Part 1, Introduction and Skeleton Coast, Namibia

By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris

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My March 2011 inspection trip to Namibia and Botswana was really good and very productive; I always learn a ton of new stuff, even when I revisit the same spots. I have been traveling to Botswana and Namibia for more than 20 years now, but it really never gets old, in fact it gets to be more fun and more exciting all the time!

This was my 4th recent Green Season trip to the area and I return every time with renewed enthusiasm for travel to Southern Africa in their summer months from December through March.  Absolutely the best value for money, lots of wildlife with many young animals around, birds in breeding plumage and not too many other visitors (unless you include Cape Town!).  Yes it can get hot sometimes and there is a chance of an occasional thunderstorm or two but these negatives are more than off-set by the gorgeous sunsets, ideal photographic conditions (check out my photographs on the link below) and the reduced costs of international air tickets.

A selection of my photographs can be seen on Picasa at this link:

Bert’s March 2011 Africa photographs

The 4-night Skeleton Coast Safari in Namibia with Kathleen was amazing; the area is simply otherworldly.  Stunning natural beauty, awesome geological formations, plenty of desert-adapted wildlife, a trip into the interior where we visited a small Himba village,  and walking in real quicksand – the Skeleton Coast has all of that and much more. 

I had an interesting time at Doro Nawas in Damaraland with very worthwhile outings to the San rock engraving site & the petrified forest but hardly any game there this time of the year.  From there I went on to Desert Rhino Camp where I was extremely lucky with a cheetah and two different lion sightings, and fortunately black rhino on foot, albeit after several hours of tracking them.  This is a superb camp which I would recommend for anyone visiting Namibia.

Then it was on to Botswana. At Kalahari Plains Camp I  experienced an eye-popping  San interpretive walk, and the game-viewing was most impressive with hundreds of oryx & springbok & beautiful black-maned lions.  The best camp of the entire trip was definitely Tubu Tree where we had more than just one leopard hanging from trees, a hyena taking away a kill from a leopard right in front of us and lions wading through deep water.  With lots of other game around, often with four or five species of mammals to be seen at the same time.

Selinda was no slouch either with a near perfect cheetah sighting which – after several hours of hanging around – resulted in us witnessing a kill. Patience really paid off!  Good general game too, and a large pride of lions on arrival at Lebala airstrip.    

I left a couple of the best sightings for the last camp on the trip which was  Dumatau, where our guide Ron found a pack of seven wild dogs & mating leopards to boot.  I thoroughly enjoyed a mokoro outing and a boat trip with some fishing on a tributary of the Khwai River  at Wilderness Safaris’ new Banoka camp.  Also had my best views ever of an African wild cat not too far from camp, and there were quite a few elephants to be seen even though the mopane forest was quite dense.

I marveled at our guide James’ intimate knowledge of the area and the wildlife at Duba Plains, which should be renamed Duba Marsh as the vehicles were swimming all the time.  Lots of lions everywhere, climbing onto all kinds of things including woodpiles and termite hills. 


Having spent a few days in Paris en route, our Africa trip started with a meet and greet at the vastly improved ORTI Airport in Johannesburg.  Over the course of the last few years and specifically in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the airport has been transformed into a modern, convenient facility which any city can be proud of.  The variety of shops and services compare favorably with many much larger airports including Charles de Gaulle in Paris.  However, prices are high and watch your bags: two young women had a bag with their passports stolen at one of the restaurants at a table which is known (by the criminals) not to have security video camera coverage.  This was inside the security area, so stay alert and keep your bags close.  
From ORTI we were driven to the Saxon Hotel for the night.  The hotel was private and secluded with spacious, luxuriously appointed rooms, with a constant internet connection (laptop provided) and a very advanced lighting system with a ‘one touch’ switch which controls all the lights in the room.  In short I would say the room was as good as any I’ve seen in Africa or anywhere else.

The best experience at The Saxon was definitely the dinner; we opted for the vegetarian options including butternut blini and roasted corn soup as starters followed by asparagus tartreuse and a lentil terrine.    Side dishes included sweet corn strudel and glazed carrot.  The young sommelier was excellent, introducing us to a superb Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2010 as well as a Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc.  It was likely one of the best dinners Kathleen and I had enjoyed in Africa, ever.


Early the next morning, after an excellent but rushed breakfast in the room, we headed back to ORTI for an SAA flight to Windhoek.  The flight was uneventful.  As always, it is a long transfer (nearly 40 miles) from WDH International Airport to town, so we were happy to eventually reach our comfortable room at the Hotel Heinitzburg, in a suburb a few minutes from downtown Windhoek.  The best feature of the Heinitzburg is definitely the expansive terrace, with fantastic views over the city at night during dinner. 

The room at the Heinitzburg was fine but nothing special, with a weird closet door which sometimes obscured the television screen.   On the night, it was just as well because we were seeing raw footage of the awful disaster in Japan, with a giant tsunami wave sweeping away cars and buildings as if they were mere toys.  Little were we to know what the real impact of this catastrophe would be; for the next 14 days or so we were pretty much cut off from news sources and would only much later learn about the nuclear plant disaster. 

Dinner at the Heinitzburg was interesting and excellent; we enjoyed an Uiterwyk from 1993; a wine which I had first bought at the winery near Paarl from the owner himself, in the mid 1980’s.  Dinner was very pleasant with a special starter – a seasonal wild mushroom with corn curry soup.  Main course consisted of a trio of crepes; mushrooms, vegetables and aubergine. 


After breakfast at the Heinitzburg (no soy milk but good selection of breads), we were off by Cessna Caravan to the Skeleton Coast National Park.  I sat staring out over the passing landscape for practically the entire duration of the flight.  It is just an amazing and constantly changing stream of landscapes, totally fascinating.  Due to fog near the coast, we had to land at Purros from where we drove about 2 hrs to the Skeleton Coast camp, including some game-viewing time, spotting desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, springbok and suricates.  
After literally years of looking forward to the day, I was finally at the Skeleton Coast safari camp. 

Over the next few days, everything I had imagined about this very special place would materialize.  The  desolate coastline, fascinating  rock formations, colorful red lava and yellow sandstone patterns, desert-adapted life-forms, the living “fossil” tree (Welwitschia Mirabilis), a visit to a settlement of the nomadic Himba people and a breathtaking range of panoramic vistas. And much more such as towering ‘clay castles’ of the Huarusib River – a unique form of wind and water erosion – barchan dunes, a huge seal colony, and real quicksand. 

March 2011 was one of the wettest late summer months in Namibia in decades.  Much of what we saw on the Skeleton Coast National Park itself and outside of its boundaries may not be seen again in years, or even decades.  It was literally a sea of green:  Skeleton Coast Camp itself had had nearly an inch of rain just the night before we arrived there.   In one of the driest deserts in the world, there was water everywhere.  At the time we did not realize the full implication of what all this water would do to the area.  We just enjoyed there being practically no dust. 

On 13 March the idea was to set off early on the long drive to the northern part of the reserve – Cape Frio – but some lion tracks changed the plans.  For the first time in months, lion tracks had been seen near the Skeleton Coast Camp landing strip.  This was interesting in more ways than one.  It was unusual for this small desert pride of lions to venture this far out of their usual home range.  Also it was interesting and just slightly unsettling on a personal level because Kathleen and I had planned to do some running in the area later that day.  Despite having left clear paw prints in the wet desert sand, every effort to locate the lions proved to be unsuccessful.  They had apparently walked into some hills where none of the vehicles could get close to them and not surprisingly none of the guides were too keen to follow the tracks on foot. These lions had previously had quite a bit of human contact and not all good, so walking into them would not have been a great idea.  Tragically this pride would later be killed by eating a purposefully poisoned animal carcass. 

Having abandoned the search for the lions, we headed out in a northerly direction through a series of barchans dunes.  The scenery was quite magical but due to heavy fog in the area I was not able to get any useful photographs.  We did manage to capture images of some desert-adapted life-forms including a tenebrionid beetle (aka toktokkie), shovel-nosed lizard and webfooted gecko. 

At long last we reached the Cape Frio area where we enjoyed a very pleasant lunch break close to a rocky outcrop within view of the large seal colony which is the main attraction of the area.  Fellow traveller Craig – from New York City – took a dip in the cold Atlantic Ocean waves while the rest of us relaxed by just taking in the awesome views.  After lunch we walked up to the seal colony; it was fascinating to see how unconcerned the young seals were with our presence.  We might literally have touched them if we cared to.  Some of the bigger bulls were much more wary but of course we snapped a few pics of them.    They were massive compared with the females and really look more like walruses than seals.  We had no luck spotting a brown hyena, which was one of the major disappointments of the trip.  These elusive mostly nocturnal mammals are regularly seen in the area.  There were several black-backed jackals lurking just beyond some of the dunes.   Other than great white sharks the jackals and brown hyena are the seals’ most common predators.

The next day – our second full day in the area – we set off on a full day drive towards the interior, leaving the Skeleton Coast National Park.  The day was memorable for several good bird sightings including Ludwig’s Bustard, Longbilled Lark, Gray’s Lark, Pale Chanting Goshawk, African Hoopoe, Purple Roller, Scimitarbill, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Buzzard, a Martial Eagle and several others. 

This morning we drove through some of the most spectacular areas of any we would see on the trip.  There are few sights quite as imposing a wide gravel-bottomed valley with sharp rocky outcrops to the left and right.  Elsewhere in the world scenes such as these may draw tourists by the hundreds, not to mention film makers, developers and hotel chains. Here on the edge of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast park, there was nobody else to be seen.  Just our solitary vehicle, a lonely road and a massive empty sky. 

By mid-morning we had reached a vast open area which might charitably be described as a field, but it was really more of a sandy, gravelly plain.  Oddly this most inhospitable stretch of land is home to dozens if not hundreds of the rare and unique Welwitchia Mirabilis, a true living fossil.  These monotypical plants can live for as long as 1,000 to even 2,000 years.  The separate male and female plants have only two leaves which continue to grow for as long as it lives.

Around mid-day we reached a couple of small Himba village in the Onyuva plains, within the Orupembe Conservancy.  The villages were tiny; at the first one a young woman in traditional dress peered out at us and then disappeared back into the hut not to be seen again.  At the second one we stopped and got out of the vehicle; approaching a couple of huts and other structures where two Himba women and four young children were happy to make our acquaintance.  With the help of our guide the conversation soon turned to family; the women – who were in their twenties and who both have had several kids – were astonished to hear that we had been married for nearly 30 years but that we had only two boys.  Who was going to look after us when we became old and feeble?  I could but smile.  Materially the Himba – at least the ones in this area – were doing quite well and they were the owners of significant numbers of cattle.  Somehow though, they had not yet bridged the gap towards ‘modern’ society:  there was no sign of any modern convenience to be seen.  No clean water, no plumbing, no stoves, no electricity, none of the things which we associate with daily life.  The kids – some of whom were barely clothed – were playing literally in the dirt, their dusty faces warily breaking out into half-smiles but only when goaded by their mothers. 

Having politely declined the Himbas’ offer to share some food (‘thanks but we already had lunch…’), we returned to camp in a pensive mood, mulling over the hardships and joy of this type of a pastoral existence.  Who were we to say that the Himba have nothing or that they are lacking in basic comfort? Not having lived anywhere else of course their perception of comfort is quite unlike ours. Abundance to them is having a ready supply of corn meal and some wind-dried meat strung out in the trees right outside their huts.  Their worst nightmare?  Probably a regimented life in an urban setting completely removed from nature, a 9 to 5 office job and food which comes in cans, boxes and bottles. 

The following day – March 15 – we took it easy.  After breakfast we drove to a gorge off the Hoarusib River, where we observed some impressive examples of the typical Skeleton Coast ‘clay castles’.  These are fascinating geological formations where huge mounds of clay are in a continuous process of being weathered and eroded by water and wind.  Leaving the vehicle behind, we walked a semi-circular route down the gorge towards the Hoarusib and then back to the car.  All along, both left and right, we were looking up at some amazingly intricate examples of slow-motion erosion.  At one or other time in the distant past, the Hoarusib mouth must have been blocked resulting in massive fine particle sand being deposit along the river and its tributaries at a time of heavy desert and inland rainfall. 

Then conditions reverted to ‘normal’ which means practically no rainfall or rarely more than an inch or so per year.  The meagre flow of the Hoarusib itself plus what little moisture falls from the skies resulted in these narrow gorges forming over probably thousands of years,  with impressive striations, cavities and overhangs, often resembling conventional architectural design, hence the ‘castle’ designation.  Scrambling along the sandy and sometimes rocky surfaces, I was struck by the thought that literally only a handful of people had ever trodden these paths.  The entire area is closed to public access and over the years very few people had ever laid their eyes on this spectacle.  Just a few decades ago it was considered an impossible feat to drive into the Skeleton Coast due to the near-complete absence of passable roads and other infrastructure. 

From there, we travelled through an equally impressive moon landscape towards the coast.  Ordinarily the area would be bone dry but due to the recent abundant rainfall, we witnessed a small lake which was formed when the water was trapped in the desert.  About half an hour or so later, we reached the mouth of the Hoarusib River, to our left.  Again the heavy recent rainfall made it impossible to drive across the mouth; apparently someone else had recently lost a vehicle there in the mud.  We were not about to try a similar stunt.  Turning south, we then travelled a relatively short distance to Rocky Point, a well-known fishing spot.  Water conditions were not ideal (too much sediment in the water) but Craig and I pulled out a bunch of small, pesky catfish.  Craig managed to land a nice kob (kabeljou) was was prepared for dinner later that day.  Rocky Point and its nearby airstrip played a central role in the saga of the sinking of the Dunedin Star – and the subsequent rescue missions – which played itself out in this area in 1942. 

That night we were treated to a farewell barbecue meal with beef, sausage and the local version of polenta, together with a very spicy tomato soup.  Yet another delicious meal!  Several of the camp staff members performed an interesting song and dance routine. 
The next morning we said farewell to a very special place by taking a leisurely walk along the dry – or at least damp – Huanib riverbed, and then we boarded a flight for Doro Nawas which would be our next stop.

Our visit to the Skeleton Coast National Park was nothing short of otherworldly: the senses are constantly stimulated by new and unusual sights and experiences.  It is certainly the most fascinating and unusual place I have ever seen. 

Continue to Part 2