Text Raphaella Frame Production Sven Alberding Photographs Micky Hoyle
Nerves grip me when I realise that the baby-faced boy who meets us at Windhoek’s International Arrivals is our charter pilot. Before I can plot my escape, we’ve reached 3 000 metres and the plane is bobbing along, as though dangled on a nylon string. Large shadows cast by the clouds on the ground below us look like the patches on a giraffe’s hide – a promise of things to come.
It takes two hours to fly the 420 kilometres to Onguma Safari Camp, a 36 000-hectare property just outside the Von Lindequist Gate, at the eastern entrance to the Etosha National Park. We touch down on a grassy airstrip and are greeted warmly by our guide David Mlambo, who drives us the 15 minutes to The Fort at Onguma, where we’ll be staying. The Fort consists of 11 private suites, each occupying a spacious chalet with its own deck and indoor and outdoor showers. In addition, there is the maxi-suite, with a large outdoor bath, and the ultra-glamorous Fort suite overlooking the swimming pool.
After rinsing away our travels in a hand wash of warm water and rose oil, we‘re introduced to The Fort’s hospitable team, headed by Karen Twine and Ryan Fulton. We sip home-made iced tea while enjoying the view from the deck that overlooks the water hole. From here you can see all the way to Fisher’s Pan in the distance. Soaking up the tranquillity of the surroundings, I take a large gulp of the verdant smell of the African bush and feel the tensions of city living dissolving from my shoulders.
The Fort at Onguma was named one of the world’s top 30 new hotels on the US Travel & Leisure magazine’s 2008 It List. Gazing at the scenic setting and the beautifully designed building, I can see why. It was conceptualised by property owner André Louw, realised by South African architect Johann Slee and has a regal African feeling about it. Constructed as a predominantly open-plan building, the lodge features passages created by billowing organza curtains, staircases to towers that survey the landscape and majestic, antique Moroccan doors that swing onto open courtyards with pools disguised as moats.
The soft furnishings, put together by Namibian interior designer Heidrun Diekmann, are elegant and stylish. While the use of stone, wood and a natural colour palette helps the space reflect the surroundings, the occasional punchy addition of deep purple and citrus-yellow accents on lampshades or scatter cushions adds a luxe touch. It’s this balance between the lodge’s harmony with its setting and the ultimate in luxury that really puts you in the holiday mood.
Glamorous features, such as the shallow cocktail pool – where you can savour a gin and tonic while watching the sunset over the water hole – provide a more-than-acceptable reason for wanting to spend all your time at The Fort itself. Onguma is, however, home to at least 30 varieties of animals, including the elusive black rhino, lion, impala, kudu, hartebeest and zebra. So, if you can tear yourself away from the lodge, a game drive is certainly worth it.
Within five minutes we’ve sighted a dazzle of zebra, with a two- week-old calf in tow. They are followed by a few blue wildebeest, who, David tells us, have very poor eyesight and so rely on the zebra as their danger-alert system. An ominous-looking cloud rolls in overhead, drawing our attention to the most spectacular sky. We’re arrested by the painterly way the bright blue is suddenly smudged with grey till it turns almost black. We are admiring the drama of it all when it begins to drizzle. Unperturbed, we continue our drive towards Fisher’s Pan.
Because it is the rainy season, the pan is not its usual parched self. We find a shallow pool of milky-turquoise water extending to the horizon; it is beautiful and still. Visitors between May and August will see large flocks of flamingos in the pan – sadly we won’t be privy to this sight. There is, however, plenty of bird life around the water. Kittlitz’s plovers dart about so quickly they appear legless.
Not having spotted much in the way of big game, we’re excited when we finally come face to face with three male lions lolling sleepily beneath an acacia tree. The big cats are magnificent –and a little frightening, considering their proximity. They don’t appear very interested in us though; all we can elicit is a steely glare. But this encounter seems to spark off our game-viewing good fortune, and we pass giraffe and a herd of elephant before returning to camp.
Having worked up an appetite, we’re delighted to discover that meals are a real occasion at The Fort. Breakfasts are generous and filling enough to keep you going for most of the day. In the unlikely event that you’re hungry by midday, there are three courses at lunch to keep you satiated until the four-course dinner. The cuisine reflects pan-African influences, and includes game-based dishes such as grilled oryx with onion-marmalade sauce and kudu fillet. The atmosphere is particularly mesmerising at dinner time, when the large fireplaces are crackling, the water hole is lit up so that we can view any nocturnal animals that may wander past, and the staff gathers to sing welcome songs in Oshiwambo.
Soothed and replete, we head back to our rooms for a hot shower and some sleep. Cocooned in crisp sheets and the enveloping darkness, it’s easy to drift off. But a roar cuts through the quiet in the dead of night – a reminder that we are encompassed by a wild landscape that epitomises African beauty at its best.
• HL flew to Namibia courtesy of Air Namibia, which operates scheduled flights twice daily from Cape Town and 11 flights per week from Jo’burg, all directly to Windhoek. The flight from Cape Town to Windhoek is about two hours, and from Jo’burg two and a quarter hours. For more information visit airnamibia.com.na, call 00264-61-299-6000 or contact your travel agent.
• If, like us, you prefer a bird’s-eye view on your journey, Scenic Air charter flights will carry you from Windhoek to your destination. Flights will travel to most locations including Sossusvlei, Lüderitz, the Fish River Canyon, Swakopmund, Twyfelfontein in Damaraland, up to the Kunene River, Etosha and across the Caprivi. Visit scenic-air.com for more information or call 00264-61-249-268.
• Those who prefer to drive can book a vehicle at one of the many car rental companies. The drive from Windhoek to The Fort at Onguma is about five and a half hours, with many interesting stops en route. Make sure you pack supplies for the road!
• HL was hosted by The Fort at Onguma. The Onguma property offers four types of accommodation including Bush Camp, Treetop Camp and Tented Camp, and The Fort. Prices range from R690 (Bush Camp, bed and breakfast) to R3 650 (The Fort, including all meals and one activity per day) per person sharing. Prices at the Onguma camp site start at R125 per person.
• You will need a valid passport to travel to Namibia, though South Africans do not need a visa.
• The best time to go is between April and June, although it’s a great place to visit any time of the year. Temperatures during the day are around 25°C and the nights are cool. During the dry winter months, July to September, daytime temperatures usually stay above 20°C, but the nights can be very cold. The rainy season lasts from October to April.
• The best time for game viewing is between May and October, and the bird-watching season is best from November to March.
• Etosha and surrounds are medium-risk malaria areas. Consult your doctor before visiting, and take insect repellent.
• The local currency is Namibian dollars, but South African Rands are widely accepted. The exchange rate is 1:1.
• Namibia practises daylight saving. Winter (from the first Sunday of April to the first Sunday in September) is one hour behind SA.
This article was originally featured in the July 2009 issue of House & Leisure.