Ever had one of those holidays where the travel stars just seemed to miraculously align? The one where the weather put on its best possible show, you met the most charming people that you immediately clicked with, you witnessed unimaginable and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, and returned home with a happy heart and recharged soul?
I am currently on one such ‘soul adventure’ at the recently rebuilt and extraordinarily breathtaking &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia’s picture-perfect Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve. Situated within the world’s oldest living desert — the vast and ethereal Namib Desert — this seemingly desolate private concession boasts just over 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of untouched desert beauty and is, quite surprisingly, teeming with life.
A desert masterpiece
I’ve spent most of my career writing about many of the world’s most scenic, jaw-dropping destinations, but Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is next level (and then some). Mother Nature’s paintbrush made perfect use of every possible inch of this natural canvas, and no matter the vantage point, everywhere you look, the lodge’s sensational backdrop will stop you dead in your tracks. Every time.
Admittedly I keep getting distracted by the ever-changing colours of this soothing desert palate and often catch myself just staring out aimlessly into the dry, dusty, yet captivatingly colourful abyss. And right now, as I tap away at the keyboard, the weather gods and the travel stars are aligning perfectly (and ever-so unexpectedly) and one of those priceless travel moments I just referred to is presently unfolding.
A storm to remember
As I sit blissfully cocooned in desert villa #1, just beyond the immaculate floor-to-ceiling glass windows that perfectly frame Mother Nature’s desert masterpiece, the heavens have officially opened. And boy, what a grand spectacle they’re putting on.
At around 15h00 this afternoon, the impossibly blue and cloudless sky was quickly invaded by dark, ominous clouds. The wind picked up gale force speed and began to howl and soon the sky (and the tranquil view) I had just been photographing was engulfed and deep rumbles of moody thunder lingered loudly in the distance.
One lone, but determined, dust devil swept haphazardly across the open desert plain. This was the final warning bell alerting us that the desert storm was officially upon us. Seconds later, sheets upon horizontal sheets of much-needed rain pelted down on the thirsty desertscape for, not one, but three (!) hours. You could almost feel the desert heave a sigh of grateful relief.
When I landed in the desert last week, I actually chuckled when I saw the rain gauge at the lodge’s private airstrip. It was 42°C, the summer breeze felt like a hairdryer permanently stuck on the hottest setting, and rain was the furthest possible thing from my mind. But that rain gauge got a proper workout today. An astounding 34 mm of glorious rain brought palpable respite to the desert this afternoon.
The Namib Desert is the oldest and second driest desert in the world (after Chile’s Atacama Desert) and it has been seven years since Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve has experienced a storm of this magnitude and precipitation of this amplitude. It was an experience I’ll never forget and likely something I’ll never witness again.
And although Sossusvlei’s world-famous and impossibly starry night sky will be covered with clouds tonight, today was a day for the memory bank. It does seem rather poetic that my travel stars aligned in one of the most dramatic night sky destinations in the world. So, in honour of today’s truly unforgettable desert display, here is a list of must-see night skies around the world.
1. Namib Desert, Namibia
Without a doubt, the starriest, most dramatic night sky I have ever seen is at the luxuriously remote and undeniably romantic &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. This private desert concession neighbours the pristine NamibRand Nature Reserve, which was declared Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) in 2013.
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. With the nearest town 145 km (90 miles) away, this untouched landscape is free from light pollution and boasts one of the darkest skies ever measured.
Be sure to pop into the lodge’s state-of-the-art observatory where a resident astronomer is on hand all night to reveal the enchanting night sky through a Meade LX200R 12-inch telescope, one of the largest in the southern hemisphere. And if you’re still feeling starstruck, you can lull yourself to sleep counting innumerable stars through the enormous skylight above your bed.
2. Atacama Desert, Chile
An astronomer’s paradise, the vast Atacama Desert in Chile boasts a jaw-dropping desertscape of ragged, rocky mountains and ravines that are interspersed by a striking white salt pan and surrounded by towering volcanoes and an infinite skyline.
Hailed the world’s driest desert, the immense Atacama certainly lives up to its title, with some areas registering not even a single raindrop in over 150 years. Sitting at an impressive altitude of 3 500 m (11 480 ft), coupled with its arid atmosphere, this dramatic and desolate desert boasts clear, unpolluted skies that allow for the most incredible stargazing.
3. Ladakh, India
Sitting at an altitude of 3 050 m (10 000 ft), the jagged mountains, crystal-clear lakes, meandering rivers and picture-perfect skies of Ladakh make it one of the best places in India, not only for trekking, wildlife viewing and cultural pilgrimages, but also for stargazing.
This is big sky country and, just like the Atacama Desert, the altitude, aridity and lack of air pollution in Ladakh enable the vast kaleidoscope of glittering stars to shine brightly as far as the eye can see.
Ladakh is also home to the mysterious snow leopard, which is without a doubt one of the most sought-after holy grails of wildlife viewing. When the travel stars align, guests on our Snow Leopard Expedition are lucky enough to witness the enchanting constellations and the elusive predator on one truly unforgettable adventure.
4. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
As soon as you venture away from the glaring city lights and deep into the wilderness, the pollution obviously clears and the stars shine infinitely brighter. Kenya’s Masai Mara is one such twinkling haven. And although the Mara’s endless, uninterrupted skyline may not be synonymous with the world’s finest stargazing per se, its distance from the city centres, combined with its proximity to the equator, gives it a unique perspective on the constellations above.
I got chatting to “Uncle Doug”, the friendliest and most contagiously passionate astronomer at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge and he explained, “If you observe the sky from countries on or near the equator, over the course of a year you will be able to see all the stars visible from earth. One’s location on the planet constrains how much of the sky we can actually see.”
Stargazers in the northern hemisphere will therefore never be able to view the Southern Cross, while those in the southern hemisphere won’t be able to see Ursa Major (the Big Bear). However, East Africa’s proximity to the equator makes it one of the best, most underrated, locations for a telescope.
So, as you gear up for the festive season, take a moment to gaze beyond that star atop your Christmas tree and up to the celestial stars above. It’s time to slow down, escape the confines of your daily routine, and ponder our place in this wondrous universe.