“By the way, there’ll be some turbulence over the mountains,” our bush pilot yells cheerfully. He’s called Okkie and looks as though he should still be in high school. Instead, he flies the lonely route between Windhoek and the Namib Rand Nature Reserve several times a week, across a landscape that turns from tan to terracotta to rust, as all vestiges of green disappear into a latté coloured ocean of sand.

As it turns out, the turbulence is nothing much and we’re soon rumbling down the gravel landing strip at the reserve. Our lodge, in the heart of desert Namibia, is air-conditioned and for this we are heartily grateful: the heat here is like standing under a hot-air dryer -- an intense heat that whisks away sweat almost before your body produces it. Our welcome from the staff is as warm as the weather, making us feel like the first and only guests they have ever greeted here.

“No-one is allowed to walk in front of the cottages,” our host tells us and we soon understand why. Bringing an entirely new definition to the term “room with a view”, even the bathroom has floor to ceiling glass walls opening onto an arid plain where each small bush shelters a springbok or oryx in its miserly patch of shade. Sand grouse putter through the pebbles while dust devils dance in the distance. On our patio, the silence weighs heavily on our ears; it’s a physical pressure and such a rare pleasure, we’re seriously tempted to forego all the activities we’ve planned and never leave the cabin, just sitting and soaking up the ever-changing panorama of animal life.

But we don’t, of course. We get up in the pre-dawn darkness to join game drives, expecting little in such harsh terrain but being rewarded with an astonishing kaleidoscope of creatures. We’re likely the only vehicle in a hundred kilometers. Disturbed by our lights, oryx canter across the gravel in front of us, snorting in displeasure. Skittish springbok dance away like beige ghosts out of range of our headlights. We disturb a black-backed jackal carrying the limp form of a ground squirrel in its jaws. As the dawn sky goes from black to a pale luminous blue dotted with pastel pink tinged clouds, a young leopard lopes across the rail ahead of us. He trots into the middle distance to join his sibling and they both settle down to watch us just as curiously as we are watching them.

We’re up before the sun again to visit the famous Sossusvlei sand dunes. Our engaging, knowledgeable guide Ronney helps us scramble up the flanks of dune #45, one of the biggest and most popular. It’s 350 meters of the finest, softest sand you’ll ever meet and we have it almost to ourselves. “Let’s go down this way,” suggests Ronney, as he goose-steps off down the enormous vertical face of the dune. Here goes nothing, we think, as we follow him in great gallumphing strides through the luke-warm sand. This is fun with a capital F. By the time we reach ground level, our footsteps have already been erased by the breeze.

We hike out to Dead Pan, an ancient lake long since strangled to death by the dunes. The dune aptly called Big Daddy broods over half a dozen springbok delicately picking their way across the white clay. Gerbil, rabbit and scorpion tracks abound. Our reward after this trek is a picnic beneath spreading camelthorn trees (acacia dichotoma), where bees and ever-hopeful Cape sparrows join us for a continental breakfast. The bees are especially partial to coffee: after a dozen or so commit suicide in mine, I abandon all hope of a caffeine fix.

Here in Namibia, starry skies are not just a casual backdrop, they’re serious business. We visit a lodge with a full time expert astronomer and a massive 12" Meade Schmidt Cassegrain LX 200 telescope. We may not understand the technicalities: we just know that size matters. Tomorrow, we might actually listen to the resident astronomer. For tonight we simply stare open-mouthed at the glories spread out above us, hearing but not really absorbing terms like Magellanic clouds and the definition of galaxies. We’re gobsmacked by the southern skies, Saturn, Jupiter, the Southern Cross, Scorpio – the sheer immensity of it all. We fall asleep with visions of quasars and black holes dancing in our heads ... quite literally. There’s a huge skylight above our cabin bed.

We try out the local quad bikes. “Don’t use the hand brakes,” Johannes warns me. “They’ll pull you off course.” It’s my first ever outing on a quad bike and young Johannes has been the soul of patience with me. The two bikes ahead of me have come to a halt at the crest of the dune and as I watch, they simply disappear. I too stop when I see the 90° plunge we have to negotiate. They’re going to have to blindfold me like a horse in a burning barn to get me down that thing. “Let the bike do the work,” Johannes encourages as he sneakily nudges my bike over the precipice with his foot. Half way down, I realize I’m actually enjoying the ride. A brief eternity later, I’m down and it’s high-fives all around.

Our time goes by in a whirl of game drives, dune climbing, quad biking, star gazing, and walking in the bush to see delicately beautiful Bushman paintings. We enjoy sundowners beneath pink and blue candyfloss sunsets, midday sleeping safaris and quiet moments simply gazing into the shimmering distance. This is not a destination for those who want the excitement of elephant or rhino, but a visit to Namib Rand Nature Reserve is guaranteed to make you fall in love with the desert. With the peace and serenity of sand, sun and stars, it’s a hard place to leave.

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This article was printed in the Winter 2013 issue of The Newsletter.

Text Box: Deadpan
Text Box: Springbok
Text Box: Athol and Mandy on quadbikes

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