Africa

Exploring Damaraland: Namibia’s Desert Rhino Camp

Billions of red rocks and a giant euphorbia plant. a common scene near the camp. It's hard to tell from this photo but the euphorbia is over 6 feet tall and I am guessing a tad wider than that.

It’s funny what the mind latches on to. All I could think when our tiny Cessna touched down on the faded airstrip in the middle of Damaraland, was, I’d never seen so many rocks in my life. How many were there? A billion? 10 billion? I was tired and hot. Perhaps I was just hallucinating.

It had been an eventful 36 hours since I’d said goodbye to a cold and soggy Manhattan. I’d flown on two international flights, spent a night in Windhoek followed by two more flights (small planes this time) before finally setting down in the remote Palmwag concession along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Waiting for me at the end of the dusty runway with a cold bottle of water and an infectious smile stood my guide Bons Roman. I could’ve kissed him; the heat was brutal. At nearly 100 degrees, sweat poured down my back like rain on a windowpane. I grabbed the bottle gratefully and drained it in seconds.

Bons Roman, my guide at Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia, an hour or so after he picked up up at the airstrip
Bons Roman, my guide at Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia, an hour or so after he picked up up at the airstrip

Minutes later, we drove towards Desert Rhino Camp across a sea of red stone, bouncing and swaying the entire way.

Drinking in the scenery, I did my best to wrap my head around the view. I’ve been to deserts before in Arizona and Morocco but this was different. More a scene from a graphic novel perhaps with its harsh lines, powerful contrasts and primary colors. The clouds above and the gentle slopes of the mountains in the distance provided the only respite from its stunning austerity.

Desert Rhino Camp, Damaraland, Namibia
Desert Rhino Camp, Damaraland, Namibia

Bons brings the jeep to a halt and my eyes fix on a plant I’ve never seen before vibrating in the breeze like a terrestrial sea urchin.  It’s a giant green succulent called a euphorbia—hundreds of them dotted the landscape.

Bons warns me not to touch, the powdery substance on its stems can cause temporary blindness if it gets into your eyes and it’s toxic to humans if eaten—though rhinos devour it with gusto. Elephants use them as pillows he says, and I respond with a stink eye. The next day he shows me a massive euphorbia with a large butt-shaped crater pressed into it and I apologize for my skepticism.  If only I’d been there to take a photo!

Desert Rhino Camp, Damaraland

Pulling into camp the staff greets me, hands clapping, hips swaying, in a joyous welcome song. As I climb from the jeep, I’m handed a cool drink and a chilled towel to wipe the sweat and dirt from my face. This kind of greeting is typical on safari but I admit it never gets old.

Desert Rhino Camp is a small property with eight Meru-style guest tents and a main open-air tent where guests dine, relax and trade stories about the day’s sightings. There’s a deck with a small plunge pool and for travelers unwilling to disconnect, there’s a slow but adequate desktop computer available.

When I see my tent has a large veranda, I arrange to have my dinner there on both nights of my stay. New York City is famous for a lot of things but stargazing isn’t one of them. The camp has a reputation for a spectacular night sky, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for some night photography. I’d did it on safari in Timbavati, South Africa and I’d been dying to try it again.

My Daily Schedule

Game drives, on average, began before sunup, providing ample time for guests to grab something to eat and still catch the sunrise. 

Kangombe, a black rhino near Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia
Kangombe, one of under 20 free-roaming black rhino in Damaraland

I’m not a fan of a full breakfast in the early morning —though it’s available for those who do.

Morning drives are my favorite which is ironic because I’ve never been much of a morning person at home. Conversely, on safari, the gorgeous light, cool air, and anticipation of a new day of sightings excite me like nothing else.

Tracking Black Rhino on Foot

My first morning in Damaraland, I spent with Kangombe, a 38–year old black rhino. He was one among less than 20 individuals which comprise the largest population of free-roaming desert-adapted black rhino in Africa.

Me photographing Kangombe and Bons my guide from Desert Rhino Camp.
Me photographing Kangombe and Bons my guide from Desert Rhino Camp

Access to Kangombe and his friends is the hallmark of Desert Rhino’s appeal. Wilderness Safaris, which owns and operates the camp, works with Nambia’s Save the Rhino Trust, to offer guests the rare opportunity to track, view and photograph black rhino on foot. It’s an incredible experience I wrote about in the post Behind the Scenes: Tracking Black Rhino in Namibia

The excursion was a memorable adventure, not just because my iPhone alarm went off 50 yards from where Kangombe stood. Poachers have whittled the number of wild black rhinos down to a mere 5000. I couldn’t help but wonder whether a poacher’s bullet would inevitably result in Kangombe’s end.

Curious spotted Hyena pup near Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia
Curious spotted hyena pup

Wildlife and a Kaleidoscope of Color

My second morning was no less exciting. A den of cheeky, spotted hyena pups overwhelmed by curiosity and a fondness for chewing tires, ventured within a few inches of our vehicle. Sniffing and exploring the jeep, they looked up at me with soft black eyes, their sweet faces turning my heart to mush.

Afternoon drives begin around 5:30 pm. With the fading light, a kaleidoscope of color sweeps across the countryside, ranging from pale pink and blue to burnt orange and purple. One evening, we encountered a herd of Springbok grazing on a hill back-lit by a golden sunset. I photographed them greedily in silhouette, shooting dozens of pics before the sun was finally obscured by the horizon.

Images From My Game Drives

At twilight, two male gemsbok (aka oryx gazelle) battled for dominance, the hollow smack of their horns echoing off the rocks. It was my first gemsbok sighting and I was thrilled to see such a remarkable behavioral display before night descended.


Bons said, “Thank You For Not Running”

My tent set up for dinner at Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia
My tent before dinner. A lovely way to enjoy a meal under the stars. Not to mention, the perfect ambiance for a photographing the stars.

I adjusted the settings on my camera. This time it was going to work. It was going to be a great night, I was sure of it.

The evening before I’d sat in the same heap of gravel near my tent, desperately trying to shoot the stars. It had been an epic failure. EPIC. Bons, my guide at Desert Rhino Camp, sat with me for over an hour while I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong before I gave up. Embarrassed and defeated, I went to bed with a lot of dark and blurry photos.

Round two was underway. That morning, I’d sent an S.O.S to a few professional photographer friends asking for some advice and one came through. Stars, bring it on! However, wanting to hedge my bet, I told Bons I’d go it alone. There was no need for further public humiliation if I tanked again.

I set up 20 feet from the porch, slightly downhill, so that I could place the tent in the lower left hand corner of the image, leaving the rest of the frame to the brilliant night sky overhead. Waiting patiently for my 30-second exposures to work their magic, I reveled in the Milky Way and the serenity of the desert. What a wonderful change from the sensory overload of New York City.

To my left, two lights appeared on the path next to my tent, moving uphill towards the horizon. “Good evening!” I said from my corner of the night.

My tent under the Milky Way, Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia

Silence.

I assumed it was a couple of staff members taking a walk—perhaps they didn’t speak English. With all the other guests tucked away in their tents, I’m sure they didn’t expect me to be awake or outside. Before I could give it another thought the blinding light of the LCD shattered the dark, signaling the end of the exposure and my interest in the lights.

Twenty minutes later while rearranging the lanterns on the veranda for another shot, I noticed that the lights had returned. This time they were glowing at me from behind my camera.

“Hell…Lo!” I said.

Instantly the beams went out. Seriously? How rude.

“Look…I know you’re there,” I shouted, annoyed.

I grabbed my flashlight, pointed it where the lights had been and to my surprise, stood a very large spotted hyena. My heart slammed in my chest.

When the light hit the hyena’s face it turned, ran a few steps then doubled back trotting straight for me.

Holy crap!

Adrenaline surged through my body. Perhaps I should have been scared but I was more shocked than afraid.  The reality hit me: The lights weren’t lights, they’d  been the hyena’s eyes reflecting off the lanterns on the porch. I’d been shooting for 30 minutes in the dark with a hyena at my back!

The hyena moved forward, its steps light and fast, almost joyful like a retriever returning a beloved ball. Reflexively, I stomped my foot and hissed. Loudly.

Yep, I hissed. I have no idea why, it just came out. The hyena stopped dead in its tracks, its head cocked to one side.  I stomped again and its head cocked the other way and sat on its haunches.

Now what?

We stared at each other, my loaner Canon 1DX between us. I weighed my options. I was worried that if I went inside my tent, a curious hyena might wreak havoc on my equipment. The expensive equipment I would have to buy if I broke it. With all the stones lying about, all the hyena would have to do is knock it over to cause some damage. And while the it didn’t seem inclined to rip my guts out (they tend to attack the soft parts first), I figured walking towards the hyena to retrieve it wasn’t a good idea.

“Bons!” I shouted, hoping the lights in the camp’s main tent meant he was nearby. “Bons!”

“What’s wrong?” he yelled back.

“Um… I’ve got a hyena here….”

I heard his footsteps hit the gravel path. Hard. Moments later we were both eying my visitor.

“Thank you for not running,” he said relieved, putting his arm around my should.

I understood his meaning. Predators like to chase things that run. If you act like prey, they’ll treat you like prey. It’s one of the first things you learn on safari, especially if you’re walking through the bush. If come across a lion, DO. NOT. RUN. Of course that’s completely counter intuitive and I’ve never known whether I’d be able to stop my feet should I find myself in that sticky situation. Truthfully, I still don’t know. They’re both incredibly deadly, though hyena are not known for attacking humans.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” I said, as I watched the hyena disappear into the black.

I was more than fine. I was thrilled. It was an amazing experience.

It knew I was going to be a great night!

Practical Matters

Camp Activities

Rhino tracking in vehicles and on foot; game drives; nature walks.

Camp Vehicles

Open-sided jeeps with graduated seating and a covered top. Each vehicle seats a maximum of 9 guests.

Wildlife Seen

Black rhino, gemsbok (oryx), springbok, black-backed jackal, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, spotted hyena, a variety of birds.

Photography Notes

If photography is important to you, I recommend you invest in a private vehicle for at least one day of your stay. It’s customary for guests to share vehicles. If you’re paired with a traveler who takes one shot and wants move on it will frustrate you. It’s not an inexpensive option, but it’s the only way to truly control your experience.


How I Got There

International Flights

I was a guest of South African Airways from New York City (JFK) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) by way of Johannesburg. The flight was  15-hours with a 2-hour layover. Flight time from  Johannesburg to Windhoek was 1.5 hours.

Internal

I took two small plane flights on Wilderness Air from Windhoek to Doro Nawas. From there, I switched planes and then flew to the Damaraland, Desert Rhino airstrip. Total time about 2 hours.

Tip 1: On smaller flights where there is only one pilot, try to snag the adjoining seat. In the cockpit the view is spectacular, especially on take-off and landings.  Plus, it gives you an opportunity to speak with the pilot about what you’re seeing below.

Tip #2: If you’re on the tall side, grab the seat behind the captain because he’ll always move his seat forward.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of both Wilderness Safaris and South African Airways on this trip. Words and sentiment, however, are my own. 


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What it's like to stay at Desert Rhino Camp and explore Damaraland, an otherworldly destination in the heart of Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

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21 replies »

  1. Such a marvelously open landscape for wildlife sighting. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks hyena pups are adorable, except when chewing on the tires. Your photos and story transport me there. Well almost. Maybe next winter.

    • It is but the wildlife is few and far between compared to places like the Mara and Serengeti. It was strange to go for miles on end and not see anything! I’m glad you like the piece. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Fantastic mix of images Susan. We get a glimpse of the landscapes, the fantastic wildlife and your accommodation. It interesting to see the soft ess of cours in what would be such a harsh landscape. Thank you for sharing this intense experience of yours!

  3. Wonderful photographs as always. I love the dynamism of the oryx shot and the detailed beauty of the antlion. Now your mission is to get a photograph of an elephant sitting on a succulent.

    • Right?! It just goes to show you Laura… You can’t photograph everything. Wahhhh….
      So glad you like the piece. Please pass on to your friends if you think they’ll enjoy.

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