The Skeleton Coast at Hoanib

Saturday, Aug 22nd
After our rest day in Windhoek, we departed early morning for the drive back to the airport and the flight to our first wilderness destination, the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. There was a bit of a delay at the Windhoek airport, as they had a technical problem with the plane  We waited in the comfortable Wilderness Safari lounge and finally got on our way with a three hour delay after they sorted out a new plane. The plane was a 12 seater single prop Cessna Grand Caravan with a German pilot. The flight to Hoanib was done in two stages with a stopover at Doro Nawas in Damaraland, where we dropped off a staff member and refueled. The first leg to Doro Nawas took about 1.5 hours. We flew over vast, empty and open bush land, but it wasn't entirely wilderness as we saw quite a few dirt roads and the occasional farm. The second shorter leg of the flight towards the skeleton coast took us over a low mountain range, with no more signs of civilization, just mountains, desert and dry river beds. The "airport" at Hoanib is quite spectacular, a sand and gravel landing strip in a valley located right between two low mountain ranges.

After getting off the plane we were greeted by a couple of staff members with drinks and cold towels and we were served lunch right here next to the landing strip. We also met our local guide, Charles, who took us on a quick animal viewing drive right after lunch before we even got to camp. The reason for the rush was that he had apparently spotted lions earlier that day, and wanted to see if we could find them again. After about ten minutes drive we reached the wide dried up riverbed of the Hoanib river. We drove along the riverbed seeing our first oryx, several springboks and a couple of giraffes, but we did not even stop to take pictures, since Charles was on a lion finding mission. And it took him only another 15 minutes, and we found them. There were five lions next to a giraffe carcasse, which they had killed probably the previous night. Two of them were working hard ripping the giraffe's guts out, while the other three were lying on their backs with their huge bellies full of giraffe meat. We were able to get incredibly close, within a few meters. They occasionally looked at us, but didn't seem to be too bothered by our presence.

This was an incredible site. I had never before seen lions in the wild, and here we see them within an hour of arriving. We spent some time taking pictures and watching them work on that giraffe. Charles told us that they were five juvenile males, all only about three years old. (That's why they did not have a full mane yet.)  We later learned that these five young male lions are in fact quite famous. They are called the Five Musketeers and are the stars in a 2015 documentary about the conservation of desert adapted lions called "Vanishing Kings".

The desert adapted lions are one of the most endangered species on the planet. According to some estimate there are only about 80 of them left here in Namibia. The desert lions project tries to work with the local villages to try to save the species from extinction. All five of them, had GPS collars around their necks, which allows the conservationists to track their movements and better understand their habitats. After this amazing start to our safari adventure we were driven to camp, taking pictures of a springbok herd along the way.

Our home for the next three days was the absolutely stunning Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp located in a wide valley right next to the Hoanib riverbed. The camp consists of a large central dining tent and eight so-called guest tents, but other than canvass walls, they have very little similarity with a tent. They are huge extraordinary luxury cabins, on raised platforms with king sized beds, large bathrooms, our own porch with sweeping views over the valley and mountains around us.

Sunday, Aug 23rd
We had a very early wake up call at 5:30 am and left for our morning game drive after a quick breakfast. Our first exciting animal sighting happened even before we got in the car, when we spotted this rare brown hyena right near the camp:

After following the hyena for a little while, we then drove out towards the east, with the main goal today of seeing elephants. We reached another riverbed after about a 30 minute drive, and started our hunt for elephants. Our guide, Charles, noticed a lot of tracks and fairly fresh elephant dung, so we knew they had to be nearby, and after another 10 minutes or so and we suddenly saw several of them between the bushes.

There were three adult females and two babies. They were magnificent to watch up close like this. We probably got within 10 or 20 meters, but a couple of times one of big females thought we were a bit too close and she got a bit angry and tried to charge us. Even one of the babies tried a charge, but that wasn't nearly as threatening. Here is a short video of our encounter:

Since we found those elephants quicker than we had expected, Charles decided that we had enough time to drive up into the mountains and try to find the very rare mountain zebras. We drove a long way up a wide rocky valley, going very gradually higher, while the landscape became more and more mountainous and sparse, and yet there was still an abundance of wildlife up here. We saw many oryxes, several ostriches, giraffes and lots of springboks.

And after about an hour we glimpsed the mountain zebras in the distance. The Hartmann's mountain zebra looks a bit different than its savanna cousin. They don't have stripes on their bellies, but they do have striped legs, which makes them hard to spot as they blend into the rocky background incredibly well. Somehow they look really out of place in this mountainous rocky landscape. You would expect mountain goats up here, but not zebras. They were quite skittish and did not let us get very close, but they were also quite curious and kept stopping at a safe distance to stare back at us. Our zoom lenses were large enough to capture some great shots of these very rare and endangered animals.

We drove for another half an hour into the mountains and ended up at a natural spring. The spring had been tapped and is now filling a small pool (the pump is powered by solar cells), so that the animals can get to the water more easily. We stopped under a large tree for some biscuits and tea, when I spotted something moving in the distance - something we absolutely did not expect to see up here - people. They turned out to be four Herera women, two ladies and their teenage daughters. Even our guide was surprised to see them walk through the desert here. One of the girls spoke English quite well. So we found out that they were here for several days, staying in an abandoned ranger station, to collect sap from a tree, which is sold as perfume. (We later learned that the tree sap is called Frankincense, and it is highly priced for its aromatic smell and its use in perfumery as well as aromatherapy.) Lara asked them if they weren't scared of lions or rhinos here, and they said 'oh yes we are very afraid'. We gave them some cookies and water (after the rather feisty younger girl, asked for 'everything' we had), and then they kept walking off into the distance with their containers full of tree sap on their heads.

The brightly colored petticoats worn by Herera women are a fashion leftover from 19th century German colonial rule. 

It took almost 2 hours to get back to camp, as we were slowed down by several more oryx, ostrich and giraffe sightings along the way.

Back at the Hoanib camp we had a late lunch and then planned to rest in our tent for a couple of hours, but that plan was interrupted by two large male elephants turning up at the water hole right in front of our camp. We watched them for some time playing in the water and spraying themselves to cool down.

We met with our guide again later in the afternoon to go on a short hike. We climbed to the top of a small mountain near the camp, were we had amazing views over the camp and the riverbed. We saw a couple of giraffes and one of the two elephant bulls from the camp in the riverbed below.

Monday, Aug 24th
We had an even earlier wake-up call today, but it wasn't really a problem since we had been going to sleep at 9 pm here. We left at 6 am for our drive to the skeleton coast. We drove a long way through the Hoanib river bed towards the west, seeing a few oryxes, springboks and some interesting birds along the way. We also came across the remains of the giraffe the lions had killed two days ago. They left almost nothing uneaten. We saw a rib cage, a bit of hide, a couple of leg bones with the hooves still attached and a jaw bone. There was a jackal and a couple of vultures trying to find a bit of meat left on these bones, but without much luck. The lions had done a rather thorough job.

After about an hour we reached a huge dried out lake, which was full of vegetation. Apparently last year the lake had been filled with water for the first time in 22 years, which was paradise for the animals here. Elephants came from hundred kilometers away to spend a couple of months here by the lake. It took almost an hour to cross the very rough road through the lake bed, but once we got to the other side we saw our first large sand dunes of the skeleton coast, even though the actual coast was still 13 kilometers away. We stopped on top of one of the highest dunes for tea and coffee. And then Charles had a special surprise for us. One side of the dune was very steep, and he told us to sit on top and start sliding down the sand and then listen. We started sliding, and as soon as the sand started to slide around us we heard this very deep and eerie roaring sound. The sound is created from the friction of the sand corns and the dune itself acts as a sound amplifier. It almost sounded like a lion roaring.

We also saw our first oasis with a large lake in the center surrounded by lush greenery. After another thirty minute drive and we reached the Atlantic coast and a small lagoon which was full of flamingos. Charles made us walk to the other side to try to get the flamingos to fly. We had our cameras ready, and as soon as we approached them, they all took off at the same time.

We then drove along the coast watching the huge waves of the Atlantic ocean hitting the rocky shores. After a short while we reached the cape fur seal colony we had been aiming for. It was a huge colony, with thousands of seals crammed together in this one spot. There were lots of babies among them. We spent quite a bit of time watching them and taking photos. They made a lot of noise and created a very powerful odor. 

Our next stop was a place called Möwe Bay, a small group of houses, that included a little museum mostly filled with bones of various animals that were found here. After visiting the museum we drove a little further to see a shipwreck. It was a fishing trawler that crashed here in 1978. There wasn't much left of the ship, only a few heavily corrugated pieces of metal. And then to our surprise, we found a lunch table set up for us right there in front of the surf. Some other staff members from the camp had driven all the way out here to set up a scenic lunch spot with an amazing view of the huge crushing waves right in front of us. After lunch I decided to wade into the ocean to see how cold it was. it was freezing cold, painfully freezing, probably less than 10 degrees.

We did not drive back to camp, instead we flew. There is a little airstrip at Möwe Bay and there was a small plane waiting to take us on a scenic flight back to camp. The high fog had cleared up by now, and the pilot took us on a beautiful flight, doing a couple of turns along the coast and then flying inland back to the camp. We saw a couple of oases, the huge vegetation filled lake, the dried out river bed and we got a great view of our camp from above. The whole flight back took only about 20 minutes.

Back in camp we rested a bit, and then stretched our legs on another short hike up to the same mountain as yesterday.

A big lion foot print

Tuesday, 25th August:
Today was just a transitioning day with a stopover night in Windhoek again. We had a relaxing morning in camp and got on the plane at 11 am. The flight was done in two stages again, but this time we also changed planes at Doro Nawas. Back in Windhoek we stayed at the very nice Olive Exclusive hotel. The suite we had was huge with a large veranda, our own plunge pool and great views of the hills behind Windhoek.


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