Skeleton Coast safari: a life-affirming desert adventure in Namibia

Find your life force in the Namib desert, where wildlife of all shapes and sizes thrive against the odds

Sossusvlei sand dunes, Namibia
Sunrise in the hills above Wilderness Safaris’ Serra Cafema camp, in the remote north-western corner of Namibia
(Image credit: Holden Frith)

Set on the banks of a river in a dense, tropical forest, Serra Cafema is an outlier among Namibia’s desert-focused safari lodges. There is no shortage of desert here either – you will spend plenty of time exploring it during your stay – but this remote Wilderness Safaris camp offers another world too. The Kunene river, which passes right in front of the lodge, fuels a narrow strip of plenty in this otherwise arid land.

Serra Cafema, Namibia

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

Where is it?

Serra Cafema is in Kaokoland, in the far northwestern corner of Namibia, overlooking the border with Angola. Reaching the lodge by car or even 4x4 is impractical given the sandy road conditions and the difficulty of navigating a network of unmarked tracks, so almost all guests arrive by air (which takes about three hours from the international airport in Windhoek, or a little more if you stop en route).

The landscape

The area immediately around the camp is lush and green, with tall trees, thick bush and wide reed beds. But the nourishing effect of the river is highly local. On the Angolan side, granite mountains rise almost directly from the water. The Namibian banks are a little broader, and at some points extend into a grassy flood plain. Beyond that, however, the desert is back in charge. There are rocky outcrops here too, but huge dunes and vast sandy plains dominate the landscape.

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Serra Cafema, Namibia

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

Skeleton Coast adventure: the five-star desert safari in full

Activities and game drives

Wilderness Safaris lays on a range of activities at Serra Cafema, many of which are unique to this location. As long as water levels are high enough, these include a trip along the river in a small motorboat, which provides a whole new perspective on the landscape. The mountains and dunes seem higher and the valley deeper – but even more lush. In many places, verdant grass and shrubs tower above head height, turning the river banks into an impenetrable wall.

Boat on the Kunene river, Serra Cafema

(Image credit: Wilderness Safaris)

The river cruise is your best chance of seeing wildlife, too – not only the many species of bird which congregate along the river (green-backed and goliath herons, African fish eagles, kingfishers, Madagascar bee-eaters, cinderella waxbills, among countless others), but also crocodiles swimming alongside the boat, and baboons keeping a watchful eye from the rocks. Depending on water levels, your cruise may end with sundowners in Angola – a passport-free (and hopefully crocodile-free) excursion to another foreign shore.

Kunene river, Serra Cafema

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

Having seen the surrounding landscape from the boat, you will no doubt want to get out and explore it up close. Quad bikes allow you to get the farthest and deepest, using tracks beyond the capability of the camp’s 4x4s. But a more leisurely approach involves a morning drive through the dunes to one of the giant granite outcrops, which you can climb for panoramic views of the dunefield – and then use for shade while you stop for a coffee and snacks.

Serra Cafema, Namibia

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

The final unique experience at Serra Cafema is a visit to a Himba village, the home of Namibia’s last nomads. You are more likely to see the women, who live in a collection of semi-permanent homesteads on either side of the Kunene river, than the men, who spend more of their time away from home, finding pasture for livestock or visiting other villages. While cultural visits can feel awkward or even exploitative if not handled well, Wilderness Safaris has established a thoughtful approach. at Serra Cafema, guides have personal connections with particular Himba families, and are able to translate between guests and their hosts in a way that feels meaningful. Wilderness Safaris also provides safe drinking water to several Himba villages and has recently helped to establish a clinic in the area.

Himba woman, Serra Cafema

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

Accommodation and food

A beautiful camp, Serra Cafema makes the most of its river frontage. Its eight cabins, as well as the restaurant, bar and library, all sit on raised timber decks, connected by stilted walkways which weave their way through the trees. You are surrounded at all times by the sounds of the river, the wind in the leaves and birdsong, which all contribute to Serra Cafema’s restful atmosphere.

Serra Cafema, Namibia

(Image credit: Holden Frith)

The food is impressive, particularly given the complex logistics involved in supplying such a remote location. You will be treated not only to three a la carte meals each day, plus the obligatory afternoon tea, but occasional bonus activities such as pre-dinner wine-and-cheese tastings. The food is fresh, skilfully prepared and includes a wide variety of meats, fish and vegetables. Meals are served at individual tables.

When to go

Namibia’s high season comes during the winter months (May to September), when daytime temperatures are a little cooler. If you’re willing to brave the heat and occasional thunderstorms, rates are significantly lower during the summer months. Most activities are unaffected by the weather (water levels on the Kunene river are more dependent on a hydroelectric plant upstream in Angola than on local rainfall).

Price and booking

Off-peak rates at Serra Cafema (available between January and March 2023) start from about £765 per person per night, based on two-people sharing. The room rate includes meals, drinks and most activities. Flights to and from the lodge are extra. The lodge is part of Wilderness Safaris’ Natural Wonders of Namibia itinerary – or can be included in a tailor-made trip. Contact Wilderness Safaris for more information. Flights to Windhoek are available from about £700 with Lufthansa (via Frankfurt) or Qatar Airways (via Doha).

Quad bikes at Serra Cafema, Namibia

(Image credit: Wilderness Safaris)

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.