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Namibia: Life on Mars

At first glance, Namibia's sweltering desert hinterland seems to be a dead zone — but look closer and you'll see life not only persists here, it often thrives

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:22 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 13:59 BST
Namib Desert

Namib Desert

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

I've found the valley of the shadow of death: a vast, rusting necropolis of a desert, fringed with hulking terracotta tombstones of sand, which bake beneath an abrasive mid-morning sun. It's a place squeezed of life; where a burning sky and the dunes beneath it are wrapped in an intimate tête-à-tête.

The heat is bone dry, and savage when it reaches my lungs as I lumber up a steep dune. It's a thankless task: each step sends me slipping backwards in a limb-flailing dance as an avalanche of sand plummets down either side of me.

"Top of the world," breathes Mida, a fellow traveller, once we finally reach a plateau. "Look at those little people down there," she says gazing at the tawny canvas of Sossusvlei. I've climbed a leg-numbing 600ft up Dune 45, where a dying expanse of ochre stretches away from my feet: endless rolling red mountains of sand undulate like a shark's gills, rising up towards razor-sharp ridges. The sun bathes half the dunes in a deep velvety shadow — and above it all, a hot air balloon hangs listless in the heat, silhouetted by a crisp cobalt sky.

It's not just the colour that makes this austere place feel otherworldly. Fairy circles creep across a yellow, grass-streaked valley, each surreal polka-dot barren of vegetation. And then there's the macabre Deadvlei, a cracked white clay pan pierced with ghostly skeletons of petrified camel thorn trees, their charred black branches twisted and scorched, thirsting for water from parched ground that was nourished by the Tsauchab River 700 years ago.

The Namib Desert certainly feels Martian. And, unlike in the shifting Sahara, the dunes here are permanent. "Take away civilisation," says Paul, my affable guide, adjusting his glasses, "and you see there's not much chance for survival here."

Paul, a South African with a shock of white hair who wears an Indiana Jones palette of tans and browns, knows this arid country well — he lived here for 10 years during the 1966-89 Namibian War of Independence. Paul is leading 14 of us on a 10-day National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures road trip across Namibia. We'll take in over 1,200 miles, from the desiccated deserts in the south to the wildlife oasis of Etosha National Park in the north.

We'd driven here from the capital, Windhoek, where civilisation quickly gave way to a dusty expanse of shrubby bushveld. The landscape is pocked with aloe vera plants, upright like soldiers; miles of bristly acacia thorns dangling with weaver nests; and sandstone granite outcrops. But we haven't seen another human being — with just 2.5 million people occupying its 318,259 square miles, Namibia has one of the lowest population densities in the world.

The further south we drive, the higher the mountains rise — jagged behemoths wrinkled like an elephant's skin, covered with random white limestone lines: the ghosts of waterfalls. Mostly, though, there's a feeling of unbounded nothingness.

Yet this emptiness isn't accompanied by stillness. As we drive along, I'm kept alert by what Paul calls the Namibian shuffle. "Ninety percent of Namibia's roads are dirt," he says over the harsh ting of rocks smacking the belly of the coach, which vibrates so violently it seems like it might shake itself into a million tiny pieces. The ravages of the road have proved too much for many tyres, it seems — entire cars have been left abandoned mid-journey to rust in the sun.

Every 10 minutes or so, a 4×4 will tremble past, wrapping us in a thick haze that hangs like mist. And along these sooty stretches we sometimes see people. We shudder past a goat herder in the desolate bush, who waves as we pass.

"You have to be a different type of person to live here," says Paul, as he clocks the lone farmer, adding that living in this area means no electricity — instead solar power or batteries — and the nearest shop is an hour's walk away. "You don't get sick here, you don't get bitten by a snake — you get a pen and paper to write down your last will and testament," he warns, gazing at the beige terrain.

On our way south, we stop at Solitaire — a tiny settlement with the only petrol station between Sossusvlei and the coast, a fuel-draining three-hour drive away. Its entrance is flanked with old rusting vehicles being claimed by the sand. The town rises up from the dust like a mirage. "It's quite an oasis," remarks Paul, as we head into Moose McGregor's Desert Bakery for apple strudel. 

After fuelling up both our bellies and the bus, we head back out into the thirsty plains, where the shrubs seem to have been choked out of existence, save some tufts of fragrant wild sage. "Miles and miles and miles of no people — just the road," muses Paul. "You can breathe here."

Making tracks

Ironically, in this barren hinterland, life isn't always clinging on to existence — sometimes it even flourishes. For example, Namibia now has the world's largest wild cheetah population, despite a global decline. Furthermore, it's steadily increasing. "One hundred years ago, there used to be 100,000 cheetahs worldwide. Today, there are only about 7,000 — we've lost a huge amount," says Dr Laurie Marker, during our 'unique experience' visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a global field research and education facility dedicated to saving the wild cheetah.

"A cheetah brought me here to Namibia in 1977," Laurie tells our group, showing us a photo of the predator. "Her name was Kayanne, and I taught her how to hunt." The experience inspired Laurie, a native Californian, to found the CCF in 1991 — a time when "farmers were killing cheetahs like flies," she adds.

In addition to human-wildlife conflict, these big cats are grappling with habitat loss. "Our land has gone from an open savannah — and cheetahs are open-savannah animals — into thick thornbush," says Laurie. "Just imagine if your habitat has gone into this and you're a cheetah that runs at 70 miles an hour." 

As part of the CCF's habitat-restoration programme, encroaching bush is harvested to make fuel logs. Other initiatives include educating local farmers about biodiversity conservation and placing guard dogs on farms, which has led to an impressive 80% reduction in livestock losses due to predation. "Our wildlife numbers have now increased," says Laurie. "And I think Namibia can probably say it's one of the only countries in the world that has seen an increase in its wildlife." 

We hop into a 4×4 and head off to a nearby enclosure to see some of the orphaned and injured cats the CCF has rescued. My safari guide and driver is Ignatius, a friendly soul in a nut-brown Panama hat who grew up on the family farm near Otjiwarongo, a town 26 miles west of here, where his grandfather's trigger-happy approach to protecting livestock gave him an insight how biodiversity works. "When I came here, I saw that jackals — who are usually scavengers — were hunting on my grandfather's farm because he'd killed all the leopards, lions and cheetahs… so that's what kind of pushed me to say, OK, I want to learn more about these predators."

The fenced sanctuary entrance is adorned with cheetah-shaped signs, bearing the names of current residents, among them Polly, Nina and Sandy. Beyond the gate, a field of thorny acacias casts dark shadows and in the distance the rugged red Waterberg Plateau looms over the Kalahari plains. From the shade of an acacia steps a slender figure — she must be only 20ft from us as she stalks across an earth path; her shoulder blades sliding up and down with each step.

With the sun beating down on her, the cheetah stops dead in her tracks and, as she turns her attention towards us, I notice she's missing an eye. She contemplates us long enough for me to admire the detail of her spotted pelage and the black, tear-like streaks on her face.

"One girl, she can occupy about five to six farms, which is her home range. That's about 2,000 square kilometres," says Ignatius, raising his eyebrows. "Five to six farms is a vast amount of land." As Amani disappears beneath a tree, Ignatius starts the vehicle to the vocal displeasure of a grey go-away-bird sporting a mohican.

Beyond a few more acacias, we find another feline seeking respite from the relentless 37C Namibian oven in the cool shade. As we approach, she raises her head and cocks her ears back with anticipation. Ignatius tells me her name is Solo; she's a 14-year-old who was rescued from a sheep farm as a cub.

"We're not allowed to breed in a captive environment in Namibia, so all of these cats are rescued from farms or even from people's homes," Ignatius explains. "They're one of the cats that can get quickly habituated to human presence. That's why there are so many cheetahs as pets nowadays — especially in the Arab Emirates, where it's a huge, huge problem. Human and wildlife conflict will never end, but it can definitely be improved." And at least in Namibia, people like Laurie and Ignatius are carrying the torch.

Feast & famine

A few days earlier, we head north from Swakopmund on smooth, salt-paved roads. Without much notice, the road eases into Damaraland: a mountainscape of green-streaked scrubland, dried-up riverbeds and 10ft termite nests contorted into misshapen conical heaps. This region looks wild and forgotten, but it's always sustained life. It was once the stomping ground of the San people, who engraved animals and humans into rock around 6,000 years ago at Twyfelfontein, an open-air gallery three hours east of the shipwreck-studded Skeleton Coast.

Semi-nomadic tribes still call this wilderness home. On dusty roadsides we find the Himba, who are the colour of the desert — due to the blend of animal fat, herbs and ochre they rub on their skin to protect it from the sun. "The men are only allowed to wash with water once during the year — for a ceremony — because there's so little available," explains Paul. Instead, the Himba clean themselves with fine sand and sweet-smelling plants that have been smoked on a fire.

The Herero, meanwhile, cover up with voluminous Victorian-style dresses — adopted from their oppressors. "The Germans virtually wiped out the nation, and may have if it weren't for the First World War," Paul tells us. The tribe fought with such fury that nearly 80% of their population perished in just four years in the early 1900s.

Namibia's German heritage dates back to 1884, when it became a colony and was named South West Africa. Germany was stripped of its colonial territories after the First World War, but the nation's legacy remains in towns that dot the country — like Swakopmund, a seaside settlement complete with a brauhaus (restaurant-brewery), pastel-coloured German colonial-era buildings and Kuki's Pub, whose patrons dine on springbok schnitzel.

I pop into Slowtown Coffee Roasters, a slate-grey, bare-bulb cafe for a flat white. "Swakop is still very German," barista Anja tells me above the wailing of an espresso machine. "A lot of people speak German still, and we teach it at schools. But most people speak three languages in Namibia anyway."

Swakop is certainly different from the rest of the country — and not just because it feels like an outpost of Bavaria; it also seems to have swapped the oppressive desert heat for a near-constant blanket of mist. "Fog is the only water here most of the time," Paul tells me later, explaining that the fog belt runs 75 miles into the interior. "If the sea here were to have a warm current — like the Indian Ocean — it would've been a paradise, because the ground here is very fertile." 

Later, we drive along dusty stretches towards Boesman's Farm. In the dry doldrums between Swakopmund and Sossusvlei, a 'Camping' sign slung with shoes is the only indication of this farm's existence.

We're here for a 'living desert' tour, and our barefoot guide, Frans, ushers us into a 4×4 for a drive across sand flecked with black magnetite and tickled by wispy grasses. He occasionally stops to show us flora bursting from this burnt land — like a desert plant known as 'ostrich salad', due to the African bird's predilection for it. Breaking off a stem, he explains it can survive five years without rain.

"This one is dead and angry," he says, "but if you put a little drop of water here" — he lets a dribble fall from a bottle — "it start smiling, see?" He shows us the plant as it slowly opens its pod wide, like the mouth of a hungry chick. "Very nice plant," he continues. "You go deep in the desert, you're stuck there, you don't have water, you don't have anything to eat — you try to eat a little of this plant, you can survive one or two days before you die," he says matter-of-factly.

Realistically, if you're unlucky enough to be lost here during the brutal summer, where temperatures can climb to a windless 55C, ostrich salad simply won't do. Instead, Frans grimly suggests your best option would be to look for the damara milk-bush. "Take one seed, after five minutes you get drunk like you're drinking wine. You take five or six more… Twenty-five minutes." He makes a raspberry sound with his lips. "Dead. Then you don't have to suffer."

With those sobering words on our minds, we follow Frans on foot across soft sand, dotted with wild sesame, stinkbush, sandpaper plants and camel thorn trees, whose roots can burrow 200ft down.

Frans plucks a head-standing beetle from the hot sand. It stays hydrated by collecting droplets of early-morning fog on its back. As he holds it, he tells us about some of the animals and insects that thrive here despite the lack of rain — 230 species of beetle, seven different spiders, scorpions, plus geckos and snake eagles. 

"People say nothing can survive in the desert," he remarks, as the beetle feebly wiggles its legs. "But all the time, there's water going round, food going round." Frans places the beetle down and it scurries into the scorched earth. "This is paradise."  


Getting there & around
South African Airways and British Airways fly from London to Windhoek via Johannesburg; Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa. There are also flights to Windhoek via Doha from Edinburgh and Manchester with Qatar Airways. 
Average flight time: 15h.
Car hire is advisable as many towns are hard to reach using public transport.

When to go
A good time to visit is May-September, when it's cooler (average 20C) and dry. During the rainy season (November-January), it can get very hot, with heavy rain. Evenings in the desert are often cold.

More info
The Sheltering Desert, by Henno Martin. RRP: £8.79 (Two Books)
The Rough Guide to Namibia. RRP: £16.54

Where to stay
Le Mirage Resort & Spa

How to do it
National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures has a 10-day Wonders of Namibia trip from £1,849 per person. Includes nine nights' accommodation, nine breakfasts, two lunches and four dinners, transportation and all guides.

Follow @stacava

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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