Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia is the most stunning lodge I have visited in all of my adventures across Southern Africa in no small part because of the the surreal landscape of undulating sand dunes, punctuated by rocky hills, and sustained by a riverbed that flows once a year bringing life to this dusty, dry desert. The giraffe, elephants, and lions seem incongruous with the habitat, but they have adapted to their harsh environs which is perhaps why animal viewing here is thrilling. Although the area lacks the density of game of other parts of Southern Africa, the sightings are amazing, primarily because you don’t expect to see a lion lounging on a sand dune. The camp is located in the Palmwag Concession boarding the Skeleton Coast National Park. It was exactly the getaway I needed at a moment that I wanted an escape.
Thanksgiving always finds me missing home. This is my favorite holiday and since I was twenty I have hosted my friends or family for a veritable feast. Since I moved to Johannesburg, I find myself at a bit of a loss. My first year I spent the day in the office and swore to myself that was the last year I would sit at a desk thinking about turkey and mashed potatoes. Last year, I spent four lovely days at my favorite reserve in South Africa, Phinda. This year I booked a trip to a remote corner of the world and was delighted to learn just a few days before my departure that this camp had no wifi or cell service. For three days I would be off the grid, mercifully free of the parade of Thanksgiving photos on social media.
As I searched for the runway between the rocky hills that punctuated the vista, I realized this other worldly place that was two charter flights and over 2 hours flying time from the capital of Namibia would deliver the memorable holiday that I sought. The camp is close to the airstrip and upon arrival, we were greeted by the congenial and outrageous camp manager who never missed the opportunity to ensure guests were comfortable or to let his larger than life personality shine through. After the compulsory chilled, towel, thirst quenching libation, and after committing my signature to an indemnity form, I was shown to my room. I have walked into a number of luxurious rooms, but this one stands out. It’s a canvas structure that is enormous and features an outdoor patio that is nearly as large as the bedroom and is where I spent the hours between activities enjoying the afternoon breeze.
Due to the intensity of sun during the day, evening drive departed after tea and coffee were served at 5:30pm so I had plenty of time to settle in and enjoy the view. On our first drive we didn’t see many animals, but it hardly mattered since we were all wowed by the landscape and epic spot for sundowners (drinks served as the sun dips below the horizon). Our first drive significantly lowered my expectations and I thought the rest of our drives would be equally devoid of animals, but this assumption ended up being incorrect. On our morning drive we headed in the opposite direction toward the floodplains in search of elephants. The breeding herd that inhabits the area has sixteen elephants, including two bulls who don’t spend much time with the herd. Comically, the two male elephants have been named after guides working at the camp, Charles and Arnold. Charles, who despite being breeding age, is second fiddle to Arnold, the dominant bull in the area known for his love of the tasty, barely out of reach tree branches. Arnold is also known for the dramatic way in which he established his dominance. Apparently, he forced Papa G (the then dominant bull elephant) off the seriously high riverbed bank. Papa G didn’t survive the fall.
For anyone who is planning on visiting this camp, book at least three nights, as a trip to the Skeleton Coast is included in the stay. The drive to the coast takes four or five hours depending on how many stops are made along the way. We would traverse the dry riverbed, the floodplains, and sandy dunes until we reached the rocky beach. We stopped for animals along the way as well as a much need coffee break for the caffeine dependent amongst us. Upon reaching the dunes, we were instructed to jump off the side of a particularly steep dune, but carefully so that we didn’t roll down in a mass of flailing limbs. With no real explanation of why scuttling down the dune while seated was the preferred method for descending the dune face, the reason quickly became apparent. As the sand shifts beneath you, it sounds as if an airplane is taking off.
Along the coast we made several stops, including to a cape fur seal colony. This may have actually been the most disturbing wildlife moment I have experienced to date. It is the breeding season and there were seal pups everywhere, including a perturbing number who had lost their mothers and had either died or were in the processing of doing so. I was relieved when we departed for the odd one room museum filled with the bones of the animals and birds that inhabit the park. Also on display were the detritus from the many shipwrecks that have occurred along the coast giving the area its name. Our last stop was for lunch near the remnants of a ship that wrecked in the 1970s on its maiden voyage. Given that the drive back to camp would have lasted three hours, a plane had been arranged to ferry us back. It also afforded us the chance to see the ocean, dunes, and floodplains from the air.
After a long day, the planned evening activity was a showing of Vanishing Kings, a documentary about a desert adapted lion pride whose territory is in the vicinity of the camp. There are only an estimated 150 desert adapted lions in the area and the film centered on an old lioness, her two daughters, and five male cubs as they approached independence and would be forced to leave the pride. The film ended and it was announced that we were going to try to find a lone lioness who had eluded us on earlier drives and coincidentally had been featured in the film. After a bit of searching the lioness was located stalking some giraffe. She was on her own because her sister was denning with new cubs. It was surreal to see a lion lounging on a sand dune and making a go at a giraffe. She was unsuccessful in her hunt and eventually stalked off through the hills. It was one of those incredible moments that occurs in the last light of the day made all the more surreal by the incongruity of seeing a lion in the desert.
The next morning there was only time for a short drive and like all our other drives, this one did not disappoint. It is always thrilling to observe and photograph animals that I have never seen before. In the span of 10 minutes I checked an African wild cat and brown hyena off my list. The brown hyena was gnawing on Papa G’s bones and was being followed by a pesky black-backed jackal. Upon returning to camp, I showed my photos to the brown hyena researcher who confirmed that this was a hyena she had not identified before. In some small delusional way this made me feel as if I had contributed to her research.
There is no where like Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. In this remote corner of Namibia, this American spent the most amazing Thanksgiving giving thanks for a life that allows me to explore the incredible beauty and wildlife of Southern Africa.