Follow the Namib Desert Route through some of the most scenic roads on the continent . . .
It’s a good feeling to hit the road again after a restful stop at Klein Aus Vista, nestled snugly in the Aus mountains, with walks through the granite hills, inspiring visits to the wild horses and intriguing exploration of the old diamond-mining towns around Lüderitz.
It’s that feeling you have when you feel the land beckon – a tingly feeling of half-excitement, half-anticipated wonder. The vast limitless landscapes call to your soul – and old man Namib whispers to you from the ancient alleyways of time. I hear him whispering my name and calling to me as I veer north from the B4 on to the gravel. It gets louder as I turn onto the D707, the road that skirts the dunes of the Namib Naukluft Park and pays homage to the Tiras Mountains.
Orange slopes sparkle in the sun and gemsbok stare me down with their long horns pointing skywards in proud antelope defiance. They are the desert’s handsome children, perfectly adapted to forage and frolic in these arid swathes, and I slow down when I see them along the roadside and give them right of way.
Ssssssstop! I screech to a halt, remembering the rusted box on the side of the road that I found on my last trip to these desert lands. Once used for deliveries to the adjacent farm (I suppose), it has taken on the significance of a treasure box in my fantastical world. Last time round, I opened it to find a can of Sprite in its depths. I exchanged it for a packet of NikNaks – in a type of pay-it-forward gesture – and sipped the sweet soda with a smile as I continued on my way.
This time, I open it slowly. What could be there now? Inside, I find a bottle of fresh water and leave a packet of nuts-and-raisins for the next happy traveller, one who I hope will continue the tradition. There is not another vehicle in sight and I breathe in the warm, clean air appreciatively under the big friendly blue sky. Although I could stop for hours to absorb the beauty of my surroundings, my destination at Namib Desert Lodge awaits with some of the most spectacular scenery on this route – never mind on the planet.
Onwards it is, along this enchanted (sometimes sandy) road, savouring each moment and the opportunity to be cruising along in this desert wonderland. Eventually, the road joins the C27 and I pull in at Betta for a break, some hearty hot soup and a packet of lekker homemade koekies for the road. The magnificent scenery continues as I pass through the unfenced Namib Rand Nature Reserve. I mutter a big ‘thank you’ for these unfenced stretches and pause to watch a group of zebra with newly-born young. The surprising sound of croaking fills the desert air and I look around until I spot a pair of korhaans calling merrily from the stony soil, solving the mystery.
The busy hub of Sesriem is the gateway to the sprawling Namib Naukluft Park and the dunes around Sossusvlei, which is a further sixty kilometres away – an excursion that’s best kept for the following day if the sun is already high in the sky. This stretch always makes me feel as if I’ve been transported into another realm, where everything familiar disappears and I am left in an otherworldly environment. It’s as if I enter my own Lord of the Rings episode and I wonder if I’ll meet the kings of these lofty sand mountains. They stay hidden, but I imagine them sitting on high, raising their golden goblets in regal welcome.
At the Sossusvlei parking, I hop aboard a shuttle to avoid the drive on soft sand and am dropped off for the kilometre walk to Deadvlei. As I trudge along to the chalky pan with its dead camelthorn trees juxtaposed against the burnished dunes, the last visitors leave. I find myself alone in the ancient pan.
A kestrel eyes me from the top of a tree. The silence surrounds us. A heavy and old silence that simultaneously sinks into the pan and lifts up into the vast expanse of blue, where it hovers. I have a strange notion that the trees are playing a game of statues, and that the moment I leave they will begin moving, waltzing around this rounded ballroom of old. It’s as if they are frozen in time, waiting for that pause button to be released and for the music to start playing. After photographing the picturesque setting, I leave them to the dance, hoping that the next visitors will allow them a few tunes.
Sossusvlei is a short drive away. I have learnt over time that it can only be viewed in its entirety from a height, so I battle up the sandy slopes of Big Mama dune to gain a better view of this pan that fills up with water in those rare years when the Tsauchab River hurtles through the Sesriem Canyon. Its route follows the line of verdant camelthorn trees to Sossusvlei, where thwarted by the massive dunes it fills the pan and stops, attracting waterbirds and inviting the wind to play on the water until it sinks sleepily into the earth. The beauty from these heights is mesmerising.
I’m now eager to get to Namib Desert Lodge and I carefully watch the movement of the sun.
Before I join the busy gravel road, I make a quick turn to visit the small Sesriem Canyon. I once again find myself unusually alone here and walk down into the depths where the sound of doves echoes against the walls.
I am jolted out of my somnambulant meander when I nearly step on a horned adder, perfectly camouflaged in the sand, and on the walk back to the car my heart flutters wildly.
I am wide awake as I drive through this well-frequented area that is not only home to towering dunes, but majestic and awe-inspiring mountains. And, I remain wide-eyed until I reach the entrance gate to Namib Desert Lodge, 60km to the north, and drive towards the band of fossilised red dunes that form a dramatic backdrop to the lodge.
Although I could join the guided sunset drive to appreciate the superb surroundings, I have opted to spend my first night at its satellite camp, the intimate Dune Star Camp on the crest of the dunes.
I make it just in time to watch the sun set over the land where I’m sure the angels tried out their creative skills or a team of wise magicians tapped their magic wands. The land turns copper and then gold, and I watch with a drink in hand as I find myself in a treasure-trove of earthly delights. It doesn’t get better than this. LIFE takes on new meaning here, as does the utter beauty of it amidst all our daily challenges and hardships. For a fleeting moment I understand it all and it makes perfect sense. Then, the sun does a final bow before it dips behind a dune, lighting up the sky with a burst of brilliant red before sending out its contingent of stars to twinkle and shine, and continue the celestial show.
Enticing smells of supper call us indoors into the warm cabin for a tasty meal and to share our experiences of travelling through this special land. When my eyes start to droop, I look forward to one of the other highlights of Dune Star: wheeling my bed onto my balcony for a night under the waxing moon and the star-spangled sky. I watch Scorpio chasing Orion across the heavens and think about how the light from the Southern Cross takes light years to shine down on us, until I can no longer keep my eyes open and surrender to the deep and nourishing peace of the Namib Desert.
Author: Ron Swilling