An eruption of feathers rudely awakens the day, sending billowing clouds of rusty, sun-singed dust into the dawn sky. Wings beating frantically, large flocks of quelea birds shift and shape, creating a strobe effect which is both dazzling and disorientating to any potential predators.
When distances are vast and environments extreme, safety in numbers makes sense.
In Namibia, a sparsely populated, semi-arid expanse with landscapes of cinematic proportions, life seems that little bit larger than anywhere else. Lone oryx are dwarfed by sculpted dunes the colour of cayenne pepper, and the Atlantic-lashed coastline is smudged away by an overpowering fog.
Dramatic scenery has always been this southern African country’s USP, but now its rich and varied wildlife is getting some airtime too. Historically, most land was used for farming, putting pressure on wildlife by cutting off vital corridors; wide-roaming cheetah, for example, were hit particularly hard.
But following the declaration of Namibia’s independence in 1990, nearly three-quarters of the country is now managed by community conservancies and an increasing number of private landowners are shifting to tourism.
One of last year’s big-profile openings was Omaanda Lodge, a first foray into safari by Belgian-born hotelier Arnaud Zannier. An hour’s drive from Namibia’s international entry point, Windhoek, the fenced 9,000-hectare private Zannier Reserve neighbours Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary, run by conservationists Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren. The charity’s latest project, the Shiloh Wildlife Sanctuary, was set up by the couple’s friend Angelina Jolie to care for orphaned elephants and rhinos.
A luxurious lodge of 10 hand-thatched, adobe-walled huts is now a vital part of the Naankuse story, with the reserve providing a stepping stone into the wild for rehabilitated animals. But the mountain-fringed savanna also has its permanent residents, who I meet on an afternoon game drive.
Passing a mob of meerkats, who spring from their burrows like jacks-in-the-box, we go in search of “blankets” – the code name used for rhino. Emerging from a camouflage of silver-grey camphor bushes, two pregnant white rhino females make their way to a man-made watering hole.
“One more and we wouldn’t allow you to post that on Instagram,” informs my guide, Jonas, referring to the dangers of geotagging one of Africa’s most endangered animals. The cost of 24-hour security runs into thousands of dollars per month, he tells me, which explains why support from the private sector is of growing importance to Namibia’s anti-poaching efforts.
Another company with conservation at its heart, which is also investing heavily in Namibia, is Natural Selection. I visit two of its newest acquisitions in Etosha Heights, a former hunting concession on the south-west border of Etosha National Park, a game reserve equal in size to Israel.
Built 10 years ago, Etosha Mountain Lodge is a collection of seven wood-panelled villas hugging a hilltop, with 180-degree views. More modern, the revamped 11-chalet Safarihoek features a convivial open-air bar and dining area, with equally splendid panoramas of the plains. Both operate game drives in the 60,000-hectare reserve, and with rates starting from around £200 per night, they offer one of the best-value safaris in Africa.
The immediately surrounding acacia scrubland is streaked with brilliant-white calcium carbonate trails and glinting dolomite rocks; it soon leads to grasslands baked blonde by the sun, which beam brightly even on overcast days.
Not far from our early-morning explosion of quelea birds, two bat-eared foxes appear from their den, bathed in a buttercup light. We watch them guard their young fervently, chasing off an opportunistic jackal that dares to come too close.
Around us, shepherd’s trees sag with gargantuan sociable weaver nests, which tug at their twiggy crooks and laden the boughs like a leaden toupee; while at our feet, frenetic ground squirrels ricochet like pinballs, calling game over by disappearing into their holes.
Although fenced to prevent the potential transmission of diseases, there are pockets along the reserve’s 70km border with Etosha, where animals can easily break through. There’s even talk of creating direct access to the park some time in the future, cutting down the current journey time of 90 minutes each way to the nearest official gate – although Namibian red tape can be thicker than most.
Besides, there’s enough game in this private area to keep guests amused, minus the self-drive crowds leap-frogging between Etosha’s water holes and with the bonus of being able to drive off-road.
Testing the strength of our 4x4’s tyres, we tussle with dense, thorny acacia bushes to catch glimpses of black rhinos, and we spend hours in the company of laid-back elephants as they shower themselves with dust.
Cats are also pussy-footing around the reserve, scoping out a potential new home. During my stay, a lone male lion makes a kill outside Safarihoek’s photographic hide, his conspicuous drag marks leading us to his lair beneath a bush.
But his snarling behaviour in defence of his hard-earned prey is a reminder that the transition from a hunting lodge to safari camp cannot happen overnight.
That’s especially the case with antelopes, which were the main quarry for hunters. Stocked in large numbers for that very purpose, they still have a dominant presence, but, understandably, many are on high alert.
Sitting still in silence, we watch a herd of eland saunter over the horizon, their hulking, boxy shoulders broader than a team of American football players. Numbering more than 50, it’s a formidable sight. Once alerted to our presence, however, they vanish in a storm of dust, hooves thundering louder than a cavalry bidding retreat.
“Trust takes time,” my guide, Matthias, assures me. And in a world fraught with dangers, you need be careful about who you trust.
It’s a survival instinct that keeps Namibia’s wildlife wild.
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk) offers a private self-drive 13 days/10 nights Highlights of Namibia tour from £5,365pp (two sharing), staying at Omaanda Lodge, Etosha Heights Safarihoek Lodge and Etosha Heights Lodge. Price includes international flights from London, car hire, the services of a private guide and some meals.