Coiled and twisted like pieces of warped metal, the fronds of welwitschia plants barely display any signs of life. Survivors in a harsh environment, this hardy species can survive for more than a thousand years – briefly waking from their slumber when Damaraland’s parched rust-red soils receive a few drops of rain.
Covering 25,000 square kilometres of land, right up to the Angolan border, Namibia’s Kunene region is a vast, barren landscape where time loses all meaning. It’s a fitting habitat for one of the oldest animal species in the world.
“You won’t see this anywhere else,” says Simson Uri-Khob, as we tip-toe single file towards a desert-adapted black rhino.
“In other places, you might find rhinos fenced in a park or a zoo. Here, if they run, they will run forever.”
As CEO for Save The Rhino Trust (SRT), Simson is responsible for protecting the world’s largest population of free-roaming black rhinos. By training community rangers to monitor the animals and lead tourists on treks, his efforts have lifted the region out of a poaching crisis: between 2017-2020 not one animal was lost.
30 years of dedication were recently rewarded with a Tusk Award For Conservation In Africa, presented by Duke of Cambridge – who Simson guided here in 2019.
“We walked for hours in the heat, across rocks, and we only saw the rhino for a few minutes,” he recalls. “But Prince William was so excited.”
Our sighting is equally fleeting. Sensing the animal is nervous, we back away. But Simson is right – there’s something thrilling about seeing the endangered creature in this environment. “He could be here one day,” muses Simson. “The next, he’s 30km away.”
This sense of freedom sums up Namibia. Vast, empty and remote, it’s the place so many people were craving in lockdown. You can fly for hours and see no development – only mountains, dunes and snaking, dry riverbeds.
The base for rhino tracking activities is Desert Rhino Camp – a joint initiative between SRT and several conservancies, managed by Wilderness Safaris. Although a renovation project means activities have temporarily been shifted to Damaraland Camp.
Several elevated tents are tucked into a narrow valley, with a pool and a winding path leading to a boma, where traditional communal meals are served beneath the stars. Aside from rhinos, the attraction here is desert-adapted elephants and giraffes.
As we drive across an open plain, howling wind appears to herald the end of the earth, filling the sky with dust and sand.
The only signs of major growth are in a dry riverbed filled with camelthorn trees and palms. We stop to watch elephants rear up on their hind legs to reach seed pods, or rub against barks as gnarly and wrinkled as their skin. Set against a backdrop of soaring mountains, they shrink to nothing more than a dot.
In Namibia, everything revolves around size and scale.
Heading south, I visit the mighty dunes of Namib-Naukluft – the country’s biggest national park.
Also part of the Wilderness portfolio, Little Kulala is set in a former farm nearby. Renovated during lockdown, the camp features several stone buildings connected by a wooden walkway. Private plunge pools give some relief from the searing heat, while a rooftop deck and bed set on a veranda provide opportunities to admire the night sky.
Efforts to rewild the area have attracted animals to gradually trickle back: giraffes and even a reclusive brown hyena were recently seen close by.
Now fully solar powered, the camp blends sensitively – and quietly – into its surroundings. But perhaps one of the biggest attractions is its private gate access to the park.
In the early morning light, colours shine brightly and shadows are more pronounced.
The most scenic and shapely masses have been named with regimented numbers, which don’t even follow a consecutive pattern; so insignificant for geographical features that bring thousands of visitors to this part of the world.
One of the two exceptions is Big Daddy (the other, Big Mummy, lies directly opposite) – and what an exception it is.
Normally, the park would be full of tourists. But as the globe continues to recover from the pandemic, this remote and sparsely populated country feels even more remote and sparsely populated than ever before.
Sidewinders slither between rocks and beetles scuttle in the blistering heat. Ahead of us lies a graveyard of mummified trees in the Deadvlei white clay pan, their skeletons perfectly intact.
Change happens slowly in Namibia – largely accounting for its timeless appeal. But in a world where space matters more than ever, this ancient landscape of enduring plants and hardy animals is having a moment right now.