Damaraland, part of the Kunene region of north-west Namibia, is a land of dry red stones and natural wonders. But the parched landscape can produce unexpected richness, as we discovered just east of Khorixas when we visited Damara Mopane Lodge.
There’s a two-fisted magnetism to Damara Mopane Lodge. It’s in easy reach of numerous attractions such as Twyfelfontein’s large collection of Stone Age rock engravings, the 280 million-year-old trees of the Petrified Forest, and the eroded dolerite known as the Organ Pipes. But despite all these potential activities, there’s a calm tranquility to the lodge that I find seductive.
There are 55 rooms but it doesn’t seem overwhelming because they’re laid out in concentric semi-circles of interlinking pathways, with a large swimming pool at the centre. This, and the fact that each separate cottage has its own small walled garden, makes it seem more like an African village than the big lodge it really is.
Inside, each cottage revels in soothing shades of grey, with crisp white linen and navy throws on the beds. Our room had a huge artwork of a donkey on one wall that seemed to shout local colour, despite being in black and white. The aircon was a welcome friend on a hot day.
Things to do at Damara Mopane Lodge
1. Watch the sun go down from the sunset deck
2. Take a hike
If climbing a rocky koppie sounds like too much work, you may prefer to take the gentler 3.7km valley walk that starts behind cottage number 41. It’ll take you about 90 minutes to pass through a valley, small ravines and a mopane woodland. Look out for the gorgeous purple-pod cluster-leaf, trumpet thorns and shepherd trees along the way. If you’re quiet, you may even surprise a few animals like warthog, springbok or the tiny Damara dik-dik, Namibia’s smallest antelope. If you’re a keen birder, take your binos to watch Monteiro’s hornbill, cardinal woodpecker, several weaver species, sunbirds, babblers, robins and guinea fowl. You may also want to ask at reception about a guided bird walk as a chance to cash in on local knowledge of where to find the specials you’re looking for.
3. Explore the gardens
Wander along the stone paths around the lodge to enjoy the profusion of vegetable gardens in the small walled plots of each cottage. The first time we visited, I was so intrigued by them that I asked to meet head gardener Erro Pandeni-Ilonga.
Nervous at first, he relaxed once we started walking among the plants he’s obviously proud of. Everywhere was a profusion of lettuce, beetroot, carrot, brinjal, broccoli, cabbage, onions, leeks, sweet potato, kohlrabi, spinach, green pepper and tomato.
Everything is fertilised organically with manure, some of it from a nearby goat farm. The water for the lodge comes from an underground borehole, and some of it is recycled for use in the gardens, supplemented by fresh borehole water as needed.
On our return seven years later, we sought out Erro again. He was as enthusiastic as ever, even showing us his nursery where he coaxes seeds into seedlings, repotting them till they’re big and strong enough to plant out in the gardens.
One negative effect of the heavy rains earlier this year was that it flooded the gardens for days at a stretch and killed off some of the veggies. Another is that there was an explosion in the population of red-billed queleas. Sweet little birds in small groups, they’re murder in their thousands. Erro said they came in such huge numbers that they broke sturdy tree branches and swamped paths and cottage roofs with their droppings.
But birds aren’t the worst of Erro’s troubles. Baboons ransack the gardens from time to time, especially during times of drought. Kudus used to as well but now there’s a fence along the back wall to keep them out. To compensate, Erro grows lucerne that’s cut and taken to the waterhole for the kudus when there’s little else for them to eat. Happily, the bumper rains of 2022 mean for now there’s enough food and water in the veld for all the animals.
4. Meet the scarecrows and scraptures
5. Cool off in the pool
6. Enjoy a gin and tonic in the bar
7. Sit around the fire in the early evening
8. Enjoy the food
Dinner is served on the long verandah out front, where we could see palm trees silhouetted against the remnants of a hot orange sunset.
It was a thrill to know that the cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, the lettuce and tomato salad, the beetroot salad, the Kohlrabi in cheese sauce, had all come from the lodge’s own gardens, freshly picked that day. Starters (like calamari or sweetcorn cakes) were served at our table and we served ourselves from the buffet for our mains. Apart from the fresh salads and veggies, some of my favourite dishes included bobotie, chicken curry, and tagliatelle with tomato sauce. There were also venison steaks. Desserts were served at our table too, like date and brandy pudding with custard, or pannacotta.
Top tip: breakfasts are also a feast and I had one of my best ever omelettes here.
9. Indulge in some retail therapy
10. Relax on your stoep
To really feel your muscles relax and your mind uncoil, sit on your private stoep in the cool of early morning with a cup of coffee or with a glass of wine in the late afternoon. Listen to the birds, the breeze rustling the leaves of the mopane and purple-pod cluster-leaf trees. Smell the scent of lemon verbena, coriander or citrus, depending on what’s planted in your own little patch of garden. It’s a moment simply to be calm and connect with the heart of this alluring lodge.
11. See Vingerklip Rock
Since the collapse of Mukorob in 1988, Vingerklip (Afrikaans for ‘finger rock’) is probably the most famous rock in Namibia. This sedimentary rock needle stands 35m tall. It’s only about 50km south-east of Damara Mopane Lodge, so it makes sense to visit and take some photos of this unique formation. Try to get views of it from different angles; from one specific viewpoint it looks as though it’s giving you the finger! Find the turnoff on the C39 about 30km east of the lodge.
12. Walk through the Petrified Forest
13. Don’t miss Twyfelfontein’s rock etchings
14. See the Organ Pipes
15. Witness the effect of lava at Burnt Mountain
Even though Burnt Mountain is only about 1km from the Organ Pipes, if you’re pushed for time this would be the one site to miss. A national monument since 1956, it represents evidence of a 1000-degree volcanic reaction and an 80-million-year-old stream of lava that changed rocks into colours of black and purple. To me, though, it looks a bit like a tailing pile left over from mining activity. That said, it’s close enough to Twyfelfontein and the Organ Pipes to justify a quick look.
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