TRAVEL SPECIAL: THE SEA OF SAND

The Namib Desert is Earth's own lunar landscape, a fragile environment of rare wildlife and bizarre beauty

RACING ALONGSIDE our single-propeller Cessna, 10 ostriches sprint across the yellow grasslands of Namibia. Miniature explosions of dust erupt beneath their pounding steps like a trail of machine-gun fire. Andre Schoeman knows how to fly low. During Namibia's struggle for independence he piloted helicopter gunships along Angola's border at below 50ft to avoid detection by surface-to-air missiles. "I've had pilots of 747s with me who say they taxi along runways at this height," Andre shouts above the engine drone, a wide grin beneath his tartan baseball cap. He pulls back gently on the Cessna's joystick and we climb back into the sky.

Ahead of us a vivid red gash lances the horizon. The ocean grasslands become ruffled by long, winding ridges of blood-coloured sand. We have seen the last of the hardy farming outposts with their wind-powered wells and whitewashed buildings. The land is yielding to the Namib - the world's driest and most ancient desert spawned by the relentless waves of the Skeleton Coast more than 50 million years ago. Andre nudges the Cessna on to a wing tip, banking low and steep along the scimitar edge of a huge dune, the first in a scorched-sand sea that stretches 100km to the Atlantic.

The Skeleton Coast and its wild desert hinterland is one of Africa's last frontiers. A rugged mosaic of barren shoreline, dune fields, gravel plains and pink granite mountains. Here, Antarctica's icy Benguela current scours the loneliest beaches in the world and mysterious fogs drift across desolate moonscape valleys. For the next four days we would explore this remote wilderness by light aircraft and Land-Rover on one of the legendary Skeleton Coast safaris. Our journey would take us north through the Namib-Naukluft, Damaraland and Kaokoland where the Kunene River divides Namibia and Angola. A similar journey took British explorer Benedict Allen and three belligerent camels three months to complete - a gruelling slog of over 1,500km through a landscape of ultimate deprivation and solitude.

"Care for a soft toffee?" Andre proffers the bag with a free hand while casually parking the Cessna at the end of a rough airstrip. Our first touchdown is Sesriem, a spattering of buildings, a petrol station and the base for 4WD forays to Sossosvlei. We clamber out of the plane, followed by a cooler box crammed with drinks. Our Land-Rover is waiting nearby. Not a camel in sight.

We have landed in a part of the Namib Desert called the Corridor, a 70- km inroad to the highest sand dunes in the world. If enough rain falls on the mountains to the east, the Tsauchab River springs to life and rages towards the desert. The flash flood tears through nearby Sesriem Can-yon, snagging driftwood high on vertical walls, before spewing its load into the Corridor. But the rejuvenated river never flows into the sea. At Sossosvlei, it is choked by dunes 300m high.

Leaving the Land-Rover in the shade of a camelthorn acacia, we walk to the edge of the shallow vlei, or lake; the only legacy of the flood. This year, Namibia had its best rains for over a decade and the vlei is still full, a shimmering pan of water crowded by towering apricot dunes, as perfect an oasis as any you'll find. As if to complete the surreal image, a lone flamingo tiptoes through the shallows, reflected in elegant symmetry.

We crunch through the crazy-paving salt crust at the margin of the vlei where it has already begun evaporating, and then begin climbing the nearest dune. The sand is fine and loose, a mini-avalanche cascading beneath each footfall.

After a dozen steps Andre pauses and without warning thrusts his hand into the dune. It reappears clutching a lizard. "Bushman's newspaper," he nods towards the wind-rippled surface of the sand. Sinking to my hands and knees I notice that it's dimpled with tiny tracks - the frantic wanderings of beetles, ants and lizards; a desert dialogue of mini dramas printed in the sand. "The lizard ran along the dune this way, then a bird, probably a pied crow, tried to catch it. Look, you can see where it landed." Scratch marks in the sand, deeper holes of a stabbing beak. "The lizard was too quick. It burrowed under the sand."

"But how did you find it?" I ask. "Watch this." Andre releases the lizard and it shoots across the dune like a stray firework and vanishes. Following its track we find the exact spot where it dived into the sand - a subtle depression, filled with a soft shadow by the morning sun: Bushman's newspaper.

By the time we retrace our route through the Corridor to the Cessna it is midday and the desert is bleached by the harsh sun. The Namib-Naukluft dune field is a mountain range of soft-whip butterscotch ice-cream as we fly west across the heart of the desert.

After an hour or so I become aware that we are losing altitude. Andre has pointed the nose of the Cessna to the horizon. For a brief moment I glimpse a harsh white line, wavering in the heat haze far ahead. Below, the dunes are flattening, as if someone has tugged the folds from the edge of the desert.

It happens so abruptly, in a matter of seconds. First, the scattered salt pans, blinding white and so flat I can see a crisp shadow of the Cessna 50ft below. Then a row of small dunes, a beach, waves breaking, water churned to foam, and seals! Seals in their hundreds, leaping and twisting, somersaulting from the curling green walls of ocean breakers. Now on a wing tip. Below, nothing but deep cobalt sea, streaked with creamy froth. Glistening brown stems of kelp loop above the surface like the arms of a giant sea monster. The Cessna levels out and we are flying north, low and fast above the waves of the Skeleton Coast. Sea meets land in a broiling filigree of foam and spray.

"That's where Benedict and the camels nearly got stuck. It's called the Long Wall." A few kilometres ahead a forbidding line of tall dunes plummets into the sea. At high tide the narrow beach at their base is flooded, trapping any hapless land creature between towering Namib and crashing Atlantic. Benedict Allen ran the gauntlet of the Long Wall and escaped, but elsewhere lie victims of the Skeleton Coast. Beyond the Wall are the scattered bones of a great whale, half digested by the desert. Rolling in the beach surf is a more recent casualty, a dolphin or a seal, and a few minutes later I spot a lone jackal roaming the strandline for an easy meal.

At Conception Bay, reclaimed by drifting dunes, stands one of many mining camps abandoned in the Namib-Naukluft during the 1920s and 1930s. Nearby is the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen which ran aground in 1909 carrying supplies for early prospectors. Since the 18th century, when American whalers began visiting the Skeleton Coast, more than 100 ships have floundered in its treacherous fogs and currents. The relief of those sailors who managed to struggle ashore must have been bitterly short-lived.

It's a strange sensation to fly along this Coast of Skulls, a mixture of exhilaration and sombre thought. Approaching the port at Walvis Bay I notice car tracks scrawled in the desert; a sign of looming civilisation. Graffiti in the wilderness. Walvis Bay is Namibia's deepest and most important harbour and was an enclave of South Africa until as recently as 1994. A little further north we land to refuel at Swakopmund, a German colonial town turned seaside resort.

Already the desolate grandeur of the desert is weaving its spell and I'm relieved when we're airborne again. Fishermen's huts line the beach beyond Swakopmund and Andre waggles the Cessna's wings at a few anglers who wave as we pass. The sun is setting and a strong easterly wind whips golden spray from the endless rows of breakers. We fly low over Cape Cross, then turn inland to Damaraland.

It's twilight when Andre touches the Cessna down on a deserted gravel plain surrounded by the dark shapes of mountains. Venus is a bright pinprick low on the horizon and the Southern Cross is emerging, a prelude to the spectacular star show of a clear African night. A Land-Rover is waiting to meet us and soon we are sipping gin and tonics at Kuidas Camp, a small collection of tents, longdrop toilets and bucket showers tucked in a rocky hillside overlooking the Huab Valley.

The concept of ecotourism on the Skeleton Coast and adjacent regions was pioneered by Andre's father, the late Louse Schoeman. Having been granted special concessions in Damaraland and the Kaokoveld he founded Skeleton Coast Safaris in 1977, taking small groups on low-impact fly-in "desert experiences". Today the Schoeman children follow in their father's footsteps, equipped with his vast knowledge of the area and commitment to its conservation. For all its ruggedness and inaccessibility, the desert is easily scarred by thoughtless adventurers. The tracks of Land-Rovers that strayed across delicate lichen fields 50 years ago can still be seen today.

The following morning I wake before sunrise and find Andre already in the dining shelter, a mug of steaming coffee in his hand. He is gazing across a valley of mind-boggling proportions. It's obvious why this site was chosen for the camp. A vast rocky plain sweeps away below us, stretching to a horizon stacked with table mountains burnished gold and crimson by the rising sun.

"This place is like a book," Andre tells me as we walk slowly across the rock-shattered foothills above the camp. "See how this rock is smooth and polished?" He crouches down and caresses a large, shiny black boulder. "It's a scratching rock, rubbed smooth by zebra and gemsbok. They've probably walked this trail for thousands of years."

Later, beneath a small rocky overhang, Andre stoops to pick up a tiny white object. As he holds it out to me I realise that it's a penny-sized circle of ostrich shell with a neat hole punched through the centre. "A bead for a bushman necklace. All around here you'll find bushman tools." Within minutes Andre is cupping a handful of fascinating artefacts. A stone scraper for skinning animals, quartz river pebbles for sling shot, fragments of charcoal from an ancient fire and the molar of a zebra, perhaps their last meal. "What happened to them?" I ask.

"The bushmen didn't stand a chance," Andre replies. "You could buy a licence to shoot them until the 1960s. Farmers thought they were vermin. Other tribes enslaved them, bred them out of existence and thousands died from disease that foreigners brought into the interior."

On the walls of a nearby cave, painted images of bushman hunters prance across the ochre sands of the Namib. The scene is faded by time, like a hazy memory. Yet snippets of bushman wisdom are kept alive by the Schoemans. Andre points out the desert plants that the bushmen understood so intimately; the bloated stem of the elephant foot, an important source of water; the blackstorm bush, a powerful laxative; and the bushman's buttocks, a tiny moisture-filled, twin-cheeked plant. "They lived in complete harmony with this land, taking only what they needed and ensuring that nothing was overexploited. They knew more about conservation than we ever will."

By midday we are airborne again, flying north-west towards the sea. Damaraland is at its most severe - as if the earth's skin had been peeled back to reveal shrivelled sinews of desiccated riverbeds and fleshy chunks of mountains pierced by ribs of basalt. We land on a narrow airstrip behind the coast. The smell of brine is pure and intense and the sound of surf is like the ominous rumbling of a volcano. I follow a set of neat jackal tracks through small dunes down to the beach of purple and grey pebbles. Casualties litter the ground. There are mummified seal carcasses like pieces of grotesque driftwood, bleached whale vertebrae, the skeleton of a porpoise and the severed wing of a kelp gull. Enormous breakers hiss viciously through the pebbles, spawning drifts of froth, dazzling white in the midday glare. Looking north I see nothing but angry sea and battered shore.

A few hundred metres inland rears another vast dune field. A Skeleton Coast Safari Land-Rover is stashed away behind a deserted mining shed and we drive into the hostile heart of the sand sea. These are Barchan, or wandering dunes, and our tracks will soon be covered by the constantly shifting sand. But the very wind that obscures all trace of our passing also reveals some unexpected secrets of the desert.

Microscopic grains of diamonds and garnets wink from the surface of the dunes like scattered trails of glitter. The real magic begins when we scoop up the sand and rub it between our hands. The desert starts to sing. These are the Roaring Dunes, a natural wonder of the Namib. Andre beckons me to the crest of a large dune and like two big kids at the seaside we slide down in a slow avalanche of sand, the desert resonating around us with the deep drone of a squadron of World War II bombers.

Later, in soft afternoon light, we fly towards Purros Camp in the Hoarusib Valley deep in Kaokoland. The river is now dry, but a thick ribbon of lush vegetation bears testimony to moisture hidden deep underground. Banking past a striped rocky bluff, Andre suddenly points ahead. There at the edge of the riverine forest is a desert elephant. A magnificent bull swirling round with ears flapping, raising clouds of dust to challenge the buzzing Cessna. Andre tilts the plane on its side until I am staring straight down at the monolithic tantrum. It's a rare sight. Only about 45 of these desert-adapted creatures remain. Poachers have taken their toll both on Kaokoland's desert elephant and black rhino populations.

The following morning we search in vain for the elusive bull, tracking platter-sized footprints that are fresh enough to reveal the network of fine wrinkles on an elephant's sole. We retreat to the cool vantage of a kopje studded with candelabra of euphorbia. We are surrounded by colossal flat-topped mountains, or mesas, like the Grand Canyon stretched wide. At the base of the kopje is a small settlement of the Himba, a nomadic cattle-herding people who may hold some hope for Kaokoland's threatened big game.

We drive down to the random scattering of dung-wall huts. The headman who greets Andre wears Western clothes - a dramatic contrast to the Himba women. Anointed with a paste of ochre clay, their bare skin has the rich lustre of polished mahogany. Dressed only in leather aprons they sit in the shade, lighting their pipes with sparks struck from a flint. Spontaneous clapping erupts from the small gathering as Andre hands an envelope of Rand notes to the headman. The Schoemans pay the local Himba to guard the wildlife. "If the elephants and rhinos go, so will the tourists," Andre outlines the deal to me. "We pay them for every tourist we bring here."

We bid farewell to the Himba and continue north to the Kunene River, heading inland towards the Hartmann Valley.

By now I am intoxicated with stunning landscapes. But the Hartmann Valley manages to surpass anything I've seen so far. A wide valley of silver-turquoise grasses and shrimp-pink sands sweeps down the flanks of huge granite kopjes.

After three hours of exploration by Land-Rover I prepare myself for the first glimpse of the Kunene River and journey's end. We climb a ridge to a viewpoint over the river. Andre cuts the engine and the Land-Rover crunches to a halt. The only sound is the soft pinking of the engine cooling. Andre's voice is quiet and matter-of-fact. "The Valley of 10,000 Dunes." Blocking our route is an awesome sand-sea.

Andre starts the Land-Rover and we roll slowly forwards through the desert rollercoaster. Pallid drifts of sand rear at every turn, channelling us through narrow passages in the dunes or forcing Andre to negotiate their sabre-edged crests. Then, without seaming, the Valley of 10,000 Dunes abruptly ends. Andre swerves on to a curling tongue of sand that seems suspended in space.

Beyond, plunging like a glacier of sand, the desert pours into a deep ravine. On the chasm's far side the barren Angolan highlands smoulder in late afternoon sunlight. But it's to the valley floor that my eyes are drawn - to shimmering, flowing water. Far below, the Kunene River is a bold, vibrant ribbon of sparkling rapids, calm pools, reedbeds and dense stands of river acacias teeming with birdlife. An emerald vein of life in the desert. The Namib's final secret.

William Gray travelled to the Namib Desert as a guest of Skeleton Coast Safaris, Art of Travel, Cazenove & Lloyd and Air Namibia.

For further information on Skeleton Coast Safaris contact Art of Travel on 0171 738 2038. For information and booking for Cazenove & Lloyd call 0181 875 9666. Prices for a four-day Cazenove & Lloyd safari including internal flights and Land-Rover transport, accommodation, in igloo tents or wooden huts, and all meals start from pounds 1,054. Four safaris are available with options to visit Sossosvlei, Etosha and Luderitz. Air Namibia (0181 944 6181) flights depart from Heathrow on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays with return prices until 26 March from pounds 571. British passport holders do not require a visa to visit Namibia.

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