Skeletons in the Sand. Namibia’s spectacular landscapes and wealth of wildlife

One of hundreds of shipwrecksOne of hundreds of shipwrecks

A country of colour, contrast and space, Namibia is a photographers dream. Spectacular landscapes and a wealth of wildlife make this desert destination a place not to be missed. Jeremy Jowell flies into the wilderness.

Chris Bakkes is the epitome of an outdoor adventure man. Tall, blonde and bearded, he has worked in the wilderness of Africa for 17 years and says he could never settle into urban life again.

"Working as a guide in Namibia on the Skeleton Coast is exactly where I want to be," smiles Chris. "I never get tired of this beautiful desert, with its stunning scenery, incredible animals and wide open space."

Chris's wildlife experiences in remote parts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia have brought him an immense amount of pleasure. But he's also had his fair share of pain.

"Nine years ago I was working as a trails ranger in Kruger Park and one afternoon went for a swim in a dam. A crocodile suddenly appeared and grabbed me by my right shoulder but luckily the dam wasn't deep and I managed to wrestle him onto the bank. Then another croc flew out the water and bit off my left arm."

The accident may have cost Chris a limb, but it didn't diminish his love for the outdoors or his ability to work as a wilderness guide. "One carries on living and you learn to adapt. I'm just lucky to be alive."

All visitors to Namibia are enchanted by the vast landscapes and beautiful desert scenery. The major natural attractions are the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the Fish River Canyon and rocky valleys of Damaraland.

But there's a lot more to Namibia than just the scenery. The country has a wealth of wildlife and Etosha National Park is one of the great game reserves in Africa.

The most remote part of the country is the Skeleton Coast, undoubtedly one of the planet's most isolated places. The area gets its name from the many whale skeletons and shipwrecks strewn along the misty shores. This lonely expanse is a wilderness area that receives very few visitors. The road stops at Möwe Bay and 4x4 vehicles are not allowed further into the park. The only way to experience this remote wonderland is by joining a fly-in excursion run by Wilderness Safaris.

The wilderness camp, situated 20 km inland from the Atlantic coast, has exclusive use to 600 000 acres of the Skeleton Coast National Park. The scenery is astounding and guests experience a range of landscapes from pastel-coloured plains and towering canyons to windswept beaches and soaring dunes.

In nearby Kaokoland, another attraction is the nomadic Himba people and one morning we visit a small settlement near the town of Purros. The area receives very little rainfall and Chris Bakkes shows us where they have dug shallow wells to reach water. "Their lives revolve around their cattle so the Himba often leave their villages and travel long distances to find the best grazing grounds," explains Chris.

The Skeleton Coast is not marketed as a game viewing experience but every day we witness a wealth of wildlife both big and small. One misty morning we head out for a day trip to the seal colony at Cape Frio. It's a surreal sight sitting on a rooftop seat of the Landrover, watching the eerie dunescape drift by in a sea of white.

We pass a giant saltpan and then cross the basalt ridges and barren plains of Agate Mountain. The stench at the coast is overpowering as 60 000 Cape fur seals lumber on the rocks, barking their contempt at our presence. Two black-backed jackals sneak around searching for tiny seal pups.

We drive back along the mist-shrouded beach, stopping occasionally to inspect shipwrecks and skeletons in the sand. Ribs, vertebrae, jawbones, even the full spinal column of a beaked whale that washed up some time ago.

On another misty morning, we set off early to explore the tributaries of the Hoarusib River. The thick fog soon lifts and in the distance, two stately oryx stand silhouetted against the sky. Small herds of springbok graze and we also have a lucky sighting of the shy Burchells zebra.

The bird life in the area is plentiful and we see several species, including a Ruppels korhaan, a Pale Chanting goshawk and a Martial eagle that glides gracefully in the thermals above.

"There's a chance we could walk into elephants or lions," warns Chris, as we hike down a dry canyon near the Hoarusib River. "If we do see anything, just stay together and listen to my instructions."

Chris goes ahead at a bushy area to scout. Then he gives the all clear and we proceed into the thicket. "Look, fresh lion tracks," he says, indicating clear paw prints in some mud. "A female and two cubs passed here this morning. I hadn't seen any sign of them for a while so it's good to know that they are still around."

Four days in the Skeleton Coast fly past and next stop on my safari is Damaraland Camp. Situated 90 kilometres inland, just north of the Huab River valley, this rugged area offers panoramic views across rocky plains and is famous for its desert dwelling elephants

The next morning we set off with our guide Rosie Haraes in search of the gentle giants. Rosie first worked as a goat herder, then started at the camp as a chambermaid and worked her way up the ranks to tour guide. She recently completed an eco training course in South Africa and is extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna.

Her expert eye catches sight of elephant tracks and soon we find piles of their fresh dung. Just ahead, eating from a purple terminalia tree is an old bull elephant. We approach to within 20 metres of the tusker who flaps his ears, shakes his head and plods purposefully towards us.

"Sometimes he's calm and walks peacefully past but today I don't like the look of his face. He seems in a nasty mood," says Rosie, backing the vehicle away. We soon find other elephants and after a few hours spent in their peaceful company, we stop for lunch in the shade of a shepherd tree.

My wildlife adventure continues and I take the short flight to Ongava Lodge, a luxury camp situated in a private reserve on the border of Etosha National Park.

The lodge offers superb accommodation, guided game drives, Etosha outings and rhino tracking walking trails. It's an open camp with no fences so animals sometimes wander through the grounds at night. Two lions were once found sleeping between the chalets, so for safety, a guide always escorts guests back to their rooms after dark.

Over the next two days, we have successful trips into Etosha and around Ongava itself, with good sightings of giraffe, zebra, eland, blue wildebeest and white rhinos with their calves. We also take a memorable walking trail at sunset to a foothill in the Ondundozonanandana range.

Another exciting wildlife encounter comes during dinner one night. As we order pre-dinner drinks, a lone giraffe arrives at the floodlit waterhole. Starters are served and six spotted hyenas skulk in followed by two black rhinos. Our food is soon forgotten as everybody rushes over to watch the animal procession. The main course arrives but any semblance of a sit down meal is abandoned when five lions lope up to quench their thirst.

For a landscape photographer, no trip to Namibia is complete without a few days in the Sossusvlei area. After the short Cessna flight from Windhoek, I check into Kulala Desert Lodge and spend the first night sleeping on the roof of my chalet under the stars.

The next morning I wake long before dawn and travel into the dark desert to photograph Deadvlei at its best. The vast amphitheatre is surrounded by giant dunes and with contorted camelthorn trees protruding from the cracked clay earth, Deadvlei is undoubtedly one of Africa's most surreal sights.

The sun finally rises and a warm orange glow lights up the sandy peaks. I spend several hours shooting the multi faceted landscape before a blinding sand storm blows in.

For my last night I transfer to Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, a luxurious lodge situated in a 21 000 ha private reserve with panoramic views over an immense yellow plain.

I'm woken early the next morning and set out for the ultimate desert adventure, a hot air balloon ride at dawn above the dunes. After a short ride, we arrive at the lift-off site where Eric Hesemans of Namib Sky Adventure Safaris is busy firing up the burners. The limp balloon leaps to life and we hop into the wicker basket before slowly drifting skywards.

"We'll fly at low altitude until we get to the valley and then head off over the dunes, says Eric. "It's nice and calm after yesterdays storm so we should have an wonderful ride."

At 6.24 am and an altitude of 402 metres, we watch a golden sun rise over the Naukluft Mountains. We soar in silence over the awakening desert and admire the dunes as they turn pastel shades of purple and pink. The beauty of the Namib is never more evident than when seen floating from above.

We descend to 100 metres for a closer look at the Tsauchub riverbed. "Look there!" shouts Eric, "it's a cheetah sprinting through the grassy area. We're very lucky to see it as they normally hide when the balloon comes down low."

We drift over a field of small barchan dunes and prepare to land amongst them for a champagne breakfast. "This is what Namibia is all about," smiles Eric. "Wonderful colours and absolute tranquillity. There's nothing to beat being up here so early on a calm clear morning." Gazing down at the magnitude of the desert, all I can do is smile, nod my head and agree.

Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Jowell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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