Text and photos by ©Sharri Whiting De Masi – All photographs copyright of the author
Re-printed with permission of the author
There should probably be an organisation for people like me: NAA, Namibia Addicts Anonymous. We have this pressing need, which can only be fulfilled in Namibia; it’s a renewal of spirit that comes from standing on an endless empty Atlantic beach or a vast savannah with views to the end of the world, or in a place where humans are outnumbered by wildlife. The world’s big cities are cacophonous places, with too many blings and blongs from digital demands, too much traffic, too little birdsong, and too few chances to listen to the breeze blowing through the leaves.
Now the trend is to travel to spots where one can choose to be inaccessible, rather than ‘always on’. This is a far cry from just a few years ago, when if you didn’t have WiFi or cell coverage on your vacation, you wouldn’t leave home (or the office). Now people crave the sound of the waves and the wind, even the silence, and they want to go where they can be undisturbed. In most of Namibia today, there are cellphones and computers, even in some remote areas. But there are also those places where the only communication possible is between humans and Mother Nature, spots we Namibia addicts have savoured all along.
It was an April day and my first impression of the environment was an overwhelming sense of browns: beige, tan, sepia, sand, biscuit, taupe, buff. The very next year, at the very same time, it was different shades of verdure: sage, lime, grass, forest green, hunters’ olive. I had discovered Namibia’s autumn, that marvellously tricky season that has become my favourite time to travel through the country.
Who knows, besides the locals, that one autumn might be totally different to the previous one, that a late rainy season could turn even the most arid desert terrain into a vibrant garden, or that a dry year might reveal hidden geological formations and sculptured landscapes, not to mention animals that were hiding in the foliage the year before?
With regard to Namibia, it’s impossible to ever say, even once, “been there, done that”, because, although everything may seem to stay the same, it absolutely does not.
In Namibia’s north-west – Damaraland, Kaokoland and environs – the changes in seasons can be amazing. Once we arrived at Grootberg to find the spectacular view from the escarpment a vivid green; verdant lace covering the massive stones beneath. At Etendeka, silvery grass furred the fabled red rocks. At Rhino Camp near Palmwag, the normally dry Uniab River was rushing and tumbling towards the distant sea, reflecting blue sky and cream-puff clouds.
Dramatic in sun and shadow
At Damaraland Camp, in a dry year, we explored the baked desert, where every rock shielded something interesting, insect or plant, in dramatic shadow. At Serra Cafema, our tented chalet overlooked the slow-moving Kunene River, but the desert was dry as a bone and the dunes overlooked vast empty landscapes. It was here, on quad-bikes, that we crested a sand mountain and looked down into the Hartmann Valley. Far below, we saw six tiny dots in the desert – down we went to investigate and unexpectedly found four friends who had camped in this remotest of spots the night before, in their two 4x4s.
In southern Namibia, the autumn can be even more dramatic: the Fish River Canyon in a dry year is all rock and sky, shadows and angles. But, suppose there had been a long, rainy season that year; then we would arrive at the canyon to find a velvet surface of plants and lichens and grasses, a vista of greens as far as the eye can see.
NamibRand, that endlessly fascinating nature reserve, is compelling in a dry year, when distant mountains change colour with each passing hour and the silhouette of a gemsbok against the dune can seem a mirage. In a wet year, NamibRand becomes such a shamrock green that it appears to be on a completely different, equally spectacular, planet.
A meringue of sand hills
Going to Sossusvlei, amidst the vast sand-dune ocean of Namibia’s south, is a surreal experience under any circumstances. Climb to the top of a high dune there, especially at sunrise or sunset, and the meringue of sand hills lying around you is mind-boggling. Red, pink, or creamy, they are like the Sirens, drawing you ever deeper into the vastness. We know someone who once walked across the empty dunes to the sea, up and down the freshly wind-swept slipfaces for days until she reached the ocean. This is the stuff of fairy tales! When it rains at Sossusvlei it is even more extraordinary – almost within minutes lilies (yes, lilies) spring up to cover the desert floor with a quilt of white and green. This is not The Lord of the Rings; this is Namibia.
In the Caprivi, the environment is always green: the rivers with their abundance of hippos, crocs and birds; the canopy of trees. Yet, even here autumn can be different. Once when the water was low, the staff at Susuwe offered us a pre-lunch cruise to see the hippos. We turned off into a small tributary of the river, where a temporary island had emerged. There, before us on the tiny island, was a surprise: a dining room had been set up there, the table decorated with a pergola of leaves and flowers. The wine was chilled and the amazing staff had prepared a delicious lunch. It was an unforgettable experience; the next autumn, high water submerged the ephemeral island.
And there’s adventure too!
Admittedly, there can also be some rather adrenalin-producing experiences in Namibia during autumn. Once we drove an entire day with friends across grassy plains and through rough mountain passes, planning to cross a remote dry riverbed and end up near where we were going to spend the night. The weather was spectacular and the rainy season had brought grand success to the farmers, although it wasn’t raining now.
We crossed Divorce Pass without breaking an axle and stopped at the edge of the dry Ugab River. Here we climbed out and walked across, testing the sand, passing some disquietingly fresh big-cat tracks along the way. No apparent problem; the surface was solid. Our friend drove onto the sand with the 4×4 and suddenly, with a loud crunch, the vehicle broke through the dry crust into sucking mud. We managed to dig the truck out, our hearts pounding, knowing there were lions that might appear any second. Then we turned around, and retraced our route, up and over Divorce Pass again, across grass-covered rocks, until hours later we arrived where we had started that morning. This is also autumn in Namibia, a time when extra water requires extra care.
This article appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of Travel News Namibia.
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