Pounding through the Namib Desert’s haunting red sand, skidding past pyramidal pinnacles, towering dunes, unicorn-esque oryxes and eerie boulders, my safari guide, Corne, his hands tight on the steering wheel, turns to me and says offhandedly, “I used to have a pet meerkat. His name was Stokkies.”
It’s an “only in Africa moment,” a comment that might seem absurd elsewhere, but one that makes perfect sense as I scud through the world’s oldest desert, hair wind-whipped, bat-eared foxes in sight, sand like smoke in the road. Meerkats? Why not?
Corne, who grew up in Namibia’s lesser traveled Karas Region, knows its nooks like the back of his hand. Here he once scampered up boulders, camped atop mountains and hunted for artifacts. Traveling through it with him is like being party to the terrain’s deepest secrets. He became a guide when Zannier, a Europe-based, eco-friendly hotel group, bought the remote land from his family to turn it into a preserve. To share the region’s largesse, the company erected a sustainable lodge, Sonop, composed of a handful of luxury tents that occupy a mishmash of towering ledges among a cluster of colossal boulders. From a distance, the camp appears invisible; up close it rates as a zany masterpiece that can only be entered on foot or by golf cart via a sharply inclined, zigzagging ramp that leads to the top.
My tent (a fantasia of period artifacts and antiques, complete with a claw-foot tub and chandelier), boasts 180-degree vistas. I stand on the wraparound porch, awed by the desert’s extreme silence, a quietude that buzzes like an ancient lullaby. In the distance, I see nothing but mountain-mottled land, immense rocks, sand dunes and dots that must be creatures on the roam. Just a six-hour drive from Windhoek, the nation’s capital, the landscape feels so raw — it shivers with a soulfulness that can only be a metaphor for eternity. To me, this feels like where the earth began.
But to Corne, Sonop is nature’s playground. Under his leadership, I ride a fat-tire bike through rocky paths, picnic atop a sand dune, climb a peak at dawn for the sunrise and glimpse the Southern Cross in the velvety darkness of the night. I’ve literally never seen so many stars. One morning, Corne takes me to what he calls his special place. He shows me another group of randomly assembled boulders, overlapping chunks that form a rocky warren.
“This is where the indigenous people lived,” he says, pointing out a number of extant artifacts such as a fossilized ostrich egg once used to store rainwater. “It’s sad that they’ve gone,” he says. “Sad that the newcomers drove them away. They had lived here for centuries — maybe a millennium, maybe more. They knew how to work this land.”
For a moment, we are silent. It feels like a homage — or a prayer.
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Back near Windhoek, at Zannier’s first property in Africa, Omaanda, I have another “only in Africa” moment. After a few glorious days going on game drives, relaxing by the pool and dining on the best safari food I’ve ever eaten, I’ve gone “next door” to Naankuse, an acclaimed conservation outpost and animal sanctuary that has a partnership with Omaanda, to tour their medical clinic or watch feeding time at the animal hospital.
Unexpectedly, I get a serendipitous invitation to track wild dogs through the bush with founders Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren, two of the world’s most famous conservationists. Though wearing an inappropriate skirt and without a camera, I leap enthusiastically into the back of their vehicle and we take off through the dust. We pass rhinos and zebras and antelopes as we loop around the roads for about an hour.
Eventually, they see something, hop out of the car and motion for me to get out and follow. We ramble around, my skirt catching nearly every thorn, through riverbeds, beneath trails, over rocks — until finally Marlice spots the den. I’ve never seen anyone with a more beautiful grin when she turns to me, excited to have found the dogs. I peer but can’t make the dogs out. They’re about an Olympic pool’s length away, but hidden among the bushes. Then, suddenly, I clearly see a female painted dog, lording over a brood of playful puppies. We can hear them snuffling and cooing as they wrestle and cavort. I’m mesmerized — obviously. I turn to Marlice and Rudie and they look just as excited as I feel.
It was mutual friend Angelina Jolie who introduced the Zannier family to Rudie and Marlice when the van Vuurens sought a solution to stop a developer who had made plans to build 400 houses on a spate of land that edged their conservation complex. “It would have ruined the ecosystem and endangered the animals,” says Rudie. The Zannier family readily embraced the idea of a project in Africa that could help make a difference, a place where tourism could help support conservation in a meaningful and powerful way.
“Let’s go do something good for the world,” the elder Zannier purportedly told his son once the deal was hatched. To whit, the Zannier family built Omaanda on a ridge overlooking a watering hole as a non-obtrusive luxury lodge with just 10 indigenous hut-style rooms. The rest of the undisturbed land was joined as part of Naankuse to become a monitored area to reintroduce injured, rehabilitated or endangered animals to their natural habitat. Guests at Omaanda can partake of Naankuse-led safari drives through the preserve to see rhinos, elephants, zebras, meerkats, wild dogs and scores of once displaced or injured animals living their life as nature intended — all under the protective eye of the van Vuurens. The money guests pay helps keep the animals free from harm. It’s a safari stay that can make a difference.