Steve's Off the Beaten Track Safaris:
#1 Caesar & The Desert Sky

Does the desert hold the power to convert a hardened bush-lover? Steve tells us what sets Namibia apart as his top off the beaten track safari destination. Scroll down to listen to the podcast, read the full interview, or see our summary of Steve's recommendations. Our writer, Claire, asks the questions.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of total remoteness - destinations that make you feel pleasantly lost in the quietest corners in the world. In coming up with his top off the beaten track safari destinations, Namibia ranked in the top spot for our MD, Steve, in an extraordinary deviation from more traditional safari destinations.

From flying over dunes to witnessing desert-adapted wildlife making their way through the sand and standing under waterfalls in crystal desert pools, Namibia is an exceptional destination for travellers in pursuit of wild places and wild experiences. In this interview, Steve talks us through his Namibian safari experiences and what to take along.

Three vehicles driving on a distant desert road in a barren landscape

Do you have time to talk off the beaten track safaris with me? We are waiting with bated breath for number two.

STEVE: Of course I do. I love it. So I’ve been thinking since our last chat about Katavi and Mahale that I’m going to be pretty hardcore about this off the beaten track safari because it really needs to be off the beaten track. It needs to be something that our clients have never done before. So I was going to do the migration for number two. It really blew my mind away – just a quick interlude into the experience – driving through grass as high as a Land Rover and then, as soon as you see the first herds of wildebeest and zebra, it looks like a lawnmower has come through. It’s incredible. So it is an amazing experience, but I don’t think it’s really off the beaten track because you can get into a zebra-striped minibus from Nairobi, you can drive down to the Mara, and you can see the migration. So it’s a bit chock-a-block. I’m talking about places that give you that expedition feeling, places that make you feel like you could be one of the only people left on earth or the people around you.
And then I thought about doing two Namibias, but I think we should just combine them into one so that we have three amazing experiences. So I would say that my most incredible safari experience isn’t actually a traditional safari experience at all and I’ll explain why. To be honest, I almost feel a bit like I’m cheating on Mrs Safari by saying this. I absolutely love the open savannah, Okavango, the Serengeti. The traditional safari experience is almost what defines who I am. So, when I was offered a trip to go to the Skeleton Coast and the Namib Desert and Damaraland and Kunene, I kind of went against my will – let’s put it that way.
I’ll explain to you why – because I was thinking to myself when I was offered the trip, “I’d much rather go on game drives and go to the Okavango or even go to the Kruger Park and go through grassland and see elephants” but I went anyway. I arrived with absolutely no idea what the experience was. I flew into Windhoek and the first introduction was Skeleton Coast Flying Safaris which was with the Schoeman family and, jumping forward to having done it, it’s head and shoulders above any safari I’ve ever done. You know, if the definition of this is mind-blowing, it is mind-blowing. It is The English Patient. It is just the most incredible experience.
As I say, I really do feel like I’m cheating a bit on safari because it isn’t a traditional safari. The animals are different. Everything is different. You get desert-adapted elephants. You get desert lions. You have this stark, barren landscape and desert which is probably why I thought I wouldn’t like it, but it is just spectacular. It’s vast. It feels empty.
At one stage, we were 200 kilometres away from the nearest town. I mean, I’ve never been 200 kilometres away from the nearest town. Up in the Kunene area, we were on this huge dolomite or whatever koppie it was – hill – and we were literally staring into Angola and I was like, “Has there been a holocaust? Has everyone else disappeared because it’s just the four of us? It must just be the four of us. It’s dead quiet. There are no planes flying overhead.” It was the most uplifting experience for the soul in a way and I’m not usually that emotional about places but, if I’m going to cheat on safari, it better be like that!

A smiling man wearing a hat and safari clothing
Play me
It was like someone had thrown a lion bomb because lions just exploded out of everywhere and there were cubs running up hills, there were males charging us, there were females growling

Well, it sounds absolutely idyllic. It is on my Africa bucket list, so carry on going. Talk as long as you like.

STEVE: So there was also another experience which I did which I will talk about first. I’ve read every single Wilbur Smith there is. Also on the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland area, I had the privilege of going on a trip with a guy called Caesar Zandberg. Now, he runs Kunene Tours and Safaris and, if you want to talk about off the beaten track, there has to be a track. He runs 4x4 safaris, self-contained safaris, into the Damaraland. His history is that his dad was a prospector. So he went in as a kid and he literally treats the Damaraland in the same way as someone from London would know the streets of London. If you get lost there, you die – put it that way. There’s very little water. It’s very barren, very stark and I ended up sitting with a friend of mine on the roof of his Land Rover driving through the Damaraland area. We managed to track down desert black rhino. We ended up walking up to it – a very exciting experience. Again, there’s no foliage, there’s no trees so, if that thing comes for you, you basically try to dig a hole in the ground to get out of its way.
When I say Caesar was like a Wilbur Smith character, he was like a Wilbur Smith character. There’s no other way to describe him. He’s got long hair, he’s a big guy. He’s even got a right-hand man who is an Angolan guy who left Angola and walked through the Kunene, Damaraland, Namib Desert – wherever – to get to Windhoek. He walked on his own to come and find work! To survive that is incredible.
We had this experience – and I know it’s quite topical now – but there’s been some programmes on the desert lions and we were driving along – and you know I fancy myself a bit of a guide and I know the bush – and all of a sudden we stopped. I went, “What’s wrong?” He goes, “Well, there’s some Hartman’s Zebra up on that hill but they’re not looking at us. We’re a big Land Rover driving through this barren landscape and they’re not looking at us.” I thought, “Well, okay. Maybe they’re busy. I don’t know.” He said, “There must be something down in that oasis.” True’s Bob, we drive down there. Now, I’m on the roof of the Land Rover and, as we hit this rock which punctures our tyre, it was like someone had thrown a lion bomb because lions just exploded out of everywhere and there were cubs running up hills, there were males charging us, there were females growling. It just exploded – just lions everywhere.
Now, just picture this. You’re basically in a desert. There’s nothing around apart from this small little patch of water and there are some reeds and there were Hartman’s Zebras and a few springbok and whatever and these huge, healthy lions explode from there. You could have been walking down there and gone, “Let me go and get something to drink” and the next thing lion bomb happens. So it’s so unexpected. And, as I say, finding a complete Wilbur Smith character and complete knowledge of the Damaraland on a scale that you can’t even understand.

A big grey and yellow chameleon with its mouth open

I mean, he found a waterfall into a crystal clear rock pool in the middle of these desert mountains. How did he even know about that place? It’s just a level of experience and knowledge. You know, I’ve guided in the bush and there’s a safety in having a lodge and you’re in the savannah – nothing is going to really happen to you if you play your cards right – but, here, you’re in this desolate area and he just knows it so well. So I would recommend that everyone goes with him on a safari. He’s just a really nice guy. He’s jovial. He’s fun, but he’s definitely got that explorer sort of spirit and it’s less expensive than my favourite experience which is, as I said, the Skeleton Coast Flying Safari. That is I think a three- or four-day trip.
Just give you some idea of the flying, at one stage we were following this dirt road in the air and we had to lift up because a Citi Golf was coming the other way – a VW Golf – and we were too low. We were going to hit it. That is the level of flying that you do. I mean, we probably weren’t actually too low. We were probably about five metres or ten metres. They are the most incredible bush pilots. They’ve also grown up flying through the desert with their dad. It’s brothers that now run this company called Skeleton Coast Flying Safaris. Caesar’s experience was amazing. It’s proper off the beaten track, but this is literally at a different altitude.
I could spend hours again talking about this, but some of the highlights of the trip – and it’s almost like watching an amazing play where you don’t want to give away the plot. That’s exactly how I would describe it. So I don’t want to tell people exactly what happens, but some of the things that we did included circling a big desert elephant bull in the middle of nowhere, seeing a gemsbok running over sand dunes. I can’t remember what our guide’s name was. I think it was Johan. He spotted a dry river bed and he knew that there was this rock formation that he wanted to show us. Now, there’s no landing strip. He just lands in the dry river bed. You jump out, you go and look at the rock formation. Then you take off, but you’re taking off through this river valley.

A man in safari clothing walking up a soft dune in the desert

It’s also a very real experience again because one of the things that you did – and I won’t tell you why you do it – you land on the beach of the Skeleton Coast which is infamous for being desolate and having shipwrecks and they say, “Guys, just go and relax and watch the waves.” What are you talking about? “Well, we need to get into a Land Rover” and what they do is they leave these old Series 1 Land Rovers. They leave three of them on the beach next to this broken down sort of house. So he then spends half an hour fixing one Land Rover from the other two. So he’s a bush mechanic. So he fixes the Land Rover. Eventually, you hear this chugging noise as the thing starts going and revs. Incredible! And then you go and do whatever that experience is. I won’t tell you what it is, but it is an amazing experience.
Probably the thing that most amazed me was when we were flying along and he said, “Have you ever seen the sun set twice?” Of course not. So let me just get this right in my head. So the sun is setting. So you’re flying along and the sun sets. Well, he drops down and then he climbs straight up so the sun rises and then he drops down again so the sun sets. I was like, “Dude, I need your job. That’s incredible.”
In a nutshell, there’s absolutely no way of knowing what’s about to happen. It’s full of surprises. It’s full of remote, barren areas. They obviously know the areas very well and there are airstrips, their camps are basic, but it really does have that sense of discovery, like you are the first person walking through that valley and, in reality, you’re probably one of a very small number of people who have been into those valleys because it’s so remote, but it’s incredible.
We weren’t allowed to because the other guests who were with us didn’t want us to, but they’ll even let you fly. They’ll teach you how to fly. So I saw other people taking off. I’ve seen friends of mine at the controls. You know what the word is? It’s the freedom of the experience. The whole thing just feels so free.

The moon rising behind mountains set against a pink sky in the desert
It’s head and shoulders above any safari I’ve ever done.
A 4x4 vehicle parked in the middle of the desert

I was about to say it feels like nothing else in the whole world matters other than what you are doing at that particular point in time.

STEVE: And the number of people I’ve told about it since, people who are pilots – my brother’s a pilot – and, if you are a pilot and you’ve got your rating for the country, then you could actually fly. Obviously ask them. And then, on our trip, you end up on the Kunene River and there, again, it’s this river that’s this deep, fast-flowing river that comes from Angola which is filled with massive crocodiles. And, again, I don’t really want to give the plot away because I don’t want people to know what’s going to happen to them, but it is, as I’ve said before, mind-blowingly amazing and I wish I could afford to go again. It’s very expensive but, if anyone I met had to ask me, “What is the one experience that you recommend if I was going to Africa once?” well, I guess you would want someone to go on a traditional safari – fair enough. So let’s say someone’s been on a safari. There’s one experience that I think everyone should do. Skeleton Coast Flying Safari. Save up every single penny you have, book it, and go. Don’t expect luxury. It’s good food. You’ll have a little bit of wine at night, but the aerial experience, as I said, is The English Patient. It’s absolutely the most amazing thing.

So are you going to keep the experiences a Safari Store top secret or is there anything more?

STEVE: Well, I think I’ve kind of mentioned them. In terms of the activities, it’s a bit like Mahale. Everything you do is what you should be doing. So it’s walking, it’s Land Rovers. They have seats on the top of their Land Rovers which you sit on. So you’re sitting on the roof of the Land Rover driving through these desolate valleys and rock formations and things and down dunes. It is an experience in its own right. You don’t even need to add anything. What they do is what you need to do.

A small white airplane flying over the Namib desert

What do you need to take? It sounds like quite an unforgiving and, as you say, desolate land. So what should people take along with them?

STEVE: I tell you what I think you should do. I’ll start off with saying what you should leave behind. Leave behind everything which is related to the trappings of everyday life – everything. Don’t take your phone. Don’t try and be in contact with people. It’s a short time. Allow yourself to disappear for four days.
So, in terms of what to take for the desert, it can be cold at night so, as a surprising thing, take a fleece; definitely a warmer layer. For the daytime, take a good sunscreen and cover up in lightweight, sun protective clothing because it’s hot. If you have issues with flying, maybe some pills to stop you being ill.

And does it heat up quickly during the day? Are the mornings cold and then it gets hot very fast?

STEVE: It gets hot very quickly. You also have these mists that come in off the Atlantic which are pretty chilly. So, in addition to all the usual things like binoculars, I’d probably also take something like zip-off trousers because then you can convert them as you get warmer or colder. You know what? One very important thing, I went on this trip in the days before The Safari Store and probably the most important thing to take is something like the Voyager or the Explorer bag. I pitched up with this rock hard Samsonite bag and the guys took one look at me and said, “You work for a travel company and you’ve arrived with a hard suitcase for a light aircraft flight?” He literally nearly left my stuff behind. He managed to push it in the back of the plane which was very embarrassing. So I’d say number one on my list would be something like the Explorer or a soft and squashable bag because he has to fit it into the hold and you’re also quite limited by the amount of weight you can take, so a bag like that would be about the right size.

Any closing remarks on Namibia?

STEVE: Do yourself a favour and cheat on "safaris". It’s worth it. I’m not a cheating man but, if you want to feed your cheating gene, "cheat" on the traditional safari and go on the Skeleton Coast Flying Safari or go with Caesar. There’s no guilt at all.

A kettle and flask next to a campfire in the Namib desert in Africa

A bird's eye view of the dunes.
A map of Steve's number one off the beaten track destination - Namibia. We have added great images from Steve's trip and so by clicking on the blue waypoint markers, you will get to view a selection of his images..

Select a Specialist & Travel to Namibia >

A long dirt road in the Namib desert in Africa

The Bare Necessities

Discover the top four essentials to pack for a safari to Namibia. A soft and squashable bag is the number one essential for travelling in a small plane. The fluctuating daytime and nighttime temperatures in the desert mean it is as important to pack sunscreen as it is a warm layer - and wearing a pair of convertible safari trousers is a clever packing and travel hack.

Get your FREE safari packing list >

A man wearing a hat sitting in the front seat of a safari vehicle with a canvas duffel bag in the back
A man wearing a hat and sunglasses sprays sunscreen onto his arm
A man unzips the legs of his trousers
A man wearing a safari hat and fleece stares off into the distance with a tree behind him

Hundreds of trees growing in the Namib desert in Africa

Steve's other off the beaten track safaris

A mountainous forest behind a small strip of beach. A rustic building and a boat are on the beach.
#2 The Wild West: Cruel Katavi, Magical Mahale
People paddling on the golden waters of the Okavango river in Botswana
#3 The Watery Wilderness: Okavango Exploration Safaris

View basket