From Kwessi Dunes, RICHARD HOLMES looks down on the magnificent landscapes of the NamibRand Nature Reserve and up at its equally magnificent starry skies.
I won’t lie. For the first few minutes I was regretting getting out of bed that morning. Having never been a fan of heights, how exactly, I wondered, had I come to find myself a few hundred metres above the Namib Desert? In only a basket, nogal.
But fortune favours the bold and with a pilot like Denis Hesemans at the controls of our hot-air balloon, I knew I was in good hands. “Before long you won’t even feel the breeze because we become the wind,” he explained with a smile, as the roar of gas-powered burners floated us ever higher. I took a deep breath. The views were a welcome, and worthy, distraction. As the sun inched slowly over the Nubib Mountains, enigmatic fairy circles emerged like a million freckles on the landscape. The shadows of oryx trotting on the plains lengthened across golden grasslands. To the west, the ochre dunes of the Namib Desert, one of the oldest on the planet, continued their relentless march to the north. The scenery was nothing short of remarkable and for an hour we were – as Denis had said – at one with the wind.
I certainly felt sorry when our 16-person basket eventually succumbed to gravity and rejoined terra firma. My sorrow, though, was softened by glasses of South African sparkling wine enjoyed with a breakfast spread served on linen-decked tables that stood, in somewhat surreal fashion, upon the grasslands of the NamibRand Nature Reserve.
While the dunes of Sossusvlei and the wildlife of Etosha are what bring most visitors to Namibia, the NamibRand offers an otherworldly landscape that should be high on every traveller’s bucket list. Bounded to the east by the Nubib Mountains and to the west by the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the NamibRand forms a remarkable conservation corridor in south-western Namibia. Yet, for generations this corner of the country was little more than a patchwork of marginal sheep and cattle ranches, where farmers eked out an existence in a landscape forever thirsty for more rain.
Rain that often never arrived. In 1984, when a long drought had made farming untenable, Albi Brückner stepped in with a bold vision for the future. And so the idea of a vast wilderness conservancy was born. The sheep were trucked off to greener pastures, the farmhouses locked up for the last time. The barbed wire fences that were torn down would have stretched from Windhoek to Cape Town – and then some.
Over the years the landscape slowly returned to wilderness and today the NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of the largest privately owned conservancies in southern Africa. “The NamibRand is so important because it is a transitional zone of grassland between the Namib sand sea and the Nubib Mountains,” explained Murray Tindall, control warden of the 205,000-hectare reserve. “Because of these vast areas you simply don’t see predators very often and they don’t become habituated to vehicles, although our camera traps show a surprising number of leopards and spotted hyenas. But the NamibRand is really a landscape experience. It’s about being in this vast space.”
We were chatting in the lounge at Kwessi Dunes, the latest addition to the handful of lodges scattered across the reserve. It’s lodges like Kwessi Dunes that provide much of the income for protecting these remarkable spaces. Here, tourist dollars link directly to ecosystem conservation. Part of the Natural Selection portfolio of properties – Lekkerwater in De Hoop Nature Reserve is another – Kwessi Dunes opened briefly in March 2020, just as Covid-19 swept the globe. Shuttered for seven months, it finally hit its stride in October and has since grown in leaps and bounds.
Across 12 suites of thatch and canvas, it’s a lodge that focuses heavily on celebrating the landscape. From the glorious outdoor showers the desert views are endless, while private decks offer ample time and space for watching clouds form in cobalt-blue skies or oryx wander silently to the waterhole each morning. They’re not the only ones in search of water. There’s a pool deck for searing summers and no end of activities to fill your days. Balloon flights and day trips to Sossusvlei are popular, and at additional cost, but you’ll find little reason to leave the 15,000-hectare private concession surrounding the lodge.
That afternoon, we set out to explore the reserve with our guide, Papa G, who grew up on a farm nearby before sheep ranching gave way to conservation. Though the NamibRand may seem like a land of extremes – endless shimmering horizons and the elusive promise of a predator sighting – there’s plenty of middle-ground magic to discover in between.
As we drove west towards the belt of ochre dunes, I marvelled at the striking coloration of the grey-backed sparrow-lark, a bird endemic to southern Africa. Trundling down sandy roads we disturbed flocks of Namaqua sandgrouse, a diminutive bird with beautifully speckled wings and a remarkable trick up its sleeve. To survive and raise chicks in this unforgiving desert environment, the male will fly for dozens of kilometres each day in search of water, carrying precious droplets on his feathers back to the nest. “The original San people would actually use the sandgrouse to find natural waterholes,” explained Papa G, before turning to point out a Rüppell’s korhaan breaking cover between the grasses.
There are furry locals here as well as feathered. Black-backed jackals skulked off into the grasslands and well-muscled oryx cantered gracefully away from the vehicle. In the summer of 2021, the NamibRand enjoyed its best rains in almost a decade. The grass grew high and the wildlife is thriving. Perhaps surprisingly for this desert landscape, there’s botanical beauty here, too. Bushman and ostrich grasses eke a living out of sun-baked sands. On an evening drive towards Jagkop we admired euphorbias and quiver trees clinging to the hillside, surviving on the morning mists driven 100km inland from the icy Atlantic. At our sundowner stop the hills were alive, not with music but the persistent calls of the barking geckos that are endemic to arid corners of southern Africa.
We drove back to the lodge with the headlights off, Papa G finding the road by feel and long experience. For while the NamibRand is enigmatic in daylight, it’s equally carving a reputation as a destination to discover under the cover of darkness. In 2012, it was certified as an International Dark-Sky Reserve (IDSR). This is an initiative driven by the US-based International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit organisation working to minimise light pollution and protect the night skies for future generations. Today, with a raft of dark-sky conservation measures in place, the NamibRand remains one of just 18 IDSRs worldwide and the only one in Africa.
For wildlife that means less disruption to natural patterns in the sensitive desert environment; for visitors, stars as you’ve never seen them before. And there is surely no better place to admire them this winter than under the duvet at Kwessi Dunes. Attached to each suite, a spacious ‘stargazer’ room is where your king-size bed awaits, fitted with fine linen and a chandelier of southern stars you won’t forget in a hurry.
Plan your trip
Where to stay: Kwessi Dunes
Getting there: Airlink flies direct from Cape Town to Windhoek, a scenic five-hour drive from the NamibRand.
Fly with: Namib Sky Balloon Safaris
Visa: No visa is required for South African passport holders.
Weather: Winter is an ideal time to visit Namibia, with crystal-clear skies and excellent stargazing.
Bubbly and balloons
The tradition of drinking sparkling wine or champagne after a hot-air balloon flight began, not surprisingly, with the French. When ballooning became a popular hobby for the French aristocracy in the late 1700s, pilots would often land their fire-breathing balloons on the fields of local farmers. To appease any shock at the newfangled invention or annoyance at damaged crops, the balloonist would give the farmer a bottle of champagne. Always, of course, with a second bottle on hand for the pilot and passengers.