Every year in February I visit our clients around Namibia in a road trip that is part educational and part endurance race. Arriving in Windhoek I was not met by the torrents of rain water flowing across city streets that 2011 will be remembered for, instead the freshly resurfaced tarmac was pristine and dry. Surprisingly, I didn't have to use the windscreen wipers until day 7 in Etosha even though the impressive seasonal electrical storms filled the late afternoon skies every day throughout the trip.
In Windhoek I had the chance to see the finished Olive Boutique Hotel in action and it is clear that guests and locals alike are more than happy with the experience. The main building is filled with vast original photographs that illustrate some of the cultures and landscapes unique to the country. There are also some serious chunks of rock being used as coffee tables and reception desks that literally introduce you to the geology of the region. The amazing suites themselves are all unique and styled on a different region, though once you are in the private plunge pool looking out across the Olive Grove, that may not be your primary focus. Roger and Lindy have managed to create rooms that combine the best of the uber-luxury hotel world with the finest aspects of contemporary owner-run Africa. There are acres of bed, fathoms of free standing bathtub, racks of South Africa's finest wine and subtly available to those that need it, wifi, ipod, laptop and movies. Then there is the restaurant where four course meals introduce you to the marine delicacies of the Skeleton Coast, the rich meat of the Namibian plains and some very fancy footwork with pastry and fresh fruit. I was enjoying The Olive so much that I forgot to leave and only pointed my long-range fuel tanks south at a sloth-like 10 o'clock.
The too-easy tar road from Windhoek to Rehoboth is just there to exaggerate the absorbing gravel and fine sand that will be your companion for the next week. Regardless of the late start and a curiosity stop at the little farm shop in Bullsport, the reception at Wolwedans appeared through a heat haze in mid-afternoon. Stepping out of an airconditioned cab into the desert heat is a simple pleasure that never wears thin for a European. As always, the reception and operations base at Wolwedans is improving and innovating. It was the innovation side of the NamibRand Reserve that I had really wanted to catch up on as Stephan Bruckner and his team are currently in the running for the prestigious conservation category of the 'Tourism of Tomorrow' awards. The World Travel and Tourism Council recognise the very best in sustainable tourism each year and as industry awards go, this is like an oscar. Stephan would need weeks to clearly explain what the NamibRand Reserve and Wolwedans are doing in terms of developing their people and resources, in reality, the myriad projects running on the ground will only mature over several years. The short tour is enough to illustrate that back of house, Wolwedans has invested the kind of money in sustainable technology that most people would use to build their entire safari camp. The new hybrid-power station allows energy from solar panels and generators to be stored and used regardless of the weather or the need to burn more diesel in the generator. The end goal is to reduce the need for fossil fuels by up to 85%. The workshop facilities allow for the repair and maintenance of machinery, vehicles, furniture and canvas tent panels. That not only creates a new centre for skills learning in this desert region, but avoids the need for hauling materials to and from Windhoek. I could go on, but suggest that the next time you are at Wolwedans you go and look at the size of the plant nursery where fresh vegetables, herbs and shade giving trees are raised. The scale of which the NamibRand has taken on the task of sustainability is truly staggering and a million miles away from the easily achieved 'green' practices which have become minimum standards in the industry.
Saving this desert planet didn't prevent Stephan from giving us a personal tour of the reserve as a reminder of what they are trying to protect here, which is roughly a thousand hectares of nature per guest. If you would like to learn more about Stephan and his longterm goals, please click here
A guest at Wolwedans may never realise what it takes to operate this vast nature reserve, but the dramatic setting will never be lost on them. There are very few beds in the country that can equal Wolwedans for early morning views and nothing easily accessible in the Namib that matches their unspoiled landscapes. The Private Camp at Wolwedans defines the experience and philosophy perfectly. Imagine you had a friend who was a nature loving interior designer and he left you the keys to his house for the weekend (and his staff) so you could enjoy the place in complete privacy - that is Wolwedans.
With a hoard of what I hoped would be my best sunset oryx shots to date on the memory card, I took my travelling companions for a glimpse of the Namib Naukluft national park. By early afternoon, the towering walls of red dune were reflecting enough heat to stupify the pied crows and goshawks that haunt every tree in the region. We sat eating our picnic in the shade of a camelthorn tree that has been photographed thousands of times thanks to the razor sharp dune ridge that terminates behind it. In February, crowds are the very least of your worries and in Sossusvlei, your only real worry is the availability of fresh apple strudel at the Solitaire bakery. When we arrive at the eternally odd petrol station, they do have strudle but they don't have petrol which is ironic as we happily ignored the shiny new petrol station by the national park gates an hour ago. Extremely optimistic fuel range calculations and the promise of fresh oysters for lunch in Walvis Bay are enough for me to continue west into the empty quarter leading to the coast. As it happens the little fuel warning light pings on just as the first coastal dunes started to fill the horizon and the air temperture drops a welcome 9 degrees as we reach the edge of the lagoon. As is often the case in Namibia, we enjoy lunch in what could easily be a different country than the one we had breakfast in.
After lunch we head up the coast to Swakopmund and our home for the night at Villa Margherita
. Unlike the modern purpose built hotels in Swakopmund, this lovely old house was built in 1913 and has been carefully converted (stable blocks and all) into what the owners have called a charming house (rather than a guesthouse). I have to say that the space provided in the high ceilinged rooms and hallways is exactly what you want after the open landscapes of the Namib. This historic property is filled with bright colours, luxurious modern fittings and welcoming staff who benefit from a profit share scheme. There is a restaurant in-house which produces 'slow food' which has never seen the inside of a deep freezer and remains as fresh as is possible. This small touch makes a vast difference to the dining experience and is only really possible in the centres of Swakopmund and Windhoek. You can relax with a pre-dinner drink in the garden or make use of the in-house masseuse. A night or two in Swakopmund also provides unlimited access to power for recharging cameras, phones and ipods.
It goes without saying that it is easy to sleep at the coast with the cool sea breeze and a feather soft bed. Unlike the morning rush hour in Windhoek, Swakopmund wakes up slowly as children walk to the school down the street and the first joggers head for the waterfront. By the time we start driving north again at 8am, there are surfers paddling out into the glassy waves and families enjoying breakfast at street side cafes. With the Skeleton Coast in my rearview mirror and the Brandberg Mountain faint on the horizon, I plan to be watching desert-adapted elephant by mid-afternoon.
Next week: The Kunene Region to Etosha.