Namibia feels like a country whose time has come. Tucked away in the southwest corner of Africa far from the continent’s trouble spots, it is safe, well-organized and relatively prosperous, thanks to its deposits of gold and diamonds. Since independence in 1990, multiparty democracy has endured, and with a population of just over 2 million in a land roughly twice the size of California, Namibia has few of the social ills that afflict so many other African nations.
Of course, the lack of inhabitants is chiefly because most of Namibia is inhospitable desert. The Bushmen hunter-gatherers, a few of whom still roam its arid plains, dubbed it “the land God made in anger.” Ridge upon jagged ridge of ancient rock and oceans of drifting orange sand make up one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. At some point, most visitors experience the curious feeling of having been teleported to another planet. For much of the year, the sky is cloudless and the dry air has an uncanny clarity. From a light airplane, you can see for 100 miles. And in the evening when the wind drops, the silence is absolute.
Despite being mostly desert, Namibia is far from lifeless. The 8,784-square-mile Etosha National Park, established around the huge Etosha salt pan, is one of Africa’s great wildlife sanctuaries, with a wide range of mammal species that includes lion, leopard and rhino. And even in the middle of an apparently empty landscape, you will suddenly encounter a herd of oryx (a ubiquitous desert-adapted antelope with lethal rapier-like horns), a family of giraffe or, if you are very fortunate, a pair of strolling cheetah. Water lies just below the surface of the dry riverbeds and sustains a surprising number of creatures, notably herds of desert-adapted elephant.
Namibia is generally regarded as suitable for a second trip to Southern Africa. First-time visitors invariably head to South Africa or Botswana. However, its stark and dramatic terrain provides an astonishing contrast to the verdant landscapes to the east. A week in the wetlands of the Okavango Delta, followed by a week in Namibia’s deserts, would provide an unforgettable safari.
I made my first trip to Namibia about 15 years ago. Little seems to have changed. The place that draws the most tourists is still Sossusvlei, with its giant red sand dunes, some more than 1,000 feet high, that attract crowds of young South Africans keen to hike through the otherworldly landscape and to take dawn flights by hot air balloon. Elsewhere, there are primarily small camps and lodges, and visitors are thinly spread.
The main purpose of my recent visit was to stay in the new Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, which opened in 2014 and has since received numerous laudatory reviews. From Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, we flew northwest for 90 minutes to Doro Nawas, gateway to the Damaraland region (where I have long recommended Wilderness Safaris’ Damaraland Camp). Having offloaded passengers, we continued for another 45 minutes to the dirt airstrip at Hoanib. Virtually all travel in Namibia is by light aircraft, with the single-engine Cessna Grand Caravan, generally configured for 12 people, being the primary workhorse. Although flights can last three or four hours, the view is typically so astounding that tedium is seldom an issue.
Hoanib Camp is located on a private concession close to the dry bed of the Hoanib River just outside Skeleton Coast National Park. The Atlantic, and hence the actual coast, lies some 40 miles to the west. This location has a significant advantage. When the cold Benguela Current, flowing up from Antarctica, meets the hot sands of the Namibian desert, the result is often a thick, chilly early-morning mist. Although it can reach as far as Hoanib, throughout our stay, the morning skies were clear.
We arrived to find spacious open-sided public areas, covered by steeply pitched tented ceilings, that flowed unimpeded into the desert landscape. The main space comprised a lounge, bar (the only place in the camp with Wi-Fi) and dining room partially enclosed by glass. The beige-and-blue-gray interiors reflected the natural surroundings, but were enlivened by tribal artifacts, embroidered cushions and woven baskets. Nearby, a small lap pool provided a place for guests to cool off during the hot season (November through March). An adjacent raised deck offered a vantage point from which to view a man-made water hole (which, during our stay, drew oryx, giraffe, hyena and elephant).
The accommodations comprise seven tented suites, plus one two-bedroom family unit. They are set wide apart and come with shaded outdoor decks that are ideal for a languorous afternoon with a book or a tranquil sundowner. Inside, we found two queen beds, two armchairs and a built-in table useful for cleaning camera equipment or downloading photos. Although partly made of canvas, our suite had large glass windows, sturdy wooden doors and electric lights. A sizeable bath provided twin sinks and an excellent shower with abundant hot water from a nearby solar panel. Some travelers might lament the lack of air-conditioning, but during our stay, we never felt uncomfortable. The desert cools rapidly at night — quilts are often necessary — and during the day, the temperature is moderated by the cool breeze from the coast. Hoanib cannot be compared with ultra-luxurious safari camps such as the Singita properties in South Africa; rather, it aims to provide a wilderness experience that is nonetheless very comfortable and reassuringly safe.
Of course, the character of such places is greatly determined by the staff, who in this instance were friendly and unfailingly hospitable. My only slight reservation about the camp concerned the food, which was plentiful, tasty and sustaining — butternut squash soup, grilled oryx, roast chicken — but lacking in finesse. The chef did a remarkable job given the remote location, but with additional training, a higher level should be possible. I mentioned this to the camp manager, who agreed and said that raising the culinary bar was his chief preoccupation.
The wide, sandy bed of the Hoanib River is lined with acacia trees that flourish in the sandy soil as a result of subterranean water that remains year-round. (Elephant usually have to dig down only a foot or so for a pool to form.) Generally, the “rainy” season in Namibia is from December to March, when downpours in the mountains to the east can result in flash floods. Then, the Hoanib flows for just a few hours; the last time its water reached the Atlantic was in 1995.
Our articulate and knowledgeable guide, Papa-G, was a member of the local Nama tribe: one of the Khoikhoi people, the original pastoralist inhabitants of southwest Africa. We set out in the early morning, and for the first hour saw only small groups of oryx and a scattering of springbok. During the night, the animals tend to wander off into the desert, but as soon as the sun rises and the temperature begins to increase, they return to the vegetation and shade of the riverbed. In the absence of anything very spectacular, Papa-G announced his intention to go in search of the local Floodplain Pride of desert-adapted lion, whose radio collars revealed them to be about 45 minutes away.
The sandy soil and open terrain at Hoanib make tracking animals relatively straightforward, and sure enough, we soon came across a lioness and four young male lions lounging contentedly on a rocky slope. Probably the most remarkable thing about desert lion is that they do not need to drink water; moisture derived from their kills is sufficient. They can also survive for at least a fortnight without eating. Once critically endangered, the lions are now protected and obsessively monitored, with the result that they are making a modest comeback. (Click here to learn more about desert lions.)
Having watched the lions at close quarters for nearly an hour, we headed back down the riverbed in the direction of camp. All at once, there seemed to be animals everywhere — browsing elephant and giraffe, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, sizeable flocks of ostrich — a sudden abundance that seemed bizarre in such an apparently hostile environment.
More adventurous and athletic guests at Hoanib can go on escorted hikes, which not only provide welcome exercise, but also the opportunity to view large mammal species through binoculars. The one activity that no one passes up is the four-hour drive across the desert plains and the subsequent dune sea to the Skeleton Coast (so named for its treacherous currents and numerous shipwrecks). Although the dirt road is rutted and potholed — Land Cruiser tires last a maximum of six months — the scenery is sensational, and the feeling of being somewhere close to the end of the world is overwhelming. During the drive, we chanced upon two honey badgers, observed various species of buzzard and eagle, and, upon finally reaching the Atlantic, found an inlet speckled with pink flamingos. Nearby, hundreds of Cape fur seals were loudly defending their territories and bobbing in the roiling surf. Our driver parked on the shingle. There, a long table had been set up, and we sat down for lunch — fried chicken, meatballs, pasta, and feta salad, accompanied by good South African wine — while exhausted breakers washed around our ankles. The flight back to camp from a nearby airstrip took just 15 minutes.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is a remarkable place that fully deserves its many accolades. The savage beauty of the surrounding landscape is extraordinary. And the camp itself manages to combine a spirit of adventure and a feeling of remoteness with considerable comfort and unaffected hospitality.
The stylish camp; the fascinating desert-adapted wildlife; the sense of remoteness; the extraordinary drive to the Skeleton Coast.
The solid, sustaining food could be more imaginitive and refined.
Rainfall generally occurs in January and February, but it is unreliable and can happen later. If the river reaches the floodplain, the road to the Skeleton Coast becomes impassable for two months and the journey can only be made by air.
Having flown north for an hour over a harsh, burnt land studded with buttes and stained with mineral deposits, we landed in the wide expanse of Hartmann’s Valley, a sea of orange sand bounded by ridges of fractured rock. From the airstrip, the terrain slopes gradually down to the valley of the Kunene River, where a wide stretch of greenish water infested with crocodiles and broken intermittently by rapids forms the border between Namibia and Angola.
It is a 90-minute drive to Serra Cafema camp, which is even more remote than Hoanib. Comprising eight tented suites connected by elevated walkways and surrounded by thick riverine vegetation, it is a place to experience Africa as it must have seemed to Victorian explorers: vast and incomprehensibly wild. The area is a redoubt for one of the continent’s last untouched tribal peoples, the Himba, who still live an elemental existence untroubled by the 21st century. (Click here to read more about my ATV excursion to visit the Himba.)
I have recommended Serra Cafema for some years, but this was my first visit since it was significantly upgraded and redesigned. Our expansive suite was constructed of wood, canvas and thatch, and had a large elevated deck with a view of the Kunene River and the rugged hills of Angola. The interior was traditional, with swathes of mosquito netting and leather-and-canvas chairs, while the generous bath area came with copper sinks and both an indoor and an outdoor shower. Overall, there was a feeling of space, seclusion and tranquility.
Public spaces include an atmospheric main lounge with dark wood furniture, a large fireplace and a library area. A desktop computer provides a slow connection to the Internet. Meals are generally taken on a spectacular deck overlooking the Kunene. The area around Serra Cafema does not have an abundance of wildlife — just a scattering of oryx and a sizeable population of baboons — so aside from lounging beside the small swimming pool, guests make excursions by ATV or Land Cruiser and take bird-watching cruises aboard metal flat-bottomed boats.
Serra Cafema is as romantic and remote as ever, but its accommodations are now comparable to those at the more lavish camps in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
The serenity of the riverview suites; the otherworldly surrounding landscape.
The relative paucity of wildlife.
Although the lodge takes all necessary precautions, riding ATVs on soft, shifting sand can be difficult and potentially dangerous.
Our final destination on this trip to Namibia was Wolwedans, a collection of four distinctive camps and lodges located in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a 780-square-mile private enclave an hour’s flight south of Windhoek and a two-hour drive from the giant dunes at Sossusvlei. The reserve originated in 1992 as the brainchild of Wolwedans’ owner, Albi Brückner. Twenty-three years later, 13 former livestock farms have been rehabilitated into a fence-free sanctuary through which wildlife once again roams unhindered. NamibRand means “border of the Namib,” and its western boundary adjoins the 19,305-square-mile Namib-Naukluft National Park. To augment a healthy population of desert antelope such as oryx and springbok, various species have been reintroduced, including leopard and cheetah, though the cats are seldom seen. We came upon fresh leopard tracks that our guide said were less than 15 minutes old, but, despite a prolonged search, we saw nothing. The leopard doubtless saw us, however! Aside from game-viewing, the principal activities at Wolwedans are hiking, hot air ballooning and horseback riding.
The original Dunes Lodge is set on a high plateau of orange sand and commands a stupendous panoramic view. The largest of the four properties, it comprises nine wood-and-canvas chalets with private verandas, two dining rooms, two lounges, a library, a pool and an underground wine cellar. Alas, our Mountain View Suite was in need of both refurbishment and maintenance, with several lights that didn’t work, a faucet that didn’t turn on, and a kitchen fridge/freezer that appeared never to have been defrosted. I suspect that money has been invested in new ventures and that Dunes Lodge is overdue for renovation.
Elsewhere, the Dune Camp has six tents set on wooden platforms. Although comfortable, the accommodations here are probably too simple for a majority of Hideaway Report subscribers. Nearby, Private Camp is entirely self-contained and hence ideal for a family, with three bedrooms, plus its own kitchen and dining room. My only reservation is that it is located on a flat, sandy plain instead of atop a dune, which means that it often lacks a breeze and can be rather hot. (A plunge pool partly solves the problem.)
Undoubtedly my favorite place to stay at Wolwedans is the new Boulders Safari Camp, located 30 miles south of the main complex. Backed by massive granite outcrops and facing an epic landscape of arid plains bounded by successive ridges of ocher-colored mountains, the camp comprises just four sophisticated and exceptionally comfortable tented suites with spacious en suite baths, plus atmospheric public areas furnished in a traditional style with leather sofas, book-lined shelves, substantial carved furniture, polished wooden floors and bright area rugs. With room for a maximum of eight people, Boulders is also ideal for a private group or multigenerational family vacation.
A short climb to the top of one of the huge boulders behind the camp brought us to a rocky plateau that forms a near-perfect setting for a sundowner. We sat gazing at the timeless scene, lulled by a fitful breeze and soothed by the atmosphere of ineffable tranquility. At such moments, Namibia seems a land outside of time, an ancient and untouched place that lends valuable perspective to the troubled world beyond its borders.
The magical situation; stylish and comfortable tents; atmospheric public areas.
Lackluster game-viewing — this is a place for hiking and riding.
With room for a maximum of eight guests, this camp would be ideal for exclusive use by a family.