Four wheels and wilderness

There are rhinos at lunch and leopards at sunset when Gill Charlton gets behind the wheel on a desert-and-beyond tour.

Gelasius has lost the power of speech. All he can do is point towards the acacia scrub. I worry he's having some sort of seizure and I'll have to drive us back to camp. Finally, he gets a fewwords out. "In the bush, top of the bush, there, there ... " What is he on about?

"The rock, the rock," he squeaks.

We look up and see a large male leopard walking along a narrow ledge. We are all speechless now. The leopard sits down and, through soulful yellow eyes, watches us watching him. Occasionally, he licks his lips with a black tongue. His beautiful pelt is unblemished and his tail is as long as his body.

Leopards are nocturnal and so elusive that wildlife lovers can wait a lifetime for a sighting like this. Now that Gelasius has his voice back, he tells us he's never seen a leopard at Erongo, let alone one taking a stroll on a summer's evening.

A two-hour drive north of Windhoek, Erongo is the perfect first stop on a driving holiday around northern Namibia. The spacious canvas tents, set around a boulder-strewn hill, make the most of the spectacular aerial view across a vast savannah. There is oryx steak for dinner, with impromptu entertainment provided by young baboons. They tumble down the sheer rock face like extremesports enthusiasts, all flailing arms and legs, grabbing a new hold just seconds from death.

My friend, Brenda, and I are driving ourselves into the Namib Desert in a car. This might sound like madness but Namibia has the best roads in Africa. There are few cars and even fewer trucks - just the open road cutting through a landscape almost devoid of people.

The small towns are friendly places. Entering Omaruru, founded by German missionaries in the 19th century, is like stepping into the pages of an Alexander McCall Smith novel. Everyone enunciates English with studied precision and has time for a chat, from the man who mends our slow puncture to the carvers turning mopane branches into warthogs.

Herero women sashay down the main street wearing traditional printed-cotton crinolines with horn-shaped hats. They look like extras from Gone with the Wind. One woman asks Brenda where she got her 1950s tea-dress with its big red roses. "It is sooo beeuuutifool," she says. Brenda tells her it's home-made. "Always the best," she replies.

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As we head west into the Namib Desert, spiky mountains of black basalt replace the curvaceous granite hills. I touch the brakes for a rare bend in the gravel road. Big mistake. The car goes into a skid. As I wrestle with the steering wheel, we begin to rock from side to side. I know this is a bad thing. The car could easily flip onto its roof.

"Let it go, let it go," shouts Brenda, whose brother gave her an off-road driving lesson before coming on this trip. I stop trying to control the car andwe bounce off the road and come to a halt on grass. No damage done - to the vehicle at least - but I am rather shaken. Later, I learn this is a common beginner's mistake; I should have changed gear to cut my speed.

We transfer to an all-terrain safari vehicle to reach the Desert Rhino Camp. The landscape is reminiscent of Monument Valley in Arizona but even more beautiful. Flat-topped mountains and clusters of basalt chimneys rise from the gravel plain. Drifts of silver grass give the rust-red hills a frosted appearance. Oryx and springbok stand on rocky spines to catch the breeze.

In 1970, there were 65,000 black rhino in Africa. They have since been hunted to the edge of extinction, much of the valuable horn turned into handles for ceremonial daggers for rich Yemenis. Now, there are fewer than 4000 rhino and many are hiding out with 24-hour security in this remote corner of Namibia. The camp specialises in tracking rhinos on foot.

After breakfast, Brenda and I set off with Kapoi, panting after him up hill and down dale as the sun climbs higher. Finally, we spot Marco, a fellow guest, hiding behind a bush, zoom lens at the ready. An elderly male rhino called Don't Worry is asleep against a candelabra-shaped euphorbia bush. We creep to within 60 metres of him and watch his trumpet-shaped ear rotate to capture sound.

I have done my homework: I know that black rhinos can run at 55km/h and turn in their own length and that while Don't Worry might not be able to see us at this distance, he can certainly hear us. Brenda chooses this moment to get out her binoculars. The sound of ripping Velcro explodes into the hot still air.

Don'tWorry rises up and takes a few steps. He looks cross and, frankly, I don't blame him. His ears are now twirling madly. "He's well named; he just doesn't charge," Kapoi says. Maybe not but he is now walking purposefully towards us. "We should go behind this bush," Kapoi says. My heart is thumping loudly as we back away. Don'tWorry is as tall as me and that front horn is dagger-sharp.

"We must move back again," Kapoi says. He is armed only with a stick; our vehicle is somewhere over the horizon, being driven in a search for more rhino.

I stop breathing; Don't Worry stops moving. He turns to give us some good side-on shots (mine are hopelessly blurred when I view them later) and potters back to his sleeping bush. We return to camp to be told Marco has seen a leopard and two cheetahs in a dry riverbed.We don't believe him until he shows us the photographs.

Who was it who told me you don't see much game in Namibia?

The country's largest wildlife park, Etosha is a drive-through like South Africa's Kruger but much less crowded. To the left is a blinding white salt pan; to the right, waterholes hidden in acacia and mopane woodland. Although Etosha cannot equal Kenya's Masai Mara for guaranteed big-game sightings, there is plenty to reward the observant visitor: nervy giraffe, baby wildebeest, doe-eyed kudu and all kinds of birds of prey posing on dead branches.

We can hardly believe our luck when we spot two cheetahs crossing the park's main road. We follow them in our car as they eye a young springbok. The springbok is soon swept up by its mother and the cheetahs obligingly walk on to the salt pan, providing the perfect photo opportunity.

Onkoshi, a new luxury government-owned lodge reminiscent of a water-bungalow resort in the Maldives, is the only place overlooking the pan. Our room is as large as a ranch house, with a wraparound verandah for watching the flamingos that come here to breed.

The guides at Onkoshi are exceptionally knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Birds are their particular passion and this quiet eastern border of the park is as densely populated as an aviary. When I mention we have yet to see elephant, a guide finds them for us at a remote waterhole: three mothers and two calves picking their way across the stony ground.

From Etosha we drive south into the lush Otavi Mountains to stay at Mundulea, a private nature reserve. It is owned by Bruno Nebe, who worked as a news photographer in Europe before returning to his newly independent homeland in 1990.

He bought Mundulea from a German cattle rancher in 2002 and took down the internal fences to create a huge wildlife refuge. "It was six months before I saw my first wild animal," Nebe says. Now, there are more than 2000 head of game, including rhinos, leopards and rare black-faced impalas. However, trying to recreate a balanced ecology to support the mixture of wildlife that would have been found here a couple of centuries ago isn't easy.

"I bought 60 springbok from a hunting ranch and within six months, cheetahs had killed 43," Nebe says. "The springbok just weren't smart enough. But those that were left bred fast and we're up to 58 again. And because these youngsters have learnt they must watch out for cheetahs, leopard and hyena, they're less vulnerable."

It is a heart-warming story and illustrates Nebe's passion for wildlife conservation. A largely self-taught zoologist and geneticist, he has that rare ability to explain complicated science to the layperson. He discusses grass species as a gardener would talk about roses, makes the life cycle of the crimson velvet mite something we want to know about and he is always inspecting dung. In this way, we learn how rhinos always bite twigs at a neat 45-degree angle.

Nebe's greatest love is birds. There are 240 species at Mundulea, including some of Africa's most colourful: the violet-eared waxbill and the blue-cheeked bee-eater.We watch a pair of anxious waxbills trying to distract a Jacobin cuckoo. "She wants to lay eggs in their nest," Nebe says, "but hers will hatch a day early and kick the waxbill eggs out." As we watch the tussle, a bronze-winged courser plays hide-andseek with us. Chancing on theatre like this is what makes walking through the African bush such a pleasure.

Mundulea's bush camp is a work of art. Stockades made from fallen branches cradle four large canvas tents. Nebe has made all the furniture, including the oryx-horn towel rails in the open-air bathrooms. I shower watching a courting pair of paradise flycatchers. Meals are served on a highly polished tree trunk beneath a canvas awning. Nebe is cook, too, preparing delicious stews, soups and roasted vegetables over an open fire in three-legged cast-iron pots.

At dinner, he talks about the evils of hunting: how shooting rare sables and roan antelopes for their trophy horns reduces the quality of the gene pool by taking out alpha males before they have a chance to sire enough offspring.

The Namibian government has given Nebe six rhinos to look after, including Hooker, the last member of the chobiensis subspecies, which was banished from Etosha for chasing cars. "We're hoping he'll cover all the females," Nebe says, "and then his daughters, so we can save this subspecies. I don't want to find myself reading a book to my grandchildren about lion and rhino and elephant knowing that they'll never see them in the wild and that I did nothing to try to stop their extinction."

It is a sentiment with whichwewould all agree but that few of us will do anything about. Nebe is a rarity, a man with an almost impossible mission, and I find myself handing over all the dollars I have left in my wallet to help look after Hooker's offspring.

The Daily Telegraph, London  

FAST FACTS
Getting there
Qantas flies toWindhoek from Sydney for about $2200, lowseason return, including tax: to Johannesburg (14hr), then South African Airways toWindhoek (2hr). Melbourne passengers pay about $1990 and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect.

Touring there The author travelled with Expert Africa, which has several flydrive holidays to Namibia with accommodation ranging from simple farm guesthouses to luxury lodges; see expertafrica.com.

The Classic Safari Company has a 10-night self-drive package, staying in five-star bush luxury, from$5400 a person, including accommodation, meals, lodge activities and hire car. Phone 9327 0666, see classicsafaricompany.com.au. Travel in Namibia any time except the height of the rainy season in February.

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