I love adventure, specifically the sense of vulnerability that it brings whenever one drifts far enough away from home, where the concept of rescue is a very real discussion point or, better still, becomes a challenge on its own. And yet despite my desire to ‘boldly go’, I have to confess to being a bit of a wimp. The truth is that I fear almost everything that I can’t control or predict, or that feels slimy, and this is the tale of how my adventuring took me to a point where I was too scared to fetch my camera.
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For the most part, our tour to Namibia took in all the sights and sounds that one would expect to find in a Lonely Planet itinerary. Kolmanskop, Lüderitz, Sossusvlei, all destinations that rightfully deserve their spot on such a programme but none of which causes the sense of anxiety that I seek. For this reason, even before we departed on our journey, I was confident that the piece of our trip that took us through the Desolation Valley and on through the Ugab River would be the highlight of the expedition. This portion of Namibia, which forms part of the old Damaraland, is an enclave that has little by way of inhabitants, and even fewer tourists. It’s a spot where one could go completely unnoticed for days and, consequently, go completely unrescued for days too.
We entered the region from the west, having been quite literally blown off the Skeleton Coast, and slipped into the decidedly sheltered valleys that comprise Damaraland, near to Springbokwasser. As with almost the entire country, the landscapes in this area are rich in minerals and, being a desert, largely devoid of flora. The combination of these two factors makes for a display of colour that I have not seen in any other country that I have visited. The reds are rich and deep, the yellows sulphurous and vibrant, and where plants do manage to scrape together an existence, both their colours and textures contrast vividly against their barren surroundings.
But what is perhaps the most remarkable about the scenes that I am describing is not their aesthetics, but rather their location. All of these hues are on display alongside a pretty ordinary gravel road which makes its way towards Khorixas. Neither the road nor its destination is exceptional, but its landscapes are awe-inspiring, especially when one considers that the road is well within reach of even the most modestly appointed explorer. One could quite easily spend days taking photographs in the area using only an ordinary sedan to arrive at locations. It is almost like ‘outstanding natural beauty’ is merely the status quo in Namibia, rather than it being the ‘exception’, as in most other places in the world.
Nevertheless, to access the Desolation Valley itself, one must leave the Khorixas Road and head south, traversing the Huab River. This journey cannot be taken lightly and certainly demands the use of a capable vehicle. The river is one of several ephemeral rivers that force their way west through the Namib Desert from Namibia’s interior. The Huab specifically lies in a shallow but broad valley, with gently sloping plains descending from its escarpment into the riverbed. These plains are unquestionably ‘desert’ and yet there is more than a small helping of wildlife that calls them home. Most significantly for us, among the Huab’s inhabitants are Desert Elephant, nomadic creatures who have become accustomed to life with a scarcity of water.
Now it’s worth pointing out that visiting the Huab does not guarantee an elephant sighting. Not only is the valley enormous and the river lengthy, but the Huab is not a game reserve; very few people descend to its floor and, as a result, the elephants are suspicious of us hominids. They would sooner move off than wait around to see if we mean them harm, and this made our eventual encounter with the giants even more rewarding.
And yet, despite my fondness for elephants, it is at this point that my nervous temperament began to influence events. We had dropped into the valley with the explicit objective of spending the night wild-camping in the riverbed. Nonetheless, it quickly became evident from the concentration of elephant tracks and droppings that it would mean camping with the possibility of bumping into one of these behemoths at night. To be fair, the elephants that we had seen appeared rather obliging, but I was not in the mood to test their hospitality, and we made the decision to change our destination. Instead of the riverbed, we would move back in the direction we had come from and spend the night in a safer location, camping at the foot of the escarpment.
Our final choice of campsite is, without question, the best that I have ever found. Perched upon the shoulder of the depression and protected from the beating sun by a low cliff-line, our resting spot for the night came adorned with some spectacular views. Vast open space with a scattering of gentle hills that cast breathtaking shadows as the sun dropped towards the horizon. There was not a single soul for many kilometres around and, honestly, I felt completely at ease in the wilderness. There were no visible signs of danger and this sort of adventure defines who I am.
As night fell, it seemed as if Mother Nature wished to reward us for having ventured ‘off the beaten track’. The fading light was astonishing, a soft pink radiance filled the horizon, and the air grew warm and comforting. Knowing that we could look forward to significant darkness once the sun had disappeared, I decided to take the opportunity to set up my camera a short distance from the camp for an attempt at photographing star trails.
In the inky blackness that followed, however, that nervous disposition issue started to raise its ugly head again. With the abundance of game in the surrounding area, it slowly dawned on all of us that the Desert Elephant of the Huab probably coexisted with a few Desert Lion. There was no direct evidence of lion, but we knew for certain that there were signboards warning signs of lion in the Ugab River a mere 50 kilometres away.
Suddenly, the glow cast by our camp lights didn’t seem to penetrate the dark quite as it had before, and to make matters worse, we had just cooked a chicken for dinner. If there were lion about, it seemed likely that we had just called them in for a bite to eat and, consequently, tensions within the camp ratcheted up.
With all of us sitting a fraction closer together, nervously joking about the possibility of our crossing paths with man-sized kittens, there began a slow realisation that my camera stood alone in the darkness, far beyond the protection of our puddle of light. My camera is too valuable to be left standing outside for the entire night, but there was absolutely no way that I was going to wander out onto the African plains, on my own, smelling of chicken. If I were going to be chewed, it would not be alone…
If you’d like to know what happened to my camera, Lance and I eventually dared into the darkness to fetch it together. Adding drama to the situation, when I woke the following morning to photograph the sunrise, I wandered out of camp no further than where my camera had been the night before. There, on top of our vehicle tracks from the previous day, was lion spoor. We subsequently learned that the prints were from a lone lioness that lived in the area and who had become curious of our presence.
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