On our last proper day in Namibia, we went for a flight tour over the Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast. The plane was due to take off from an airport on the outskirts of a small seaside town called Swakopmund.
The night before we had arrived fresh off a three-day trip into the desert (which by the way is probably one of the best experiences of my life if only because of the view of the stars at night), and had checked into a hotel that turned out to be little more than a row of containers. The interior was, shall we say, minimalist – although frankly what little furnishing they had was a huge luxury compared to the tents and sleeping bags we had been using for the rest of the trip. To top it off, we had discovered a restaurant with an amazing seafood curry that unequivocally put the ham sandwiches we’d had for three meals a day the past six days to shame.
The restaurant was built around a real tug boat overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When we arrived it was just past nine at night. It was dark out – the only lights around were those of the restaurant and the hazy, flickering embers of a dozen lit cigarettes in the hands of lovers on the beach. The dazzling night sky I’d become so accustomed to in the desert was completely shrouded by the heavy fog and opaque clouds that had swept in from the ocean. Yet, through the dress of white, you could still hear the ocean’s ceaseless, timeless rhythm breaking along the nearly invisible coast.
The fog was to persist till the morning of the day our flight was scheduled to take off. At eight in the morning, the flight operator called to inform us that there was a good chance the flight would be cancelled given the poor weather conditions. “No flights yesterday and the day before,” she said, “The conditions just won’t allow it. Let’s wait and see.”
Miraculously, half an hour before our scheduled take-off, the fog lifted and the skies cleared. It was to stay clear right up to the time we touched back down on the runway, a window of almost exactly two hours. In effect we were the only flight to have made it out in three days.
What luck, and what an experience! I’d thought it would be terrifying to be in such a small plane – they look almost toy-like and capable of getting blown off-course at the slightest cross-wind. But something about being able to see exactly what the pilot is doing (i.e. looking utterly calm and unconcerned) was very reassuring.
The first hour or so we fly in a roughly straight line over the desert. From this vantage point it isn’t always possible to make out the undulations of the sands beneath us, particularly because the noon-time sun is at its apex and there aren’t a lot of shadows to throw the dunes in relief. But the lines that are ridges of the dunes crisscross each other in a satisfyingly abstract way, at times in a confluence of whorls, other times in stark perpendicular edges, and yet others in beautiful snaking patterns.
Then there is the spectrum of colours – from the red, iron-rich sands that blow in from the Kalahari Desert, to the muted beige that stretches endlessly in all directions, to the golden dunes that fall abruptly into the Atlantic. At one point a vivid furrow of green, so out of place in this barren landscape, comes into view. It neatly demarcates two distinct environments: a vast granite plain on the left, and dunes of red on the right. We meander along the belt for a while as the pilot yells to us over the roar of the propellers, “The trees follow an underground river!” And indeed, far below, we can see this unexpected oasis of life wind its riverine way into the distance – leading, I imagine perhaps overly romantically, to a lost jungle paradise – as we reluctantly break off and veer towards the coast.
Before we see the Atlantic Ocean we see the shipwrecks. They languish in eerie abandon, their once proud features now skeletal and weathered a rusty brown. The wrecks are so far inland because the desert constantly pushes its way into the Atlantic, so year by year the ocean slowly loses its grasp on its ill-fated victims.
Now we are flying along Skeleton Coast. The contrast – of colour and movement – between the desert and the ocean is equal parts stunning and haunting in its desolation. It’s impossible to be here and not realize how large the world is, and just how small we are in the grand scheme of time and space.
It's ninety minutes into our flight. Before we arrive back at Swakopmund, there are a few more treats for us: pockets of Cape fur seals lounging on the beach, an inlet bordered by pink flamingoes, and a flock that motors by some ways beneath us.
Then, all too soon, the flight ended and we descended back into the encroaching fog. As we taxied down the runway the world behind us gradually disappeared into dreary whiteness, and it felt uncannily like waking up from a lucid dream. Only this time, we knew it was real, and as I type this on my laptop, I smile at the thought of this spectacular realm of wildness that endures its way through the ages, somewhere across the globe from where I am right now.