At dawn, three weeks before the winter solstice, the last tendrils of fog curled gray against the pinking sky over a sand dune on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert. A jackal trotted west toward a stand of camel thorn trees. An oryx cruised doggedly toward a water hole at a nearby tourist camp. A tenebrionid beetle scuttled shiny black on the red sand, leaving perfect beetle tracks in its wake. Next to me was Rudolph !Naibab,* a safari guide who grew up on recalcitrant earth in the Kunene region, roughly 300 miles north of this spot in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, raising sheep, goats, and donkeys on his grandmother's farm. (*The ! before Naibab is one of the notations for click sounds in the local languages.)
!Naibab is 30, but he has a much older man's acumen, something he attributes to being raised in the desert. "This land makes you consider life and death every day," he said. "And war. I was raised during war. That can also make you wise in a hurry."
Namibia's civil war started in 1966 and lasted 22 years. In 1990, when Namibia at last gained independence from South Africa, it was one of the first countries in the world to write protection of the environment into its constitution. It was as if Namibians recognized that having fought for the land beneath their feet, they were now profoundly responsible for it.