NAMIB DESERT, Namibia — Chris, a Namibian ranger, leans against the railing at Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, dry gravel plains and low mountains stretching behind him. It is the only man-made object that interrupts the stark, desolate landscape from horizon to horizon.
Chris is describing this strange Namib Desert, a long, thin strip, never more than 120 miles wide, along Namibia’s 800-mile Atlantic coast between South Africa and Angola. Within its varied topography are huge dune fields, “linear” oases, not the palm-tree-camel kind, but dry riverbeds that flood after the rare rains; gravel plains; mountains; and salt pans, not to mention some of the richest sources of diamonds on earth.
“It’s got the tallest sand dunes in the world,” says Chris, “and the oldest desert, formed 80 million years ago.”
Doesn’t sound like a desert? It more than meets the scientific definition, which is a place where the annual evaporation exceeds the annual rainfall by at least three times; in the Namib, the annual rainfall is 1/3 inch, and the potential evaporation 136 inches.
Still, against all odds, living things survive here. Chris points out a little water hole in front of the lodge, formed by the runoff from the small swimming pool. “Oryx, which are unique to Namibia, come at night,” he says. “And if you look closely, you can see tufts of tiny green plants.”
Namibia is not the Africa you imagine. Vast areas are not green at all, but gray and rocky, with jagged mountains, shale valleys and deep gorges. Yes, there’s game — elephants, lions, rhinos, antelopes — but safari lovers who notch their belts with Big Five sightings have better luck elsewhere. In Namibia, guides track the “small five” — leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhino beetle, buffalo weaver and elephant shrew.
Sossusvlei is the first stop on a very different African safari that begins and ends in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. With six strangers and Ray, our pilot-guide, I set off in an eight-passenger Piper Chieftain. It’s a fine way to catch the sweep and wildly different terrains of this vast country the size of Texas, with Louisiana thrown in.
That afternoon we drive to Sesriem Canyon, a 100-foot-deep river gorge carved into the desert floor with 15 million years of history in its layers of sand and gravel. Ray pulls a folding table and canvas chairs from the roof of the four-wheeled vehicle and produces Castle beer and gin and tonic for sundowners. No better way to salute the spectacular sunsets that turn sand and rocks a burnished bronze.
Back at the lodge, dinner is communal, with guides and guests at a long table. Two staffers announce the menu, one in English, the other in the local dialect. Meals are good and substantial, with roasts or stews, vegetables, potatoes and South African wines.
We turn in early, but not before one of the guides shows us how to find the Southern Cross above two bright Centaurus stars.
This desolate desert is an unlikely place for the welcome creature comforts of Sossusvlei, where each of 10 individual thatched rock-and-timber huts has a plump bed dressed in smart animal prints, a shower with smooth river rocks, even a small deck with a tiny plunge pool.
It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark when we leave for the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the jewel of the Namib Desert, aiming to be first in line at the gate so the other vehicles have to eat our dust, not the other way around. It’s barely above freezing, and we’re bundled in flannel-lined ponchos.
The early light casts deep angled shadows, throwing the finest dune striations into relief. The colors of the sand keep changing with the rising sun — gray, peach, apricot, orange. It’s a photographer’s paradise. We beg to stop at every dune, although Ray keeps repeating, “The best is yet to come.”