The magic of the desert
Matt Phillips takes to the skies for a flight-based safari along the Skeleton Coast and is bewitched by this incredible region.

 

This take off will be a bit bumpy,” said André, in a deadpan tone over the crackly headset, “but it will be one of those bumps that gets us airborne.” With the wind whirling around the cabin, I looked out of the open window to see the seashell-strewn strip of undulating sand that was to be our runway. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Soon the engine was roaring and the ground beneath was rumbling by in a blur.


Bump.


“I told you so.”


I couldn’t help but smile.


My pilot and guide André is one of Namibia’s most famous sons who is following in his father’s footsteps. His dad, Louw Schoemann, was a lawyer who became a pioneer of eco-tourism in the early 1970s, decades before it came into vogue. His passion for the Skeleton Coast was overwhelming, and he was the leading force behind it being proclaimed a National Park in 1971. So it was with utter excitement and anticipation that I greeted André at the Wolwedans airstrip and climbed into the Cessna.


Soon it wasn’t long before Sossusvlei was staring me in the face. With my hand on the window and my mouth open wide, we circled several mountains of sand before I noticed our landing gear was down. As excited as I was confused, André dropped the plane into the depths of the dunes, before setting it down on a dry lakebed.


As we walked towards one of the dunes, André pointed out some mafic stones that had been carried here by Bushmen in the past. He explained how the worn shapes were the result of grinding materials over long periods.


The next leg of our journey took us straight to the coast, where we hugged the shoreline only a few hundred feet above the crashing waves. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first shipwreck, the 310-ft Eduard Bohlen. Amazingly, this huge ship now sits hundreds of metres inland, surrounded by a sea of sand. André also pointed out some other relics, like the early diamond and guano operations in Moeb Bay. It was there that we circled and set down along the beach to explore in more detail. Besides the powdered, rusty remnants of some rail lines and equipment, there were two intriguing, almost petrified, wooden-spoked trucks and two late 19th-century surfboats from West Africa (brought here for the guano operations). The shore was also strewn with copious skeletal remains from numerous species, ranging from humpback whales to black-backed jackals. We learned that animals, such as hyena, survive in these arid conditions by licking dew off the rocks at night. Someone camping in this area once woke to hear a hyena licking the moisture off his tent. Now there’s a thought to keep you awake at night.


After refuelling in Swakopmund we continued north up the coast. As we flirted with the desert coastline – receiving an eyeful, I might add – I asked André about the noise the dunes make in this area when walked on. I’d experienced it here on a previous visit, and all I could liken the rumble to was World War II bombers. He chuckled, gave me a brief explanation about the sand’s large, even grain size and told me that I’d enjoy Terrace Bay the following day.


As we moved inland we crossed over smooth pinkish sands that were interrupted only by occasional black igneous dykes, poking through the surface like bony spines, and isolated vestiges of equipment from abandoned diamond operations. The dunes eventually gave way to the Ugab formations, comprised of the striking Damara Sequence, a stratigraphic column dating back almost a billion years. Its mica and graphitic schists and quartzite beds lay, concertinaed, below us, evidence of the inconceivable pressures exerted on these rocks millions of years ago.


After our enjoyable airborne geology lesson, André brought the plane down into one of the narrow gullies, from where we set out on foot to explore the flora of this folded phenomenon. The flowering Hoodia macrantha, a cactus-looking plant, was used as a diet suppressant by nomads in the region. The commiphoras had a unique use for the Himba as well: its aromatic resins were used to mask their natural odours. Wildlife in this incredibly arid environment also make use of the few plants to be found. The succulent dollar bush, or Zygophyllum stapfii, contains enough moisture in its leaves to quench the thirst of animals in the area, like oryx and mountain zebra. Reportedly, they also hold enough fluids to fill a 4WD’s radiator in times of emergency! One plant that truly caught my eye was the alien-looking Welwitschia mirabilis – known as a living fossil. Some are believed to be 3000 years old. We also learned how some vegetation emits gases while being eaten that increase the tannin in adjacent leaves, making them less palatable. This defensive trait forces animals to move on before they’ve destroyed the entire plant. I couldn’t tell what I was more surprised about: the ingenuity of nature or my captivation by the subject. André had me spellbound.


He continued his magic act that evening when he pulled out the telescope at Kuidas Camp in the Huab River Valley. I’d fallen for Namibia’s night sky years ago, but this was insane. We all lost ourselves in the heavens, whether it was the young open cluster of Trapezium within the Orion Nebula, the two Magellanic Clouds, globular glusters or Betelgeuse, the mighty red supergiant star. While the whirring telescope automatically gyrated to our next galaxy, André fed our heads with fascinating facts. It was the most amazing experience I’d ever had looking up.


We spent the next morning hiking with our eyes down, observing ancient bushmen rock carvings and more fauna unique to the region. We heard of windblown grass seeds that actually screw themselves into the ground when moistened by the morning mists. Hard to believe, that is until André licked one and it started rotating in his hand. Amazing. The rest of the morning was spent on a drive through the red and purple rock formations of the Karoo Sequence.


With the morning fog hopefully lifted from the coast, we took to the skies again. After observing some frolicking seals and plenty of stupendous surf, we landed at Terrace Bay. Soon I was riding shotgun on the rooftop seat of the Land Rover as we ventured up into the towering sands. The golden dunes stretched for miles and were painted with rhythmic ripples of purple which, upon closer observation later were brilliant garnet grains. After rising from our prone positions with the magnifying glass, we quickly dirtied ourselves again by jointly sliding down a dune. The noise and vibrations rising from the sand were overwhelming, much more powerful than I’d experienced in the dunes near Swakopmund previously. But they could be louder still. Down the 38-degree slope went the Land Rover, complete with three joyous, albeit white-knuckled, passengers and one smiling driver.


Before landing at our final camp, we skimmed across the mighty white pan and over the forested southern sections of the park, managing four black rhino sightings along the way. Over dinner  we met André’s wife, Juanita, and his four children. The eldest, Kyle, almost 18, is eager to earn his pilot’s licence. Hearing the excitement in his voice when he speaks of the bush and his country, I have a strong feeling he will lead the third generation of Schoemans to treat safari goers to the trip of a lifetime along the Skeleton Coast.

 

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