Southern Namibia is home to the most desolate, dramatic, and stunning landscapes I have ever seen. It is a land of contrasts, where German influences blend with African culture, where the desert collides with the sea. As we travelled around the country, it truly felt as though we had reached a hidden corner of the earth, or had landed on a different planet altogether. I could not get enough of this surreal place.
We drove for 10 hours the first day, crossing the Namibian border at 5:00 pm. Our first impression of Namibia was a glorious sunset. Driving west, the entire sky in front of us was first a bright, then a lingering, orange. Maybe it’s where it lays on the coast, or maybe it’s the vast emptiness of the landscapes, but the sunsets in Namibia seemed to be bigger and to last longer than any other place I’ve ever been.
We spent our first night across the border in the dusty town of Karasburg. Setting off early the next morning, we drove on through the middle of the country. The further we drove, the more lonely the countryside became. After we turned off the main highway, we passed no other cars for hours. Only a few lonely farms sat alongside the road; the rest of the landscape was just empty desert for miles, with the occasional ostrich ambling along in the distance.
Finally we reached Kanaan N/a’an ku sê Desert Retreat, a lodge and game conservation reserve where we would be camping overnight. The only guests there that night, we were led to the most incredible campsite I have ever stayed at. It had it’s own outdoor shower and toilet, a canvas covering for the car, and was surrounded on all four sides with desert. We made our dinner as the sun set over the horizon, while oryx silently munched on the scrub nearby. N/a’an ku sê means “God is watching over us,” and as we looked at the thousands of stars that filled the sky that night, that certainly felt true.
We slept on a mat in the back of the jeep, and were up before 5:30 am for a guided sunrise tour of the park. We bundled in the back of in the back of an open-sided Land Rover, under a blanket to block the biting desert winds, as our guide drove us into the fading darkness. He told us to keep our eyes peeled for leopards and hyenas, who live in the rocky outcropping and are nocturnal hunters.
As the sun slowly rose over the peaks of the hills, the otherworldliness of the landscape became even more clear. Primordial, boulder-strewn mountains rose out of the dunes. Everything existed in the same muted palate of browns and beiges and oranges. A scraggly line of trees indicated where the only source of water flowed, a deep underground river. Because the roots of the trees must reach so far down to access the water, when they die the trunk remains standing. The hot sun bakes the dead trees into solid pieces of charcoal, which petrifies over time. The skeletons of trees dot the skyline, stark reminders of the difficulty of life in these desert conditions.
Yet, there was plenty of life. The famous quiver trees stood proudly on the hillsides. We spotted ostriches in the distance. In the trees, giant nests held colonies of yellow weaver birds. Over 100 birds work together to build their huge homes out of dried grasses.
Everywhere were groups of springbok and oryx, one of the most interesting antelopes I have seen in Africa. The oryx has a unique black and white coloring, magnificent long straight horns, and a swishing black tail. It is a handsome animal that seems more like a horse than a deer, and would stare at us stoically as we drove by.
Just at the end of our drive, Spencer spotted four small bat-eared foxes. These little creatures were the size of house cats, but had ears bigger than their heads that stood straight up. Back at our campsite, I noticed little paw prints in the sand. They circled the car, then went back the way they came. I am guessing a curious little fox came to check us out during the night.
I have not spent much time in deserts, but they bring to mind desolation and a lack of life. A short stay at Kanaan demonstrated that while the desert rightly represents solitude, it is also a home and place of life, reminding me just how adaptable and resilient life on earth can be.