2000s Archive

Remote Control

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Water is the other great mystery of Namibia. Terrain is classified as arid if it gets no more than 100 to 200 millimeters of rain a year. The Namib Desert gets less than 50 millimeters of rain annually, making it extreme even in the realm of desert climes. So everything has to adapt. Springbok survive by eating plants that store water in their leaves. Elephants, which survive on less food and saltier water and have smaller bodies, longer legs, and larger feet than elephants elsewhere in Africa, break their tusks digging up roots and bulbs. A local beetle, the tok-tokkie, rests on the west side of the dunes in the morning with its head facing downward. Droplets of fog condense on its back, then drip down its head and into its open mouth.

“If you came here during the summer,” advised my guide, Angula, “you’d never come back. It’s so hot—sometimes a hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit—and so windy, I would have to carry you and beg you to put clothes on.”

It’s not just the desert that’s forbidding here. Up north, where the Kunene River divides the mountains of northern Namibia from the even taller peaks of southern Angola, the landscape reminds me of Asian scroll paintings, with looming mountains on one side, rolling dunes on the other, and, way at the bottom, a winding river lined with a tiny ribbon of green. Studying this kind of art in Japan years ago, I learned one secret. The special something that holds the scene together is the human element—the bridge, the lantern, the artist contemplating nature. In this case, the human element is a collection of thatched cabins, built on stilts and huddled beneath a thicket of ana trees. This is Serra Cafema, the five-star tree house at the end of the world.

There’s little to do at Serra Cafema other than experience the inhospitable yet breathtaking terrain. Over several days, I slid down the banks of dunes on a four-wheel quad bike, hiked along mountain crests, and visited a nearby village. The Himba, one of the smallest of the dozen or so tribes that inhabit Namibia, are pastoral and build their dung huts in a circle around a livestock corral in order to protect their animals from hyenas and other predators. Women cover their bodies with a terra-cotta-colored mixture of red ocher and goat fat that moisturizes and protects their skin, which they wash as seldom as once a year.

Any hopes I had that I might enjoy a float down the river were quickly quashed by the presence of a gargantuan crocodile right outside my hut. Crocs are a deadly reality along the Kunene: One of the village women had been nicknamed Crocodile after being attacked while washing clothes; and a camp employee had lost her four-year-old daughter, who was seized by a crocodile while fetching water.

The stock-in-trade of the African luxury safari lodge seems to be this tension between living close to the wild and enjoying otherwise unattainable sumptuousness. Serra Cafema uses generators to run electricity and pump water to its showers and has a small pool where guests can swim without fear. Nearly all the food that arrives in a seemingly endless procession of meals—breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, sunset cocktails, dinner—is flown in. Local beef and oryx (a large antelope also called gemsbok) are accompanied by heavy, German-style sauces and sides, followed by bread pudding.

I asked the Namibian chef what he would cook if his president were to arrive for a visit. “Oryx fillet,” he said, “with a wine sauce. Like all game, oryx is leaner than beef. Plus, it’s on our coat of arms.”

On my last stop in the country, Etosha National Park, oryx were plentiful, along with many of the big five. In two days of game drives, we saw an extraordinary array of animals, including elephant, white rhino, eland, giraffe, the yellow-billed hornbill—a.k.a. the flying banana (Zazu in The Lion King)—the rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra, and 20 lions. One reason for the abundance: The rainy season had been an unusually generous one, and many animals, understanding that this meant their young had a better chance of survival, responded by mating more than once in the same year. We had stumbled into a rainy baby boom.

Our guide, Sunday, explained why the heavily built oryx—with zebralike stripes on its head, white legs, and long black horns—is the symbol of Namibia. First, he said, it can survive in the desert. Like the camel, the oryx can raise and lower its blood temperature to cool down its brain and can go for long periods without water. Second, because it is very brave. “Even humans have been killed by oryx.” And third: “Because it is very beautiful.”

Beautiful, brave, able to thrive in the desert. A perfect symbol of the country.

Namibia is extreme.

Which was exactly what I was thinking that morning on the balloon ride. As we lifted off at sunrise and climbed into the air above Sossusvlei, I was struck by the variations in starkness below—the impoverished riverbed, the endless vista of dunes on one side, the craggy mountains on the other.

But even though the balloon was supposed to stay over the riverbed and not venture above the dunes, a sudden gust sent us off course. Our pilot, Willem, attempted to steer us back, but we lost altitude rapidly and headed toward the crest of one of the dunes. “Hold onto the edge of the basket,” Willem instructed. “Bend your knees. If we tip over, try to fall backward.”

For a second, it seemed as though we were going to crash. The basket brushed the top of the dune, with its tufts of grass the color of sea oats. I held my breath.

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