Namibia's Top Safari Lodges
Namibia came onto the pop-culture radar three years ago, when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stayed at a beach resort on the country’s Atlantic coast here while awaiting the birth of their third child. For many, it was the most they had ever heard about this southern African locale, which, it turns out, has a lot more going for it than a brush with Hollywood celebrity.
Namibia has been quietly coming into its own for more than a decade. In addition to spectacular landscapes—vast deserts with thousand-foot sand dunes and a coastline strewn with bleached whalebones and ancient shipwrecks—Namibia has some of the biggest yet least-known game parks in the world. The fourth-largest country in Africa (it’s twice the size of California, which means a flying safari is the best way to see its wonders), Namibia has one of the continent’s smallest populations but one of the highest literacy rates—and most stable democracies.
The country is delightfully unspoiled, and the government wants to keep it that way. Tourism here is low-key: the emphasis is on small, well-designed, environmentally sensitive lodges in remote areas of the country. The last decade, especially, has seen a number of exciting new properties make their debuts in remote areas of the country.
For instance, the Namib Desert—the second largest on the planet after the Sahara—runs for 1,200 miles along the entire Atlantic coast of the country. A decade ago, adventure-travel company Wilderness Safaris acquired a 90,000-acre spread adjacent to the colossal Sossusvlei sand dunes to create the Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Today, this private park contains three small lodges—the newest of which is Little Kulala, which offers 11 stylish, thatched-roof villas, each equipped with a rooftop terrace for stargazing.
Kaokoland, in Namibia’s northwest corner, is greener than the Namib and is home to many Himba, a nomadic people numbering 12,000 who are scattered throughout northwestern Namibia and southern Angola. The Serra Cafema Camp here features a main lodge sitting on stilts, offering stunning vistas of an oasis of green albida trees above the Kunene River.
Whether your preference is for a tented resort in the desert or a casbah-style fort on a zebra-filled reserve, Namibia has a safari lodge that is worth the trek.
Richard Alleman is a contributing editor to Vogue and a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.
All of the lodges will help you arrange air transfers from Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport. Alternatively, book your trip through a seasoned travel agent. Phoebe Weinberg of Greatways Travel (313/886-4710) is one of the best around for Namibia. Outfitters such as Uncharted Outposts and Abercrombie & Kent can also help arrange your itinerary.
Little Kulala, Namib Desert
The Namib runs for 1,200 miles along the entire Atlantic coast of the country. A decade ago, adventure-travel company Wilderness Safaris acquired a 90,000-acre spread adjacent to the colossal Sossusvlei sand dunes to create the Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Today, this private park contains three small lodges. The newest is the Little Kulala (doubles from $900, all-inclusive), with 11 distinctive cement, wood, and glass thatched-roof villas. Each has a grand deck with a plunge pool; a rooftop terrace with “sky beds” for stargazing; and a minimalist studio with a platform bed, bleached plank floors, and leather shag throw rugs.
Bouncing across the sand on one of the guided desert drives, you’ll encounter giant dragonflies, springbok, spotted hyena, gemsbok with long elegant horns, and camel thorn trees hung with the monster nests of the sociable weaver (these avian apartment buildings can hold several hundred birds and last for up to a hundred years). Equally intriguing are the mysterious circles of grass, some as large as 30 feet in diameter; there are many theories as to their origins, from termites to static electricity.
The main attractions, however, are the great Sossusvlei dunes, with their distinctive salmon color and sharp edges; they resemble colossal pyramids. Of the hundreds of dunes, a few are standouts, like Big Daddy, which measures almost 1,000 feet, and Number 45, where climbing up (and body-sliding down) are permitted.
Serra Cafema Camp, Kaokoland
Greener than the Namib, Kaokoland, in Namibia’s northwest corner, is a tableau of dales framed by volcanic mountains. The region is home to many Himba, a nomadic people numbering 12,000 who are scattered throughout northwestern Namibia and southern Angola. The women are especially striking, with elaborately braided dreadlocks and glistening red skin (a special paste protects them from the sun). At the Serra Cafema Camp (doubles from $813, all-inclusive), the main lodge sits on stilts in an oasis of green albida trees above the Kunene River, which separates Namibia and Angola. The eight loftlike chalets are filled with carved Nguni furniture, and in the bathrooms, copper basins are mounted on log pedestals. The food is sophisticated—especially the candlelit dinners, which might include fish en papillote followed by a chocolate mousse. Take a hike with Franco Morao, one of the camp’s top guides. Morao will point out goliath herons and fresh sets of long, smooth crocodile tracks. He’s also good at spotting small creatures, such as pairs of toktokkie beetles, the males piggybacking on the females to shade them while they forage for food.
Dunes Lodge, Namibrand Nature Reserve
About a half-hour’s flight south of the Sossusvlei dunes is the 444,000-acre NamibRand Nature Reserve, another private conservation project, begun in the 1980’s by Namibian environmentalist Albi Bruckner, who transformed this area of low rolling dunes and tall grass from sheep farms into a group of small lodges known as the Wolwedans Collection. The Dunes Lodge (doubles from $750, all-inclusive) is a string of 10 wood-and-canvas cottages linked by walkways set with large lanterns and potted cacti; the aboveground pool is shaded by a sailcloth awning. For minimal impact on the environment, the entire camp was designed using only wood and canvas.
Boulders Safari Camp, Namibrand Nature Reserve
Wolwedans is known for the quality of its restaurants: the chefs are locals who have been trained at the company’s culinary school in the capital, Windhoek. The biggest news in this part of the desert is Wolwedans’s two-year-old Boulders Safari Camp (doubles from $950, all-inclusive), a remote compound of four luxury tents set between gigantic granite boulders. Days here are spent hiking or on scenic drives; at sunset, cocktails are served atop the highest ridge.
Little Ongava, Ongava Game Reserve
This 75,000-acre private enclave comprises the south-central edge of northern Namibia’s 9,000-square-mile Etosha National Park. Here, one of the country’s most luxurious compounds, the three-cottage Little Ongava (doubles from $1,996, all-inclusive), sits on a hillside of pockmarked boulders and giant cacti. The infinity pools almost make the property seem too glamorous for its setting. Interior designer Anne Christopher has made extensive use of African artists’ work: masks from Burkina Faso; wooden bowls from Zambia; Ethiopian trays; Congolese wall hangings; and Namibian paintings.
Ongava Lodge, Ongava Game Reserve
The ultimate prize of Little Ongava, however, lies out in the bush, where you are likely to see herds of zebra grazing peacefully and packs of surprisingly shy 8,000-pound white rhinos feeding on the foliage. If you’re lucky, your guide will be Rosie, a jocular Namibian who’s the country’s first female big-game guide. Little Ongava’s sister property, the nearby 14-room Ongava Lodge (doubles from $1,022, all-inclusive), is a recently redone, less expensive alternative.
Fort at Fisher’s Pan, Onguma Reserve
In 2007, the Fort at Fisher’s Pan (doubles from $780, all-inclusive) opened on the southern edge of Etosha National Park. This exotic structure—tall, thick walls; massive studded doors; multiple patios; secret staircases—sits on the edge of a large watering hole. The Fort is the latest addition to the Onguma Safari Camps, a collection of lodges in the private 50,000-acre slice of Etosha known as the Onguma Game Reserve.
The rustic cottages at the Fort exude casbah-cool: North African chandeliers, tadlakt floors, and brass-tray bedside tables. The bathrooms are housed in octagonal towers with high ceilings, Philippe Starck and Oxo fixtures, and tall freestanding mirrors in distressed frames.
In addition to game drives in the private reserve, the Fort takes guests to the main Etosha game park. The toll-plaza entrance and numerous vans and private cars are a bit of a disappointment, but the game is another story. On a four-hour excursion, you can expect to see giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, steenbok, leopard tortoises, monitor lizards, and the occasional lion.
Evenings back at the Fort are especially magical, with the deck lit by Moroccan lanterns and sconces. Out at the floodlit watering hole, you can watch zebra assemble at sunset. Onguma, it turns out, means “the place you don’t want to leave.”