Into a Still Country: On Safari in Namibia
by Janis Turk
“Now Africa received him, and would change him, and make him one with herself.”
I write the word in my travel journal. It buzzes like a mosquito about my head. Not “roar,” “wild” or “vast,” as I might have imagined. No, the overwhelming, all-encompassing word that Africa speaks to me is quiet.
And like one who picks up a Bible and drops her finger on a passage for a message from above, in my tent on safari in Namibia, I pick up Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and am pleased to fall upon this line:
“After a little while, you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world into a still country.”
Though Africa is still, tonight her stars are almost loud. They are more clamorous than the throaty grunts of springbok and oryx, their light sharper than the handsome horns of kudu or the claws of the lioness as she tears the flesh of a baby zebra at sundown.
I’ve been on safari in for less than a week so far, and yet I have already moved beyond merely making the acquaintance of the constellations, I have come to know intimately the personalities of Orion and the Gemini twins, the sharp bark of Sirius, the crab claws of Cancer, and the stinging curve of Scorpio’s tail.
The Southern Cross and I are absolutely smitten with one another, too. All this in just three nights. Like foolish lovers who are wholly certain, after only a few dates, that we have found soul mates and are destined to marry right away.
“The vault of the nocturnal sky swung back over our heads as we sat on, new constellations of stars came up from the East,” writes Dinesen. She knew them first.
Sossusvlei, Namibia, is more than an hour by small aircraft from any town or city lights. Here in the dark still wilderness, The Milky Way is not afraid to show her soft underbelly, like the white underside of an oryx bordered by a line of dark Kahlúa-colored hide. At first light when we rise to see the animals awake, the land is purple and glowy.
“Toward the West, deep down, lies the dry, moon-like landscape of the African low country. The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thorn buses, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty, wide-branching Mimosa-trees with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the house of the Giraffe and the Rhino,” writes Dinesen.
Here in Southwest Africa, near the great dunes of the Namib Desert, the landscape is indeed moon-like, and thorn bushes sprawl across the horizon. Our first introduction to the still life of the safari comes through the serene Wilderness Safaris’ Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp.
At the large main lodge, doors open to miles of sprawling yellow-green grasses and the high sand dunes of the not-distant desert. The camp’s individual thatched-roof cabins are spacious, self-contained, individual houses set on a high ridge overlooking a broad savanna.
Rooms are comfortable with king-sized beds, full bathrooms and all the amenities of a nice hotel — even a private plunge pool and windows open to the wind, stars, grasses and sand. The large indoor shower has wide windows open to nature, but only the stars can see me. There is nothing but quiet out there. The camp is elegant, sparse and quiet, like the land around it.
We rise early for breakfast and then spend the morning hours exploring in a Land Rover as we watch the light play rosy wake-up games with the trees. We spy birds’ nests as enormous as oversized beehives. Jackals cut across the fields with faces like friendly dogs. (I’d always thought jackals were ugly animals; how wrong I was).
We climb red gold sand dunes at dawn and watch hot air balloons lift with the sun. Once we even dine beside the dunes on tables laid with white linens and heavy plates. We toast each sunset and then break bread with travelers who have flown in today from other camps. Evenings have a surreal hitchhikers-on-the-edge-of-the-galaxy glow to them with friends, wine and fine food. And again the stars are stunning.
We explore more of Namibia by air. From high above the plains, the grasses run one way in the wind, like a land covered in scurrying field mice that run across the ground changing the color of the earth, only to turn and run in another direction altogether. It is just the grass, going where it will with the wind. Like me.
I am impressed by the next lodge at Damaraland. In an innovative partnership with ecotourism / conservation organization Wilderness Safaris, the local community built and now runs the camp. Thanks to their agreement, in fewer than 15 years, they will own the site outright.
The staff’s welcome is most heartfelt. They sing and demonstrate a language that sounds like a series of clicks. They sit by the fire with us and tell stories of their children. We meet our guide’s father at his home in the bush. He is upset because elephants have stomped through his garden.
For the final leg of the safari, my friend Marc and I fly to the almost 14-hundred-square-mile game reserve of Etosha National Park. Here are more animals than we’ve ever seen. The camps are posh, especially Little Ongava, which is Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous-lovely, with air conditioning, hair dryers and indoor/outdoor showers. But none of that detracts from the quiet and the civilized natural order that envelops everything.
The staff tells me that one night a lion walked across the bottom of their just-painted swimming pool and the cook found the yawning animal reclining on a chaise lounge at the breakfast area in the morning. We are wise to remember that this is their home — the lion and all the other wild and brazenly beautiful animals — we are the interlopers. We are merely travelers, wayfaring strangers there.
Each morning we watch giraffe and zebra drink from a watering hole below the deck where we take our coffee. They don’t mind visitors in the morning, as long as we stay quiet — which is fine with me.
Yes, this is a still country, and I am a lonely stranger here. I am not like Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, who wore heavy trousers when the world wore skirts, who could shoot and skin a lion, who could treat the wounds of the people on her farm, who could grow coffee all alone on a plantation in Kenya on land that was too high up, who could do it all alone.
I am a city girl in many ways, or a small town girl anyway — or, at the very least an American to the core. For instance, I arrived in Johannesburg and headed toward an Italian restaurant before stopping myself to say, “What are you thinking, you insane tourist?” I then ducked into a local spot where I dined on ostrich and kudu.
I disappoint myself, sometimes: I’m not always the world traveler I see myself to be. I worry too much about what is correct or incorrect, how I travel, how I pack, how I dress, what I eat or won’t eat, how adventurous or I am or am not, what I do, what I say — how others see me. Ridiculous.
Africa doesn’t care. She’s not much impressed with the fact that I’m a travel writer or an American. She never looks for my byline. She will never “Google” or “Friend” me. She doesn’t care that I’m not wearing khaki like the others on safari. She doesn’t wonder what awards I have won or where I speak and tour. She’ll never count the number of pegs on my map.
No, she pays no mind to such nonsense. Her concerns are for greater things: When will the rains come? Where will the wildebeests find fresh grass? Is the baby elephant going to be born soon? So, what restaurant I choose in Jo-Burg? Gafaw! People are eating gruel in a tin shed two miles away. No, Africa’s not thinking of me; she’s not even much concerned about them, either.
In the quiet, such things are of no consequence at all.
There are sunsets to paint. There are footprints in sand dunes that must be swept away by the night wind. There are ships to wreck along the Skeleton Coast. There are rivers drying in the sun. What are these people to her who have come to this place? So what that I am smitten with her stars? “Go ahead, take them,” she says and rolls her eyes. Africa laughs when I am not looking. Namibia is indifferent.
But at night she is kinder: Quiet. Peace be still.
“The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it. The art of moving gently, without suddenness… When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music,” writes Dinesen.
It is the same in all her music.
I spend a little more than two weeks in Africa. Every few days I move to another part of Namibia and fly from across broad swathes of windblown grass. I see valleys. Dry riverbeds. Mountains. Rocks. It looks like Sedona in some places. Like Ireland in others. Like Texas, often.
The stillness follows me from camp to camp. Damaraland, with its rocky dried riverbeds and elephants; Ongava, with thousands of springbok and zebra, hundreds of lions, big black rhino, and giraffe. Seeing the giraffe for the first time in the wild is astounding. Marc and I stand up in the Land Rovers and our glasses fall off our startled faces. It is exactly like that scene in Jurassic Park when the people behold the dinosaurs for the first time.
Dinesen writes that “Camping-places fix themselves in your mind as if you have spent long periods of your life in them. You will remember a curve of your wagon track in the grass of the plain like the features of a friend.”
I will long remember each camp, each face I saw, young springbok leaping when the rains were impending, the star-crossed lovers of Africa I met along the way — people just like me, travelers, tourists in the galaxy, star-smitten lovers, strangers all.
I will remember the click language I heard and the songs Africa has taught me. I will laugh to have been shown the silly importance I have placed on who and what I think I am, and remember instead to be more concerned with the greater questions — who am I actually being at this moment?
How am I choosing to spend this day? This life? How do I treat others and this planet? To fall into the rhythm of Africa. To listen to the soul and the sound of the places I inhabit. To find in them the word that I can sneak through airport security and Customs and take home with me.
Dinesen writes that in Kenya she would wake in the morning and think, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”
Back in my own bed, I awake while it is still dark. The quiet of my family’s breathing surrounds me in the house. Africa lies within me. Quiet.
“I did not know I was at the height and upon the roof of my own life,” writes Dinesen of her time in Africa.
I know that I am at the height and roof of mine, but it seems I remember this only when I lie very still.
IF YOU GO:
Wilderness Safaris, with camps in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Seychelles, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Places I highly recommend seeing in and around Cape Town and the lovely nearby wine lands: