Hear about travel to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast as the Amateur Traveler talks again to Susan Portnoy of theinsatiabletraveler.com about her trip to this memorable region of Africa.
Namibia is the size of France and Great Britain combined but with only 2 million people.
Susan says, “The Skeleton Coast is in the northwest of Namibia along the Atlantic Ocean. The desert there is literally the oldest desert in the world. It is very formidable, and spectacular, and has some of the most unique topography you will ever see. It’s incredibly varied. It depends on what part of the Skeleton Coast, it’s hundreds of miles. I spent my time at three different camps along the Skeleton Coast and in each one, the topography changed. For example, in one camp that’s called Desert Rhino Camp, that’s a bit south to the other two, it was as if I had landed on Mars. The ground was covered with billions upon billions of red rocks the size of bricks. Going into another area it might be a vast plane of gravel or it might be a hard cracked desert that’s only brown in color, very stark. In another region, it was a mixture of dunes and riverbeds. It really was fascinating to me how many different faces the desert actually has.”
Susan had a chance to experience two interesting planned wildlife adventures. She had a chance to see both lions and black rhinos that had adapted to life in the desert. They can go without water longer. There are certain plants that they can digest the non-adapted versions could not. She also had at least one unplanned wildlife encounter by her tent at night.
“One of my favorite parts of the whole trip was an opportunity to visit a local tribe of the Himba which is indigenous to Namibia. The Himba are very special and I think that even if you don’t know the Himba, if you love National Geographics and if you like to look at a lot of African photos at one point you’re probably going to come across some very statuesque women who are covered in what looks like red paint and they have very elaborate hairdos which look like thick braids almost dreadlocks cake in this red paint or mud. What that is is this paste that they created from red ocher and butterfat that they spread over their bodies every single day. It is an SPF for the brutal sun that they deal with every day. It helps to ward off biting insects. It does great things for their scan apparently because all of them had fabulous skin and they consider it a beautiful look.”
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
Desert Rhino Camp
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
Serra Cafema Camp
Portrait of the Himba
The Ultimate Day Trip: Traversing the Wilds of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
As relatively new parents, our travel budget for trips further than Disneyland or the mid-West has shrunk and our existing guidebooks are getting old. Thankfully, the books are not quite legally allowed to drink yet, but still… 🙂
Anyway, a lot of our newer books are understandably very kid-focused. There’s several series my kids and I really like with great colorful pictures: “My First…”, “Baby Touch and Feel,” “Visual Encyclopedia,” and so on. I never really noticed the publishers before, but imagine my surprise when I found all of these books are from DK, the same publisher that sponsors your podcast. If their travel books are as good as their kid’s books, we’ll definitely be looking at them for our next trip.
Thanks for feeding my imagination and wanderlust as we begin to talk about our next destination.
Jim commented on Travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Episode 462
Very interesting. I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia in the 80’s doing IT consulting. Our client got tired of paying for our fancy hotels (which weren’t all that fancy) and gave us a list of places we could use. I stayed at one in Center City, and was watching the evening news about a visiting businessman who had been beaten, robbed, and killed in an elevator in a hotel in Center City. Imagine how I felt when I realized it was the hotel I was staying in. I took the stairs after that. Many years later, my wife and I visited some friends from Glenside (a suburb) whom we had met on a windjammer cruise in Maine. They took us around and showed us many of the same historical sites that were mentioned in this podcast. We even had lunch overlooking the Delaware, with the battleship USS New Jersey visible across the river. It was very nice. Philadelphia seems to have cleaned up its act. I’d go back.
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 466. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about windswept desert landscapes, visiting the semi-nomadic Himba people, and seeing the desert black rhino as we go to the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. We’ll be hearing more from our primary sponsor, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides as we go along. But first, let’s hear about Namibia.
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. These colorful guide books are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guide books. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. There are more at DK.com.
I’d like to welcome back to the show Susan Portnoy who’s come to talk to us about the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Susan, welcome back to the show.
Susan: Hey, Chris. Nice to be here. Thank you.
Chris: And I say welcome back to the show. Not that long ago, we were talking about yet another place in Africa and talking about going and taking pictures of wildlife, which I suspect is going to come up again today.
Susan: Yes, absolutely. But truthfully not my destination, which was the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Wildlife wasn’t the foremost on my mind as it was in Timbavati, South Africa when we first spoke.
Chris: Can you put Skeleton Coast on the map for us?
Susan: Absolutely. The Skeleton Coast is in the northwest of Namibia along the Atlantic Ocean. The desert there is literally the oldest desert in the world. It’s very formidable and spectacular and has some of the most unique topography you’ll ever see anywhere you go on the planet.
Chris: And you say unique, could you be a little bit more specific? What is unique about the Skeleton Coast topography?
Susan: Well, one, it’s incredibly varied. It depends on what part of the Skeleton Coast, it’s hundreds of miles. And I spent my time at three different camps along the Skeleton Coast, and in each one, that topography changed. But for example, in one camp called Desert Rhino Camp, which was a little southern to the other two, it was as if I’d landed on Mars. The ground was covered with billions upon billions of red rocks the size of bricks and it was incredible. No matter where you looked, there were red rocks.
Going into another area, it might be a vast plain of gravel or it may be hard, cracked desert that’s only brown in color and very, very stark. In another region, it was a mixture of dunes and riverbeds. It really was fascinating to me how many faces the desert actually has.
Chris: With the exception of the red rocks, which to me actually sounds like the area of the Sahara that we just did with the Amateur Traveler trip to southern Morocco. And that caught us by surprise as well that basically even for us with a two-hour drive through the desert, you could pass through five, six different types of landscape.
Susan: It’s very true. And there were aspects of my adventure that reminded me of the Sahara. I traveled very much in the same areas that you did a few years back and those incredible dunes were part of that. I think one of the things that I did feel, at least with the Sahara, and this is kind of minor but interesting when you think of it certainly as I look at it from a photographer’s viewpoint, I found the sands in the Sahara to have almost a salmon-colored look to them.
It wasn’t the same as what I had expected watching a variety of movies where there’d just this be bright, yellow sand. What I found interesting along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia was that the sand was almost a vivid orange or a vivid yellow. Everything there in that regard seemed to be incredibly vivid.
Chris: Excellent. So let’s back up a bit here and talk about logistics. You don’t just decide one day that you’re going to go for a little walk on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. You’re in a relatively remote place. You got there on a tour, as I understand?
Susan: Yes, I was the guest of Wilderness Safaris, which has a variety of properties throughout Africa, three of which I visited along the Skeleton Coast. I left the United States through New York and you need to fly to Windhoek, which is Namibia’s capital. And with most of the flights that go through Namibia, you end up having to spend a day in Windhoek. So I spent a night there and then traveled by a small plane, two small planes actually to my first camp which was Desert Rhino.
Chris: Okay. And then you talk about the capital city in Namibia. The capital city in where most of the population lives, as I understand?
Susan: In Windhoek, yes.
Chris: And how big is Namibia and how many people?
Susan: Namibia, they say you can fit France and Great Britain in it combined, with only about 2 million people in total that live there year-round. So it’s quite different when you consider a state like California that has what – 10 million people in Los Angeles?
Chris: Yes, 30 million people in the total states, so yeah.
Susan: Yes, exactly.
Chris: And what did you see? Tell us a little more about your itinerary.
Susan: Well, as I mentioned, my first camp was Desert Rhino Camp and that was the one with all of the red rocks, which I found fascinating though very bumpy. For anyone who has a bad back, that may not be your best destination but it is quite an adventure. At Desert Rhino Camp, one of the things, its claim to fame is that the property is amongst the largest population of free-roaming, desert-adapted black rhino.
Chris: And I’d have to say I did not know there was such a thing as desert-adapted black rhino, let alone free-range black rhinos or free-roaming black rhinos.
Susan: Yeah. Well, you know what? What’s really interesting is that you’ll find desert-adapted discussed among many species because there’s desert-adapted lions, desert-adapted elephants, so on and so forth. And that’s because there’s not enough genetic difference for them to be considered a separate species, but over generations of living in such a difficult environment, they have adapted new behaviors in order to survive. So adaptation becomes a huge theme when you learn about the area.
And this desert rhino, one of the things that its adaptation is focused on is the fact that because it is so arid and because rainfall is few and far between, sometimes they can go years without rainfall, their territories become much larger because they have to go farther distances in order to find food. There’s a lot of different adaptations, that just happened to be one that we were specifically focused on because when we were tracking the rhinos, we had to go two or three hours from camp in order to locate the one that we did.
Chris: Now, that doesn’t sound quite as much like an adaption, like they can go without water as much as they’re just lost and very hungry.
Susan: Yeah. But that’s true. I didn’t want to go through a list of adaptations, but certainly the fact that they can go without water longer, there are certain plants that they have learned to be able to digest that other animals cannot. In certain circumstances, a variety of different species are able to literally take moisture from the air, whereas their counterparts in other parts of the world are not. So there’s a long list of adaptations. That one just happened to be more in the forefront of my mind because of the distances we needed to travel to find them.
Chris: Right. Sure.
Susan: What I loved about this, and I think is really great, is that wilderness safaris in general, in each camp, work very hard with the local communities on conservation, both with the environment, the wildlife and the indigenous people. And in desert rhino’s case, they work with Save the Rhino Namibia to create this opportunity for guests to track on foot these black rhinos.
And one of the things that’s really important to understand is that the global population of black rhino is a mere 5,055 individuals. It is constantly decreasing due to poaching, which is the greatest threat. And so these 17 individuals are incredibly important to this area. The tourism dollars brought in by Desert Rhino Camp enable the Save the Rhino organization to train the rangers to monitor. And it’s really a wonderful part of the experience because you go out with the rangers, they have a sense of where the rhinos are because they do keep consistent watch, but you never know, wildlife viewing is not a given.
So we came upon this one huge, huge rhino named Kangombe and he was named after a Herero chief. And Herero is the major tribe in Namibia. And He was three tons, I believe they said, he looked like a small tank. And he’s 38 years old according to all of their information, which surprisingly makes him quite old even though he looked very spritely. Most rhinos in the wild don’t live past their early 40s and I am hopeful that when his time comes, he will go from natural causes as opposed to a poacher’s bullet.
Chris: We’ll take a pause here. We’ll hear more about black rhinos in a minute. But I wanted to talk to you about DK Eyewitness Travel Guides who are sponsoring this episode. Unfortunately for me, I picked up the book to look for pastoral people in Morocco because I was thinking about that show as I was looking for this ad spot, and I got lost in the book. And this is something that unfortunately can happen to me with the DK Guide because they are filled with wonderful words and beautiful pictures.
So I was looking at Morocco as I prepare for that episode. I’m looking at the city of Taroudant enclosed within the red ochre ramparts and encircled by orchards, orange groves and olive trees. Taroudant has the appeal of an old Moroccan fortified town. The souqs between the two main squares are the town’s main attraction. The daily Berber market sell spices, vegetables, clothing, household goods, pottery and other items.
In the Arab souq, the emphasis is on handicrafts, terracotta, wrought iron, brass and copper, pottery and leather goods, carpets and Berber jewelry of a type once made by Jews can be seen. And if the words “ramparts” and “souqs” are not evocative enough for you, there are, of course, pictures of the walls of Taroudant, which were built in the 18th century and a picture of the souq as well. That’s one of the things I enjoy about these guides. For somebody who is pictorial in nature like me, I find them an easy place to get lost in. Fortunately they help me from getting lost in a city like Taroudant. For your own copy of a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide, go to DK.com.
Chris: Now, you were talking about going to see the black rhinos on foot, and I have to pause here for a second because I have seen one black rhino in my life outside of a zoo. I may have seen more, too, in Ngorongoro. And while we drove up to the lions, we left a healthy distance between us and the rhino because they didn’t want us any closer than that, is one of the things. So how close do you get when you’re on foot and is it a good idea?
Susan: Well, absolutely. Certainly safety is always the first concern for any camp and for all of their guests. So it really depends on the black rhino’s behavior, and black rhinos are known to be aggressive if they feel threatened. We got about 30 yards from Kangombe and that was because we were very stealthy about it. We had to be as quiet as possible.
They have incredible hearing and incredible sense of smell so we approached him from downwind. But they have lousy eyesight, lousy, lousy eyesight so it makes it easier. If they hear rumblings in the rock, they will certainly pay attention. But if they can’t see you and they don’t smell you as a human, they may assume that it is a gemsbok, which is an Oryx, or a springbok, or some other animal, that would not concern them so much.
So there was a particular point as we saw Kangombe that the rangers said, “Okay, this is where we’re going to stop,” and I was able to use my camera and take a variety of pictures. What I found so fascinating is even at that distance, a single click of my shutter and his head just raised up from grazing, his ears poked forward, and it was clear that he could hear that tiny click, which was pretty fascinating to me just how sensitive his hearing was. But thankfully it didn’t pose any kind of threat or concern to him and he went back to grazing.
And what was interesting also to me is I said to the gentleman that I was with, I said, “Okay, let’s say Kangombe does feel threatened, what exactly is the plan?” And they basically said that if they got the sense that Kangombe was going to charge or if he started to charge, and mind you, they may be really big and bulky but they move fast, they are light on their toes, they are the ballet dancers of the wildlife set.
And this was the big plan, the three rangers would use themselves as a distraction while my guide from the camp would move me out of the way. Now, frankly we were on a flat plain so “out of the way” just meant farther away from the rangers who would hopefully grab his attention.
Chris: So basically the plan was run.
Susan: Well, actually, yeah.
Chris: It’s not an elaborate plan but . . .
Susan: Yeah, the thing is that you also have to be careful. I get concerned about suggesting running in general because with most wildlife and certainly predators, running is the last thing you want to do.
Chris: Fortunately they’re not a predator, they’re just intimidating.
Susan: No, but it also a sign of submission that could be taken as a nod to chase. Thankfully that really didn’t come to pass and the gentlemen didn’t carry any firearms so that really was the only plan but luckily one that we didn’t have to utilize. So it was really fascinating. Knowing that I was seeing an animal that very possibly, if things don’t change in terms of poaching, could become extinct in the next 20 years, if not sooner, was sobering and thrilling.
And I was very happy to get my photographs though I have to say I was a bit embarrassed. I like to think of myself as a good traveler but I did two things that I was completely mortified by. One, I have come up with this habit that I kind of do unconsciously that when I photograph wildlife, I tend to talk to them. And I say things like, “Oh, aren’t you so handsome,” or sometimes I pretend I know what the animal is thinking like, “Oh, why are those people taking pictures of me?” And I was good in the sense that I whispered it but I did speak, and I had been told not to speak. So as soon as I started, I got this little punch in my shoulder from the rangers and gestures of silence and so I felt like an idiot.
Chris: Well, sure, because these are the people who have to throw themselves between you and the charging rhino should it come to that so . . .
Susan: Exactly. So I wasn’t making friends at that moment.
Chris: Not so much.
Susan: And I was feeling a little dopey. But then it got even better when my iPhone alarm went off. And I had this practice of putting my iPhone in the Velcro pocket in my cargo pants that’s on my thigh, which of course in these kinds of situations, Murphy’s Law always dictates that something has to go wrong. So literally all of us started diving for my thigh.
And because all our hands were going for the same exact pocket, none of us were actually getting to it. So it took a good, I’d say, five to 10 seconds before I was able to get the phone and turn it off and they looked at me as if I had three heads. We looked at Kangombe and of course now he’s facing us, ears forward, definitely alert, but I’m thinking that since the tone of my phone was more like a lullaby, perhaps, maybe that’s why he didn’t take offense. And we stayed stick still . . .
Chris: Well, you’re just lucky you had a different ringtone than he had, otherwise it could have been . . .
Susan: Exactly. In other days, I’ve had Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” so I don’t think that would have endeared me too much. So, yeah, that was my, “I am mortified in front of all of you” moment, yeah. I could have done without that but it all ended up well, thankfully.
Chris: You know what you’ll find between a rhino’s toes, don’t you?
Susan: I don’t.
Chris: Slow-running tourists.
Susan: Thankfully no one will find me there. But you know what was interesting? It was a short visit with Kangombe. As I mentioned, they’re kind of spritely considering their bulk and he was making a relaxed but a pretty good walk across the plains that we were in and he pretty quickly disappeared. I would say we were able to view him for about 15 minutes. But it really was a very special moment and I think that for people who love wildlife, and who want to see animals that are just incredible, rhinos, they’re so prehistoric. There’s just nothing that looks like them, and to see them in real life at such close proximity and without the cover of a giant metal vehicle really adds to the moment, I have to say.
Chris: Anything else you want to talk about with the desert camp?
Susan: Yeah. Actually I had a fun experience. One of the other things about that particular area is it’s known for its very clear skies and I was excited to try some night photography. So I had decided to have dinner on the veranda, which is attached to my tent, and it was right under the Milky Way and it was fabulous. And the first night I tried it, I failed miserably. I had my settings wrong. I really haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do it. I live in New York City, it’s not really known for its star gazing. So the second night . . .
Chris: Or at least not that type of star gazing.
Susan: Yeah, exactly. So the next night, I decided I’m going to try it again. And the first night, my guide had been so kind and patient with me, he had hung out and watched me fiddle and fail. This night I said, “You know what? Let me do it, I’ll be fine. I’m just going to set up,” and I set up about 30 feet or so downhill from my tent and I had the tent beautifully composed and the Milky Way is shining away.
And at one point, I’m sitting there in the dark and I notice that there are these two beams of light that are walking by on the trail, that staff members had just left because they were taking some of my dinner back to the main tent. And as I saw the beams of light move up the hill, I said a hello and I really didn’t get any response but didn’t think much of it frankly because it could have been staff members perhaps not expecting me to be out that late, they might have not spoken English or whatever. I didn’t want to put them on the spot.
So a couple of more times, as I’m shooting, I notice these lights circling around into my right and so forth. And at one point, I finally am up on the veranda playing with the different candles and the lighting of the tent, and I turn around and head back towards my camera and I see those two lights again. And I’m thinking, you know what? It’s one thing if you’re just going to walk by me, but if you’re going to be standing there, you should say, “Hello.”
So I say, “Hello,” the lights go out and I’m thinking that’s so rude. Even in my head, I was thinking I’m going to tell the camp manager. It’s really not nice of these staff members to do this. So I grab my flashlight and I’m all up in arms about it, and I flash the light, and a giant spotted hyena is standing there. And it so took me off guard because I was really expecting to find a couple of people. And it occurred to me right then that obviously those two beams of light were the reflection of its eyes off the lanterns. But I’m so used to with predators, lions and with my house cat, you usually get some kind of red or green reflection back, and these were two very clear white beams of light that I thought were not unlike the penlight I was using.
Chris: Did you happen to notice they were parallel?
Susan: Yeah, there are so many reasons that I should have thought of these things, Chris. There is no doubt. Part of it, too, is that I was crouched down low when it first appeared and the tent’s up on a hill a little bit so when I first saw it, the lights looked pretty high, almost as if they are being carried by an individual. If I’d been on flat land, also the fact that it would just be so much lower to the ground, it would have clued me in. But, yeah, there are a lot of things there that I probably should have caught on, too.
But when I saw that it was a spotted hyena, one, that area over the last few days had been almost desolate of animals within camp, so it really didn’t occur to me that one was going to be there at that point. But when the light hit its face, the hyena immediately turned around, ran away for about 10 feet, and then turned around and looked at me. And with this expression like a dog bringing back a Frisbee to its owner, it just started trotting right at me. And I’m thinking, okay, it doesn’t look like it’s the usual stance it has when it hunts but this is probably not good, so reflexively I stumped my foot and I hissed.
I have no idea why I hissed. I don’t know why that sound came out of me. I don’t know if somewhere in my subconscious I thought that if it thought I was a cat, it would scare it away. But this grown woman is hissing at this hyena which, by the way, did make it stop, but it just sat on its haunches and, I swear to god, I couldn’t see its tail, but just its whole expression was so joyous almost. I would have sworn that its tail would have been wagging.
But my problem was is that now, it is coming towards me, my camera still in between us. I have this very expensive camera that was loaned to me very kindly by Canon. And I’m thinking, even if I go inside my tent, this camera is out there and if a curious hyena knocks it over on all these rocks, I’m going to end up paying for it. So I didn’t feel threatened, but I didn’t want to leave the camera alone, so I end up just calling out to Bons, not knowing if he was around. But thinking that lights in the main tent a few hundred yards away might mean that he was there, and thankfully he did, so I screamed, “Bons!”
And he comes back. “What? What’s up? What’s wrong?” And I said, “I’ve got a hyena,” and before I could finish it, I could hear him hit the gravel and start running towards me. And finally I’m like, “No, no, I’m fine. I’m fine.” So within a minute, he was by my side and we’re both flashing our flashlights on the spotted hyena who’s still looking all dog-like and howdy, howdy people and . . .
Chris: Now, you do know that with a predator, the only thing that’s worse than seeing a predator is seeing a happy predator because . . .
Susan: And I happen to love hyenas, and I really find them magical, and they have such great personalities, and I saw a lot of that in there. And it was apparent, she wasn’t, I’m pretty sure it was a female, she was quite large and the females are larger than the males, I don’t think she was hunting. I think they are incredibly curious hyenas. We’d had hyenas. The next day, we ended up going to a den that was about five miles away where they think this hyena came from. And they were very curious, and they love to nibble on the tires of your vehicle, and come up and look at you.
The threatening nature that I’ve seen in hyenas when they’re hunting just didn’t exist there. Maybe I’m being foolish. I know Bons didn’t feel like I was in particular danger but, of course, I didn’t want to do anything that would change that. So it was an exciting experience and it will be something I’ll always remember. I still am quite clear in my head that I was sitting there in the dark with a hyena to my back for a good 30 minutes before all of this took place. That’s a little sobering. But thankfully it wasn’t hunting and I’ve a great story to tell.
Chris: And you mentioned going out on the veranda of your tent. I don’t know if you were using that term figuratively, but there is a variety of camping experiences in Africa. We’ve had stories of people talking about their freshly pressed clothes because the houseboy assigned to their tent was putting the coals in the iron. Or we have, by the time this comes out, we may have already talked about our Saharan experience where there had been rain in the desert and our tents smelled of wet sheep. But where were you in that spectrum of . . . ?
Susan: Well, this is a classic Meru-style camp tent, which is on a wooden base which was somewhat raised off the ground. It did have quite a large veranda that had a bench and two chairs there so that people could enjoy the view. It faced west towards the mountains and the sunset. It’s luxury but not over-the-top luxury. I did not have a cabana boy. It had a large double bed that was the center fixture, and then in front of it was a small writing table where you could plug your equipment in and so forth. And behind it was the en-suite bathroom. So it certainly wasn’t like some of my experiences in the Maasai Mara . . .
Chris: You were truly camping.
Susan: Yeah. I mean, the Maasai Mara I was truly camping, zipping up a tent 20 feet from the Mara River. This was quite a few notches up.
Chris: And then this was the first of your three spots?
Chris: Unless it’s going to be a two-part episode, we probably need to move on.
Susan: Yes. Well, that’s the thing about Namibia. There’s so much to talk about. So basically my second camp was a little farther north and it was in a new camp that only opened up last July, called The Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. And the only way to reach Hoanib is by plane so it comes down on a very small, faint airstrip. And it’s very interesting because that area, it’s all the color of sand, it’s very rocky, the rocks are sand-colored. It’s in a kind of a cul-de-sac valley where the tents, which were constructed, the architecture of these tents are almost spiked in a way that echo the jagged rocks around it. It’s meant to be very aerodynamic.
There’s a lot of sandstorms. In fact, one came through an hour after I arrived and that was an interesting experience. The one thing that’s fantastic about Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, and filmmakers worldwide hear this, if you’ve got a script that’s talking about some kind of lunar landing or interstellar travel, this is the place to go because it really does look like you’ve come down on the set of some kind of “E.T.” film. It’s really interesting. It’s more luxury than Desert Rhino.
Chris: Still no cabin boy, though?
Susan: No cabin boy but now you’ve got glass walls, there are rotating walls and things that allow you to get fresh air. But because of the sandstorms, they can’t have the same kind of tents that you might find elsewhere so it is more enclosed. But it’s a very interesting area. And the highlight of this camp, there are two that are really special.
One is the fact that in keeping with the conservation efforts of Wilderness Safaris that owns all these camps we’re talking about, the particular focus at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is their efforts towards the conservation of the desert-adapted lion. And there are only about 25,000 lions in the wild today, 150 of them are in the Skeleton Coast. So it is paramount that they do this research and see how they can help these lions to survive.
And a very well-known conservationist and researcher named Dr. Philip Stander is focusing and using that camp as a hub. So what was lovely is that when I was there, he was there and able to give us a firsthand account of these desert lions and their history. And the guides were with us because the lions actually happen to be in the area, and there’s a set of five lions, all young males that they call the Five Musketeers. And there’s actually a documentary that’s going to be coming out in July called the “Vanishing Kings” based on these lions and I am thrilled to say I was lucky enough to see them.
Susan: Yeah, really wonderful. The second thing that Hoanib does that is really very special, it’s an all-day trip, is that they take you from the camp and it’s about a six-hour drive, but they take you through a variety of different environments to the Atlantic Ocean where the true physical Skeleton Coast is. And that starts off great because you begin your travels along a dry river bed where typically most of the vegetation ends up being. So we ran into elephants and we ran into giraffes and a variety of springbok.
And what was fascinating is that for the first time in 15 years, there had been a flood about 2 months prior, so that had made this riverbed quite green and was drawing animals from miles away. And so it was lovely to be able to see this and especially because the staff at Hoanib, they’ve been there for almost a year.
This was very new so they keep pointing at things saying, “It’s never this green. I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen this. It’s usually just dirt. It’s just dirt.” Beautiful dirt but dirt nonetheless. So that was fascinating to be in this special time because it won’t last and they don’t expect a lot of the vegetation that was washed down by the flood will be able to survive in that area because they are not adapted to that area.
Then we went to the flood plains which just look like the bottom of a giant, giant lake but now very green, drove through that. Then we went through a very flat, dense, hard-packed sand area that was cracked. It’s almost looked like a giant mosaic flooring. And then ended up also in these amazing dunes that were very much like the Sahara, just seemingly miles and miles high. And we went to one area where the roaring dunes were located. Have you ever heard of the roaring dunes?
Chris: I have not.
Susan: I had not, either. I had not heard of them until the second we were on them. And somehow we had driven up the backside of it so I didn’t realize how steep they were. And the vehicle stops and I walk up to the driver and I ask, “What are we doing?” And he points down, which looked almost vertical to me and he said, “We’re going down that.” And in my head I was like, “Oh, no, we’re not. I’m not going down that.” But very quickly what we find is that a lot of people, you get on your butt and the sand is very supportive. I was afraid that it would just collapse underneath me but it actually supports you.
But what’s fascinating is, and I don’t really know all the scientific reasons behind it, but we sat on our butts and if you start to scooch down, the movement of the sand that you’re causing and the pushing of the sand to roll down, the dune literally starts this hum that becomes as loud as a plane passing over you, and it is beautiful. It is like a giant cello is playing. And if you stop midway, it stops and you can hear the echo. And as soon as you start back up, it does it again.
And we got down to the bottom. Our guide had stayed at the top and then he brought the jeep down the same way of crazy, crazy. I’m so glad I wasn’t in it because it was way too steep, but of course, it got down perfectly. But of course, the size of the jeep really displaced the sand so the humming was even more profound. And because I wasn’t expecting it and I didn’t know much about it, it was such a wonderful surprise and so unique of a situation that I think it’s very special, and I think anybody who participates in something like that would enjoy it greatly.
And then basically after that, we made it to the Atlantic Ocean. We had a beautiful lunch on the beach. It’s a very rocky beach. It’s called the Skeleton Coast for a reason. Depending on who you ask, they have different answers for that. Some believe it’s because of all the whale bones that have washed up over the years, others because of all the cross-currents and the incredibly difficult coastline with all the rocks, many, many, many shipwrecks have occurred there and there and remnants of . . .
Chris: And that’s the version that I have heard, yeah.
Susan: Exactly, yeah. It’s really interesting. You can talk to a variety of different people and you’ll get a little mix up of that answer. It’s fascinating because there are remnants of some of these shipwrecks still on the water and great for photography and so forth.
And then we ended the whole experience by taking a small plane flight home. And because it was part of the excursion, it wasn’t just a means of transport, when we’d see certain parts of the dunes that we liked or certain animals below, the pilot was more than willing to circle and give everybody an opportunity to see whatever was down there. So it was a lovely, lovely, lovely way to spend the day.
Chris: Excellent. And then you had a third stop?
Susan: I did. So the third stop was Serra Cafema. And Serra Cafema is located in the northernmost region of Namibia along the Kunene River, which is one of the few perennial rivers that never runs dry and hopefully never will, and it borders Angola. So what’s interesting about Serra Cafema is that the camp itself is along the river and tucked within palm trees and lush vegetation.
So when you’re in your room, which in this particular camp was probably the most luxurious of all three camps – really huge bed, large deck, amazing free-sanding fixtures in the bathroom, it was really spectacular – but when you would look out at Angola across the river, you would think that you were in some tropical location. But if you went five minutes walking the opposite direction, you could walk right into a sand dune, and behind the sand dunes were mountains of just pure rock. To me, they reminded me of the Alps. I don’t think they’re quite as big but they had that kind of majesty and stature.
And what was interesting about that area, too, was there was a large amount of pink quartz that would protrude from these dark, almost volcanic black-looking rocks. And so you would see sparkles off the stones, and it would be these quartz. And all I kept thinking was is that there was some souvenir vendor somewhere who would just die to go and chip away these things and sell it at an airport.
At Serra Cafema, what is really wonderful about what it offers, besides the wonderful location, is two things. You can take a boat ride down the Kunene River which is just a beautiful, beautiful trip visually as well as being able to see crocodiles, baboons, a whole array of birds. There were quite a few birds and I had a great time trying to photograph those. We also saw some villagers from the Angolan side walking along the edge. It was very exotic and wonderful and I enjoyed that.
The second thing and I think one of my favorite parts of the whole trip was the opportunity to visit a local tribe of the Himba, which is indigenous to Namibia. And they live about five or six miles from the camp, smack-dab in the middle of the desert. And it was a wonderful experience. Are you familiar with the Himba, Chris?
Chris: Well, I am since you sent me the article about them. But before that, no. And we’ll put a link to the article that Susan sent.
Susan: Yeah. And the article he’s talking about is for a photo essay that I did for the organization, One, which is a wonderful advocacy and campaigning organization that helps fight hunger and poverty and the majority in Africa. It’s one of the sister organizations to Red, which Bono cofounded.
The Himba are very special. And I think that even if you don’t know the Himba, if you love National Geographic or if you like to look at a lot of African photos online, at one point you’re probably going to come across some very statuesque women who are covered in what looks like red paint. And they have very elaborate hairdos that look like thick braids, almost dreadlocks, caked in this red paint or mud. And what that is is this paste that they have created from red ochre and butter fat that they spread over their bodies, all the women do, every single day.
And it provides a variety of services, frankly. It is an SPF for the brutal sun that they deal with every day, it helps to ward of biting insects. It does great things for their skin, apparently, because all of them had fabulous skin. And they consider it a beautiful look. A woman of the Himba not to wear this paste would not be considered beautiful and it’s really wonderful to see.
And the thing that I think is the most fascinating about the Himba is that they’re one of the few tribes still left in the world that has managed to thwart progress. And they live very much like their ancestors did 200 or 300 years ago. They live in mud and dung huts, they mix with other tribes that may be more progressive than they are, but they are vocally against becoming more progressive. They are a pastoral community so they raise goats and cattle, very similar to the Maasai in Kenya, their wealth is based on the amount of cattle that they have.
It’s an amazing, amazing group of people, and to visit them is effectively going back in time, and I’ve always loved that kind of experience. It’s something that’s incredibly authentic. They would be there doing what they do everyday, whether tourists were there or not. And I think in many parts of the world, you can see a lot of traditional behaviors, but they are tourist-focused, and they may or may not be taking place by the locals unless the tourists were there paying for it. So I find that the experience with the Himba was very special because I knew it was authentic.
They are incredibly kind people. The kids, oh, my goodness, the kids just killed me. They were so much fun. Though I have to say it was interesting. One of the ways that you can break the ice when you’re photographing people you don’t know is to show them their photo in an LCD. It’s a non-verbal communication that I think works really well no matter where you are and with whom. And the kids loved that. And the kids loved to push the buttons, as all kids do. I think that’s very much a universal trait.
But what I did think was interesting and what I would imagine Apple would be very proud of was that I pulled out my iPhone in order to take a video, and even before I could turn it on, all the kids were swiping the screen. These little toddlers that have no schooling, will never have schooling and live out in the middle of the desert knew how to swipe. It was fascinating.
Chris: Well, it’s quite possibly not the first iPhone they’ve seen either so . . .
Susan: Oh, that’s what I mean. I think that there’s that aspect of how long they will be able to stave off progress is questionable, they don’t have to adopt it. But still, to see toddlers immediately know and recognize that piece of equipment, I thought was fascinating.
Chris: Interesting. Biggest surprise?
Susan: I think what I said before was the different faces of the desert. I’ve been in the desert in Arizona, I’ve been in the Sahara, I thought that I knew it. I’ve always loved it. But I was really captivated by how different things could look even if you’re miles from each other, and how different a lot of the plant life is, there are things that don’t grow anywhere else.
So I really felt like I was getting a very exotic experience besides the fact that the landscapes there in general are just breathtaking. And I think Namibia is known for that. I think that when you talk to landscape photographers, Namibia will always end up being on the top three of their list. So I knew it was going to be beautiful. I just wasn’t sure how it was going to be beautiful and the diversity is what surprised me.
Chris: And if I made you pick your favorite spot in terms of how beautiful it was, as a photographer, where would you be?
Susan: In Namibia, I think it was probably Serra Cafema because photographically I had so many options. I had the water, I had lush vegetation, and the animals and plant life that came with that. I could walk a very short distance to find incredibly vivid and almost liquid-looking sand dunes, and then the harsh and jagged nature of the mountains and the surrounding rocks. So it really was a one-stop shop in terms of what it gave to me as a photographer. But they were all really spectacular.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else people should know before we get to our last three questions?
Susan: I think the thing people should be conscious of when going to the desert, especially if you’ve been to the desert here in the States or some other place and you think you’ve kind of got it covered, the Namibian desert is the oldest desert in the world. It is incredibly formidable. You have to be careful in terms of making sure that you have a hat, making sure that you’re putting on your SPF multiple times a day, and that you’re drinking a lot of water.
It was really clear to me that I could become dehydrated very quickly. Temperatures at the time that I was there ranged closed to 100 or a little higher. At night, in certain times of the year, it can plunge to 40. So people who are going to Namibia need to be very respectful of these great changes in temperature, possibly, and just how brutal the sun can be and to make sure that they’re prepared.
Chris: Finish this thought. You really know you’re in Namibia when what?
Susan: When you’re in the middle of the desert and a wall of sand is headed your way.
Chris: Ah! Okay.
Susan: Yeah. That as I mentioned, I just touched on it, but an hour after we landed at one of Skeleton Coast, I started to notice that all of the things I could see in the distance were slowly disappearing. And it was interesting because unlike fog, it wasn’t something that you could see through and capture outlines of things. It was like an Etch A Sketch that was shaken and just things were removed, it was like a wall. And fascinating. And truthfully from a photographer’s standpoint, the aftereffects of it were really beautiful because as the light filtered through all the sand that was still mixed in the air, you got this wonderful haloes and beautiful shadows, and I’ve never experienced that before.
Chris: Okay. And if you had to summarize Namibia in three words, what three words would you use?
Susan: Stunning, formidable, other-worldly.
Chris: Excellent. And our guest, again, has been Susan Portnoy. Susan, where can people read about your travels?
Susan: I have a website called The Insatiable Traveler, and I invite everybody to see more about Namibia there.
Chris: Excellent. And thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler again, sharing with us your love for Africa, and again, in this case, your love for the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.
Susan: Thank you, Chris. It’s always fun.
Chris: In the user community, I mentioned as I was doing the ad spot earlier that I’m preparing an episode on the trip that we recently did, the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco. I’m hoping that will be next week’s episode, although it’s a little more ambitious in terms of putting that together because I’m trying to get many of the voices from the people who went with us.
But that also reminds me that we had a good time and we’re planning on doing more trips in the future. If you want to help choose where we will go, you need to join the private Facebook group. We do that as a private conversation, and you could find a link to that at the Amateur Traveler site under the Book Travel tab. So join that conversation because we’re just now starting to talk about where we go next.
In the user community, I heard from Brad who wrote and said, “As relatively new parents, our travel budget for trips further than Disneyland or the Midwest has shrunk and our existing guide books are getting old. Thankfully the books are not quite legally allowed in drink yet, but still. Anyway, a lot of our newer books are understandably very kid-focused. There are several series my kids and I really like with great colorful pictures. My first dot, dot, dot, ‘Baby Touch and Feel Visual Encyclopedia’ and so on.”
“I never really noticed the publishers before, but imagine my surprise when I found all of these books are from DK, the same publisher that sponsors your podcast. If their travel books are as good as their kids’ books, we’ll definitely be looking at them for our next trip. Thanks for feeding my imagination and wanderlust as we begin to talk about our next destination.” Brad, thanks for sharing that with us and you’d better bet that I’ll be sharing that one with our sponsor.
Jim commented on the episode we did on Philadelphia and said, “Very interesting. I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia in the 80s doing IT consulting. Our client got tired of paying for fancy hotels, they weren’t all that fancy, and gave us a list of places we can use. I stayed at one in Center City and was watching the evening news about a visiting businessman who had been beaten, robbed and killed in an elevator in a hotel in Center City. Imagine how I felt when I realized it was the hotel I was staying in. I took the stairs after that.”
“Many years later, my wife and I visited some friends from Glenside, a suburb, whom we had met on a Windjammer Cruise in Maine. They took us around and showed us many of the same historic sites that were mentioned in the podcast. We even had lunch overlooking the Delaware, with the battleship USS New Jersey visible across the river. It was very nice. Philadelphia seems to have cleaned up its act. I’d go back.” And thanks for sharing that, Jim.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have questions, send an e-mail to host at AmateurTraveler.com, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, all @chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.