- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

SKELETON COAST, Namibia — Tabletop mountains, red desert dunes, blond savanna grasses, volcanic and basalt landscapes passed beneath us during our 430-mile flight here in a single-turbine airplane from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.

We landed at the Skeleton Coast and ventured into the Namib Desert, said to be the world’s oldest and driest. It is a pristine and remarkable wilderness.

Sea fogs, gale-force winds, mountainous waves, hidden sandbars and treacherous reefs of coastal rocks have sunk galleons, gunboats, trawlers and ships, including Nantucket’s whaling boats, hence the name Skeleton Coast. Along this coast are the bleached bones of whales and myriad trees lying in dangled heaps, the latter washed down from the interior mountains by floods of many seasons past.

Namibia holds visitors in awe with its surreal images of shifting, multihued sand dunes; stark gravel plains; astonishing canyons; mountain peaks; desolate mist-shrouded shores; and ancient rocks. No other sand-dune system in the world has animal life comparable to that of the dunes of the Skeleton Coast and Namib Desert.

Our group of five hopes to encounter elephants, oryxes, roaring dunes and seals and visit the Himba people in this desolate but hauntingly beautiful place.

Much wildlife here is sustained not by the scarce rain but by ocean mists and moisture-bearing sea winds, and also by breezes from the interior that drop dead leaves and grasses. Larger game is sustained by the springs and vegetation that fringe dry riverbeds and the occasional salt pan, a relic of a sporadic stream that tried but failed to make its way to the ocean.

The Benguela Current brings cool, plankton- and fish-rich water from Antarctica and moderates temperatures in the region. Even summers are mild. Cool ocean air meets warm desert air, and nearly every morning, mists cover the coastline, bringing the life-sustaining moisture to the desert.

We passed the majestic oryx with its rapierlike horns that can kill an attacking lion by impaling it. Ostriches, the world’s largest bird, fled, relieving us of some fear: They attack with a forceful kick followed by dragging their sharp, talonlike two front toes downward across a person’s body, disemboweling him.

Then, a young bull elephant approached as we sat in our Land Rover in a green riverbed. We watched him munch leaves from trees that grow from the seeds washed down from the interior during floods.

Our field guide, Gerhard Thirion, 31, warned us: “If he puts his trunk in the car, don’t be stupid and close it in the window. We’ll be in great trouble then.” He remembered a Spanish guest narrowly missing an elephant’s trunk when he quickly rolled the window up.

“Don’t make any loud noises, and don’t move abruptly,” he said. “I hope you all are ready to stay here awhile, at least until he leaves. No pit stops, and definitely no one’s leaving the car.”

This elephant was aware of our presence, but its mind was elsewhere. With its sensitive trunk, the elephant had detected water underground, then dug for it in the riverbed. A front foot scooped out the surface sand while the trunk cleared the hole of muddy seepage. The resulting excavation, known as a “gorra,” provided clean, cool water. It waited, looking at us threateningly, while the sand-filtered water seeped slowly to the surface. To cool himself, he flapped his big ears to expose large areas of blood vessels to moving air.

Access to gorras, particularly in remote areas, benefits a whole range of other mammals, birds and insects unable to dig for themselves. Oryxes, baboons, jackals and leopards could profit from this elephant’s efforts.

The elephant took a bath, drawing water into its trunk and spraying it on its belly and then its back, all the time standing only a few feet from us and staring at us. Its family of seven approached slowly because they were feeding on the river vegetation: mopane; tamarisk; reeds and rushes; nutritious pods; and the bark and leaves of the towering, broad-bowed ana tree. It gave us another threatening look before sauntering off to join the family.

We quickly drove away — to our encounter with a 10-story roaring sand dune.

Mr. Thirion stopped our vehicle at the bottom of a roaring, rumbling, smoking and wandering sand dune several stories tall. He threw the Land Rover’s gear into four-wheel drive and gunned it to storm the dune. We rocked, bounced, shifted quickly to the right, then left and right, and headed upward, faster and faster. We rounded the top, and with some of us fearfully screaming, we raced down the dune.

We heard a roar like an airplane. The sand is just the right diameter and consistency to create loud noises when millions of its granules slide down a steep dune. The warmer and drier the dune, the greater the amplification of the roar. It was eerie but fun.

Another time, we climbed a similarly tall dune by foot, then sat and slid down, again hearing the roars, plus feeling tingling vibrations.

SQUEALING SEALS

One day, we drove to see the cape fur seals along two miles of beach at Cape Frio. They are the largest of the world’s nine fur seal species and breed only on the west coast of southern Africa.

“I think this colony is becoming larger than Cape Cross, the largest breeding colony along the West Africa coast,” Mr. Thirion said. The Cape Frio colony’s population is estimated at 60,000. He said that the Cape Frio reef is a perfect place to teach the young to swim and that it provides food.

Seal pups, about a month old, wandered alone on the beach, flapping their fins and squealing while their mothers were catching fish for them. They eat 8 percent of their body weight daily, Mr. Thirion said. They approached us, but when we attempted to pet them, they tried to bite and fled.

Mr. Thirion said the pups’ mortality rate is 24 percent, due to predation by black-backed jackals and brown hyena — we saw jackals gorging themselves on dead seal pups — often victims of stampedes or drownings.

Mothers picked up their pups by mouth and headed for the ocean, where the youngsters squirmed to get back to shore. Some succeeded in freeing themselves from their mothers’ jaws but they were picked up again — not gently — and taken again into the crashing waves.

Meanwhile, the 200-pound males, each protecting about 25 females in his harem, patrolled the shore, frequently fighting other males who had wandered into foreign territory.

Namibian experts regard the seals as a threat to the country’s dwindling marine resources, and colonies are periodically culled.

HIMBAS’ OCHER

Himbas are seminomadic, self-sufficient pastoralists who live in Kaokoland in the remote northwestern corner of Namibia. Their desert world is harsh, dry and starkly beautiful.

With no shelter from the blistering sun, the Himba women placed their beads and baskets, woven from dried young fronds of the makalani palm, on mats for us to see and buy. Their wide-horned cattle, corralled nearby, provide a milk staple; their goats and sheep are meat sources. Because of the high jackal population, Himbas house their kid goats, lambs and cattle in enclosures of rocks and sticks. Two or three lean and faithful dogs guard the stock against predators.

“Himbas rarely feed their dogs, which must subsist on bones and scraps,” said a woman who had lived with the Himbas and wrote a book about them. Himba men regularly summon their herds by blowing into an oryx’s horn, then they walk vast distances in desert temperatures, sometimes almost 100 degrees, for water and new pasture for their cattle, goats and sheep.

Surface water is widely dispersed in this harsh, arid territory, so men and their stock regularly walk 12 miles for drinks of water. They dig holes in the sandy riverbeds for subterranean water.

In the 19th century, Christian missions were established in Namibia, and Himba women adopted some of the fashions of the missionary wives. Hence, dressing in the morning is lengthy. First, Himba women put on shells, metal bracelets and softened goatskin coated with ocher. Then they anoint all bare skin with a mixture of butterfat, aromatic herbs and ocher powder.

A Himba family will live in hundreds of dwellings, moving as many as 10 times a year to take advantage of better grazing. At each new camp, the women build houses. By middle age — the life expectancy is 60 to 70 years, Mr. Thirion said — they’ve lost count of the number of abodes they’ve erected. Their beehivelike pointed huts, built around a central pole, are made of a cone of saplings plastered with cow dung. They build these transitory camps in open spaces with no shade, Mr. Thirion said, because wooded sites are sanctuaries for dangerous wildlife.

TENTS, NO FENCES

No fences were around our luxurious Skeleton Coast camp, which accommodates a maximum of 12 guests. It is in the 600,000-acre northern region of the Skeleton Coast Park, nestled unobtrusively among sand dunes.

Wilderness Safaris, a South African nature travel company, owns and runs it. Animals sometimes wander through the camp; an oryx was waiting outside my tent one day as we pulled in from an all-day nature drive.

Each tent and its adjoining bathroom with flush toilets and a shower is set on decking off the ground. Each has a veranda with a lovely private view of the desert.

Wilderness Safaris owns 2.5 million acres of southern Africa’s wildlife and wilderness reserves. Each camp is small, three to 12 rooms, to minimize the impact on the area and blend into the environment. The Skeleton Coast camp is reached by Sefofane Charters airplanes — six- and 14-seater, single-engine turbo aircraft that land on a nearby dirt strip.

Water is so scarce at the Skeleton Coast camp that it is brought in daily by a tanker truck from a spring 2.5 miles away. The camp manager asks guests to save the water that falls in the shower in buckets, which are taken to wash vehicles and floors.

Electricity is solar-powered, ample enough to charge batteries for video cameras, but not for hair dryers and air conditioning. Fans above the beds cool the rooms.

The home-cooked food was tasty, healthful and nicely presented, prepared by three chefs, all without culinary training. We ate family style at elegantly set dining tables. One night, we had a braii (barbecue) outdoors under a leadwood tree and its gnarly trunk and branches. The camp serves South African wines and beer at dinner and on nature activities.

Our three nights at the Skeleton Coast were interesting, comfortable, quiet and sometimes exciting. Too soon, though, the bush pilot was buzzing our camp overhead, and we were once again in a small plane, this time headed back to civilization.

Preparing for Namibian wilderness

Wilderness Safaris is a South African company that operates the Skeleton Coast and Palmwag Rhino camps and other camps, lodges and safaris in 44 locations in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com, or contact Jackie Rush at Waters Travel, 888 17th St. NW, Suite 304, Washington, DC 20006; e-mail: [email protected]; phone 202/298-7100 or 800/296-0071.

South African Airways (866/722-2476) flies to South Africa from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport; the airline operates connecting flights to Windhoek, Namibia.

The Skeleton Coast and Palmwag camps are accessible only by airplane. Wilderness Safaris is closely associated with Sefofane Charters, an independent air charter firm that flies six- and 14-seat planes, which land on dirt strips. Someone from the camp picks up guests, then drives over dirt roads to the camp.

Water at the Skeleton Coast Camp that is brought in daily by tanker from a spring 2.5 miles away. The camp manager asked the guests to save the water that fell in our shower buckets while we were waiting for the water to heat.

Someone each day carried away the filled buckets to wash vehicles or floors. The camp can accommodate no more than 12 guests.

Neither camp provides laundry service because of the water shortage.

Palmwag Rhino Camp accommodates a maximum of 14 guests in seven large tents that have no running water except for the toilets. Each adjoining bathroom has a bucket shower, which an attendant fills with about 10 gallons of hot water.

The shower lasts three minutes. If there’s more than one person in the tent, the staff will bring another bucket of hot water in 15 minutes.

Twelve-volt solar panels light the tents. Guests live a spartan life at camp: no gym facilities; no e-mails sent or received; no TV, radio or newspapers. Nature books and magazines in the tented dining room and bar are available for reading.

Malaria prophylaxis is recommended. Visas are not required for entering South Africa or Namibia. Wilderness Safaris requires its clients to have emergency evacuation insurance, such as that provided by Medjet Assistance (800/963-3538), whose policies can cover individuals and families, including grandparents.

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