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Namibia's Harsh Reality

…So said a young Namibian guide I met shortly after I landed in the country. Perhaps he sensed that I was still in the first stage of crying time. He needn't have worried. True, I hadn't gotten it yet, but I knew it was there to be gotten.

A man who leads safaris had told me about Namibia a few years earlier. I'd traveled with him through such famously stunning places as the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Masai Mara. But, he said, "Namibia's Skeleton Coast is the most beautiful place in Africa." I pestered him to elaborate: What's it like to be there?What do you do? The clipped testimony of the true believer was all he would give me: "Just go."

So at last I went, and he was right.

Namibia does not seduce with the easy come-ons of neighbors like cosmopolitan South Africa, or Botswana with its profusion of wildlife. Stoic and aloof, virtually empty, Namibia is just there. But pilgrims are rewarded with rare opportunities that belong to the realm of the abstract, the surreal, the mystical if you're so inclined. Namibia poses big questions, but demands no answers. Zen Africa.

Twice the size of California, dominated by thousands of square miles of sand and rock that shifts between gorgeous and grotesque, Namibia has a landscape that is always extreme: "the land God made in anger," it's been called. When you hopscotch the country in a six-seater Cessna 210, you become mesmerized by the textures of earth stripped bare. After mere minutes aloft you find yourself in a dream state, soaring in an astral projection over a vaguely familiar planet that strains comprehension. There aren't many humans in the Namib Desert, and the ones you do meet (tourists, mostly) seem perpetually awestruck—a condition they only allude to (with perhaps a hushed "Oh my God"), as if there's a conspiracy of silence. Maybe that's because awe is a personal thing, better left unspoken: my reverie is different from your rapture.

Due to its very remoteness and the severity of its climate, the Namib has been able to evolve and preserve itself in a pristine state for 80 million years, but it's a fragile environment; a simple set of tire tracks can scar the emptiness for decades. While the desert may be one of the world's most ancient, the nation as such came into being only in 1990, after South Africa relinquished its claim to the former South-West Africa. Despite the many affinities that flow from a shared history, the two countries are at opposite ends of the African travel spectrum: South Africa is for beginners, Namibia for Africa junkies who crave a different kick. (It's also for Germans, who colonized it a century ago and still regard it as their place in the sun.)

This is a country that works. Windhoek is the spiffiest capital in Africa, by far. And the Skeleton Coast Safari that my guide friend recommended—which I saved for the finale of my trip—is surely one of Africa's great excursions. (At more than $600 per person per night, it's also one of the most expensive—the ultimate example of Namibia's newfound reliance on high-end ecotourism as a tool of sustainable development.) Meanwhile, a circuit of stylish lodges is just now taking shape, each place more ambitious than the last. This former terra incognita has suddenly become more welcoming to visitors curious about what lies that next step beyond.

I'm a thousand feet in the air. Below me salmon-colored dunes swell and crash against gnarly rock knuckles that burst from beneath the earth's surface, still-life explosions that happened aeons ago. Dry rivers flow from dead mountains and buzz-saw through chasms where the earth falls away another thousand feet, dropping to a slash of green riverine vegetation that is mute affirmation of the life force in the midst of hellish desolation, and then—

"God! I hate landing at places like this!"

Nothing snaps you out of a perfectly fine astral projection like the pilot slamming the steering column and shouting, "God! I hate landing at places like this!" Our destination isn't even on our 1994 map; she's navigating with outdated coordinates; and the landing strip is just two traces on the blond desert floor far below us…two invisible traces.

She banks hard this way and that, becoming more exasperated with each futile approach, while my stomach rises to my chest cavity. It's early in the trip—I haven't gotten used to the little planes yet, and we're sideways up here. Just as my guts are tickling my tonsils, the pilot locates the landing strip and sets us down with a big "Whew!"

A wiry, thirtyish South African named Marc Dürr emerges from a bright red Land Cruiser and says, "The great thing about this place is that if you can't find the strip you just land anywhere. You don't have to worry about hitting power lines or something." He has a point. We're 80 miles from the nearest town, on the fringe of the Namib-Naukluft, one of the largest parks in Africa, most of it virtually impassable desert. We're also within the boundaries of the 370,000-acre NamibRand Nature Reserve, a conservation project that depends on low-impact tourism. We are surrounded by very much of nothing—or so it seems.

Within a few moments, however, I notice that there are actually tufts of grass growing in the sand, as well as springbok and oryx grazing at a wary distance. The desert, which looks like a dead zone from the air, has already begun to come alive for me. It will continue to do so throughout the next 20-odd hours, which I'll spend camping with Dürr and his wife, Elinor, sleeping under the stars atop my own little sand dune.

After tea in the homey, no-frills guest ranch that's the base of the Dürrs' mom-and-pop operation, Tok Tokkie Trails, we drive into the dunes, then abandon the vehicle and walk. No sooner have I arrived in the Namibia of the picture books than I find myself taking pictures, feverishly, like a greedy man collecting cash and jewels—mine! all mine!—even though I know the photos will never capture the feeling of being here. The spooky black mountain looming in the distance (click); that twisty dead tree silhouetted against the dune (click); a sketch drawn by windblown grass in the riffled surface of the sand (click). I lie down to shoot another landscape, and the sand is so warm and soothing that I just want to nestle there for a long while. This forbidding world seems like a soft, pure place now, and I'm levitating again, this time without a plane.

Elinor, who has lived out here for a few years, stands in a valley and wonders aloud what it is that's so satisfying about rock mountains that lack the usual alpine signifiers—snowcaps, waterfalls, trees. "Not only are they very beautiful, but I find them very restful," she concludes. She then turns her attention to the ground beneath our feet and identifies all the things we can see: tracks of foxes and locusts and several birds ("dune lark—that's a good one to tick off"); holes excavated by wasps, geckos, scorpions; oryx droppings galore; and a gerbil that appears to have made good use of a fox's hole. "I call this reading the news," Elinor says, and she's a delightful presenter. Funny, too.

After a half-hour of walking we arrive at the simple camp the Dürrs' crewman has set up. Evening cocktails are followed by a hot bucket shower and a very good steak dinner. A lively conversation ensues—Marc relies on three-week-old copies of Time. "It's important to keep up," he says. "It'd be easy to forget about the world and just live a good life." Then it's off to my dune and a quite comfortable bedroll-cot arrangement. I fall asleep to the plaint of distant hyenas, and awaken once or twice during the night with a sense of supreme well-being. At dawn the descent of a brilliant orange moon limns the nuances of a sienna plain I dub the Sea of Tranquillity. Just as the moon sinks, the sun peeks over the opposite horizon, and it seems that I can take in the whole surface of this new world I'm on, where night ends just over there and the day begins anew right here.

Diurnal rhythms assume a heightened significance when you're immersed in such a place. You'll want to explore in the early morning and late afternoon, but in between, when it's hot and the harsh sunlight diminishes the colors, you'll want a nice place to relax. Wolwedans Dune Lodge, located a short distance from the Dürrs' camp, is the perfect spot for a siesta. Lounging in one of the nine chalets that rest on platforms along a ridge, you're in constant contact with the magnificent surroundings. Each chalet has canvas walls that can be rolled up and down for maximum exposure to, or protection from, the sun, sand, and wind. The result is a rustic-yet-polished lodge that's one giant step up from the rough-and-ready tents at the four-year-old Wolwedans Dune Camp nearby. This is the direction of Namibian tourism now: making the upgrade.

Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, a three-hour drive north of Wolwedans, is, for the moment, the splashiest of the new destination lodges. Getting here is a metaphor for traveling to Namibia. It's deep in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a rocky track that's hard for even a Land Rover to negotiate. Once you arrive, however, you're impressed not just with the all-encompassing scenery, but with the fresh-faced spirit of the enterprise. Chalets are decorated in an utterly up-to-the-minute blend of colonial and tribal furnishings, and if they seem rather store-bought—well, show me to that store. I want that stick-figure animal-print bedding. I also want my own little cliffside plunge pool, and that infinite concertina-window view of the gravel plain below and the ridge in the distance, but I don't think they'll fit in my luggage.

In the morning Shadrack Shilombela, a Zimbabwean guide with an infectious laugh, takes me on a brief walkabout while he looks for signs of Namibia's "small five"—ant lion, leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, buffalo beetle, and elephant shrew. (The nomenclature is an indication of what kind of eyes it takes to appreciate Namibian wildlife.) Most mornings, Shilombela accompanies guests on the 80-mile drive into the Namib-Naukluft Park to experience one of the country's main attractions, Sossusvlei, a desiccated river basin where they climb the tallest sand dunes in the world, some reaching 1,000 feet. My schedule precludes that trip, but it's just as well: flying over the entrance to the area, we pass an ephemeral river in flood. The pilot explains that not only is this a freakishly rare event to witness, but if we had been on the ground, we might not have been able to get into—or out of—Sossusvlei that day. Besides, there are lots of sand dunes in my very near future.

Here we go again, soaring over a dune belt 45 miles wide. Graceful calligraphic lines swirl across the surface. Here and there the wind's free hand has decorated the land with busy little arabesques. We tuck under some low clouds and now we're zooming 100 feet over the Atlantic, looking for whales just beyond the roiling breakers. A flock of flamingos appears out of nowhere, then thousands of seals.…I must be dreaming.

"Welcome to the Skeleton Coast," says my guide and pilot, Bertus Schoeman.

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