Desert Rhino Camp: Respect for Rhinos and More

I always like to see exactly where I’m going on a map before I get there. The vastness of Namibia (it’s twice as big as Spain) and its relatively small population (2.5 million in 2017) mean that almost every location outside of the capital city of Windhoek is remote. And sometimes difficult to find on a map. But remote and uncrowded are two of the things we enjoy most about Namibia. That and the otherworldly landscapes, the animals and, of course, the people.

Desert Rhino Camp on the Namibian map
Desert Rhino Camp on the Namibian map

Find Swakopmund on the map — it’s on the Atlantic Ocean due west of Windhoek. Look north along the coast until you get to Torra Bay. Palmwag is a bit inland and slightly north from the coast. Desert Rhino Camp is located in the Palmwag Concession just south of Palmwag. We visited in early October 2018.

Getting There is Half the Fun

Desert Rhino Camp is two airplane rides from Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek. The first leg takes you to Doro Nawas. The dirt airstrip is a little less than a two-hour flight in a single-engine Cessna. I always keep an air-sick bag in hand just in case. The ride is almost always bumpy and on this occasion I nearly needed to use it. 

Click on individual photographs to view. Close to return to the post.

The “terminal” at Doro Nawas is my absolute favorite in the world. It is open-air, has plenty of refreshments, posters about the topography and animals, and you meet the nicest people there. If that isn’t enough the restrooms offer an open-air view of the landscape. Loo with a view as it is called.

The final leg is a 20-minute flight to another dirt airstrip where we were met by our guide, Johannes. We had already met the three couples also traveling to Desert Rhino Camp at Doro Nawas. One couple joined us in our safari vehicle leaving the other two couples, who were traveling together, in the second vehicle. 

Johannes, our guide at Desert Rhino Camp
Johannes, our guide at Desert Rhino Camp

Desert Rhino Camp is only 15 minutes by safari vehicle where we were met with a cool drink and big smiles. As we were welcomed we realized we were the only group of guests staying at Desert Rhino Camp. Only eight of us. We felt very fortunate to be part of a such a small group of enthusiastic travelers.

Desert Rhino Camp

Desert Rhino Camp was established in 2003 by Wilderness Safaris and Save the Rhino Trust Namibia (SRT). SRT is a non-governmental organization that has been working to save the desert-adapted black rhino in the Kunene and Erongo Regions of Namibia since 1982, when due to the combined pressures of poaching and extreme drought the number of desert-adapted Black Rhino in the region dropped to between 40 and 50. The Trust works with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, conservancies and local communities to monitor and conduct research on the Black Rhino. 

All of this effort and research takes place in an area of 25,000 square kilometers that is largely unfenced and without the protection of a National Park. These factors make coordination with local communities and conservancies essential.

This is where Desert Rhino Camp plays a part. Wilderness Safaris built, manages and staffs Desert Rhino Camp, which provides much-needed employment for people living in the communities within the Palmwag Concession. And conservancies within the region benefit financially from the operation of Desert Rhino Camp. Engaging the local population in the rhino conservation effort goes a long way to helping the program succeed and the numbers of desert-adapted black rhino in the area is increasing steadily.

Comfort in the Wilderness

The accommodations at Desert Rhino Camp are described as Meru-style tents. Each tent, there are only eight, is built on an elevated wooden platform with a generous front porch. Wooden doors lead into the canvas tent. Enormous screened openings are covered by large tent flaps that roll up and down to allow for air flow and privacy as desired. A large bed with mosquito netting takes center stage in addition to a comfy chair and a writing desk with chair. Just what you would expect in Africa. 

En suite toilet and shower maintain privacy from the rest of the tent with heavy canvas curtains. A large wooden vanity contains twin sinks. Water is heated by solar-powered units, referred to as geysers (gee-zers), for each tent. This may be tent camping, but it’s not at all similar to the kind of tent camping I did with my family as a child. This offers total comfort.

But as comfortable as the tent construction is you still feel as if you are connected to the outdoors, not separated from it. The smells of the desert and sounds of the birds and other animals are inside your tent with you. It is a marvelous feeling to lie in a comfy bed under a down comforter and be able to listen to the sounds of the night.

A central dining room and bar includes a comfortable seating area from which to take in the expansive views. A fire pit makes the perfect place to watch the sunset with a gin and tonic in hand. There is also a small swimming pool in case you want to cool off in the afternoon heat.

Dining room, lounge and fire pit Desert Rhino Camp
Dining room, lounge and fire pit Desert Rhino Camp

The food is off the charts delicious. Breakfast begins with fruit, yogurt, bread, meat and cheeses followed by a hot breakfast if you choose. A variety of juices, teas and coffee accompany your meal.

Lunches are hot and served in the dining room as well. There is always a choice of entrees. And if you think breakfast and lunch are spectacular, just wait for dinner. I’m not going to give you the details because if you visit this experience must be a surprise. Our dinner that first night was a magical experience unlike any other I’ve experienced in Namibia. We were completely surprised and enchanted by the evening.

Sundowner with Spotted Hyenas

After arriving at Desert Rhino Camp and enjoying orientation and a delicious lunch we had time to settle in. The afternoon was very warm, always the best time to enjoy a hot shower. We also had a chilled bottle of South African sparkling wine waiting for us in our tent begging to be enjoyed. We had a leisurely afternoon before heading out for a game drive late in the day.

We saw many Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis) plants, which are endemic to areas of Angola and Namibia. The plants can live to be 2000 years old and appear on the Namibian Coat of Arms.

Because of the arid conditions in Namibia, game is not as numerous as in other parts of Africa, but the landscape is always stunning. When we do see animals they are usually in small groups, making every sighting very special. When I look back at the number and diversity of animals we saw during our two-day stay at Desert Rhino Camp I am amazed.

The shadows had become long and it took us a few moments to realize why Johannes cut the engine beside a small hill, allowing the vehicle to coast to a stop. He paused for a moment and finally we spotted the hyena family. Two females with two litters of pups.

Spotted hyena family relaxing
Spotted hyena family relaxing

Johannes kept us at a respectful distance and, as always, we stayed in the vehicle. For the next 30 minutes we just watched as the pups nursed, dozed and played with each other. We were very interested in them, but they seemed completely bored by our presence. This experience is near the top of our list of game viewing experiences in Africa.

Tracking Black Rhinos

In preparation for tracking black rhinos the next morning, we met with Caesar, a rhino tracker with Save the Rhino Trust. He and other trackers head out every morning to try and sight the rhino residents of the area. They aren’t able to visualize every rhino everyday, but that is their goal. Each animal’s condition is recorded and photo taken. Observations are made at a great distance so as to not disturb the habits of the animals. Caesar emphasized he could not promise we would make a rhino sighting, but the trackers would do their best to find them for us.

One interesting result of the study by SRT of the black rhinos in the area is to establish just how often groups can have encounters with the rhinos before their behavior is impacted. The goal is to offer tourists the opportunity to see the rhinos, but to never impact the habits of any animal.

Trackers keep a log of each rhino and how often they have human encounters and always make sure to keep those encounters below the level that could impact their behavior. I have to say I felt very good knowing that these animals are truly wild and free roaming. This is not a zoo-like experience.

Lots of Wildlife to See Before the Rhinos

We headed out of camp just after 6:30 am in safari vehicles. The morning was chilly. Our plan was to sightsee until we received word from the SRT trackers that they had located a rhino. Watching the sun come up and seeing how the colors in the desert change was absolutely gorgeous. Along the way I enjoyed the beautiful red rolling hills dotted with euphorbia and gray ash bushes that is my favorite Namibian landscape.

Another expansive view
Another expansive view

For a time we drove along the Veterinary Cordon Fence that divides Namibia into north and south. The purpose of the fence is to prevent the spread of disease from wild animals to domestic cattle. The fence is not without its controversy and adverse impact on wildlife migration patterns.

We came across many birds and lots of wildlife before and after our rhino encounter.

Meet Onjami and Her Calf

The radio call finally came from the trackers. They had spotted two individuals. Yay, we were in luck. We had all received instruction the evening before about how important it would be for us to follow the instructions of our guide and the trackers. Wear neutral color clothing, sturdy shoes, walk single file, no talking (seriously, be quiet!), no sudden moves. Stop immediately when the hand signal came and move when indicated to do so. And importantly, don’t run!

Our guides parked the two safari vehicles a distance away and we walked for half a mile or so. The rhinos were in some brush along a dry creek bed and we needed to position our selves to see them without startling them. Trackers were watching the animals from several vantage points and communicating via hand signals with our guides. It was so exciting, but also very serious.

Meet Onjami and her six-year-old male calf. He has yet to be named, but will be given a name that begins with O, just like his mother. Onjami and her calf are not residents of the area, they migrated in for food. If they continue to stay in the area they will become “official” residents.

As you probably notice, both rhinos have been dehorned — that is the tip of their horns have been removed. This is done in an effort to reduce the risk of poaching, which is successful only in combination with other vigorous anti-poaching efforts.

Onjami
Onjami

As we all madly snapped pictures and wondered at the beauty of both animals, the trackers were working — documenting the pair’s identity, condition and location in addition to the date and length of encounter, so the date of this interaction with us would be known for future reference.

The sound of crunching leaves under our big, clumsy feet eventually made the pair nervous. Their tails went up and Onjami made a brief charge in our direction. This is when it’s important not to run. Onjami was likely reacting to what she heard, not what she saw because rhino have very poor eyesight. You’re less likely to be seen if you stay still. Plus, you can’t outrun them anyway. 

Bye bye!
Bye bye!

It was all very thrilling. The experience of a lifetime and I’ll never forget it. Everyone in our group felt the same way, naturally. We enjoyed lunch in the bush with the trackers and our guides. The food and wine were excellent and the perfect punctuation at the end of an exciting paragraph.

Sundowner in Camp and Goodbye the Next Morning

After a few hours to ourselves, we all gathered near the fire pit in camp for a chat about our rhino viewing experience before sundowner and dinner. It was a relaxing and enjoyable evening.

Bons (sounds like Bones), the other guide in camp, and Johannes spoke to us a bit about the Palmwag Concession and Save the Rhino Trust. We came away with the greatest respect for both men, and the SRT trackers, who all show dedication and passion for the environment and the animals of Namibia.

Eventually we got around to sipping gin and tonics (made with Namibian Gin, thank you very much) and nibbling appetizers around the fire. Then it was off to dinner in the dining room. 

What a remarkable stay. Desert Rhino Camp was not a destination camp for us. We booked a stay here to make the timing of the next two camps (which were the reason we returned to Namibia) work out. This is where using a knowledgeable company to organize your trip is essential. Thanks to Josh at Expert Africa we considered booking this stay at Desert Rhino Camp. What was initially intended to just take-up a gap in our schedule became a highlight of our time in Namibia. I wouldn’t hesitate to visit Desert Rhino Camp again.

Our Journeys Change Lives - Wilderness Safaris
Our Journeys Change Lives – Wilderness Safaris

The following morning we headed out to our next destination in Namibia, which also surprised and amazed us. I cannot recommend travel to Namibia highly enough.

Please see our Desert Rhino Camp SmugMug album for more photos of our visit.

Cheers!

One Comment

  1. Nancy, this is a wonderful travelogue that has me dreaming of a trip to Namibia. My husband has been there several times and seconds your opinion on the beauty of the landscape, but he’s never stayed anywhere like Desert Rhino Camp! Thank you so much for sharing your photos and stories, as well as the background on Save the Rhinos and the other conservation groups.

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