In the Midst of a Namibian Desert an Oasis Awaits: Serra Cafema Camp

Kunene river in Namibia
The Kunene River

After five days exploring the depths of the desert, it was surreal to wake up to the smell of water. Outside, the Kunene River separating northern Namibia from Angola rushed westward at the foot of my private deck on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. I was a guest of Serra Cafema, the last stop on my Namibian holiday and an oasis in the middle of a world filled with miles sand, rock, and gravel.

Surrounding my villa, lush albida trees cloaked everything in dappled shade. Shade. Before the desert I’d taken it for granted. It was if I’d already left Namibia and been transported to a tropical resort. Only the sand-dusted mountains on the far side of the Kunene suggested otherwise.

To the south, beyond the trees and the green, the desert loomed. Large sand dunes swirled around the base of jagged foothills dotted with rose quartz. I was still in Namibia’s stunning Skeleton Coast, the world’s oldest desert.

Nestled between two extremes, Serra Cafema is an anomaly in Namibia. It’s both a passport to an arid, otherworldly region and a serene waterside retreat.

Krocodile - Himba woman in Namibia

On my first morning, like salmon, we headed upstream in one of the camp’s two motorboats I shared with a couple (a birder and his wife), and our guide Gerhardus (a 5-year veteran of the camp) and his colleague, Wilson.

The trip was blissfully peaceful as we coasted along. Colorful birds chirped overhead, welcoming the new day and I realized that at Desert Rhino and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, my two previous stops, I never heard a sunrise serenade, the harsh environment must not have been conducive to the melodic breeds, and I missed it in retrospect. Upriver a crocodile sat opened mouthed, sunning itself on a rocky beach while a troop of shy baboons flitted in and out of the trees.

Women appeared on the Angolan side of the Kunene. They wore brightly colored floral sarongs and carried buckets on top of their heads, their tiny children tied to their backs to keep them safe and out-of-the-way. They headed for a break along the bank where a boat could ferry them across to Namibia.

On our way back towards camp, I became enchanted with an outcropping of Lesser-masked weavers’ nests tucked into the bushes of a tiny island.

As we floated nearby, the relative silence of the river was replaced with high-pitched tweets and chirps of dozens of small, lemon yellow birds that darted from nest to limb to nest again at a pace that made my heart race.

The males with sweet black faces and piercing yellow eyes were frantically putting the finishing touches on their nests, the delicate structures a cross between a golf club cover and a hairdryer, hoping to beguile a pretty ladybird.

The females were teases, to put it bluntly, and incredibly high maintenance. Periodically, they’d visit a nest to give it a once-over but invariably something was wrong (a twig out of place; the view not special enough), and they’d fly off lured by another chap flapping his wings.

On an afternoon jaunt, Gerhardus took us on a short drive from the camp but it could have been another world it was so different from we’re we’d been. Curling and drifting into a myriad of waves and swells like an ocean in front of us, there was miles and miles of golden sand. I spent a delightful 20 minutes trying to photograph a large tok tokkie beetle as it scurried across the dune, its industrious black legs carrying its white, pearl-shaped shell at the speed of light. I lost him when he’d apparently had enough of my stalking and dove into the sand, disappearing in a flash.

Later we watched the fading light mix with a mild haze, turn the Angolan mountains into misty hues of blue. Next to the brilliance of the dunes it was one of the most ethereal sunsets I’d ever experienced.

Serra Cafema has much to offer in addition to its breathtaking landscapes. Beautiful rooms (I loved the rustic-luxe motif), delicious food, a decent-sized pool, lovely excursions, nights under an umbrella of stars, and Denzel, the general manager, whose sweet demeanor and attentiveness was echoed by his staff. But it was my visit with the Himba that the camp arranged that was the most memorable.

The Himba, are a proud, semi-nomadic, pastoral people who live like their ancestors did centuries ago.

Sure, you’ll see hints here and there where the 21st century has left its mark. A t-shirt, a plastic ball given to as a gift by a tourist. Modern tobacco. A plastic container. But they still live in mud and wood huts, wear loincloths and smear a red paste called otijize over their bodies to protect them from the sun and biting insects. They believe their scarlet bodies are beautiful and I would have to agree.

All in all, they live in a society cocooned from the rest of the world. The remoteness of their location enabling them to linger in their beliefs. When we arrived, the men were miles away grazing the cattle leaving the women and children behind to greet us.

Serra Cafema Camp as viewed from Angola
On my first night, I climbed up a big rock hill across from Serra Cafema in Angola. The wind was crazy strong, and it was difficult to shoot but a lot of fun.

The women welcomed us with shy smiles and a quiet reserve, while the children, anxious to see themselves on my camera’s LCD, were a bundle of laughter and curiosity. I love photographing indigenous cultures and the Himba were utterly inspiring, a kind and majestic people who gracefully endured my enthusiasm.

On my last day, as we drove to the tiny airstrip that would send me on my 15-hour journey to South Africa, I reflected on my stay in Namibia. It had been an extraordinary adventure, yet I knew I only scratched the surface.  

I was a guest of Serra Cafema but the sentiment and coverage is my own.

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26 thoughts on “In the Midst of a Namibian Desert an Oasis Awaits: Serra Cafema Camp

  1. Rancho das Crônicas says:

    The beauty of everything that you want to keep of this places and scene is there in this photos. Nothing is lost of your eyes and heart and nothing of the my. Bye bye

  2. Doris says:

    Susan, Your command of the camera is awe-inspiring. Would love to know what the settings were for many of these shots: from the sharp details of the inside of your room (romantic with mosquito netting), to the night shot with lighted boats on the river, to the fantastic portrait of Krocodile, to the waves of mountains. All the best, Doris

  3. Anja Denker says:

    Lovely article and photos – just on a quick note; the social weaver is not a social weaver but a lesser-masked weaver 🙂

  4. geogypsy2u says:

    That, is one Sweet little oasis surrounded by such diversity. I hope the Himba can hold on to their culture. Your shot of Krocodile truly shows her inner shine. Hoping to return to South Africa this winter and want to add Namibia and Botswana.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It was fascinating just how diverse that area was. You could go 20 minutes in various directions and have completely different landscapes. I also agree about the Himba. Crossing my fingers that the 21st Century won’t drag them into the present. Good luck on SA, Namibia and Botswana. Sounds divine if you end up going.

  5. Laura (PA Pict) says:

    Spectacular photos as ever. I was oohing and aahing over your accommodation and showing the photos to my husband. Namibia might be on our travel bucket list now as a result. Along with everywhere else in the world. But it’s certainly moved up some rungs. Your photos of the Himba people are charming. They definitely are very striking.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Laura! Serra Cafema was quite a lovely place. I wholeheartedly agree with your putting Namibia higher up on your bucket list. Thank you so much for all your kind words about the work. It really means a lot. 🙂

  6. svtakeiteasy says:

    Beautifully written and illustrated as always. Love the images of the endless sand ripples and sunrise with the dunes and the graduated mountains. You really get a sense of the vastness of the landscape. And that weaver is prceless – such intricate nest!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      You are so kind. Thank you. I’m very happy that you feel my images conveyed the vastness that I saw in person. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if others will see it because I have the memory to fill in the gaps. And how hysterical is that weaver?.. Loved him.

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