I awoke in the Namibian desert to find little paw prints at the bottom of my tent’s ladder.
A line of them meandered through the entire campsite, circling each vehicle, cooler, and chair until they ended just outside the edge of our camp—where a jackal sat, licking a paw as if bored. Her companion sat at the opposite end, unintimidated and unintimidating.
I imagined the Stone Age domestication of the dog took about as long as breakfast. I climbed down from the tent to eat mine.
We were 12 people in six Toyota Land Cruisers, plus our guide and cook in their own truck, on an eight-day, self-drive safari through the Skeleton Coast. Each day, our guides Marius and Gabriel set up a camp kitchen and prepared breakfast and dinner for us, and in between, we drove ourselves in a convoy behind them, stopping for animals, scenic overlooks, and the occasional shipwreck.
The Namib Desert is one of the oldest on earth—conservative estimates start at 55 million years—and it runs the full 975 miles of Namibia’s Atlantic coastline. All of it is protected by national parks.
From the Ugab River north to Angola, it is the 6,500-square-mile Skeleton Coast National Park. The southern section of this is open for day trips in 4x4s, but the northern section is a designated wilderness area. Until recently, the coveted and pricey four-night permit (about $5,000) to drive into the latter was limited to 12 per year, but that’s gone up to 24. Group size is limited to 12 vehicles, and permits never overlap, so you are assured exclusivity.
The Skeleton Coast merits its name: Scattered across its beaches are the remains of sea turtles, jackals, birds, shells, and crustaceans. Seal skins lie like deflated balloons. Massive ribs, vertebrae, hip bones, and skulls mark the final resting places of whales. A dream of a trip, this wasn’t something we could put together on our own.
A group of adventurous friends, we worked with Remote Recreation, a boutique safari company that was able to arrange 4×4 rentals and track down exceptional guides who could also obtain a permit.
My first night in Namibia, I stayed in luxurious comfort in a 1914 German castle, Hotel Heinitzburg, overlooking the lights of the capital, Windhoek. Twenty-four hours later, I was driving north over washboard roads and two-track trails; no water sources, phone signal, or electricity. We slept in truck-top tents beneath as many stars as grains of sand. Only the slow silent passing of a satellite in the night sky hinted at the world beyond the horizon.
I had imagined the desert a bit more monotonous, just endless sand. But, in reality, the scenery varied and changed frequently. Light sand, dark sand, orange sand, or sand colored with grains of gemstones red or purple.
For a couple of hours, we’d drive along the sea, watching the waves thunder in and kick up foam so thick that it flowed like cream or held shapes like cappuccino froth where it gathered along the beach. At another stretch, we’d pass bright rust-colored lichen fields and then sweeps of low-lying brush, or large rocks, or miles of pebbles or gravel, or rippled sand, or purple hills off in the distance.
Several mornings, we awoke to fog from the cold Benguela Current offshore meeting the desert heat. We passed through a sandstorm so thick we had to slow to a crawl for fear of running into the vehicle in front of us. Moments later, we parked on a ridge and looked out over what the guides call “Michelangelo’s Valley,” a stretch of varied rock, sand, and meager plant life, a colorful counterpoint to those areas where we couldn’t quite see the seams between dune slopes and flat surfaces or sometimes even the sky.
At these times, all perspective was lost; at other times, the world lay before us clear to the horizon.
Driving the Dunes
Marius got on his hands and knees in the sand, like a kid drawing up football routes in the huddle, to demonstrate how dune driving works. Fifty-seven degrees, he said, pushing the sand into a mini-dune. It’s the physics of sand that it can’t be steeper. “As long as you keep it straight, you can’t roll over,” he said.
This was meant to be comforting later on, as we waited in line in our vehicles and his disappeared off the edge of a 300-foot dune.
Moments later on the radio, he said, “All clear.” At my turn, I pulled forward, and all I saw over the hood was open space and distant dunes dropping into distant chasms. I took my foot off the brake, and as we tipped over the edge, I instinctively pushed my hands forward on the wheel as if breaking a fall. Then, low first gear held the truck back and it descended through sand that hummed loudly through the open windows. At the bottom, I turned left as if exiting a parking lot and followed Marius’ tire tracks. We dedicated an entire day to dune driving, sometimes getting stuck and having to work our way out to continue.
We camped one night tucked inside the crescent curve beneath a 100-foot-high dune. We climbed to watch the sunset, slid and tumbled down again in the soft sand, and then ascended again in the morning before breaking camp. The wind slipped up over the top, whipping my clothing like a flag in a gale, the sand stinging a bit as it struck my skin. Like wisps of smoke, the drifting sand continued on, moving this massive dune more slowly than a glacier, rebuilding it in dusty increments in the direction of the winds.
Flamingos, cormorants, and pelicans gathered in flocks large and small. A colony of hundreds of seals basked on the beach while many others body-surfed offshore. Oryx stopped and stared and we’d find the occasional skull of one of their compatriots in the sand, the long ribbed horns still intact. One night, I awoke to hoofbeats I could almost feel in the tent; zebras were passing on a trail alongside our camp.
When we reached the Kunene River, the border with Angola, and infamous for crocodiles that swim out even as far as the sea, we turned inland, and the bigger animals became more frequent: elephants digging for muddy water in dry seasonal river beds; giraffes nipping leaves from hardy trees; herds of springbok or ostriches crossing before us; and troops of baboons watching from the shade. The resident lions and hyena didn’t make an appearance, however.
During a stop to look at mysteriously bare “fairy circles” in the terrain, Marius suddenly bent down and captured a flat sort of gecko that, when dropped back to earth, slipped into the sand faster than water, leaving no trace. As we stopped to hike in a rocky canyon, Gabriel showed us a toktokkie, a beetle which in the morning does a little handstand, allowing its raised rump to gather the meager dew. A drop runs down its backside to its mouth for a single slurp, the equivalent of a human downing 37 liters (about 10 gallons) at a time, Marius said.
Time Stands Still
The scenery and wildlife made the trip worth it by themselves, but the sense of the world grinding to a halt is priceless. One can imagine they are the last person on earth here; the stars like dust, the sands like a sea frozen in time, the wide-open space where you can empty your mind. The complete disconnect from the wired world changes your brain. The quiet, the solitude, the creeping pace from day to day becomes a soothing routine, and all that is important is what you can see around you, what’s beyond the next dune.
Never have I thought that a place so desolate could be so enriching.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.
Portions of this trip were sponsored by Remote Recreation and Hotel Heinitzburg.