Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp: The Enchantment of an Ephemeral River

When we began planning our return trip to Namibia with Expert Africa we knew we wanted to include the Skeleton Coast and the impressive dry riverbed of the Hoanib River in our itinerary. We got a brief glimpse of both on our first trip – just enough to make us want to return.

The Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is located just outside the boundary of the Skeleton Coast National Park not far from the Hoanib River. That puts it west and a bit south of Etosha National Park in the Kaokoveld, an informal name for the Damaraland and Kaokoland areas within the Kunene region. Or more simply, it is located in the northwest corner of Namibia.

Namibia as a whole is remote and uninhabited. That’s the draw for us. Namibia is twice the size of Spain with a population of about 2.5 million (per the 2017 census). The Kunene region is remote even for Namibia. Few Namibians live out here and not many visit the region. 

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is a Wilderness Safaris camp that is a joint-venture partnership with the neighboring conservancies of Anabeb, Torra and Sesfontein. The camp also has a scientific center for the study of desert-adapted predators, namely the brown hyena and desert-adapted lion.

Flying into Camp

As with many remote Wilderness Safaris camps Hoanib is reached by small aircraft. The flight from Doro Nawas is quick: less than an hour. The dirt airstrip runs between charcoal-colored mountains and the landing appears technical to a non-pilot. A new airstrip was under construction when we visited in October 2018.

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp

Hoanib (pronounced WAH-nib) is the most striking camp we have visited in Namibia or elsewhere. It’s location on a flat, sandy plain between craggy, black hills is stunning – no it is otherworldly. Eight large tents form a long crescent with the lodge and swimming pool in the middle. The lodge has a large covered outdoor seating area in front of the bar. The dining room is just next door and comes with the same expansive view as the lodge and every tent in camp.

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

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp

To call the individual accommodations tents is something of an understatement. They were described to us as a tented chalet, a little better I suppose.  Each room is built on a  raised concrete platform with a large, covered, outdoor deck with enough seating for a party. The walls and roof are constructed of heavy fabric with fixed glass windows and hinged canvas panels for ventilation. Each rectangular room is covered with heavy tenting that peaks above the middle of the roof and perfectly matches the color of the surrounding sand. 

As someone who happily lives in a small space I can only describe our tent as enormous. It included a large desk and coffee station beside the giant bed. Chairs and a coffee table at the foot of the bed are perfectly placed in front of a large window. Beyond the bed is a spacious closet and bench.

In the next room, the bathroom included a large double vanity with concrete sinks on a wooden counter. In the same area is a large shower with the toilet in a separate room beyond.

I was a bit concerned we would feel separated from the sounds and smells of the wilderness in such comfortable accommodations, but we were not. I clearly heard the haunting call of jackals echo through camp at night. It is a sound I will never forget and that I will forever associate with Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.

The Allure of the Hoanib River

The Hoanib River only runs in the rainy season when enough rain falls to run off into the river. We always travel in the dry season, so we haven’t ever seen the river with water in it. Rain, if it comes, begins in December and that’s when animals in the region begin to give birth.

In the dry season the river becomes a highway for herbivores like elephants, oryx, giraffes and antelopes, that feed on the vegetation in and along the river. Desert-adapted carnivores (lions, hyena, jackals) follow the herbivores. We also saw a surprising number of birds.

Morning and evening game drives followed the river and provided stunning views of the riverbed. Shifting sands pile up against the cut away banks of the river. The patterns of both in the changing light were spectacular.

Patterns in the dune

Ana trees, camel thorn acacia and mopane trees dot the riverbanks and some grow in the riverbed. !nara plants produce melons the herbivores love. I wanted to bottle the dry scent of sage and take it home with me.

Desert-adapted elephants living in the Lower Hoanib River region have been studied here since the late 1980s. All individuals have been identified and they currently travel in two family groups, “the six” and “the ten”. In addition, two adult male elephants travel the area on their own, separate from the families. We met both families and Oliver and Arnold. 

I can’t tell you how pleasurable it is to sit and watch a family feed and interact with each other. We kept a respectful distance and they seemed not to notice we were there. 

The ten browsing
The six moving on

When we got too close to Oliver or Arnold, they let us know with a shake of their head or flaring of their ears. We backed off. They are the bosses!

We enjoyed the most spectacular sundowner on our final day in camp. Anton, our guide (more about him below), found a hill overlooking a spectacular sandy plain dotted with charcoal-colored hills. We stopped, Anton setup snacks and beverages (gin and tonic for us, of course) and we looked out over the landscape. The ice hadn’t begun to melt in our drinks when a tower of giraffes appeared from behind a hill way off in the distance.

We began counting as, one-by-one, they came into view, eleven in all. We watched for the next half-hour as the group, called a journey when they are on the move, ambled across the sandy plain, behind the next hill and out the other side. It was a highlight of our trip.

Driving to the Skeleton Coast

We spent one day driving the Hoanib riverbed to its outlet in the Atlantic Ocean. There were six of us in the jeep that day (Esther and Roger from Switzerland and Betina and Alan from California, like us). We all flew into Hoanib from Doro Nawas together. We could not have had more fun and interesting traveling companions. In fact, we spent time with them at the next camp we visited too.

We watched the sun rise from the safari vehicle and enjoyed the changing scenery along the way.

Sunrise from the safari vehicle

Moisture from the coast, in the form of fog, drifts upriver to nourish plant life along the river. This moisture follows the river inland for miles. One morning in camp I noticed moisture from overnight fog dripping from the canopy over our tent. It was an extraordinary sight in such an arid environment.

The closer we got to the coast the greener and more abundant the vegetation became.

Vegetation along the Hoanib River toward the Skeleton Coast

Standing water in the wet season left behind it areas of dried mud. Also left behind was evidence of the animals that crossed the mud when it was still wet. It was so much fun looking for tracks in the cracked mud. The beauty of this place comes in so many forms.

Dense brush, we had to have the windows closed in the jeep to keep from being hit by it, gradually gave way to sand dunes.

Changing landscape
Heading into the dunes
Dunes and vegetation

Anton skillfully drove to the top of one dune making for the most spectacular coffee stop we could have hoped for. In one direction it was dunes for miles and in the other the Skeleton Coast.

Anton taking in the view

That spectacular dune that was the site of our coffee break provided the opportunity for an exhilarating run down it. On the count of three Betina, Esther and I ran over the edge of the dune and let gravity pull us down to its base. What fun! Climbing back up was not quite as much fun.

Did I mention there was an oasis as we neared the coast? There is so much to see and appreciate here.

An oasis in the dunes

The Skeleton Coast, named for the numerous shipwrecks that dot the coastline, is spectacular. The Atlantic Ocean is wild and inhospitable here. The current and wind are fierce.  We visited a small museum dedicated to the many shipwrecks along the coast.

Before returning to camp by plane, we stopped by a noisy (and smelly) colony of Cape fur seals. Many were lazing on the sand and rocks, others were floating in the surf beyond. Pups are born here in November and December.

Fur seal colony on the Skeleton Coast

Black backed jackals and brown hyena are attracted to the colony (hoping to pick off the young and weak) and we noticed a jackal far off in the distance as it disappeared over the dunes.

 Anton – A Guide Extraordinaire

Every guide that has accompanied us on safari has been excellent, but Anton is extraordinary. We always get to know our guides the best of anyone in camp because we spend so much time with them. Anton’s rallying cry to us was, “Right here, right now!” 

Before long he had all of us saying it. It is a perfect reflection of Anton’s enthusiasm for guiding, the animals and the landscape that are his work space. He is so knowledgeable and engaging and has an excellent eye for spotting game miles away!

Anton comes from the Zambezi region of Namibia (formerly the Caprivi). We enjoyed time with him around the camp fire in the evening learning about his family and life in Namibia. These are my most treasured memories of our trip to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.

Cheers!

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