It’s funny what the mind latches on to.
All I could think about when our tiny Cessna touched down on the faded airstrip in the middle of nowhere, was that I’d never seen so many rocks in my life. How many were there? A billion? 10? 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 100F degrees, sweat poured down my back like rain on a windowpane. I grabbed the bottle gratefully and drained it in seconds.
Minutes later, under a blinding blue sky, we drove towards Desert Rhino Camp, the first stop on my 8-day Namibian adventure, the jeep bouncing and swaying as we made our way across a sea of red stone.
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 hills and mountains in the distance provided the only respite from its stunning austerity.
Bons brings the jeep to a halt—something he does periodically to show me this thing or that— and my eyes fix on a plant I’ve never seen before, a giant green succulent called a euphorbia, vibrating in the breeze like a terrestrial sea urchin—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!
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 have to admit it never gets old.
Desert Rhino 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 that promises an escape from the heat, and for travelers unwilling to disconnect, there’s a slow but adequate computer available.
When I see that 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 and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to practice a little night photography. My first and last attempt was on safari in Timbavati, South Africa last year and I’d been dying for the right conditions to try it again.
Game drives, on average, begin before sunup, providing ample time for guests to grab a bite to eat and get out into the bush to catch the sunrise. I’m not a fan of a full breakfast in the early morning —though it’s available for those who do. I tend to grab a muffin (at most), a Diet Coke (always if they have it) and head off to see the sights. Morning drives are my favorite, which is ironic because I’ve never been much of a morning person at home. But on safari, the gorgeous light, cool air, the buzz of the animals and the anticipation of a new day of sightings excites me like nothing else.
My first morning I spent with Kangombe, a 38–year old black rhino, who, among 16 other individuals—a soberingly small number—constitutes the largest population of free-roaming, desert-adapted black rhino in Africa.
Access to Kangombe and his friends is the hallmark of Desert Rhino’s appeal. Tourist dollars help to fund conservation efforts and Wilderness Safaris, which owns and operates the Desert Rhino, works with Nambia’s Save the Rhino Trust, to offer guests the rare opportunity to track, view and photograph these black rhino in vehicles and on foot—an incredible experience I wrote about in a earlier post “The Thrill of Tracking Black Rhino in Namibia.”
It was a bittersweet adventure I’ll always remember and not just because my iPhone alarm went off 50 yards from where Kangombe stood. Poachers have whittled the number of black rhinos down in the wild to a mere 5055, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether a poacher’s bullet would inevitably result in Kangombe’s end.
My second morning was no less exciting. A den of cheeky, spotted hyena pups, apparently 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 5:30pm, and with the fading light brings a kaleidoscope of color that 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.
At twilight, we watched a pair of male gemsbok (aka oryx gazella) battle for dominance, the hollow smack of their horns echoing off the rocks. It was my first gemsbok sighting and I was thrilled to have seen such a remarkable behavioral display before night descended.
The oryx, it turns out, would not be the only “first” on my journey, far from it, there was so much more yet to come…..
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 plays a large roll in your travels, I would recommend that you invest in a private vehicle for at least one day of your stay at Desert Rhino. It’s customary for guests to share vehicles and if you are paired with a point and shoot traveler who wants to take one shot and move on, it will frustrate you. It is not an inexpensive option but it’s the only way to truly control your experience. Tip: The jeeps at Desert Rhino have a metal bar that stabilizes the windshield by connecting it to the back of the front seat. Supported by a bean bag, I used the bar to shoot wildlife with a long lens directly in front of the jeep without having to park on an angle or use a monopod.
How I got there:
International: 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: Two small plane flights on Wilderness Air from Windhoek to Doro Nawas where I switched planes and then flew on to the Desert Rhino airstrip. Total time about 2 hours. Tip: On smaller flights where there is only one pilot, try to snag the adjoining seat. The view is spectacular in the cockpit, 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, the seat behind the pilot is your best bet. The pilot always moves his seat forward to fly leaving more leg room than anywhere else on the plane.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of both Wilderness Safaris and South African Airways on this trip. While discussion of my journey is expected, how and what I choose to write is completely at my discretion.