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Take it to the banks

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a desert, much of the action around a Skeleton Coast camp happens in a riverbed

The view out of the window on a flight north from Windhoek to the Skeleton Coast underscores the brutality of the landscape. There’s a red sand ocean with rolling dune breakers; then black rock slabs radiating heat before dropping into a ragged gorge; all joined by vast flatlands in yellow or brown. These plains are sliced – improbably in context – by the occasional riverbed. One or two of them are emerald green; evidence of a small but precious water source.

The Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp airstrip is a slightly lighter brown strip on darkish brown soil connecting outcrops of rock that are a darker brown. It’s a bleak, arresting landscape. It all makes you feel a little like you’re on the moon, a sensation compounded by the look of the camp, where all structures are covered by taut tent roofs made of canvas stretched over tall poles. It creates the sense of a futuristic research camp – and there is a research component, with a scientist studying hyenas and other desert dwellers – on another planet.

The prevailing wind stirs up clouds of dust at the end of the valley, which can be seen from the luxury safari tents. In camp, there’s not a breath until the wind changes direction, in which case, the sound of the gale against the canvas reminds visitors of their place in the world – city folks reminded of the power of the wilderness. The tents offer a wonderful refuge, though, each with an outside patio, a spacious bedroom and huge picture facing a small manmade waterhole. Water is an everpresent concern here, so a bucket in the shower in which to direct the flow until you achieve the right temperature is a sensible extra.

Playing hard to get

Embarking on a game drive seems like an exercise in optimism in this Martian landscape (yes, we’ve swapped celestial bodies; close up, the soil has a reddish tinge), and as we move out of the shelter of the valley, our vehicle – fortunately not the open-sided variety – is enveloped in a howling wind blowing sand sideways and obscuring everything. Occasionally, our guide is forced to stop for fear of hitting rocks he knows are in there somewhere, and his ability to spot the faintest of old tyre tracks bodes well for our chances of seeing wildlife in this murk.

The animals are there, too. Stoic giraffe and springbok continue to browse and graze as the maelstrom whirls around them, visible in short lulls and then little more than differently shaped gloom. The windows of the vehicle keep most of the dust out, although it’s still necessary to keep your camera inside a bag to avoid it getting coated in a fine film of tiny sand particles.

In the Hoanib Riverbed, we find lion tracks – singular. There are few enough lions in this vast area that it’s possible for the guides to know which one is where, and between our guide and another in another truck nearby, we find the big cat just as the wind starts to die. Alone and smaller than her plains-dwelling counterparts, the lioness’s hunting prospects aren’t particularly high – she has no back-up, and her target is a nippy springbok. But she tries anyway, using the cover of the riverbank, which obscures her from the antelope, further up the slope. She uses a clump of bushes to get close enough for a final rush but, when she goes, she lacks the smaller creature’s acceleration, and the springbok gets away. It’s a thrilling episode in the odd, dust-tinted orange light.

In such a game-scarce region, the big-ticket items gain even more cachet to seeing them than in a Big Five reserve. The following day is ‘elephant day’. We’re searching for the desert-adapted ecotype, and there are only 19 of them in the massive area we need to traverse. Also, the only lead we have is that they’re “east of the camp”. As is most of Africa…

The nature of the terrain and the behaviour of the animals dictate that driving in the riverbed offers the best chance of seeing wildlife. Springbok, giraffe, baboons and gemsbok (called ‘oryx’ here, perhaps in deference to foreigners’ discomfort with the guttural ‘g’) are all in early evidence, but there are no elephants. The only strategy is to keep going. Where the spoor diverges from the riverbed, the guide goes a little cross-country, and where the trail gets dropped, it takes time to manoeuvre through the bushes and rocky outcrops. This takes time. The needles we’re looking for are enormous, but so is the haystack.

Eventually, they are spotted, heading downriver as we drive the opposite way, with 13 in one herd, one with markings on her back legs that suggest a miscarriage, a sad addendum in such a limited population. We head to a high vantage point to keep an eye on the herd as they move, where we are joined by a National Geographic film crew investigating the behaviour and culture of elephants, including those in unlikely habitats.

Shared twilight

An evening nature walk across the open ground in front of the safari tents reveals a surprisingly complex mishmash of information, with scat and tracks showing that everything from lion to giraffe has passed by just in front of our rooms.

We aim for a peak at the end of the valley, which is relatively easy to walk up, and which affords 360° views – back towards the lodge, down the river valley and over the nearby hills. Near the river, close by, the lioness is reclining and at ease. Between us and her, a table with a white tablecloth is set up alongside a game vehicle and laden with drinks and snacks for sundowners. We sit and enjoy our favourite tipples. There’s a warm breeze and an overwhelming desire to stay there until nightfall and to count the stars as they come out. Except… lion.

Almost as good is standing around a fire back at camp, sharing stories of daft people we’ve travelled with or hosted – including the previous Hoanib guests who used the emergency siren to summon a refill for their gin and tonic!

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