NAMIBIA, a country of unimaginably diverse natural beauty, is located along the southwest coast of Africa. It is almost four times the size of Great Britain, yet only has a population of 2.2 million. Getting to Namibia is simple with South African Airlines, who operate daily scheduled flights from London Heathrow to Windhoek, with a seamless connection in Johannesburg.
Arriving in Hosea Kutako International Airport, Windhoek, we were whisked away to the Wilderness Safaris airport lounge, where our luggage was duly weighed and measured to check that it complied with Wilderness Air’s restrictions. The luggage constraint is not a problem as Wilderness camps provide a highly efficient and complimentary daily laundry service – and it’s also quite liberating to be able to travel light.
Andy, our pilot, then escorted us to the five-seater Wilderness Air Cessna, which was flying us on the short hour-long route to Wilderness Safaris’ Little Kulala camp, set within the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve in the Sossusvlei region of Namibia.
Little Kulala, Sossesvlei
Our guide, the formidable, knowledgeable and entertaining (former bushman!) Iskia, met us at the Sossesvlei airfield and drove us to Little Kulala, where we were warmly greeted with a welcoming song by the exuberant staff. Our delightful thatched villa, one of 11, was authentically furnished with soft textured shades of white and cream, and the exterior included a shaded deck filled with oversized sun loungers, a small plunge pool and an outdoor shower. The most unique feature of our villa was the rooftop full-sized bed, where we spent our first night out in the open, complete with a protective mosquito net, gazing in wonderment at the magnificent expanse of the brightest stars lighting up the black desert sky.
Little Kulala’s spacious communal areas are housed under a huge thatched roof and even include a library brimming with African and wildlife books. The alfresco dining allows you to enjoy observing the animals approaching the waterhole while eating. Although you are in a remote location, there is absolutely no compromise when it comes to the food served on Wilderness Safaris – it was always of a very high standard, beautifully presented, and professionally served by their attentive staff.
Our first morning started with an early wake-up call by Iskia at 6.00am. After enjoying a swift but delicious breakfast, we set out on our drive to see the famous sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Our journey took us passed several oryx, a scattering of springbok and a pair of ungainly ostrich.
The red sand dunes are amongst the highest in the world, with some even having their own names. Iskia first drove us to Dune 45, which initially looked easy to ascend by foot, until you realise how soft and unsupportive the sand is. From up high on the dunes the expansive views across the desert against the backdrop of the early morning sunrise conjured up feelings of euphoria. We then drove to the highest dune, Big Daddy, which is adjacent to Deadvlei, the famed dead saltpan, where remnants of 900-year-old black Camelthorn trees remain rooted within the white clay. The contrast of the red sand dunes set against the ancient white clay provided an unforgettable scene, which lingered in our minds as we drove back to Little Kulala, our perfect desert sanctuary.
Serra Cafema, Hartmann Valley
Following a rapturous goodbye from the staff at Little Kulala, we were driven to the close-by airstrip for our flight to the second Wilderness camp, Serra Cafema, which is located in the northwestern corner of Namibia on the Angolan border. In fact, the journey involved two flights, which gave us the opportunity to soak up the vastly changing landscape as we flew northwards across the length of Namibia. Finally, upon arriving in the Hartmann Valley, our guide, Geraldus, took us on the most wonderfully scenic drive to absorb the vibrant green and violet mountainscape, while stopping regularly to spot scorpions, monitor lizards, shovel-snouted sand lizards and the extraordinary colour-changing Namaqua chameleon.
Serra Cafema is a seven-hour drive from the nearest village, making it one of the most remote locations in southern Africa. The camp is marketed as a black hole destination, with little in the way of communications with the outside world, except for the satellite phone lurking in the back office. Amongst all this relaxing tranquillity, the only sound one can hear at night is the rapids of the Kunane River, which forms the natural border between Namibia and Angola.
Serra Cafema’s public spaces are rugged in décor with darker colours of brown and green perfectly blending with the natural surroundings. There are eight villas made from wood, canvas and thatch, all with indoor and outdoor showers. Our villa was perched on the bank of the river, with a private deck from where we enjoyed a most romantic alfresco lunch, while admiring the beautiful river views.
The charming and hugely knowledgeable general manager of the lodge, Michael Kading, is ever-present mingling with guests to ensure everything is always operating smoothly. This is one of the most relaxing lodges within Wilderness Safaris’ portfolio as there are no early starts in the morning, so there is always plenty time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the large communal deck overlooking the river.
On our first morning we took a short drive to experience an encounter with the unique semi-nomadic Himba tribe, during which Geraldus acted as our interpreter to explain their traditional lifestyle. It was interesting to learn about their extremely limited diet of porridge, milk and meat, and their total exclusion of all types of fruit and vegetables. It was a most humbling experience meeting the Himba people, whose simple and peaceful life left a marked impression on us all.
One afternoon we took a tranquil boat ride along the Kunane River, viewing crocodiles basking in the shade, while the cheeky Chacma baboons played high above their heads in the overhanging cliffs, only coming to the water’s edge for a very swift drink.
Later that day we had another unique experience of a quad-bike safari. After an initial thorough safety briefing and test drive, we hit the mountain trails, venturing over the rocks, hills and dunes, all the time following Geraldus. On the quad bike you felt even closer to the majestic views and the beautiful wildlife, yet without ever disturbing the tranquillity – a truly unforgettable experience.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast
The following morning we were sad to leave Serra Cafema, but also excited to embark on the flight to our final lodge, Wilderness Safaris’ Hoanib Skeleton Coast camp, the newest addition to their portfolio of properties in Namibia. Upon arrival at the camp, we were struck both by the combination of modernity and luxury of our canvas-draped ridged tent and the communal area, and also by how sympathetically they blended into the landscape of the surrounding Namib Desert.
The Namib is one of the only places in the world where lions, elephants and giraffes have adapted to the desert environment. We arrived soon after the rainy season, so our guide, Papa G, explained that the wildlife would be greatly dispersed, as there was no need to come to the ephemeral riverbed. On our first drive, it didn’t take long before we spotted two satisfied lionesses enjoying an oryx that they had killed earlier that morning. Then, to our amazement, high amongst the mountain rocks, we spotted three very young lion cubs, gingerly making their way downwards to join in the feast. As dusk started to fall with the lions’ bellies full, they silently slipped away into the desert night, after which we drove back to the camp to enjoy our pre-dinner drinks by the camp bonfire, while reliving the magical scenes we had just witnessed.
At sunrise, we set out on the long bumpy drive to reach Skeleton Coast. We initially crossed desert terrain using the dry riverbed as our track, from where we spotted a family of grazing giraffes and, very luckily, a lone brown hyena. We were then fortunate to come across a small herd of elephants, including a calf feeding from its mother. Once we drove onto the gravel plains, the track soon became rough and bumpy, before we reached the vast sandy white dune belt abutting the resplendent Atlantic Ocean.
As we approached the sea, a flamboyance of coral flamingos stood before us, spectacularly set against the dark blue ocean. Further up the coast we had a close-up encounter with an enormous colony of an estimated fifteen thousand Cape Fur seals, spread out over one kilometre of shoreline. Many of the squealing seal pups hid safely under the rocks while their mothers went hunting for fish, and the older cubs lay out enjoying the sun, seemingly indifferent to us mingling amongst them all.
Papa G explained to us how the ocean creates its own ecosystem, where the mist moves off the sea onto the plains and desert every morning, depositing droplets of water onto the flora, which all the land-based wildlife rely on for their water supply. Afterwards, we discovered that Wilderness Safaris had scheduled a scenic flight back to our camp, which took only 20 minutes, allowing us to enjoy the unique experience of observing the magnificent changing vistas from the air.
As Wilderness Safaris is a major investor in wildlife research, a researcher based at the Hoanib camp, Susie, briefed us on the life and habits of the brown hyena in the Namib Desert. We were amazed to hear that she could identify the hyena we had spotted based on our photographs by depicting the shape of its ears. The camp has also served as a base for Dr Flip Stander, who has conducted extensive research and contributed to a recently launched documentary on the remarkable life of the desert-adapted lions.
On our final morning Papa G took us on a walking safari, heading out early before sunrise across the desert. It felt surreal walking close to grazing giraffes while being careful not to disturb them. We climbed the highest peak, from where we enjoyed seeing the silhouette of our lodge from afar, and took time to reflect on everything we had been so privileged to experience over the last week.
With heavy hearts we departed Hoanib Skeleton Coast camp for the local airstrip, from where we embarked on our final light aircraft journey to Windhoek’s international airport, before beginning our overnight flight home on South African Airways. Although our adventure of a lifetime had ended, we knew that our memories of the superlative Wilderness Safaris and enchanting Namibia would remain with us forever.
By Amanda Bernstein
Expert Africa offers a seven-night trip with Wilderness Safaris to Namibia, staying at Little Kulala, Serra Cafema and Hoanib Skeleton Coast camps, from £3,671 per person sharing. For booking enquiries contact Expert Africa or call +44 20 8232 9777; from the US freephone 1 800 242 2434. South African Airways fly three times daily London to Windhoek via Johannesburg from £635 return per person. For further information on travelling to Namibia click here.