Soul Quench

A longing to lose yourself in wide open spaces and listen carefully to the deafening silence is a good reason to visit &Beyond’s remote, off-the-grid Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in the Namib Desert.

Namibia is not a conventional safari because it’s not about ticking off species on twice-daily game drives. It’s more about recalibrating, and reconnecting with nature in its most severe, unforgiving form – the world’s oldest living desert.

Despite its parched beauty, the Namib is surprisingly soul-quenching. It has a lot to do with the calming effect of the silence. Getting your head around the fact that the dunes in front of you are four-million years old is a lot easier when you’ve eased into a low-slung chair in an air-conditioned suite behind a wall of glass.

Positioned at the very edge of the desert, &Beyond’s new-generation lodge is so finely attuned to its natural surroundings that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re looking at this remarkable landscape or are part of it. Whether lying in bed, taking a shower or sitting down to dinner, outside feels like inside – and vice versa.

Nothing is as it seems. Networks of dry riverbeds crisscross the land, yet on arrival you discover that the camp sits on top of the biggest aquifer in the region. The desert’s subtle shifts of light and shadow are always experienced from a place of deep comfort, the views perfectly framed. Sunrise and sunset are reflected in
the private swimming pools that are the most decadent aspect of each guest suite. Deliciously deep, their water is always cool – even on the hottest of days.

Built on the existing footprint of the original camp, the new Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is a sexier, more sustainable version of its former self. Lines, forms, colours and textures from the landscape were incorporated into every aspect of the design by architect Jack Alexander, who collaborated closely with safari camp specialists Fox Browne Creative. Minimising the human impact on this sensitive environment was key. Despite their generous scale and those deep, deep swimming pools, the guest suites are self-sufficient, solar-powered retreats. Each one generates enough energy to run its own water-harvesting and recycling systems, as well as photovoltaic power generation to drive everything from the air-con to the pool pump. Drinking water is purified and bottled on site in recyclable glass bottles. Cleaning products and guest amenities are all biodegradable. Even the e-bikes, for exploring the trails marked out on the gravel plains between the lodge and the mountains, are solar-charged.

&Beyond’s private concession encompasses almost 13  000 hectares of “nothingness”, but once you get up close and become accustomed to the gradations of colour in the sand and grit, the smallest signs of life – and there are plenty – are humbling in their tenacity. Guests have access to far more space, though, as the concession borders the NamibRand Nature Reserve. With almost zero light pollution, this is one of the best dark-sky locations in the southern hemisphere (second only to the Atacama Desert), and in 2013 it was declared Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve.

The food at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is delicious, but you’ll find yourself rushing through dinner so that you can spend the balance of the evening in the observatory with a resident astronomer like Doug McCarty. Like many of the astronomers who spend a few months of the year working at the lodge, Doug is a retired professor, and so enthusiastic about showing you the moon, Venus and Jupiter and other highlights of the night sky, it’s as
if he is peering through the impressive Meade LX200R telescope for the first time. Later, the truly starstruck can fall asleep counting stars through a strategically positioned skylight above their bed.

All the activities offered by &Beyond, including the only off-property excursion to the iconic Sossusvlei dunes, have been carefully thought through, taking into consideration the extreme temperatures, and the optimal time of day and angle of the sun for taking the best photographs. Quad biking is not just about tearing up and over the dunes: there is time to stop for refreshments and follow the tracks of beetles, geckos, the endemic golden mole and, if your nerves can stand it, a sidewinder adder. Then there is the exhilaration of powering across the open plains on an e-bike. Biking is less strenuous than hiking the 10km to the base of the mountains, unless you set out at first light. You can choose to go it alone or take along a guide on all the clearly mapped-out biking and hiking trails close to the lodge. One trail leads you into a cave, where rock art and stone tools illustrate your guide’s fascinating stories about the desert’s earliest inhabitants, the Bushmen.

If there was ever a time and a place to splurge on a helicopter flip, soaring over Sossusvlei’s undulating dune fields to appreciate the chiselling and sharpening by wind erosion over millennia is absolutely worth it. To do this before kicking off your shoes and sinking your toes into the sand on top of Big Daddy, the tallest dune at Sossusvlei, after a 325-metre walk, is one of those bucket-list items that completely lives up to the hype. It is worth the pre-dawn wake-up call to enter the national park at sunrise to be the first up, before anybody else arrives, and to beat the heat. In fact, once you’re back home, up to 9  000km away, you might just want to start walking, like the hero in The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and keep going until you get back there, just to feel the same sense of freedom and childlike “top of creation” joy.