Ultratravel - Emptiness: the new luxury
Winter 2012

Space and silence are our balm in hectic times. Michelle Jana Chan is soothed, on contrasting journeys across the vast Namibian desert and the surreal salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Suspecting a flat tyre, I pulled over just before the town of Palmwag. As I got out and walked around the vehicle, the puncture hissed at me like a snake. As I extracted the jack and wheel brace from the boot, it began to rain -- in one of the world’s driest countries. Swiftly, the drizzle swelled to a full-on thunderstorm, yet I smiled to myself like a small child playing outdoors. Changing a tyre on the hard shoulder of the M25 may not be much fun, but by the side of the road in northern Namibia, with a herd of springbok staring at through the downpour, it’s an adventure.

After the wheel-change I turned north-west. In the back of my 4x4 Jeep Wrangler, I still had a second spare tyre, a jerrycan of extra fuel and other supplies. I felt as though I could drive forever.

Namibia is an ideal choice for a road trip in Africa. The sealed roads are in excellent condition, there is minimal traffic, and the only serious hazard is flagged by signposts warning of crossing warthogs and kudus; it is wise to drive only in daylight hours.

My route was a classic self-drive circuit taking in the wonders of Bushmanland in the north-east; Etosha, Namibia’s finest national park; the remote border with Angola; rugged Damaraland; the Skeleton Coast and the red dunes of NamibRand Nature Reserve.

Travelling across the hot, unmoving landscape was like driving through a still life. Even the animals were motionless, conserving their energy in the parched habitat. From one hour to the next, the landscape barely altered, save perhaps for driving through the shadow of a cloud. Only the fuel gauge indicated I was making progress.

I filled up with petrol in Sesfontein. The attendant estimated it would take four hours to cover the next 60 or so miles; I was unlikely to see any cars en route, he added. The “road” ahead comprised deep, soft sand and he advised me to release some air from my tyres.

As I turned towards the village of Puros, the gravel road petered out. Instead I followed the sandy tracks of previous vehicles. Sometimes the tyre marks diverged or entirely disappeared but I pressed on westwards through forests of stocky mopane trees and passing wind-whipped sculpted mountains. I slowed to watch a herd of oryx turn and canter off. A small brood of guinea fowl scuttled across the road.

Now and then I stopped to stretch my legs. It was good to smell the hot earth and the dry grass. Once I saw a distant fork of lightning in a blue cloudless sky.

Arriving in Puros, I traversed dry river beds to reach Okahirongo Elephant Lodge, a crude yet elegant hotel made up of seven adobe rondavels blending into the ochre and terracotta hues of the natural landscape. After checking in, I headed out accompanied by an intuitive tracker named Pollen to seek the elusive desert-adapted elephants.

“Look,” Pollen said. pointing at the sky.
I followed his finger but could detect nothing.
“Can’t you see it? The aeroplane.”
I smiled. It seemed it might be more unusual to spot planes here than wild animals.

I scanned the mountains with my binoculars but it was Pollen who first spotted a small herd with his naked eye. They were a good way off, loping down the flank of the mountain. We drove to a spring in the otherwise dry Hoarusib river bed and eventually the great animals appeared -- wise, like us, to the fresh water. I noticed their desert adaptations: longer legs and larger feet to ease walking upon sand. Their trunks were also longer in order to probe for deeper water. They drank deliberately before pausing to look up at our vehicle, their ears flapping in the heat.

Back at the lodge, I spoke with the owner Pieter De Wet. “It’s true that it is difficult to get to places like this, but I’m finding it’s what people increasingly want,” he said. “They don’t mind having to travel deeper into wilderness.” De Wet has a second property further north, in an even more remote part of the country, and that was my next destination.

It was a half-day drive up to the Angolan border, through the Marienfluss Valley, framed by the Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains. The landscape draws together red sand and grassy scrubland, and is dotted with ‘fairy circles’, round patches devoid of vegetation. Even the clouds seem more beautiful: a solitary puff; a cheeky flick and -- with a dose of imagination -- all sorts of abstract, amorphous creatures in the sky. I passed lonesome trees, skittish gemsbok and beaten-up cars. “You have to be sure of yourself in a place like this,” a fellow traveller told me. “It is not for everyone. It can be too big and too empty for some.”

Okahirongo River Camp came up suddenly. Merging with the rocky terrain, its stilted canvas tents with private decks overlook the charging Kunene, the river that serves as the border with Angola. Dusty from the road, I clambered down the bank to slide into the cool water. “Make sure you swim only in moving water,” De Wet had advised. “Crocodiles don’t like rapids.”

I looked across at Angola’s barren mountains. There was a neat column of rain in the distance but I could see nothing else moving. Only through my binoculars could I make out a donkey or two.

“It is the lack of people that draws travellers here,” said Leander Borg, who founded the local operator NatureFriend Safaris. “Namibia allows you to breathe. You can dangle your soul in the endless space.”

Towards the end of my trip, Borg had organised a mobile safari among the high dunes south of Swakopmund. In our 4x4s, we drove up and down the mountains of burnished sand, teetering over the lips of dunes before hurtling down the other side, then flooring it up the next peak. We came across a family of ostriches, followed by some nervous springbok. They looked as startled to see us as we were to see them.

We stopped to set up camp and, as the first stars appeared, built a fire. “This is where we come from,” Borg said, poking at the embers. “For thousands of years we’ve been sitting around fires. Maybe it is an instinctive thing to come out in the bush and do this.”

The temperature dropped overnight and we awoke to dew on the ground -- which many of the desert-adapted animals suck to slake their thirst. A cool, low mist burnt off by late morning.

Chris McIntyre, author of the Bradt Guide to Namibia, believes it is these kinds of experiences that make people fall for this part of Africa. “Space is surely the ultimate luxury,” he said. “People say they want to see game -- but when you quiz them, it is not animals they are interested in, but wilderness. Otherwise they could just as well go to Whipsnade Zoo. What they really want is to get away from it all, and Namibia provides that more than anywhere else in Africa.“

I ended my road trip in the NamibRand, one of southern Africa’s largest private nature reserves, where the capacity of lodges and camps is strictly limited to 20 beds per lodge. At Wolwedans Dune Camp, there are just six tents, each on a spacious wooden platform. Its sister camp, Wolwedans Boulders, has only four tents, making it feel more exclusive still.

But Namibia is not the only part of the world where extreme silence and solitude beckon. Six thousand miles to the west, at about the same latitude. lie the Atacama desert and Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest and highest-altitude salt pans. Seven years ago, inspired by their remoteness, the Chilean travel company Explora set up its “travesias” -- overland 4x4 journeys, taking guests deep into South America’s most inaccessible regions.

“These trips are for people attracted to the idea of a nomadic journey,” said Jesús Parrilla, Explora’s CEO. “On my first travesia, I remember, we had four flat tyres in 90 minutes. One guest turned to me and said, ‘This is fantastic.’ People want to be surprised; they want to disconnect; they want an adventure.”

I joined a group leaving the oasis of San Pedro, in the heart of the Chilean north. From there we crossed the border. where Bolivian immigration was an isolated outpost. A windswept group of Japanese tourists waited patiently outside the hut, clutching their passports.

Days on the road were long and languorous. Through the vehicle window, we gazed out at lagoons of vibrant hue infused by various minerals. Andean geese waddled on the banks. We piled out of the van from time to time, to explore the geothermal plains of Sol de Mañana, with its pools of violently spurting bubbling mud, or to take photographs of dramatic rocks and ancient lichen. The scrub was a mix of stunted, luminous-green bushes and giant, candelabra-shaped cacti. Herds of heavy-coated llama stared at our vehicle as it passed.

On the third day, way in the distance, we caught our first sight of the blurred smear of Uyuni’s salt pans. As we drove closer, we could make out the granular nature of the salt crust, glistening like quartz. The tessellated surface was made up of misshapen polygons, formed as the salt dries and crystallises. It crackled underfoot. Oddly, the surface was studded with carcasses of dead butterflies which become disorientated as they fly above Uyuni’s dazzling landscape. Parts of the pan were flooded, turning the surface into a gigantic mirror. Flocks of flamingoes offered up flawless reflections.

By night we slept on camp beds in cottages of stone or wood, and sometimes inside shipping containers kitted out for the purpose. Conditions were simple but snug; outside it was -20ºC, with blistering winds. In the middle of the night, when I needed to dart out to the lavatory (housed in a separate shipping container), I reminded myself to look up at the night sky. With the high altitude and low light pollution, this is one of the world’s best locations for astronomers, as well as for casual stargazers. The skies are so full, it can be hard to pinpoint even the brightest, best-known constellations.

For one traveller in my group, a Frenchwoman called Claire Delattre, the trip had all the elements she was seeking. “Of course this kind of trip is not for everyone,” she conceded, “but I’m not looking for comfort. I want unique landscapes. It is places like this where you remember your place in the world.”

NAMIBIA: How to stay in splendid isolation
Break an intrepid journey in the wilderness at these six oases of civilization

The Olive Exclusive
This stylist boutique hotel, in a leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Windhoek, has seven suites -- four of them with plunge pools -- decorated with locally sourced artefacts, such as masks, bongo drums and painted oryx horns. From the terraced restaurant, guests look east towards green hills. Close to the airport, the place is ideal for a one-night pause after landing and before hitting the road.

Onguma Tented Camp
Located on the eastern side of Etosha, the country’s finest national park, Onguma overlooks an active waterhole and game can be seen from the private deck or shower of each of its seven luxury tents. Well located for day trips into the park, the camp is is surrounded by more than 34.000 hectares of savannah, bushveld and dry pan, so it is well worth spending a day on safari in the immediate area.

Okahirongo River Camp
Located near the the remote Namibia-Angola border on the banks of the crocodile-infested Kunene River, the rocky terrain is dotted with half a dozen tented suites furnished iwth four-poster beds, riotously colourful beaded chairs and block-printed graphic textiles. Among the activities available at the camp are fishing, birdwatching and visits to local villages, home to the semi-nomadic Himba people.

Okahirongo Elephant Lodge
Built on a rocky escarpment, the hotel has seven villas, each with an indoor and outdoor shower, and a lounge-gazebo overlooking the the dry Hoarisib river bed. It’s a spot frequented by desert elephant, giraffe, kudus and ostriches. Trackers take guests on morning and evening game drives to seek out even closer encounters with wildlife.

Mowani Mountain Camp
Situated between the Ugab and Huab rivers, this revamped lodge comprises 12 new stilted suites overlooking the rocky wilderness of southern Damaraland. Each has its own wooden deck and a domed roof thatched with buffalo-grass domed roofs. There is a sundowner spot with panoramic views, high up on the granite koppie, as well as a pool carved out between gigantic boulders. Nearby are the Bushmen engravings at Twyfelfontein.

Wolwedans Dune Camp
In the heart of the NamibRand private nature reserve, this camp sits right on the edge of an 800ft-high dune that towers majestically above it. Just 12 paying guests are accommodated in open tents erected on wooden platforms, each with a spacious deck for sleep-outs under the stars. Scenic drives take in the fascinating geological formations, as well as the hardy flora and fauna.

Salar de Uyuni: How to do it
Explora offers several overland journeys around the remote regions of South America, all of them aimed at the active and well-travelled. These travesias begin or end at one of the company’s lodges in the Atacama desert or in Patagonia, and guests travel in 4x4s and stay at simple camps en route. Night-time temperatures can fall well below zero, and activities include hiking at altitudes higher than 4,000m (about 13,000ft) above sea level.
There are two Explora travesias to the Salar de Uyuni salt pans. One begins in Potosí -- the historic Bolivian city where vast silver deposits sustained the Spanish empire for centuries -- and ends in the oasis of San Pedro in Chile’s Atacama desert. The second route begins in San Pedro, curves into Bolivia, and ends in Iquique on the northern Chilean coast. Both journeys encompass high-altitude trekking, exploring geothermal landscapes and driving across the salt pans. Similar journeys are available with Explora to the open spaces of the Andes and Patagonia.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Red Savannah (www.redsavannah.com).