THE VAST AND BEAUTIFUL WILDERNESS OF THE NAMIB DESERT IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO DISCONNECT FROM THE CITY AND RECONNECT TO NATURE, SILENCE AND THE STARS.
Perched on one of the tallest sand dunes in the world, 150 meters above the ground, I surveyed the scene around me and felt a deep sense of calm resting upon me like a wool blanket. I was surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of burnt orange sand, an undulating sea of gently curving dunes unfurling endlessly to the horizon. This scene hadn’t changed much in millennia, and it couldn’t have been more psychologically soothing.
I’d come to the Namibian desert in search of solitude and space, and a chance to unplug completely from my hyper-connected life in the city. The southwestern African country, whose name means “land of open spaces”, seemed like an obvious choice for the kind of retreat from- civilization travel I was seeking: it’s one of the world’s least populated places, with just two-and-a-half million people (around a quarter of the population of London) in an area four times the size of the United Kingdom. Covering much of Namibia, the 55-million-year-old Namib Desert – thought to be the planet’s oldest – is largely devoid of human habitation, a vast wilderness of sand dunes and mountains that seem to offer the ultimate escape from the urban jungle.
I got exactly what I was looking for, sitting on one of the famously tall dunes that surround the cracked clay pan of Sossusvlei, after a journey that had started 1,400 kilometers away in Cape Town. A week before, I’d driven due north, traversing the huge open expanses of the arid Northern Cape province, which was dotted with vivid carpets of wild spring flowers, before reaching the Vioolsdrif Border, where I had a quick and friendly passage into Namibia.
Straddling the border is the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, my first taste of Namibia’s raw beauty: an arid world of sharp rocks strewn in the sand, jagged volcanic mountains, and unusual-looking quiver trees, whose leaves look like the kind of twinkling stars a child would draw. I checked my phone to find out that cell signal had dropped out – not a surprise, given that I was far from any big town. Being uncontactable feels like a luxury now more than ever, at a time when we’re expected to respond to emails and texts and app messages almost instantaneously, so instead of spending the rest of the trip searching for patches of signal so I could check my inbox, I decided to turn my phone off. In place of Google Maps, I was going to navigate with a predigital- age map book.
My first stop was Klein Aus Vista, a private reserve on magnificent desert scenery of silver grassy plains strewn with boulders and dotted with the beautiful black-and-white-faced oryx. I checked into one of the isolated Eagle’s Nest Chalets, a cozy stone cottage built around a huge stone on a hill. Wifi was only available at reception, which was a seven-kilometer drive away: I was blissfully off grid, alone with a book, a bottle of wine and the expansive views I’d dreamed about in the city.
The next day, I drove west towards the coast to visit the ghost town of Kolmanskop. The town was established in a diamond rush at the beginning of the 20th century, only to be abandoned 50 years later when bigger diamonds were found to the south. Wandering around Kolmanskop was decidedly eerie. I felt like I’d stepped on the set of a horror movie, with the skeletons of once-grand mansions slowly being swallowed by the desert sands, and a dusty bowling alley still set up with bowling pins. It was a powerful – and strangely calming – reminder of the ancient permanence of the desert, in contrast with the fragility of human existence.
I veered north for several hours and entered into a state of road-tripping bliss, driving on wide, red dust roads (and passing only a few other cars) that took me deeper into the Namib as the first sand dunes began to appear. Namibia is certainly hard to beat if you’re after the open road – but it’s also not the kind of place where you’d want to run out of fuel.
My destination was the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which stretches across an area half the size of Belgium in the southern Namib Desert. One of the largest private reserves in southern Africa, the NamibRand is strict on the number of visitors allowed in at any one time: there are only a few places to stay, and each lodge or camp has a maximum of 20 beds, which means that the limit is one visitor to 1,000 hectares of land – or 2,471 football pitches. It’s hard to get more crowd free than that.
Home for the next few days was Dunes Lodge, one of five luxury camps spread out on the reserve that make up the Wolwedans Collection. Designed to blend in with the landscape, the rooms at Dunes Lodge are built out of wood and khaki canvas, with roofs to match the color of the desert sand, and set on stilts just above the ground to maximize the views of the most beautiful part of the desert that I’d seen so far on the trip: fiery red dunes folding into green hills and flanked by layers of dramatic mountains.
My days slipped into an easy rhythm: I woke up just before dawn to a fresh pot of coffee and biscuits outside my door, and would roll up one of the walls of my room so that, lying in bed, I could watch a magical sunrise coat the grassy plains, sand dunes and distant mountains in a watercolor wash of pink and gold paint. After each sunrise show, I’d have breakfast on the outdoor deck at the main lodge, watching flocks of red-billed queleas flit from bush to bush, and then head off on game drives and walks with guides who brought the desert’s plants and animals to life.
If you’re after a big game safari, the NamibRand is not for you – you’ll need to go to Etosha National Park, to the north. The reserve may not have elephants or lions, but it is home to an array of wonderful species, from the photogenic oryx to graceful springbok, zebra, kudu, giraffe and 170 species of birds (as well as the elusive leopard and cheetah). But it wasn’t these big animals that intrigued me the most – it was learning about the fascinating adaptations of the smaller creatures that inhabit the desert. Kneeling on the dunes, I learned from the guides how to read the track marks in the sand made by lizards, snakes, insects and birds, and found out how many species had developed survival mechanisms for life in a place that only received a few teaspoons of rain a year.
During the heat of the day, I’d read my book on the deck, take refreshing dips in the swimming pool, and sink into a deep couch in the open-air lounge to drink tea and page through photo books of the Namib. Clock time doesn’t count for much when you’re in the desert: everything is governed by the movement of the sun. When it started to lower in the sky, I’d get in the open-air 4×4 again with a guide and other guests, driving to a dune where we’d drink gin and tonics (the quintessential African sunset cocktail) and watch the rippled dunes and craggy mountains turning golden against a natural soundtrack of barking geckos.
My favorite activity of all was a hot air balloon flight from the north of the reserve. Along with about a dozen other people, I stood in a big basket as the gas fired up a huge flame that filled the balloon and lifted us slowly into the chilly dawn air. We were high up above the desert when the sun started to rise. Below, the desert stretched to infinity, but the views were far from monotonous. We flew over the abstract lines of sand dunes crisscrossed with animal tracks, ridges of mountains spilling their deep shadows like purple berry juice and above the heads of startled herds of oryx and zebra grazing on the grassy plains. It was pure magic. After an all-too-brief hour, we descended to land between soft apricot-colored dunes to find a breakfast spread of smoked salmon, croissants, fruit and champagne laid out.
After breakfast, I was dropped off back at my car – parked where we’d started the flight – which, at the reserve’s northern end, was only a short drive away from Sossusvlei, which lies within the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Sossusvlei is one of the only places in the park that is accessible to visitors, which makes it one of the most visited places in Namibia, but despite its popularity, it was easy to find quiet places away from anywhere else where I could take in the cracked puzzle pieces of the dry pan. A brief walk from Sossusvlei is the even more striking Deadvlei, a desiccated clay pan containing the blackened skeletons of petrified trees that died 700 years ago. The stark shapes of the deathly trees against the white pan, surrounded by orange dunes under a dark blue sky, were a photographer’s dream come true, and my trigger-happy shooting spree was my one concession to the electronic world. Right by the road, Dune 45 is the most famous dune in the area and the one that everyone went to climb, but instead I opted for trekking to the top of an unnamed dune where there was no one else around, so I could soak up the views of the endless desert with only the sound of the breeze.
On my last night in the Namib, I lay swaddled in blankets out on the deck outside my room at Dunes Lodge looking up at an inky black sky studded with twinkling stars. Five years ago, the NamibRand was declared a Dark Sky Reserve for being one of the least light-polluted places on the planet, which means there are few places in the world that are better for stargazing.
Lying there, watching shooting stars streak across the sky – a far more thrilling experience than watching any TV show – I reflected on my time in the desert. Travelling in this vast, ancient, beautiful place without connecting to the Internet once was as profoundly calming as a meditation retreat. I felt like my mind had been able to expand in the space and deep silence, a feeling that stayed with me long after my return home to the city.
WHERE TO STAY
At Klein-Aus Vista, take your pick from rooms in the farmhouse-style Desert Horse Inn or for more privacy, stay in one of the three self-catering Eagle’s Nest Chalets – stone cottages built around granite boulders on a hillside with panoramic views. [www.klein-aus-vista.com]
Situated in the private NamibRand Nature Reserve, Wolwedans offers the choice of five luxury camps that make the most of the desert scenery: Dunes Lodge, with canvas tents that open onto private decks, Dunes Camp, with tents on wooden platforms on top of a 250-metre high sand dune, Boulders Camp, with just four tented bedrooms, and the exclusive and very private Private Camp and Mountain View suites, which sleep two and four people. [www.wolwedans.com]
Namib Sky Balloon Safaris offers hot air balloon flights over the desert from the northern end of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. The flight includes a champagne breakfast when you land. [balloon-safaris.com]
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Namibia is between autumn and spring – April and October – when the daytime temperature is pleasant (although nights can be very cold). The hottest months are November to February, when daytime temperatures in the desert can reach 50˚C.
Contact the Namibian consulate or embassy in your country to determine whether you need a visa. All travelers will need a passport with six months’ validity from the returning date of entry.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Qatar Airways connects Asian cities to Namibia’s capital Windhoek via Doha. Several airlines also connect Asian cities to Windhoek via Johannesburg. Alternatively, you can fly to Cape Town in South Africa and hire a car to drive to Namibia.
Unless you’re going on an organized tour, it’s essential that you have your own car in Namibia: distances are extremely long in this huge country. You don’t need a 4×4 to drive around Namibia (the roads are generally in great condition and 4×4-only routes are clearly marked), but your 2×4 car needs to have good ground clearance. Be sure to carry a spare tire and extra water in case of a breakdown.
FURTHER INFORMATION – www.namibiatourism.com.na