THESE MEMORABLE DESERT EXPERIENCES SHOWCASE THE ARRESTING BEAUTY OF NAMIBIA’S NAMIB DESERT…
Have you found your soul place yet? It’s that one dreamy destination you feel an inexplicably deep and indestructible connection with. A place that instantly uplifts your mood and recharges your soul’s batteries effortlessly.
Scattered pieces of the heart
I like to think we can have more than one soul place; after all, different places conjure different emotions. The more we travel, the more we open our hearts and minds to the unknown and, slowly but surely, little pieces of our heart get left behind, scattered amongst our beloved soul places, eagerly awaiting our return.
A large part of my heart will forever remain in the Namib Desert. My first visit was a fleeting yet magical 12-hour immersion in what — unbeknown to me then — would (much) later become one of my soul places. Not everyone has heard of Sossusvlei, but this spellbinding landscape in Namibia’s achingly beautiful Namib Desert is soul territory.
And, not surprisingly, each time I go back, this dramatic desertscape, with its deeply satisfying silence and ever-changing colour palette, manages to steal an even bigger chunk of my travel-addicted heart.
Blissfully remote. That’s the best way to describe it. The ultimate in desert luxury and sought-after seclusion, &BEYOND Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is delightfully situated, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. With the nearest town 145 km (90 miles) away, it is a soul-uplifting desert oasis and the perfect place for nature lovers and romantics seeking to escape everything and truly get back to nature.
Originally built in 1999, this grand old desert dame recently reopened after an extensive nine-month, USD 4.3 million makeover (with just over USD 600 000 spent on state-of-the-art solar and water treatment systems).
Let’s just say, if the design and architecture world were to produce a power couple so to speak, then the collaboration of brilliantly gifted architect, Jack Alexander, for the award-winning interior design and hospitality mavens, Fox Browne Creative, would definitely be it. They make a formidable team and — spoiler alert — they just completed a second project for us in South Africa too (watch this space for our next exciting launch).
Although this ‘refurb’ was more of a rebuild and complete design overhaul, the Fox Browne/Alexander vision was simple: chic, desert-inspired minimalism with careful attention paid to fundamental guest comfort and leaving a much lighter and more sustainable footprint on the sensitive desert environment.
The bold, you-have-to-see-it-in-person new look pays particular homage to the emotive landscape and the infinite celestial tapestry above. It was inspired entirely by the jaw-dropping beauty that surrounds the lodge. The use of rock, sand, stone, steel and floor-to-ceiling glass was two-fold: to enhance and blend into the natural surroundings, as well as to withstand the severity of the desert climate.
A scene-stealing panorama
Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is situated within &BEYOND Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve, a vast 12 715-hectare (31 419-acre) expanse of mind-blowingly scenic and untouched wilderness. The lodge’s ten stone and glass desert suites (and the two-bedroomed Star Dune family suite) follow the natural contours of the landscape. Sweeping curves, organic shapes and dramatic perforated steel shades mimic not only Mother Nature’s desert palette, but also the peaks, valleys, sun and stars of the ancient Namib Desert.
No matter where you stand, the picture perfect view is masterfully framed and begs to be admired. It is alarmingly distracting, in the best possible way. Gazing out at the seemingly desolate, almost post-apocalyptic surrounds, it’s as if you’re peering through a kaleidoscope in delayed slow motion. All day, every day, the rays of the sun and shadows from the clouds dance over the dusty terrain and undulating sand dunes causing them to continually change colour as the day progresses. Losing yourself to the expansive view is addictive; it’s like watching an impressionist painting come to life.
13 ‘you’ll-want-to-try-them-all’ desert adventures
A common question: what is there to actually do in the desert?! I’ve heard travellers confess that the desert isn’t on their ‘wanderlist’ and to me, these people are missing out on one of the most inspiring and enchanting places on the planet.
There’s no denying the heat, dust and harsh terrain. Some days the ‘breeze’ feels like a hairdryer on the hottest setting and other days there’s not even a hint of a breeze. On rare occurrences, it might even rain (yes, in the second driest desert on earth – click here to read about the unbelievable storm I witnessed there last month [Dec 2019]).
The magnificent &BEYOND Sossusvlei Desert Lodge sits in the middle of a larger-than-life sandbox. It is a veritable playground that will arrest you with its beauty and entice you outdoors to explore with the giddy exuberance of youth. This desert if full of life, you’ll be surprised.
You can do as much, or as little, as you please. Many of the adventures kick off early to avoid the midday heat, so your mornings can be energetic and your afternoons unapologetically idle. And the best part? This is the only lodge in our African portfolio where you can get out and explore on your own.
Upon arrival, once you’ve taken in every angle of that arresting view, Vernon Swanepoel (Head Guide and Experiences Manager) will sit with you to discuss the 13 choose your own (desert) adventures and help you plan your days accordingly. These adventures are led by specialist guides (and some of them you can do on your own), so you won’t have one ranger for the duration of your stay, you’ll get to meet, and learn from, a variety of enthusiastic experts.
1. Have a star dune all to yourself
The world-famous terracotta dunes of Sossusvlei are among the highest in the world and climbing them is a challenge that tops many a bucket list (see #3 below). Of course, being a national park, and the fact that you ascend the crests of these towering dunes in slow, single file, the crowds are unavoidable.
The great news is that &BEYOND Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve is the only private concession that features one of Namibia’s iconic star dunes. You can hike Long Dune’s winding tailbone of a crest all the way to the top without any other people in sight. A mighty star dune ALL to yourself … I cannot recommend this Big Dune Walk enough.
2. Search for the Sossusvlei Seven
The Namib Desert may not be home to Africa’s Big Five, but the absence of these dangerous creatures means you can roam freely on foot. One of my favourite desert explorations is the Living Dunes Experience. In a small group of no more than six people, you’ll head out into the toffee-coloured dunes on the brand new fleet of quadbikes.
It is important to note that this is not extreme sports style quadbiking, but rather a leisurely and unbelievably scenic ride on a carefully planned circuit that is rerouted often to lessen environmental impact. The quads will take you into the heart of the dunes, where you will get off periodically to explore the sandy wonderland on foot.
These dunes are teeming with desert-adapted wildlife and your guide will decipher the pitter-patter of tiny tracks in the sand. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some of the Sossusvlei Seven (a septet of well camouflaged little creatures that are endemic to the area).
The dune lark, FitzSimons’ burrowing skink, Grant’s golden mole, dancing white lady spider, southern harvester termite, barking gecko and Peringuey’s (or sidewinding) adder all call this part of the desert home, and so do chameleons, 200 types of beetles and our very own &BEYOND namesake, a rare little gecko called the Pachydactylus etultra (‘et’ meaning ‘and’; ‘ultra’ meaning ‘beyond’).
3. Glide down the side of Big Daddy into a Forest frozen in time
The enormous Namib Sand Sea is the largest dune field in sub-Saharan Africa and home to the world-famous Big Daddy sand dune, among countless others. You certainly won’t be the only people on the dunes during your Sossusvlei Excursion, but the steep and steady (roughly) 45-minute climb to the top of Big Daddy will reward you with the most extraordinarily humbling 360°view of forever-shifting sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
Getting down is the fun part. Run, skip, slide or roll down the 350 m slope with reckless abandon. Try deliberately dragging your feet through the sand and listen to the rhythmic hum of it moving over your feet.
At the foot of Big Daddy is the hauntingly beautiful Deadvlei, or ‘dead marsh’. Thousands of years ago, the Tsauchab River flooded, creating temporary pools of water that encouraged the growth of these camel thorn trees. Centuries later, an unforgiving drought killed the trees and the relentless hot sun scorched them black. It is a picture perfect, yet strangely spooky, graveyard of eerie 900-year old tree skeletons that poke out from the cracked white clay pan.
4. Decipher ancient San rock art on the inside of a cave
For the Desert People Experience, you can either walk to the nearby cave, or hop on an e-bike for a gently assisted cycle along a gravel path. From the path, it’s a quick 60 m (197 ft) climb to the cave where you can try your hand at finding the 200-year old rock paintings.
Your specialist guide will reveal other tools and relics discovered at this heritage site, from flattened grinding stones to intricate ostrich egg beads. Then you can either amble back to the lodge, or carry on with the e-bikes along the 11 km (6.8 mile) or 19 km (11.8 mile) cycling trail, depending on your energy levels.
5. Enjoy a leisurely desert drive and toast the sunset on the dunes
In every desert suite, you’ll find a pair of Swarovski binoculars for complimentary use during your stay. Bring them on this evening desert drive to scan for desert-adapted wildlife amidst the spectacular desert backdrop. The more common residents you’ll come across include oryx, ostrich, plains and Hartmann’s mountain zebra, springbok and jackal.
You may even get lucky and catch a fleeting glimpse of the far more elusive aardwolf, Cape fox or leopard. Stop en route for an unforgettable sundowner stop, complete with canapés, in the middle of the russet dunes as the setting sun casts its golden shadow.
6. Observe the desert geology and learn how this landscape was formed
Just setting foot on what is celebrated as the world’s oldest living desert is a bucket list moment in itself. Formed an estimated 55 to 80 million years ago (depending on which scientific experts you ask), the mighty Namib Desert is the oldest continuous coastal desert on the planet. Its wild, rugged terrain remains unchanged after all this time. It is a land that time forgot — a place where time stands still — and it will humble you.
The Desert Rock Experience can be enjoyed on foot or vehicle. A specialist guide with a passion for the area’s fascinating rock formations and desert ecology will reveal the mystery of how this delicate, everlasting landscape was formed.
7. Float peacefully over the desert in a hot air balloon
You’ll awake before dawn and drive to the nearby launch site just in time for a pre-sunrise lift-off. As the sun starts to warm the horizon, you’ll glide peacefully in a hot air balloon over a landscape that has stood the test of time. Jagged mountain peaks jut out from the endless ‘sea’ of sand and the scene is staggering.
While this is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is important to note that there could be up to 16 guests on a balloon flight. The basket is divided into sections, each taking two guests.
As you quietly absorb the 360° view of the ethereal desert from above, the balloon will rotate giving you different vantage points and photo opportunities. Eventually, the balloon will land safely amidst the amber dunes where a customary champagne toast and hearty picnic breakfast awaits.
8. Soar over the desert wonderland in a helicopter
This was exhilarating. Having done the balloon adventure on a previous visit, I jumped at the chance to fly over the desert in a heli (it is a far more exclusive experience for a maximum of five guests, who all enjoy a window seat). While the balloon does give a peaceful, romantic view, it really is guided by the wind and isn’t able to venture great distances.
With the scenic helicopter flight, you get the most extraordinary view of the varying landscapes (and you can opt to have the doors taken off for an uninterrupted view – you’re strapped in, just don’t drop your phone). You’ll hover over the rocky mountain tops, petrified dunes and undulating star dunes, and some expert low-level flying will give you a clear view of the mysterious fairy circles in all their puzzling glory.
You can even opt for a lengthier and breathtakingly scenic flip over the coastal dunes where they eventually meet the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean. That particular flight remains high on my ‘wanderlist’ (one must always have a reason to return to their soul place).
9. Pedal your way through this land before time
Cycling has never been my forte, but the shiny new specialised e-bikes at &BEYOND Sossusvlei Desert Lodge are so much fun. Best described as ‘assisted cycling’, these bikes are battery-powered and give an extra throttle to get you up and over the tough inclines.
There are three speed settings, depending on how much of a boost you actually need, and there are two trails of varying lengths (11 km / 6.8 miles or 19 km / 11.8 miles). If you’re a bit nervous using the e-bikes at first, you can always head out with one of the specialist guides; however, the bikes are there for anyone to use and it’s quite freeing to venture out on your own to work off some of that dreaded ‘lodge podge’.
10. Hike out to a quiet spot and absorb the silence
Given that this is a remote property on a sprawling, private concession, you can explore on your own and at your own leisure. The hike and bike adventures can be combined or enjoyed separately. You can cycle out nearly 20 km into the dusty distance and get off your bike to wander around on foot at any given stage.
The lodge itself is a peaceful oasis, but taking the opportunity to venture out on the hiking or biking trails (which vary from 2.2 km / 1.4 miles to 19 km / 11.8 miles) is well worth it. Enjoy the quiet solitude and allow yourself to just sit in the stillness. Places as quiet and still as this are few and far between these days. And don’t worry, you’ll be supplied with a handheld radio just in case you get lost or need assistance.
11. Retreat to the spa for some pampering
After an energetic morning spent traipsing over dunes, crossing the finish line of the bike trails, or working up a sweat in the sunrise-view gym (which includes a treadmill, rowing machine, stationary bike and free weights), treat yourself to a leisurely lunch and chilled glass of wine.
Then take a quiet moment to yourself and indulge in a therapeutic spa treatment. The sunset-facing wellness centre offers both a treatment room with a private spa-bath and a separate wet-room spa for the ultimate in desert indulgence.
12. Gaze up in wonder at the star-studded galaxy above
Without a doubt, the starriest, most dramatic night sky I have ever seen is at &BEYOND Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. This private desert concession neighbours the pristine NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is the continent’s only International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR).
The NamibRand also became the world’s first IDSR to be awarded Gold Tier status, meaning it has exceptionally little to no impact from artificial light. Situated 145 km (90 miles) from civilisation, this untouched landscape is free from light pollution and boasts one of the darkest skies ever measured.
A resident astronomer is on hand throughout the night in the lodge’s state-of-the-art observatory. Using a Meade LX200R 12-inch telescope (one of the largest in the southern hemisphere), the astronomer will regale you with facts and stories about the enchanting night sky. And if you’re still feeling starstruck, you can lull yourself to sleep counting innumerable stars through the enormous retractable skylight above your bed.
13. Or … do nothing at all
With so much adventure right on your doorstep, one mustn’t forget to factor in an indulgent amount of guilt-free lazing around your desert suite. These luxurious spaces were designed with guest comfort in mind and you will absolutely want to hide away in your room, or next to your private pool, just appreciating the silence and scenery.
The (not-so-mini) personal bar is suitably stocked with full-size bottles of local Namibian gins and whiskeys, not to mention the craft beer and sparkling wine in the fridge and the ice-cold vodka and Jägermeister in your freezer. There’s homemade ice cream and freshly baked biscuits, and of course a plunger and Nespresso machine for those coffeemergencies.
Fresh, wholesome meals can also be discreetly delivered to your suite via the unobtrusive and oh-so convenient butler hatch. So you truly can, and should, treat this luxury space as the private desert oasis and tranquil refuge that it was intended to be.
By Claire Trickett
Post courtesy of AndBeyond