Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic Stock

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See spot: Fairy circles speckle the Namib Desert.

Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic Stock

TravelTraveler Magazine

Running on Empty


From the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The Cessna Grand Caravan is flying low, 400 to 500 feet, above the wind-sculpted Namibian landscape, and I’m gazing down over a phenomenon called “fairy circles”—spots where vegetation doesn’t grow and the sandy soil lies exposed. Red polka dots in a sea of green or orange, they look like a scene from the movie Holes, or maybe large-scale paintings by aliens in the style of Victor Vasarely, the optical illusion artist. Nobody can explain why the barren patches always make a circle, and no scientist has proven why nothing grows there. Fairy circles remain the perfect name and explanation.

Clipping along at 130 miles an hour, our single-engine ride functions as a moving observation deck, allowing us to digest huge swaths of the sunburned Namib Desert in air-cooled comfort. In addition to the fairy circles, the view shifts from black-streaked mountains to abstract sandstone formations to flat and yellow grass-filled pans. From up here, wandering herds of massive oryx look like swarming ant farms. The highest sand dunes in the world morph from shades of putty to rich ocher. Yet amid all this scenic variety, there is sameness to the picture, a sense of vast nothingness. Namibia is the big empty.

Roughly twice the size of California, Namibia has a population of some 2.3 million. That’s just seven people per square mile, making it one of the planet’s least densely populated nations. Because the country is big and our visit is short, our group of eight has opted to spend time here in the Grand Caravan to get a broader sense of place. Andrea Guerra, our pilot and guide, is as addicted to getting the big picture as anyone, but he also knows that close encounters are essential. He’s chosen each lodge stay and land excursion so that we can see, touch, and marvel at what was too tiny to be impressive from the air. At each stop, the same lesson is reinforced: “There is life in the big empty.” Conditions may be harsh, but the persistent survive and in some cases thrive, from the world’s largest cheetah population to fur seals along the aptly named Skeleton Coast. Flying down a section where dunes dissolve into the Atlantic, we spot the bones of old shipwrecks and abandoned mining camps and gain some understanding of why the Bushmen dubbed this area “the land God made in anger.” However, it’s only when we land and drive to the Cape Cross fur seal colony—and breathe in the pungency of 100,000 marine mammals—that we fully comprehend just how alive the Skeleton Coast is.

Inland one afternoon, two of us drive out from our camp at the Okahirongo Elephant Lodge in search of desert elephants. Logic would suggest something as big as an elephant would be easy to spot in a treeless, wide-open desert landscape. Logic would also suggest we start at the river where there is food and shade. But our logic would be wrong—or at least different from elephant logic—because we see no sign of the oversize herbivores, although we do see giraffes, ostriches, and antelopes. Once at the river, we see evidence that the elephants were there earlier, but now, in the heat of the day, they seem to have headed into the barren beyond. We follow their tracks for two hours, seeing only footprints and dung piles, and can’t help but wonder how something so big could completely disappear, at least without the help of David Copperfield. Finally, 20 miles from the river, we locate five elephants eating a cluster of spiny commiphora trees. They’ve come here to dine on this plant known for its fragrant resin used in incense. I see a potential new perfume ad campaign: “Guaranteed to attract your man. Field-tested on elephants—the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Despite Namibia’s sparseness, one member of our group, Joe, has grown increasingly anxious. Every night he looks into the darkness, stares into the unknown, and asks, “Is there a way to lock the doors of the rooms?” A guy from New York City, he’s having trouble adjusting to the big empty. Lodge staffers echo what we’ve seen from the plane, that there are no towns or even villages nearby. But Joe isn’t worried about thieves snatching our valuables during the day; he’s worried about those long, dark nights. The staff tries to reassure him that watchmen patrol the camp, ensuring that wild animals and others don’t come knocking. But the nights are filled with strange noises, and sometimes you can’t take the city out of the boy. So on our fourth night, Joe drags a chest in front of his door and stacks empty cans on the ornate door handle to serve as an alarm. The precautions provide the deep, restful sleep he’s been missing. So deep, in fact, that during the night when his wife gets out of bed and bumps into the chest in the dark, lets out a yell, and sends the cans noisily clanging to the floor, Joe snores through it all.

In this land where the San people—among the first humans—still walk, you won’t find monuments or signs of conquest. The wild animals tread lightly, too, as if they understand this is not a land of extravagance. But in the big empty there is life in abundance, variety, beauty, and mystery. And it’s not all about sacrifice, either: In Namibia it’s possible to seek the exotic, as the elephants do. It’s also a place where you can sleep soundly, with the doors unlocked.

Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on the radio.