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Namibia's Harsh Reality

He lands on a hard track on the beach, and we set out to explore the remains of a mine that was abandoned early in this century. Inside a decrepit tin shed there's a seal skull and a decaying cormorant, proof of the appetites of beachcombing hyenas and jackals. The broken ribs of a wooden boat have become a casket for massive whale bones. Not far away, a shipwreck that's been swallowed by the shoreline languishes on the beach. Never was a place more aptly named than the Skeleton Coast.

We've only just got here, and have four more days ahead of us, and already I'm overstimulated. "You'll need downtime after this safari," Bertus promises. The 41-year-old Schoeman has been exploring this territory virtually all of his life. His father, Louw, became enthralled by the Skeleton Coast while flying as a diamond courier for a mining company. Soon he started bringing family and friends. "We spent all our holidays camping in convoys on the coast," recalls Bertus. "Those were lovely days."

Skeleton Coast Safaris got under way as a commercial enterprise in 1977, and has been carried on by the family since Louw's death in 1993. "This is our way of life," Bertus tells me. "That, I suppose, is why it works."

This is how it works: Bertus or one of his three brothers packs four or five clients into a six-seater plane and spends the next few days divulging the secrets that have taken the Schoemans a lifetime to discover. Each leg of the trip takes you deeper into the Skeleton Coast Park, a protected wilderness area more than 300 miles long and 25 miles wide. It becomes increasingly astonishing to find one of the Schoemans' Land Rovers waiting for the plane at each stop—in the middle of a vast desert valley, or on a beach—ready to transport you to another natural wonder, then onward to one of the three camps they keep on the edge of the park.

The only other people you will encounter on the safari are the Schoemans' staff, as well as a few Himba tribal people who live in mud huts, subsisting mainly on cattle, goats, and sheep, and whose only contact with the outside world is you (so you'd better be nice). Apart from some hardy fishermen on the coast, there's simply no one else out there; it's too remote.

Bertus, a soft-spoken gentleman despite his rugged occupation, can hardly be bothered with plants ("a lot of long Latin names"), but he loves to share the knowledge of geology he picked up in university and out in this open-book landscape. He also loves to shred the dunes in the Land Rover, blasting hard to make it uphill and charging down the slip face for an added thrill. Part of the appeal of Schoeman's safari is that he doesn't tell you what to expect—conditions could always dictate a change of plan, and then you'd be disappointed, wouldn't you?—so events unfold as a surprise.

On our second morning, the camp is plagued by bothersome flies, so Bertus takes us out for breakfast to a plateau with a panoramic vista of a riverbed and the plains beyond, where a trio of giraffes graze. We spend the morning tracking elephants, and locate an old bull who's such a favorite of John Aspinall, an annual guest, that a bronze of the elephant stands outside his club in London. Bertus then takes us to the Himba settlement that abuts the Schoemans' camp, where we buy some crafts from the women. Those who have converted to Christianity wear full-length dresses after the fashion of 19th-century German missionaries; they stand side by side with their more traditional sisters, who still wear beads and animal hides and whose skin and hair are reddened by a mixture of animal fat, ash, and ocher. The straw basket I buy is reddened from being worked on by hands covered with this exotic cosmetic. The men of the tribe, Bertus explains, have taken their herds in search of suitable grazing land and will not return until the rains come—if the rains come. He estimates that there are 20,000 Himba leading this sort of life in northwestern Namibia.

En route to the plane, Bertus says, "We'll just stop down at the beach." He neglects to mention that we're about to pay a visit to 50,000 seals.

"Go up to them low to the ground," Bertus tells me. "They'll think you're one of them." So I crawl on knees and elbows, infantry-style, and find myself taking photographs in the midst of a smelly and quite comic sleep-in of gargantuan proportions, a scene straight from a Dalí dreamscape. When I get too close, clusters of the creatures rouse themselves on their front flippers, cast a sideways glance at the intruder, and harrumph clumsily toward the water. Once they get wet, though, the seals are poetry in motion, leaping into the surf.

It occurs to me that this has been one remarkable morning.

RIDING A BOAT UP THE KUNENE RIVER, we ferry young Himba tribespeople back and forth from the Angolan side to the Namibian side. They're clearly chuffed to be on a boat, something altogether foreign to them even though they live by a river. (Nor do they eat fish.) We share our juice and soda, and wonder if our Himba friends have ever had a cold drink. They don't seem to mind being photographed—but do they even know what a camera is?Are we wrong to introduce these things?This is a legitimate concern: in drier years the Himba follow the grazeable grasses, and are pushed into ever increasing contact with civilization and its inevitable corruptions.

But for now, up in this quiet corner of Namibia, civilization can wait. "Some people are scared of all this open space," says Bertus. "Their souls feel vulnerable. But that's what I like—it's good for my soul. I was recently in England and Germany, and I was just looking forward to the safari."

As we arrive at the final camp, pitched on a bluff over the fast-flowing river, we spot a pack of rowdy baboons romping along the far bank. One of the guests tucks into a gin and tonic and expresses his astonishment: "We didn't have any idea it was this beautiful here!"

"How can you explain?" says Schoeman. "How could you tell people?You just say, 'Come look for yourself.'"

A Home Where the Kudu Roam
When Jan van de Reep first scouted the wooded bushland where he would establish Huab Lodge, he recalls, "There was nothing left. Not one blade of grass, not a single animal track." Everything that was not choked by the parched land had been shot by the rapacious Afrikaner farmer who'd owned the land. "Anything he could kill, he killed. He poached rhino. He would wound elephants on purpose so they'd learn not to come here." Jan pauses. "The world became a better place when he died."

Those words may sound harsh, and they're even more jolting coming from a man who so loves life. During a pelting afternoon shower, van de Reep jumps out of our vehicle, throws his arms wide, and tilts his head back to catch huge raindrops in his mouth. "This is liquid gold!" he hollers.

If water is currency, then van de Reep is a wealthy man. In a part of the country that had only eight inches of rain last year, Jan sits in a virtual oasis; his property holds three springs and a couple of man-made pools and is situated on a river that flooded 15 times in 1995. Under his stewardship, life has taken hold here once again. He has counted 177 species of birds (including several rarities) and increasing numbers of kudu, oryx, giraffe, ostrich, warthog, and leopard on his 50-square-mile nature reserve. When the first herd of elephants returned to drink at one of van de Reep's pools, he says, "I almost cried at the sight. The animals knew these were no longer killing fields."

A Dutch émigré who has lived in Namibia since 1968, van de Reep spent his early years here leading safaris in the vast Etosha National Park, where most of the country's wildlife is found. It was then that the onetime gardener cultivated his vision of a nature reserve and lodge, and began searching for a suitable location.

Because of its situation at the western border of the country's central plateau, this ground has witnessed many of the events that shaped Namibia's modern era. Just outside the soaring thatched roof of the main lodge sits the German Pool, a fishpond named for the settlers who constructed it a century ago. In the twenties this land was settled by northward-migrating Boers, and remained in South African control even after the United Nations declared that dominion illegal in 1968. The ensuing bush war for liberation was fought through the 1970's and 80's along the Angolan border, 150 miles to the north of Huab. Meanwhile, the previous owner of this farm hung on to play out his scorched-earth policy.

When van de Reep recounts the devastation he found here when he took over, people ask why he ever bought such a blasted place. "The situation was so shit it could only get better!" he replies. So it has—and not just for the animals. He employs some 35 of his neighbors from Damaraland and allows their livestock to graze on his property. "It's not enough to conserve nature," he says, "if you forget about the people."

The large guest quarters at Huab Lodge hold two huge double beds, a sitting area, a private porch, and his-and-her sinks. Van de Reep and his wife, Suzi, are earthy folk, and their place puts on no airs. "We don't go for excitement here," he says, sitting on a boulder while his rambunctious terrier chases lizards. "It's not the place to come for action—we don't intend to make it a zoo. But if you want to enjoy peace and quiet and look at birds and landscape and light and sit in a hot bath and go riding, this is the spot. We keep it as natural as possible, so it can return to what it used to be."

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