It is 2 p.m. on a cloudless, Friday afternoon. Windhoek’s colonial-era station simmers sleepily in the hot sun of Namibia, southwest Africa.
|The Desert Express makes nature travel luxurious amid Namibia’s wild scenery.|
A platform cleaner, broom forgotten, dozes by the cafe door. The cafe is closed. Indeed, the cafe shows no sign that it has ever been open. The only things moving are the slow hands of the station clock and a chameleon arthritically crossing the shimmering tracks.
Then there it is, in the distance — a mournful, foghorn honk. It’s coming! The Desert Express!
To say that the station springs to life would be to lie. The cleaner stirs, though, and from the waiting room a small group of tourists emerges blinking into the glare.
Their appearance is premature.
The Desert Express is no shinkansen. For many minutes more it can be heard inching toward the Namibian capital’s premier rail terminus, but it’s not until 2:15 that it finally pulls into sight.
Still, if speed is not a priority and if you like luxury trains (and deserts), you’ll like the Desert Express. The sleeping compartments have large picture windows and air-conditioning. The Spitzkoppe lounge and cocktail bar car is named after the 600 meter-tall Spitzkoppe rock outcrop, one of many bizarre geological features that the train passes on its normal overnight runs from Windhoek, through the flat bits of the Namib Desert, to the coastal town of Swakopmund.
The spacious Welwitschia restaurant car is named after one of the Namib’s more laid-back plants. The Namib is the oldest desert on the planet, and the welwitschia (which resembles a hung-over aloe) is capable of living for 2,000 years with ease, if not with visible enthusiasm.
|A savanna monitor (Varanus exanthematicus), the largest lizard of the desert|
Itineraries change, but first stop on most runs is Okapuka Ranch. The Desert Express brochure describes the Okapuka stop as a chance to “witness the kings of the jungle — the mighty lion — feed at the privately owned luxury ranch and enjoy flaming sunsets over the endless vast savannah grasslands [sic].”
Last year, Desert Express passengers saw lions feeding par excellence. Five “problem lions,” which had been relocated to Okapuka from the north where they had been killing cattle, ate the man who was feeding them. It happened within a couple of meters of the viewing hide.
Okapuka also has white rhino and an impressive range of gazelle species.
Back on the train, it’s the usual luxury train stuff. Eating too much, drinking too much, congratulating yourself on the fact that you are not on the Yamanote Line and, if it’s not cloudy, admiring the starry desert night through a transparent viewing carriage ceiling.
There is normally a morning stop, sometimes at the Spitzkoppe, sometimes at the coast. Then, at around 10 a.m., the Desert Express hauls majestically into the seaside town of Swakopmund.
Swakopmund feels very colonial German. It is very colonial German. This is where Namibia’s expatriates repair to escape the heat of summer. Swakopmund has comfortable hotels, ice-cream parlors, Conditorei selling Apfelstrudel, and fat men in braces who’ll fix you up if you want to take a boat out and try to catch a bronze whaler shark.
Of considerably more interest to the naturalist is Walvis Bay, a 20-minute drive south. Walvis Bay is the most important coastal wetland in southern Africa for migrant birds. It is estimated that over 100,000 waders from as far away as the Arctic Ocean overwinter here and at nearby Sandwich Harbor.
A number of good ecotour outfits will meet your train and show you the gregarious flamingos, the pelicans and the teeming waders, either from land or from the rocking, but more glamorous, perspective of a sea kayak.
The plus for sea kayakers is sea life: dolphins, perhaps a southern right whale, Cape fur seals, even penguins, all nurtured by the cold, nutrient-rich Benguela current. It is also possible to see Heavisides dolphins, a very unusual species rarely observed elsewhere.
|The dunes of the Sand Sea in the Namib Desert, the oldest in the world, soar hundreds of meters high.|
After exhausting the delights of the coast, Desert Expressers could catch the same train back to Windhoek, or they could go wild and charter a light aircraft for the journey back to Windhoek over the Sand Sea of the Namib Naukluft National Park.
Namibia is a big country. Light aircraft are regularly used by time-strapped, financially well-endowed visitors to hop from tourist hot spot to tourist hot spot. In the ease of their airborne arrival, however, they sometimes forget that just because they’ve been met at the desert airstrip by a guy with a fruit cocktail doesn’t mean they aren’t actually in very wild territory.
And then an elephant treads on them, or their vacation is interrupted as their light aircraft whirls away to medevac some drunken Bavarian who has just sat on a puff adder.
Nowhere is wilder than the Sand Sea. The air is definitely the place to see it from. As you leave Swakopmund, a dull, dry gravel wasteland — the so-called moon landscape — gives way to fog-watered lichen plains (some of the widest in the world) and then to the 80 million-year-old monster dunes of the Sand Sea. These rise several hundred meters in height and there are tens of thousands of them. If you’ve seen the movie “The English Patient,” that’s what the views are like. Only bigger! Much, much bigger!