“That’s an ant carrying grass seed.” I nodded knowingly.
“They carry the seeds to their nest where they store them in a huge underground silo,” continued André.
“The Bushmen, the hunter-gatherers, follow the ants to their nest and then they break into the nest and their reward is this huge silo of seeds which they grind into a fine paste and use to cook their porridge. They only take half as to take more would anger the gods. If they took all the seeds the ants might die and then the Bushmen would lose a food supply. You can’t afford to do that in the desert.”
I nodded in appreciation, realising that I could not afford to miss one of André’s words of wisdom. I made a silent vow to listen hard and cherish everything that André said.
I had met André a few days earlier as he had shuffled unremarkably into the small building that suffices as Eros airport, Windhoek’s ‘domestic terminal’. There were several young pilots strutting in their pressed uniforms, announcing with the arrogance of youth who they were and shepherding clients importantly along. André was the antithesis. Dressed more like an air mechanic in a checked shirt, battered jeans and with an oily cap covering his grey hair and weather-beaten face he did not need the badge of uniform to announce who he was. He is who he is.
“Anyone with Skeleton Coast,” he inquired casually.
“Yes,” I replied. His blue eyes sparkled momentarily. “Welcome.” It was heartfelt and I knew immediately that I was in good hands. What I did not realise was how good and what a privilege the whole safari was to be. Why are we always trying to reinvent travel, search for new experiences, new guides when there are people like André and places like the Skeleton Coast?
The itineraries of Skeleton Coast Safaris are equally understated; in their naming at least – using perfunctory titles such as Itinerary A, Itinerary B etc rather than romantic-sounding marketing epithets. They make no apologies for this. They do not want to prostitute themselves to increase numbers but are rather happy with a core of people who appreciate what the region has to offer and are ‘past the big and hairy’. The draw is silence, space and majestic wilderness – and of course the Schoemans.
I clambered aboard the Cessna and without ado, André was taxiing along the runway up in the air and immediately explaining the geology of the land below. I was fascinated; in his thrall as I was to be throughout.
“The black you see is lava outpourings when the South American and African plates pulled apart 150 million years ago.”
“Over there you see the wind blowing the sand off the top of the dunes – the smoking dunes. The sand here is red signifying that it is old sand and has been oxidised. The sand closer to the sea is younger, as yet not oxidised and thus white in colour.”
We reached the Atlantic coast and André descended to 200 feet and the flight became an exhilarating ride. As we headed northwards, to our left the Atlantic thundered towards the stony shore. To our right, as far as we could see, there was sand. This is Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and its fearsome name is well deserved. The San hunter-gatherers who once roamed its bone-dry gravel plains and shifting sands called it “the land god made in anger”. Early Portuguese mariners who wrecked on its aptly named Skeleton Coast dubbed its hinterland “the sands of hell”.
We flew over an ox cart standing forlornly – a remnant of the 1930s mines when oxen were given a one-way ticket to the region, being dropped off in ships, used as beasts of burden and then eaten. A cluster of ruined buildings, dark shells hidden among the dunes, the last vestiges of mines abandoned by a workforce unable to endure conditions in the desert. Nearby was the blackened wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, beached in 1909 after falling victim to the tempestuous waves.
We saw jackal scavenging on the beach. We saw seal colonies. We saw tracks of hyenas scavenging off the dead carcasses. We saw salt pans, many of which are pink due to the algae living in the salt (hence the colouration of flamingos).
We flew over the courses of river beds, dry for much of the year. These are the linear oases of the desert that sustain much life including big game such as rhinos and the desert elephant. We only saw one rhino with a young calf throughout the journey. We saw no desert elephants but plenty of signs of them. This safari is not so much about the wildlife but rather the environment about which I absorbed so much. That is not to say that André did not talk about wildlife. He is a passionate conservationist and told stories and anecdotes from how elephants had been pushed out of many regions by population pressure – an odd concept in a land of 825,000 square kilometres yet with only a population of 2 million – to how one truculent bull elephant was seen mock charging a Cessna parked in the middle of the plain. Frustrated by the Cessna’s lack of response, the bull crept behind the Cessna and gave it a big push from behind. The aircraft duly rolled away. Satisfied that respect had been shown, the bull sauntered off into the sunset.
In the late afternoon, we circled high and then landed in a tight valley surrounded by mountains – few can make that kind of landing. André is one of the most experienced pilots in Namibia, in southern Africa and that is one of the joys of the safari: you can touch down pretty much anywhere.
With his typical enthusiasm, André explained that there were two types of erosion mechanical (wind, water) and chemical. It was the latter, in particular, carbonic erosion, which caused the rippled effect on some of the rocks, so-called elephant skin. On other rocks, he showed us desert varnish, a dark veneer on the surface of the rock caused by water entering the rock absorbing the minerals and then through the process of evaporation, exiting and depositing the minerals on the surface of the rock. André pointed out a whitewash on many of the rocks. “Rock hyrax latrine,” he explained matter of factly. “These latrines are thousands of years old and of huge interest to scientists. Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, there are no pollen traces in the soil yet through the latrine scientists have a record of pollen in the region stretching back thousands of years.”
It was not just about the rocks. We learned about the tarla or dollar plant (Zygophyllum stapfi), so-called because it is the currency of the desert. “The leaves are small at the moment but as it dries out the leaves grow absorbing what little moisture there is in the air. It is too bitter for humans but animals love it. It is not sticky and is good for washing. I also know of a friend of my father’s who filled up his radiator by squeezing the leaves through a handkerchief. It took him a while but saved his life.”
“This is the elephant foot plant, Adenia pechvelli.”
Welwitschia mirabilis is a plant that is actually a tree that has been dwarfed by the desert. A remarkable plant. This one is only three hundred years there are some that are thought to be thousands of years old.
“Here Euphorbia Virosa used as a poison by the Himba. They put some of the milk from the Euphorbia onto a piece of meat, which they leave for the jackal to eat and then die.”
“Grasses are the muesli of the desert, a food source to all, big and small.”
“Look at this plant. It’s well designed to survive in the desert as all its fingers point up at the sun thus minimising the surface area that is exposed to direct sunlight and thus reducing water loss.”
After dinner, replete and rested (the camp was reassuringly comfortable yet without the unnecessary luxury and cost that seems to adorn all too many of Africa’s camps) André held forth. He talked with interest, with feeling, with us in awe, about the stars, supernovas and space. Like his subject, his knowledge was apparently limitless. He told us about the theory of elevators to the sky, and the limits of supersonic flight (in that supersonic jets do not breathe the air at supersonic speed).
“Anyone want a newspaper for tomorrow?” André asked. We looked puzzled. “The Bushman’s newspaper is the tracks and prints in the sand. Tomorrow we are going for a short walk near the camp.”
“There is evidence that the Bushmen were in this region 25,000 years ago up until fifty years ago. Sadly they are no more in the region but you will still see evidence of them.”
Sharp stones were the remnants of tools used for scraping and cutting. Pieces of ostrich eggshells were used to make beads, for decoration. Seven distinct colours were used for body decoration or rock paintings, such as haematite (iron oxide) used as red. We crawled into an overhang and saw rock art. An elephant, the swelling of its feet an indication of the artist’s attention to detail. There were also some stick-like human figures but these had been defaced by the Herero wishes to eradicate the paintings for fear of the spirits.
Outside we saw a small stone cage which would have been used by the pastoralists to protect young animals and by the hunter-gatherers to store food such as porcupines.
“How do they catch porcupines?”
“Easy. They take a tsama melon, Citrullus echirrhosus, and place it on the ground. They then push little sticks into the ground a few centimetres apart all around the melon creating a funnel for an entrance. The porcupine comes in to get the melon but because of its quills it cannot turn around and is trapped.”
After a lunch of delicious home-cooked fare, we flew to the Roaring Dunes, which were not what I had expected. I had presumed that the ‘roar’ was from the wind through the dunes but the air was still. André told us to sit down, feet facing towards the bottom of the dune and we duly obliged. We then began shuffling down the dune on our backsides. A deep drone reverberated all around us. I looked around to see what it was. Nothing. The noise was loud, almost like an old WWII bomber flying overhead. This was the roaring of the dunes.
The ‘roar’ is caused when the wavelength of two frequencies matches and resonates. One frequency is the shearing frequency, caused by rubbing, the other is static electricity produced by friction when the sand is dry. The sand has to be of the right consistency for it to occur. A bizarre experience. So too when André got us to lie on the sand and look at it through a magnifying lens. It was startlingly bright and beautiful. A veritable kaleidoscope of such beauty is deceptive and many get stuck in the dunes. “The trick is not to drive in the sand but on the sand,” explained André although this did little to alleviate my concern and the terrifyingly steep dune that André was about to attempt to drive down. Sensing my unease, André note casually informed me, “The steepest dunes are 32 degrees, which is the natural resting point or repose of sand. Some may look steeper but always 38 degrees. Here we go….” With laidback skill, André coaxed the Land Rover down the frighteningly steep slope.
Back on board the Cessna and more dramatic scenery. Namibia boasts an amazing array of extraordinary landscapes. A glimmering sea of platinum blonde grasses, huge sand dunes, other-worldly rock formations. It is amazing to think that anything survives in such harsh terrain but we did see zebra, springbok and ostrich, the latter paddling comically away from the noise of the plane, their upper bodies upright and erect. Perhaps most evocative were the oryx and the long shadows cast on the dunes by the late afternoon sun.
“Are there no camel here?” I asked.
“Not really. They were introduced but camels and Germans are not compatible,” quipped André with a wry grin.
On our penultimate afternoon, we flew into the Hartmann Valley. The soft hue of the grasses softened an otherwise stark landscape, creating a gentle image of extraordinary beauty as the wide spaces of the valley stretched into the distance. It looked like a calm sea, mountains emerging from it like islands – I had a Eureka moment realising that the geographical term inselberg was just that.
Incredibly the scenery got better and better. We twisted and turned, negotiating slopes fit for a ski slope; undoubtedly one of the most dramatic and breathtaking approaches to a camp that I have seen in a long time. This may sound like an extravagant claim but I don’t think it is too far fetched. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places and as African experiences go, this is right up there with the most memorable of them.
Perched on the banks of the Kunene River on the Angolan border, twelve hours’ drive from the nearest large village and surrounded by deserts and mountains, we were about as far from anywhere as you can get. It was a fitting finale to the sheer remoteness and solitude of northern Namibia.
The desert impacts a sense of timelessness as perspectives take on new dimensions, horizons expand into infinity and space is amplified around, above and beyond. The experience here is not competing for what you might or might not see, as with so many wildlife safaris; it is not one of expectation or disappointment. It is one of experiencing, learning, appreciating and savouring. Intensely more rewarding and gratifying, it will be seared in your memory.
To have rain in the desert was an unexpected treat; to have André in the desert was a gift. A sublime combination of Attenborough, Carwardine, Mears and Cox all rolled into one. There are sadly not many like him around.