Into the Namib
Although small compared to the Sahara, the Namib Desert occupies a vast coastal region of southwest Africa, stretching roughly 1,200 miles along the Atlantic from the Carunjamba River in Angola to the Olifantes River in South Africa. Along the way it reaches inland some 150 miles and contains an impressive diversity of landscape, including stark mountain massifs, coastal salt pans, gravel plains, and, most of all, interminable sand dunes.
Mean annual rainfall tallies just under an inch, and it averages even lessabout half thatat the desert's shore, a barren strip of fog-sacked dunes most commonly known as the Skeleton Coast. During Africa's colonial period expeditions from Europe headed for the Cape and beyond frequently met disaster in the rough Atlantic seas, and when crew washed ashore they had no hope of survival. Before long, a string of shipwrecks and unfortunate sailors littered the coast, earning the region its macabre nickname and testifying to its brutal character.
As for our own embarkation point to the region, Michaelwith whom I was traveling through southern Africaand I had chosen the Mwisho camp, a small enclave on the privately held Namib Rand Nature Reserve. Specializing in hot air balloon trips over the dunes, the camp sits some 160 miles from the closest tarred highway and the unposted roads leading the rest of the way to it vary from adequate dirt and gravel to extremely suspect skree and sand.
Several hours after sundown we finally arrived at the Mwisho camp without a reservation, which probably best explains why the barrel-chested man who walked out to greet us wore a mixed expression of bewilderment and perturbance.
"Can I help you?" came his greeting in a thick European accent.
"I sure hope so. Do you have any accommodation available?" I asked.
"Well . . ." with a long pause, "It's . . ." Another long pause.
"Yes, I won't turn you back at this hour," he said, scratching his head. "We normally run balloon trips here, but it's no problem for just accommodation. It's a little late for dinner though. Maybe we can fix up a little something. My name's Phillipe."
We followed Phillipe, a Belgian born and raised in Zaire, into the main house and sat down at the dinner table along with his wife, Marie, and the French couple staying at the camp. After an excellent meal and a few beers, our host, noting that tomorrow's balloon flight had a predawn departure, volunteered to escort us to the platformed A-framed tents where we would spend the night. While an escort seemed superfluous for such a short walk, Phillipe's presence definitely lent a measure of reassurance when suddenly some twenty sets of glowing eyes cut through the pitch-black desert.
"Don't worry. It's just kudu. Not hyena. Good night."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication