Namibia: Pay a flying visit

Short breaks used to mean a quick trip to Paris, but for the cash-rich, time-poor traveller, a weekend in Namibia is now just an overnight flight away. Lucy Gillmore reports

The little Cessna whirrs over the vast plains far below. "Keep her level with the horizon. Watch the altitude. We're cruising at 7,000ft. OK, you're flying the plane." My hands are slightly clammy, but the butterflies in my stomach are pure exhilaration.

Old-world glamour mixed with modern-day excitement: a flying safari in Namibia has more than a dash of The English Patient romance about it. Even if it is all crammed into a few days. Towering ochre dunes, unearthly volcanic craters, bleached savannah sweep silently by. Alone, buffeted by thermals in a tiny metal bird, between a blistering sun and arid moonscape, time seems somehow suspended. And, at the same time strangely elongated.

The term "big shortbreak" was coined by Original Travel for the cash-rich, time-poor who want a high-quality experience condensed into a long weekend. As such, the trips focus on a fewhand-picked highlights rather than an exhaustive itinerary, mainly in Europe, the Middle East and, because there's only a one-hour time difference and therefore no jet lag, Africa. With Air Namibia bringing back direct flights from the UK this year, cutting the travelling time down from 15 hours via Johannesburg to 10 overnight, a high-octane holiday in this patch of the Southern Hemisphere is now an even more appealing option.

Namibia, formerly German South West Africa, is the size of France and the UK combined. So with limited time, hiring a plane rather than a car is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem - and not just for those with fat wallets. A six- or seven-hour drive in the searing heat becomes a half-hour hop with panoramic views thrown in. The flying lessons are optional.

Andrew du Preez, our pilot and guide, met us at Windhoek. We breezed through baggage reclaim, passport control and customs - then tripped straight back out onto the runway again. The little Cessna was parked beside the MD11, the only other plane on the broad tarmac strip in the middle of the scrubby bush. Just an hour later we landed at Okonjima, home of the Africat Foundation. A detour to the project gives an added dimension to the traditional safari experience. And by tailor-making our big shortbreak we'd been able to scrap the quad-biking in the dunes and add leopards at dawn.

The foundation was set up by Lise Hanssen 12 years ago, on her husband's family farm midway between Windhoek and Etosha national park. Land that was once farmed - and hunted on - has now been turned over to conservation.

Africat's raison d'être is big-cat welfare and rehabilitation; it rescues around 70 cheetahs and leopards each year that have been trapped on farms and releases them back into the wild. In Namibia, big cats still roam across the country and are not just found in game reserves. Man has not yet pushed them into a few fenced-off areas.

"This is the last place in Africa where you can drive down the road and a cheetah will bound out in front of you," Donna Hanssen, Lise's sister-in-law explains. "In Namibia, the distinction between farmland and bush is blurred." Only around 25 per cent of the country is designated national park - 60 to 70 per cent is farmland - so the aim is to re-introduce the cats here, not in the reserves. "If you remove or shoot a leopard, young males will move into his territory and carve out areas for themselves, which means that the farmer will end up losing, say, 30 cattle instead of five in a given year." Africat's aim is to persuade the farmers to accept the big cats - to let them live on their farms and to understand that by shooting them they are not just upsetting the natural balance, they will lose more cattle in the long run.

At Okonjima, visitors help fund the work, by adopting a cheetah or simply by checking in. It might be worthy ( Blue Peter has just been here to film its Christmas special) but it is also fascinating - and luxurious. Our domed rondavel with its thatched roof and rough-hewn adobe walls painted burnt orange - the colour of the sand outside - was like a designer hide, scattered with African artefacts. On one side, the walls were canvas. Rolling them up, we gazed out at the oryx wandering past. The parched, golden grass swaying in the breeze was punctuated with gnarled thorn trees, the air full of birdsong.

After a brief rest, our guide Dean picked us up to go leopard-spotting. The cats are electronically tagged so that they can be monitored. A 4,000-hectare enclosure has been created as a sort of half-way house. Once the rangers are convinced that they can fend for themselves they will be released back into the wild. The following morning we checked up on the cheetahs before continuing on our whistle-stop tour. As we sped down the sandy runway the cheetahs, which can reach speeds of 115km/h, raced gracefully beside the plane.

Our next stop was Etosha, one of Africa's top game reserves along with the Serengeti, Masai Mara and Kruger. Etosha, with its huge shimmering pan, is bigger than Holland. We were staying just outside the park, on another farm that has been given a new lease of life. Opened last month, Onguma is a private reserve with just seven luxury tents positioned around a waterhole. This is camping with a difference. The tents are stylised and elegant, with black armchairs on the wooden decking outside, free-standing baths and huge walk-in showers; there's even a choice of pillows - hypoallergenic or feather. In fact, the attention to detail is painstaking, right down to the embroidered chocolate-brown slippers - and black canvas umbrellas and grey bean-bags around the little infinity plunge pool.

Peter Stark wouldn't recognise the place. Stark is a legendary white bushman who once farmed Onguma. (There's a book about Stark's life, called Der Weisse Buschmann, 'The White Bushman', but unfortunately it's available only in German.)

Andrew, our pilot, lived next door to him when he was a child. "He was a master horseman who could round up 30 elephant on horseback. He had trained his horses not to bolt at anything - they were his prize possessions."

Andrew remembers when he was four waking up in the middle of the night to a commotion outside. Running to his father's side, he saw Stark roaring off into the dark. A lion was after his horses. "The lion was trying to break into the stables, so Stark positioned his Land Rover between the animal and the building, driving repeatedly at the lion. Infuriated, it bit a huge chunk out of the bonnet but eventually retreated, skulking into the bush."

In this harsh, inhospitable land it's easy to understand how legends can be born.

A modern bush legend, Chris Bakkes, was waiting for us at the next stop, Palmwag Rhino* * Camp in Damaraland. A 90-minute flight due west from Etosha, bumping between storm clouds, the landscape changed from flat plain to dramatic table mountains. Owned by Wilderness Safaris, Palmwag camp opened in 2003 in conjunction with the Save the Rhino Trust. A percentage of each tourist's costs goes to the trust, which monitors the rare desert-dwelling black rhino. Palmwag is home to 70 per cent of black rhino in the region. The trust was founded by Blythe Loutit after she discovered that poachers were slaughtering the rhinos. She was responsible for increasing the population in this area from 40 in the early 1980s to about 120 today. At the end of the 20th century there were only 2,000 black rhino in the world, a quarter of which were in Namibia, of which one-third inhabited the rugged communal lands of the Kunene region.

It's a two-and-a-half-hour bumpy drive from the dirt airstrip at Palmwag to the camp. This otherworldly, rock-strewn land is punctuated by pale green balls - Euphorbia damarana bushes - that are poisonous to humans but food to the rhino. Bakkes met us as we pulled into camp. Towering well over six foot in his cowboy boots, with a long, tawny mane and beard, this half-lion, half- demi-god of a man looks as though he's mislaid his Harley Davidson. As well as one of his arms. When he was a ranger in the Kruger national park he was attacked by crocodiles. Wrestling with one locked under his arm, a second croc swam out of the murky waters and sank its jaw into his left arm, severing it at the elbow. He has also been mauled by a buffalo. The buffalo came off worse. This is the kind of man you want to have around when tracking rhino, although as he says: "Rhinos don't charge. They just investigate at high speed - and occasionally forget to brake." After the communal hurricane lamp-lit dinner he held court around the campfire (he also writes poetry and sings the blues).

The next morning we were up at 6.30am to follow the Save the Rhino Trust trackers. This vast rocky expanse is one of the last remaining wilderness areas. This is not a national park. The animals here have not been reintroduced but have always lived here. Bouncing along the track in the Land Rover, Bakkes expertly changing gear with what he calls his "short arm", we spotted oryx, giraffe, springbok and a bull elephant making his laborious way down a dry riverbed. The area contains 75 per cent of Namibia's endemic mammals - including the endangered Hartman's Mountain Zebra.

The trackers had located a couple of rhino; a young bull and his pregnant mother. Leaving the vehicle, we trudged up a sharp incline. From our high vantage point we could just make them out looking for a shady spot to shelter. The young bull clearly tired and fractious, his mother chivvying him on. We were down-wind, but suddenly the direction changed. Bakkes motioned for us to back away. The rhino are skittish and not used to humans. Wilderness Safaris and the Save the Rhino Trust have a zero-disturbance policy. This is a "leave no footprints - bring a telephoto lens" operation. It is a privilege to watch these primordial beasts lumbering free.

The flight to Twyfelfontein - where you can view Bushman art or track desert elephant - takes just 30 minutes. Mowani is the sister camp to Onguma, in a location that takes speech as well as your breath away. From a rolling landscape littered with tennis-ball sized rocks to a Flintstones-style boulder park, this is Arizona and then some. The tents are suspended on stilts among the orange rocks. The sunset viewpoint complete with makeshift bar and log seats, overlooks a sun-soaked panorama that leaves guests in silent awe.

Our final stop was Wolwedans, a safari camp in the NamibRand Nature Reserve two hours due south as the little Dunehopper flies. Each of the camps had been spectacular, but arriving at Wolwedans I understood why they had saved it till last. This was once a sheep farming region but the land has now been turned over to conservation, spearheaded by Stephan Bruckner's father. He persuaded others to join him and now Wolwedans, which is run as a non-profit-making project, comprises a 185,000-hectare reserve. In what was once 13 farms, 1,800km of fencing (the distance between Windhoek and Cape Town) has been removed.

The desert camp is rustic luxury rather than five-star accommodation. At Dune Lodge, the nine wooden chalets have beds hung with billowing netting and walls that roll up to an uninterrupted view of rolling dunes and the hulking shape of Loseberg mountain on the horizon. In the main lodge the old trunks, hurricane lamps, leather sofas and well-stocked bookshelves give the place a typically colonial air counterbalanced by the distinctive wooden architecture. The pool, surrounded by wooden decking blending into the dunes, offers an escape from the burning sands that scorch flip-flopped feet.

Activities include drives out into the reserve, hiking, scenic flights over the Fish River Canyon or hot-air ballooning. Whichever way you choose to soak up the colours of this Kodak-defying landscape, the impression you're left with is one of almost surreal beauty.

Surreal is also the word conjured up by the strange circles in the sand. Resembling crop circles, from above they look like flowers embroidered into the earth. Apart from the usual UFO theories, other explanations include deep termite burrows or sand that has been poisoned by euphorbia bushes. It remains an unsolved mystery.

The reserve is home to oryx, giraffe, zebra, leopard and hyena among others, but, as with the rest of Namibia, what the country predominantly offers is a scenic safari. The USP here is space. From the vast rolling dunes of the NamibRand to the boulder-strewn landscape of Damaraland, this is head-clearing, karma-soothing country. With wildlife an added bonus.

Andrew's colleague and fellow pilot David flew in while we were there and we drove into the dunes for sundowners as the sun set. After dinner he produced a Meade telescope and setting it up on the deck, unravelled the blanket of stars for us.

Too soon it was time to give Andrew back. We had already stretched the big shortbreak to its limit. With a little creative accounting, a long weekend had extended to a week. It was a bittersweet final flight. The only thing better than a long-haul short break? A long-haul long break.

GETTING THERE

The only direct flights from the UK are on Air Namibia (020-7960 6016; www.airnamibia.com) which flies from Gatwick to Windhoek three times a week. The writer travelled with Original Travel (020-7978 7333; www.originaltravel.co.uk) which offers five-night trips to Wolwedans from £2,130 per person.

For this seven-night tailor-made trip staying full-board at Okonjima, Onguma, Palmwag Rhino camp, Mowani Mountain Camp and Wolwedans Lodge prices start from £2,980 per person including international flights, charter flights plus pilot/guide and activities at camps.

MORE DETAILS

Namibia Tourism Board (0870 330 9333; www.namibiatourism.com.na)

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