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Just Back From: A Road Trip Safari in Namibia

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On a safari road trip through Namibia, Indagare’s Elise Bronzo shares her remarkable adventures across this unique, expansive country—from Windhoek to the legendary Namib Desert to the Mars-like red deserts of Sossusvlei and the Skeleton Coast.

“You’re going where?” The gate agent scoffed while my tickets were printed.
“Windhoek. W-D-H”
“Where’s that?”
“Namibia.”
“Nami-what?”
I pulled out my phone to show her a photo of the red sand dunes. “Namibia.”
“Wow! Cool spot! Where is that?”

Namibia (which translates to “Land of the Brave”) hugs the southwestern Atlantic coast of Africa and is twice the size of California with half of the population of L.A. While proximity to the ocean might suggest abundance, conversely, Namibia is home to one of the driest deserts in the world and is one of the least-populated countries per square mile, though it has been inhabited by the indigenous San, Damara and Nama people since prehistoric times—and those groups still practice their cultural traditions in Namibia today. Colonized by Germany in 1884, Namibia did not regain independence until 1990, almost a century after the colonizers inflicted a genocide against the Herero and Nama groups; and now, international investors retain a stronghold on Namibia’s rich uranium, gold-, silver- and gem-mining operations. Segregation and poverty remain visible, and like much of Southern Africa, politics are complicated.

As it turned out, I had only booked my flight a month prior, after our VP of Business Development Diana Li had invited me to join her scouting trip. Diana and I both majored in anthropology and revere indigenous cultures and religion, and Namibia has long topped our travel wishlists for its rich cultural heritage. Thanks to our CEO, Melissa Biggs Bradley, we’ve adopted a love of safari and covet any destination that’s considered (as Namibia is) PhD-level safari—for true lovers of creatures both great and small. As preparation, we had surveyed 10 people we knew who had been. Not one mentioned safari, but all remarked on the beauty of the landscapes and the profound impact the people they met along the way had on them. They told us two weeks was not nearly long enough and to consider driving—if we could manage a tire change in a pinch. So we arranged our itinerary to combine flying and driving, and as we boarded at JFK, we said a little prayer that an automatic car would be waiting for us on arrival.

Desert Adventures: Windhoek to Namib, and a Sky Full of Stars

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Little Kulala Camp. Photo by Diana Li, courtesy Indagare
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Little Kulala Camp. Photo by Diana Li, courtesy Indagare
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Oryx at Naukluft National Park. Photo by Diana Li, courtesy Indagare
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Courtesy Indagare

 

Shortly after leaving the rental car lot in Windhoek, smooth tar gave way to gravel. Towering mopane trees dotted the roadside like exit markers, each with a picnic table providing a shady respite for those traveling by foot. Our first stop, Little Kulala, led us six hours southwest of Windhoek to the legendary Namib Desert, and we were fueled by diesel and the special adrenaline that surges upon arriving at a new destination. As luck would have it, we arrived just weeks after the wettest rain seasons in a decade, which had left the landscape greener and healthier than usual. We came upon a barren Acacia tree warped by an enormous nest. We pulled over to study the architecture—thick layers of straw, expertly woven and piled, and noticed little black and yellow birds, which we recognized as weavers, milling in and out of cylindrical openings, an unlikely thriving thoroughfare of community, delicately and precariously hovering within a harsh environment.

Long spans of open road rendered us silent with the exception of the occasional gasp as we rounded a corner and took in a new view. We tried making sense of the diverse topography, comparing Namibia’s red rock formations to the Grand Canyon and the golden rolling hills to the Isle of Skye. While most travelers consider Namibia to be a safari destination, it would be more accurately described as a wilderness destination suited to nature seekers who love places like Chile, Peru, New Zealand and the American West. For me, it ranks as one of the most humbling landscapes in the world.

The sun hovered above the horizon, as we turned down the final stretch to Little Kulala. The staff ran to meet us, waving, carrying cool herbal-scented towels and freshly pressed ginger juice. We were whisked to one of the lodge’s 11 stand-alone suites lining the expansive arid landscape, with a private plunge pool, outdoor shower and signature star bed. The lodge—along with sister properties Hoanib Skeleton Camp and Serra Cafema—was recently renovated and conveniently sits just outside the entrance to the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, offering a private gate and early access to Sossusvlei and the infamous Big Daddy dune.

To cap off our first day, our guide Gabriel drove us to the perfect sundowner spot and we hoisted ourselves to the top of the safari vehicle. The sun dipped and the sky became drenched in shades of pastel, growing lighter as the sun went lower, before it went completely dark. Under that sky we watched as the stars revealed themselves—millions of them—until there appeared to be more bright light than black negative space. “Our universe contains at least 70 septillion stars, 7 followed by 23 zeros,” Diana told me. “Astronomers estimate there exist roughly 10,000 stars for each grain of sand on Earth.” We sat together in silence and agreed that this was the most beautiful sky we had ever seen.

Learn about our new small-group Insider Journey to Namibia (November 28 – December 7, 2022), an itinerary inspired by Elise and Diana’s adventure and also featuring stays at Little Kulala, Hoanib Skeleton Camp and Serra Cafema. Inquire or email insiderjourneys@indagare.com to join the trip—or consult with your Trip Designer about planning a private safari in Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and beyond.

Big Daddy and Sossusvlei

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The “newspaper dune.” Courtesy Indagare
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Courtesy Indagare

 

The following morning, our goal was to summit the largest sand dune in the Sossusvlei. Moments into the trek, sweat dripped down my nose and onto the white romper that was proving itself impractical and unbreathable. Despite the sweeping 360-degree views of the national park, my eyes were on my feet for balance. Inches away, a dead beetle was being consumed by desert ants, and I couldn’t help but wonder how long I would last alone out here before meeting the same fate.

Thirty minutes later, we reached the summit—and horizon-to-horizon views of the astounding ochre dunes, perfectly piled, each grain of sand smoothed by the wind as far as the eye could see. In order to reach Dead Vlei—the salt pan petrified forest below—we needed to descend a seemingly vertical drop off the side of the dune. Our hiking partners went first, squealing with delight, belly flopping into the loose sand, sliding on their backs, sand pooling and spilling after each of their imprints. We followed them down, kicking off our boots to feel the cool relief of the sand, sinking to our knees before bouncing to the next step as if we were defying gravity. The feeling of weightlessness was euphoric. We felt transported to another planet, snaking along the edge of the five million-year-old dune, sand sticking to our 30-something skin.

Later that afternoon, we studied the dunes more closely with Gabriel, and he introduced us to the concept of the “newspaper dune.” The afternoon and evening winds either alter or erase the footprints and markings from the previous day. Expert guides can tell how long ago a print was made based on how much sand had been layered over it. The guides in Namibia joke that they wake up in the morning and read the dunes as they would the morning paper, to find out what had happened in the animal kingdom the night before. He went on to translate the newspaper dune for us—apparently, a dune lark had passed over the prints of a gerbil, and a dancing white lady spider had made an appearance around 2:00 a.m. The scarcity in the desert forced our attention to the fine details.

Kuiseb Canyon to Swakopmund to Damaraland

The following day, we found our way through Kuiseb Canyon—winding roads and vast, layered rolling hills. They folded together into an illusory braid of golds and greens, which somehow seemed right, as in many indigenous cultures, braids represent past, present, future and mind, body, spirit. We watched the grasses move in the wind under the bright sun. Our final destination that day was Swakopmund, a small coastal mining town established by German colonists in 1892, set apart by its displaced alpine architecture along the shoreline. We were pleasantly surprised by our Namibian, female-owned boutique hotel, The Strand; dinner at The Tug, a local restaurant institution that is reminiscent of a Cape Cod fish joint; and shopping at Peter’s Antiques, a purveyor of pan-African crafts. The owner, Ludwig Haller, traveled to 30 African countries throughout his youth with his parents, the shop’s founders, and he generously shared his knowledge, particularly of Namibian indigenous craft.

In the misty morning that hung over the coastline, we drove six hours north of Swakopmund to Damaraland, Wilderness Safaris’s first lodge in Namibia, established in 1996, within the expansive Doro Nawas Nature Preserve. Along this stretch, we came upon dozens of eerie roadside stalls—abandoned tables topped with hunks of rose quartz, amethyst and tourmaline. We learned that these booths were the shopfronts of informal miners. Before the continents shifted apart, Brazil and Namibia were connected and today they share many of the same semi-precious minerals. We estimated the value of the crystals we chose and left cash under the heaviest quartz before getting back in the car.

“If I don’t practice these traditions they will die.”

In Namibia, a handful of indigenous groups have established Living Museums throughout the country. Owned and operated by the indigenous groups, they showcase and offer a glimpse (albeit a controversial one) into cultural traditions through workshops on everything from herbal medicine to tracking and hunting. Just outside of Damaraland Camp, we parked our car at the Damara Living Museum, paid for tickets, and waited for the musical performance to start. Because we felt uneasy, we asked the “chief” of the village how he felt about dressing up in traditional garb for tourists. “If I don’t practice these traditions they will die,” he said, “and if I don’t share these stories, my culture will die. And it’s better I make money off of this instead of someone who is not Damara. I want my children to learn about our history, and this is a way to teach them, too. Here, I am able to tell my story, my way.”

Afterwards, at Damaraland Camp, we were greeted in melodic song by the 20-person team, many of whom hailed from the surrounding villages. Corbiana, who has been with the Camp for 18 years, ushered us to our tent, basic in comparison to our luxe accommodations at Little Kulala, but in a prime spot within the Torra Conservancy. That evening, we were invited to a magical boma dinner of corn soup, pap—a traditional maize meal served with lamb stew—and peppermint cake, around the open fire, under the stars.

At 6:30 a.m. the next morning, we set out in search of the elusive desert-adapted elephants and marveled at the red-rock landscape that changed from mopane-lined river beds to sage brush and back. We stopped to observe uprooted trees, massive crickets and weaver nests (again)—a benefit of being in a safari landscape with very few predators. Those weaver nests, we now realized, felt emblematic of this unlikely thriving land. Our guide Reagan announced that he had one more place to check for the herd, and sure enough, we found them, following each other, trunk to tail, as they scaled the modest hills of the Doro Nawas region.

Air time: Doro Nawas to Serra Cafema

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Flying over Namibia. Photo by Diana Li, courtesy Indagare
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Courtesy Indagare

 

We parked our SUV in Doro Nawas and headed for the airstrip, where we met two managers, reporting for their first day on the job at Serra Cafema, the next stop on our journey. Gerrit and Michelle introduced themselves, beaming from the excited nerves that accompany a new beginning. The duo had been working at other luxury camps in Namibia when the pandemic hit and they were laid off, due to the lack of tourism. They were thrilled to be coming back to work.

Once up in the air, the four of us sat in our respective seats, faces glued to the glass as we glided over the landscape. “See those circular formations down there?” Gerrit shouted, pointing. “Those are Himba villages.” I nodded, and we were left to the hum of the engine and our own thoughts. Seeing the landscape from the sky revealed a repeated pattern that resembled nerves and veins: dried river tributaries, wind-whipped sand, desert trees and sun-bleached bones. In my time here, I felt as though Namibia had entered my system intravenously. The extreme elements, the expanse, the colors and the topography had blended into a tincture that downshifted my thoughts and nervous system, enabling an ease that I hadn’t felt—maybe ever. The lack of distractions (people, flora, fauna and “connectivity”) had sharpened my focus on Mother Nature’s parallels and the divinity in her details.

Our next stop, Serra Cafema, was one of the most remote camps in all of southern Africa. We quickly fell into an easy rhythm of Q&A and witty banter with our guide Elias, as he led us through the rises and drops of the massive sand dunes and dramatic limestone cliffs of the Serra Cafema mountain range. A favorite among privacy-seeking celebrities, the Serra Cafema lodge is situated in the northwesternmost corner of Namibia, along the Kunene River that separates Namibia from Angola. In stark contrast to the ancient arid landscape of the surrounding desert, the banks of the riverbed were buzzing with new life: green trees and tropical birds whizzed by, carefully avoiding the jaws of the Nile crocs. Each of the eight chalets, built on elevated platforms above the river banks, have private balconies with unparalleled views of the rushing Kunene River and the border of Angola, on the opposing bank. The luxurious, sleek, sprawling suites sat empty except for the few hours we slept; the landscape offered a wealth of activities, from a picnic breakfast in Angola reached by river boat (we decided it counted towards our list of countries visited), to ATVing at sunset through the dunes, to a hike to see an ostrich graveyard.

Learn about our new small-group Insider Journey to Namibia (November 28 – December 7, 2022), an itinerary inspired by Elise and Diana’s adventure and also featuring stays at Little Kulala, Hoanib Skeleton Camp and Serra Cafema. Inquire or email insiderjourneys@indagare.com to join the trip—or consult with your Trip Designer about planning a private safari in Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and beyond.

Himba Village

Wilderness puts its guides and hospitality team through a rigorous “Ethics Charter and Codes of Conduct for Cultural Tourism” program, training them to practice cultural respect. As we approached the local Himba village, Elias parked the vehicle a few hundred yards away and radioed to the families, letting them know we would arrive in 10 minutes if we were still welcome, giving the community agency over the visitors they accept and time to prepare for them. He then started sharing the history and nuance of Himba culture, inviting us to ask questions. The Himba community, a semi-nomadic group, are nature’s custodians. Here, in the Serra Cafema Mountains, they are left to practice their traditions and ways of life in peace. By choice, they travel by foot each day to gather maize meal and palm oil from the lodge, carrying it back to their village (at least a dozen miles away) for supper. The day prior, while we were riding our ATVs, we spotted them on their return, dwarfed by the mountainous sand dunes, with packages balanced on their heads. They released a hand to wave and we waved back, feeling a bit silly after a frivolous joy ride. While in Swakopmund, we visited a local Himba market, where women had traveled from the countryside of the city to sell their craft to support their communities. The palpable urgency to make the sale in order to feed their children had stuck with us, but here, in Serra Cafema, we noticed that these women seemed to stand apart from the influence of the Western world.

“We hadn’t asked a single question from the list we had made. Instead, we had learned something far more important.”

The smell of myrrh filled our nostrils as we began connecting with the women, giggling as we tried to pronounce each other’s names, curiously studying facial features, reactions and hairstyles. We stood together, mirroring each other’s movements until someone initiated a clap, then a stomp, a spin, followed by the hum of a song. The dance party evolved into a dance off. We spun around in a circle of women and children and did our best to keep up with their pounding feet. Then the women laid out animal skins with an array of crafts—bracelets made from PVC pipe, excavated from a nearby waterline, to chunks of aquamarine and ochre that had been collected at a sacred site many miles away, baskets woven from palm leaves collected along the Kunene River, necklaces rubbed in ochre. We made our selections and the women cheered, following up our payments with gifts of bracelets and crystals. We stalled, not wanting to leave, playing with the kids as the sun set, as the fading light coated the village in a crimson shade of ochre, an image that will be forever seared in my brain. We realized as Elias drove us back towards the lodge that we hadn’t asked a single question from the list we had made. Instead, we had learned something far more important: how to be utterly present.

The Skeleton Coast

The final stop on our journey was to Hoanib Skeleton Camp, a tented desert oasis within a pocked earth, moon-like landscape straight out of a scene from Mad Max. Proximity to the Skeleton Coast—named for the various shipwrecks and whale carcasses washed up along its unforgiving and spectacular coastline—draws a relatively abundant amount of wildlife to the area. Hoanib’s sculptural tented suites are a desert fantasy for safari design lovers, but the lodge also serves as an important research center for Dr. Phillip “Flip” Stander and his partner Emsie, who study desert-adapted lion and brown hyena, respectively. From here, the lion and hyena travel the arid corridor of sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast, where sea lion colonies and, consequently, sea lion meat, are plentiful. (Flip’s work was recently featured in a film called The Vanishing Kings.) The population of desert-adapted lions has dropped below 100, due to poaching, starvation and poison inflicted by local farmers concerned for their cattle. Fortunately, with tourism rebounding, the outlook is optimistic now that proceeds from Wilderness camps support Dr. Stander’s research.

At Hoanib, we spent two days tracking the increasingly elusive desert-adapted lions, and more specifically a lioness named Charlie. We put our newspaper dune lessons to use. We found multiple large paw prints, which our guide Michael recognized as Charlie’s. As we followed her clues, Michael would park the vehicle, pacing alongside her figure-eight-path, stroking his chin as if he were trying to solve a riddle. “I can almost taste her,” he snarled, as he drove manically through the landscape searching for his favorite lion.

On our final morning, we agreed to set out on one last game drive. Just as we were about to give up and turn back to catch our flight, over the crest of the riverbed, Charlie’s bulbous ears appeared—just enough for us to spot them. She looked at us from her perch, lazily watching as if to ask what had taken us so long.

One Final Lesson

To soften the blow of our return to urban life after 11 extraordinary days, our partners at Wilderness Safaris had set up a breakfast with Dr. Conrad Brain, who heads the company’s conservation efforts in Namibia. Conrad, fondly known to friends as Nad, is both a pilot and a veterinarian, allowing him to fly his plane to support animals in need and oversee the Save the Rhino Trust, a highly successful initiative to repopulate Namibia with black rhino by limiting poaching. He and his wife also happen to be acclaimed filmmakers and have won awards for their films such as The Giants of Etosha. We shared our impressions of Namibia with Nad and listened as he told the story of the mysterious mass killings of cheetahs in Etosha National Park. He had been running a study of cheetahs that had been reintroduced to Etosha National Park, and they were found dead without any life-ending injuries, indications of old age or illness. His team decided to call in the experts—local San people who had inhabited this land and tracked the animals here for tens of thousands of years. After 45 minutes, the San men reported that the cheetahs had died from an illness, based on how their bodies were lying in the soil. Nad ran a few new tests and sure enough, the cheetahs had been infected with anthrax, which was rampant in Etosha National Park. They could not survive because their prey had long ago established an immunity to the deadly substance, but the cheetahs had not. Nad went on to tell us that other studies have shown that because San had hunted and eaten animals in the Etosha region for millennia, they too were immune to anthrax and would be able to outlast other humans should an anthrax epidemic arise. Blown away, we began inquiring about the tracking abilities of the San people, regretting not having spent much time with them during our visit.

“Next time we come back, we will need at least a month,” we announced.

“A month? No. You need at least a year, minimum,” he replied firmly, reminding us of Namibia’s greatest lesson: to slow down and spend time simply watching the sunlight change the landscape.

Learn about our new small-group Insider Journey to Namibia (November 28 – December 7, 2022), an itinerary inspired by Elise and Diana’s adventure and also featuring stays at Little Kulala, Hoanib Skeleton Camp and Serra Cafema. Inquire or email insiderjourneys@indagare.com to join the trip—or consult with your Trip Designer about planning a private safari in Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and beyond.

– Elise Bronzo on July 14, 2022

Quotable

While most travelers consider Namibia to be a safari destination, it would be more accurately described as a wilderness destination suited to nature seekers who love places like Chile, Peru, New Zealand and the American West. For me, it ranks as one of the most humbling landscapes in the world.

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