“That’s an ant carrying grass seed.” I nodded knowingly. I could see that.
“They carry them seeds to their nest where they store them in a huge underground silo,” continued André. “The Bushmen 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 fuller appreciation, realising that I could not afford to miss one of André’s words of wisdom.
I had met André a few days earlier as he had shuffled into the small building that suffices as 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 checked shirt, battered jeans and 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 enquired 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 just 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 BLACK YOU SEE IS LAVA OUTPOURINGS WHEN THE SOUTHAMERICAN AND AFRICAN PLATES PULLED APART 150 MILLION YEARS AGO.”
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 were wrecked on its aptly named Skeleton Coast dubbed its hinterland “the sands of hell”.
We saw jackal scavenging on the beach. We saw seal colonies. We saw tracks of hyena 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 rhino and the desert elephant. We only saw one rhino with a young calf throughout the journey. We saw no desert elephant 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 the wildlife. He is a passionate conservationist and told stories and anecdotes from how elephant 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 two million - to how one truculent bull elephant was seen mock charging a Cessna parked in the middle of the plain.
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.
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 Mirablis is a plant that is actually a tree which has been dwarfed by the desert. A remarkable plant. This one is only three hundred years old there are some that are thought to be thousands of years old.
“Here Euphorbia Virosa is 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.”
On our penultimate afternoon we flew into the Hartmann Valley. The soft hue of the grasses softening an otherwise stark landscape, creating a gentle image of extraordinary beauty as the wide spaces of the valley stretched into the distance.
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. Perched on the banks of the Kunene River on the Angolan border, 12 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.
SKELETON COAST: FLYING SAFARI
6 days from $7,491 pp excluding flights.