As you fly south from Namibia's capital, Windhoek, the landscape beneath the wings of your six-seater plane turns from yellow sand to red rocky outcrops, and eventually to a series of black and tan valleys which bear some resemblance to the hell-like iron ore ranges of Death Valley in California and the Pilbara in western Australia.
Down there somewhere lies one of the most isolated hotels in the world, and one of my firm favourites: Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge. The lodge is built halfway up a slope at the end of a huge canyon that does not look as if it belongs anywhere on Earth. Approaching by plane during the winter months (high season), the twisting winds that rifle down the valley tug and push at the wings, forcing the horizon to rise and fall and swing left and right. There is a second or two of clear air before the wheels crash down hard on the rocky runway and passengers begin to release their white-knuckle grips on the seats.
It is almost impossible to see the lodge until you are about to hit the dirt, as it has been sculpted from the same rocks as the landscape and so blends in perfectly. It is, perhaps, the most sensitively designed hotel in the world. Each of the 10 "desert suites" is built from stone and has a curved wall shielding it. If you have ever toured the Hebrides off Scotland's north-west coast, or the Orkney Islands further north, you will have seen the "brochs" or "Atlantic roundhouses", double-walled dry-stone towers whose use is contested among archaeologists. Strategic defences to ward off marauding invaders? Useful places to store things? Maybe simply a way for builders to do some chest-beating and say, "My broch's bigger than your broch".
No such confusion at the Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, where the stand-alone desert suite brochs are most definitely built to house mini-palaces in the wilderness. Where the woolly men of the Scottish isles might have had just straw and salted fish to excite them, guests at Sossusvlei enjoy temperature control, CD players, log fires and panoramic views over the valley. There is even a personal telescope to watch for game trotting across the valley floors and tiptoeing along the rocky mountain ridge lines.
Each suite is built as a split-level, with its bed in the higher section. The suites are shielded from their neighbours by the sloping, curving walls. The showers have floor-to-ceiling glass walls looking straight out to the valley and are placed so that you can game-spot while you shower; the only living thing that will see you is the occasional passing oryx. Each suite also has a designated butler who will prepare fluffy scrambled eggs around the clock and bring you hot chocolate if you feel slightly under the weather.
On my first night, after dinner, when I was warming my toes by the pot-bellied stove, thinking that surely things cannot get better than this at Sossusvlei, my butler knocked on the door and invited me to attend a stargazing session at the hotel's observatory. Guests each had a go squinting through the telescope at the heavens. We saw Mars as clearly as if it were a second moon. I lingered on the Pleiades. I watched the cluster flicker like a church full of Easter candles through the miles and miles of empty night sky between us. We sipped our hot chocolate for warmth as we craned upwards at the unsurpassed star display.
The nearest electric lights to Sossusvlei are back in Windhoek, a few hundred kilometres away, so a moonless night at the lodge is about as black and natural as you will see anywhere in the world. Stargazing is possibly the best leveller known to mankind. It can make even an international company president or a self-made millionaire feel humble and small. We knew we were in the presence of greater forces here, and certainly a greater beauty, and we all whispered reverentially. Even when we saw shooting stars our gasps were hushed and at the backs of our throats. The husbands kept telling their wives what they were looking at. The wives politely ignored them and kept staring up, in awe of the magnitude of the experience.
Those hard-hearted souls who had still not fallen in love with the Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge by this time certainly did once they began tracing the outline of the Southern Cross in the sky. For the rest of us who were already hooked, this simple but brilliant hotel activity, making use of a romantic, bewitching natural resource, was another of the hotel's magical tours de force. My butler appeared again and escorted me along the dark, dusty path back to my broch. "If you like, when you go to bed, Mr Matthew, you can do more stargazing," he said.
It was only after he had said good night and retired for the evening and I had leapt into bed that I understood his comment. Above each huge bed in each stone desert suite at Sossusvlei is a skylight, through which the starlight streams at night. In my rush to explore the rest of the suite and enjoy its comforts, I had not even noticed it. My white sheets were washed stellar blue by the combined light of a million planets, supernovae and red dwarfs that cascaded in through the skylight.
All my life I had wanted to fall asleep under a sky where, from horizon to horizon, all that was visible were stars. Sossusvlei granted me that wish. Heavenly hotel, out-of-this-world service, chocolate-infused interstellar entertainment, and a private in-bed observatory. It doesn't get much better than that. In the morning after a breakfast which would have satisfied four people let alone one, I set about what I had come to Sossusvlei to do: track bat-eared foxes, the most remarkable of creatures. I had been doing some research on them and had developed something of an obsession. I have always been a bit partial to a fox - despite growing up in good farming country in the heart of England where they are commonly hated and hunted - but their cousins here in Namibia are freaks with ears the size of baseball mitts. They have to be seen to be believed. As a result, their hearing is unparalleled in the animal kingdom - well, maybe only by bats whose ears the foxes have clearly stolen. The bat-eared fox can pick up the otherwise inaudible squeak of a terrified ground mole at 50 metres, and, very probably, the blips of satellites passing several kilometres overhead in space.
It also means they can hear a heavy-footed idiot like me blundering through the savannah with a camera and a flask of tea, and the chances are they will run a mile. So if you want to get close to these amazing animals in their natural habitat, you need a guide. Luckily, Sossusvlei is one of a small selection of exquisite safari resorts run by Conservation Corporation Africa, or CCAfrica as it is known by its devotees. They have masterfully blended environmentally-conscious tourism with big-budget comfort and have engaged some of the continent's best wildlife guides to complete the experience.
At some of CCAfrica's properties guests can even take ranger courses to earn a basic certificate in guiding. You get to identify tracks in the sand, learn the difference between a hartebeest and a wildebeest, and what to do if an elephant tries to charge you. On one elephant safari in Botswana, I joked that the obvious answer to the elephant dilemma was "don't pay him", a quip that guaranteed that I was treated like a leper for the rest of the day.
At Sossusvlei I was in no mood for jokes. Tracking bat-eared foxes was a serious business. My ranger, the encyclopaedic Vernon, was an expert on bat-eared foxes. In fact, he was an expert on everything that ran, hopped, crawled, slithered and flew. He took me for game drives to listen to the jackals howling, and introduced me to barking geckos that called from their holes with an insistent "ping, ping".
One late afternoon, he spied the tips of the ears of a fox. It must have been 100 metres away but he saw it clearly. I struggled to find it even with binoculars. Vernon held my shoulders and twisted me around slowly. 'There. You got them?' I got them. Through a miniature forest of long grass travelled the ears, unmistakeably bat-like but definitely not attached to a bat. It was a family of foxes, with one adult at the head and another bringing up the rear and between them several young who were all but invisible in the grass. I watched them make their way across the valley floor, into and out of grass clumps and over stony dry riverbeds, until they disappeared from view behind a rock buttress. It is moments like this that change travellers' lives. Luxury hotels with unique locations like the Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge give their guests the opportunity to alter their perspective and reassess their definitions of luxury.
Now, when the pressures of life descend, I breathe deeply and imagine I am back watching my family of bat-eared foxes cross the Sossusvlei valley floor silently and intently in the Namib Desert. Excerpt from Hotel Heaven: Confessions of a Luxury Hotel Addict. Published by Old Street Publishing, London. Available at Magrudy's and from @email:www.amazon.com
© Copyright Matthew Brace / 2008