The Namib desert is one of the world’s most extreme environments. Covering 81,000 square kilometres, its vastness can only truly be appreciated from above. Here, Lottie Gross flies along the Atlantic coast and over the dunes for a new perspective on this incredible environment.

Our plane was getting lower and lower – so much so that I could see the stripes on the backs of the zebra trotting along the rust-red dunes below us. I shifted nervously in my seat, exchanging glances with my fellow passengers, wondering when we’d ascend again. We weren’t scheduled to land here. There was no airstrip. It was the middle of the Namib desert – one of the most extreme landscapes on Earth.

Images of a stranded, sand-enveloped plane crash – reminiscent of scenes from Flight of the Phoenix, which, incidentally, was shot right here – flickered through my mind.

Just as I was thinking I should tell the pilot, who perhaps hadn’t realised we were getting so low that I could make eye contact with an oryx grazing beneath us, the ground dropped from beneath our aircraft and we sailed happily through the sky and into the Kuiseb Canyon. I breathed a sigh of relief, along with the rest of my flying companions, and the pilot turned to give a wry smile. That was cruel.

The world’s oldest desert is also one of its most extreme. The Namib is a place of towering, deep-orange sand dunes, contrasted by bright-white mineral pans and red, rocky outcrops.

Driving through its barren landscape is an otherworldly experience. The previous day, our vehicle had been the only one for miles around as we drove at sunrise to watch the light reveal a Martian terrain. The black sky turned to pink and then finally to blue; like a curtain being lifted, darkness gave way to views across the stunning Namib-Naukluft National Park.

The rocks dissolved into dramatic mounds of fine, lurid sand – bright orange on one side and black in shadow on the other.