The Road to Mowani Mountain Camp

The view from my table is surreal. Beautiful, but utterly odd in my experience before now. I am at a small table on the porch outside of our tent.

We landed in the middle of a desert populated with enormous boulders and green patches of bush. This airport is a landing strip with nothing else and nobody anywhere nearby. I visited a local bush to take care of some business, which of course, meant that the only bus of people we have ever really passed here suddenly drove by right in front of me. What are you going to do? I waved.

Athan met us at the plane with ice cold wet face towels, bottles of water, and a ride to Mowani Mountain Camp. With 15 rooms, set naturally in the midst of the largest rocks/boulders you have ever seen, the camp looks out on an amazing vista of rocky mountains, sand, and brush. It is unlike anywhere I have ever been. The sense of space is enormous. Everything is on a scale that is hard to comprehend, and it all looks like what I imagine the earth in prehistoric times must have been. It is hard to imagine how anything lives here. There are lizards and a few flies, and some small birds flying by, but that is all you can really see, at least from my porch.

Our first excursion that afternoon consisted of a visit to a ‘Living Museum.’ We were given a tour of a very basic camp with the aim of sharing what it would have been like here long ago including traditional clothing, medicines, games, and dances. The most interesting moment was watching two boys create fire with sticks – I didn’t think it could be done, but I was wrong! Afterward, our guide offered the ‘staff’ of the museum a ride back to their modern village, which was every bit as unfamiliar to us as the museum. The houses are small squares with enclosed open spaces along side. All of it is bound together with tree branches and wire fences, covered in a mix of dirt and dung for the structures.

We returned to the camp just in time to watch the sunset from an elevated viewpoint with a Gin Fizz (which was more fizz than gin, but I digress). The sunset was staggeringly beautiful, and like all sunsets, all too fast.

Morning came early, as we gathered for breakfast before departing on what would be a six hour nature drive. A note on our vehicle: Athan has been driving us around in a Toyota Land Cruiser with three rows of seats that escalate in height. The vehicle is open, but has a shade/canopy on top. Driving through the desert is clearly what the Land Cruiser was created for, by the way (as opposed to driving to Starbucks). The scenery was spectacular. Namibia is known for striking desert landscapes more than animal viewing, so despite Athan telling us that we would hopefully see an elephant, my expectations were low. We saw ostriches (which are frankly kind of funny looking), birds, and steinbok (small deer with heads that oddly resemble rabbits).

First, one elephant, looking quintessentially majestic. Then, a few others including a mother with a four-day old baby, which she made sure to keep behind her as we watched. And watch we did. The baby stood up on wobbly baby elephant, nursed for a moment, took a few steps, then knelt down and flopped over for a brief nap. Amazing. The look so peaceful and docile, but before we departed, the mother let out a low roar, which served as good reminder that she would tolerate no misbehavior on our part. On our ride home, we stumbled upon another group of elephants, four of whom were curled up napping under a tree. There is a drought here at the moment, and Athan mentioned that they were likely looking for water. We wish these breathtaking beings all the best with our warmest thanks for sharing a part of their day with us.

*Sossusvlei Desert Lodge*

Into the Epic Desert.

Squeeze wrote a song that begins with the line, “I have come across the desert to greet you with a smile…” It plays frequently in my mind since we began our journey south to Sossusvlei and alternates with the far more elegant score from the movie Out of Africa.

On Wednesday morning, we flew out of the Damaraland region to our next destination, Sossusvlei (Pronounced SAUCE-SUEs-FLAY). Duncan flew us down the coast, which revealed miles of expansive desert with mountains until suddenly all would clear for a small town. We landed on an airstrip in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Sigfried, our guide for the next few days, picked us up for a quick ride to our next home away from home. Staff greeted us at the door of the lodge with sparkling lemonade and cool, damp towels. I have asked Ed if he will take up such practice when we are at home and I return from a long day at work. He has not embraced this concept yet, but hope springs eternal.

The Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is beautiful. It may be one of the nicest places that any of us have ever stayed. Tucked up against the side of the mountain, it features 8 stone villas, a main building, and an astronomy observation tower. All of these structures are connected by a beautiful stone path and face out over the desert with mountains in the distance. The villas are decorated in pale neutral colors and feature every comfort you could imagine. Over the bed is a square skylight, through which you may view stars each night while lying in bed. And there are many, many stars in the desert.

White ostrich skin-covered boxes populate all of the rooms. They each hold their own delightful surprise. For example, a large box on the coffee table in our suite held a set of colored pencils and drawing materials. The box in the bathroom included additional toiletry items (including square foil packets with the quote, “SMILE! Put a smile back on your face!”). It is also noteworthy that laundry was included in our stay. We love clean clothes – especially when they come wrapped up beautifully with a thank you note from the staff. That’s right, the staff thanks you for the opportunity to do your laundry. It’s a strange, strange, not unpleasant world.

We have officially left the land of the prehistoric boulders and arrived in what you might more traditionally think of when you think of African desert. Great expanse of bush-covered sand with mountains in the distance, crisp blue skies, and the occasional simple green, African tree.

On our first afternoon, we went for a game ride at 4:00 pm. Again, Namibia is not known for its animal life as much as it is for its desert. So, our expectations were low. Again, they were easily exceeded. We saw zebras, giraffes, jackals, oryx (an amazingly beautiful animal with hooves, long horns, and dramatic coloring), as well as spring bok (with whom the oryx seem quite friendly). Every animal sighting is exciting. The weather is finally cool, which during the course of our jeep ride becomes cold. Jackets on, hoods up, blankets from the jeep over us all. The staff greeted us at the door with hot strawberry and ginger tea, which was incredibly fragrant and delicious. Cocktails, dinner, and bedtime followed.

Our first morning in Sossusvlei featured a wake up call at 5:00 am, 5:15 am coffee, and 5:30 am departure for the dunes in Sossusvlei National Park. After roughly two hours of driving, we arrived at the sand dunes. They are epic. The sand is the color of cinnamon, the sky a crisp and bright blue. Both the sand and the sky are enormous. Sigfried sends us across the dunes to see Deadvlei, a clay-covered, former lake with a white/gray appearance in sharp contrast to the red sand. Our group consisted of the three of us along with a lovely couple from South Africa named Susie and Les.

We evidently were not on the same page with Sigfried. He had expected us to cross the dune through a low, easy point from which we could easily walk to Deadvlei. Instead, we inadvertently headed in the other direction and began to climb a mountain of sand. And climb. And climb. And wonder if everyone who comes here actually does this? And take deep breaths, big gulps of water, and then even more steps up the mountain, which has the consistency of thick powdery snow. This goes on until we find ourselves at great height, with curiosity about the best way down. We begin our descent with great big, suddenly easy steps down from the ridge. It was awesome. Sigfried came running up to lead us down the most direct route over and across Deadvlei. While far easier, the trek back still took us an hour.

After our (prolonged) hike, Sigfried takes us to a picnic table in the shade. We are cooled off, watered, and ravenous! He set the table with small containers of plain yogurt, granola, fruits, and muffins. I would have enjoyed this anytime, but it is all especially delicious after our unplanned workout. When Sigfried somehow pulls out a grill from our jeep, we are surprised to learn that this is only our appetizer course. He prepares fresh bacon, scrambled eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes for us. A thoroughly memorable meal on an indescribable day.

After dinner, we decided to go and look at some stars at the observatory tower. Jerry is the in-house astronomer, and I learned more from him in the half hour that I spent there than I have ever known about the subject. Apparently, Conde Nast lists this lodge as one of the top star gazing destinations in the world. Deservedly so. Jerry showed us the moon, Saturn, galaxies, and other assorted sights through a very powerful telescope.

The next evening, we headed out for a “Quad Bike Ride,” aka ATV ride. I have never driven an ATV before for any length of time. I have, therefore, clearly never driven an ATV in the sand dunes before. It was EXHILERATING! I loved it. LOVED it! We drove past spring box and oryx, climbing hills I wasn’t sure we could get up, and navigating down hills which felt incredibly steep going down. We stopped for cocktails. Yep – not only did they have me as a novice on an ATV in the sand dunes, but then they offered me a Gin and Tonic. We are clearly not in the liability-sensitive United States. We drove back at dusk as the sun set and the air turned cool.

Before we close the chapter on Namibia, a few last thoughts. This is an incredible country. Our visit to the sand dunes was one of the most remarkable days of my life. The landscape is so vast, the animals are so interesting, and the people are so friendly. We fell in love with this awesome place. Farewell desert. You will be missed.

Namibia expert Jackie recently received this blog from Caren Cohen who travelled to Namibia with her and was kind enough to provide us with a fantastic account of her adventures.