Imagine lying under a blanket of Milky Way in one of the darkest places on Earth, surrounded by kilometres of desert and absolute silence. There’s a strange feeling of peace and safety even in this most wild of places. Truly dark skies are increasingly rare in an overpopulated world, as are untouched wildernesses. You’ll find both at NamibRand Nature Reserve.
Dawn in the desert sees the thick star-studded canopy give way to a mauve- and apricot-streaked sky. A vista of burnt orange and blood-red dunes, swathes of silvery grass dotted with fairy circles, gravel plains and savannas fringed with imposing mountains are covered in golden light.
The 202 000-hectare NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of the largest private reserves in Southern Africa and a place that’s mostly overlooked by tourists heading to Namibia’s most popular attractions – Sossusvlei, Dune 45 and Dead Vlei – around 60 kilometres north.
The reserve offers a more private desert experience: the same hauntingly beautiful colossal landscapes of constantly shifting dunes – without the crowds. On a hike, you’re accompanied only by the sound of the wind in the grass and flocks of tweeting birds. Sundowners on top of a dune with a backdrop of purpling mountains are blissfully solitary, save for the soundtrack of a barking gecko. There’s just one campsite in the reserve, and it’s for exclusive use. With just six concessions, and strict rules about the number of visitors in any one area (there’s only one bed for every 1 000 hectares), NamibRand embodies low-impact tourism at its best.
While this isn’t Big Five territory (don’t come to the Namib-Rand expecting Etosha), there are more than 100 bird species, including Namibia’s only true endemic, the dune lark, and Rüppell’s korhaan, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, as well as springbok, kudu, Hartmann’s and Burchell’s zebra, hartebeest, leopard, spotted and brown hyena, bat-eared fox and cheetah. And, of course, that quintessential desert animal: the gemsbok, which, if caught at the right moment, makes the perfect photo – its stark horns and geometric patterns are striking elements against a palette of ochre and terracotta.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you deserts are barren and boring. More fascinating than birds and mammals, for me, were the reserve’s flora and micro fauna. Instead of merely ticking off animals on our list, we stopped on game drives to discover the desert by foot. We ate tsamma melons, which littered the ground after abundant rains earlier in the year (they taste like watery cucumber), tried to photograph skittish lizards and snakes as they dashed for cover, followed determined tok-tokkie beetles tap-dancing across hot dunes, and gathered iron pigments with a magnet (the Namib is a red desert because of the iron in the sand).
The best way to explore this wilderness and understand its allure, which goes beyond spectacular scenery, is by taking a slackpacking hike with Tok Tokkie Trails. We learned about fascinating desert adaptations as we walked over dunes and through grassy plains, feasted on delicious meals prepared by a chef in a semi-permanent camp and slept in hot-water-bottle-warmed bed rolls.
After a hearty cooked breakfast one morning on the hike, still feeling the magic of sleeping under a sky crisscrossed with shooting stars, we walked a couple of metres to the nearest dune to ‘read the morning news’ as our guide, Mike Godfrey, put it. Overnight the desert’s nocturnal inhabitants had scuttled an intricate pattern on the sand and, as he explained which tracks came from what creature, I realised we were deciphering the language of the desert, one which has barely changed over millions of years.
The Namib Desert’s sand is traced back to the Drakensberg and other mountain ranges in South Africa and Botswana. Millions of years of erosion resulted in sand being washed down the Orange River and ending up on the shore of Namibia, transported by wave energy and wind.
What was once impenetrable rock is now a living sand sea of creatures and plants, all evolved to survive in the harsh climate of sun, wind and heat. In the NamibRand, every grain of sand has a story and taking the time to learn this is part of the beauty of this magical place.
The mystery of desert fairy circles
Along the edges of the Namib Desert are thousands of small circles, dotted like lunar pockmarks on the ground, in which nothing grows. Various theories have been formed by scientists and researchers trying to explain their existence: that they’re a result of fungi which poison the soil, gas released from Earth’s core or termites. However, no-one knows for certain. You can adopt one of these mysterious fairy circles for R500 – a disk will be placed in your circle and you’ll get the GPS co-ordinates. The money goes towards the NamibRand Conservation Foundation. Tel +264-61-224-882 or email email@example.com.
Preserving the sky
NamibRand Nature Reserve was recently named an International Dark-Sky Reserve, which means it’s one of the world’s least light-polluted areas. The reserve’s nearest neighbouring communities are small and about 60 kilometres away, making NamibRand’s sky one of the darkest measured by the International Dark-Sky Association.
From Cape Town, take the N7 north to Vioolsdrif Border Post. Take the scenic route (suitable for two-wheel drives) on the D212 and C13 up to Aus, and then the C14 and D707, to join up with the D826.
From Johannesburg, take the N14 and then the N10 to Nakop Border Post. Take the B3 and C16 to Keetmanshoop and then the B4 to Goageb. Turn onto the C14 and then onto the D407 to the D826.
There is a landing strip at Wolwedans. Flights from Windhoek’s Eros Airport can be booked through Wolwedans for R3 245 a person one way. Tel +264-61-230-616, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.wolwedans.com.
There are only a few places to stay in the reserve, but they cater for a range of budgets.
In the south of the reserve, NamibRand Family Hideout offers a private campsite and a self-catering house – perfect for a holiday with a large family or group of friends. The three-bedroom, fully equipped farmhouse sleeps 10 and offers a solar hot-water system, gas stove, fridge and freezer and braai facilities. The campsite, a kilometre from the farmhouse, can take two vehicles and up to eight people. There’s an ablution block, braai area (bring your own wood) and solar lighting. Activities include duneboarding (board hire is R138 a stay), 4x4ing on demarcated routes (self-drive permits are R190 a vehicle and must be purchased in advance, or take a guided drive at R172 a person), stargazing, two-hour hikes (R69 an hour for a guide), birdwatching and game viewing. There are waterholes at the farmhouse and the campsite. The house costs from R1 085 a day for up to four people and R1 360 a night for five to 10 people (bedding and towels cost R155 a person a stay and park fees are R281 a group a night). The campsite is R115 a night and R121 a person a night (children are half price), with park fees at R155 a group a night. Tel +264-61-226-803, email email@example.com, www.hideout.iway.na.
Tok Tokkie Walking Trails offers two-night, three-day hikes in the reserve. You walk in a small group with a guide and your bags are transported. The pace of the trail is leisurely and suitable for people aged eight and above with a reasonable fitness level. Daily distances don’t exceed 10 kilometres. All sleeping equipment, linen and towels are provided and meals are prepared at the camps. Rates for SADC residents start at R2 772 a person (if you book between two and four weeks in advance during low season – all months except July, August and September). Rates for children under 12 start at R1 386 a person. Tel +264-61-264-521, email toktokkie@toktokkietrails. com, www.toktokkietrails.com.
Five properties make up the Wolwedans Collection in the NamibRand: Dunes Camp, Dunes Lodge, Boulders Camp, Private Camp and the Mountain View Suite. While Wolwedans is a pricier option, rates include almost everything and accommodation is pretty spectacular: it’s worth splashing out.
Positioned on the edge of a 250-metre high dune, Dunes Camp sleeps a maximum of 12 people in tents on wooden platforms, with a deck for sleepouts on warmer nights, a main tent with a lounge, dining area and an open-plan kitchen. Dunes Lodge, with fantastic views from the top of a dune plateau, is a mix between a tented camp and permanent building. Each of the nine chalets has a private veranda looking out onto enormous desert landscapes. There are two lounges, sundowner decks, a fireplace, a library, wine cellar, two dining rooms and a swimming pool. In the far south of the reserve, Boulders Camp offers four tented bedrooms, a dining and lounge tent, breakfast deck and open fireplace, and a spectacular sundowner spot: the top of a rock plateau close to camp. The Private Camp caters only for an exclusive group of up to four people in two en suite bedrooms. An open-plan living area consists of decks, a lounge, study, dining area and kitchen. The Mountain View Suite is walking distance from Dunes Lodge, and offers exclusive accommodation with a bed, lounge and dining room on a big deck with panoramic views for two people, a personal chef and private guide. Rates for Dunes Camp start at R3 385 a person a night, Dunes Lodge R4 285 a person a night, Boulders Camp R4 985 a person a night, Private Camp R3 200 a person a night (for a group of four) and Mountain View Suite R5 085 a person a night. All rates are full board, inclusive of selected drinks and activities (excluding hot-air ballooning and scenic flights). SADC residents qualify for a 66 per cent discount in the low season, from 15 January to 15 March and 15 May to 15 July 2013. Tel + 264-61-230-616, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.wolwedans.com.
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Tags: Dead Vlei, International Dark-Sky Reserve, Namib Sky Balloon Safaris, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia, NamibRand Family Hideout, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Nature Wings, Sossusvlei, Tok Tokkie Walking Trails, Wolwedans Collection