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Skeleton Coast safari: a life-affirming desert adventure in Namibia

  • July 07, 2022

Unlike at other safari lodges, game drives are not the primary draw here. Although you will see wildlife – my most spectacular sighting came early in the morning, as an oryx strolled along the ridge of a dune, the sun rising gloriously behind it – the real attraction is the desert itself. You can drift above it in a hot-air balloon, blast through it on quad bikes or wander through it on foot. On the evening of our visit to Sossusvlei, we opted to walk, soaking in the silence of the desert, and getting closer to some of its smaller inhabitants.

Holden Frith

The antlion must be one of the strangest. Spending most of its life in a bug-like larval stage, it builds a steep-sided sand trap and waits for ants to fall in. Since any odour would betray it to potential prey, it has evolved a digestive tract with no outlet. Instead of excreting waste, this fastidious little creature stores it all inside its body – until, after several years, it is ready for two transformations. First it spins all that waste into a silk cocoon, then metamorphoses into something like a dragonfly, a winged state in which it spends just a fleeting few weeks before death.

An odd life, certainly, but who are we to judge? As evening fell and we stood, alone in so much glorious space, our own ways of living – traffic jams, social media, Amazon deliveries – all seemed just as alien. The sun lit the sky aflame and then, as it slipped below the horizon, left behind a calming purple glow.

What separates Sossusvlei and the Namib from other great spectacles – the Grand Canyon, for example, or Victoria Falls – is that those experiences are inevitably shared with busloads of fellow tourists, chattering away and posing for photos. In Namibia, it’s often just you and the desolate beauty of the desert.

Holden Frith

Our next destination was even more remote. Getting there required two flights, the second in a six-seater Cessna, and then an hour in a 4×4. “Hold on!” our guide shouted from time to time, as we slithered down a sandbank or bounced through a field of boulders. Eventually we arrived at Wilderness Serra Cafema, in what might be Africa’s most surreal location. It looks, in fact, like three unrelated landscapes stitched together: to the south, the golden glow of yet more sand dunes, to the north a dark, angular range of mountains, and in between a narrow strip of green – a tree-lined river bank that wouldn’t look out of place in Oxfordshire.

Holden Frith

But this isn’t the Cherwell or the Thames. It marks the border between Namibia and Angola, and as you sit on the lodge’s wooden decking, enjoying your lunch, you may well see crocodiles floating downstream. If the water conditions allow, you will see them from closer quarters too, basking on a sand bank as you cruise past in a powerboat, or lurking below the surface with only their eyes above the water. There are baboons too, clambering from rock to rock, and countless birds swooping and dipping overhead. Some of them are found only along the Kunene river, with its unique combination of desert and wetland.

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