Namibia, a vast and hauntingly beautiful country, stretches from the fertile farmland of Ovamboland to the desert dunes of the Sossusvlei, flanking the Atlantic coast from north to south. Africa expert, Miles, discovers this remote wilderness on a safari experience with a difference.
Skeleton Coast Safaris was set up almost 50 years ago by Louw Schoeman, a diamond miner and one of the conservationists behind the creation of the Skeleton Coast National Park. As a true family business it has now been passed down to, and is run, by his four sons who are simply known as the Schoeman brothers. With more than 100 years of experience between them, they are some of the very best and most passionate advocates of this unique and spectacular country.
My four-day trip with them started early on a crisp winter’s morning at Eros Airport in Windhoek with my guide, Andre, and his son Kyle. In true Schoeman style there was no ceremony or pomp and before I knew it, we were off. Our first stop; Sossusvlei. As we skipped a hundred foot over the top of the red dunes, I started to realise the extent of just how enormous Namibia is. At almost three and half times the size of the UK but with a population the size of Leeds, it is hard at first to get your head around the sheer scale of the space here.
After an hour’s flight I had almost filled my camera’s memory card- which turned out to be woefully small compared to what I would need- we touched down amongst the towering red dunes. Home to the UNESCO world heritage site, DeadVlei, the area is a jaw droppingly beautiful but quite alien as the landscape resembles Mars more than it does earth. Those lucky enough to see it by car will no doubt tell you it is amazing but to truly understand just how magnificent these huge dunes are, there is no comparison to the birds eye view that a flying safari gives you.
Already thinking that we had already seen the best landscape Namibia had to offer, I very quickly realised how little I knew. The Skeleton Coast, which is arguably Namibia’s most beautiful feature, was unlike anything I had ever seen before, with massive sand dunes dropping straight down in the Atlantic. Nowhere else in the world do two such vastly different landscapes meet so spectacularly. The ship wrecks and abandoned diamond mines that litter the coastline are a stark reminder of just how unforgiving this beautiful little corner of Africa can be. Just as I was beginning to wonder how anything could possibly survive out here, we came across what was to be the first of countless seal colonies. To my astonishment, thousands of Cape Fur seals were spread almost a kilometre down the beach, sandwiched on a narrow strip of beach between desert and ocean.
From that moment on, Andre’s experienced eye brought the seemingly deserted landscape alive, he pointed out pods of dolphins, jackals, sunfish and even the spout of a migrating whale. In what felt like the blink of an eye, our first day came to an end and we touched down to spend the night in camp, which was set on a lush oasis surrounded by miles of untouched desert. The Skeleton Coast Safaris’ camps reflect the unique upbringing of the Schoeman brothers, designed to respect the land with a focus on the essential, and a disregard for the unnecessary. These low impact camps have everything you might need, including a never ending vista, but deliberately leave out the superfluous. For a hundred miles in each direction, there was not a single light in sight, and for the first time, I felt myself switch off completely from the outside world.
Starting early the next morning, I found myself caught up in Andre’s enthusiasm and before I knew it, I found myself hiking up a hill. In the desert. Which, believe me, was not my plan. At the top of what was really a very large hill, we were rewarded with a two hundred year old set of pristine bushman rock art. From here, our trip went from strength to strength, with a never-ending series of highs that I was becoming increasingly certain could not be topped.
Each time I was proved wrong. On our final day we were flying over an oasis in the desert, only about a hundred a fifty miles south of the border with Angola, when we spotted a desert adapted elephant and her two-year-old calf walking serenely through the sand dunes. Living almost exclusively in Namibian desert, these gentle giants were without a doubt one of the most impressive animals I have ever been lucky enough to see. As we circled above them, I knew that this had to be the best moment on the trip which was filled with a never-ending series of highs, and for the first time I was right.
I could write a paving stone sized novel describing my time flying through Namibia with the Schoeman brothers and still not do them justice. In three days, they managed to pass on their passion for Namibia to me and give me an understanding of not only the desert, but the country and its people that I have never seen replicated anywhere else. It was so much more than a flying safari, and by far, my favourite safari experience yet!