Our Editor Claire Trickett shares her 15 reasons why &Beyond Sossusvlei belongs on your bucket list… by Claire Trickett21st August 2018
What visions come to mind when you think of the desert? Would you go on holiday there? Would you believe me if I said that the Namib Desert, or more specifically Sossusvlei, belongs at the top of your bucket list? It absolutely does, without a doubt. One of the oldest and most pristine and magnificently rugged landscapes on earth, the mind-blowing beauty of the Namib Desert has to be seen to be believed.
When we think of the desert, most of us envision a stark, desolate, dry and harsh environment, right? Not the ideal holiday destination. The words often used to describe it, from bleak and barren, to boring (!) and devoid of life, couldn’t be further from the truth. The desert is an incredible place to explore, unwind, relax and reconnect with your inner child.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to three of the most contrasting and enviable landscapes in Africa. From the tropical, turquoise waters of Mozambique to the vast, tree-dotted plains of Kenya’s Masai Mara to the captivatingly beautiful dunes of Sossusvlei in Namibia’s Namib Desert … it was a journey like no other and I count my lucky stars to be able to do what I do and call it ‘work’.
I have ‘worked’ at &Beyond for 12 years now and this was my first time (finally) visiting &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. It blew me away. I can honestly, and rather sheepishly, admit that no words I have ever written about this lodge have truly done it justice. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The landscape is as astounding as it is limitless. It is a place where time really does stand still and your soul is enriched, not only by the scenery and solitude, but also by the soul-satisfying peace and quiet. Oh, and the stars. It almost feels surreal, gazing up at the trillion twinkling lights that hover so close you feel like you can almost reach out and touch them.
One day in the desert is not enough. I was there for three and certainly left wanting more. It is an enchanting playground for the young and young at heart, with the perfect mix of addictive adrenaline and soulful solitude. At &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge you really do experience adventure (or guilt-free relaxation should you prefer) by day and unashamed romance by night.
1. Marvel at the scenery that has to be seen to believed
This is mother nature’s masterpiece. Like a real-life Renoir painting unfolding right before your eyes, the desertscape is breathtaking. Each of the ten luxury stone and glass desert villas boasts a 180° panoramic view that’ll stop you in your tracks. The seemingly desolate and rocky, open terrain, which is cradled by rugged mountains and dotted by curious rock formations, stretches far out into the distance where it eventually meets those towering, world-famous terracotta dunes. The landscape is blissfully remote, almost moon or Mars-like, and the stark contrasts blend together harmoniously creating what can only be described as an uninterrupted impressionist painting.
Like looking through a revolving kaleidoscope, the colours are forever changing as the sun casts light and shadow on the earth below, so be sure to watch the horizon at different times of the day to appreciate its enduring beauty. The dusty, golden brown terrain is interspersed with slate-coloured rocks and stark green and white tufts of dune grasses. At dusk, the rusty, ochre coloured dunes fade from a rich toffee or caramel hue to a deeper brown and the mountains slowly turn dusty rose and purple as the sun gently sets and the moon (and countless stars) start to emerge.
2. Stand in one of the oldest landscapes on the planet
Just setting foot on what is hailed the world’s oldest living desert is a bucket list item in itself. Formed a mind-boggling 55 million years ago, the mighty Namib Desert is in fact the oldest desert on the planet. Its wild, rugged splendour remains unchanged after all this time. It is the land that time forgot … a place where time stands still and timeless, captivating beauty surrounds you at all times.
3. Discover life (and plenty of it) in the desert
One would expect the oldest desert on earth to be completely barren and devoid of life, but the exquisite Namib Desert is alive and full of life. It all comes down to the life-giving winds: the easterly wind carries dust and debris that feeds the insects and reptiles; while the westerly wind brings much-needed moisture to the land.
Everywhere you look, this desert is bursting with activity. Just look around you and you’ll see it is teeming with curious creatures and desert-adapted plants. From the photogenic quiver trees in bright yellow bloom and the fascinatingly bizarre Welwitschia plant that lives up to 1,500 years or the extremely poisonous false ink cap mushrooms, the miraculous desert flora (and fauna) has cleverly adapted in order to thrive in the harsh conditions.
Watch each day as the striking oryx make their way to the watering hole in front of the lodge to slake their thirst. Pick up your binos at any given time to do some birdwatching, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the endemic dune lark. You’ll see springbok, ostrich, jackal and giraffe … we even saw an aardwolf, which had been on my wildlife bucket list forever! But it’s the small wonders of Sossusvlei that are the scene-stealers. I went on a very informative dune adventure with Boniface, the friendliest, most enthusiastic, charming and knowledgeable ranger and he quietly introduced me to some of the unexpected creatures that inhabit the dunes.
Did you know that there are seven endemic species in the Sossusvlei 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 (!) different types of beetles and our very own &Beyond namesake, a tiny and rare little gecko called the Pachydactylus etultra (‘et’ meaning ‘and’; ‘ultra’ meaning ‘beyond’). This handsome little fella was discovered at the lodge back in 2006 by (then) resident astronomer Miles Paul. Renowned reptile taxonomist and Curator of Herpetology at Bayworld in Nelson Mandela Bay, Professor Bill Branch, was called in for his expertise and five years later our little &Beyond gecko was officially published in the Harvard Journal (images courtesy of Miles Paul and Bill Branch).
Boniface, the Desert Whisperer, knows this area like the palm of his hand. As if by magic, he can follow the faintest, tiniest insect tracks in the ever-shifting sands and pinpoint exactly where a tiny Grant’s golden mole is burrowing or a dancing white lady spider is spinning its underground web. A self-confessed arachnophobe, I kept my distance from this eight-legged, eight-eyed (!) creature, and it was the undeniably cute Grant’s golden mole, rather, that stole my heart.
4. Float over the dunes at sunrise
If you want to ponder how insignificant we really are, then hop into a hot air balloon and quietly absorb the unparalleled 360° view of eternal beauty that is the Namib Desert. Awake just before dawn and venture out to the launch site before sunrise, then float up peacefully into the sky as the sun peeks over the horizon. Get a bird’s eye view of the jagged mountain tops that emerge from shifting dunes and soar over a landscape that remains unchanged for millions of years.
After a gentle landing amidst the amber dunes, as is customary with any balloon flight, you’ll enjoy a champagne toast, followed by a hearty breakfast. We’re talking fresh bread, buttery croissants, pancakes, fruit skewers, smoked salmon, a selection of cheeses and of course some piping hot coffee to get your day started. Though I must admit, not much can really top a morning like that – it was one of the most incredible, soul-enriching and humbling experiences and I cannot recommend it enough.
5. Conquer some of the world’s highest dunes
The Namib Desert boasts some of the world’s highest sand dunes, some of them reaching nearly 400 metres in height. Surrounded by countless dunes of differing heights, you really can take your pick, however most people flock to the world-famous Big Daddy and Dune 45. Whether you’re six years old or sixty, you can choose to climb the highest peak, or hike partway and slide down the side, or simply wander around the vlei below admiring the cascading dunes in all their glory.
Sliding down the side of these towering dunes takes you right back to your childhood. You’ll hear the contagious giggles of delight as people bounce down the dunes with reckless, childlike abandon. I dare you not to smile as your feet disappear deep into the dunes, your shoes fill with sand and you glide down to the vlei as if you’re walking on a cloud. It’s so much fun!
6. Gaze up at a gazillion stars
The NamibRand Nature Reserve was officially declared Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) in 2013. It also became the world’s first IDSR to be awarded Gold Tier status, declaring it an environment with exceptionally little to no impact from artificial light. With the nearest town situated 90 miles away, the reserve is not only free of light pollution, but also boasts one of the darkest skies ever measured.
Situated within this IDSR, &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge boasts a high-tech observatory that is equipped with a Meade LX200R 12-inch telescope (one of the largest in the southern hemisphere) using Autostar II technology. Under the guidance of an expert resident astronomer, guests can get a closer look at the planets and constellations of the enchanting Namibian sky.
7. Ponder the unsolved mystery of the fairy circles
A largely unexplained phenomenon, the Namib Desert is populated by mysterious, grass-ringed patches called fairy circles. Puzzlingly scattered across the stark desertscape, these curious circles not only appear to be evenly spaced, but they also never overlap. There are countless, some even laughable, theories, from underground fire-breathing dragons and dust-bathing ostriches, to armies of ants and termites, underground gases and plants simply competing for water. Fairy circles remain an unsolved mystery, and perhaps what we love about them the most, is that they are the perfect size and setting for romantic, lantern-lit dinners-for-two under the stars.
8. Wander aimlessly amidst 900-year-old tree skeletons
At the foot of Big Daddy is the hauntingly beautiful Deadvlei, or ‘dead marsh’. Thousands of years ago, the Tsauchab River flooded, creating temporary shallow 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 haunting, graveyard of eerie tree skeletons that poke out from the most picturesque, cracked white clay. A forest frozen in time, you simply have to see Deadvlei in person.
9. Celebrate every magnificent sunset
With its mesmerising 180° views, &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is south-facing, meaning you can watch the sunrise and the sunset from the comfort of your private veranda. So, whether you’re relaxing on the sun loungers with a glass of wine in hand, or you’re out enjoying the most unforgettable sundowner stop on the dunes, be sure to stop and watch as the colours constantly change and the sun casts its golden amber glow on the russet dunes.
10. Just be
Quite simply, just be. Be present in a place that hasn’t changed for millions upon millions of years. Relax and savour the blissful silence. Apart from birdsong, you won’t hear anything else and it’s wonderfully refreshing. Surrounded by nature and solitude, it is the perfect place for yoga, meditation or simple quiet reflection. Just breathe…
11. Traverse the dunes on a quadbike
Just like running down the side of a sand dune, I have to admit that exploring the dunes on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. With the warm sun casting its afternoon glow, we set out – with unflattering helmets and all – and let the adrenaline kick in.
The vehicles are automatic and you can go at your own pace. Either stick to the straight, but scenic, path below or take the winding path and venture up into the heart of the undulating dunes. You’ll pass oryx in the distance and you’ll witness the extraordinary desert sunset. You can’t help but smile like a kid on Christmas Day, it’s so much fun. I’ll never forget the words of 17-year-old guest Addy, who lived out her dreams that day. As we all dusted ourselves off and toasted the sunset, she exclaimed that it had been the best day of her life, that nothing could possibly top it, not even her wedding day or birth of her first child. Addy, you made me smile.
12. Dust off your camera and capture the beauty of the desert
Take photos of, well, everything! The Namib Desert is a photographer’s dream. There is so much indescribable beauty to capture, from the landscape and wildlife by day, to the impossibly starry sky by night. I’m still of the belief that no photos can really do this place justice, but bring your camera and give it a go.
13. Get pampered at the lodge
At &Beyond we spoil our guests and this lodge is no exception. Indulge in the luxury that surrounds you. Savour irresistible food, treat yourself to an in-room massage, relax in your spacious suite and fall asleep in the most comfortable, you’ll-definitely-want-to-hit-the-snooze-button beds that all have stargazing skylights above. In the winter months, a crackling fire will keep the suite cosy and the box of art supplies (complete with sketch pads, coloured pencils, charcoal sticks, oil pastels and paints) will inspire creative minds. Most of all, admire the views – everywhere. From the pool with a view, right down to the shower (and loo!) with a view.
14. Explore ancient caves
In and amongst the rugged hills that surround the lodge are ancient caves with fascinating San rock art. Take a guided walk, and a veritable step back in time, to these caves and learn about the culture and time-honoured traditions of the San people.
15. Arrive as friends, leave as family
&Beyond is renowned for its people and we always say that our guests arrive as friends and leave as family. The lodge managers, Italian-born Paolo and Namibian-born Emmerita, will make you feel at home at &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge and the always entertaining and ever hospitable &Beyond Sossusvlei family will look after your every need and ensure you’re always smiling. It’s the &Beyond way and you may even shed a tear when it’s time to say goodbye!
&Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is the ultimate escape. It is the perfect balance of adventure and adrenaline and rest and relaxation. The surrounding desert playground provides endless fun, laughter and memories during the day, whereas the lodge itself offers the ideal blend of solitude, luxury and romance. It is a captivating wonderland for all ages.
You can shake the sand off your shoes – and there will be plenty – but it never leaves your soul