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Is this Africa’s most spectacular eco-lodge?

Harper's Bazaar (UK) logo Harper's Bazaar (UK) 14/03/2019 Caroline Lewis
a group of people in a room: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in northern Namibia © Serra Cafema © Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in northern Namibia

In the world’s last great wilderness, conservation is not just a passing concern: it’s of paramount importance to every person privileged enough to travel through southern Africa’s unforgettable landscapes. Wilderness Safaris has recently rebuilt its Serra Cafema camp, which is now exclusively solar-powered. Each of the safari company’s lodges can be dismantled to leave no trace on the landscape should the lease run out, and there are initiatives to help the local communities, whether it’s by collecting school children from boarding schools 25 kilometres away to spare them a trip by donkey cart, employing villagers to do things like laundry or providing water and food waste for livestock. At Serra Cafema, Himba women produce the Mbiri bath products, which are made with the resin that they have been harvesting for centuries from the ombumbiri-tree.

a living room filled with furniture and a large window: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

The camp

Camp is a deceptive word in this context – there’s nothing remotely tent- or caravan-like at this eight-cabin riverside retreat in Kaokoland, more commonly known now as the Kunene Region. Even glamping wouldn’t be appropriate. These are some seriously stylish, not to mention spacious rooms. Each has a semi-outdoor lounge and a sunlounger-enhanced deck (in most cases, overlooking the Kunene River). The huge bedrooms have vast beds (helpfully draped with mosquito nets at turndown), snack stations with a kettle and sweet treats, and a desk and chair, which has been fashioned out of old backpacks (the Windhoek design studio responsible for the decor is certainly creative). Shower options are both indoor and out. Each suite has a floor-to-ceiling mural of a Himba tribesperson, which may take a little getting used to depending on the zoom. There might be Nile crocodiles lurking in the river, but you’re more likely to be disturbed by the goats munching away on the foliage.

a bedroom with a large window: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

The scenery

The landscape is otherworldly – Namibia has been called the land God made in anger, and that sentiment certainly makes sense here, where empty expanses of red deserts, towering grey heaps and the occasional tuft of shrub form the Mars-like terrain. From the sky (and luckily the standard mode of transport around here is light aircraft), you’ll be able to spot mysterious fairy circles: these sparse round patches are numerable in Kaokoland, yet their origin is unknown. Theories range from the straightforward (boma – or livestock-enclosure – marks left by the nomadic Himba people; a by-product of volcanic heat; termites) to the fantastical (literal fairy circles, created by local imps or aliens).

a view of a rocky mountain: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

The food

Food seems to always be on the agenda at Serra Cafema, which for most people is probably a good thing. Dinner selections are made just when you’re polishing off lunch. Meals ranged from lemon sole and oryx steaks to veggie burgers and Namibian takes on Cornish pasties. If you’re out and about with your guide, mobile sundowners will be set up on the road – we had cocktail hour in Angola, thanks to Staintly’s barman skills on a sandy bank on the other side of the riverine border during a boat trip. In fact, many of the staff seem to harbour secret publican talents; one evening, we returned to find Hendrick’s (no relation) gin station waiting for us so we could test out various incarnations of juniper juice from Namibia, South Africa and, of course, London.

a bedroom with a building in the background: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

The region

Serra Cafema is in the furthest reaches of Namibia, though it’s definitely unwise to attempt to swim across to Angola since there are a hell of a lot of Nile crocs for neighbours. The developing state over the water is still recovering from the civil war that ravaged it for almost three decades, but by all accounts it is a stunning country – and what you can see of it from Namibia on this side of the water is unquestionably beautiful. For now though, even the elephants don’t cross the border thanks to their famously good memory, which can be passed on to their young.

a group of people cross country skiing in the snow: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

The Himba tribe has roamed these parts of Namibia for five centuries. On a visit to meet the local community, we learnt about their tradition of using red ochre paint to cover their bodies for both hygiene and sun protection, as well as the practice of removing the four bottom teeth to help with the proper pronunciation of their dialect. Our guide Staintly, who was born into the tribe, was helpfully able to translate.

At one point, Staintly overheard a conversation about the dating scene in London – his bewilderment at the concept of Tinder, having grown up in a tiny village community, was heartwarming, as was seeing his baffled, slightly glazed expression as he repeatedly informed unsuspecting colleagues about “the dating app” for the rest of the trip.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a mountain: Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n © Wilderness Safaris / Dana Allen Wilderness Safaris just upped its safari game in n

Don’t miss

Slightly less orthodox in terms of modes of transport (and a far cry from the way the Himbas get around), quad-biking is a popular activity at Serra Cafema. Set off at sundown on a speedy, sandy ride up and down the dunes for a thrilling and unforgettable adventure. Just don’t wear white (unless you want it to be covered in a hard-wearing dusting of red sand).

A 90-minute hop by Wilderness Air south will get you to Damaraland, where the namesake camp occupies its own pristine wilderness, and activities include mountain hikes and safari drives in search of flocks of ostrich, desert-adapted elephant and daintily hopping oryx. Or track black rhinos in the wild and see the work the Save the Rhino Trust is doing to protect these endangered animals and restore the population levels with a visit to Desert Rhino Camp, also in the north-west. There are of course also Wilderness camps on the Skeleton Coast and right down south near some of the most famous sand dunes in the world (AKA Sossusvlei).

Mahlatini Luxury Travel offers six-night itineraries to Namibia, including two nights at Wilderness Safaris’ Serra Cafema, from £6,100 a person, including international flights from London to Windhoek via Johannesburg (mahlatini.co.uk).

Gallery: 19 beautiful forests around the world everyone should visit in their lifetime [Insider]

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