The Namib desert is one of the world’s most extreme environments. Covering 81,000 square kilometres, its vastness can only truly be appreciated from above. Here, Lottie Gross flies along the Atlantic coast and over the dunes for a new perspective on this incredible environment.
Our plane was getting lower and lower – so much so that I could see the stripes on the backs of the zebra trotting along the rust-red dunes below us. I shifted nervously in my seat, exchanging glances with my fellow passengers, wondering when we’d ascend again. We weren’t scheduled to land here. There was no airstrip. It was the middle of the Namib desert – one of the most extreme landscapes on Earth.
Images of a stranded, sand-enveloped plane crash – reminiscent of scenes from Flight of the Phoenix, which, incidentally, was shot right here – flickered through my mind.
Just as I was thinking I should tell the pilot, who perhaps hadn’t realised we were getting so low that I could make eye contact with an oryx grazing beneath us, the ground dropped from beneath our aircraft and we sailed happily through the sky and into the Kuiseb Canyon. I breathed a sigh of relief, along with the rest of my flying companions, and the pilot turned to give a wry smile. That was cruel.
The world’s oldest desert is also one of its most extreme. The Namib is a place of towering, deep-orange sand dunes, contrasted by bright-white mineral pans and red, rocky outcrops.
Driving through its barren landscape is an otherworldly experience. The previous day, our vehicle had been the only one for miles around as we drove at sunrise to watch the light reveal a Martian terrain. The black sky turned to pink and then finally to blue; like a curtain being lifted, darkness gave way to views across the stunning Namib-Naukluft National Park.
The rocks dissolved into dramatic mounds of fine, lurid sand – bright orange on one side and black in shadow on the other.
Later that morning, we had walked in torrid temperatures through Sossusvlei and stood beneath those towering dunes, so high they’re hard to comprehend – until you realise the black speck racing down the steep sandy slope is actually human.
A sight as striking and eerie in person as it is in the many photographs that feature in Namibia’s tourist brochures
Sossusvlei (which translates to “dead-end marsh”) is home to the iconic Dead Vlei: once a lush pool formed after the Tsauchab river flooded. It’s now a parched, bright-white clay and mineral pan scattered with jet-black, petrified trees and surrounded by the area’s enormous flaming dunes. A sight as striking and eerie in person as it is in the many photographs that feature in Namibia’s tourism brochures.
It’s only from the air, though, that you can begin to comprehend how this unusual and bewitching landscape was born. So in our tiny plane, that’s where we were headed: back to Sossusvlei to see the spectacle from above.
We climbed out of the canyon and continued towards the desert, flying south, and watched with wonderment as the environment below shifted from flat desert into undulating dunes that look like ocean waves stuck on pause.
The ocean actually shaped this landscape, known as the Namib Dune Sea: sand from the seabed is pushed onto the beach as the Atlantic powerfully strikes the shoreline, creating huge dunes. These sands have been forced so far inland that they cover an area as big as Belgium and stretch along the coast as far as South Africa and Angola.
I was struck by speechlessness; with no signs of life it felt almost prehistoric
It is a sight so vast, especially from above, that it felt as if nothing else in the world could possibly exist in that moment. I was struck by speechlessness as we approached Sossusvlei; with no signs of life, the landscape felt almost prehistoric.
But there is life in the Namib desert, and it’s that which makes the landscape even more astonishing. We had seen oryx, with their long, majestic horns grazing on what looked like dead shrubbery. The scrub, however, was effectively just hibernating: plants in the desert remain entirely dried out and crisp for most of their lives, but as soon as rain falls – which is extremely rarely – they blossom into being. Flowers are opened and seeds sown by the wind to create new life in this usually deathly dry terrain.
As we flew back towards the ocean and north following the coast, towards our landing point at the German colonial city of Swakopmund, even more life – and death – became evident along the shoreline.
Colonies of seals dotted the water’s edge and flamingos soared, wings wide, beneath our plane, while hulking, rusted shipwrecks lay bare on the beach, engulfed by the sands of time.
Finally back into civilisation, we landed in Swakopmund, reeling with adrenaline and excitement but lost for words to describe our aerial encounter with the Namib desert.
Later that night, as I watched the sun set over the Atlantic from a waterfront restaurant in the city, I found the words.
The Namib desert is a land that perfectly embodies the power and force of nature: not only its power to move and shape the lands we live in, but also its potential to enthrall and evoke the most profound emotion.