John and I have returned from twelve days in Namibia.
Having been to Africa a few times before, I didn’t have the urge of many visitors to “tick all the boxes”, “see the big five”….whatever you want to call it. Call me a philistine, but once you’ve seen one reticulated giraffe you’ve seen them all. I was after a different type of trip.
If, like me, you want to experience a landscape that is totally unique and witness first-hand one of the world’s most hostile and dramatic environments, then Namibia is a must. It blew me away.
We started the trip in Windhoek. A fairly non-descript town, but a pleasant enough place to recover from the flight and an interesting insight into the horrors of modern, German-influenced architecture.
The next day we headed off. South. We were advised to drive over a special pass, which we duly did. As we came round the corner of the pass, there in front of us was the most astonishing desert vista. I leapt out the car, shot a roll of film and would have gone home happy there and then.
If I’d known what was coming I wouldn’t have even wound down the window.
Over the next four days we stayed in various places in the Southern part of the Namib desert. I shan’t list them. They all have their different merits and it depends on what you are after. For the record my clear favourite was the Wolwedans where we spent a night at the Lodge Camp and then another at the Dune Camp. Which you’d prefer is really your call. Lodge Camp is plush, Dune Camp is authentic. The food in both is truly exceptional – perhaps the best I’ve ever had on safari.
The Wolwedans area is totally, totally stunning. I haven’t the vocabulary to describe the landscapes and anyway that is only half of the wonder of this place. The atmosphere and aura are awesome to behold and the changing colours of the dunes defy belief. You won’t see much wildlife, but that which you do see, has a very special beauty and commands the greatest respect. Seeing a Gemsbok eek out an existence in the Namib desert is, for my money, more impressive than a Lion in the Masai Mara any day.
The other area we visited in the South and that is probably on most peoples’ “Namibia Hit List” is Soussusvlei. On the whole trip this was the only time I ever saw anyone else. It’s Namibia’s number one tourist attraction and it shows but, even if that bothers you, they are worth the visit. The mystique of the desert is somewhat lost here but, they are the tallest sand dunes in the world and they are incredible. My advice, which will make more sense when you are there, is to drive straight past the famous dunes and into the less visited area called the Deadvlei (you’ll need a 4WD car). Get there as early as possible when the shadows are long. I guarantee astonishment.
Whilst in the south we squeezed in a couple of extras. One morning we ballooned over the dunes. If you’re a balloon virgin this is a great place to lose your cherry. I was and I loved it – despite a fear of heights.
I don’t like horses, camels have bad breath and elephants are very uncomfortable to ride, so Quad biking has always been top of my list. The Namib desert is a very, very fragile environment so initially the eco-tourist in you may be a little uncomfortable at the thought of Quad biking. Two hours later you’ll be perched on top of a sand-dune watching the sun go down with a Vodka and Tonic in your hand and your ethics will be long forgotten. Trust me, this rocks. I defy anyone not to whoop with joy as they fly across the desert on these modern camels.
We then headed back north to Swakopmund on the coast. Initial reactions? What the hell are we doing here? It makes Windhoek look like Venice. However my opinions changed. If you follow one awesome desert landscape with another awesome desert landscape and then follow that with yet another awesome desert landscape, it is possible to become a little jaded and lose perspective. With hindsight, and in view of the mind-boggling four days we were about to embark on, I’m glad we had this short time out.
Not least because it afforded us the time to practise a little shark fishing. You have two options; off the boat or off the beach. The logical minded might assume that the boat would equate to greater success and bigger fish. Not a bit of it. Choose the beach – without doubt. Even if you have fished a hundred times or have never held a rod in your life I urge you to give it a whirl. This is totally unique and completely thrilling. Unfortunately, I can’t say more since any description of the day on my part would, I’m afraid, only deepen the wounds in John’s pride. Suffice to say that as a “collective” we had much success. The nice part was that they all get returned to the sea.
We then embarked on what was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. The Schoeman fly-in safari of the Skeleton Coast. For the next three nights and four days I was subjected to the most relentless assault of stunning landscapes, thrilling experiences, fascinating knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and all-out-no-holds-barred-African-wilderness-drop-dead-gorgeous-mind-blowing-incredible time.
I like to think I’ve travelled a bit. I’ve driven a motorbike from Calcutta to London, lived in the jungles of Belize for six weeks, canoed rivers in Canada, played football in Japan, travelled the Karakorum Highway, lived on deserted islands in the Philippines, camped in Lawrence of Arabia’s favourite desert the Wadi Rum……I could go on.
In Africa I have been fortunate to experience the A list of Safaris. I’ve travelled with Robin Hurt and Ker & Downey. I’ve been to Abu’s Camp in Botswana, ridden horses with PJ and Barney, seen leopard make a kill…..again, I could go on. But nothing, and I mean nothing, touches the Schoeman Safari.
I don’t want to attempt to describe it. Two reasons. Firstly, I can’t. Secondly, the finest thing about the Schoeman trip is how brilliantly the brothers unravel the desert before your very eyes and ears. Each day springing new surprises and opening new doors for you. The Schoeman’s have lived here all their lives. It shows – they are mad – so would you be. But within that madness is an incredible fountain of knowledge and a passion to share it. I genuinely never knew that a place like the Skeleton Coast existed on this planet (Henk Schoeman – the youngest of the brothers and our guide – is convinced that the recent pictures to emerge from Mars were taken here).
To have the Skelton Coast shown to me by one of the Schoemans and to view it in this style was the complete ultimate. This is the real McCoy. No contest.
It is hard work though. The planes and land rovers are old and uncomfortable. The pace is relentless and the camps are basic – but definitely more than adequate. The food isn’t great – it would be logistically impossible for it to be better.
But that is exactly what makes this trip so wonderful and real. Living in the Namib desert is no walk in the park and, frankly if the Himba tribes people can survive years of drought then you can manage four days of hard travelling. I guarantee that when you come into land at the first camp sight you will be completely dumbstruck, and you’ve yet to experience land-rover tobogganing, the welwitschia plant, Bushmen artwork, roaring sand-dunes (the most astonishing thing I have ever heard), desert elephants, bread baked in a coffee percolator, ship-wrecks, the quartz kaleidoscope, seal colonies….
But above all of this and more, you will experience pure, total and completely untouched wilderness.
A rare and incredibly beautiful thing.
John Spence originally cut his teeth as a cocktail barman in Cape Town and white water raft guide in Zimbabwe. This unorthodox first travel to Africa buried a strong seed of love for that continent which has grown and grown. Endless weird and wonderful trips to Africa on horse back, by canoe, on foot, light aeroplane and behind the wheel of his own Land Rover have yet to fully satisfy his thirst for knowledge of Africa. Johns two children are also set to become safari experts and are beginning to accompany him on some of his less adventurous trips so hes a good person to talk to about family holidays as well. An itinerary to Africa designed by John will be based on a huge bank of knowledge and a big injection of enthusiasm and adventure.