Driving across Namibia can be tricky, but the reward is inspiring landscapes. With environmental protection written into its constitution, Namibia is an ideal destination in the UN's year of sustainable tourism.
It's as if you can see all the way to the horizon. Not a hint of haze in the crisp, clear, see-through air, not a person in sight. Wide-open flatness. A sparse, almost abandoned landscape, extending for dozens, perhaps hundreds of kilometers. In the distance, cutting a clear profile, a tree, a boulder, some hills, the occasional mountain.
Landscapes did nothing for me when I was younger. But they do now - and there are few more beautiful than Namibia's: the breath-taking view across Fish River Canyon in the south, the flimmering horizon of the Etosha Pan in the north, the Kalahari's soft red dunes in the east. Pictures do little justice to these panoramas - you have to see them for yourself.
Beware of the gravel roads
Experiencing these landscapes, however, often requires a robust pair of hands and a solid sense of adventure, as we found out on the C27 road leading from southern Namibia up past the Namib Desert to the legendary dunes at Sossusvlei. The landscape is truly spectacular, with the browns and yellows of the Tiras and Numib mountains on one side and the reds and oranges of the Namib on the other. But the views come at a price.
Approaching Betta, and then all the way to Sesriem, the C27 was the worst gravel road we faced. We endured five 5 hours of full-concentration driving, with the vehicle shuddering over the rippled sand, gravel and stone surface, both hands gripping the steering wheel to counter any drift on the loose soil beneath, as we wove left and right to find the smoothest path and avoid the bigger stones.
Eventually we did hit a big stone, puncturing our back left back tire. We pulled over in the middle of nowhere and got to work with the spare, gazing anxiously into Namibia's wide open plains in the vain hope of assistance.
Astonishingly, another vehicle did appear, slowing to enquire whether we were okay. We later heard how crucial that kind of solidarity can be - from an Italian man who limped past us at a lodge, his head heavily bandaged. Driving north on the C27, two dozen kilometers out of Betta, he had lost control of his vehicle, which swerved wildly and flipped. Within minutes, he told us, there was a small swarm of other vehicles providing assistance. Some complain about the state of Namibia's rural roads. But it's worth considering that the country's only been independent since 1990. And the rough state of some roads (many others are in good condition) is a key part of its unspoiled charm.
It also matches government efforts to keep large swathes of the country as close to their natural state as possible. Environmental conservation is anchored in two articles of Namibia's constitution (91c and 95l), and it's an African leader in wildlife protection. Around 17 percent of its territory has the status of a national park, game reserve, conservancy or other form of protected area. If you include private and communal conservation areas, that figure jumps to 46 percent.
Namibian constitution protects the enviroment
Ecological awareness was visible wherever we went, whether it was the solar panels on lodge rooves, waste separation schemes or the use of brilliantly simple jam-jar solar lamps. Namibia has earned international recognition for this in recent years, receiving Africa's fourth-highest ranking in the World Economic Forum's 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report, including above-average marks for environmental sustainability.
However, the countryperforms less well in areas such as equality and education. This is partly due to the legacies of German and South African colonial rule, which locked many of the country's huge farms into white ownership. Reforming land ownership is a complex and contentious issue, and, to its credit, the Namibian government has refrained from confiscating land, as in Zimbabwe.
In the tourism sector, an increasing number of game rangers are black Namibians, like 27-year-old Ndumba Lioni, who told us with great dedication and background knowledge why the bat-eared fox has such large ears: to hear the slightest movements of underground insects. Or like 42-year-old Rodney So-Oabeb, who helped us appreciate Etosha's "white elephants." These magnificent animals simply cover themselves with the park's dry white dust to protect themselves against ticks and the sun.
For minutes on end, Rodney also spoke of a rare black rhino whose movements and habits he'd come to know intimately. As he drove us across the savannah, his eyes constantly roamed the horizon for signs of the endangered animal.
"He's probably watching us right now, we just can't see him," he said. At a nearby waterhole, we waited and waited. And as the sun descended, we began to wonder whether we'd manage to leave the park by the required time: Etosha's guards are notoriously intolerant of late leavers, clanking the park's gates shut once the sun has set.
"He should come through that break in the bushes," Rodney assured us, as we scoured the area for any signs of the huge animal. Then, sure enough, it trotted thirstily through that break in the bushes, somewhat irritated by the crowd of tourists clicking away as it passed towards the waterhole.
We were late to the exit gate, arriving two whole minutes after they'd been shut. The guards left us to stew in our juices for 10 more minutes before imposing a fine and giving us a loud reprimand.
As we waited, the sun dipped swiftly below the horizon, splashing its soft colors across the rugged landscape. With predators now waking from their shaded slumber, that struck me as one of this desert nation's contradictions: the most beautiful of backdrops for its animals' daily struggle against scarcity and death.
Take what you can get
Ostriches do not mind the hot and barren African desert. The flightless birds can raise their body temperatures to stop them sweating and reducing water loss. They get all the water they need from the plants they eat. They also swallow small stones, which grind food in their stomach. Their intestines can handle things that other animals can't digest.
Keeping cool in the heat
Gemsboks also raise their body temperature on hot days - up to 45 centigrade (113 Fahrenheit). A network of small blood vessels in their noses cools the air they breathe, and that keeps their brains cool too. The gemsbok's underpart is white, reflecting the heat radiating from the ground. They get fluids from water-rich foods such as roots, tubers and the tsamma melon, which grows in the desert.
Pick a color
Too hot? No problem for the Namaqua chameleon. It simply changes its color to become lighter and reflect more sunlight during the heat of the day. In the cooler mornings, though, they are black. Their tail is quite short compared to other chameleons. They don't do a lot of climbing in the desert, but they do climb on rocks and small bushes to get away from the hot sand in mid day.
It's cooler higher up
The Namib Desert dune ant's legs are about five millimeters long. They lift the ant to a height where temperatures are up to ten centigrade (50 Fahrenheit) cooler than directly on the sand surface. It gets its fluids from honeydew, excreted by plant-sucking scale insects. Even though the ants look conspicuous on bare sand, predators shrink away from eating them: formic acid spoils the meal.
The Namib sand gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) avoids the heat of the day by digging burrows and only coming out at night. Its large eyes help it to find prey in the dark. Its webbed feet are perfect for burrowing and walking on sand. The gecko's skin is translucent so that some of the internal organs can be seen. Its color allows very good camouflage in the sand of the desert.
The Dancing White Lady Spider (Leucorchestris arenicola) also likes to avoid the sunlight. It constructs a 0.5 meter deep burrow out of sand and silk where it hides from the heat. As the spider only comes out at night, it doesn't need sun protection, hence its white color. When mating, the males tap their foremost legs on the sand, giving the species its "dancing" name.
Easy does it
"Go slow" is the motto of the Namib Dune Scorpion (Opistophthalmus flavescens) when it comes to metabolizing. The animal doesn't need much energy and can wait for months until the next meal arrives. The oxygen transport system in the scorpion's blood is different from ours and isn't hampered at high temperatures - perfect for life in the desert! It digs three meter deep burrows to live in.
A nose like a shovel
The sand in the Namib dunes is so fine that some animals swim through it – as if it were water. They don't even have to dig. It's true for this shovel-snouted lizard. The shape of its head allows it to move through sand without resistance. It's good for escaping from predators where cover is sparse. Its nostrils face backwards and have a cartilaginous flap to prevent sand from entering.
A life in the sand
The FitzSimons' Burrowing Skink can also swim through sand. It spends its whole life in the sand of dunes, where is searches for food, such as small insects. It detects its prey by feeling for vibrations created by the insects when they move.
Hide and eat
This snake, the venomous sidewinding adder, has found the perfect way to catch prey in the Namib desert. It burrows itself in the sand, leaving only its head sticking out – but it looks just like the sand. It moves with characteristic side-winding movements through the fluid sand, hence its name. Sidewinding allows the snake to move over hot sand without overheating.
Surviving in large communities
Sociable weaver birds meet most of their water needs through their diet, which consists mainly of insects. They build huge nest structures, housing hundreds of birds of several generations at a time. The chambers inside the nests provide shade and are cooler than the outside, whereas the central chamber retains heat and is the ideal place for night time roosting.
In all shape and sizes
Beetles are central to the food supply in the Namib desert. They feed on detritus, dead organic matter from plants which is blown into the desert by wind. During early mornings, they collect water droplets from fog. Other animals feed on the beetles to get their water. About 200 species of beetles roam the Namib desert. Most hide in the sand.
The fog basking beetle has a peculiar way of collecting drinking water in the Namib desert. In the morning, it runs up the dunes and does a headstand. Fog condenses on its back, and droplets run down towards its mouth. They can drink up to 40 percent of their body mass on one morning. The species is also known as the head-stander beetle.
Get eaten by other animals? No way. This weevil has other plans. When it is threatened, it drops on its back and plays dead, hoping its predators have no appetite for dead, dried-out beetles.
Life under rocks
There is life everywhere in the Namib desert, even under rocks! Cyanobacteria grow there. Enough sunlight penetrates this white rock for the bacteria to perform photosynthesis. In the blazing sun, though, they die.