Into the desert

Into the desert

As a travel writer it’s something of a professional handicap, but I really don’t like small planes.Particularly ones that bump and bounce across hot patches of Namibian sky, heaving through the turbulence as the passengers slowly roast in their Perspex oven. But the end nearly always justifies the means, and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in northwest Namibia is not the sort of place you visit on whim. There’s no popping in, or impromptu visits. So, a small plane it had to be. 

My first flight was to Windhoek, then a 90-minute hop north to the airstrip of Doro Nawas. This dusty runway is the Heathrow of northern Namibia, with Cessna 210s and Caravans dropping in, filling up and flying out. On the ground, there’s a Babel of accents as pilots from across the world come to Africa to clock up flying hours in the bush. 

From Doro Nawas it’s another 40 minutes over the flat-topped Etendeka Mountains before my plane drops down to the gravel runway at Hoanib. With White-breasted vultures jostling for airspace on approach, I was more than relieved to reach fresh air and terra firma. 

And there’s no shortage of either out here. Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is one of the most remote camps run by Wilderness Safaris, and an incredible gateway to the Skeleton Coast National Park.

Set in a broad valley guarded by ridges of sun-baked rock, it is also the first Wilderness Safaris camp in Namibia to run entirely off solar energy. But rustic this is not, rather understated luxury in the wilderness. Happily, the lodge’s sleek modern design is also a far cry from the hackneyed cliché of dark leather couches and a stuffed buffalo above the fireplace. Rather, expect cool screed floors, Nordic wood and coir rugs. Muted tones of sand and stone echo what lies beyond the wooden deck, and throughout the lodge the focus is on making the most of the expansive desert views.

Views we get to enjoy close-up the next morning as we pile into an enclosed Land Rover and head for the coast. A simple green sign warns we’re entering the Skeleton Coast National Park and from here to the Atlantic we’ll be the only vehicle on the road; the sort of happy exclusivity that comes with staying in private lodges.

In the cool of the morning there’s a surprising abundance of life in the dry Hoanib riverbed. A herd of elephants chew lazily on the bark of a Mopane tree, while lone bulls meander along the rocky ridgeline, each deliberate step raising a puff of dust. Herds of oryx eye us warily from beneath the Ana trees, while springbok skip daintily across shattered and cracked flakes of mud.

For when the rains fall inland, the Hoanib is transformed into a muddy torrent that spills out into the Hoanib floodplain; a vast bowl of powder-fine dust and thick bush. Beyond the bush, the shifting dunes of the Skeleton Coast march slowly away from the Atlantic on the south-west winds.

Our drive takes us across dunes tinged red with garnet and towards Möwe Bay, where a small museum is filled with the bric-a-brac of lonely coastal life. Flotsam from the Atlantic, bleached skulls of local wildlife and newspaper clippings of the wrecks that gave this coastline its moniker.

After lunch on the beach, with our toes all but in the ocean, it’s a four-hour drive back to the lodge in the heat and dust. But happily, not for us guests. Since the opening of Hoanib Camp, day excursions to the coast include a welcome surprise: a light aircraft swooping down to carry us on the short – thankfully – flight back to the lodge. Not 30 minutes after leaving the Atlantic, we’re back at the camp and washing off the dust in the lap pool. 

The next morning we head out again, finding giraffe around almost every bend and more elephants lazily browsing for seedpods from the plentiful Ana trees. 

“These are still African Elephants, but they have longer legs and smaller bodies than elephant in other areas,” explains our guide Gert quietly, as the grumpy bull nearby shakes his dusty ears in displeasure. “They spend most of their time in the riverbed, but they do also migrate up to 80 kilometres across the gravel plains to find other rivers.”

My migration that day is even further: 220-kilometres north to Serra Cafema and the border with Angola. Flying into the Hartmann’s Valley the land is, if I’d thought it possible, even harsher. 

Hills of ancient schist frame sandy dunes bereft of grass, the consequence of a three-year drought that’s made life even tougher for both wildlife and the local Himba. The Lappet-faced vulture that circled overhead as we drove towards Serra Cafema Camp seemed a fitting welcome.

But then, a flash of green. As we crest a rise, the hardship and drought and death seems a distant memory. The Kunene River, swollen by summer rains, is a vivid green slash against the burnt-brown hills. Reed beds line the banks, as Ana trees and Sandpaper Figs crowd the banks greedily to drink. Makalani palms wave their greeting. Water in a dry land, and suddenly this corner of Namibia seems less forbidding. 

Not least when I step into the cool confines of Serra Cafema Camp, built on stilts along the banks of the Kunene. A broad deck stands with its feet in the water, the river below rushing along towards the Atlantic. Eight spacious suites are strung out on either side of the lodge, decorated in a vintage safari style with rich fabrics, leather armchairs and burnished copper. It’s classic, but not clichéd.

Unlike many other lodges, there’s also plenty of time to enjoy the day bed, put your feet up in a hammock or cast a line for tilapia and catfish. Morning boat trips on the river begin at a civilised hour, and meander slowly upstream. The Kunene’s enormous Nile crocodiles are the main wildlife attraction, but the birding is superb too: Pied Kingfishers sit silently in the reeds, while a Goliath Heron flaps lazily away just beyond our wake. Above, vultures and Augur buzzards cruise the skies.

While time on the river is no doubt the highlight of a visit to Serra Cafema, there’s plenty of exploring to be had in the harsh deserts beyond. Quad-bike excursions and nature drives take guests deep into the Hartmann’s Valley to admire the splendid isolation and pristine desert environment, while visits to local Himba villages are conducted with admirable sensitivity and respect. 

I end my last day on a nameless ridge high above the Kunene, G&T in hand. The relentless south-westerly wind is howling, herding the sand north towards the river and Angola. In the distance the massif of the Serra Cafema Mountains loom in the haze of heat and dust. It’s remarkable beauty in a land of thirst, and well worth the long plane ride home again.

How to book

For more information or reservations contact Wilderness Safaris 

+27 11 807 1800

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First Published: 2015-02-01 Signature magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.