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Where ocean meets dune: a journey to northern Namibia's Skeleton Coast

The otherworldly landscapes of northwest Namibia — from the windswept dunes of the Skeleton Coast to arid wildernesses of the Hoanib Valley — threaten to upstage both the wildlife and the remote luxury lodges that call it home.

Published 4 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 16 Feb 2021, 15:23 GMT
Shipwreck Lodge offers 10 eco-cabins designed to look like washed-ashore boats, Skeleton Coast.

Shipwreck Lodge offers 10 eco-cabins designed to look like washed-ashore boats, Skeleton Coast.

Photograph by SHAWN VAN EEDEN

Just metres away, a week-old lion cub creeps out from the shade and looks me straight in the eye. Above him, red rock stretches into a cyan sky; below him, the dusty expanse of the Hoanib riverbed. He inches out further before his mother uncurls from her afternoon siesta and plucks him up with her mouth and returns to their cave.

In a normal safari, a sighting of a pride of just-born, desert-adapted lion cubs would be the highlight of the day. And yet, I’m distracted. For the first time on my trip to Namibia, wildlife isn’t the main draw; around me is a landscape so magnificent that it demands my almost undivided attention.

With a population of just 2.5 million people, and a landmass the size of France and England combined, untouched wilderness isn’t in short supply in Namibia. But here in the Hoanib Valley, it takes on a whole new meaning. 

My journey here started the previous day. I parked my rental vehicle in the village of Sesfontein, where I was collected by Ramon, my soft-spoken guide from the Hoanib Valley Camp. “It’s a three-or-so-hour transfer,” he told me. I suppressed a groan.

But what Ramon labelled as a ‘transfer’ was in fact one of the most memorable drives of my life. First across wide expanses of sand and shrubs, and then deeper into the valley, following the course of a river that comes and goes with the seasons. Several hours later we arrived: before us, a handful of luxurious tents scattered at the base of a mountain. The view from my suite? A vast stretch of butter-coloured sand with turrets of steel-grey mountains beyond.

The landscape here explains Ramon’s gentle demeanour. Hours from civilization, there’s no room for loud voices or sharp words — or any words, really. Instead, I just want to sit and soak up everything before me. Colours I’d previously dismissed as plain — the browns and the beiges — take on a dazzling new look of saffron and scarlet as I meditate upon them. It’s utterly captivating. 

An oryx, Namibia’s national animal.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

For three days, I revel in its raw glory, the hours punctuated by sightings of lone black rhinos, shy giraffes and hundreds of gnarly trees and spiky bushes that have adapted to life in this sun-scorched environment.

It’s hard to imagine the ocean is just beyond the mountains, 40 miles away. It’s a seven-hour direct drive, taken on by only the most intrepid of travellers — and stories of people getting lost for days convince me to take a slower, clearer road. Eventually, the wheels crunch down a gravel strip that runs parallel to one of the most treacherous shores in the world: the Skeleton Coast.

On most days, the sun-bleached bones of whales and the rusty shells of shipwrecks and planes would sit beneath a low blanket of fog. But today, a bright blue sky makes the tumbling waves an inviting turquoise. I park up at Mowe Bay and wait for a more capable driver to shuttle me along the final stretch. 

At Shipwreck Lodge, our guide, Shiimi, greets us with a smile before taking us out on the lodge’s high-speed quad bikes. We set off, accelerating up dunes so high and steep I feel like I’m hurtling into the sky. We reach the ridge and swoop down the other side. Miles and miles of golden sand spread out in front of us; the Kaokoveld, or ‘coast of loneliness’ in local Herero language, stretches beyond.

But there are more docile ways to take in this lodge’s remote setting, which sits at the mouth of the Hoarusib River. At the lodge, 10 cabins, designed in the style of shipwrecks, run parallel to the ocean and are cosily kitted out with wood-burning stoves. 

Shiimi and I pitch up on the edge of the beach where a barbecued feast is laid out beside an audience of playful seals. Later, I strap myself into a seat on the roof of a jeep while Shiimi navigates the coastline, stopping to point out the remnants of the ships that ran aground on these formidable shores, and the jackals and hyenas that scavenge here for food. “To see this landscape — the ocean and the dunes — roll into one is what makes this place so special for me,” he tells us. “This place soothes my soul.”

I agree. The following morning, I wrap myself in a blanket to shield myself from the worst of the bracing Benguela Current breeze, sit back on a seat on my outside deck, and sip coffee to a soundtrack of pounding waves and wind whipping through the dunes. In the local Nama language, the word ‘Namib’ translates to ‘vast place of nothingness’.
And I wouldn’t wish for anything more. 

How to do it: Abercrombie & Kent offers a 12-night ‘Discover Namibia’ trip from £3,995 per person (based on two sharing), including stays at Hoanib Valley Camp and Shipwreck Lodge, flights, car hire, private transfers, safari costs on a full-board basis and international flights. 

Road stretching towards Sossusvlei, in the Namib desert.

Photograph by Jan Milligan

How to plan a self-drive tour

Flying in and out of lodges and camps on small planes is a fun and fast way to travel, but to really see the country and its landscape, allocate some extra time and plan a road trip. It’s adventurous and cheap — even more so if you go for a vehicle with a roof tent. You’ll likely drive for hours without seeing another vehicle or person, so make sure you’re well prepared.

1. Carry six gallons of water per person
Don’t underestimate how much water you’ll get through when driving, and always factor in unexpected stops. All locals will tell you this is rule number one.

2. Plan your route (and your petrol)
Forget Google Maps — you won’t find much reception on the road, so refer to a physical map and make sure you know when and where you can stop for petrol. Always fill up, even if you don’t need to.

3. Carry supplies and cash
The likelihood is you’ll go for hours without seeing a single shop, so travel with plenty of food (and cash for if you do get to stop).

4. Learn how to change a tyre
You may get a flat on your trip. You may get four. Watch a few YouTube tutorials before you head off. 

5. Rent from a reputable company
A four-wheel-drive is a must, as are off-road tyres. You’ll be driving on a lot of gravel, so road tyres won’t cut it. Deflate your tyres a little on non-tarmac surfaces. 

Read more travel guides and tales for Namibia

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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