Cool for cats - Namibia
The bowling alley is knee-deep in sand. Rather than the bilious clatter of skittle on wood, the only sound is that of the wind whipping up the peach-coloured sands as the shimmering heat of a late afternoon subsides and the shadows of the ghost town of Kolmanskop grow longer.
The scene of one of the last century’s greatest diamond mining booms, Kolmanskop’s heyday, when the town’s bars and skittle alley were crammed with hustlers, shaman and opportunists, all seeking their fortune from the rhombus that washed up on the shores of the Skeleton Coast, has long gone.
Since its abandonment at the end of 1950s, the clapboard houses and rotting verandas have been getting slowly reclaimed by the mighty Namib Desert, vast dunes burying some of the old homes up to theirchimneys.
Visiting Namibia, I quickly realised that, whether it be the verdant tropical lushness of the north of the country or the arid desert wastelands of the south – where Kolmanskop is slowly disappearing, this is a land where nothing moves quickly and where nature is given the space to breathe and evolve entirely on its own terms.
Larger than Spain and Portugal combined, yet with a population of barely two million, Namibia is one of the emptiest, and one of the newest, nations on the planet.
With a murky colonial past where it was one of Germany’s few African outposts (explaining why much of the white population in coastal towns such as Swakopmund are tri-lingual in German, English and Afrikaans) and decades as part of apartheid South Africa, Namibia finally achieved independence in 1990.
Now its stark, otherworldly beauty, for so long known only to diamond workers and indigenous Bushmen, is beginning to be discovered.
Cheaper than Botswana, less-well traversed than South Africa and with infinitely better infrastructure than Zambia or Malawi, Namibia is perfect road-trip country, where the thin ribbon of asphalt is so deserted that slowing down the car to chat to any passing motorist is considered almost de rigour.
The desecration of fauna in so much of sub-Saharan Africa is a threat taken seriously in Namibia, nowhere more so than at Okinjima – a vast park in the centre of the country, about three hours drive from Windhoek and home to the AfriCat Foundation.
Set up 19 years ago as a refuge for cheetahs that had been shot and injured by farmers in the wild, the park now operates as a kind of Priory Clinic for big cats being rehabilitated after suffering physical or mental trauma through a farmer’s gun or through being orphaned by their parents being shot.
Slowly being released into bigger and bigger sections of the park until they are able to fend for themselves – at which point they are fully released – it’s a fascinating process with luxury thatched-roof, dome-shaped individual cabins (called rondavels) for guests to stay in, where each morning the canopy walls are rolled up to leave nothing between you and the wild African bush.
My guide, Jacques, a typically-burly and amiable white Namibian bedecked in khaki shirt and shorts, took me on an early morning drive through the park to meet the resident celebrities. “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have stayed here”, he told me as our Land Rover
bounced across the dirt tracks in the searing heat.
“But they’ll never be as famous around here as Hercules.” Too old and tame to ever be released back into the wild, Hercules and four of his friends, all sable fur-coloured cheetahs with soulful eyes and purrs as loud as helicopters, came to greet us. Barely four feet from my hands, Hercules himself looked slightly bemused at my agog expression.
Herding his friends to the middle of the dirt track we’d just driven down, the four of them lay down, seemingly wanting to pose for photos amid the scrub.
For over an hour, Jacques and I sat there observing close-up these titans of the African bush which, even in the comfortable “retirement” home section of Okinjima, instantly project an aura of cool and refined, albeit somnambulant, strength.
Using radio detectors we set off again, this time on foot, to find Paddington, a hyena donated to AfriCat by a farmer who had been keeping him as a pet. Spotting Paddington’s dinner first, a young baby kudu he had just killed, in the depths of a vast spread of terminalia trees, we finally spotted the beast.
“Don’t try this at home”, Jacques joked. “Though we’re in no danger from him. He knows who we are and that we’re not a threat.” I believed Jacques instinctively, though I’m still certain the sweat on my brow wasn’t caused exclusively by the acrid heat.
Over a dinner of an unctuous springbok steak back at the sumptuous lodge, a fire was lit in the courtyard and I sat with a chilled glass of South African white in one hand, listening to the static hiss of the crickets.
“There’s really nowhere else like Namibia,” claimed fellow guest Rueben, a Brit who was at the lodge to gain advice about starting up his own reserve in the far north near the border with Angola.
“There’s a huge contradiction to how people feel about the place. On one level, it’s the emptiest place you’ve ever seen. On another, there’s nowhere on earth that’s so full of life.”
Full of life the bush may be, but when you get as close to nature as I did to Hercules and Paddington, I still couldn’t help but feel relieved that the relaxed pace of living seems to apply to the animals nearly as much as the humans.
Did you know?
- The world’s largest underground lake, Dragon’s Breath Lake, is in the Otavi Mountains in north-east Namibia. Discovered in 1986, its surface area is about five acres.
- The Namib is the world’s oldest desert, at about 80 million years old, and has the world’s highest sand dunes. It is sometimes called the “Living Desert” due to the wide range of its fauna.
- The fossil plant, Welwitschia Mirabilis, grows in the Namib Desert and has a lifespan of up to 2,000 years.
- Namibia has the largest free-roaming cheetah population in the world, estimated at 2,500.
- Namibia is the largest producer of diamonds in the world.
- Scores of shipwrecks litter the beaches of the Skeleton Coast – caused by dense fog and rough surf. Bleached whale and seal bones are a reminder of Namibia’s whaling industry.
When to go
Avoid December to February, when temperatures soar past 100ºC. You’ll be most comfortable from April through to September, although the far north tends to be humid all year round.
Air Namibia (www.airnamibia.com.na) offers direct flights from London Heathrow to
the capital, Windhoek. Other services include South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) via Johannesburg, and Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) via Munich.
With few internal flights, a dilapidated train system dogged by accidents and a poor bus network, Namibia is essential driving country. If you’re travelling independently, hire a 4x4 from Windhoek or Swakopmund, where you’ll find all the major rental companies.
Namibia’s urban areas have little to recommend in terms of accommodation but in the wilderness there’s a huge array of top-class lodges, which include Okonjima (www.okonjima.com), Etosha Aoba (www.etosha-aoba-lodge.com), Ongava (www.ongava.com), Anderssons (www.anderssonscamp.com), Wolwedans Dunes Lodge
(www.wolwedans.com), Mowani Mountain Camp (www.mowani.com) and Sossusvlei Lodge (www.sossusvleilodge.com).
Tour operators featuring Namibia include Tucan Travel (www.tucantravel.com),
Explore (www.explore.co.uk), Cox and Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk), Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk), Jules Verne (www.vjv.com), Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com), Southern Eagle (www.southerneagle. com) and Intrepid (www.intrepidtravel.com).
For more information on visiting Namibia, go to the Namibia Tourism Board website, on
www.travelnamibia.co.uk or www.namibiatourism.com.na, or call 020 7367 0965. For information about the AfriCat Foundation, visit www.africat.org and the website of
Tusk Trust (www.tusk.org/africat.asp), which raises money for AfriCat’s work among many other projects.