Slow Travel Africa: Walking Through The Namib Desert

Namibia

NAMIB FAIRY CIRCLES – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

We flew over starkly desolate coastline in a four-seat Cessna 172, watching the freezing waves crashing against the sand, which drifted miles inland into soft-serve ice cream peaks. The size of the ancient desert came into full focus as we banked east to fly into Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve, part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the largest conservation area in Africa.

The African park is half the size of Belgium and holds a sea of sand pockmarked by mysterious “fairy circles” — unusual round patterns in the sparse vegetation. Much of Namibia’s scenery defies explanation. It felt as though we were flying over a martian landscape, sand the color of a forest fire sunset and surrounded by craggy, arid peaks. I would be exploring the area on foot for the next four days.

The pilot gently landed the Cessna on a compressed sand airstrip surrounded by a few low, simple buildings, where we were warmly greeted by Sebastian, our guide. We made our way to the verandah for lunch and Sebastian talked us through the insects, reptiles and mammals we might encounter on our journey as we gazed out at one of the oldest deserts on earth.

The Reserve is about 2,100 square kilometers (811 square miles). During our visit, we would have nearly all of it to ourselves.

Tweet: NamibRand Nature Reserve is about 2,100 km2. During our visit, we’d have it nearly all to ourselves http://bit.ly/1PALGKJ #africa #travel

Namibia

ORYX – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

Desert Life In Namibia

Namibia is home to some of the most uniquely adapted species on the planet. When travelers look closely they will see life thriving throughout the desert; life that would be difficult to see from a vehicle, and impossible to imagine from our approach from the sky. Namibia’s desert ecosystem is home to interesting mammals as well, including oryx, leopard, aardwolf and the endangered brown hyena, though if we were to encounter these species it would most likely be from a distance.

As we headed into the desert it immediately began to shed its sterile image. Jewel-like beetles scurried along dunes leaving delicate tracks in their wake. Spear-horned oryx walked regally in the distance, and sun-gold grasses waved in a gentle breeze. We made stops along the way to examine weaver nests and to learn why the birds architect them a certain way, to watch beetles burrow into the sand in the evening, and to decipher the tracks we constantly encountered in the red sand. We were completely unplugged and the setting and pace allowed for lots of time to think and reflect. Our time hiking was marked by the deserts’ quiet interspersed with small bursts of discovery.

Tweet: Completely unplugged, our time hiking was marked by the deserts’ quiet interspersed with bursts of discovery http://bit.ly/1PALGKJ #travel

Namibia

NAMIB TRAIL WALKERS – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

A Delicious Desert Experience

In addition to the incredible privilege of exploring the landscape with just four other like-minded travelers, we were taken care of during mealtimes in a most indulgent manner. We earned those calories on our seven-to-eight hour daily journeys from campsite to campsite, but rather than just fueling up, we sat down to delicious homemade three-course dinners with wine. Chef Jawnesty would read the menu aloud each night prior to eating, first in English and then in staccato, click-tongued Khoekhoe, which somehow made the food sound even more delicious.

Namibia

SUNSET OVER THE NAMIB DESERT – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

Peace Of The Desert

After dinner, we would take our exhausted bodies back to our campsites – a private spot with cots and cozy sleeping rolls, a canvas ‘sink’ with water, and the best natural light anyone has ever seen, the Milky Way. Bedding down under the night sky in one of the world’s only Gold-rated Dark Sky Reserves made me feel impossibly small in a refreshing sort of way. Watching the heavens sparkle with more stars than I could ever imagine made me want to stay awake all night, but the peace of the desert and physical fatigue lulled me into deep slumber.

Waking to the sun creeping over the sandy horizon, I watched the desert color burst to life. I tried to think when I had experienced so much time exposed to the elements. “Normal” life is spent shuttling between home and work, and a typical vacation might consist of beach activities or find us in museums and cafes. It was a rare gift to have the opportunity to be enveloped by raw nature with just a few creature comforts and no distractions. During the entire trek, we did not enter a shelter of any type – spending every moment under the vast Namibian skies.

NAMIB DESERT TRAIL WALKERS - ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

NAMIB DESERT TRAIL WALKERS – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

A Transformative Walk

Days on the trail passed similarly — the steady rhythm of walking through the sand, vistas filled with impossibly beautiful scenery, stunning African wildlife, beautiful silence and solitude — all broken up by sumptuous meals and interesting conversation with our trail mates, hailing from Denmark and Zambia, respectively.

I wish I could walk in the NamibRand every year – to restore balance, to recharge my soul and to experience nature so intimately. As it stands, I keep the experience close and try to remember the perspective I learned while in the desert.

Namibia

TOK TOKKIE BEETLE – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

Highlights Of The Tok Tokkie Trails Experience

Witnessing a totally unblemished landscape – The NamibRand Nature Reserve is totally unfenced and totally wild. It protects the unique ecology of the area, as well as seasonal wildlife migration routes and general biodiversity.

Feeling small – In addition to being a bit cowed by the incredible night skies, being the only people in the desert was a perspective-shifting experience. There’s a lot to be said for being reminded by nature that we aren’t the center of the universe.

Namibia is definitely a place to ‘get away’ – it’s more than twice the size of California, but has only 2.3 million people, most of which are concentrated in just a few areas.

Wildlife – Bugs, birds, reptiles, gazelle…we saw life everywhere we looked, including the tok tokkie beetle, for which our trek was named. Watching the animals in their undisturbed natural habitat proved both restive and fascinating.

Quiet – Possibly the quietest place I have ever experienced. In everyday life, even when it’s quiet, it’s not quiet. In the desert, the silence can be absolute. And once you are in tune with that quiet, a whole new world of sound can open up.

Sustainability – In addition to being a Dark Sky Reserve, NamibRand was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Namibians take their land and their animals seriously and are mindful of conservation. The Reserve restricts guest beds to one per 1,000 hectares, and every guest’s stay helps to fund the continued existence of the reserve. While vehicle safaris are allowed in certain areas, care is taken to minimize impact, and only established paths are used. Low-impact activities such as walking are encouraged, and the few lodges in the area are built to strict requirements. Travelers can visit this area of the world to see conservation done right.

If you’d like to explore the desert, visit the Tok Tokkie Trails website.

Namibia

JUVENILE SOCIABLE WEAVER – ©GRETCHEN HEALEY

Story by Gretchen Healey 

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Gretchen Healey gave up a window office in the IT industry to embrace travel as a profession. When not traveling, she runs Pangolin Media, a full service copy writing development and online strategy consulting company focused on the travel industry and wildlife conservation. She has visited more than 30 countries, and each travel experience has enriched her life immeasurably. When she is home, she can be found hiking with her husband and dog, cooking, gardening or skiing.

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