Dunes, desert, and ingenious wildlife
Namibia: Sleeper hit from a travel-packed year
Arriving in Windhoek, we wondered if we’d got it wrong. After a Botswana safari and the adrenaline rush of Victoria Falls, Windhoek was oddly tame in a western way. The city’s highways and paved suburbs seemed super-imposed onto an African soul, and almost obliterated it.
We were in search of the primal heart of Africa, and Windhoek, although pleasant enough, did not fit the bill. That said, it's good to see another African country with a functioning democracy and stable government. Thanks again to diamond mining.
The next morning, we headed west to the Kalahari.
The Kalahari, at over 30,000 years, is the world’s oldest desert. Its indigenous peoples, the San (previously “Bushmen”), know a thing or two about surviving its harsh environment. They can make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood and strategise how to trap anteaters by targeting a monumental anthill.
The Kalahari’s wildlife is equally ingenious. Jackals know to dig into the sand until fresh water is reached. A tiny beetle, sensing the approach of fog from the cold Atlantic, scuttles up Namibia’s famed dunes—the equivalent of a human scaling two Everests in two hours. The insect then stands on its hind legs and channels condensation into its mouth. (watch BBC's Planet Earth). Mountain zebra have developed a striped pattern to beat the heat, and so has the oryx with elaborate black and white markings on its head that help heat and cool the brain at different rates.
We had entered a harsh and compelling land. The sweep of land was majestic. Yet, life was in the tiniest details.
The feeling was heightened at Sossusvlei, home to the planet’s highest dunes. At 600+ metres, they rise taller than most skyscrapers. The casual eye—and it’s difficult to be casual about these giants—only registers their scale and enormity.
But look closer. Note a marking on the sand. Here, a snake slithered into a crevice. There, a lizard traipsed after a beetle. A weaver hopped in search of dew on scrawny grass. It is a living, breathing, if harsh habitat in a topographically unique area of our planet.
Namibia’s sweeping vistas leave one gasping one minute, and the next minute, its minutiae inspires awe.
Onto to Swakopmund on the Atlantic. Again, a quirky town with a colonial German sensibility, dipped in history and home to colonies of flamingo on its southern shore. A few miles north we discovered the unreal Skeleton Coast. Panoramas of blue Atlantic, majestic clouds, sun chasing swathes of subtle shadows over miles of undulating dunes dropping right down to the ocean—I kept rubbing my eyes. It couldn't be real.
It got real all right at the world’s largest seal colony at Cape Cross. Some 150,000 strong, their smell is pretty bad. But be spared if timing is right and winds are offshore.
Namibia culls its seal population annually between Nov 1-15. It’s controversial, especially on the world animal rights scene. We arrived just after a cull and in the midst of calving season. Everywhere were honking, grunting, squealing seals. They flapped ungainly until in the ocean, when they are paradigms of grace. On land, bulls bared teeth and scraped. Females gave birth and, placenta still glistening and cub mewling, they flapped their way into the water for their offspring’s first meal. A mother will feed only her own cub, and if she flaps astray in the bewildering mass of seals, her cub dies. The sand was littered with fresh corpses. As a fellow mammal and mother, I felt for my compatriots.
Namibia is about treacherous gravel roads, unforgettable vistas, and close-ups of a primal Africa where the line between life and death is a fine one indeed. As we jetted off from a small but efficiently run airport, I likened Namibia to its desert-adapted wildlife. The country's unforgettable sights had worked their way into an internal crevice in my brain and there it stays.