Fog hangs on the horizon in front of our small plane. When we fly lower, I see lines of dry salt stripe the landscape, like an early morning frost. Then the shoreline is beneath us, Atlantic breakers throwing balls of foam onto the sands. I’m told there must be schools of sardines about, for there are hundreds of seals. We bank in closer and look for lions. They sometimes come down this way, along with jackals and hyenas, to feed upon the colonies of seals.
This is Namibia, much of this rainless land retaining the same pristine state of being for millions of years. On first contact, it seems there will be little to experience but a vast, parched wilderness ripped and torn by the movement of the earth’s crust. The coastline revealing Africa at her most severe, this may be the closest I will get to seeing the planet stripped to the bone. Then I travel deeper, into the country’s western reaches, where the Namib Desert’s dune belts butt up to the Atlantic and the treacherous Benguela Current.
It is a very specific tract I am visiting: the Skeleton Coast, named after the wrecked ships that scatter the shore, an imposing territory more or less impenetrable except by hardy, self-driven adventurers. I, however, am to cover some 1,900 miles on a three-night flying safari in a nimble Cessna 210 Centurion piloted by Henk Schoeman. He is one of four brothers—true wild men of Africa who have explored and fought for half a century to preserve this otherworldly, sometimes overwhelming wilderness.
With virtually no human habitation, the Skeleton Coast—formed when Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent, split apart, creating Africa and South America—shows its antiquity like few places on earth. But as an independent nation, Namibia is relatively new; the country was ratified in 1990, when South Africa, which borders it to the south, ceded territory from the former South-West Africa.
I fly the south-north line from Conception Bay all the way up to the Kunene River, where Namibia meets Angola. We stay in small camps on the way—built by the Schoemans in places where they used to sleep on roll mats as boys. Their late father, Louw, an attorney and casual diamond miner, brought his children to join him on his explorations and, later, when he flew in his first paying safari clients, in 1977. Indeed, it was Louw’s efforts, during that decade, that helped turn a 6,504-square-mile swath of the Skeleton Coast into a national park.
Nearly 40 years later, the Schoeman family brings to the Skeleton Coast some of the most glamorous travelers in the world—Aspinalls and Rothschilds among them. But despite such pedigree, they have to compete hard to retain their slice of the pie, because, in the last ten years, other operators have entered the fray. Chief among them is Wilderness Safaris, the South African ecotourism giant listed on that nation’s stock exchange. The Schoemans, on the other hand, remain a family concern, consisting of four brothers, their wives and 13 camp staff and assistants, managing the 100 trips a year from a claustrophobic office in a shopping mall in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. The company, called Skeleton Coast Safaris, possesses only four aircraft—sometimes two flown in convoy, with a maximum of eight guests between them. The accommodations are camps, not lodges, and come without the plunge pools popping up all over the rest of Africa. The property on the Angolan border, for instance, comprises bucket showers, canvas tents, solar lights and candles. The cuisine is also simple, with the Schoemans taking great pride in serving their late mother’s potato salad and brown bread cooked in a coffee tin.
It is this complete lack of pretension—though not sophistication—that is a hallmark of the family’s safaris. That, and the passion the Schoemans have for the landscape they seek to live off while also being aware of what will benefit the local Himba and Herero tribespeople, who count the Schoemans as family. Because, rather than simply being exceptional pilots, the Schoemans are flying guides, delivering a very specific sense of freedom.
It is clear they know this landscape intimately: which narrow strips are safe to land on and where to find a Bushman’s grave, a family of desert-adapted elephants or a 100-year-old cave painting of a pregnant zebra. They speak of the geology, flora and fauna with a knowledge that runs deep, from the time these things were first explained to them by their father. The logistics are extraordinarily smooth: The brothers sequester 15 Land Rovers up and down the coast so that, at any given moment, one of the Schoemans can just park his plane and drive, their land-based routes marked up with stones and animal bones to indicate exactly where to hit a blind summit or cross an endless plain. Their language belongs to Africa, to family and to an older, pioneering spirit that is genuine because it is born of history, connection and a wilderness childhood only few can claim.
What makes the Schoemans’ safari so elegant and authentic?
The Plane: The Cessna 210 Centurion is one of their four aircraft, often flown two in convoy.
The Guide: Henk Schoeman and his brothers have been frequenting this remote region all their lives.
The Camp: The brothers built camps along the way, in places where they slept on roll mats as boys.
Skeleton Coast Details
UK-based travel agency Bailey Robinson can organize a four-day Skeleton Coast safari with the Schoemans. From $6,450 per person; 44-1488/689-777; baileyrobinson.com.