08/03/2012 07:16 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Namibia: A Different Africa

If anyone would have mentioned Namibia to me five years ago, I don't think I would have been able to tell you where in Africa it was, much less want to pack my bags and go. But after being on safari in Kenya and Tanzania, I was ready for a different Africa, and Namibia fit the bill.

Namibia is on the southwestern coast of Africa with the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Angola and Zambia in the north, South Africa in the south and Botswana in the east. At one time it was part of South Africa and received its independence in 1990. Because a large part of the land is comprised of the Namib desert, it's one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It was one of the most scenic and dramatic trips I've taken.

I wouldn't recommend this trip as a first Africa trip, but if you have already been on safari and have seen the big animals, this would be the next trip to take. Not that we didn't see elephants, lions and giraffes and a white rhino at Etosha Park, but on safari it's a different feel. In Namibia, it's more natural beauty and the amazing tribes. We saw the bright red/orange of the Namib desert, ancient tribes of Namibia, cave carvings dating back to 10-20 million years ago, the Cape Fur seal colony along the Skeleton Coast and many other sights.

One of the most spectacular sights on this trip were the Sossusvlei sand dunes in the Namib desert. The bright red/orange sand dunes, developed over millions of years, stand out against the blue sky and are every photographers dream.

I was lucky enough to be at the dunes at sunrise -- it was well worth getting up at an ungodly hour to see the colors of the dunes change from inky purple to salmon to bright red. The play of shadows and light made everything even more spectacular. The sand, the color of cinnamon, was soft and fine as it sifted through my fingers. Then we moved on to the most photographed dune in the world, Dune 45 -- it was dramatic.

Then it was on to Big Daddy, the highest dune in the area at about 1,000 feet high, and it was just waiting to be climbed. I stuck my walking pole in the sand and moved on up. It was good fun! We then walked about two miles to Deadvlei, the dead sea. This area was once an oasis until the river that watered the oasis changed course. Now old and blackened dead acacia trees populate the dry river beds. This scene will probably not change for centuries because the bacteria that causes decay aren't present.

I hated to leave the sand dunes but was looking forward to the next stop, the Skeleton Coast, 90 minutes flying time south, to the Cape Fur seal colony at Cape Cross. It was a foggy, misty morning, but just as we reached the seal colony, the mist and fog lifted. Thousands and thousands of seals were sprawled all over the beach, honking and basking in the sun.

The odor was almost overpowering. We saw black-back jackals among the seals -- looking for a snack? They usually eat carrion, but will not turn down a seal pup if mama isn't around to protect it. One out of four pups don't make it.

Our next stop was Damaraland, a 90-minute flight on our 12-seater Caravan plane to see, among other things, the Welwitshcia, a very strange plant found only in the Namib Desert. It survives in very harsh areas where the annual rainfall is often less than an inch and where the coastal fog is equivalent to about another two inches. The oldest living Welwitshcia is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 years. Hard to imagine anything living that long!

The visit to the Himba tribe was another highlight. It was a long, dusty ride made bearable by fabulous desert scenery with bottle trees, tall grasses and mountains in the distance. The Himba are herdsmen, breeding mainly cattle and goats while leading a semi-nomadic life. They migrate with their herds to different waterholes from season to season. Before we entered the village, we needed to get permission from the chief who was about 65 with no teeth, but that didn't stop him from smiling a lot. The women were all bare-breasted and completely covered in red ochre.

For the Himba, clothes, hair and jewelry hold a special meaning and are an important part of their tradition and culture. The Himba women cream their whole body, including their hair, with a mixture of butterfat and ochre, scented with the aromatic resin of a local shrub. The cream gives the body an intense reddish glow, the Himba ideal of beauty.

Our meals were excellent, some of the tidbits we had included filet of springbok with chutney cauliflower, braised oryx and biltong (oryx jerky) with goat cheese, lettuce and honey. Strange combo, but pretty good. For the less adventurous, Western food was available also.

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Namibia: A Different Africa