Namibia. A land of contrasts and a landscape which is as varied as it is beautiful.
In the weeks leading up to this safari I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, and no this had nothing to do with Covid or travel restrictions but rather with the massive rains that Namibia (and most of southern Africa) had received this year.
You see, even the slightest bit of rain in a desert environment can have a significant impact on the distribution and movement of wildlife and, whilst we were most certainly visiting the prime locations during our Desert Wildlife of Namibia Safari, I did wonder about just how much harder we would have to work in this landscape to uncover the rare and illusive gems which we were after.
With a large dose of patience, a good sense of humour and some of the best guides in the business on our team, we found treasures aplenty during our two-week exploration of this very special country.
We visited 5 different camps over 14 nights and I thought that the best way to share the highlights of this trip was to break them down by either region or experience.
So, here go's!
Sossusvlei & Deadvlei | Kulala Desert Lodge
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are synonymous with Namibia and, whilst not included in our Desert Wildlife of Namibia Safari itinerary, were included as a private guided pre-safari extension to this years trip.
With just two afternoons and mornings at our disposal we needed to have a pretty good plan of attack and spent one morning and one afternoon working the iconic Deadvlei, one afternoon working the spectacular dunes that line the main road into the Deadvlei/Sossuvlei area and, finally, a 60 minute doors of scenic helicopter flight over the dune belts.
I honestly don't think we could have asked for better conditions. From the clear morning of the helicopter flight right through to the unusual bit of cloud cover during both our visits to Deadvlei which made for some really great light and compositions.
As we boarded our flight north to the next chapter of the adventure the group was clearly on a high. Lightroom sessions and editing of images throughout the trip would confirm that we had really been able to capture some truly special images during our roughly 48 hour stay at Kulala Desert Lodge.
Twyfelfontein | Doro Nawas Lodge
The next chapter of our adventure saw us exploring some of the geological wonders that Namibia has to showcase visitors from around the world, the highlight of which was a visit to the Twyfelfontein rock engravings.
Twyfelfontein is situated in the southern Kunene Region of Namibia, an area formerly known as Damaraland. The site lies on the banks of the Aba Huab River in the Huab valley of the Mount Etjo formation. The rocks containing the art work are situated in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain.
The hunter-gatherers made most of the iconic engravings and probably all the paintings which represent animals such as rhinoceroses, elephants, ostriches and giraffes as well as depictions of human and animal footprints. Some of the figures, most prominently the "Lion Man"—a lion with an extremely long rectangular kinked tail ending in a six-toed pugmark depict the transformation of humans into animals.
There are even engravings of animals that certainly never occurred in this area, like a sea lion, penguins, and possibly flamingos which indicate that the hunter-gatherers might have had contact with the coast more than 100 km (62 mi) away.
Our guide also did a fantastic job of finding a herd of 14 odd Desert Elephants that have been frequenting the Abu-Huab River Bed and we were fortunate enough to spend the very last light of day with them and not another vehicle in sight on our last afternoon in the region.
We also made the most of our evenings at Doro Nawas by working through camera settings and the basics of Astrophotography. Whilst neither the ambient light from the camp nor the moon were in our favour we were able to play around with settings right from the balconies in-front of the rooms. This exercise made the follow up astro-photography sessions (both to shoot the milky way as well as star trails) at other camps a whole lot easier and enjoyable for all.
Desert Adapted Rhino of Damaraland
Whilst seeing the Desert Adapted Elephants in the Abu-Huab River was an absolute treat, it really is only once one hits Desert Rhino Camp and Damaraland Camp that you start to get a better sense of just how harsh and rugged this environment is.
In a wide valley sometimes flush with grass, Desert Rhino Camp lies in the midst of the enormous Palmwag Concession, where trackers patrol and protect one of the largest free-ranging populations of the Endangered desert-adapted rhino in Africa. Rhino tracking on foot and by vehicle with this dedicated team is an original and exclusive wilderness experience.
This is probably the one location where we felt the impact of above average rainfall the most. To say that we worked hard to find our rhino in this vast wilderness is an understatement. With natural springs flowing and low lying areas supporting a variety of forbes and shrubs, the Rhino were free to move across the landscape without the usual restrictions and dependancy on water and food.
Three nights at Desert Rhino Camp gave us two full days out in the field in search for these rare and endangered species. Our two full days out in the field saw us spending 14 hours and 12 hours respectively in the field and, strangely enough, we only found our subjects at 15:30 in the afternoon on both ocassions!
Our third and final Black Rhino sighting in the region came during our stay at Damaraland Camp where we found fresh tracks during the later part of the morning and, after a bit of tracking and a solid dose of good luck, we found a young bull shortly after mid-day.
Black rhinos are critically endangered and it is estimated that there are fewer than 5,600 black rhinos left in the wild.
As recently as the 1960s, it was estimated that over 100,000 black rhino were still roaming Africa. Poaching, combined with inadequate field protection has decimated these populations. After black rhino numbers reached their lowest point in 1995, they have since steadily increased. Today it is estimated that there are fewer than 5,630 black rhinos left in the wild, and with poaching sweeping across the continent, the critically endangered black rhinos' last stand may be in north-western Namibia.
Covering an area of 25,000 km2, SRT's trackers come from local communities and possess a deep knowledge of rhinos and their surroundings. Their skills are tested during long patrols, on foot on rough terrain in an area with no national park status, no fences and no controls over who enters and exits.
The Hoanib River Valley & Skeleton Coast | Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is located in this part of the Concession, straddling the Palmwag area and Skeleton Coast National Park, in one of the most remote areas of the Kaokoveld. A land of rugged scenery, the area has a historic coastline, mountains, vast plains, and dry riverbeds inhabited by incredible desert-adapted plant and animal life.
Here the landscape is dominated by the form of the Hoanib River, a swathe of sand that meanders through rocky gorges and past arid sandy plains. The transient Hoanib River, more an underground aquifer than river, supports a ribbon of vegetation along its length, this presenting the only visible food source for the herds of desert-adapted species roaming free among these desert ramparts.
The riverbed – an ephemeral linear oasis penetrating the depths of the desert – is lined with albida trees, the pods of which form the staple dry season diet of desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, gemsbok and springbok. It is this riverbed that provided so many unique and interesting photographic opportunities during our 4 night stay.
As part of a 3 night stay at Hoanib Skelton Coast Camp guests are treated to a day trip out to the Skeleton Coast. On arrival we had got wind that the guests that had visited the coastline that day had seen one of just 6 desert adapted lions that roam this part of the world with a seal kill.
With the odds stacked in our favor we made the call to head out as early as possible and see if we may be able to find her still hanging around the kill. After a 5 am departure from camp and a 3 hour drive to the coast, we missed her by minutes and watched as 4 black backed jackal escorted her over a rocky ridge and into an area where no off-roading is permitted.
We were so close and unfortunately, despite waiting a little further inland in hopes that she would be returning to the dune belt or nearby oasis, never saw her again.
We were down, but not out.
This small population of desert-adapted lions survives in extreme desert conditions; they exhibit unique adaptation to their environment and live in a harsh habitat of sand dunes, gravel plains and barren mountains, and occasionally forage along the beaches of the Skeleton Coast. Nowhere else in the world can free-ranging lions be seen amongst sand dunes or on a beach and we were not about to give up...
It was during our return journey home (with our tails still somewhat between our legs) that we came across a lioness that had killed an ostrich in the floodplains. Again, the topic of recent rains was in play as the scene was dominated by the broad-leafed Datura sp forbe/weed which was so prevalent across the floodplain that one could hardly see the lioness.
Now, with our tails firmly between our legs we returned back to camp and plotted a return to the kill site the following morning.
Finally, our luck with the lions of the Hoanib River Valley turned...
Whilst watching the lioness finish off what was left of her kill we heard the unmistakeable roar of a lioness coming from the west. Knowing that the approaching lioness would almost certainly pick up the scent of the kill we moved off in the hopes of finding her on her approach.
Again, our luck continued.
This usually shy and illusive lioness had her attention firmly on the kill and the other lioness who we later discovered had made a hasty retreat - avoiding all contact with what I believe is a sibling.
So, at this stage we had seen 3 (yes I still count the first sighting as a sighting) of the 6 known individuals that occur in the region. But we weren't done..
It was during another early morning exploration, this time to the east, that we came across fresh tracks of lion in the Hoanib River bed. We scratched around, checking carefully along the edges of the river bank and, as the sun slowly started to shed light on this martian-like landscape, we spotted one of the lions.
From the tracks we were following it appeared that they had been trailing and hunting giraffe - a key prey species for lions in this region.
We were fortunate enough to spend another afternoon in the presence of this small pride of three which afforded us the most incredible photographic opportunities to capture them against a variety of unique backdrops.
The best part of it all though is that we hardly had another vehicle with us during ANY of these sightings.
I realise that I have been harping on for a while on our lion sightings in the Hoanib but I think its only fair given just how special our experience and time with them was. Rest assured that the image libraries reflect a far more diverse story of our time at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.
Overall, this was an incredibly successful trip and I couldn't have imagined us having enjoyed the experiences and photo opportunities that we did.
One of our guests sums it up perfectly:
"The thoughtful planning of the camps we visited, some with full intensive 15 hour days out, to others that were less tiring. This gave us some time to breathe and absorb our surroundings, and the opportunity to review and edit images.
I was able to learn and master new skills for landscape, abstract, aerial and astro photography which has been a dream for a while! Andrew has the patience of a saint.
I have returned with some incredible images, way beyond my expectations,as well as knowledge and respect for the people and animals that live and survive in this desert environment. Thank you Andrew for indulging my geological , anthropological and historical interests and for the special people you arranged for me to meet, the guardians of the rhino’s and brown hyena researcher.
If you are expecting leopards draped in trees and huge herds of game and elephants, big prides of lions, this is not a trip for you! However, if you want raw landscapes dating back to the creation of Earth, a hostile yet stunningly beautiful environment with specialized and adapted life forms ……go!!!!"
Disconnect & Reconnect in Namibia
This itinerary encourages guests to take a deep breath in and remove themselves from the chaos of the modern world, and get lost in amongst Namibia’s astonishingly beautiful landscapes. During this safari you will see vast and isolated wilderness offering productive sightings of Namibia’s resilient desert-adapted wildlife and experience the contrasts of desert and river on daily morning and afternoon activities.
Join us in Namibia
We do not currently have new dates for the Desert Wildlife of Namibia Safari but may look to add a slightly different variation of this tour in the future. If this trip report has sparked your interest and you'd like to be the first to know of new departures to Namibia please do join the waitlist.