Photo: Jeeps on sand dunes in Namibia

Namibia has some of the world's tallest sand dunes.

Photograph by Frans Lanting

By Chris Eckstrom

Just point your vehicle straight down and go,” Volker Jahnke says to me, his voice gravelly over the two-way radio. “But don’t stop and don’t turn the wheel,” he cautions, “or you’ll roll like a melon.” I’m perched atop a skyscraper-high sand dune in a 4x4 truck, aiming down. All I see is a sheer drop of sand and Jahnke’s Land Cruiser at the bottom, looking like a Tinker Toy.

Around me stretch miles of golden dunes, rolling in waves to every horizon, like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. I’m in the heart of the great sand sea of Namibia in the southwest corner of Africa. It’s Day Two of a one-week, four-wheel-drive expedition into an area known as the Sperrgebiet—German for “prohibited zone”—a diamond-mining concession controlled by De Beers that was off limits for nearly a century. A few years ago the government made this area a national park, opening it for guided tours on a limited-access basis, one group at a time.

Volker Jahnke of Desert Magic Tours is one of a handful of outfitters permitted to lead visitors into the prohibited zone, a place few have been privileged to see. At this moment, our group of five—Jahnke, his two drivers, photographer Frans Lanting, and I—are the only people in an uncharted desert wilderness of 10,000 square miles. For seven days, this expanse, for all practical purposes, is our own private Africa.

Space sets Namibia apart. It’s a country of epic landscapes and cinematic beauty spread across an area nearly twice the size of California but with only two million people. A population density of a mere seven people per square mile may contribute to the relaxed spirit—and freedom to explore—that you find here. There aren’t many places in Africa where you can fly into the capital (in Namibia, it’s Windhoek), rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and strike off on your own to discover the country.

Travel in Namibia is relatively easy—and safe. I first came here in 1989, six months before the country won its independence from neighboring South Africa. To the outside world, Namibia’s future looked uncertain. But those living here were optimistic: I met United Nations troops taking game drives in Etosha National Park—Namibia’s most famous attraction—because, as one Egyptian soldier told me, “It’s so peaceful here, there’s not much for us to do.” Peace prevailed (and continues to this day) as the new nation began shaping its future in quiet but groundbreaking ways, including writing provisions for environmental protection and conservation of natural resources into its constitution—the first nation in the world to do so. On this return journey I find a still young country—only 20 years old—that’s beginning to leverage Namibia’s unique history and unforgiving terrain to establish a sustainable model of tourism.

“First gear, high range, now go,” says Jahnke, as I accelerate down the dune in what feels like a vertical plunge—my head nearly knocking the windshield. Waves of sand crest over the hood as I plow an avalanche that gains size and momentum, vibrating and growling, as I pick up speed.

“You’re in a real Niagara Falls!” Jahnke radios over the roar of the sand. “Brake gently, gently till you get to the bottom—then floor it to the top of the next dune!” he urges as I churn past, focused on every word, hands tight on the wheel, utterly thrilled.

Jahnke, a sturdy Namibian of German descent, knows how to navigate this land of superlatives, which can test his ingenuity at every turn. We’re in a desolate reach of the Namib Desert, which extends 1,200 miles along the coast of the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s said to be the world’s oldest desert, its dunes among the tallest—some topping a thousand feet—which Jahnke tackles with confidence. He has been leading 4x4 trips into some of southern Africa’s wildest lands for nearly a decade—while remaining a fierce defender of the desert.

“I once turned back a group when I saw a Jägermeister bottle fly out the window,” he recalls. “I made them wait in town for a day to decide if they wanted to continue on my terms.”

Jahnke calls his customized Land Cruiser Strandwolf, or “coastal wolf,” for the elusive brown hyena that haunts the dunes and beaches. As we wind a snaking course through the dunes, he shares tales of wildlife survival. “Animals here—oryx, ostrich, springbok—must go without drinking water,” he says. “We have fog-basking beetles that stand on their heads on dune tops to catch fog and let it drip into their mouths. When it’s really cold, I’ve seen jackals lie on the beach and let the wind cover them with sand for warmth with only their noses sticking up.” He shakes his head and laughs, “It’s Africa! Adapt or die!”

A FORCE OF NATURE brought diamonds to Namibia from South Africa. For a hundred million years, they washed down the Orange River to the sea, along what’s now the border between the two countries. From the mouth of the river, the cold Benguela Current from Antarctica carried the diamonds north along Namibia’s coast, where diamond deposits were first discovered in 1908 near Lüderitz, Jahnke’s hometown.

“In some places, the diamonds were just lying on the ground,” he tells me one evening around the campfire, “and the miners collected them by the handful.”

In one way, diamonds were the desert’s best friend: Within months of their discovery, the prohibited zone was declared along nearly half the coast of Namibia, from the South African border 450 miles north. Security was ironclad: No one entered but the miners. And because the zone extended 62 miles inland, the sprawling desert interior we’re crossing has been virtually untouched since 1908. It remains little explored.

We smell salt air as we caravan toward the setting sun. On top of the final slope we reach an astonishing view—towering dunes pitching down to the wild seas of the South Atlantic, golden sand meeting midnight blue waters, as far north and south as the eye can see. We plunge down the dunes to the beach and set up camp in a sheltered depression, circling our vehicles against the wind. I drift off to the thunder of pounding surf and the hiss of waves rushing ashore. Tonight, all the diamonds are in the sky.

"LISTEN," says naturalist Abisai Angula, “you can hear their wings.” We’re standing in a natural amphitheater so quiet we can discern the sound of air whistling through the feathers of two crows swooping overhead. It’s a perfect July morning during the tourist season in Namibia’s most popular visitor attraction after Etosha National Park, and no one else is here. We have left the prohibited zone to tour Sossusvlei, an area of parched white pans of cracked clay ringed with thousand-foot-high dunes—the tallest in Namibia—featured on postcards and guidebook covers. I’m hiking with Angula, a young guide from nearby Kulala Desert Lodge, which, with its own gate to the park, gains us entry well before the crowds arrive.

“Long ago the San people, or Bushmen, followed the river here,” Angula explains, “and found it full of plants, birds, and animals. They called it ‘Sossusvlei,’ which means ‘the place where water gathers.’” But the river changed course, and now only an eerie grove of skeletal camel thorn trees remains on the pan we’re exploring, called Dead Vlei. The trees are carbon-dated at 600 to 900 years old and too dry to decay, Angula tells me, monuments to the power of water, given and denied.

Above us, we see the first visitors climbing the ridgelines of the highest dunes, tiny figures silhouetted against the sunrise. We hike to the sand flats beyond Dead Vlei, where Angula shows me man-high mounds of nara bushes. “Animals and people love to eat their fruit,” Angula says. “The San used to cover the bushes with the wings of an ostrich they killed for meat, to prevent animals from eating the fruits.”

Angula learned about wildlife early. As a boy, he tended livestock at a cattle post frequented by lions, cheetahs, elephants, and, to him, the most dangerous—rhinos. “When a rhino smells you, it hides, and, if you come close, it charges,” he says. “But they’re poor at turning, so you must run fast, turn quickly, let it charge past you, then climb a tree. It happened to me many times.”

After Namibia got its independence, Angula returned to school and eventually landed a job with Wilderness Safaris, known for hiring locals and forming revenue-sharing partnerships with communities. Angula worked his way up from maintenance worker to guide, getting trained in astronomy, geology, current affairs, and other subjects. Wilderness Safaris, along with other outfitters, is pioneering a tourism model that values local empowerment, a conservation ethic, and authentic experiences for visitors.

More hikers appear on the slopes of the dunes, trudging up in staggered lines. As each hiker reaches the top, the hard slog gives way to pure pleasure—some running downhill with wild abandon, whooping and laughing, others rolling, slip-sliding, or high-kicking their way to the bottom, all in their own avalanches of apricot sand.

By sunset most of the visitors have left, and I hike out to Sossusvlei’s namesake pan. Like Dead Vlei, it’s set inside a crown of dunes, but this pan is alive—dotted with hummocks of nara and framed with green-leafing camel thorn trees, their sprawling boughs arching down to the ground, festooned with half-moon–shaped seedpods. The water is here, somewhere below ground. I sit quietly in the middle of the pan, and as the last vehicle leaves, an after-hours cast begins to emerge. First springbok step out onto the pan—three, six, then ten—to browse the nara. Then two oryx appear and a trio of ostrich, feathers flouncing. A jackal trots down with a jaunty gait, pied crows glide past, and, as I leave just before sundown, a pale chanting goshawk perches on a dune, scanning for prey.

“TIME TO LEAVE,” says Conrad Brain, banking the Cessna over the dunes. As we circle to climb away, I see why: A sandstorm is surging down the valley toward Sossusvlei in a roiling white cloud. We’re touring the desert by air, a great way to hopscotch over Namibia’s big distances and see the scale of the forces that shape this land. Brain, whom everyone calls “Nad,” knows the country from cloud level like few others. As a boy growing up in South Africa, he excavated hominid fossils with his father, the eminent paleontologist Bob Brain. But when his time came, Nad turned to living primates, earning his doctorate studying desert baboons surviving the most extreme habitat of any nonhuman primate—the remote Kuiseb River canyon north of Sossusvlei. “Temperatures would be well over 120 degrees,” Nad recalls, “but those baboons could go without water for up to 117 days. They lived right on the edge.” 

Lack of rainfall is the bane of much of Namibia. From the air, the patterns are clear: Along the coast, fitful rivers stagger to the sea through dunes or across bleached land. And though most are dry all year—sometimes for years on end—they are corridors for wildlife that move seasonally between the interior and the cold Atlantic shores. Another lifeline lies out at sea: fog, extending in a long wall, high and clean-edged, waiting for the rising heat that will draw it inland over the dunes to a thirsting land. In some years, fog is the desert’s only moisture, all that life has to drink.

We angle southeast from Sossusvlei, and between the great sand sea and the central escarpment stretch expanses of fiery red dunes and plains of honey-blonde grass fronting thunderhead-dark mountain ranges—vistas of such improbable color and form that even Hollywood couldn’t make them up.

“All of this is NamibRand,” says Nad with a sweep of his arm. It’s now one of the largest private reserves in Africa, covering more than 800 square miles, “the dream of Albi Brückner. He bought the first piece of land here for the price of a used Volkswagen Beetle.” Nad pauses. “Hang on,” he says. We buck and bounce, surfing the east wind to find a smooth way down to the airstrip.

Relentless wind has probably deterred many a newcomer to this land. But Albi Brückner, a farsighted Namibian businessman, saw something transcendent in this desert. “The landscape overwhelmed me,” he recalled when I met him at his home in Windhoek. “The wide open spaces, the nature, the colors—it changes every hour.” Snowy-haired and relaxed in a soft stuffed chair, Brückner told of his first visit, in the 1960s, to what is now NamibRand, then owned by 13 Afrikaner sheep farmers, some of whom were awarded parcels of arid Namibia for fighting the German Army in North Africa during World War II. Cleared of wildlife, fenced, and soon overgrazed, the land was marginal for livestock in the best of years. In the 1980s, drought hit, the sheep industry collapsed, and the farms began to fail. That’s when Brückner, then in business selling water pumps and generators to farmers, stepped in to buy. “And they jumped for cash in the bank,” he said.

Over time, Brückner bought more land, removed livestock and fences, and reintroduced wildlife. “Game is a totally different eater,” he told me. “They take care of their food supply, unlike domestic animals.” Grasses and vegetation returned. By the early 1990s, Brückner developed a bold plan to join the farms as a private nature reserve for the benefit of wildlife, with high-quality, low-impact ecotourism generating the funds for ongoing conservation. “Twenty years ago, this was a novelty,” he said. “And now we’re a worldwide model. Most of the people who come to NamibRand are as taken by what we are doing as they are by the landscape.”

Today the 13 adjoining farms that make up NamibRand have nine owners, and all have agreed to protect Brückner’s original vision. Ecotourism concessions here range from walking safaris and rustic “hideouts” for local families to high-end eco-lodges with hot-air ballooning and exquisite private camps attracting Hollywood celebrities.

Nad lands the plane, and we join guide Progress Kashandula for a sunset game drive across a minimalist landscape of yellow grass and blue sky to a vantage point overlooking hundreds of oryx streaming across a distant slope. “All the herds are increasing,” Kashandula says, “oryx, springbok, zebras, red hartebeest. As we take down fences, they have more freedom to roam.”

If we overshoot a turn or need to go back, Kashandula drives in reverse, for a meter or a mile, as far as it takes—a skill you must master to be a NamibRand guide. “It’s a strict policy here,” he tells me. “We don’t want to leave tracks all over the desert. They can take a lifetime to heal.”

Giraffes, leopards, and, most recently, cheetahs have been reintroduced to NamibRand. The cheetahs, five males and two females, had been rescued from ranches where they would have been shot. As if on cue, the five males appear, walking parallel to the main road through deep grass, single file. The cats have been on their own for more than a year now. “We think they will survive,” Kashandula says.

At sunset we drive backward up a steep track into a grove of gnarled quiver trees, each with a form so expressive that it feels like being in a room full of people with stories to tell. There’s no wind tonight, no lights, no sounds. I rock back and watch an ocean of sky turn velvet blue and the silver spray of the Milky Way appear, serene in my own private Africa.

Chris Eckstrom and frans lanting, a couple based in California, also teamed up for our March 2007 story about Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, “The Last Real Africa,” which received a Lowell Thomas Award.

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