Dreaming of Namibian Adventure? Don't Miss This Day Trip of a Lifetime (Photo-essay)

05/07/2015 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

In a remote section of Namibia's Koakveld, a coastal desert in the country's northwest, sits Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, a new, state-of-the-art accommodation that offers its guests a day-trip unlike any other. It will take you across 40 miles of the camp's namesake, the Skeleton Coast, with its spectacular shifting vistas the Nambian Bushmen call "The land God Made in Anger," to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It's a spectacular visual adventure few have experienced and if you're going to Namibia you don't want to miss it.


As a guest of the camp, my fellow travelers and I began our day-long journey at sunrise by navigating the deep, dry channel of the Hoanib riverbed...


There we found Papa G, a 40+ year-old bull elephant dining on leaves above us on the river's steep, dry banks. It was so unusual to watch an elephant from below. I loved being able to see his trunk from underneath, and the look of his powerful tusks as they curved up towards the sky.


Within moments of stopping for Papa G, this magnificent teenager blocked our vehicle, a large branch hanging like a giant frown from his mouth. His ears were spread wide and his trunk, held long and low, tipped up at the end to smell us. He looked and he waited, shifting slightly from one foot to the other. It was clear that he was curious and that he wanted to intimidate, but equally important was his desire to impress Papa G who couldn't have cared less and was ignoring his performance.

Gertz, our guide and driver, told us to be quiet and not to move. No reason to turn a cheeky bull into an angry one, and after a few moments of giving us the pachyderm version of the stink-eye he sauntered away.


The riverbed opened into the floodplain --an ironic term considering the flood which hit the area two months earlier was the first in 15 years. It was once cracked and raw but now it was positively tropical.

Normally the drive wouldn't include a stop here but a flat tire gave us an excuse to walk around and explore while our guide Gertz dealt with the broken vehicle. Knee deep in flora of all kinds, we watched giraffe, ostrich and springbok meander in the distance, dwarfed by the mountains that rose up behind them.


It was hard to imagine the immense field of green was once bleak and barren, or that no one ever saw a drop of rainfall from the sky. It fell far to the east and then flowed down the Hoanib River through the plains and the dunes until it almost reached the Atlantic Ocean. We heard talk of confused animals staring at the rush of water unable to comprehend what they'd never seen before. Here, a sun-baked footprint tells of a wandering elephant that passed by weeks before.


The beauty of the fertile plain was bittersweet, what looked lush and thriving was living on borrowed time. The heat and lack of water would kill most of the plants in a matter of weeks. They were not endemic to the plains but their seeds had washed down with the flood and taken root. Their leaves, larger than their desert-adapted counterparts, allow too much water to evaporate and would eventually be their death sentence.


Moving out of the floodplain, the topography began to change. Much of the green was soon replaced with sand and mottled rock leading us towards the dunes......


There we stopped at the crest of a hill and watched as a female elephant and her adolescent calf approached.


To our delight, an entertaining drama unfolded in front of us. The female, on her way to a nearby watering hole, stopped 50 feet from our jeep to wait the her calf who was lagging far behind.

At first the cow waited patiently, casually dusting herself with sand and calling to her calf with low, gentle rumbles. As the minutes ticked by she became more impatient for the calf to arrive--Gertz thought perhaps the calf could smell us and was afraid to approach. Eventually the cow, exasperated, went looking for the calf who'd turned around and was walking in the opposite direction. The female was not happy. When she caught up with her unruly offspring they "discussed" the situation with great enthusiasm. After numerous stops and starts, trumpets and rumblings, the calf appeared to win the argument for they chose another route to the water.


Later we found ourselves high atop a mountain range of butterscotch-colored dunes. Except for the delineation of the shockingly blue sky, it was hard to tell where one dune ended and the other began, or how far one was from the other.


I began walking towards what I thought was the edge of a ridge but after 5 minutes I still hadn't reached it. When I turned around and looked behind me, I found that I'd walked a considerable distance downhill. I was completely bewildered, I hadn't felt the sensation of descent whatsoever.


I made it back to the vehicle huffing and puffing, only to learn that the nearly 100 foot vertical drop in front of us was next on our list of "to-dos." My heart sank; I imagined the dune collapsing beneath me. It was a foolish thought really, the sand held me easily as I walked down the steep incline.


The rest of the gang chose to navigate the dune on their behinds, a strategy I opted against for fear I'd be shaking sand out of my pants for the rest of my trip. I watched as they shimmied down the dune. And then it happened: the low resonate hum of a jet plane emanated from the shifting sands. When they stopped, it stopped. I was floored. Welcome to the Roaring Dunes!

I wish I could give you an easy explanation for the phenomenon, but I can't. It has something to do with the right amount of humidity, grain size and percentage of silica in conjunction with the amount of sand displaced by their cumulative butts. Frankly, it went over my head. I'm content with it simply being an extraordinary natural wonder.


Lunch was served al fresco at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Gazing at the water's tumultuous ebb and flow, the view was savagely beautiful. Huge jagged rocks jutted out from the water's surface warning of hidden dangers beneath.


And when I looked at the mangled, rusted wreckage of a small boat on the rocks beside us, it was clear how the Skeleton Coast had earned its moniker.


Our adventure was nearing its end but there were still some visual delights yet to be enjoyed. We spent an hour watching hundreds of Cape fur seals playing in the surf nearby. While their sweet faces and boundless energy kept us enthralled, the stench from the colony was like a hard slap in the face. My nose burned and I had to breathe through my mouth to avoid retching from the odor.


By 4pm, we were skimming over the coastline in a small plane headed back to Hoanib.


Moving inland, we passed over dunes that rolled and undulated beneath us like liquid gold, and then bursting with green, the flood plain came into view.


Giraffe were gorging themselves on the cornucopia of flora below us and it was incredible to see such tall, statuesque creatures made toy-like by the view.


Soon the familiar twists and turns of the Hoanib River appeared, winding its way towards the dark grey mountains that signaled we were almost home.


Moments before touch down our last view was of camp, beckoning us home after an exciting, adventure-filled day.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Insatiable Traveler