Today’s guest blogger is Susan Portnoy, an avid traveler and photographer who writes The Insatiable Traveler, a blog that chronicles her adventures to exciting destinations both near and far. She’s an adventure junkie, a lover of wildlife, indigenous cultures, ancient ruins and is an admittedly addicted to African safaris. You can find her work on Yahoo Travel, The Huffington Post, One.org, Jaunted, Solo Traveler, Wendy Perrin, and Green Global Travel, among others.
Before I hopped on the plane in March, I’d seen countless photos of Namibia. I remember the beautifully curved slopes of the dunes, the quartz encrusted mountains and the fascinating desert-adapted wildlife that call it home. But nothing prepared me for the visual diversity, the sheer enormity, nor the beauty of the Skeleton Coast. As with most things travel related, true appreciation comes with experiencing it in person.
Over 8 days I explored the many faces of the Namib desert as a guest of three very different Wilderness Safaris camps: Desert Rhino, Hoanib Skeleton Coast and Serra Cafema. Separately, they each provided a unique perspective of the world’s oldest desert, a land I knew very little about. Together they made for an extremely memorable adventure.
Desert Rhino Camp
After 30+ hours of travel from New York through South Africa and a night in Windhoek, I landed on a small airstrip near Desert Rhino Camp in the Palmwag concession in Namibia’s northwest. I’d been on safari before in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa and Tanzania, but the minute I got off the small 4-seater plane, I knew Namibia would be completely different. It was evident by the sea of red rocks going back as far as the horizon. The air was still, arid and blazing hot. In an instant I forgot the cold, damp winter I’d just left behind in the City and grabbed my camera. This was going to be fun!
A giant euphorbia, at least 6 feet tall and just as wide, sits alone among billions of red rocks. While toxic to humans (it can cause temporary blindness if you get the powdery substance that covers its stems in your eyes and vomiting if ingested), rhinos love to munch on its fibrous shoots. Some euphorbia are so big elephants have been known to use them as pillows.
I loved the classic colonial décor in the main tent at Desert Rhino with its worn leather sofas, tattered wildlife books and classic tea sets. The style is a favorite of mine and evokes fantasies of a bygone era or a scene from Out of Africa. It’s here that guests gathered for meals, met their guides before every game drive, or shared a cocktail at night by the fire.
Desert Rhino offers guests the unique opportunity to track free-roaming, desert-adapted black rhino on foot or in vehicles. Through a partnership with Save the Rhino Namibia (SRT), my guide and I joined three SRT rangers on a 3-hour search to find Kangombe, a 42-year-old alpha male who looked more tank than animal. Rhinos have terrible eyesight but keen senses of smell and hearing, requiring us to approach as quietly as possible from downwind. They are known to be short-tempered and have charged more than a few humans in their day, which made seeing Kangombe so close such a thrill. We did everything possible not to provoke him until my iPhone alarm accidentally went off. While he was startled—and I was mortified by my faux pas—he apparently wasn’t in the mood to run us down. Tourism dollars brought in the by the camp help SRT monitor and protect rhinos like Kangombe from human/rhino conflicts and, more importantly, threats from poachers who can earn big bucks selling rhino horn on the Asian black market.
As the sun began to set on my first night, we came across a small herd of springbok grazing on a steep hill. As we approached, the delicate antelopes moved over the ridge and out of sight. Following behind, we slowly made our way up the incline so as not to disturb them. When we got to the top we were met by a vibrant pumpkin sky and the springbok in glorious silhouette.
Living in New York City it’s impossible to star gaze, the light pollution reduces the heavens to a few bright sparkles and the moon. So when given the chance to capture the Milky Way in the midst of a blissfully silent night, I couldn’t resist.
A sweeter face is hard to come by. Spotted hyenas are a curious lot and this pup was decidedly so. She walked right up to the car. The adults in the pack were lying outside a nearby den and not interested in our visit but the young ones came running. For some reason hyenas adore rubber and will often try to nibble on the tires if you let them. We didn’t want the cubs to become too comfortable so close to humans so we shooed them away countless times, eventually choosing to leave rather than taunting them with our apparently delectable Goodyears.
On my last morning there was a gorgeous sunrise. My guide, Bons Roman, took me to this beautifully shaped tree and I felt I had to take a photograph. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule about such things, if not, there should be.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
Still within the Palmwag concession, the scenery surrounding Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp was completely different than Desert Rhino had been only a few hundred miles to the south. It was upon my arrival that I realized that the desert was far more varied than I previously understood. Gone were the euphorbia and red rocks, replaced with barren soil, cracked mud and Ana trees. Only accessible by chartered plane, Hoanib is the newest addition to the Wilderness Safaris collection of over 60 camps in 8 African countries—it opened less than a year ago—and without a doubt one its most remote locations.
Hoanib was built with conservation and sustainability in mind in order to leave as little a long-term footprint as possible. The camp is run entirely on solar power and its materials and architecture are state-of-the-art. While the ultra-modern design of the canvas tents echoes the jagged peaks of the surrounding countryside, the flexible material also provides shade for the structure’s secondary roof and suspended concrete floors generate airflow, naturally cooling the interiors.
In the Namib Desert there are fewer than 150 desert-adapted lions still alive. Struggling to survive in an unforgiving climate is hard enough but human conflict is their greatest threat. This lion is one of five “Musketeers,” five young males from three different females that are just old enough to venture out on their own. Two years ago on of the last adult males in the territory was shot, leaving a disproportionate number of females in the region and seriously compromising the fate of the entire population. Nature however intervened with the birth of the Musketeers. They could alter what looks like a dismal future for the desert lions, all they have to do is stay alive and procreate— a task easier said than done. The lions are the subject of an spectacular documentary in production that will air in July, 2015 on the Smithsonian Channel calledThe Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib. You can see a trailer for the doc here: https://vimeo.com/108120470
Two months before my arrival, the region saw its first flood in 15 years brought on by heavy rains to the east. The dry Hoanib River swelled with water most of the wildlife wasn’t even old enough to recognize. In its wake, a myriad of plant life sprung up creating a smorgasbord for local wildlife. Here, two giraffe feast in the flood plain, an area typically barren of anything but sand, rock and dust.
Held up by a flat tire, we parked at the beginning of the dunes, a 2-hour drive from camp. A fellow traveler watched as a large elephant and her calf approached on their way to a watering hole close by. We were on Hoanib’s daylong signature excursion to the Atlantic Ocean where we enjoyed a couple of excellent elephant encounters along with giraffe, ostrich and springbok sightings. We laughed as we slid down the infamous roaring dunes (imagine hearing the growl of jet engine while descending a dune 8 stories high); dined along a stretch of jagged coastline next to an old shipwreck; watched as the cutest and smelliest cape fur seals frolicked in the surf, and topped off the adventure with a scenic small plane ride back to camp.
Cape fur seals relax on the rocks at the edge of the Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic Ocean. While you can’t tell from this particular photo, there were thousands of seals surfing the waves and generally enjoying themselves while basking in the hot sun. They were doe-eyed and adorable, all flippers and barks. You could also smell them from miles away—I’m not kidding. Miles. The stench was so overwhelming that when we got close I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from gagging, but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.
A rather cheeky young bull elephant we saw more than once during my stay. He was a fussy chap that liked to bully our vehicle as we passed by. He kept his distance but loved to shake his head or stand defiantly in front of the jeep, forcing us to stop and wait until he grew bored and sauntered off. He was cute really, more needy teenager than dangerous animal. We respected that he was the size of a house and probably weighed more than 2 tons, but I couldn’t help but giggle during his performance.
In the mornings, golden light would filter through a sandy haze giving the world a romantic, primeval feel. Other than the tire tracks from our vehicles there was nothing to suggest humans lived there at all, and I fantasized more than once that I’d gone back in time.
My third and last stop was Serra Cafema Camp situated along the Kunene River, separating Namibia from Angola. After a week of rocks, arid plains, baked mud and sand, it was a treat to be surrounded by the tropical vegetation that swallowed the camp at the river’s edge. It was a welcome change of pace to see so much water in one place, let alone enjoy a leisurely boat ride. But the desert was never far away. Only a short walk from the main deck, golden sand drifted into swirling patterns along the mountain ridge behind us. And then there was the Himba….
At 42 years old and the mother of 10, Krocodile—her nickname since surviving a crocodile attack 10 years ago—is the matriarch of the small Himba village near Serra Cafema. A semi-nomadic, pastoral people, the men were miles away grazing their cows, but Krocodile, a few other adult women and a whole passel of children were there to greet me and a few other guests when we arrived. Himba women cover themselves in a red paste called otijize made from ochre and butter fat to protect themselves against the sun and biting insects, and consider their scarlet appearance a sign of beauty.
My room at Serra Cafema pushed all the right buttons. I loved the rich jewel tones and dark floors coupled with the colonial décor, canopy bed, and the wall of French doors. In the morning, dreamy diffused light flooded into the room off my private deck. In the mornings before our first drive of the day I would sit outside and listen to the birds chirp their morning welcome and watch as the Kunene River rushed by.
It’s easy to be captivated by a majestic elephant or the raw power of a lion but the desert has so much to offer and so much of it is right at your feet. Take this tok tokkie beetle for instance. Bigger than a silver dollar and crazy fast, it was all I could do to keep up with this dynamo as it scurried across a dune. I remember thinking that it’s white, teardrop shell like a beautiful pearl or delicate seashell, albeit with antennae and legs.
Nothing is more adorable than toddlers at play and these Himba children were absolutely dazzling. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking or what game there were playing. I don’t think there was a plan or any rules—it was all pure delight and imagination. No video games, no skateboards, no man-made toys, just sand, sky and each other.
You could drive short distances from Serra Cafema and find yourself looking at a completely different world than where you left. We spent one afternoon exploring large dunes 30-minutes from camp. It was our guide Gerhardus’ favorite stomping ground as you can see from the smile on his face, and I can understand why. It was magical.
One doesn’t imagine drifting down a river in the middle of the desert—or between two countries for that matter—but on the Kunene River next to camp we did just that. Namibia on the right. Angola on the left.
Probably my favorite sighting of our morning river cruise were the myriad of social weavers we encountered along the way. The males of the species are the resident architects, diligently crafting their golf club cover-shaped nests amid a chatter of chirps and fluttering wings, hoping their efforts will entice a female weaver to move in.
– Susan Portnoy