Road tripping around Namibia

Hit the road in Namibia to rub shoulders with cheetahs, get up-close with elephants and explore the desert on horseback

Sarah Baxter
17 April 2016
”Enjoying your jackal?”

Lodge owner Andrew chuckled as I struggled to gnaw the piece of biltong; I wasn’t completely convinced he was joking, but that hardly seemed to matter. As our tethered horses snorted contentedly, accompanied by the chatter of geckos clacking like a game of marbles, I looked out across the Namib Desert.

I’d reached this escarpment on the back of Eclipse, an Arab-cross mare, who’d expertly picked her way through the stone-strewn veld in silence, save the pad of her hooves on sand and rock. The orange-and-cerulean clash of land and sky had softened as the day advanced, and everything was now aglow. I took a beer from the linen-covered table that had miraculously beaten us to the viewpoint and watched as nature performed its final flourish – a real ‘thank you and goodnight’, as the sun bowed below the horizon.

Show over, we trusted the horses to lead us back through the gloaming. One started at a group of springbok and, before I knew it, Eclipse was in galloping pursuit. The warm dusk air blasted my face as I clung on, hoping she would stop – but also that she wouldn’t.

Wild horses of the Namib at sunset (Shutterstock)

As her pace finally slowed, I leaned back in my saddle to see an incalculable number of stars now watching our progress and – not to be outdone by the sun – the moon rising over the distant hills. We were like extras in The Truman Show: the indigo sky was dark at the horizon but paled as it rose, giving the sense of being enclosed beneath a vast dome, topped by an inquiring spotlight. This was just another day in Namibia, a country not short on remarkable moments.

It’s also a country where roads come to retire. Flying into Windhoek, the capital, revealed this much. As the plane descended, we noticed a tawny scratch in the featureless land, only discernable as a highway by the lone car zipping along it.

We followed this route a few days later and passed more baboons than traffic. Wild, uninhabitable scrub spread out on all sides and everything was shrouded in silky dust, which, over the course of the trip, gradually worked its way into the car. But as the mounds of dust increased, so too did the beauty of the landscape: from the forest of Dr Seuss-like quiver trees, to the arid depths of the Fish River Canyon, to the penguin-speckled Atlantic coast at Lüderitz, the terrain was never less than impressive, and often startling.

Having been driving for a week, the novelty of Namibia’s roads still hadn’t worn off. We’d passed lurid purple funeral parlours, trees crippled by the weight of giant weaver bird nests, proudly striding oryx and even desert-adapted horses – but few other cars.

Striking north for the Namib Desert’s iconic sands, we expected more traffic, but it never turned up. A few other cars did join us on the final leg into Sossusvlei: it was daybreak and the moon was still winking on one side while the dunes, rippled like soft ice-cream, were blushing blood orange on the other.

Car on sandy trail in the desert (Shutterstock)

Searching out the firmer ground for ease of walking, we set off into the Namib. The wind was blasting sand off the top of the highest dunes, and sculpting the desert floor into neat orange folds. Finally, we crested a steep ridge and Dead Vlei appeared below us, a bowl of bleached earth encircled by some of the world’s biggest sand mountains.

There were few other people there, just a scattering of lifeless, grey trees standing bold against the simple, tri-colour palette: the white of the pan, the apricot lustre of the dunes and the deep blue of the flawless sky.

As we descended into this primeval landscape, the trees took on human shapes; contorted into poses of frozen terror, they seemed to be crying out for help before sinking into the arid ground. There was no other sign of life except for the glittering beetles and the tiny footprint trails they left behind them.

In fact, it was amazing to think these trees had ever eked out an existence here, and they offered no solace for those in a similar position – as the sun became more relentless, their leafless limbs provided no shade, while the white earth glared up at us ferociously.

Trudging back under the midday sun, we were more parched tree than industrious beetle. Stupidly hatless and carrying only a dribble of water, the endlessly beautiful desert showed no mercy. Eventually we flopped back into the car, downed the water that had been simmering nicely on the dashboard and added shoefulls of the Namib’s sand to the car’s dusty cargo.

After a long drive over a road more rock than gravel, we reached the coast at Swakopmund and headed out to sea. The sky and the ocean were distinguishable only by their subtly different shades of grey, but within minutes of leaving the jetty the gloom came to life. Elastic-jawed pelicans floated past, a squadron of flamingos gave us a fly-by and Flipper, a blubberous seal, hurled himself onto the boat.

Billy, our captain, didn’t seem surprised and proceeded to show us Flipper’s flippers: “See how they have finger nails?” he said. “We think that’s because they’re related to bears.”
After much persuasion, Flipper slid back into the water just before the boat rounded a headland to reveal hundreds of his brethren at the stinky colony. It was like a nightclub – some seals were fighting, others were gossiping or preening themselves, while many danced in the water.

We motored back with a convoy of heavyside dolphins, but became distracted by an abnormally large one waving its tail in the distance. As we pulled nearer, the great barnacle-clad body of a southern right whale broke the surface, sending even Billy into a state of euphoria: “This only happens a few times a year!”

The whale escorted us for a while, before finally dipping under the murky grey with a showy flash of its fluke.

Namibia’s animal cast was starting to play a bigger role in this journey. A few days in Damaraland rewarded us with glimpses of giraffe and zebra among the bottle and butter trees, and lodge owner Dennis Liebenberg told us about the area’s elephants. “One came into the camp once and cornered a guest. I tried to distract it, so it walked over, pinned me to the ground and slapped me round the face with its trunk. It was just teaching me a lesson.”

Desert elephant taking a dust bath (Shutterstock)

In Etosha National Park, the elephants were friendlier, although they had little respect for the rules of the road – you need patience to drive here. Zebra crossed in front of us in long, slow processions; grazing elephants caused a minor traffic jam; a herd of wildebeest rushed along the hard shoulder; a basking lion forced an emergency stop; and the springbok ran willy-nilly, clearly flouting the Green Cross Code.

Cars and creatures mixed rather better at our final destination: Okonjima lodge. The drive in along tracks of crimson sand was lined with ‘Beware of the Cheetahs’ signs, but the cats stayed out of sight.

Okonjima is home to the AfriCat Programme, dedicated to preserving cheetahs in a country that often sees them maimed or orphaned by angry farmers. The project aims to rehabilitate the cats and release them in game parks across the continent, but there are a few who, for various reasons, cannot leave Okonjima. Perched on an open Jeep, we drove into their lair.

Using the spare tyre on the bonnet as a cat-attracting dinner bowl, we waited – it didn’t take long. Sprinting through the bush came a flash of fawn and black – more greyhound than feline – which leapt up onto the car and got stuck in to its lunch.

Our guide was telling us all about the cat’s history and physiology, but it was hard to listen while an honest-to-god cheetah was sitting a metre away. The mascara-like smudges running down from his eyes gave him a slightly sad demeanor, but his red-tinged whiskers suggested he was enjoying his meal.

Cheetah feeding in Okonjima, Namibia (Shutterstock)

That afternoon I sat in our plush rondaval. The canvas sides had been rolled up to reveal the distant mountains and the small waterhole on our veranda. I threw out some seeds and a mob of birds – red-eyed black ones, pinky purple ones, green and yellow ones – descended in turn, apparently obeying some avian hierarchy.

There was a scratchy shuffle from the nearby scrub and a tiny, unlikely-looking animal snuffled out – an elephant shrew, mostly mouse but with a distinctly trunk-like nose. I couldn’t help but smile – Namibia delivered on a massive scale, from the towering dunes of the Namib to the endless stretches of beautiful nothing that spread from every roadside. But looking down at the little things, watching this weird and unexpected houseguest scuttle under the shade of a camelthorn tree, was every bit as incredible.

Main Image: Namib Desert in Namib-Nuakluft National Park (Dreamstime)

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