This article is an excerpt from our new Steppes Traveller magazine – please get in touch with us to receive your free copy.
“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die.”
Those are the words that I wait to hear. But, instead, I am greeted with, “Welcome to Sonop.”
In front of me, a collection of impossibly large boulders sits amidst the sands of the Namib Desert. This pile of red-and-black granite rises to a jumbled peak, where a remarkable structure perches like an overgrown treehouse. Wooden walkways spread like arteries between the rocks, linking a series of green-canvas-walled buildings, each one teetering on an elevated platform. This is Sonop.
It is only the smiles and the warmth of the welcome that shatter the Bond-villain’s-lair feel. And the crystal glass of iced tea that is pressed into my hand says relaxation, rather than world domination.
Floyd, guide-turned-henchman, ushers me towards a golf buggy. It sits at the start of a wooden ramp that spirals upwards, squeezing between boulders and disappearing ominously out of sight.
In tow, Nadia – erstwhile colleague and now Bond girl, as my overactive imagination takes over – steps into the rear-facing seat beside me. With sudden acceleration, we wind upwards, with the wooden slats beneath us creaking. The snaking ramp takes us past enormous boulders and into Sonop.
At the top, I disembark shaken but not stirred. More smiles and refreshments greet me. I step into my gilded cage, embracing my role in this fantasy – humbly self-cast – as a secret agent (or should that be secret travel agent?). With, I hope, a devil-may-care attitude, I saunter to the edge of the wooden decking and look down on a landscape as harsh as it is beautiful.
The rippling sands of the Namib Desert meet the dark rock of the Naukluft Mountains, as rugged wilderness encircles this rocky pinnacle. Ahead of me, a perfectly shaped volcanic cone erupts from the plains. If one were to brood over plans of power and purpose, this landscape – reminiscent of both Mad Max and The Martian – would be the perfect canvas for painting dystopian dreams.
“Let me show you to your room.” Interrupts these thoughts.
Playing my part – the compliant guest in the megalomaniac’s masterpiece – I follow unquestioningly. Descending a raised wooden walkway that twists between boulders, I arrive at my tent, held above the boulders on wooden stilts, projecting impossibly into nothing.
As I step inside, my imagination short circuits briefly. The 1920s stares back at me, Hemingway momentarily replacing Fleming. Polished brass, aged wood and antiques fill the canvas interior, as I step inside this explorer’s escape.
Beyond the mosquito-netting windows, the outside world burns with colour. From the four-poster bed, the volcano is still visible on the horizon – a constant point of reference amidst this maze of walkways.
However, eschewing rest, my spy’s instinct is to snoop around this hilltop hideout. Following one of the walkways, I stumble across an immaculate snooker table that sits beside a spirit-stocked bar. The balls are racked, ready for the break. I wonder what high-stakes wagers have been made here. Perhaps state secrets surrendered for a snooker?
Before I have time to order a martini, Floyd appears, as Nadia emerges from one of the many winding walkways. “Ready to explore?” He asks us both.
Minutes later, we are crossing the desert by 4×4. Oryx wander across the sand, the lone survivors in this desolate environment. As we drive close by one, it pauses and raises its head. Its javelin-like horns glint with menace, finishing in lethally sharp points.
We leave the vehicle and walk across the soft sand, slipping as we climb a small dune. Ahead of us the sun is falling towards a cleft in the mountains. Sonop is silhouetted against the sunset, the sand painted red and gold by the fading light.
Floyd joins us and with almost poetic eloquence, explains the story of these sands: their journey from the Kalahari to the coast and then back inland. On top of the lighter grains, blackened granules of magnetite sit, sparkling as they catch the light. Floyd is in his element as he unravels the mysteries of the desert for us.
As the sky darkens, the conversation continues. A warmth that has nothing to do with the fading sun grows. Floyd is simply doing his job, but we chat like friends, sharing this beautiful sight together. In my mind, I see the hardened henchman image fading. Slowly, a route to freedom appears.
Then, suddenly, the sun vanishes. Darkness cloaks the desert and we are summoned back to the camp. Dinner awaits.
An elegant canvas-walled dining room is filled by a banquet table, set with polished silver cutlery and an impressive candelabra. Our host, Shadi, appears, dressed in a fine-white shirt and exquisite braces – completing the 1920s theme. He smiles. And I realise that I have found my Blofeld.
I seat myself opposite, as he luxuriates in splendid surroundings, confident and conversational. His relaxed manner puts me at ease, even as I expect to plummet through the floor at the flick of an ornate switch. But I soon realise that this is to be a far more refined form of torture.
The chef appears and recites a menu that begins with cucumber gazpacho and culminates with pan-fried squid and Cape Malay cod. The courses soon follow, each one as delicately flavoured as it is elegantly presented. If this is to be my final meal, I can have few complaints. But if all goes to plan, I will live to dine another day.
The following morning, the soft light of dawn warms the sand, silence engulfs the landscape. No one moves as we roll down the exit ramp, the quiet electric engine producing a nerve-jangling buzz. Floyd is fulfilling his role perfectly – henchman turned hero. He leads us to three gleaming e-fatbikes, lying ready and waiting.
Hesitantly, we mount our new steeds. Nadia has foregone the expected bikini or ball gown for more practical leggings. I have left the tuxedo behind, in lieu of shorts. But what we have lost in style, we have made up for in gadgetry. Q Branch would be proud of these new toys.
Slowly, we push off. The wide tyres roll surprisingly easily over the sand. Floyd follows from behind, calling out “Just head straight.”
As we become used to the unusual feeling, we gain momentum. The bikes fly over the desert with increasing speed. Behind, Sonop and its cluster of boulders grow steadily smaller. The lair sleeps, whilst we race away towards freedom.
And then Nadia steers straight into a ridge of sand. She hits it and my imagination derails as swiftly as she does.
Falling off the bike with distinct inelegance, she lands in a cloud of dust with a soft whump. Brushing sand off her nose, she is sitting in the dirt and smiling – suddenly more tomboy than Bond Girl. No hysterical wails of “Save me, James!” cut the still desert air.
The spell is broken. There are no rocket-firing paragliders chasing us and these bikes don’t come with ejector seats or snorkels. And, whilst an ATOL licence has many benefits, it doesn’t endow me with double-O status.
I have blended truth and fiction. But that is what Sonop does so well. It weaves a world so rich in beauty, detail and invention that it barely seems believable. It is the physical realisation of a vivid imagination; a place where fantasy thrives and reality wanders lost amongst the dunes.