90 minutes west of Maun lies Namibia’s capital Windhoek. The land becomes drier and redder as we progress. A forty minute drive from the airport takes us to the Olive Grove Guesthouse on the outskirts of this town with a modest 300,000 inhabitants, where we enjoy a pleasant stay in the garden suite. Now begins the driving part of a trip, with a Nissan X Trail being delivered for our first leg north to Okonjima, home of Africat Foundation, a cheetah rescue and release project. We cruise nicely on well tarmaced roads for two hours, completing the last 25km on a dirt track.
Our first task is educational – being shown the box trap system they use for capturing problem animals. After a quick tranquiliser dart they are given a medical and ideally released within a day. Cubs less than two years old need to be here until they are ready to fend for themselves, as do the injured. A few must be kept indefinitely if they are badly injured, too old, or have been so inappropriately domesticated that they cannot function in the wild. Other inhabitants include five wild dogs. Their parents were killed by poisonous meat, and the perpetrator was subsequently found filling in the den to bury the pups alive. These are the survivors.
One area of the education centre is dedicated to a range of traps and snares, the most gruesome of which is a medieval contraption whereby a mousetrap has been welded to a sink pipe to create an ad-hoc shotgun which the cat triggers. We visit a large enclosure where nine younger cats are being held pending release. In another area, three elderly males – 9 to 12 years old – enjoy their dotage and come to the jeep to be fed. They are past their prime and cannot be released because they would not survive. After dinner we go up to a hide to observe nine porcupines eating the remainder of the camp’s food for the day, many sporting quills sticking into their faces from fights.
Various animals wander around – giraffe, the large eland antelope, Oryx with their sharp pointed horns. On the night drive, movement beside the track reveals a large owl catching and flying off with a mouse. We drive to a new enclosure and use radio tracking telemetry to find one of three hyenas that have been rescued and radio collared. They are now killing successfully and should be ready for release. The evidence, in the form of a highly pungent warthog carcass, is very much to the fore as we observe the beast on foot from a safe distance – about twenty feet.
After meeting up with Dave, the rescue and release officer, and comparing notes on the project and the similarities with jaguar conflict in Brazil, we start the next leg of our journey. It’s 370km by car, first north to Otjiwarango, then west to Outja and Khorixas, past the Petrified Forest, and into increasingly dramatic territory. Tarmac roads give way to gravel until eventually we are in an arid, lunar landscape, traversing dry river beds and surrounded by table top mountains as far as the eye can see. It’s Mars meets the Grand Canyon. We call ahead to rendezvous with the 4 x 4 that will take us the final 40 minutes to Damaraland Camp, set in a remote valley near the (dry) River Huab. It has taken six hours, but it is worth it to sit and view this rugged beauty. A short trek to the top of the nearest hill reveals superb views all round – rugged peaks, buttes and mesas trailing off into the distance; red sandstones interspersed with black basalt smashed together in thick blocks.
After dinner in a well-hidden Boma, including a guest appearance by the local large-eared foxes, we rise early in search of desert-adapted elephants. The odd lonesome Oryx wheels into view; some distant hawks and kestrels. But this is a desolate place. Following the dry riverbed we find two herds combined – a total of 24 – with several two-month old tinies and a stray bull bringing up the rear. They browse the trees and wander up river, over desolate sandy plains and against the mountain backdrop, to the head spring for a drink and a wallow. A troupe of gibbons looks on idly. One the way back we burst a tyre and have to get the spare on in the middle of a baking sandy plain.
Damaraland is desolate, but looks positively verdant when compared with the following day’s landscape. We are driving to the coast, through the Skeleton Coast National Park. Arid track flanked by pale sand and intermittent scrub gives way to looming table top mountains and inselbergs – vegetation gradually dwindles until there is none at all. A pair of ostriches scurries away from the road, followed rapidly by eight well-camouflaged chicks. The mountains are now russet red, and their scree tumbles down to flat plains. Everything is now black and red – Mars or the moon? The highlands fade away to be replaced by enormous pale sand dunes jutting out of the dark, crusty plain. The sea hoves into view. White salt pans merge with beach and heat haze to create a weird vista – confusing strips of white, yellow, blue, red and black.
This goes on for about 300km. What promised on the map to be a petrol station turns out to be an empty campsite with a pump whose operator is taking a nap. We press on, completing the trip on a stretch of what is probably the world’s largest beach, sparsely populated by gangs of fishermen in 4x4s. We arrive in Swakopmund (literally ‘shit town’). It’s a ridiculously twee place – a cross between Eastbourne and some German outpost frozen in aspic since 1905. Our hotel, the Hansa, has all these qualities in abundance – wood panels, lacy curtains, gangs of marauding grannies, and an enduring odour of boiled fish.
We take the scenic route in a Cessna from Swakopmund to Soussosvlei, home of the most impressive dunes in the world. Up over the desert, the salt pans with their pink algae; ship wrecks from years past – some now hundreds of feet inland; abandoned mining communities, redundant since the diamonds ran out; a coastline that sees 300-foot dunes plummet vertically into the sea. Then inland, as the pale desert gradually turns red, for as far as the eye can see.
Soussosvlei roughly translates as ‘place where the water ends’, and knowing this explains much about the scene that unfolds beneath us. The river that comes down from the plateau was eventually blocked by the encroaching dunes. The red sandstone that it took with it was left to its own devices and blown back inland. Some coastal white sand provides a meringue dusting. Calcium carbonate leaches out to provide a grey interlude. White salt and minerals create crazy-paved textures in the vlei, or pan.
It’s a breathtaking sight, and one that we can repeat from a variety of vantage points – the top of one of the large mountains at the head of the valley at sunset; from a hot air balloon at sunrise, soaring a gut-wrenching 3000 feet as a plane flies beneath us. Whether staring from a distance or standing on top of one, the dunes are mesmeric and humbling.