Driven to attraction

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In part two of Phil Clisby
’s self-drive trip around Namibia, he and his family travel to the NamibRand, Fish River Canyon and the Quiver Tree Forest, with a bit of horseplay in-between

We were on the road again, this time towards the NamibRand Nature Reserve. As we leave the highway, en route to Wolwedans Dunes Lodge, we encounter numerous springbok, oryx and zebra. The springbok run and leap in front of our car, accompanying us as we make our way along the 20km track that leads to the lodge reception  – a personal antelope escort service.

The lodge overlooks the plains, and the mountains beyond. A view to die for. Oryx graze or drink from a waterhole, just yards from our open-sided safari tent.

Isoqel (pronounced ‘Easy Kill’, or so it seemed to my London ears) greets us warmly and introduces us to our guide, Simon, who takes us for a sundowner drive.

As we pass by a herd of zebra, a stallion starts to get rather intimate with a mare, or rather he’s “socialising”, as Simon politely refers to it, with a shy grin on his face.

We stop for drinks and snacks on top of a small dune overlooking the valley. The scenery is unreal, the sunset out of this world. Is there anywhere better than this? I wonder.

It’s the small things
The next morning I awake early and watch the sun rise and the ‘resident’ oryx from the comfort of my bed. We embark on a half-day drive around the reserve. There’s oryx (or “Billy goat gruff”, as my son calls them), springbok, ostrich and zebra aplenty.

A jackal sneaks along, half hidden in the grass. A dung beetle, as if in Purgatory, slaves in the hot sun, pushing his spoils across the sand; his ball of dung almost twice the size of him.

Both the springbok and the oryx found here have adapted to the peculiarities of living in the desert. They raise their body temperature to meet the outside temperature so that they don’t lose any moisture through sweat, while glands in their head cool the blood before it goes to the brain. Their white belly and socks reflect the heat from the ground.

Springbok, says Simon, are related to marsupials. They have a flap of skin, or pouch, lined with white hair on their back. Normally folded out of sight, it turns inside out revealing the highly visible white hair when the animal is frightened. This acts as a predator warning system to the rest of the herd, he adds.

We pass through a field of fairy circles. Much like the crop circles in the UK, myths abound about these mysterious circles of barren earth ringed by patches of grass.

Simon ventures that they are in fact termite mounds operating in reverse. It’s as good a theory as any, I suppose, but it’s not as fun as aliens is it? And it’s certainly not as sexy as the footprints of the gods or a dragon living beneath the surface that breathes fiery bubbles, of Bushmen folklore.

Our gregarious guide points out a toxic cactus, from which the Bushmen extract the poison for the tips of their arrows. Alas, the San that used to live in these parts have gradually been pushed out by the harsh conditions and conflict with sheep farmers.

There are leopard in the mountains, cheetah, black rhino and a handful of giraffe in the reserve, but they keep themselves to themselves. But, for me, the NamibRand is not about spotting game: it’s the place itself and the little things you discover that make it enthralling.

Our drive the following day takes us to the south of the reserve, through the acacia forest. We nearly run over a very-slow-moving chameleon. He eventually disappears into the grass, more tortoise than hare.

Giant weaverbirds nests – they can house up to 350 birds – are visible in a number of trees. These intricately designed conical-like nests, weaved from long grasses, are built in such a way to deter snakes – the reptiles slip off the tree if they try and enter uninvited.

Dinner at Wolwedans is a convivial affair. Everyone sits around one table, giving you the chance to get to know your fellow safari-goers. The chefs and waiting staff gather at one end of the room and present the menu in the form of a song and dance routine. It’s hysterical, but in a very good way.

Disappointingly, there’s no singing at dinner on our final night. Apparently, “the one with the golden voice” is not working. But the kudu steak is sumptuous none the less.

Horse power
We head to Aus, check in at the Klein Aus Vista, and head straight to Garub in search of the area’s famed wild horses. We drive about 20km before turning off onto a dirt track, which opens up onto a vast sandy plain. And there they are, in the distance  – thousands of them (well, about 40, but that sounds less dramatic) – galloping across the sand towards a waterhole.

We get out of the car and sit in a manmade hide overlooking the water. As the horses gather for an early evening drink, the testosterone levels are high – like a Saturday night in a backstreet boozer. There’s the occasional flare up, stallions rising up on their hind legs, neighing loudly and making punching moves with their front legs. Elsewhere, young bucks are attempting to back kick each other, dust flies, then calm descends, and they return to their drink. A frisky stallion does a spot of ‘socialising’.

Standing slightly to the back are some ostrich and a few oryx, watching, taking flight when a fight erupts, before moving back in for a drink when the coast is clear. There’s even the odd ostrich tear up as well. They charge around, flapping their wings, chasing off any unwelcome visitor. Clearly it’s a local pub for local ostriches.

We take a day trip out to Kolmanskop, the old diamond-mining town that has been reclaimed by the desert. Click here to read about this bewitching side trip

On the way back, we pop in for another look at the horses. Our luck is in, as they are already gathered at the waterhole. This time there are a few in the parking area, and a mare and her foal cross immediately in front of us.

At one point my fiance becomes trapped outside the car, as one approaches her and stares her down before moving off. A few more venture up to the car park – the lieutenants of the group – to collect the stragglers and return them to the herd.

Another world
Fish River Canyon is truly a wonder of the world. We drive up to the main viewpoint – Hell’s Bend – and are blown away (it was quite windy). The panorama is absolutely stunning, too. It looks like a gaping wound opening up across the land, but a strikingly beautiful one; a wound that you would never want to heal.

According to local legend, the dragons have been busy again, this time the whiplash of a basilisk’s tail cutting through the landscape to create this mighty canyon, second only in size to the Grand Canyon in the US.

Hell’s Bend is an apt name – there’s a sheer drop down to the blue-green river some 500m below. Twisted rock formations as far as the eye can see. The stark browns of the cliffs contrasting with the vivid blue of the sky and patches of lush green. It feels like I am on another planet.

We opt not to go down the steps at the start of the hiking trail. They are extremely steep, and there’s no bannister, just an iron chain to cling to. And cling I would have done – it’s not one for those with a fear of heights. Further on, the Sulphur Springs viewpoint offers more ‘I’m on another planet’ scenery, as the canyon twists and turns along its 161km length.

Leaving the Canyon behind, we head to the Kalahari. A long drive ensues to reach our last stop before Windhoek and home. To break the journey, we take a short detour to the Quiver Tree Forest. These strange trees in the middle of nowhere – with their gnarled bark and star-shaped collections of leaves on their upright branches – rise out of the parched desert, creating an eerie feel. We wander alone, save for a single ground squirrel, soaking up the atmosphere: more surreal Namibia.

As we reach our lodgings for the night, my son, despite having spent eight hours in the car already, wants to do some driving himself. So we spend another half-hour in a hot vehicle, while he turns the steering wheel and beeps the horn, before we can extract him.

Doesn’t he realise there’s a swimming pool and a bar selling ice-cold lager just 20 yards away?

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