'They say you cry twice in Namibia. The first time is when you arrive: "What the hell am I doing here?" The second is when you leave....'

…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.

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."