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It is a gradual process leaving civilisation behind. I fly from London to Johannesburg and from there to Windhoek. Then, after a night to recover, I arrive at the little domestic airport, where there’s no ticket check or X-ray machine, just the pilot, who leads me out to a Cessna 210 or what looks like a motorbike with wings. There’s space for six passengers – theoretically, if they breathe in and didn’t have too good a meal the night before – and the safety demonstration involves pointing out the first aid kit at the back of the aircraft and the five litres of water under one of the seats.
It’s my first of many lessons in desert survival. I cross my fingers and hope we don’t do an Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (He crashed in the Sahara and spent five waterless days alone before help arrived – it’s no coincidence that afterwards he wrote The Little Prince, the story of a lonely little boy from a planet far away.)
In fact, Hoanib, my destination, feels like it could be on a planet far away. It’s at the uninhabited end of one of the most uninhabited countries on earth – Namibia is only marginally more populous than Mongolia – and as the landscape turns from khaki browns to dappled reds interspersed with craggy granite peaks, I imagine it’s how Mars might look in a century’s time: harsh, unyielding, thinly populated.
Beneath the surface somewhere, though, there are diamonds, uranium, iron ore, tungsten. Namibia has always attracted prospectors, frontiersmen, adventurers: German colonists, South African administrators, people not put off by 825,000 square kilometres of nothingness.
The Namib desert, the oldest in the world, runs the length of the Skeleton Coast, the strangest, loneliest coast of them all, a thousand kilometres of savage emptiness. While I know people who have a thing for deserts, I’m not sure I’m one of them. I’m not sure I’m cut out for contemplating being and nothingness and the insignificance of man or woman, or at least one woman in particular, me. Not least because I am actually A Woman in the Desert Alone. I was going to bring my partner but, for various reasons, it didn’t work out. My first lesson in desert survival: adapt or die.
We stop to refuel and hear that Hoanib, 45km inland from the coast, is fogged in. Fog! In the desert. Who knew? Though it turns out it’s what makes life possible. Because there is life in the desert. Who knew that either? But then, as we fly on, into the further, dryer, far-flung north, Hoanib defies my expectations on just about all counts. It is not the Namibian desert that I’ve vaguely seen in tourist photos. There are no towering red dunes. In the blinding midday sun, it’s a hostile place of endless bone-dry crumbling rocky hills, and one dry river valley, a ribbon of greenery that winds its way past the camp down to the Skeleton Coast. Only later do I notice the animal prints all around, including right up to the steps of my “tent”. Clement Lawrence, the camp manager, identifies them as oryx but, a week earlier, it had been lion, while a few hundred metres away are wandering elephant, hyena and jackal.
I realise later that it takes a couple of days to adjust my eyes to the landscape; to see it properly. The desert does not reveal itself all at once, but slowly, gradually. Just as my fingers twitch for the first few days with the muscle memory of swiping my phone for updates, text messages, emails, news. Here there is no phone signal, no WiFi, no news. Something shifts in my head and it feels like my brain synapses, after a decade of clicking and scrolling, begin to unknot.
If the desert is not what I expected, neither is the “camp”. It opened in August and consists of a cluster of tent-like structures that shelter what looks like a Milanese boutique hotel. The floors are polished concrete, the chairs are the kind you see featured in Wallpaper magazine, and the soft furnishings have an edge of Mayfair luxe: cool, minimalist, expensive. Lawrence says that the traditional safari-lodge look – think thatch and wooden decking – just wouldn’t work here. It’s too harsh, too extreme. “There’s the fog and the salt and the wind and the heat, they’d last minutes in this environment.”
But the camp’s real attraction is its location: right on the edge of the Skeleton Coast national park, a heavily protected area off-limits to all vehicles. Apart from ours; Hoanib’s lease includes traversing rights to the coast via the Hoanib river system. And traversing it – as we do the next morning – is an incredible journey. We are the only vehicle for miles in any direction and there is just enough uncertainty about the route to make it exciting. In places, there’s only a single set of tyre tracks marking the route and Charles, the guide, is cheerfully upbeat about how difficult it is to spot and how easy it is to get lost down here. Or stuck in the sand. Or charged, as a Swiss couple were the day before, by a young bull elephant.
We set off – with Swantje and Jochen, a German couple who live in London – in the predawn fog, the life-giving fog that sustains the trees and plants, disturbing great herds of springbok and fluttering cape sparrows and, in a moment of high drama, that almost passes me by, a caracal. “A what?” I say. “Just take a photo! Take a photo!” says Charles. It looks like an over-large domestic cat with pointed ears and wanders nonchalantly around our Toyota Land Cruiser sniffing the air. Charles is almost palpitating when it finally takes its leave. It’s one of the rarest of all the big cats and only the third he has ever seen.
The lions have moved on, however. The next day I meet Flip Stander, a Namibian with a PhD in biology from Cambridge, who has dedicated his life to the desert lions, living in a satellite-equipped van in which he tracks them (and from which he runs daily updates to his website, desertlion.info). He tells me how lions on the plains have a range of around 100km-150km. “Whereas here, it’s an order of magnitude of difference. Their home ranges are 12,000km or more.” They are so adapted to the desert that they can go days without water. “And they’re so strong!” he says. “So athletic!”
But then, everything in the desert is different. Everything is tougher and stronger and stranger. Where the Hoanib river’s path to the sea is blocked by dunes, lies a vast green basin of dense vegetation in the middle of which stands a lone giraffe playing the world’s worst game of hide and seek. It’s visible from about a mile away and when we pass, it gives us a doleful stare. “It looks lonely,” I say to Charles. “In the desert,” he says. “All the animals are alone.”
Even the human ones. I sit on a seat on top of the vehicle with Swantje when we emerge in the dunes and Charles drives to the top of one, to a terrifying, precipitous drop. “Charles!” I shout down. “I’ve changed my . . . ” And then he turns off the engine and several tonnes of Japanese engineering and us slide down the sand accompanied by the roar of what sounds like a jet engine. It’s that strange desert phenomenon: a roaring dune.
Swantje sensibly retreats to the inside of the vehicle but I remain on top and ride along in stately isolation as the sand turns to gravel and rocks and the “road” – a single vehicle track – disappears. Beyond is the ocean, the sky a bruised dark blue, stippled by clouds, and a cold salty wind, whipped up the sea, roars on to land. There is mile after mile of nothingness and a strange hot/coldness to the air, it’s a border zone where the heat of the desert meets the cold of the ocean – the Benguela current that sweeps up this side of Africa – and I am buffeted by wind, and salt and sun. By the time we arrive at a place called Möwe Bay, I suspect I have aged by at least 100 years, if not more.
There are a few vestiges of life here: a small cluster of shacks and a vast whale’s jawbone sticking out of the sand. There’s a weather station, a park ranger and a policeman. Best of all, though, is a wonderful tiny museum dedicated to a collection of objects washed up on the coast. Remnants of shipwrecks and plane crashes, an elephant’s skull, a rhino’s skull, a human skull, a tiny baby shark in a jar of formaldehyde and a collection of beetles and insects in wooden display cases.
A yellowing copy of The Citizen from 1981 recounts how “three civilian pilots and their aircraft have disappeared over the sinister coast”. To be lost along the Skeleton Coast, it says, “could easily mean death by thirst or starvation”. Unless you come with a guide and a Toyota Land Cruiser.
We walk along the beach, over patches of purple sand – tiny shards of garnet – to the rusting wreck of a fishing trawler, where in one of the loneliest spots on earth, we have chilled white wine and five different types of salad served on a white-clothed table with proper silverware.
We fly back: a 15 minute hop in the motorbike with wings, the pilot swooping us low over the storybook oasis we’d visited en route – an impossible pool of startlingly clear blue water surrounded by stark dunes. Later that night we eat like carnivorous desert predators: great hunks of beef and kudu fillet, impeccably cooked rather than torn from limb to limb, and sit around the campfire under the alien southern stars.
Two days later, I’m forced to wrench myself away and head even further north, to Serra Cafema, another camp operated by Hoanib’s owners, Wilderness Safaris. It’s a place of such huge vistas that my eyes can’t quite take it in. Just getting from the airstrip to the camp is perhaps the most scenic drive of my life. We travel along the Hartmann Valley, a vast amphitheatre of rock and dunes and I keep having to remind myself: it’s the airport transfer. Finally, we plunge over an escarpment to find a river a miraculous shade of green, fringed by almost jungle-like foliage.
On the far bank, 20 metres away, is Angola and at night, shining a torch reveals the reflected eyes of crocodiles all around. It’s an astonishing, not-quite-of-this-earth landscape, its beauty, like a supermodel’s, almost too much to bear. And, somehow, I don’t fall for it in the way that I did Hoanib. The camp is older and more established; more commercial. It feeds off its expensive looks. I feel distinct unease when I’m taken out to “meet” some Himba villagers – desert nomads whose ancient culture and lifestyle have been preserved by isolation, but who now earn tourist dollars as exotic anthropological extras.
It’s a capitalist exchange that reminds me too much of home. And even while I’m there, it’s the scrubby borderlands of Hoanib that my mind returns to. A hostile place on the very edge of the world where life felt strange and precarious; where the line between life and death was hazy and negotiated; where you adapt or die.
Carole Cadwalladr was a guest of Safari Consultants (safari-consultants.com), which offers an eight-night trip combining three nights at Hoanib with three nights at Serra Cafema and two nights in Windhoek from £3,790, including light aircraft transfers and all meals and drinks at Hoanib and Serra Cafema. Flights from London would add £1,350.
Photographs: Olwen Evans; Flip Stander
Slideshow photographs: Dana Allen; Flip Stander; Olwen Evans