seemed to be the lone concession to a tourist trade.
While there is something cringingly uncomfortable about visiting and observing people as if they were animals in a zoo, if it is done mindfully and respectfully perhaps it can be a good experience for the observer, as well as the observed. While I do not kid myself that this is always the case, I want to believe it was the case with our group: asking permission for photos, keeping a respectful distance, gesturing and speaking in friendly tones with our guides as interpreters. Alternately weary and enthusiastic, they were very keen to observe our shopping in their no-frills kiosk. They were not disappointed with our spending either.
As the fourth-largest country in Africa, Namibia is difficult to cover in one go. I longed to return to the capital Windhoek, the towns of Swakupmund and the Walvis Bay fishing village of Ludaritz. And I’d love to re-visit the extraordinary Etosha Pan game park. Another time. We were on to Botswana with our memories of a place and people like no other in the world. Namibia’s Sossusvlei, Skeleton Coast, and Himba culture are jewels of Africa that remain relatively undisturbed, a rare and precious state on an ever-imperiled continent.