Namibia's Unspoiled Wilderness
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Namibia encompasses many varied landscapes, each one dramatically different from the other. It is a land of big spaces, few inhabitants and natural beauty — ideal for wilderness safaris.

405 Etosha

Feeling like lion bait

Someone has just radioed us the whereabouts of a pride of lions and we're hot on its trail in the Ongava Reserve in northern Namibia. Although it's a sunny afternoon, the rainy season began last month — the vegetation is green and the dirt trails that we follow are bumpy and puddled. Our guide warns me about the possibility of getting stuck, but I say, "I came for the lions!" and we bounce and lurch on. We come upon a grassy meadow. There are deep ruts in the earth left there by the wheels of previous vehicles, and they're filled with water. Just beyond the field, in the low trees and scrub, are the lions. I notice my driver shake his head as he changes gears and drives outside the existing tracks.

In no time, we're thwarted by the thick, wet clay that lies under the grass. We radio for help. Half an hour later, the Land Rover that came to pull us out is also stuck. The guides struggle to manoeuvre the vehicles out of the muck while I watch a glorious sun set beyond the trees. As the light fades, though, visions of Jurassic Park enter my head. I wonder how close an attacking lion might get to me before I see it. I sense a new dimension to my night-blindness — safari bait carries a different anxiety than city driving at night. No one else seems to share my concerns.

Two more Land Rovers coming to help radio in — they're stuck too. That's four. I wanted to see the lions; I should be careful what I wish for. Another Rover radios in, stuck — five is a new camp record.

So, here I am on a safari that offers life changing experiences. If a hunting lioness does charge out of those trees, this could definitely qualify. It didn't start out like this, though...

025 Soussusvlei Namibia

Namib Desert's red sand sea

A few days ago I'd landed on a tiny airstrip in Sossusvlei's Kulala Wilderness Reserve in the little Cessna 210 that picked me up at Windhoek. It was 35 degrees Celsius with a genial light breeze. A closed Land Rover brought me to the camp lodge where I was greeted with a cold, wet washcloth, a cool glass of lemon juice and grenadine and Charles, the manager. Then, the safety talk: Don't wander off. Wear closed shoes.

My little chalet, built on the side of the hill and supported by stilts, was fronted entirely with windows and overlooked the waterhole that provides for local wildlife until the rainy season arrives. A cheetah was here with her cubs a month ago, but that's a rare occurrence. The sweeping view was a vast stretch of tall bushman grass, giving the desert valley floor a soft yellow appearance. This was sprinkled with shrubs and surrounded by the Naukluft Mountains and the famous red sand dunes of the Namib Desert beyond. Three springbok arrived at the waterhole from out of nowhere. I took a dip in my private plunge pool and lounged on the deck. It was siesta time — simply too hot for any activity.

A late afternoon nature drive took me up into the mountains for a sundowner where I watched the sun set while sipping wine, snacking on biltong (dried meat), nuts and cheese and hoping to catch a glimpse of a scorpion, but didn't. Parched and nearly starved, we returned to the lodge's family table for a three course dinner with all the guests. Fortunately, they were interesting. Dinner conversation and wine continued into the wee hours and ended with stargazing guided by Charles' expertise — the southern hemisphere sky completely clear and exposed in the remote area.

070 Deadvlei

Unfortunately, a trek into the desert must also begin in the wee hours to avoid the stifling midday heat. A knock on the door came at 5 a.m. with a breakfast tray full of healthy options. Who eats that early? We left in the Rover shortly after, and made our way into the desert towards the Namib Naukluft Park under a rising sun. Inside the park, we walked over dunes and observed the footprints and traces of the nocturnal life forms that it sustains until we reached a depression that once was a lake.

Deadvlei displayed a striking colour scheme. Under a faultless blue sky, Namib's endless red dunes completely surrounded the cracked white floor of the dry lake that holds its sun-charred trees, 500 years dead, captive in a cemented grasp. I walked across the hardened lake bed that the dunes, over time, have encroached upon and choked off from its water supply. The pervasive atmosphere in this hollow was less than earthly. It was eerie, bleak and surreal, yet somehow beautiful.

Returning to camp, driving again past towering dune after dune, some of the highest in the world, the sand became blacker according to the sun's angle and the dune's composition. We lunched under a lone, leafy tree, grateful for the shade and refreshments. The scapes of this "Red Sand Sea" in the world's oldest desert are truly unique.

Damaraland's landscapes and elephants

After two nights at the camp, I headed north past the Brandberg Mountains to Damaraland. The Cessna landed on a tiny airstrip in the Huab River Valley. It was 35 degrees Celsius with a genial light breeze. An open Land Rover brought me to the camp lodge, where I was greeted with a cold, wet washcloth, a cool glass of orange juice and grenadine, and Karen and Duane, the managers. Then, the safety talk: Don't wander off. Wear closed shoes.

320 Damaraland

My canvas tent, with bathroom, closet, desk, power outlets, down-feather bedding for the cool nights and balcony with a view, also had screens built into the front and back walls. This intelligent design allowed for a constant breeze through — ergo, a comfortable siesta, which I took.

Our nature drives through the valley offered boundless vistas of golden-yellow terrain, soft brown mountains and blue sky. All living things were awaiting the rains, already a month late. Swaths of green vegetation bordered dry riverbeds, and there roamed the elephants. Lots and lots of elephants. We watched groups of these grand creatures ripping branches off trees and pondering the jeep as they chewed leaves and sticks and plodded along. Then, we drove ahead to watch the procession pass by us again. One cow growled at us — which sounded like a lawn mower — so we moved on in search of other groups. We found some walking along the dry floor of the Huab River. Again one cow kept a watchful eye on us, coming towards the Rover occasionally but still keeping her distance. I think she was after the tree we were sitting under. Antelope, such as kudu and oryx, were also abundant. So were goats and donkeys, which are commonly raised in the area.

155 Damaraland

Karen prepared a special treat for our dinner. We were led out of the camp and down a candlelit path to where a boma (corral) appeared: tall branches were fastened together and placed vertically in the ground, forming an almost complete circular wall. We would be eating within the boma, protected from the wind that picks up after dark, but not yet. First the camp staff, mostly Damara, who speak one of the click languages, performed some traditional songs for us, clapping and stomping to the beat. Their natural harmonic abilities were impressive and fun; I half expected Paul Simon to appear with a corps of tribal drummers. Once we were seated at the long family table, the menu was announced, both in English and in the click language. Then, traditional Damara cuisine was served, including soup in an iron pot, barbecue game and salads.

Karen and Duane, although new at this camp, have been conservationists for many years. Lengthy fireside conversations of their experiences in Namibian conservation gave interesting insight into the history and culture, from preservation on the barren Skeleton Coast to tracking poachers in the bush.

Ongava (rhino), lions and the Etosha Pan

Next, I headed northeast to the Ongava Game Reserve, situated on the southern border of Etosha National Park. The Cessna's in-flight pamphlet read: "Namibia is famed for its vast open landscapes, endless blue skies, sunny weather and tranquil starry nights." Until now, this was bang on, but not anymore. The rainy season had already come to these parts, as evidenced by the green landscape and thicker foliage.

After 45 minutes, the plane landed on the tiny airstrip. It was 25 degrees Celsius, no breeze. An open Land Rover brought me to the camp lodge where I was greeted with a lion footprint from last night, a cold, wet washcloth, a cool glass of tea and grenadine, and Denise and Coenie, the managers. Then, the safety talk: Don't walk around alone after dark.

Denise gave me three choices for activities: lion tracking, white rhino tracking or a drive through Etosha National Park. I said, "Yes." Considering the time of day, lion tracking would come first, but later. My chalet, once again, overlooked the waterhole, but lions only come to it between 2 and 4 a.m., as I learned from their nocturnal chatter in the form of roars.

Wilderness Safaris c Elizabeth Willoughby 007

When siesta time ended, my guide took me lion tracking and here we are spinning our tires in wet clay — the sun has set and lions lurk nearby.

Eventually, one Land Rover manages to pick me up, leaving everyone else under spotlights to free the vehicles. My driver seems to play chicken with another incoming Rover. It swerves sideways, gets stuck and blocks the path. My driver tries to hold back his giggles. Back at the lodge half an hour later, a warm and delicious dinner is waiting for me. The next morning I hear that all the vehicles were rescued and no one was eaten. Of course.

My rhino tracker, Henak, takes less than half an hour to find a group: Papa Tony, one of his five cows and her calf. Henak parks the vehicle at a distance, grabs his .375 Holland & Holland and says, "We walk in one line. I will tell you when you can talk. If you see a lion or leopard, don't run, just tell me."

We walk. Tony spots us. Henak and I talk, even when we have nothing to say, and the rhinos continue grazing. After 25 minutes, we return to the jeep. Back at the camp we happen upon a pride of lions hunting near the waterhole by my chalet. They appear to be lounging. I stare at them. They stare back. I try not to look tasty — I think the jeep helps.

495 Etosha

During the afternoon nature drive, we come upon Tony again, this time with a different cow, Long Horn, and her calf. Most of Tony's horn has been removed because of his aggressive character. He killed a young bull that had wandered into his territory a few months ago. He doesn't seem to register his new less-than-dignified look. Suddenly he starts charging towards our Land Rover and I suddenly start wondering why we aren't starting the engine. Then Tony stops — a mock charge. We've been warned. Dusk is approaching and I decide to have my sundowner here with Tony, Long Horn and the nearby giraffes, zebras and wildebeests.

Next day, I visit Etosha National Park. The timing isn't the best because of the season. Since the Park has fewer roads and many water sources, the chances of animal spottings are fewer. Nevertheless, en route to the Park, we happen upon another hunting pride, somewhat more active than yesterday's lions. Inside Etosha, a black mamba slithers across the road in front of us at surprising speed, no doubt looking for cover from secretary birds whose piercing claws attack snakes like furious fingers beating keys on a typewriter. On the other hand, black mambas are aggressive, deadly and accurate, able to bite three times per second. I'd just heard about a mamba following alongside a jeep with the front of its body vertical, giving it the height to strike. True or not, I'm glad this one takes no interest in us. We pass groups of ostrich and various birds, giraffes, jackals and bush squirrels until we reach the Etosha Pan, an immense salt lakebed that becomes a shallow lake during particularly rainy years. This is not one of them.

I've reached the end of the safari week and an airplane awaits to return me to Windhoek. I am completely satisfied. I've seen everything, as much of it as I wanted, unrushed, unpressured. Each camp had a satisfaction questionnaire to fill out, and each time I checked "exceptional," but not "life changing". I would have, though, if a lion had come charging out of those trees. However unfounded my fears were, I'm still glad that one didn't.

Wilderness Safaris c Elizabeth Willoughby 011

Get spoiled without spoiling the environment

Wilderness Safaris camps truly are exceptional, in every aspect. Camp locations are specifically chosen for their privacy and awesome vistas from luxury accommodations. Fine food, over the top service, authentic friendliness and well-planned activities, there is nothing less than impressive.

Their philosophy is as well. Wilderness Safaris is "first and foremost a conservation company" and has been for over 25 years.

Their business model provides continued jobs, training and careers to the local communities, which allows for realistic alternatives to the encroachment of other industry within Africa. Therefore, Wilderness Safaris' 3 million hectares of wilderness throughout Botswana, Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are protected through sustainable conservation and responsible tourism.

"People choose to travel with us not only because we offer access to the best wilderness areas, but also because of the knowledge that support for our business translates into support for conservation and communities across southern Africa," and it's the people of those communities for whom the Wilderness Safaris experience really is life-changing.

Hosted by Wilderness Safaris; opinions are my own. Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at ©WorldGuide 2009 and with permission at Global Writes 2010

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