Reviewing Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is an easy job, just check TripAdvisor reviews and you will know what I mean. There are 71 at the time of writing, 62 are Excellent, 8 and Good and 1 is average. Of all the Good ones, a few had nothing bad to say about the resort and the rest were from the very beginning when the resort opened. Most of their comments have been addressed except for maybe the simple and repetitive food when we were there. But then again, a lot of people have also mentioned how great the food was so perhaps we were not lucky and the chef was on leave when we were there, it did feel like that a little.
To me, Hoanib was an incredibly beautiful place in one of the most remote parts of the world, possibly the most remote lodge I have ever and will ever stay at. We are talking about a camp in a 450,000 hectares of conservancy that is not accessible to anybody else but the guests staying at one of its eight tents. Yes, just eight tents with a total of 18 guests (one is a double-family tent). As no lodges are allowed inside the Skeleton Coast Park because it is a protected area this is the only place you can stay at that can take guests by road to the park. And that was a highlight of my stay and of my trip to Namibia, something that I will forever treasure. As many other guests on TripAdvisor, this was a true once in a lifetime experience.
Thinking back I am left with an overall sense of awe. It was perhaps the sense of complete isolation and exclusivity that comes with knowing how special it is to be there that takes over your senses. Or it was maybe the fact that, when I woke up one morning I could see giraffes grazing as soon as I pulled the curtains up. “This is a magical place”, said another guest I met as we were waiting for our transport from the airport upon our arrival. Him and his family were in my same Condor flight from Frankfurt and had been to Namibia four times. This was not a one-off encounter. Most of the guests we met through the trip had been to Namibia before and were returning, as if they were under a spell and forever addicted to the raw and desolate beauty of its absolutely stunning landscapes. He could not have been more accurate. Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp was indeed a magical place.
Arrival at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Park
The only way to access the camp is by private Cessna plane owned and operated by Wilderness Safaris which connects guests between their lodges and camps across Namibia. The airstrip was a relatively flat rocky landing strip five minutes away from the camp. You would not know there was an airstrip there if it wasn’t because of the toilet facilities and waiting tent that Wilderness had habilitated for guests waiting to be transferred in or out. From the sky, I could recognize the camp’s tents from the photos but nothing had prepared me for the feeling of entering my own tent.
Liberty, our guide, who had started only one month before our arrival, was there to greet us, take our luggage and drive me and Edwin a back to the camp. “We will go out on a drive this evening”, he announced. And there were no more details. In such desolate landscapes where barren roads, rocky outcrops, million-year old mountains and the occasional bush were sharing the space with sand dunes and dust I wondered what and if there was anything to see. We had booked Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp for the Skeleton Coast part of its name and game viewing was not high on my priority list, I had not even realized it was possible and frequent. And yet the incredibly inhospitable landscapes were hiding a wealth of wildlife and plants.
Check-in was immediate. There were no formalities to complete because the resort is all inclusive and there is nothing to spend extra money on, in fact, we could not even buy sunblock because they did not sell it. The camp does not even have a shop. Our wallets did not leave the bag until our departure when we left some money for the staff and Liberty as tip.
The rooms are beautifully designed and the light baby blue color splashed on the tan and beige decor and furniture is exquisite. It is relaxing, it blends in and it calms you down. The walls of the tent are made of wood and the roof and entire tent is covered in a canvas material similar to the one used by Soneva Kiri in Koh Kood. It is perfect to keep cool in the hot summer days and to preserve the heat in the cooler evenings. It was also the only material that could be transported by road to the camp. The rooms have been designed and placed to maximize light but minimize heat and cold. The canvas tents are designed in a way to make the most of the punishing weather too.
Inside, the tent had a large king bed and two closet areas to hang our clothes which were in need of some TLC after being crammed into small soft bags for days. There was a desk and two sofas by the window to watch the wildlife and the landscapes.
The best part of the tent was the outdoor elevated verandah that overlooked the protected area. There were no fences, no walls, no wires, nothing preventing the wildlife from roaming around the camp. We were advised to walk to and from the room with one of the guides for safety reasons. One of the guides mentioned that a lion had ben seen the week before and that it attacked one of the guides who managed to run into a tent and sound the alarm bell. Every tent had a bell to ring in case of emergency, something that, just like I had in Joburg for safety reasons, is common at camps and lodges without fences. During our stay it was more the giraffes who ventured closer to the tents, not the lions who we found laying lazy by the shade of a tree on two consecutive days.
The bathroom was scenic and from the shower you could view the same expanse of nature as from the rest of the room. There was no AC but a simple fan and natural ventilation could be created by opening some of the windows. Electricity and energy was a scarce resource in a place so remote.
Beyond the tents and the main lounge area there was not much more. There was a small pool that served as a cooling puddle for those extra hot afternoons which were so common. The lounge was a good place to relax and enjoy a drink at any time of the day. We sipped on gin & tonics as the sun set. The staff set up a bonfire every evening and brought out foldable safari chairs for guests and staff to exchange sightings, adventures and travel stories.
These kind of trips are always a great source of new ideas for me. Guests at these type of properties are well-travelled, Namibia is not for the novice safari-goer, so the stories are always fascinating and wish list-inducing.
What to do at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
The main reason to venture into the middle of nowhere is the opportunity to track desert-adapted animals and to explore the Skeleton Coast on a day trip, something that will stay with me forever.
We spent three nights at the camp but you could probably have the same experience with two days. Most of the day is spent out and about. Contrary to other safari lodges where you go out early morning and early evening and spend the rest of the day in the camp, at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp you go out for the entire day and return in the early evening. days were long, not least because we were up with the sunrise and spent 10 hours driving around the desert. Despite the long hours we covered a remarkably small area. After ten hours driving chasing lions and other desert-adapted animals, Liberty exclaimed that “We have driven 130km today”, which seemed like an incredibly low number after being shaken around the 4×4 all day. Distances were not what mattered. You could spend days driving around the area and see a different landscape every day.
A typical game drive will include a large portion of driving on the Hoanib River which gives its name to the camp and which is the lifeline of the region. Although it is mostly dry, it remans the source of water to most of the animals and plants. Under the dried out river flow subterranean rivers that carry water. Plants and trees in the area have grown long roots that could search for water 40m below the surface. Vegetation, and wildlife, along the riverbed was of a bright green color.
Most guests come to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp for a visit to the Skeleton Coast, one of the world’s oldest deserts and an area of majestic beauty in a raw, brutal kind of way. The trip to the Skeleton Coast took an entire day. It started with a drive through the dunes, the riverbeds, the mountains, the barren terrains and the flood plains until the coast. We visited a colony of seals, a shack/museum of sorts with skeletons and skulls from various animals, even humans, a simple yet fantastic lunch on the beach, by the side of one of the ships that found its end on the fabulous coast, and the cherry on the cake, the light aircraft scenic flight back over the coast, spotting more shipwrecks and flamingos, and over the two oasis in search of some air wildlife viewing. The flight as every bit as spectacular as the rest of the park. You can read my full story on the Skeleton Coast here.
Aside from this one of a kind journey, we spent a morning lion tracking. Looking for footprints along the soft desert and the dry riverbed, we followed the pride of five lions that usually wander near the Hoanib river, and finally found them under the shade of a few ana trees. This was every bit as exhilarating as it sounds. Sunset champagne drives were also on the agenda.
On our drives we spotted desert-adapted elephants, several giraffes, oryx, zebra, springbok, vultures, hyena, jackals and even desert-adapted lions. The game viewing was much better than I had anticipated.
This was perhaps a low of our visit. Not because the food was bad but because, given the price and the luxury of the resort, the food let it down. It was tasty but extremely repetitive. We were given bean salad three days of our four lunches and pasta was offered on two. The mains were unimaginative and extremely basic, they did not feel like a chef had made them. Furthermore, we were given very few vegetables and no fish at all (an issue throughout the trip) so meals were very heavy to digest.
I understood the radical remoteness of the area and the need to bring food items from Windhoek over a few hours/days drive or in the tiny aircrafts that carried passengers was a major challenge that was really hard to overcome, but a lot more could have been done as it was demonstrated in all the other equally remote camps.
That being said, the setting was leverage. On several evenings the staff went out of their way to prepare welcoming and special arrangements under the stars, including on New Year’s Eve, despite the fact that we experienced rain! In one of the driest places in the world, we had to bring tables and chairs inside when, after five minutes, the water was still pouring down.
Every guest is assigned a guide. This is Winderness Safaris practice that we experienced in all of their other camps. The guide is critical in making or breaking your experience. He proposed and dictated what we were doing and he provided the commentary and all the details about wildlife and plants we encountered. Liberty was very knowledgeable despite his young age. At 25, he had already been a guide at another lodge and had recently joined Wilderness. He had a wealth of information about the area and what we encountered giving us details about the males and females, the latin names of the animals and explanations to every little question we had.
He also chatted non-stop, as if silence made him uncomfortable, waking me up when I would doze off after the very early mornings and inquiring with Edwin why he, as an introvert, was mostly quiet. The rest of the staff, with whom we interacted when in camp, were friendly, sometimes over the top, and very welcoming. They were casual and young and in no way formal. The staff made you feel as if you were at home. The lounge, with large communal sofas and chairs, and the constant chit chat between guests and staff made the entire camp feel convivial.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is a place to enjoy, to savor and to live every second. The sunsets and sunrises, although behind the mountains flanking the camp brought out the most magnificent and otherworldly colors. The hues of red, pink and orange coloring the skies were a sight to behold and one that will stay with me. Hoanib was indeed a magical place in a far away land of miracles.