Namibia is a country for the wide angle. The far horizons. The distant, sparse beauty of line, shadows and colours in an everchanging landscape. Rièth van Schalkwyk travelled northwest to Damaraland, to the 400 km2 Etendeka Concession in the Omatendeka and Anabeb Communal Conservancies to walk with Dennis Liebenberg through the untouched landscape on the foothills of the Grootberg Mountain massif.
We like to say that in this desert land the journey is the destination. One should never take one’s eyes off the view regardless of which direction you face. And always look down and close-up. Never expect to arrive at your destination in order to see and experience the magic. At the end of the road there will always be comfort from heat and thirst, but getting there is actually where the magic lies.
At the end of each day, a sunset will mark that magic regardless of where your journey ends. We call this time the magic hour. Time to process the impressions and experiences of the journey. To eventually put away the camera and let the mind travel back in time. Watch the stars emerge one by one until it is completely dark and an enchanting celestial wonderland covers the expanse of the sky.
The 2018 rainy season started late. Almost too late for some regions, but perfectly timed for where we are heading. During a drought, the earth in this part of Damaraland is covered in ochre-coloured stones, with the pale grey-green of thousands of milk bushes dotting the landscape. But after exceptional earlier rains, the stones have disappeared under the cover of soft yellow-gold grass in some valleys and plains, adding another hue to the soft pastels of blue, purple and, later in the afternoon, pink mountains.
Our journey starts with a difference. The sense of adventure begins when we park in a car park at Palmwag, 25 km from our destination. We put on hats and scarves and get on the back seat of a game viewer, which in itself spells anticipation. We are wearing hiking boots, are handed a water bottle covered in canvas with a shoulder strap and get our cameras and binoculars out.
It is quite an unusual experience for seasoned explorers like us not to be in total control of the itinerary and the route. All we know this time is that we are going to walk for three days from one hiking cabin to the next along a circular route, past different geological formations and vegetation zones, cross dry riverbeds and hopefully streams fed by permanent fountains. It is winter, but sunny as expected. A week earlier we were in this same area, hosting the RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos. Today I hope that it will be easier to navigate an animal path on foot rather than on a mountain bike. Around us in all directions are the flat tops of the Grootberg Mountain massif. Apart from the fact that the sun comes up in the east and sets a little north of west, I am totally lost. All the mountains around me look like Grootberg. Same height, same shape, same colour.
Dennis knows the land like the palm of his hand and must have explained and named every tree and plant, rock formation and insect, animal track and bird thousands of times. And still finds pleasure in re-living the experience with us. With a walking stick in hand, chosen from the well-worn selection accumulated over many years, we set off. It has been years since I have climbed the Brandberg or braved the Fish River Canyon. I have to trust that my “level of relative fitness” will be enough for hiking five hours a day. After the first 100 metres I realise that at the pace we are covering ground, it may take ten hours to reach the hiking cabin, but with little physical exhaustion on our side. We just go too slowly. All our questions, trying to identify birds and stopping for photographs of the smallest flowers and the most incredible stones and textures would have driven seasoned hikers crazy. Fortunately Dennis is a patient educator and not at all fazed by explaining or naming the same thing over and over.
At this point in the story I realise that it is impossible to describe how magical the experience at Etendeka is. There is something exceptional about being unhurried, and literally close to the earth; to be able to bend down and photograph the minutest little fower. How on earth do they survive here? To look up and see the eagles soar or look down a gorge and see their backs. Hear a baboon somewhere on the cliffs, or the scurrying of the mountain zebra, blending so well that you notice them with your ears first. So quiet that it is possible to identify a bird sound and hear it again, and again until you remember which bird it belongs to. Walking up and then around a mountain. The spectacular views never cease. Looking up from the lines and textures of a stone or a fower or the bark of a tree, something else comes in focus or the sun lights up a tree in a cliff. One forgets to hike.
At this pace, we will be lucky to be at the hiking cabins in time to watch the sunset.
After many travels through this part of the country, I would never have believed that one could spend days exploring so much – on foot. One expects to see birds, or the usual antelope, even elephant or a black rhino, because you know they are there. But to get so close to hundred-year-old mopane or leadwood trees, gnarled and twisted by time and drought, walk down mountains, over a plateau sprinkled with thousands of crystals, through rocky valleys and stare down cliffs in awe, is truly wonderful. To notice a cloud of dust and then, when the dust settles, realise that elephants are dusting themselves. They come to drink from a natural spring. Probably following ancient paths to this oasis.
To enjoy all this in the same place, undisturbed by modern man, where hunter-gatherers survived hundreds of years before, is a truly humbling experience and undeserved privilege.
Except we don’t have to provide for our dinner with bow and arrow.
It is all there. Campfire burning. Ice-cold beer. Chairs arranged in a semi-circle to face the spectacular view of the sunset over a gorge. Sizzling food on the coals. Warm water in the bucket showers under the stars. Comfortable bedroll on a stretcher in the most brilliantly designed sky tent on stilts, hanging against a cliff – our suite for the night, without a roof to block the stars. And the scraping noise under the tent in the middle of the night? A leopard? A porcupine? A mouse? I did recognise the sound of the owl. And saw the morning star when the hushed noises from the camp kitchen confirmed that it was time to get up. Tea was ready.
28 YEARS OF DEDICATION
When Dennis Liebenberg took over the Etendeka Concession 28 years ago, the now celebrated Communal Conservancy programme CBNRM had not been in operation and there was little experience of joint ventures, both on the side of the concession holder and the community. Dennis created a tourism business that would benefit the community, provide jobs and training, but most precious of all, protect the land and the delicate balance which is necessary to save animal and plant species.
A few years ago the Etendeka Mountain Camp received a face-lift when artist/builder Colin Knott used his signature mix of stone, wood, wire and metal to create a new look and upgraded some parts of the structures, without losing the unpretentious authentic character of a traditional safari camp.
Colin also designed and built the new hiking sky tents. With these new facilities, twice the number of guests can enjoy Etendeka without putting any more strain on the environment or affect the enjoyment of visitors who expect to be lost in the wilderness for a few days. It will provide extra income for the two Conservancies who made the investment.
Just when you think you know at least the obvious trees and shrubs in your country as a layman who loves common names, a surprise of note comes your way. I would have bet my last penny that the tree pictured on the right is a Commiphora glausescens (Bloublaarkanniedood/Blue-leaved corkwood), one of at least 65 species I thought I could identify. One day on foot in the Etendeka Mountains, and I was proven wrong. It is, in fact, a Euphorbia guerichiana. Just for interest’s sake, and for readers who are also just starting to identify trees and trying to remember scientific names, the picture on the left is the Euphorbia virosa. See the confusion? Shouldn’t they at least look slightly alike? The moral of the story is to never trust your eyes. In this case, break a twig and make sure what comes out is sticky milky latex. Then it is the Euphorbia. If not, still don’t trust your eyes. And never volunteer one of the names you know.
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Kanaan N/a'an ku sê Desert Retreat, Elzanne Erasmus