What can I say. I had absolutely no idea it would be so beautiful. Yes, I was right about expecting to see a whole lot of rocky desert soon after touching down in its capital of Windhoek.
The morning after our first night at the Utopia Hotel we were met by a representative from Ultimate Safaris, basically checking us in and giving us the run-down on the 4×4 we were about to self drive around the country.
Yep, self drive through the Namibian desert. A part of me was a little concerned for our safety; a feeling born purely out of ignorance.
“Is it safe?” was a question we were constantly asked before leaving Sydney. To be honest, I wasn’t sure, but we were assured it was – and is.
The organisation we dealt with tailored an itinerary that covered so much, and more. Down to giving us a spiral-bound book with very detailed directions and suggestions on where we may want to do a side-trip, to top up on water, see a geological attraction etc.
Everything was booked, everything was paid for, we were over-stocked with massive bottles of drinking water and boxes of rusks – so let’s hit the gravel road!
It was a 5-or-so hour drive from Windhoek to our first overnighter – Little Kulala. A drive that was hilly and relatively green, progressing to more rocky, flat and absolutely desolate landscape. There’s not a whole lot out there to stop and look at – perhaps a few baboons by the road, or the Spreetshoogte Pass (above) where we pulled over to stretch the legs, get some fresh air and take in the near-barren beauty.
That gravel road just disappeared into the horizon, and when we got to it, it kept on going. Towns were far and few between. Not towns as we know them, mind you, as many of them consisted of a few farm-style houses in the middle of nowhere.
And then we arrived at our destination.
The driveway for Little Kulala stretches for something like 10 kilometres, so we eventually got there, crawling at a requested 15 km/hr. Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
Before we could even properly take in the surroundings we were offered lunch out on the open deck, despite our rather late mid-afternoon arrival. Just look at that view!
This came after we walked – me with my mouth wide open in awe – from reception through to the outside deck. Um, can I move in?
Lunch was light and leisurely – a bit of vino and a bunch of dishes like crumbed kingklip, lentil & chickpea salad, vegetable & pesto pasta; finished with chocolate ice cream. And you’ve got to love that all meals, non-alcoholic drinks and house wines are included in the room rate.
This luxurious desert retreat lies in the private 37,000 hectare Kulala Wilderness Reserve. A raw and utterly beautiful landscape that clearly inspired the design of the lounge, dining and entertainment areas. Earthy, natural textures, artefacts, raw wood and a floor that mimics the white clay pans of Sossusvlei.
11 climate-controlled “kulalas” are aligned to take in the dramatic views of the dry riverbed on which they’re built; views all the way to Sossusvlei’s towering red dunes. Accessed via a short walk through sand and down private paths, the thatched villas are built on wooden platforms slightly elevated above the ground; something that helps keep them cool with natural airflow. Air conditioning takes care of the rest.
A private plunge pool takes care of cooling down during the day, making you feel like you’re in some surprisingly-cold, extravagant desert waterhole. Inside, it’s a combined lounge and bedroom with an ensuite at the rear – complete with another shower in an outside courtyard.
Being in the middle of the desert means the stars are out in full force, thanks to no light pollution – and just incase you want a romantic jig under the stars, there’s a comfy bed up on your private roof deck.
A guided walk was one of the first activities we did, a little way out along the dry riverbed – learning about the plants and desert-adapted wildlife that call this place home. Before too long we were identifying animal prints in the sand like pros.
Sunsets and sundowners are very much the norm – a platter of nibbles, glass of whatever-you-feel-like and a natural desert light show as the landscape colours transform before your eyes.
Dinner is generally served on the deck and under the desert sky, but should the wind pick up or if you feel like it, a table will be set up inside for your absolute comfort.
The dinner menu is a la carte and changes every day – a choice of two starters, four mains, some vegetables and choice of two desserts. Twice baked cheese soufflé with apple & walnut – spicy fish cakes with pineapple & mango salad – chicken with apples and brandy-cider-thyme cream – grilled gemsbok fillet with root vegetable mash.
Desserts are apple tart with ice cream – black forest mille-feuille – cheese selection. Just an example of what tasty treats we enjoyed.
Another activity that’s included in the room rate is a pre-dawn wake-up call. Doesn’t sound like fun but it does get better.
Little Kulala has its own access gate to the Namib Naukluft National Park, meaning you can get into the park before many other people that come from other camps. The guided drive takes you into the park for some spectacular sunrise viewing of some of the worlds highest sand dunes.
As the sun rises in the sky the colours and contrasts in the landscape are impressive, to say the least. We were here to go for a little walk, and early morning is the best and safest time to do it; before the days heat kicks in.
Big Daddy is on the agenda – the tallest dune in Sossusvlei peaking at 325 metres. Think of it as being the approximate height of a ninety storey building, and we were about to walk up it.
To be perfectly honest it was exhilarating, and coupled with the fact I wanted to throw up my burning lungs every five minutes, it was well worth the effort. The other half was at the top 10 minutes before me. Typical. My morning stroll took me exactly 47 minutes.
The photo above was taken from about three-quarters up, and if you look carefully you can see a tiny speck on the crest just past the second curve of the dune. That’s a person – which gives you an idea on the scale of these dunes.
To the left of the dune is Dead Vlei, a clay pan that fills with water after rare heavy rainfall. It’s dotted with dead camelthorn trees that stand around 7 metres tall (23 feet) – which you can see in the above photo and a couple of the following ones.
The photo below is taken from the top of Big Daddy. Sand as far as the eyes can see.
The most strenuous part is walking up Big Daddy; the easy part is going down. Not the way you came up, though. It’s straight down the side towards Dead Vlei – shoes full of powdery sand and the sound of squeaking granules as you stride gleefully down the slope.
Now that was fun!
It may all look barren and lifeless, but there’s the occasional burst of colour from the desert-adapted flora. A yellow flower poking out of red sand, or the !nara – a leafless plant that’s endemic to Namibia. It has a spiky melon that has two uses. Edible seeds and a sweet, ripe pulp that’s made into fruit leather after being boiled.
This was the first time I’d heard the Khoisan – or click – language spoken. The ! in a word represents a click sound, something I struggled to get my tongue around in conjunction with a word. Hearing our guide speak it with another guide was fascinating!
Our two nights in and around Little Kulala were incredible. Relaxing, energising, educational and fascinating.
After filling up on a sumptuous breakfast and quick nosey around the little vegetable and herb garden at the back of the lodge, it was time to pack up and hit those gravel roads again.
Disclaimer – all expenses were paid for personally