WORDS Amelia Brown PHOTOS Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes
Namibia’s far reaches have long been the preserve of the intrepid. Now, two exceptional lodges are giving guests access to some of its most remote and breathtaking parts.
“The drive will take us into the river bed, where we’ll hopefully see desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, oryx and perhaps some small antelope,” says our guide Mwezi Bupilo as he briefs us for an early-morning drive. He pauses before he continues, gesturing to the shale and granite mountains that surround us, glowing pink in the morning light. “But here in Namibia the landscape is also part of what we will see.”
He’s right. Whichever part of Namibia you visit, its arid terrain and endless horizons are a constant. Another is travelling great distances, and on our journey to Namibia’s North West we had a bird’s-eye view of its vast and varied topography from the small plane that collected us in Windhoek and deposited us in the heat of Sesfontein (with a middle-of-nowhere stop for fuel to remind us of just how remote we were). We marvelled at its desolate plains from the ground, too, as we bumped and rattled our way through the Kaokoveld Desert in an open-sided truck into the more verdant river bed that would lead us finally to Hoanib Valley Camp.
The day’s expedition aside, arriving here is quite something: Natural Selection’s tented camp in Sesfontein Community Conservancy is flanked by a remarkable metamorphic amphitheatre with sweeping views towards the ephemeral Hoanib River. You’re greeted by the warm smiles and joyous singing of the staff, a cool towel to wipe the dust from your eyes, an even colder welcome drink, and a desert vista that renders you mute with reverence.
Arranged in a gentle arc so each balcony has an uninterrupted panorama, the six tented rooms and main tented lounge-cum-dining room seem to dissolve into the surroundings. As well as ensuring the setting has the starring role, the solar-run tents, which sit on a decking composite of bamboo and recycled plastic produced in Swakopmund, deliver on Natural Selection’s environmental mindfulness.
Design consultant Cate Simpson approached the interiors with the same subtlety. “We wanted to develop a camp that was an extension of the magnificent surrounds,” Cate says. “The landscape, the Himba culture and the association with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation were all defining influences in the colours, textures and graphic patterns.” True to the ethos of Natural Selection, as many pieces as possible were sourced locally.
Cate continues, “One of the ambitions of Natural Selection is to take the safari experience back to ‘basics’, with less emphasis on the uniform glamour that has started to define the experience in Africa. The camp provides a comfortable platform, one that’s appropriate to the setting, for an outstanding experience with the people, game and vistas that the landscape offers.” The result is that each of the owner-run camps is as distinctive as its environment, and each has a conservation angle unique to that area – giraffe, in the case of Hoanib – so guests leave with a localised ecological understanding.
It’s why the experience at Natural Selection’s second Namibian property, Shipwreck Lodge in the remote Skeleton Coast National Park, is entirely different. Built on a sea of sand, the 10 cabins and main lounge/dining room have been designed by architect Nina Maritz to resemble shipwrecks, with which the treacherous coast is synonymous. The spruce timber design met the dual challenge of the remote location (much of it was assembled off-site in Windhoek) and the requirement that it can be disassembled and removed, if necessary, at the end of the 25 year concession, leaving the land untouched.
Interior designer Melanie van der Merwe wanted the experience to be immersive. “I wanted guests to feel lost in time. To understand this incredibly special part of the world, it needed to speak to the soul.” For Nina, “The contrast between the harsh exterior and snug interior creates a frisson of excitement every time you enter or leave a building.” It is a surreal experience to be sealed inside the wooden cabins, catching a glimpse of the silvery dunes through a porthole or watching the fog roll in from your bed. Nina has purposely framed the views in different ways in each direction.
“I think human beings like to see distance. It’s very therapeutic, a tonic,” says Dave van Smeerdijk, co-founder of Natural Selection, one night at dinner as we sit under a sky laden with stars. In a place where time is measured in evolutionary terms and nature is undeniably in charge, these lodges offer two exceptional vantage points to look on in awe.
With its Explorers Programme, Natural Selection offers specials to African citizens, making its camps more accessible for local travellers. Visit naturalselectionexplorers.co.za for more information.