(Spoiler: it’s all of them…)
True…it’s been a while since our trip to Namibia – if you were with me on Instagram last spring you would have seen some stunning highlights. Then I added a quick blog post about our time in Windhoek – the cool Namibian capital where most visitors bookend their visit to the country.
But it was within days of our return to Pointe-Noire that our move to Denmark was confirmed. So all headspace was taken up with clearing out, packing and getting Scandi-ready, while the rest of the Namibia trip went on the to-blog list, and the photos on the Proper Camera stayed in the memory card.
But, believe me, if any holiday deserves more airtime, reflection, and recommendation, it’s a Namibian holiday. Since I met MT, we’ve done our own ‘grand tour’ of Italy, and taken a road trip from Nova Scotia to Toronto. We’ve honeymooned in Barbados and relaxed by the Indian Ocean. We’ve lived in southern France and been on safari in east Africa. We’ve celebrated a big birthday in the Big Apple and experienced the urban chill of Cape Town…
…but Namibia might just have edged its way into the number one spot.
It’s a unique destination, because of the dramatic range of landscapes and iconic locations. When you’re standing on the red sand of the Kalahari Desert, it’s hard to imagine being anywhere more essentially African…unless it’s the golden dunes of the Namib Desert where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, or the savannah in Etosha National Park, of course. Then there’s the monumental rock formations of Damaraland, the eerie moonscape of the Skeleton Coast and the theatrical emptiness of Deadvlei.
All of this comes with the advantage that Namibia is a relatively developed African country, despite its tiny population of only 2.5m. So the adventure comes with comfort, and choice, and as many mod cons as you care to look for, while the smooth straight roads are all yours.
Speaking of comfort, a big part of what made our holiday memorable was the accommodation, so let me tell you about our favourite Namibian wilderness lodges…
We had booked two nights at this private reserve just south of the Anderson Gate of Etosha National Park. And it was just as well, since a nasty bout of chicken pox shaved off the first few days of our holiday. Plan A had included a night camping at the other side of the park, and a day-long drive right across the park. Having cancelled that (rather than reschedule the whole itinerary) we were glad to still have the time to explore at least a corner of Etosha.
We left Pointe-Noire under the stress of bad news at the clinic, persuading Ethiopian Airlines to change our flights, cancelling and rearranging accommodation, and clutching our doctor’s all-clear letter ready to thrust at any airline staff who questioned the health of our spotty little boy (not that anyone said a word). Then there was the challenge after arrival, of taking charge of our behemoth of a camping car (it took a full hour for the guy at the hire place to give us a tour of the vehicle), and a rushed shopping trip round Shoprite, and our first few hours driving on Namibian roads. So there was a lot of pressure on our arrival at Okutala: of the ‘This better be worth it’ variety.
The welcome delivered, and more. A fresh cooling drink was handed to us as soon as we parked, and within moments we were on the panoramic restaurant deck catching our first glimpse of black rhinos at the watering hole.
Our own lodge, including a separate bunk room for the kids, was a few steps away, past the pool, and from just outside our door we had another view of the watering hole. After settling in, our next surprise was being accosted by a chattering crowd of mongooses, keen to investigate their new neighbours. These residents of the reserve were a constantly entertaining presence around the accommodation and restaurant. One night we left a ball that the kids had been playing with in the pool outside to dry. In the morning it was nowhere to be seen, until we found it back in the pool, covered in bite marks. I bet a mongoose pool party is FUN.
From Okutala, we joined a half-day game drive into Etosha National Park, giving us time to enjoy the pool in the afternoon before enjoying what they called a Combo drive around the reserve in the evening. The resident guide took us to help feed young elephants they were in the process of acclimatizing to the wild, then to visit hyenas and leopards, and to visit a dramatic feeding time for cheetahs, all the while giving us the benefit of her huge knowledge and passion for the animals.
Even if not for all that, our visit to Okutala Etosha Lodge would have been worth it for the hours spent on the restaurant deck, sundowners in hand as the sun set behind the waterhole, with the enticing smell of the braai dinner about to be served. I could have gone home happy after our stay there.
Vingerklip Lodge was not one of the options that featured in the friends’ itineraries that I had been poring over as I planned our trip. But the biggest surprise was simply the landscape we were met with as we approached. I had heard some people say that Damaraland was their favourite part of Namibia, and had wondered why. How could anything be more exciting than visiting the actual dunes of the actual desert? But this was one of those landscapes that description – and even pictures – can barely do justice. Having only just left the distinctive savannah of Etosha, it seemed like we had been transported to the cinematic Monument Valley.
Vingerklip Lodge is located among the Ugab Terraces, and is named for the nearby Vingerklip (finger rock), a distinctive 35m rock monument which stands proud in the middle of the Ugab Valley.
The path to the lodge’s reception took us through a mature garden full of vivid colour and variety: an oasis in the rocky desert. Our own accommodation was one half of a cute little bungalow, with a loft platform making it roomy enough for the family. It was a cosy space, perhaps a bit over-decorated in a dated way, but fresh and charming.
Anyway, we were soon outside, taking a family walk after lunch to the Vingerklip itself. It was a simple one-hour hike, but for the kids it remains one of their most memorable highlights: gathering sticks, checking the sparse bushes for wildlife, and cooling off in the shadow of the monumental rock.
The absolute highlight of our stay there was our dinner at the Eagles’s Nest restaurant, a dizzying climb to the top of one of the Ugab Terraces. We ascended in time to watch the sun set on one side, while the shadow of evening crept its way to the top of the opposite terrace. A pair of majestic giraffes crossed the valley below, while we waited for the braai. There was also time for a quick peek at their Heaven’s Gate honeymoon suite, perched on its own right at the edge of the Terrace, a romantic and solitary getaway that reminded me of the final location of the house in ‘Up’. Heading back down the side of the terrace after dinner was just as dramatic. This time, we were on a star safari. And once the kids were in bed, the deck of our lodge was the perfect spot to recline and gaze at the swoop of the Milky Way across the sky.
A visit to Vingerklip Lodge is all about the location, and as we left the garden oasis, the sunshine, the dramatic landscape, I declared that I could stay there forever.
But leave we did, and I knew that something potentially very special was awaiting us. As soon as I saw the view from Grootberg Lodge in my friend Canadian Expat Mom’s Namibian itinerary, I knew I had to include it. In fact, I shuffled around our own itinerary, making changes to bookings I’d already made, so that we could fit it in on the one night it was available.
The drive took longer than we expected as we shifted into yet another landscape, the greenest of our time in Namibia. The roads after Palmweg weaved and looped, and for at least an hour, we were expecting to see the sign for Grootberg after every corner. Finally the turning appeared. At the car park at the bottom of the hill, we weighed up our options: drive the steep climb (too steep for mere 2×4 vehicles), or call up for a lift from the lodge staff? MT was unable to resist the challenge, so he shifted to the low-range gears and set up off up the near-vertical incline, knuckles white.
At the top, and across the plateau, we were met with the wide expanse of the view across the Klip River Valley, and a friendly smile that seemed just as wide. That welcome set the tone for the whole stay. Grootberg Lodge is entirely community-owned, combining tourism and conversation for the benefit of the local people. Everywhere we went, each member of staff greeted us as though we were visiting their own home. Whenever they asked if everything was okay, our effusive replies were met with huge smiles and hands placed on hearts as they personally accepted the compliment of their slice of heaven.
Our accommodation was expansive too – a family chalet with two large bedrooms and its own deck looking over the valley. The lodge offers scenic tours, elephant tracking, and rhino tracking, but we opted for the more chilled activities, since we had an even longer drive ahead of us the following day. While the boys took in the view from the infinity pool, I booked myself a comforting massage. There was nothing else to do for the rest of the evening but enjoy that incredible view.
The view inspired us, and after our sundowners, we ordered a delicious celebratory sparkling wine to go with our meal. A porter escorted us back to our lodge, torch trained on the ground for snakes, we tucked the kids into their huge bed, and settled on another beautiful deck, for more stargazing; fluttering moths keeping us company.
The next morning, as the staff of Grootberg Lodge sent us off on the next stage of our journey like honoured guests, with more wide smiles and a packed lunch I have to confess (gushing alert) that I became a little emotional at the privilege of having been able to join them there, and declared that, yes, I could stay there forever too.
Our stay at Kulala Desert Lodge was the most expensive night of our trip. I’d hesitated, but in fact it was the only place available that night in the Sossuvlei region (not even a campground was available – when people tell you to book early for Namibia, believe them!) and it was an all-inclusive experience. With the decision made, I was really looking forward to it.
So, after entering the Kulala Wilderness Reserve and finding the road for Kulala Desert Lodge, the approach gave me a pang of ‘What have I done?’ The first views of this property were unsettling. I don’t know what I had expected, but this was no lush green desert oasis. It was a stark setting, the cabins spread out along the sand, exposed to the desert sun.
But the welcome signalled the luxury experience that we were in for. A beaming receptionist greeted us with our first names, handing each of us our personal reusable water bottles to use for the duration of our stay. Our semi-tented cabin included a separate bedroom for the children, and, accessible by ladder, a rooftop terrace for stargazing. Refreshing drinks by the pool in the middle of the desert felt bizarre and glamorous and adventurous all at once.
After our dip, we set off on the Sundowner Drive with other residents, but luckily for us, the configuration of the group meant that we had a car and guide all to ourselves. Darius drove out with us, stopping to show us features of the Sossusvlei landscape, signs of wildlife and insight into the fauna. Then he drove us to the perfect spot for our private sundowner, swiftly setting up a table with wine cooler and snacks as the boys explored the rocks around us. Even though we knew there were other jeeps parked up not far away, we felt like the only people in the desert as the sun set behind the rocks.
Dinner was followed by more stargazing. At a hotter time of year, a bed would be set up right there on the roof, for sleeping under the stars. In April it was deemed too cold (not that we felt it) so we hoisted a couple of chairs up there with our chilled Windhoek beers in hand. Above an empty sandscape, the Milky Way swooped more spectacularly than every above us; we were distracted only by a solitary pool of torchlight making its way further beyond our cabin to disappear behind a distant ridge, surely someone making their way to hidden staff quarters for the night.
The next morning brought the highlight of the trip I’d been most anticipating. We left early, with Darius again, to make it to the reserve’s private gate into Namib-Naukluft National Park, in time for sunrise when the park would open. The only way to be inside the park before sunrise was to stay at the campsite just inside the Sesriem gate (as we did the following night). Everyone else who had earmarked the day for visiting the iconic desert dunes of Sossusvlei would be waiting at gate, much further away than our privileged entry point. As we waited at the gate for sunrise, we watched hot air balloons rise into the orange glow, and dreamed of coming back, when our boys would both be old enough to get in those baskets too.
When ‘our’ road met with the one coming from the main gate, we saw a steady stream of vehicles crossing the desert towards us. Not that it takes much, but it was certainly the busiest road I had seen in Namibia since leaving Windhoek, so we really appreciated the advantage of our head start.
Darius proved himself just as expert a guide as we explored the dunes and Deadvlei. (More on that story later…) We were back at the lodge in time for one more luxurious lunch, before setting off on our camping adventure.
More to Come
We certainly made the most of the luxury options available to us in Namibia. When I was planning our trip, I looked at many other similar accommodations, many of which were booked up, some which were just too luxurious (there is a limit into what is worth investing in when your travelling companions are 5 and 7 years old) and they all looked just as appealing. Some of them came highly recommended by friends, even though I couldn’t fit them into our trip. My conclusion? If you’re planning your own Namibian trip with lodge accommodation, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. The unique experience of the country itself combines with competitive standards, so you can book with confidence.
But our trip was varied: we were also camping, and combined that with hotel and self-catering accommodation in other locations. Hopefully I’ll soon have a follow-up post for you, with some extra tips and insights I learned from planning our and enjoying our Namibian trip.
In the meantime, here’s one more glimpse of that Grootberg view…