Namibia: Deserts, Dunes and Canyons

An exploration of the landscapes and geology, the wildlife and flora of a remarkable land during November 2016.

Coming closer to nature with almost every step, our group of ten travellers discovers an astonishing wealth of landscapes from high plateaux and mountains to desert and sand dunes, as well as a magnificent river canyon second only to Arizona’s Grand Canyon in scale. We see a wealth of wildlife in a variety of habitats, including highly endangered white rhinoceros, and encounter wonderful flora, some of it unique to this part of southern Africa.

As we head south from Windhoek (altitude 1800m) we pass through bush where new spring growth is opening on acacia trees although, equally, we note problems caused by drought later on in our exploration of the region. The “little” rain normally falls in December, the main deluge in January and February.

Descending from mountain to plain and following long, straight roads we cross a landscape with many inselberg, natural stone heaps created by erosion over a period of thousands of years, and the red sand of the Kalahari desert.

Desert hyacinth (Pseudogaltonia clavata)

Desert hyacinth (Pseudogaltonia clavata)

Our introduction proper to the Kalahari is at Bagatelle Lodge, just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, reached through an impressive landscape of red Kalahari dunes and saltpans. The stunning light of early evening, illuminating a land rich with the earth colours of the artist’s palette – to paraphrase Georgia O’Keeffe – is one high point of a game drive where we spot springbok and oryx, in addition to the attractive – but toxic – desert hyacinth (Lindneria/Pseudogaltonia clavata).

Day two begins with a fascinating walk in the dunes with Bushmen, San people who have inhabited the Kalahari for thousands of years. We learn how they use materials from bushes and trees such as the acacia karroo for medicinal purposes (e.g. in the treatment of ulcers), to make a kind of coffee and for the production of gum. And we see how they use hollow ostrich eggs to store water in the sand.

An afternoon drive takes us deep into the Lodge reserve, with breathtaking views from the crests of the red dunes, and encounters with giraffes grazing the acacia treetops and a family of suricates (meerkats) that captivate us all for a while.

Kalahari Dunes with springbok

Kalahari Dunes with springbok

Day three: We head westwards through ever-changing country, leaving behind the Kalahari dunes. Dropping down to a lower level, we view the majestic Swartzrand limestone mountains with their long mesas (high tablelands) and intriguing cone shapes: an amazing sight.

After a welcome break at Helmeringhausen, a one-shop village for local farmers where the café serves home-made apple cake said to be the best in Namibia, we continue south to Bethanien, formerly Klipfontein, founded as a missionary outpost in 1840. The welcome at Alte Kalkofen Lodge is as warm as the glass of Rooibos iced tea is cool – just what’s needed!

With a vast open landscape framed by mesas in the distance with ancient camel-thorn trees (Acacia erioloba) and the river running with water after recent rain, the setting is idyllic.

The Lodge has a collection of stone plants (Lithops), small or even tiny succulents found across southern Namibia, camouflaged to look just like pebbles and stones. As we view the plants, raised from seed, we learn that some, previously threatened with extinction, are now being re-introduced into the wild.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon

On a sparkling early morning, we begin our fourth day with a delicious breakfast at the Lodge before setting out for Fish River Canyon. The river rises well to the north in the mountains of Windhoek and flows into the Orange River to the southwest, on the border with South Africa. The canyon, 160 km in length and the second largest in the world, is awe-inspiring for its sheer scale and the complexity of its rock formations. Below us, deep red Aloe gariepensis and the quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma) cling to the dizzying, perpendicular heights.

The astonishing rock formations continue as we return to the Lodge, passing plantations of date palms, table grapes and prickly pears irrigated with water from a nearby dam; the fruits are for export or distilling.

The afternoon drive reveals some of the effects of the recent diversion of a local river, with camel-thorn trees suffering both from a drought now in its sixth year and the low level of the water table. We come across a herd of kudu, which come to the farm to calve; and, as we drive to a higher level, we notice eye-catching clumps of Euphorbia gregaria, a poisonous plant that is nonetheless nibbled by kudu to combat parasites.

Heading northwest during the fifth day we travel through the Namib-Naukluft National Park where mesas and inselberg have formed a desert landscape with dunes blown against the craggy mountains. There are more signs of spring, with trees coming into leaf along water channels.  Deep in the desert overlooking a dry riverbed, dunes and mountains, we reach Kulala Desert Lodge.

Sossusvlei Dunes in the Namib Desert

Sossusvlei Dunes in the Namib Desert

Day six begins with a dawn expedition to experience an ancient desert and the extraordinary colours of the dunes leading to Sossusvlei.  With the luxury of private access to the park, situated at 1,100m above sea level with dunes rising to a height of 350m, we are astonished by the antiquity of the desert: It is perhaps some 55 million years old, with dunes formed by sand blown in from the Atlantic. And here we are, walking along the crest of a dune in one of the oldest deserts on earth!

The silence, the atmosphere, the feeling of peace: We are so close to nature, and it is an unforgettable experience.

Our departure on day seven is through the Namib-Naukluft and along the arid desert edge, passing incredible mountain geology: twisted rock strata, granite boulders, inselberge. Turning off the gravel track, we ascend the Spreethoogte Pass, and enter the Khomas highlands, pausing to take in the vast panorama southwest to the desert.

Shepherd’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca) at Hakos in the Gamsberg Mountains

Shepherd’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca) at Hakos in the Gamsberg Mountains

Here, in a high mountain plateau landscape, the country changes dramatically and we see, once again, trees coming into leaf, as well as livestock farms. Cheetah, mountain leopards and caracal, though very shy, are the main predators in this area. Among flora are eye-catching bougainvillea bush or brittle-thorn (Phaeoptilum spinosum), while the shepherd’s tree, Boscia albitrunca, is everywhere.

At 1,800m, we drive across an extensive plateau to the guest farm at the Hakos Pass, and a warm welcome. Renowned for the clarity of the skies, the Hakos farm has become a magnet for astronomers, and the home of The Max Planck Observatory Centre. Our early evening planetary walk is fascinating and ends with a viewpoint – and a well-timed sundowner!

We begin the eighth day with a botanic walk on the steep slopes of the dry riverbed below the farm. Among the flora identified are prolific blackthorn (Acacia mellifera) and the skew-leaved elephant’s root shrub (Elephantorrhisa suffructicosa), as well as the indigenous coral tree (Erythrina decora) with its lovely, bright red blooms. We see mountain zebra, indigenous to the region and thriving; we encounter them a second time during our late afternoon farm drive to the eastern boundary. Also seen is the attractive Aptosimum spinescens with its striking blue flowers.

On day nine we leave Hakos. Travelling down through the mountains we spot a dormant resurrection plant (Myrothamnus flabellifolius); it has the capacity to revive rapidly in water, and can be used to make an infusion. We journey back into desert, then on to the rocky Kuiseb River valley, before turning on to a gravel track where we encounter herds of oryx with their young; ostrich; and some playful ground squirrels.

After a brief stop for a picnic lunch we move on, discovering along the way the extraordinary Welwitschia mirabilis, improbable-seeming plants that may be 1,000 years old. Approaching the Swapok River bed we enter a lunar landscape of eroded rocks, before moving on to the coastal town of Swapokmund and a noticeably cooler temperature.

Day ten: A morning excursion into the extensive coastal dunes led by our guide Tommy proves fascinating. We marvel at his ability to find so much of interest in the dunes: a side-winder snake with only one eye, visible in the sand although not to us; a beetle which survives by collecting droplets of dew from the morning coastal fog; the Cape hare, well hidden in a dollar bush (Tetraena stapffii); the Palmato gecko; and a chameleon out in the open gravel yet totally camouflaged. We even find a scorpion beneath a step. As we stop for refreshments some friendly Gray’s desert larks and tractrac chats of the flycatcher family come looking for Tommy’s pantry of worms.

With his guidance, we also discover the !Naras plant (spelt with a ‘!’ to indicate click language, botanical name: Acanthosicyos horridus). Adapted to its habitat in the dunes, it has fierce thorns, succulent branches and spur leaves, with a fruit like a bright green melon tucked under the plant to prevent foraging by oryx and kudu. It is prized by the Topnaar tribe, who dry it for use as part of their diet.

Weaver bird nest building in an acacia

Weaver bird nest building in an acacia

Tommy’s final delight of the expedition is a drive through the dunes to a point with views over the Atlantic Ocean. A birdwatcher’s dream, on this late afternoon the lagoon at Walwis Bay teems with waders, lesser and greater flamingos, terns and sandpipers, as well as avocets and spoonbills.

Finally, to end the day, a dinner of fish at a restaurant on the beach – a real treat.

The next morning, day eleven, we set off northeast, driving inland to Omaruru and the Old Traders’ Lodge on the 70,000 hectare Erindi Private Game Reserve. On our approach there are giraffes, elephants and even a klipspringer.

As the sun goes down we set out on an exhilarating game drive, discovering a scented white trumpet-thorn (Catophractes alexandri) in bloom, the flowers much favoured by kudu; a pride of lions asleep in the shade of acacias; and hippos wallowing by a dam with maribu storks on a nearby islet. A herd of elephants browse among the bushes nearby, and further on we see a cheetah with its kill, a wildebeest.

Day twelve: up with the dawn chorus to catch wildlife feeding at daybreak, including giraffes with their young browsing in the bush, and herds of springbok and wildebeest. Among birds, we identify a red-crested korhaan or bustard. The male has an extraordinary flight designed to attract a female, first calling to her, then ascending rapidly before plummeting downwards in what looks like a suicide dive!

As we go back to the Lodge for breakfast, we observe hippos leaving the dam watched by a pack of wild dogs – a rare sight. The deck at the Lodge above the dam is endlessly fascinating for the range of wildlife that comes and goes to drink.

Giraffes in the bush at Erindi Game reserve

Giraffes in the bush at Erindi Game reserve

Later on, and with a storm brewing, we embark on an evening game drive with wind blowing and rain in the air. Among the birds seen are swallow-tailed bee-eaters, vultures and a grey lourie. But the highlight of the expedition is a sighting of white rhinoceros in the bush. Rhinoceros are highly protected against the risk of poaching for their horns, internationally much sought-after. We end the drive by ascending a ‘koppie’ or low hill with a spectacular panorama across the savannah plain to the mountains in the distance, enjoying a final sundowner with our guide, Benny.

The final day starts with a short game drive before breakfast, with sightings of bat-eared foxes, followed by a male lion with its wildebeest kill. Erindi Reserve also has many termite mounds, fascinating structures containing queen and colony, where worker and soldier termites keep the colony going by using masses of plant material and creating fungus. We hear that honey badgers and aardvark feed on them by digging into a mound; eventually it may be abandoned, and then taken over by snakes.

We wrap up our memorable journey through southern Namibia with an overview of the experience by our wonderful driver/guide on the return trip to Windhoek airport. There are so many vivid memories to take with us: the country’s landscapes, wildlife and flora, its friendly people and their way of life – it has been an unforgettable experience.

Posted by: a wanderer in Africa