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Above the Sand Sea

Climbing Big Daddy, Big Mama or Dune 45 is the ultimate Namib experience for some tourists. Realizing how challenging it was just to navigate modest hills in the soft sand, I was grateful for an alternative way to experience the remarkable Namib Sand Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of nearly 12,000 square miles.

Golden hour on our last full day found Cheri, Mary and me strapped into a helicopter for a doors-off flight. Headed into the strong afternoon wind, the copter seemed barely to move as we advanced — no worries about camera shake! At altitude it became apparent why this is called the Sand Sea, as the dune formations looked like waves on a choppy orange ocean. The long early evening shadows added drama to the landscape, and for the first time in nearly two weeks we actually saw clouds on the horizon beyond the mountains. I’ll let the photos tell the story… one I would never have been able to tell from the top of a dune.

 

Water trails snaked toward the mountains in the distance, the all but full moon hung in the sky like a giant pearl, and the last of the sun’s rays cloaked the rugged hills in a violet aura. A perfect way to end the day, and the trip.

On Oryxes and Weaver Birds

“What’s an oryx?” is perhaps the second most common question I have gotten about my recent trip, the first being, “Where’s Namibia?” So here’s a bit about the oryx.

The species we saw in Namibia are common in the arid desert areas of southwest Africa and are a type of antelope, also sometimes called a gemsbok. These herbivores are about the size of a cow and are distinguished by slender pointed horns that are 2-3 feet long. Their markings also make them easy to identify: the grey variety have black and white markings on their faces.

They can go for as long as two weeks without water, and can smell rainfall up to 50 miles away. They’re popular as a game meat.

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But you don’t have to go all the way to Africa to see an oryx. The Arabian oryx was nearly extinct in the wild until a captive breeding program was introduced; you can see these animals in New Mexico and Texas on wild game ranches.

It’s a wonder their horns don’t get hung up in tree branches…

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In a previous post I mentioned the sociable weaver bird’s fascinating nest. These sweet little birds, endemic to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, construct permanent nests that are like condominiums.  At night the birds go deeper into the nest, and find cooler shade in the outer layers during the day. Special breeding chambers are located deep in the nest against predators (snakes, baboons).

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The nests can weigh as much as 500 pounds and house 4-500 birds. During the rainy season a drenched nest can grow to several thousand pounds and take down its host tree. While one would think the nest would smother the tree, it apparently does it no harm. The birds also like to build their compounds on power poles, though they can take out the power grid and catch fire in the dry season.

Into the Namib

As we moved north, the barren landscape gave way to one that, while not exactly lush, was measurably greener. The dead clumps of grass that had been tripping us up every time we walked in the desert were now green, swaying gracefully in the afternoon wind, and there was a carpet of yellow flowers called Little Devils adding color to the scene. Shortly we began to see the distinctive orange sands of the Namib, the oldest desert on the planet.

This desert ranges 1200 miles, from Angola in the north to South Africa, and comprises the entire coastline of Namibia. Its age is estimated to be between 50 and 80 million years old, and some of its dunes are over 1000 feet high, making them second only to a desert I never heard of in China.

After settling into Sossus Dunes Lodge, the only hotel located inside the Namib-Naukluft national park, we drove a couple of kilometers to Sesriem Canyon, according to Dayne smaller only than our Grand Canyon (I haven’t been able to verify this). From the top it doesn’t look very impressive, but those of us with the fortitude to descend the rock-strewn path and treacherous steps found ourselves in a fascinating geological formation created by flooding waters over millennia. Since Namibia has been in a seven-year drought that shows no signs of abating, it’s hard to imagine there being that much water here. It was a bit reminiscent of Petra, though Petra’s rock walls are much smoother.

The patterns on this dead tree were striking in the late-afternoon sun.

Sossus Dunes Lodge was a comfortable spot, each “hut” having a wall of windows looking westward across the desert to the dunes.

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Being inside the park meant that we could get to Deadvlei before the gate opened at 7 a.m., allowing us to set up before the sun rose over the enormous dunes (avoiding all the other tourists waiting in line). Dayne took us on Toad’s Wild Ride on a washboard road to be there before anyone else.

Deadvlei — literally dead pan — was once a lake or marsh snuggled among the dunes. Today the earth is so hard and cracked it resembles flagstones, and the camel thorn tree skeletons stand where they died 6-700 years ago, their trunks burnt black by the scorching sun.

As the sun rose over the dunes, it created a dreamy atmosphere in the vlei.

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The hike was about 1.5 km — just under a mile — each way, and it was fairly challenging, especially coming out, when the sun was fully up and blazing. Mostly uphill going in, through the soft sand, it was two steps forward, slide back a step. I knew I didn’t have it in me to climb Big Daddy, or even Big Mama, both over 1000 feet high, though one of our friends did, and he said it was extremely challenging. I was content to gaze on the gorgeous red dunes from below. (The bottom photo is not Big Daddy.)

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The larger area surrounding Deadvlei and encompassing the big dunes is Sossusvlei, and a leisurely drive-through rewarded us with dramatic landscapes and the occasional elusive springbok.

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One more day in the dunes, then we wind down. Stay tuned…

Breakfast with Cheetahs

An even earlier morning, this time to capture the Milky Way just before sunrise. While those photos aren’t worth publishing here, I did get some decent silhouettes of dead trees in the pre-dawn sky.

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Once the sun came up, we were off to see KFC and Hannabella, which turned out to be one of the top highlights of the trip. For nearly two hours five of us, along with Kai, joined the big cats in their enclosure. They were most cooperative, posing in their sultry beauty atop the dune and letting us approach to within 8-10 feet. So many great shots, it was hard to choose a reasonable number to post here.

Note the non-retractable claws, part of the reason cheetahs are so fast and such fearsome hunters.

Hannabella got a little sassy with Kai, who settled her down by merely holding his hand out, palm facing her.

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Reluctantly we bade the girls farewell, heading further into the Namib.

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Along the way we encountered plains zebra and an area that had actually enjoyed some rainfall. The hard stubby knobs that characterize this desert had — briefly probably — turned into lush, swaying grasses.

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Sunrise to Sunset

4:30 a.m. is an obscene hour to get up, but we were going to the dunes for sunrise, so needs must get out early. The spot where we parked was backed by orange rippled dunes and faced a plain leading to layered mountains. On the plain, near us, were several iconic dead trees. With the pinking sky behind and the fog-shrouded hills in the distance, the scene was magical.

 

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Our driver, Lucas, brought out coffee, tea and biscotti. Very civilized. Back at camp, our hosts had laid a sumptuous breakfast, and then we had some free time to relax while the sun was at its blistering zenith.

Ka’naan has its own little quiver tree forest among some rocky hills on the property, so we drove there to shoot photos in the golden light of late afternoon, then wound away to a flat plain with dead camelthorn trees to capture their silhouettes in the sunset. When we had had our fill of shooting, we enjoyed gin and tonics, cheese and crackers and oryx jerky as the light slowly faded.

Beachcombing for Agates, and a Quest for Flamingos

Agate Beach is a popular spot for the folks of Luderitz, so we decided to make a late afternoon stop to see if we could find any of the lovely stones for which it is named. The docent at Felsenkirche had some remarkable ones he had found over the years, so I think we all fantasized about discovering a jewelry-worthy specimen. Alas, the local folks scoop a lot of them up on weekends, so they weren’t so easy to find; but I did get some, along with some jasper and quartzite that I’ll give to my grandboy.

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We were also on the hunt for flamingos, and Dayne jubilantly found a flock — or, my favorite term, a flamboyance — including some juveniles. I do wish I’d had a longer lens to capture these pink beauties. But I did get a couple flying!

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Next up: penguins! We found a waddle of them standing on a beach, but were too far away to get good shots. I make this entry only to be able to use the term “waddle of penguins.” (That’s if they’re standing around. If they’re swimming, they’re called a raft.)

A three-hour drive with a stop for lunch under the only large tree on this road led us to Ka’Naan N/a’an ku sê Desert Retreat, on over 80,000 acres abutting the Namibia-Naukluft National Park. My anticipation built as we turned off the main(dirt) road onto another (dirt) road, continued fifteen minutes to another (dirt) road, which in 8km delivered us to the small registration building. Then another ten-minute drive to the top of a rocky hill and we were at the lodge, overlooking a sweep of plains, dunes and more rocky hills. Perched a bit further down the hill were seven tents on stilts, our accommodations for the next two nights.

 

Rock Shandys slaked our thirst as we soaked in the view from the lodge deck. (Rock Shandys — our beverage of choice for lunch or a quick refresher for these two weeks — are made with dry lemon soda, club soda and Angostura bitters. Tasty, but even better was Ka’Naan’s Malawi Shandy, a combination of dry lemon soda, ginger ale and bitters. Sort of looks like a desert sunset.) The accommodations qualified as glamping in my book.

We met Kai and Lucas, our guides for the next couple of days, when they took us down the hill to meet KFC and Hannabella, two young cheetahs Ka’Naan rescued after their mothers were killed by farmers for getting after livestock. They were adopted when only weeks old, so will always live in captivity, as they were never taught to hunt. While they are habituated to humans, they’re by no means tame. Armed with cheetah sticks, we followed Kai and Lucas into their enclosure, which I estimate comprised about three acres, to watch feeding time. We’ll have more time with these girls later in our visit.

As the sun dipped lower, the dunes took on a lovely ochre glow, and the fine sand in the atmosphere created a vibrant sunset for happy hour.

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To the Diamond Coast

Heading due west from the Quiver Tree Forest through the barren Kalahari Desert, the iron oxide sand of the Namib altered the landscape, and we began to see red dunes in the distance. If it was possible, the scene became even more desolate, almost making the Kalahari look like a garden. We met fewer than a handful of vehicles on the dusty road, and went through only one town, Aus, where we had a pleasant lunch and filled the gas tanks.

A single railroad track ran parallel to the road, and from time to time we passed an abandoned station, testament to the pointlessness of trying to keep the track open in the face of wind-blown sand.

Luderitz, situated on the coast, has a distinctly German atmosphere. From our room we had a nice view of the Felsenkirche, rising from a rocky crest above the town, and of the harbor hosting a thriving fishing industry.

Rock lobster and oysters are a special treat here, and we had dinner at the Diaz Coffee Shop, which looked an unlikely place for seafood. But it was exceptionally tasty; in addition to a rock lobster tail and some baked oysters I had kingclip, a type of rock fish.

In the morning we made our way just a short drive out of town to Kolmanskoop, an abandoned mining town originally established in 1908 after diamonds were discovered there. At its height some 300 people lived there, including over 40 children; and they had a school, hospital, shops, bowling alley, gym, casino, ice house and the first x-ray machine in the southern hemisphere (developed to ensure workers weren’t smuggling diamonds out). The town was fashioned like a German village, and the wealthy owners/managers imported building materials from Germany to construct their palatial homes. When the diamonds had played out, by the late 1920s, most of the townsfolk decamped to a larger field further south along the Orange River, leaving everything behind, and the town was abandoned. In the intervening years the relentless desert winds have blown sand into all the structures, resulting in an eerie, ghostly feel to the ruins. Remnants remain of the fancy wallpaper, elaborate woodwork and generous windows overlooking a barren landscape.

The late-morning sun filtering through rafters and windows creates dramatic effects.

The teacher’s house remains standing only because of the sand packed tightly inside.

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In the photo above right, the mine-workers’ quarters are seen away from the main part of the town (and they’re not part of the tour). Working conditions were severe, with the crew managers taking extraordinary measures against smuggling. Besides periodic x-rays, workers were subject to involuntary enemas and other indignities. Miners worked on all fours above ground, scarves wound around their lower faces against the blowing sand, picking diamonds off the surface and collecting them in jelly jars (working at night under a full moon was common, as the gems gleamed in the moonlight).

Water for the town was brought by rail from 75 miles away, but this was no hardship for the prosperous townspeople, who cultivated lawns and gardens and lived in luxury.

A small museum exhibits tools, household items and clothing from the period.

So many photo opportunities…