A Life Enriching Journey-Remarkable, Unexpected Namibia
February 24, 2021
I had the great fortune to be invited on a 14-day Fam (familiarization) trip last month to Namibia. Hosted by Andrea Hugo of Andrea Hugo Associates and orchestrated by Ultimate Safaris, whose tagline I chose as my title, it was truly a life enriching journey to the one place in sub–Saharan Africa I had not had the opportunity to visit. I echo the love of this place shared by many of my industry colleagues, not only due to the phenomenal traveling companions I had (Other specialist agents), but in the pure beauty of the place, the excellent guiding, the extra care provided by Ultimate, and the accommodations that were architecturally amazing, comfortable, and perfectly choreographed. I added another four days up front to visit Okonjima, a special leopard and pangolin research and cheetah rescue center run by the Hanssen family, former cattle ranchers who transformed Okonjima into a nature reserve with a primary focus on carnivore conservation and the AfriCat Foundation. The properties run by the Hanssen’s: Plains Camp and Onkonjima Bush Camp offer comfortable, luxurious options, and a warm and friendly staff. The leopard collaring assures visitors that they are likely to spot the leopards, but the true joy is seeing one of the non-collared cats and if lucky like I was, their offspring. This 2–3-month cub was curious and playful a sighting that made my journey worthwhile in just its second day!
As my luck continued, I was also able to walk with the researchers at night to spot a pangolin- a first for me. I only had to hope my pounding heart would not scare him away.
I was able to visit a few different hotels in Windhoek to get a good sense of the place for guests who will arrive in the evening and need a day to catch up on sleep. The Olive Grove Guesthouse and A.M. Weinberg are boutique options, as well as Ultimate’s more basic Galton House are all great stops in and out of Namibia. Windhoek, the largest city has just over 300k inhabitants. If guests prefer to sample the more intimate Olive Grove Exclusive, I will surely recommend 2-3
nights stay as the comfort and amenities provided are 6-star quality.
I met up with the group at Galton House and knew quickly we would be BFFs. To travel with a group of fun, humorous and knowledgeable companions was a bonus. As we made our way to Etosha in the Northeast part of the country we learned much about the history and struggles of this relatively young country, who obtained independence from South Africa in 1990. We became familiar with the Dutch and German influences, and thus the hard to pronounce (and spell names ) of cities and regions. Indeed, most of the other guests we ran into along our journey were German and Dutch, rather than American. (Of course, the Brits and Aussies were still in Quarantine). Although I call it a young country, the geology of Namibia suggests nothing but old, ancient, from the beginning of time. Truly one can imagine Godwana, or one land mass that joined what is now South America and what is Southern Africa when, for example, you see some of the land formations and coloring that are similar in Damaraland to what you would see in Salta, Argentina in the Andes. What was special about Namibia was the harshness of the climate, the arid deserts, the rocky soil, the vast sand dunes, the wild coastal waters, a place where it is hard to imagine the life of not only desert adapted elephants, lions, leopards, and oryx but humans in the Himba and Herero tribes who dwell in these environments. Namibia is also a land of savannahs and forests and can offer a more traditional safari viewing experience, especially in Etosha, and in the nature reserves that abut the cattle ranches in the middle of the Country, but for me it was the life “out of place” that was the most fascinating to behold.
Namibia is also known to have the most populous cheetah population in Africa, and conservation of the cheetah is at the forefront of many of the research and rescue activities funded by both government and NGOs.
In Etosha we arrived at Onguma Tented camp, welcomed by Manager Garry Roberts who surprised us with a wine tasting in the bush before an “over the top” welcome dinner at Onguma Fort, a 5* resort of intimate cottages offering privacy and exclusivity to couples, families, and honeymooners. Indeed, we just missed Actor Will Smith by a few days when he arrived to stay at the Fort. Onguma is in a private reserve just outside the National Park. It also offers some lower end accommodations and services including catering to the self-drive camping guests with extremely well-organized camping sites, some even complete with private bathrooms and showers at each camp site, a restaurant and lounge facility and swimming pool.
We spotted cheetah, oryx, zebras, giraffe, black face impala, rhino, and many rare and beautiful birds on our explorations in Etosha. Onguma has a great water hide for photographers and a boma for evening cookouts and entertainment. Walking safaris are available as is a visit to the nearby village of Oshivelo and successful vegetable farming operating that provides nearly 1/3 of the vegetables to the country and provides the community with jobs and livelihood. We also had the opportunity to spend considerable time with the director of the anti-poaching unit and learn about the Rhino conservation efforts- a fascinating story of the self-less contributions made by the individuals who protect this endangered species.
After Etosha we sadly left Onguma for a drive to Damaraland, enjoying a sumptuous picnic lunch prepared by Onguma and facilitated by Ultimate Safaris. We learned more about the culture of Namibia, its rich natural resources, its conservationists, its food, and daily life on our drives through the country.
Damaraland is typified by displays of color, magnificent table topped mountains, rock formations and bizarre- looking vegetation. The present-day landscape has been formed by the erosion of wind, water and geological forces which have formed rolling hills, dunes, gravel plains and ancient river terraces. It is the variety and loneliness of the area as well as the scenic splendor which will reward and astound you, giving one an authentic understanding of the word 'wilderness'. Every soft curve or ragged edge frames the landscape in a different way, as if you are seeing it for the first time, every time. Game drives along ancient dry riverbeds reveal life that in its sparseness reminds us just how special it is. Rare, desert dwelling elephants, springbok, gemsbok, and jackal roam these plains, while their images are found etched in the rocks at Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s first World Heritage Site. On the way into Damaraland, we spotted a leopard, an unforgettable sighting and indeed a highlight for our guide who only knew how rare this sighting was. Luck continued.
We stayed at Mowani Mountain Camp, consisting of 12 luxury tents, decorated beautifully in East African style. The luxury tents are a great source of relaxation and a sanctuary dwarfed by massive ochre boulders, the camp seemingly absorbed into the surrounding landscape. Each room feels like a private hide-away, with a wraparound wooden deck offering an open view of the
wonderful Damara landscape.
On our drives from camp, we spotted several desert adapted elephants and visited with local villagers to understand their daily life and their work with the lion researchers who had helped them install gps lion tracking mechanisms to protect their cattle and goats. We were popular visitors for the children who ran after our vehicle and sang to us, inquisitive about the visitors they had not seen in nearly a year.
From Damaraland we drive to Hoanib Valley and stayed at my favorite camp of the trip, due not only to the accommodations themselves, but to the friendliness and professionalism of the staff who treated us like cherished family. Hoanib Valley Camp is in the Sesfontein Community Conservancy. It sits on the banks of the Obias River overlooking the ephemeral Hoanib River that teems with resident elephant, giraffe, oryx and springbok, and that makes a visit to this unspoiled corner of Namibia even more memorable. Hoanib Valley’s six guest tents blend almost perfectly into the rugged environment. The colors, textures and patterns are inspired by the experience of the Hoanib; the rich ochre of the dunes, the geometric patterns of the Himba people and, of course, the giraffe that inspired the project. The materials for the camp were sourced locally, and you will find furniture shaped by the local Rundu carpenters and Himba carvers, and baskets weaved by the people of the Omba Project in Windhoek. The whole camp is clean and green, leaving virtually no footprint on this fragile eco-system. It is entirely solar powered to ensure carbon emissions are kept to a minimum, and the tents sit on decks made of a wood, bamboo and 70% recycled-material composite.
Our safari drives were exceptional here and indeed our guide Ramone said our sighting of a pride of five lions- one male, two female and 2 cubs was the best sighting in all his years of guiding. What made it so was the fact that we stayed with them for nearly 3 hours as they posed in the most unreal way for us: on a cliff, then crossing rocky outcroppings, dry riverbeds, and sand dunes in a hunt for the evening dinner. It was fascinating to watch the lions work together and the change in playfulness of the cubs as the hunt became more serious, truly learning from the elders the importance of being stealth to be successful.
We visited the Himba people of Northern Namibia, one of the few tribes that still live according to the traditions of their ancestors. These goat and cattle farmers eek out their existence in extremely dry and primitive conditions, yet welcome visitors with open arms. The women and children add to the village income by making beautiful crafts and jewelry, themselves adorned with beads, headdresses, animal leathers. Known for their skin covered in red ochre cream, they cleanse themselves daily with a smoke bath, not water. Their hair is braided with red ochre in elaborate style and their hygiene is impeccable. It was fascinating to spend an hour getting to know their way of living and their animist beliefs to get a fascinating glimpse of a world so unlike our own.
From Hoanib we proceeded West to The Skeleton Coast, enjoying more surreal landscape along the way.
Our journey took us through more mountains and hills, white sand dunes and forests, all the way to the rocky coast where we stayed in the most architecturally interesting property I encountered. (Although all were amazing gems of architecture, this one appealed the most to me for its attention to detail. Shipwreck Lodge is a joint venture partnership with the local communities in the area and it is uniquely designed around the relics of shipwrecks that dot Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. There are eight twin or double rooms, and two cabins can take extra beds, all ensuite and solar-powered. Each room includes a wood burning stove. In the center of camp, you will find an innovatively designed lounge and restaurant with a wide, wraparound deck and uninterrupted views across the sand all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
We sighted dolphins and whales from our beach sundowner and again at an elegant beach lunch the following day. At the Skeleton coast you can also visit the shipwrecks and learn about the fate of these vessels, one occurring as late as 2018 and several in the recent past. Sand boarding was an adrenaline rush down steep triple black diamond type dunes, on your belly on a sled slicked down with surfboard wax. ATVing, always a favorite , was a special thrill as well, and highly recommended even for a novice. Easy, exhilarating entertainment.
From Shipwreck we traveled down the coast, visiting the massive seal colony at Mowe Bay. The occasional jackal and brown hyena were spotted patrolling the beach for wayward seals or small antelope. We stopped over the coastal resort town favored by locals, Swakopmund, an oasis in the desert, where water sports are the popular pursuits.
From Swakopmund we traveled South in the Namib desert to Sossusvlei and Ultimate’s camp there, Camp Sossus. The camp is located on the Namib Tsaris Conservancy, which is nestled between the Nubib and Zaris Mountains, a mere thirty minutes’ drive from the gateway to Sossusvlei and the Great Namib Sand Sea which has recently been declared a World Heritage Site. The Conservancy was founded by Landscape Conservationist Swen Bachran in 2010, and it serves as a natural buffer from the harshest desert conditions and a refuge that is vital to wildlife through the dry season. Eight years of intensive work to reverse sixty years of inappropriate farming practices, including the removal of 89 km of internal fencing, the installation of wildlife watering points, the improvement of road networks, the rehabilitation of land and the reintroduction of wildlife that historically occurred here, has resulted in one of the most picturesque and ecologically sound tracts of land in the area. The Conservancy has gravel plains, mountainous areas with dry river valleys as well as a large, raised plateau which towers above the desert below, and it is now home to some of largest concentrations of wildlife in the area, including Oryx, Springbok, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, Burchell’s Zebra, Kudu, Hartebeest, Giraffe, Steenbok, Klipspringer, Bat-eared Fox, and Aardwolf, as well as predators such as Leopard, Cheetah and Spotted Hyena. Plans for the acquisition of adjoining land to extension of the Conservancy are ongoing, as well as dropping fences to neighboring like-minded conservation areas.
Camp Sossus is built in a naturally formed amphitheatre of a south-facing granite outcrop within striking distance of Sossusvlei and is ideally positioned to avoid the harsh desert sun. The severe desert climate was a primary consideration in the camp’s design, and tents are protected from the stormy east winds by natural stone walls and shaded by roofs built from almost 500 recycled oil drums. It is also equipped with furniture built in part from recycled metals, Oregon pine floorboards and wooden pallets. As a result of this design, the camp is virtually invisible from any distance and, together with Camp Huab, it carries the lowest environmental footprint of any camp in Namibia. Camp Sossus is exclusive use for a minimum 4 guests up to 16 adult guests and includes a sleepout bed on the rooftop of each of the 8 tents.
Sossusvlei is a clay pan located in the southern Namib desert set amid monstrous sand dunes that reach heights as high as 220 meters, the height of a 60-story skyscraper. The largest dune is known as Big Daddy and the curviest, Marilyn Monroe. Sossusvlei has several meanings depending on whom you ask. Some guides describe it as “where the water gathers”, others “dead marsh” and still others as “the place of no return” due to the harsh desert environment that supports a delicate ecosystem around and underneath the dunes. Only once in a decade or so is there rainfall over the escarpment that brings the river flow down far enough to fill the pan. As luck would have it, we experienced such a rare sight during our visit this past January. The dunes reflected in the water and the lakes surrounding Sossusvlei were amazing.
Here one can also trek to Dead Vlei, the place where the eerie dead camelthorn trees stand, a classic picture characteristic to Namibian itineraries. Oryx, springbok, jackals, even leopard frequent the area.
From here we returned to Windhoek, with a stop at an organic coffee house where we were entertained by stories of Namibian life by the colorful native Namibian owner.
Leaving Namibia was difficult, as is generally the case in Africa, but I know that I will return soon. In 2022 we are planning a group trip with a safari intensive stop in South Africa, followed by a 10–12-day journey to enjoy the highlights of this beautiful, untamed, and largely undiscovered country. Look for the itinerary in the coming weeks as we plot the adventure with our partner, Ultimate Safaris.
Namibia is surely a place for those wishing to get off the beaten track and to experience the diversity of such a naturally blessed land. I cannot wait to return to the warmth of the people, the diversity and the
thrill of sightings “out of place.”