Kulala Desert Lodge: Our Introduction to the Namib Desert

The Namib Desert stretches for 1,200 miles along the coast of Africa beginning in southern Angola, continuing along the length of Namibia and into South Africa. Confined by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and by the central plateau in Namibia to the east, it is not much more than 100 miles wide. The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world, estimated at between 55 and 80 million years old. Namib translates to a vast place, and is the name given to the desert by the Nama people; certainly an apt description when you look at the numbers. When you see the Namib, you understand just how vast it is. And beautiful.

Map of Namibia
Map credit: ezlion Maps from http://www.ezilon.com/maps/

We visited Namibia in late September, during the dry season. It’s a dusty time of year, but the best time for viewing wildlife — and the days are warm. In recent years the rains have been scant and Namibia is suffering through an extended drought. There are only a few permanent rivers in the country, but many more that fill temporarily when heavy rains do come.

We stayed in three tented camps throughout Namibia and traveled from camp to camp by airplane because of the great distances between them. Flying in small aircraft gave me a great appreciation for the expanse, the colors, the grace of the many snaking, dry river beds lined by trees and shrubs and the colorful mountains of the desert. With my nose pressed to the window, I enjoyed the ever-changing landscape. In one direction there was sandy scrub-brush, in another sharp, black mountains jutting from the sand, in yet another direction the red sand dunes and rocky outcroppings caught my eye. Always there was a spectacular view. Fifty shades of gray? More like fifty shades of brown, black and red in the Namib Desert.

Tent Camping – Only Better Than You Would Imagine

Kuala Desert Lodge, owned and managed by Wilderness Safaris, is located on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, near Sossusvlei, along the dry riverbed of the Tsauchab River (pronounced Tsau-ghab). Beyond, the enormous red dunes of the Namib Desert provide a spectacular view, but the landscape is still wide open. It is rocky in places, sandy in others, and dotted with dry grass and occasional trees. Always on the horizon are the mountains and the dunes.

Kulala region
Our home for the next few nights was tent (kulala) #17, built on a wooden floor complete with a thatched roof, deck and the spectacular view described above. The large, comfy bed was surrounded by mosquito netting, as one would expect in Africa. The attached bathroom included the luxury of running water heated by solar panels. A bucket in the corner of the shower reminded us to collect the precious cold water before stepping into the hot shower. This water would be used by the staff to clean our room.

The en-suite bathroom is constructed of adobe and has a flat roof, accessible by ladder. One night, staff members made up a cozy bed for us on the roof and we slept under the stars. The night sky in the Southern Hemisphere looked completely unfamiliar to us and even the moon was askew. It was difficult to take my eyes off the night sky and fall asleep. And, it was thrilling to wake during the night, look up at the sky, and behold the stellar display. Camp was quiet, even the wind had quieted, and I felt as if I had the whole desert and all of the stars to myself. At that moment I felt like the most fortunate person on earth.

The main lodge includes a dining area, fully-stocked bar, a large deck with expansive views and a swimming pool. We spent (rare) spare time in the afternoon on the deck enjoying the view and a gin & tonic.

Early Morning Departures – Get Used to Them

Whether on safari in Namibia or elsewhere in Africa, early morning departures are the rule because there is always so much to see. That and the fact that animals are the most active early in the day and toward evening when it is cool. An early start from Kulala was essential to beat the heat and to enjoy the morning light on the landscape, as game viewing was not the primary focus of our visit.

Michael shows us the way
By 6 am we were up and dressed. A breakfast buffet, including hot and cold cereal, fresh fruit and yogurt, as well as a cooked breakfast for those wanting eggs and bacon, was waiting for us. By 7 am we were in the safari vehicle heading out for the day’s activities.

Sossusvlei, Dune 45, Deadvlei and Sesriem Canyon

The red dunes of the Namib Desert called to us on the first morning of our stay. You already know what time we were on the road (which are mostly gravel and dirt) to Sossusvlei. The drive kept me with my nose to the window, once again. There was always something new to see, not to mention the challenge of taking photos from a moving vehicle!

Sossusvlei means dead end marsh and is derived from the local Nama word for dead end or no return (sossus) and Afrikaans for marsh (vlei). It refers to the end of a salt and clay pan running between the red dunes in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in the south of the Namib Desert. During times of extreme rain the Tsauchab River fills with water, but is unable to drain to the ocean because the dunes block its path. This area between the red dunes is referred to as Sossusvlei, as is the the area where the river ends.

Dune 45, so named because it is 45 km from the Sesriem park gate off the main road, was our first destination. We arrived early, but so did others. This is a popular dune to hike – its accessible, beautiful and only about 550 feet high. The largest dune in Sossusvlei is Big Daddy, at over 1,060 feet, but we left that for others more fit than us.

The “trail” in the very fine, red sand follows the sharp crest of the dune. I found a plodding, deliberate gate was the most efficient, being careful to place my foot in the imprint of the person in front of me. The views along the ridge of Dune 45 were spectacular and ever-changing thanks to the changing sunlight. After taking a few minutes to enjoy the view at the top of the dune from every direction I walked a few feet beyond the trail of footprints, wishing to claim my own little portion of Dune 45. After making a deliberate ascent I chose to sprint down the side of Dune 45, sinking ankle-deep in the talc-like sand. An astonishing amount of red sand ended up in my shoes!

One visual wonder followed another as we moved on to Deadvlei. If you have ever seen pictures of the Namib Desert, you likely have seen pictures of Deadvlei. The vlei was formed by flooding from the Tsauchab River which allowed camel thorn (acacia) trees to grow. With a changing climate, and shifting of the dunes, river flooding was cut off and the trees died. They have not decayed due to the extremely dry climate and are estimated to be about 900 years old. On the way to Deadvlei we passed another smaller vlei that was nearly as pretty. The contrast of the white clay pan against the red sand was remarkable, as was the temperature on Deadvlei. With the white clay reflecting the mid-day heat, it is very easy to get overheated very quickly. We each carried a bottle of water and we drank all that we carried.

Sesriem Canyon is a narrow canyon formed by the Tsauchab River near the beginning of the sossusvlei area. It is one of the few locations in the region to hold water year round. The name comes from the Afrikaans ses, meaning six, and riem, meaning leather strap. In order to reach the pools of water deep in the canyon, early settlers needed to join together six lengths of leather straps, tie them to a bucket and lower the bucket to the water.

We had to scramble over and between boulders to drop down into the canyon which was an interesting mix of rock formations and gravel. I hiked to the very end to see the little pool of water that remains today. That part was a bit underwhelming and, I have to say, I wouldn’t want to have to drink the foul-smelling water that remains today.

Wildlife – More Numerous Than We Expected

The travel literature describing Overseas Adventure Travel’s Namibia trip is careful to manage expectations. Namibia does not, with the exception of Etosha National Park, have the concentrated population of wildlife that you will see in Botswana, for example, but we did see wildlife every day during the time we spent in Kuala Desert Lodge.

It was always a treat to spot oryx (gemsbok), ostrich, springbok and the occasional black backed jackal. Ostrich were particularly wary, and difficult to photograph, but the oryx and springbok seemed almost bored by our presence. We spotted quite a few birds and enjoyed viewing an enormous nest constructed by sociable weaver birds. These large nests help protect against snakes (they love to snatch young birds) as well as insulating the birds from extreme heat and cold. These enormous nests are tended by multiple generations of sociable weavers and may number several hundred birds.

Sundowner, Then Back to Camp for Dinner and Namibian Wine

Near the end of most days our guides drove us to a different spot to enjoy the sunset, appetizers and, of course, a gin & tonic or two. This enjoyable ritual is called sundowner in Africa and we looked forward to it every evening. It is an opportunity to visit with others in our group, compare notes on who saw what during the day (there were two safari vehicles in our group) and watch the ever-changing sunset. As conversation paused, only the sound of the constant wind remained.

It was generally dark by the time we reached camp. Dinner followed and always consisted of multiple, and delicious, courses. One evening we opened and shared a bottle of Namibian wine we purchased in Windhoek. It was the only bottle of Namibian wine in the only wine shop we visited. Coincidently, the Neuras Shiraz is produced just 80-odd kilometers from Kulala Desert Lodge. Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate, Neuras means place of abandoned water in the Koikoi language, is able to farm in the desert only because of the presence of several cold water springs on the 14,000-hectare estate.

Neuras Shiraz
The 2012 Neuras Shiraz was a delightful red wine with red fruit flavors and aromas, a relatively light body and smooth tannins. It was very enjoyable chilled. We were thrilled to find a truly local Namibian wine, even if by accident and not design. Whenever we travel we are always on the lookout for locally produced wine. We had no idea we would find such a delicious, local wine in the Namib Desert!

Fairy Circles, A Morning Hike and Goodbye to Kuala Desert Camp

I don’t recall if someone in our safari vehicle first asked about the strange circles in the desert sand or one of our guides told us about them. Once they were pointed out to us I saw them frequently. It was fun looking for them as we drove through the desert. The circles vary in size and look like round sandy areas devoid of grass in an area otherwise dotted with grass. Their cause is not known for certain (poison plants or aliens were once thought to be possible causes), though recent scientific study indicates termites might be involved somehow…those pesky little creatures.

Fairy circles in the Namib Desert
A highlight of the time we spent at Kulala Desert Lodge was a morning hike along the dry riverbed of the Tsauchab River. Because of the presence of big cats (lions and leopards) we were never allowed to hike when we visited Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All sightseeing was done from within safari vehicles. Because there are no predators in the area around Kulala Desert Lodge we were free to walk about. It might seem like an insignificant thing, but the ability to walk through the desert was very special. It was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the smell of the dry brush and feel the gravel and sand beneath my feet. The patterns left in the sand by the wind and the small creatures that live there were awesome.

I felt sad when it was time to move on to our next experience and wanted one more day to spend in camp, walking through the desert and enjoying the scenery. After spending four days with our guides I gained great respect for their knowledge of the Namib Desert and their enthusiasm for guiding. Both Michael and Cliff were integral to the quality experience we had at Kulala Desert Lodge and I can’t thank them enough for their knowledge and kindness.

Our Journeys Change Lives
Our Journeys Change Lives

For more photos of our time spent in Kulala Desert Lodge head over to our photos on SmugMug.



  1. It looks like you had the adventure of a lifetime, Nancy! Your photos and narrative made me feel like I had been there, too. Beautiful post!

  2. Michelle Williams

    I don’t even know what to say, this is like a dream vacation I can only hope to experience some day. I so appreciate you sharing your journey. It sweeps me away each time I read one of your experiences.