by Ginger Mauney
Adventure tourism, ecotourism, and fly-in safaris: buzz words in a competitive market where tourism trends seem to change daily and operators often change with them. One true exception is Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris.
Since 1977, when the late Louw Schoeman, a pioneer in combining tourism with conservation and founder of the Namibia Nature Foundation, started the company, it has focused on and refined what it does best, taking small groups of guests on memorable journeys into the company’s ‘backyard’. It helps that the backyard is the stunning north-western part of Namibia.
What also sets Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris apart is the fact that their pilots aren’t anonymous people who ferry guests from one place to the next. Three of Louw’s four sons – Bertus, André and Henk – are true pilot guides. They grew up in the area and have a passion for and a knowledge of the environment that seems to rub off on their guests. Louw’s fourth son, Leon, is also intricately involved in the business, as he is workshop maintenance manager, taking care of the all-important vehicles and other equipment.
Says André, a former air-force pilot who returned to join the family business in 1982, “Everything about our business is personal. We focus on taking small groups on exclusive safaris. We use small planes with intercoms and headsets for each passenger so that we’re connected to our guests throughout the flight. Communication is important; you fly and talk to guests at the same time, sharing experiences and knowledge we gained when we were children flying in this area with our father.”
Exploring from the air
And the plane isn’t just for lodge hopping. It is an integral part of the safari experience. “If you define the word safari as a journey, the aircraft is our safari vehicle,” says Bertus, who, after studying geology, joined his brother and father in the business. “It isn’t just a form of transport from point a to point b. We use aircraft to explore. We land at places you admire from their air and explore them on the ground.”
“Using the airplane as a vehicle, we can also divert to interesting places and adapt to conditions. If the east wind is blowing hot air across the interior, we fly to the coast to enjoy calm, clear weather.”
Since the areas where they operate are not easily accessible, aircraft are also used to take guests to one of the company’s three camps in the Kunene Region. The surroundings of each camp looks dramatically different and has different features to offer, whether rock art, roaring dunes or the gentle lull of water running through the Kunene River.
After flying across breathtaking coastal and desert landscapes on the first day of their safari, guests arrive at Kuidas Camp in the Huab River Valley, bordering the Skeleton Coast Park. Ancient rock engravings are within walking distance of the camp and Welwitschia mirabilis plants add to the prehistoric feel of the area. “For me, this area is stunning,” says Bertus. “There is nothing like it in all of Africa.”
And guests agree. “When people get to the first camp, they say, ‘We can’t believe it – it’s incredible. How could we possibly improve on this?’ The next day, when they are playing in the dunes, they say, ‘But goodness, today is even better.’”
The second day of their four-day, three-night safari takes guests on a drive through the Huab River environs, across the roaring dunes to the fabled Skeleton Coast where bleached whalebones are scattered amongst multi-coloured stones on the beach. The day ends under acacia trees at Purros Camp.
Each camp is used exclusively by Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris, so whether the safari is carrying passengers in one or two small planes, there will never be more than ten guests at each camp at one time.
“Our guests say that it is as if we work towards a climax, with the last day being the best,” says Bertus. “On the first day, the traveller’s soul feels a bit uncomfortable in the stark desert. The second day, under a tree at Purros, they relax and sleep better. The third day, when they arrive at our camp on a ridge overlooking the Kunene River, with water flowing and lush green trees on the banks, is the best. The soul is comforted by water and green trees, fertile signs of life.”
Brochures and the company’s website outline the safaris’ excursions, including camps, activities and possible safari extensions to the south and the Etosha National Park, “But,” says Bertus, “there are always surprises. We go to special places that speak to the soul, places we remember from our childhood. It may not be the same place each time, which makes each safari unique.”
By taking small groups and sharing personal experiences, Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris has formed a loyal clientele. Guests return, bring their friends, who in turn tell other people and so the news spreads. “But,” says Bertus, “It is also important that agents share our safari experience. Then they are able to read their clients much better and see if the fit is right. Our trips speak to certain people. It isn’t about luxury accommodation. Our tents are simple and comfortable, a nice bucket shower, a good meal, a comfortable bed, giving you a rest that prepares you for the next day. Our safaris are about the journey – for one who wishes to travel, to explore.”
The safari experience the Schoeman brother’s share with their guests is rooted in their past, when they camped with their father in this pristine, rugged landscape. They learned how to drive in the dunes, how to identify plants and animals, and how to establish relationships with guests and with the area’s indigenous people. These same experiences are forming the future for Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris.
Says André, who has a keen knowledge of Namibian history and local cultures, “ Forty years ago, our father established a relationship with the local Himba community working with them on conservation issues. We grew up with their children and now that we’re adults, we are also colleagues, working together through their conservancy to set up a joint venture with an eye towards future operations.”
Bertus adds that if concessions open up in the Skeleton Coast Park, where their father’s love affair with the desert began, they would apply without hesitation.
Leon’s son, Michael, is studying aircraft mechanics in Windhoek and André’s son, Kyle, will start his flying lessons next month. Growing up, these two young men have shared a similar experience as their fathers and uncles and may be the next generation to share their lives and their rich family history with guests of Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris.
For a detailed account of this fascinating area, read Skeleton Coast by Amy Schoeman.
Contact Skeleton Coast Safaris for more details
This article appeared in the April/May ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.