Deserts are mysterious places. At first glance they appear barren and forlorn; lands forgotten and abused by time, where sun and dust batter a lifeless moonscape. That’s the view from 30 000 feet as my SA Express flight from Cape Town glides down towards Walvis Bay, but I know that – down on my hands and knees in a few hours’ time – it will all look more than a little different.
I also know that as the Namib disappears beneath the tail of our ExpressJet, I’ll have to backtrack an hour or so in a bumpy Cessna 210. But in Namibia the end always justifies the means.
Namibia is justifiably famous for its natural beauty; from the rich game of Etosha to the desolate Skeleton Coast, wild horses at Aus and the plunging Fish River Canyon. But there are few travellers for whom the sight of soaring red dunes do not symbolise the magic of Namibia, crescents of sand towering above the cracked pans of Sossusvlei.
For most tourists heading south and west from Swakopmund and Windhoek, the sand sea at Sossusvlei is the main attraction, but as our Cessna skirts the edge of the dune field and bumps down onto a gravel runway, it’s an entirely different chunk of desert that I have in my sights. A desert with many faces, if that makes any sense.
Way back in 1984, the notion of tearing down sheep fences certainly couldn’t have made much sense to the farmers who made a living of the sparse lands bordering the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
But Albi Brückner was a realist, and a realist with a dream at that. Rather tear down the fences, sell off the sheep and let the landscape pay for itself. If you let it go wild the tourists will come, argued Brückner.
He was evidently a convincing man, for that is exactly what thirteen sheep farmers have done to date; removing boundaries to form the largest private nature reserve in Southern Africa. A staggering 170 000-hectare conservancy where cheetah roam free, leopard prowl the rocky koppies and sharp-horned oryx joust on the plains like knights of old.
“Welcome to the NamibRand Nature Reserve,” says our pilot Felix with a smile, as he pops open the door of our plane. Cool air (a blissful 38°, as opposed to our 43° cabin) washes over me and I smile at the desert vistas that stretch away in every direction. Terra firma never felt so good.
While trips to the iconic Sossusvlei dunes are a popular option for visitors to the NamibRand Nature Reserve, it’s the diversity of the landscape that has brought me back to this, the sculpted mid-riff of Namibia.
Unlike the ‘sand sea’ to the west, the NamibRand conserves a unique strip known as ‘pro-Namib’, which is home to four unique habitats. The ochre-red sand from the Park spills into the reserve, forming vegetated dunes and sandy plains. These mingle and merge into the gravel plains that provide the foundation for the reserve’s dramatic inselbergs and mountains.
Oryx are a constant feature of the landscape, their powerful shoulders flexing slowly as they wander between water and grazing. Delicate springbok are common here too, and you’ll also find kudu, giraffe, klipspringer, steenbok, hartebeest and baboon. Never far behind are the leopard, hyena, black-backed jackal and caracal that hunt them.
It’s a mesmerizing landscape, and one that deserves a good perch from which to admire it. But to minimize impact on the landscape there are only a handful of places to stay in the entire extent of the NamibRand.
In the far south of the reserve, the Family Hideout is a converted farmhouse that provides self-catering accommodation, and is ideal for families and visitors watching their budget. Nearby, Tok-Tokkie Trails offer multi-day guided walks in the dunes and mountain ranges, with the chance to sleep out under the stars.
Wolwedans, in the central NamibRand is one of only two established lodges in the reserve, but I’ve chosen to bed down at the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge run by respected safari company &Beyond.
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