The Wilderness Area
To understand the current situation in the Wilderness Area, you need to know the recent history of the park, as well as some politics.
The Skeleton Coast Park was initially part of the Etosha National Park, proclaimed in 1906. Then in 1967, South Africa's Odendal Commission cut it down to 25% of its original size, making in the process several 'homelands' for the existing communities. Included amongst these were parts of what is now known as Damaraland and Kaokoland, and also the Skeleton Coast.
During the late '50s and '60s permission was granted to private companies, including one called Sarusas Mining Corporation, for mining and fishing rights on the Skeleton Coast. During the late 1960s, they assembled a project team to build a brand new harbour at Cape Frio. They did all the research and got backing from investors, but at the last moment the South African government pulled the plug on the project. After all, a new Namibian port would reduce the stranglehold that Walvis Bay had on the country – and that had historically belonged to South Africa even before it took over the administration of German South West Africa (Namibia).
The Sarusas Mining Corporation were not happy and took the case to court. Instrumental in this was the young lawyer on their team, Louw Schoemann. As part of the out-of-court settlement, the South African government agreed to allow the area to be re-proclaimed as a national park – and hence the Skeleton Coast was proclaimed as a park in 1971.
However, during the course of all this research, Louw had fallen in love with the amazing scenery and solitude of the area. He had already started to bring friends up to the area for short exploratory safaris. As word spread of these trips, he started taking paying passengers there as well.
In order to preserve part of the area in totally pristine condition, the northern part was designated as a 'Wilderness Area' – to be conserved and remain largely untouched. Strictly controlled rights to bring tourists into one part of this area were given to just one operator. Rules were laid down to minimise the operator's impact, including a complete ban on any permanent structures, a maximum number of visitors per year, and the stipulation that all rubbish must be removed (no easy task) and that visitors must be flown in.
Louw won the tender for this concession, giving him the sole right to operate in one section of the wilderness area. So he started to put his new company, Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris, on a more commercial footing. The logistics of such a remote operation were difficult and it remained a small and very exclusive operation. Its camps took a maximum of twelve visitors, and much of the travel was by light aircraft. The whole operation was 'minimum impact' by any standard. Louw was one of the first operators to support the pioneering community game-guard schemes in Namibia and he maintained a very ecologically sensitive approach long before it was fashionable.
I travelled to the coast with Louw in 1990. It was spellbinding; one of the most fascinating four days that I've spent anywhere. Partly this was the area's magic, but much was down to the enthusiasm of Louw, and the sheer professionalism of his operation.
Gradually, Skeleton Coast Fly-in Safaris had become a textbook example of an environmentally friendly operation, as well as one of the best safari operations in Africa. Louw's wife, Amy, added to this with the stunning photographs in her book, The Skeleton Coast. The latest edition of this (see Further Reading
) is still the definitive work on the area. His sons, André and Bertus, joined as pilot/guides, making it a family operation. In many ways, Louw's operation put the area, and even the country, on the map as a top-class destination for visitors. Fly-in safaris to the Skeleton Coast had become one of Africa's ultimate trips – and largely due to Louw's passion for the area.
Politics in the 1990s
In 1992, the new government put the concession for the Skeleton Coast Wilderness Area up for tender, to maximise its revenue from the area. No local operator in Namibia bid against Louw; it was clear that he was operating an excellent, efficient safari operation in a very difficult area – and such was the operation's reputation, no local company would even try to bid against them.
However, a competing bid was entered by a German company, Olympia Reisen, headed by the powerful Kurt Steinhausen, who have extensive political connections in Namibia and Germany. They offered significantly more money, and won the concession. (They subsequently built the enigmatic Oropoko Lodge, near Okahandja)
Local operators were uniformly aghast. Suddenly a foreign firm had usurped Namibia's flagship safari operation. Negative rumours of Olympia Reisen's other operations did nothing to allay people's fears.
Inevitably given his legal background, Louw started legal proceedings to challenge the bid. However, the stress of the situation took its toll and tragically he died of a heart attack before the case was heard. The challenge succeeded, but Olympia Reisen appealed to the High Court, who referred the matter to the cabinet. The cabinet set aside the ruling, and awarded the concession to Olympia Reisen for an unprecedented ten years. Olympia Reisen's political connections had won through.
The rules of the game had clearly changed. The monthly 'rent' for the concession that Skeleton Coast Safaris used to pay has been abolished. In its place, Olympia Reisen pays the government N$1,000 for every visitor taken into the concession. However, with no 'rent' and no minimum number of visitors, the government's income from the area dropped drastically. In the first four years of Olympia Reisen's operation they carried fewer than 400 people into the concession – less than half the number of visitors taken in annually
by Skeleton Coast Safaris.
Olympia Reisen is widely viewed with suspicion in Namibia, and conspiracy theories abounded about what they were doing up on such a remote stretch of coast where nobody could watch their operations. Their negative attitude to journalists, including myself, did nothing to help counter the rumours.
The current situation
By the mid-1990s it was becoming clear that Olympia Reisen were never going to make a commercial success of safaris to the area, and whilst they were there, nobody else could see the area. Finally in 1999, Wilderness Safaris – a major player in southern Africa with a good reputation for sensitive development and responsible operations – became involved. They made a deal with Olympia Reisen to take control of tourism in the area.
They ripped down the poor structures that Olympia Reisen had erected, removed from the area numerous truckloads of accumulated rubbish, and set about a series of ecological impact assessments prior to opening a totally new Skeleton Coast Camp in April 2000. They also took control of all the ecological monitoring in the area, effectively putting an end to the many rumours about what had been happening in the wilderness area – and ultimately providing a base for a number of wildlife researchers who now have projects in the area. The tender for this area is again due to be up for bidding at the end of 2003. Given the excellent track record of the current operation, and the difficulty of working in this area at all, Wilderness Safaris is widely expected to retain the concession.
Meanwhile, after losing the rights to use the Skeleton Coast Wilderness area to Olympia Reisen in 1992, the Schoeman family continued to operate their own fly-in safaris. They did this using remote areas of the Skeleton Coast just south of the wilderness area, and parts of the western Kaokoveld and Damaraland just east of the park's boundary. Although they were slightly different areas of the coast and its hinterland, their style and guiding skills remained as strong as ever – and their trips remained superb. On several occasions I've spoken with travellers that I've sent on these trips who have been full of praise and described them as 'life-changing experiences'.