Namibia: A wildlife safari in the Kunene region offers substance over style

Russell Vinjevold, our guide, broke into the soppiest of smiles. "Will you just look at that little chap!" To many bush-hardened southern Africans, a baby elephant sheltering under its mother's belly is not necessarily something to get gooey about. After all, many parts of Africa have more elephants than they can handle, and tiny, shy, week-old babies with improbably delicate-looking trunks soon grow into tree-wreckers.

But in the arid Kunene region of north-west Namibia, elephants are rare enough for each new arrival to seem special – and our guide is looking as proud and teary as if he'd delivered the animal himself.

Beautiful though this section of the Namib Desert is to visit, it's a tough place to be an elephant. Kunene is not exactly fertile: the most its ochre and bone-coloured sands can muster are patches of sun-bleached grass. Rain is a precious thing. The temperature can soar above 45C, the heat so dry you barely feel yourself sweating. And given that an elephant could drain a safari camp plunge pool at one sitting (in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, I've seen one do exactly that) it's amazing that these thirsty creatures can survive here at all.

A small, hardy population of about 600 clings on by sticking to the mopane-shaded riverbeds that score the Namib from east to west, snaking across to the Skeleton Coast. Most of these channels are less than 100 miles long; drive along one or, better still, camp beside one, and you're likely to see a herd or two.

The dry channel we're exploring, the Hoarusib, is typical. For a few brief days between November and March, rain pummels the crumpled mountains west of Etosha and the river floods with violent force. For the rest of the year, it's totally parched. But the Kunene elephants are canny enough to cope.

It's believed that elephants can map out far-flung waterholes in their mind's eye, passing their knowledge from generation to generation. The Kunene herds take this to the next level: they can pinpoint unseen supplies so accurately that you'd think their tusks were divining rods.

"This river may look bone dry to you," says Russell, switching the engine of our 4x4 back on, "but to these guys, it's a 50km oasis." With that, he drives us to a spot where, earlier, the baby's herd had been gouging at the sand to dig down to the watertable. Having drunk their fill, they had continued along the riverbed as casually as a family of shoppers cruising a busy high street.

Russell is the fixer behind a tourism initiative, Conservancy Safaris, which introduces visitors to the desert and is owned by the Himba and Herero people. They are pastoralists who share this challenging environment with the elephants. Like them, they have had to adapt to its demands.

The Kunene region is breathtakingly remote, but tourism is not new here, and the Himba and Herero know they're part of the attraction. The standard pattern is for safari companies to breeze in, camp for a few days, and breeze out, pausing all too briefly to admire the landscapes, the wildlife and the locals – the Herero women in their voluminous cotton frocks, and the Himba with their ochre-daubed hair and skin.

Conservancy Safaris aims to change this by welcoming visitors as guests, rather than passers-by, and ensuring an appropriate proportion of their cash benefits development projects that provide the community with fresh water and basic healthcare.

So much for the theory; it nevertheless takes a leap of faith to entrust your hard-earned holiday funds to a company owned by a scattered group of herders.

However, while trips with Conservancy Safaris may not be cheap, they're not the gamble you might think. Anders Johansson, a Swedish philanthropist, has provided a generous loan. And, with the support of local experts in tourism, wildlife and land management, the company is run by a professional team.

"We're not interested in organising luxury safaris that are all style-over-substance," Russell says. "One thing that's hard to buy, but that people seem to crave, is authenticity. By offering an insider's view of this amazing region, we can make our trips meaningful."

So far, they seem to have the balance right. Nights are spent under canvas, in picturesque sites – a camelthorn glade one day, a nook beneath a sun-baked escarpment the next. The tents and the campfire food are superb in a back-to-basics way; the biggest nod to luxury is that you don't have to whack in a single tent-pole nor stir a single pot. Pleasingly, you're not pampered with embarrassing extravagances – so, no camp chairs dressed up in muslin covers, no silly luxury toiletries beside the long-drop. Let's call it ethical camping for softies.

Bringing in Russell was the icing on the cake. He is an experienced safari guide with just the right attitude. Some guides reckon they're the rock stars of the bush, all gung-ho antics and hair-raising camp-fire tales, but Russell takes care not to upstage the gorgeous landscapes. When we see animals, we watch them quietly, taking our time; when we encounter people, be they herders, shopkeepers or top-ranking conservationists (he knows quite a few), he introduces us, and lets the conversation take its course. He also has a fascination for indigenous animals that is utterly contagious.

Elephants are by no means the only creatures to eke out a life here. Every so often, as we roam the desert in the 4x4, Russell's hand twitches on the steering wheel and we know he's about to point out something new – giraffes framed against a rugged hillside, or a flurry of ostriches tearing through the shimmering haze. Both have evolved to survive on the meagre quantities of water available here.

Occasionally we spot an oryx sheltering under a tree, and discover that these dazed-looking gazelles can turn off their sweat glands to conserve moisture. We learn about the species of beetle which survives by doing handstands on the foggy dunes of the Skeleton Coast, so that

droplets of dew will run down to its mouth. Lions live here too, and, thrillingly, we find some; they have sussed out that if they lurk in the undergrowth that fuzzes the edges of the Hoarusib gorge, sooner or later a herd of springbok will wander through.

Best of all, I decide, are the geckos, even though their survival strategy is more mundane: when the sun is up, they simply hide in sandy burrows. By day, there's no sign of them, but at sunset you can hear them calling – a bright sound, like two stones chinking together – and at night you can pick out their beady little eyes with a torch.

It's still early days for Conservancy Safaris, but it has already scored another first with the quiet opening of Etambura, which is claimed to be Namibia's only community-owned luxury camp. Created by Trevor Knott, a local architect with a flair for weaving his designs around plants and rock formations, it is set on a hilltop in Orupembe, one of the remotest conservancies in Kunene.

Each of the five thatch-roofed buildings has inspiring, wraparound views of the surrounding hills. The community thought hard about its name, settling on Etambura which simply means "see the rain". For a desert people, that's about as powerful an expression of optimism as you can imagine.

Travel essentials: Namibia

Getting there

* Air Namibia (0870 774 0965; airnamibia.com.na) no longer flies from the UK to Windhoek, but can provide connections from a range of UK airports to Frankfurt to join its flights.

* The usual alternative route is from Heathrow via Cape Town or Johannesburg on South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) can offer similar connections. Another possibility: fly to Munich and connect with the weekly flight to Windhoek on Air Berlin (0871 5000 737; airberlin.com).

* The writer travelled as a guest of Air Namibia and Kamili Safaris (0115 937 7475; kamilisafaris.com), the UK agent for Conservancy Safaris ( kcs-namibia.com.na). Prices start at £2,120 for a six-night luxury camping trip in the Kunene region. The price includes full board, ground transport and activities, but not flights to Namibia.

More information

* Namibia Tourism Board: 020-7367 0962; namibiatourism.com.na

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