by Emma Love, The Telegraph, January 3, 2020
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Namib Desert is out-of-this-world extraordinary. Before arriving I already know the basic facts: formed around 55 to 80 million years ago, it’s thought to be our oldest desert, the second driest on the planet, and has the highest dunes anywhere.
Yet in reality, when faced with the buttermilk yellow sand and gravel plains, dry river beds marked with wild greenhair trees, jagged granite and grey limestone hills, and rippled dunes that seem to shift from rich terracotta to salmon pink in the constantly changing light (one minute reminiscent of a Hockney painting, the next a Farrow & Ball colour chart), the drama of this vast landscape is still hard to compute. And it doesn’t get any less mind-bending during the few days I spend at the revamped &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, which is leading the way on a slew of new openings in the south of the country.
The 20-year-old property, which is set on a private 15-hectare concession, has been completely refreshed by up-and-coming Johannesburg-based architect Jack Alexander and long-established design agency Fox Browne Creative. From the front, the extended low-level main space has floor-to-ceiling glass on three sides and deliberately rusted geometric steel shades perched atop the flat roof with a laser-cut pattern that mirrors the stars; from the back, curving stone walls conjure up the notion of Roman ruins. “It is very much a building of two sides; beautiful rocks juxtaposed with a modernist glass box,” explains Alexander on the phone after my stay. “The overriding idea is to connect guests to the environment and give them the experience of being immersed in the desert.”
Inside, the open plan living and dining areas are the epitome of relaxed, unpretentious elegance, all natural linen sofas and cushions with accents of hand embroidered welwitschia plants, tree-trunk tables with raffia-backed chairs, oversized ceramic urns and a straw floor light based on the nests of sociable weaver birds. There’s also a telescope for a close-up look at the springbok, oryx, ostrich and zebra that drink from the waterhole each day. In the middle, a faceted timber-clad bar with a marble counter is a natural meeting point; upstairs, there’s a newly added spa treatment room and gym. “The inspiration for the interiors was the desert,” says Chris Brown, co-founder of Fox Browne Creative – “that moonscape, the geometric rocks, the dunes… It couldn’t be anything else.”
The 10 sleek, stand-alone suites and new two-bedroom Star Dune suite (ideal for families) – all designed to be entirely solar-powered – work on the same architectural principle. Each one has a glass wall with sliding doors that open on to a pool terrace, while above the bed the skylight can be left open for middle-of-the-night stargazing.
Aside from the clever design details – the steel and rope chair that’s perfectly angled for an afternoon snooze, the geometric bathroom vanity, the globe bedside lights that reflect the moon – it’s the extra touches that stand out: the practical, labelled light switches; the wooden hatch where a wake-up call cappuccino is discreetly delivered; the handcrafted Namibian gin and homemade chocolate ice cream in the all-inclusive mini bar; and the paint set and desktop easel that encourage guests to channel their inner artist and pick up a brush to capture the other-worldly view.
To try and get more of a handle on what’s in front of me, I take a helicopter ride west over the Namib-Naukluft National Park (much like a traditional safari, all activities take place early morning and late afternoon when it’s coolest). As we fly over the Sossusvlei salt and clay pan and the towering dunes that surround it, sharp sculptural ridges whipped into shape by the winds peak and curve, stretching far into the distance. Directly below, oryx footprints plot a temporary trail across the pristine sand. Other thrilling options include e-biking on gravel paths to caves where the faint markings of animal paintings by San Bushmen can still be seen; quad biking a designated dune circuit; and afternoon game drives through Zebra Plains, spotting harems of skittish mountain zebra (identified by their white bellies and solid stripes) before stopping for a champagne sundowner and a biltong snack.
Best of all, though, is the morning hike to the top of Big Daddy, which at 1,066ft is the tallest dune in the area. It takes an hour of slow but steady climbing, single file, up the steep ridge to the top, before – how liberating – half running, half bouncing down the slope on the other side, making the sand squeak as my feet skimmed the surface. At the bottom is Deadvlei, a white clay pan dotted with 900-year-old skeletons of camel thorn trees that seem almost eerie when set against a backdrop of clear blue sky and rust-red dunes. Afterwards, a breakfast of scrambled eggs and boerewors sausages in a shady spot, cooked up by my guide, feels like a just reward.
Evenings at the lodge are either spent lingering over supper (one night it might be a traditional braai; another, a kingclip and prawn curry) or at the observatory. Because the property borders the NamibRand Nature Reserve (Africa’s only International Dark Sky Reserve) and the nearest town, Maltahohe, is 87 miles away, there is virtually no light pollution and the inky sky is densely packed with stars.
Within half an hour of looking up with just the naked eye, I see several shooting stars and two Magellanic clouds (orbiting galaxies). I also take the opportunity to peer through a telescope at the craters of the piercingly bright moon.
“It’s the location that’s so special,” says Doug McCarty, a visiting astronomer from Oregon. “With the centre of the Milky Way galaxy high in the sky and two of the most amazing star clusters, there’s no place on the planet like the southern hemisphere.” He encourages me to keep focusing until I eventually spot the just-visible hazy rings of Saturn through the lens. “This is truly a mind expanding place to be,” he concludes. I couldn’t agree more.
Audley Travel (01993 838525) offers tailor-made trips to Namibia. A 10-day self-drive holiday costs from £4,380pp (based on two sharing) and includes three nights at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge on a fully inclusive basis as well as one night in Windhoek, two nights in Swakopmund and two nights at Erongo Mountains (all on a B&B basis). Also included are flights, transfers, car hire, accommodation and some excursions.