Seeking The Skeleton Coast – Namibia, Africa

Pat and her leopard
Pat and her leopard

I was on the can – a square five-gallon, half-buried in the sand – when a leopard slipped into the makeshift bush "bathroom." The big cat rubbed up against my leg, sly as a kitten, and then made a mad dash for the toilet paper. Fast as lightning, she crouched outside the burlap-covered shelter with the roll between her teeth.

"Hey, you bring that back," I yelled. Naughty eyes gleamed as she streaked off through the tall, dry grass, toilet paper trailing after her. Struggling to pull up my chic zip-off safari pants, I tried to run after her, only to fall kerplunk on my hands and knees.

Suddenly she was on top of me. I screamed. Then laughed. Throwing my arms around her, we rolled in the fine Namibian sand, her long whiskers silky against my cheek, her fur plush velvet in my fingers. She was trying to lick my face.

Everyone has at least one fantasy destination. Mine was the remote, fog-shrouded Skeleton Coast area of western Namibia. I had once seen a photo of a huge male lion striding along the beach in the mist. I had dreamed of elephants in the surf.

Fantasy became reality one October when my friend, Katy, and I set off on a flying safari with Stefan van Wyk, owner of Bush Pilots Namibia, a safari and air charter service – the Skeleton Coast – my ultimate destination.

I had no idea that on my journey to the seductive and treacherous coastline, littered with the bones of those who could not survive its harshness, I would end up cavorting with wild leopards, kissing baby cheetahs, lounging with untamed lionesses, sleeping by a river full of crocodiles, and, oh yes, hunting with four naked men.

Keemun, a two-year-old leopard
Keemun, a two-year-old leopard

We met Keemun, a two-year-old leopard, our first day in Namibia. We stood in shock and terror as the magnificent animal leaped out of the jeep and bounded toward us. We knew she was a pet, but as she jumped up, putting her paws on Katy's shoulders, we both screamed.

Katy, Stefan, and I had set up camp on his, and girlfriend, Natacha's 100,000-acre farm in southern Namibia. Keemun is semi-wild. Before our stay on the farm was over, she climbed in and out of our sleeping bags with her sandy paws, stole the toilet paper when we needed it most, and stalked us every chance she got by crouching low in the high grass and jumping at us from behind, creating much screaming, laughing and bruising. She chewed the handle off Katy's roll-a-board, ran off with my shoe, ripped open every garbage sack, and kept us awake all night with her antics – perfectly okay with two big-city girls.

As Katy says, "How many times in your life will a leopard keep you up all night?"

Stefan had picked us up at the tiny Eros airport in Windhoek, Namibia's capital city, early that morning. "Boy, I couldn't wait to meet you two," he grinned. "My kind of women."

When I booked the trip, I could tell by the tone of his voice he was a little skeptical. Two American women want to rough it in Namibia? We'll just see how they like sleeping on the Skeleton Coast without a tent.

After a two-hour flight straight south in the red-and-white Cessna 120, we found ourselves standing on the west rim of Fish River Canyon, staring down into the deep granite gorges. There Stefan announced that we were going to spend our first night at their farm near Keetmanshoop, bordered on one side by the formidable canyon.

"This flying safari you're planning sounds rather dangerous," my friends cautioned. I admit being scared during the initial pass over Fish River Canyon, second in size only to the Grand Canyon. The ride was bumpy and it was a long way down to the river, which had gone dry in most places. This is desolate country, I thought: What have we gotten ourselves into?

But Stefan was an extraordinary pilot. It wasn't long before we knew he could land that plane anywhere in any condition. We spent only one night on the farm's property, camping on the southern edge. Yet, it was enough for me to feel a little envious of their life on this rambling, remote place where rhinos and giraffes roam the land.

Stefan and Natacha take baths by candlelight and cook over a Coleman stove. They adopted Keemun and her older sister after a sheep rancher shot the cats' mother. Many nights, after her nocturnal hunting trips, Keemun climbs on the bed and sleeps with them. Having a wild animal as a pet is not uncommon in Namibia.

Nonna Becker has a menagerie of wild things. Lunch at Nonna's was our next stop. Stefan announced our arrival by buzzing Nonna's thatched farmhouse with the plane. "I thought you might like to meet this woman," he said. "She rescues animals."

A pretty brunette in her early 40s, Nonna is married to a well-to-do German farmer. Their extended "family" consist of lions, cheetahs and leopards – all living on a large working farm near the town of Gobabis (also known as Little Texas, population 11,000) at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Some of the animals run free and others live in large, comfortable camplike areas.

Beautiful and terrifying
Beautiful and terrifying

Nonna picked us up at a remote airstrip in a new burgundy Range Rover. As we drove through the gate, the first animal we saw was a huge male lion. He was rubbing his massive mane up against the fence. He was both beautiful and terrifying. I was thankful he was behind wire.

Inside Nonna's house – which could easily be featured in House Beautiful – a little cheetah cub named Pula ran to greet us. I reached down to pick him up and fell instantly in love with him. It is a common theme. Pula's mother was shot by a nearby rancher. The cub was brought to Nonna's for safekeeping. She has plans to teach little Pula, two other cheetahs and several of the leopards to go back into the wild. But for now, Pula sleeps in Nonna's bed. I felt a stab of envy.

After a quick lunch of spicy-hot German sausage and creamy potato salad, we crossed the yard to see the lionesses. Three of them sat calmly in the shade. "You must always dominate them, never get down lower than they are," said Nonna's husband as he opened the gate. Katy and I were suddenly facing the lionesses, all staring straight at us, hopefully not seeing lunch.

"Keep your hand under her chin," instructed Nonna as I bent down, feeling no dominance whatsoever, reaching for the lioness. Huge golden eyes met mine. Without warning, she lunged at me, tearing my jeans and superficially scratching my leg. Terrified, I jumped back. But she rubbed up against me like a big house cat. Friendly now.

Then it happened. I was holding her, feeling her powerful body beneath the luxuriously soft fur. Stefan signaled us to the leopard's compound. A large female sat on silky haunches and warily watched us for a few minutes. Then, pouncing on Katy, she slimed Katy's short blonde hair with leopard spit. "She plays rough," Katy laughed. Later she knocked me off the tree trunk I was sitting on, with an aggressive lunge. I could feel her hot breath on my neck.

Nonna's obvious favorite was the huge male lion, Bongoni. He paced back and forth against the fence as we approached. My heart was pounding, I had never seen such a magnificent animal up close. His eyes were curious and lethal. His powerful haunches rippled as he moved. Katy stuck her hand through the fence and touched him. I did not.

Stefan, glanced at his watch, and said we should be getting on our way. I cuddled little Pula all the way to the airstrip, not wanting to let him go. He snuggled up to me, put his soft, furry head under my chin and purred. I had leopard and cheetah hair all over the front of my black T-shirt, and I wore it proudly. I left my heart with Nonna's animals. It was tempting to stay longer, but the Skeleton Coast beckoned.

Namibia is about the size of Texas. We had many miles to go. First we had to make our way across the famous rust-colored dunes of the Namib Desert. The Namib Desert is at least 80 million years old and possibly the oldest desert in the world. These dunes were probably formed some 40 million years ago. From the air they seem to stretch endlessly in an astounding range of colors: apricot, peach, ochre, yellow, terra-cotta, and brick-red. As we flew over the Sossusvlei area, where the highest, most famous dunes can be observed, we gasped at nature's artistry.

We spent the night at Wolwedans, a luxury tented camp in the middle of the dunes. I have never been to a place so unearthly quiet. There is no sound. No lights. After dinner we sat on our deck in silence, as if our voices would shatter the stillness, and we watched the stars, a million tiny fires in the inky Namibian sky.

Leaving the Sossusvlei area, we finally headed for the west coast of Namibia. It was a shock to my California senses to see the barren desert dunes abruptly meet the sea. The Cessna soared over beaches and areas of rugged coastline areas that may have never been walked on by man. We circled low over the sparsely populated area where DeBeers has the main diamond concession, which is off limits to any kind of traffic.

From the air we photographed ancient shipwrecks and abandoned diamond mines, and we peered down on hundreds of Cape fur seals asleep on the beach. Over the navy blue waters of Sandwich Harbor, we watched a massive flock of pink flamingos drift lazily below us. We touched down at Swakopmund for lunch. Since our safari diet consisted mostly of red meat, sausage and potatoes, Katy and I had been promised fresh fish.

Sitting at a window table at the lighthouse, savoring our kinglip, a succulent local white fish that tastes like sea bass, we watched the sea sparkle in the sun. Settled by the Germans in 1892, this quaint seaside town still reflects its German colonial heritage. Although swaying palm trees line the boardwalk, many of the buildings look like they belong in a German hamlet.

Back in the air, Stefan tried to make up time. "I want to get to the coast before nightfall", he said. "I hope it's not too windy or we can't land on the beach."

"You're going to land this plane on the beach?" I shouted over the din of the engine. Stefan shot me a mischevious grin. "That is illegal in California," and I tingled with excitement at the possibility.

We flew low over a churning silver sea, towering white cliffs of sand on our right. Suddenly a veil of fog enveloped us. We were quiet. As the plane emerged from the mist, the mysterious coastline suddenly stretched out below us – the beginning of the Skeleton Coast.

I wanted to shout and scream and jump up and down. I did that, I am sure, somewhere inside. Outside I did my best to appear calm and detached. We landed against a strong southern wind just before sunset on a deserted beach. Stefan set the plane down a few yards from the crashing surf – without even a bump.

While he unpacked, stacked our bed rolls next to the plane, and built a fire, Katy and I wandered along the beach watching the sun sink into a peach-tinted Atlantic Ocean. Katy pointed out hyena and jackal tracks. I was secretly scouting for lion tracks. Far up the beach we snapped photos of an old shipwreck.

This has never been a destination for the unadventerous. Treacherous cross-currents and quickly changing weather have pitted ships, aircraft and numerous explorers against the elements – more often than not with disastrous results. We had seen many rusted shipwreck shells from the air.

That night the moon was full, the fog had rolled in, and the wind had a definite chill to it. We ate thick, juicy steaks and hot, buttered potatoes that Stefan cooked on the open fire, and we sipped a robust South African Cabernet. He used the wing of the Cessna as a galley, keeping our food and water out of reach of any nocturnal visitors. Sitting at a little table next to the fire, our feet bare in the sand, fog drifting across the face of the moon, Stefan looked up and said, "Even for me, it does not get much better than this."

As I listened to the waves crashing against the shore, I felt gratitude – I am really here camping on the Skeleton Coast. Yes, it was cold sleeping on the beach and it was a task keeping the wind from blowing into our bed rolls (I slept with my orange Gap jacket over my head). Sometime in the night, a scruffy-looking jackal tried to steal the teapot that had been left on the fire. Our fearless bush pilot was sound asleep, so I got up and scared the animal off. As I watched it lope off down the beach in the moonlight, I realized the little jackal obviously wanted the fresh water in the pot.

This land can be so unforgiving. The only other people we saw were two local fishermen from Swkamound, who drove up in a truck the next morning, asking if we were okay. They discovered us brushing our teeth, having just finished a breakfast of peach yogurt, homemade brown bread, fig jam and hot Rooibos tea.

"We have never seen anything like this," they siad, "an airplane right on the beach. We thought you might be in trouble." Later, they stood knee deep in the gentle surf, waving to us as we took off, down the beach. Into the air, Stefan was once again flying low along the coast, skimming the whitecaps, seagulls scattering before us. One day was not enough, I thought wistfully as we banked to the right, leaving the coastline vanishing behind us. I vowed to come back.

We flew north through the peaceful Hartman Valley, aiming for the top of Namibia. Our destination was Camp Sera Cafema, a secluded camp on the banks of the deceptively serene Kunene River, which separates Angola and Namibia. The Kuene is full of fearsome crocodiles. Serra Cafema has only six permanent tents, but they are spacious with attached bathrooms – all located a little too close to the river for my comfort.

As we left the airstrip for the 45-minute drive to the camp, we clung to the sides of the open-top jeep while our driver struggled over miles of blinding white sand dunes, up and down steep paths lined with huge chunks of glittering white quartz. We were both relieved to see the camp.

Right outside the entrance was a small Himba village. Several smiling children shyly watched us drive by. We spent one afternoon along the Kunene in a small motorboat, searching for crocodiles. We came upon a huge, terrifying crocodile sunning itself on a tree-lined bank, not far from camp. We circled a small one sitting on a rock in the middle of the river. Katy saw several the next night when the guides took her out "hunting" at midnight. Their eyes glowed red in the glare of the guide's flashlight.

I hit the sack early and had strange murky dreams of the big one trying to get up the wooden steps into my tent. I got up and made sure my tent was zipped up tightly. The next morning we rode the dunes with some of the camp's other guests. Up and down we skidded over endless towering mounds of pristine white sand far as we could see.

The area is aptly named Valley of a Thousand Dunes. Later we stopped at Rock Arch, possibly one of the oldest rock formations in the world, carbon dated some 200 million years old and virtually untouched.

Now about those naked men. Well, nearly naked. Our final destination was Bushmanland in eastern Namibia. The San or Bushman are said to be the first tribe in the area, going back 30,000 years. To reach the area, we had to fly across the top of Namibia. Stefan opted for the river route: down along the Kunene and over Erupa Falls, giving us a thrill. By flying so low, we felt as if we were water skiing.

We were met at the airstrip by Arno, the owner of the only lodge in Tsumkwe. We spent one night at Arno's and one night camping out near the Bushmen's small village. "It is important for you to see this vanishing tribe." Arno explained. "And it is important for them as well, as they get to teach you something you have lost – your survival skills."

"Tomorrow," Stefan yawned, eyeing his cot, "you girls will go hunting with four Bushmen who will teach you how to build a fire from sticks, find water in the bush, look for wild honey, which you will steal right from the bees. And you will hunt, kill and eat a wild hare."

Stealing honey from wild bees and hunting rabbits were not high on my list of things to do. I could fly down the steep canyons of Fish River, sleep with a leopard, camp on the Skeleton Coast, tentless, ride the dunes with the boys, but I drew the line when it came to killing rabbits. I suddenly had this urge to sit cross-legged with the women and children in the tiny village and string ostrich egg beads. I told them in no uncertain terms there was no way I would kill and eat a rabbit. Arno and Stefan looked at me like I had gone crazy. They enticed me to go on the hunting trip by promising I would not have to watch the Bushmen kill the rabbit. I went, offering a silent prayer.

Pat Walker is the founder of The Cultural Explorer

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