Inimitable Namibia by Canadian travel writer Johanna Read first appeared in S.E.E. AFRICA magazine in 2017.
I dig my toes deeper into the sand. I’m trying to both warm them and make better progress climbing up this enormous dune. With every step forward it seems like I slide half a step back. This is going slow, but I can tell it will be worth it.
It’s just before sunrise. I’m attempting to climb Dune 45 in Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft National Park, here on holiday with my mum. It is hard to believe that this mountain of sand exists, that it is such a beautiful orange colour, and that I’m allowed to climb it to watch the sun pop over the horizon. But I am learning that almost everything in Namibia is unique and like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Take the desert elephant as an example. My Naturalist Guide, Ultimate Safari’s Perez Kamukuenjandge, explains that they’ve adapted perfectly to Namibia’s dry conditions. Their bodies are smaller, their legs are longer, their feet are more splayed, and they live in smaller family groups.
While Savannah elephants will happily tear a tasty tree to pieces, desert elephants seem to understand that if they uproot a plant, they’ll never eat from it again. I’m enthralled watching a family take delicate bites as they parade through a small grove of mopane.
Thanks to Namibia’s harsh conditions, everything, including safaris, is different than in other parts of the continent. It’s easy to spot animals as they congregate at the rare water holes, especially in winter. There’s little need to drive around for hours in search of wandering animals; guides know exactly where they’ll be.
In Etosha National Park we watch oryx battle for dominance in front of an audience of springbok tiptoeing in ankle-deep water. Savannah elephants turn themselves into ghosts by spraying themselves first with water and then with pale dust. Zebras stand nearby, dazzling us with their stripes.
When the animals aren’t around, Perez teaches us how to read the morning news. We examine the footprints and scat left in the sand, determining who walked by while we slept in lodges built to disrupt this fragile landscape as little as possible. While I’m quite proud of my new skill judging the number of hours since the elephant dung was deposited, I’m not ready to be an elephant tracker yet.
Namibia’s uniqueness constantly amazes. We see the skeletons of ships off the coast of the same name, and, further inland, the skeletons of camelthorn trees posing photogenically on the salt flats of Deadvlei next to world’s the largest sand dunes.
At Okonjima Nature Reserve, I have the thrill of a lifetime. I sit on the sand just a few meters from three orphaned cheetah brothers, accompanying the Africat Foundation ranger as he checks to see if the rescued animals are learning to thrive on their own. I understand the adrenaline fear of being prey when one cheetah, hearing a noise, transforms from resting to alert in an instant. His eyes pierce mine. I hope he doesn’t want to test his hunting skills on me.
My most exceptional experience in Namibia is visiting a community of Himba people, one of the few remaining semi-nomadic peoples of the world. Usually, I am very wary of this type of experience. The western tourist, camera in hand, go to the village and, despite good intentions, the visit ends up feeling exploitative.
But Perez explains how these visits are different. He assures me that this particular community receives groups of just two to four tourists and only very rarely and that he brings essential supplies with him that they would otherwise need to walk kilometers to find. He tells me that the people are not obligated in any way to be there or interact with us. He’s not even sure if they’ve moved on from where he last saw them. He’s also careful to explain Himba etiquette to us, so I’m relieved my chances of inadvertently offending anyone are slim.
After we’ve greeted the chief, we’re welcomed into the community. Some people ignore us, some come to chat, with Perez translating. It feels natural. Many of the Himba women and children are as curious about my mum and me as we are about them, and our shyness dissipates.
One woman asks if I’ll take a picture of her and her baby. While she poses seriously for the photo, her smile is wide when she sees the image, and she asks for another with her husband. Soon I have many requests, and almost everyone comes to admire themselves and their neighbours on screen. There’s no need for a translator for communication to work between us.
Like climbing the sand dune, Namibia makes you slow down to enjoy its uniqueness. A visit here is like nowhere else in the world, and the rewards are as immense as the sand dunes.
Words and images by Johanna Read for Afro Tourism. Johanna is a Canadian freelance travel writer/photographer who contributes to a variety of Canadian and international publications. Links to her social media and all her travel stories are at www.TravelEater.net.
Leave a Reply