Creatures great and small
In the Namib desert near Swakopmund, Claire Keeton and Marianne Schwankhart look for the 'Little Five' by daylight and outer-space stunners by night
The Dorob National Park, along the central Namibian coastline, has the world's only dune desert. The unique plants and endemic creatures of these dunes survive on fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean nine mornings out of 10, and a wind that blows seeds into the corners of the dunes. Beetles and silverfish eat the seeds, worms get hunted by geckos, lizards and chameleons, which in turn get devoured by snakes, jackals and falcons. Our guide, Christopher Nel, followed the faint tracks of the dune creatures and found all of the Little Five - the Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis), dancing white lady spider (Carparachne aureoflava), Namib dune gecko (Pachydactylus rangei), the FitzSimon's burrowing skink (Typhlacontias brevipes) and Peringuey's adder (Bitis peringueyi) - despite their masterful camouflage.
The Namib's Indiana Jones
Unlike Indiana Jones, Christopher Nel has no fear of snakes. But, like the movie hero, he has a profound knowledge of the desert - and a safari hat. A barefoot surfer with cropped hair (he once had long, blond dreads), this father of four is passionate about dune life, which makes him an outstanding guide. He trained as an engineer and was also a deep-sea diver but has been doing tours and safaris with his clear, sometimes controversial, conservation agenda since 1997. Living Desert Adventures is his operation but other tours have a similar name so make sure to get him.
Phone +264 644 05070; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.livingdesertnamibia.com.
Spot the snake
"Look!" said Nel, pointing at a patch of marbled sand under a small bush. We did - and saw nothing. But Nel could distinguish the two eyes of a sidewinder snake (Peringuey's adder) from the sand in which it had burrowed. We could only see this poisonous, small adder after Nel had blown away the sand. How he spotted a burrowing skink, a shimmery, snake-faced, legless lizard, was another mystery to us since we could barely discern its tracks. Another wonder of the morning was the large Namaqua chameleon, which displayed astonishing speed when unfurling its tongue to catch a worm. Nel found the dancing white lady spider by looking for holes in the side of the dunes, and it emerged cart-wheeling (44 turns per second) down the sand. He described the transparent pinky Namib dune gecko as having webbed feet like snowshoes, so it can saunter along the top of the sand. (Most geckos have big eyes, suction pads and no nails, unlike lizards.)
Quad bikes and 4x4s have extensively damaged the coastal desert dunes, criss-crossing them with tracks that do not disappear once the surface is broken. Oxwagon tracks from the German settlers of 1880 can still be seen today, says Nel while showing us aerial photos of hundreds of tracks. But after a proclamation of the Dorob National Park 18 months ago, vehicles may only drive in the ORV (off-road vehicle) area (dune belt) with a permit and only along routes mapped on proclaimed roads and routes marked on the park's maps. We followed established paths in Nel's Land Rover, including some treacherously steep descents, where we had to hang on to the door handle and it felt like the vehicle was about to tip over (it never did).
For brilliant night skies, go to the desert. The Milky Way looks close enough to touch and we saw a shooting star that streamed towards us as if it would land at our feet - and that was with the naked eye, not even a telescope. Astronomer Dr Ansgar Gaedke and his wife Lynette le Roux run stargazing tours to the desert with his 10-inch diameter telescope, through which you can see extraordinary detail under the unpolluted skies. We saw the flares on Mars, the rings on Saturn, a globular cluster (Omega Centauri) and many more stellar beauties. Stargazing Adventures offers rolls and cool drinks for snacks, so you may want to take your own wine for sundowners.
Phone +264 811 281517
Atlantic Villa Boutique Guesthouse
The Atlantic Villa was sparklingly new when we stayed in its luxurious, modern suites close to the beach with private balconies. The rooms are spacious with stylish furniture and en suite bathrooms behind frosted glass. They have fine linen and wide beds, freshly ground coffee, a sound system and TV. The main dining room and lounge area are in a modern glass building with an attractive balcony for gazing out over the ocean or even creative thinking, as a film crew was doing during our stay.
The Jetty & Brauhaus
After camping at Spitzkoppe on the edge of the Namib Desert, any food would have tasted good to Marianne and me. But the menu, presentation and quality of the food at The Jetty in Swakopmund were truly fine and we enjoyed our meal. The Jetty also has a fabulous view as it juts out over the ocean and the surf swirls below the restaurant. We had chilli poppers and three oysters for starters, followed by tuna medallions and sirloin steak. For dessert, we had a chocolate volcano and cappuccinos. On another day, we decided to have a traditional German meal, since Swakopmund has a large German-speaking community. We shared a baked camembert for starters and an eisbein for the main course. The eisbein was well cooked and so big we couldn't finish it. For coffee, we went down the road to the Village Cafe, a brightly-decorated Internet cafe with a relaxed, hippy feel.