3 new lodges in Namibia with amazing stargazing, desert views and exceptional service
Space. Miles and miles of space. Locals seem to revel in Namibia’s utter emptiness, and they don’t hesitate to argue that on average there are only eight people per square mile there. This is exactly why I always fly back from my home in Johannesburg, where we have over 7,000 people per square mile.
I’ve been visiting Namibia for years, but lately – in part thanks to time spent in lockdown in South Africa – I’ve been drawn to the austere desert landscape of Sossusvlei. Part of the Namib-Naukluft Park, this wide swath of dunes and salt marshes is filled with a type of desert-adapted antelope called a gemsbok as well as other wildlife. (The famous, photogenic Deadvlei, with its bare trees and ocher dunes, is a short drive away.)
Accommodation in this part of the country has always been simple, but that has changed with the recent addition of two new lodges and the just completed renovation of a luxury camp. In December, shortly after the travel restrictions on entering Namibia were lifted, I decided to visit them.
The first property was a social distancing study with panache. Whisper of the desert (villa from $ 1,050) is a solitary one bedroom villa on top of a cliff above the sand. A sister resort, the 65-room Namib Desert Lodge, is a 15-minute drive away, but I felt perfectly lonely. As light filtered through the perforated windows in the structure’s curved weathered steel shell, circles danced across the wooden floors. I bounced between the outdoor pool and the indoor reading nook, filling my glass with South African sparkling wine from the en-suite bar. I left the wispy linen curtains open throughout my stay, content to drink in the endless views.
Gallery: A tourist from Tahoe has won the jackpot. But casinos are just another part of the Tahoe illusion. (SF gate)
Seventy miles south I checked in to Kwessi dunes (double from $ 1,075, all inclusive), inside the NamibRand Private Nature Reserve. This huge expanse abuts Namib-Naukluft Park, and guests have the option of embarking on adventures in either. I first opted for a quad bike ride through the private reserve, led by veteran Namibian guide Gert Tsaobeb. Along the way, he pointed out various animal tracks – gemsbok, hyena, leopard – before stopping for a break in the shade of towering rocks.
Wildlife has flourished in this seemingly uninhabitable expanse of desert, Tsaobeb told me, after a decades-long rewilding effort to convert what was once farmland to wilderness. Thanks to the absence of light pollution, NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of 18 certified International Dark Sky Reserves in the world and the only one in Africa. To enjoy it, each of the 12 solar-powered cabins at Kwessi Dunes has an outdoor âstar bedâ, where guests can sleep under a bright, sparkling sky.
Nearby, and just outside the national park, Little Kulala (double from $ 2,335) was the last stop of my weeklong visit. It was a fitting bookend for my tour: opened in 1996 by Wilderness Safaris, Little Kulala was one of the first luxury camps to put this destination on the map. Today, it is still managed by the pioneer outfitter, who recently renovated the interiors and stepped up efforts in the sustainability of the property. There are now 11 thatched roof huts powered by solar energy; all have plunge pools and other thoughtful extras, such as exercise equipment and an activity basket filled with adult coloring books.
The best reason to stay in Little Kulala, however, may be the exclusive access that Wilderness can arrange – not only to the reserve surrounding the lodge but also to Namib-Naukluft Park, through a private gate. This “backdoor” access means customers can get to major sites, like the towering Dune 45, earlier than others – and stay out later, too.
One evening, I left for the park with a guide, Akser Simeon, and watched the twilight spread colorful spices across the Namibian desert. As the sun sank below the horizon, the sand first became a soft saffron, then cumin, cinnamon, and finally the shade of pink peppercorns. We were, it seemed, the only two people in all of Deadvlei. Later, when we returned to the camp, the light show continued. Nestled in another starry bed – this one on the deck of my villa – I gazed at the glittery sky. Stars emerged, then constellations, and the universe expanded indefinitely.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title Jewels in the sand. Desert Whisper, Kwessi Dunes and Little Kulala provided support for the reporting of this story.