We were in one of the most sparsely populated parts of the world. Speeding along the gravel road on a scorching December morning, the greenery of the Etosha plains gave way to mellow Savannah. It had been more than a hour since we had seen another vehicle. Despite being one of the least visited parts of Namibia and only a last-minute addition to our trip, our delightful guide Willem, asserted that Damaraland was the most beautiful. Even though we cynically dismissed it as the zealous observation of a spirited native, there was no denying the beauty of the stark landscape of this region of Central Namibia. A geologist’s dream, it had some of the most stunning rock formations in Africa, and arguably the world.
Damaraland gets its name from the dominant Damara tribe that inhabit the area. Despite having embraced the modern way of life, the Damaras still hold on steadfastly to many of their ethnic traditions. However, one of the most fascinating aspects, which made me unabashedly eavesdrop on many a Damara conversation, was the language, generously smattered with clicks. Differing in intensity, the four clicks are like letters of the alphabet, which in the written language take the form of slashes and dashes.
The Twyfelfontein Country Lodge is a relatively low cost, eco-sensitive project set in the most spectacular of surroundings. Although camping options are aplenty in the area, even confirmed campers give into the charm of the lodge. The lodge is surrounded by red rocks, which are home to several families of baboons that make their presence known to visitors with their nocturnal calls. Having checked into the lodge, we headed out in the blazing afternoon sun to see the Twyfelfontein rock engravings the region is most famous for. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these engravings, which are estimated to be more than 5000 years old, are attributed to bushmen. They are believed to have used these engravings as a means of story-telling, life-documenting and even as maps. The engravings are scattered over rocks at different levels and seeking them out was a good way to work up an appetite for the sumptuous Christmas Eve dinner that awaited us at the lodge.
Food in Damaraland, like in the rest of Namibia, is meat-heavy and game in some form is always part of the spread. That day it was Kudu, one of the indigenous antelope species. The well-done steak tasted like a meatier version of beef and, slathered with gravy and mustard, it went down a treat. This was second course to soup of the day: crocodile and coconut. Having heard horror tales of crocodile meat-induced indigestion, I was admittedly apprehensive. The foodie in me however didn’t want to let go of this opportunity to sample what Willem insisted was the most unusual of meats – with the texture of fish and the flavour of chicken. I’m happy to say that I survived a full bowl of soup, with no gastric emergencies to report. And yes, Willem’s description was spot on. But the highlight of the evening, indeed the most surreal moment of the trip, was the impromptu rendition of Silent Night by the lodge staff in chaste Damara, clicks and all!
Having witnessed yet a spectacularly starry night, the following morning we set off to the Petrified Forest. As the name suggests, the intriguing Petrified Forest comprises tree trunks that are no longer trees but solid rock. It is believed that these tree trunks were washed down to the valley millions of years ago. The passage of time and the silica that seeped into the wood due to the pressure of the sand above caused this transformation. The distinctive dolerite pillars, called Organ Pipes and the volcanic lava covered Burnt Mountain were other interesting sights in the area.
Rocks and stones apart, Damaraland, like the rest of Namibia, is a virtual treasure-trove of fauna and flora. The region is rich in wildlife with sightings of desert adapted elephants and rhinos not being uncommon. We had no such luck and had to content ourselves with springbok, oryx and the odd ostrich. This area is also one of the only two habitats of the bizarre two-leaved Welwitschia plant, considered to be a living fossil by virtue of not having any close living relatives.
Before long, it was time to hit the gravel tracks once again and head towards our next destination. As the mist rolled in from the Skeleton Coast, the tantalisingly barren Damara landscape gradually disappeared from sight. Two months on, reflecting back on my holiday whilst sitting in the cold confines of my London flat, I realise that Willem wasn’t exaggerating. Despite having visited Namibia’s star attraction – the dunes- and having gone on some fantastic game drives, my most enduring memory of the country remains Damaraland.