A Jewel Among Namibia’s Dunes

In the heart of Africa’s largest national park, Little Kulala lodge is an otherworldly retreat.



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SAFARI IS AN act of witness, so the concept of a safari with very little wildlife seems, at first blush, counterintuitive. Yes, you’ll see big game, but not the elephant parades that rule Botswana’s Okavango Delta or the lion prides that roam South Africa’s Kruger National Park. In Namibia, safari means taking a breath and feeling your own smallness in the enormity of the landscape — seeing the size of the world and considering your place in it. In Namibia, the unseen is as important as the seen.

Tucked in the southwestern corner of Africa, Namibia is known for its open spaces and superlatives: It’s one of the least-densely populated countries in the world; it’s home to the Namib, thought to be the oldest desert on the planet; and it’s the site of Namib-Naukluft Park, Africa’s largest national park. Visually, Namibia is at once otherworldly and strangely familiar — its far-flung landscape seems closer to Mars than the rest of Earth. Still, you’ve seen it before because the towering, red Sossusvlei sand dunes and the stark dead trees of the Deadvlei, or “dead marsh,” populate screensavers the world over.

For that reason, arriving at Little Kulala lodge is akin to a walking dream — space, time, and even light seem to exist a little differently. Fully renovated at the end of 2020, the retreat sits in the heart of a vast desert plain in the nearly 100,000-acre private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, which is seemingly empty aside from the occasional acacia tree or Nara melon bush. The nearest geographic feature is a small rocky outcrop, a stone’s throw away to the naked eye but two miles away by tangible measure. Beyond that, Sossusvlei dunes loom as large as mountains on the horizon. At dusk, the entire vista glows scarlet, then maroon. There is so little light pollution that it’s possible to walk around the camp by starlight alone.



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It is also astonishingly silent, with just the occasional gust of wind stirring up filigrees of sand, ice clinking in a fellow guest’s cocktail, or a nearby oryx yanking dry grass from the earth. In Little Kulala’s communal area, a giant wraparound porch lined with dining tables, papasans, and swinging chairs encourages guests to relish in the landscape with long, languid afternoons that blend into sunset dinners followed by stargazing. The roof is supported by reclaimed trees that mimic the desert’s macabre trees, while gray and pink accents reflect the subtle color variations of the landscape’s shifting sands.

Come nightfall, a new, gentle chirping emanates from the darkness. When I ask my guide about it, he says, “They are the barking geckos, our nighttime friends.” Across the main patio, a couple overhears our conversation and launches into a lively recollection of growing up in Southern Africa, where barking geckos are as common as frogs or grasshoppers in North America. “You may see one or two in your room at night, but just let them be,” suggests another guest. “They like to eat mosquitos; they can stay.”


Back in my expansive, comfortable kulala, there is nary a lizard in sight, but truly enormous outdoor showers and private plunge pools ensure you remain comfortable in the intense desert heat. There is also a proper air conditioning unit in my villa, and I was advised to soak the traditional kikoy sarong in my room in water, then lay under it with a fan blowing in my direction should I overheat. In the desert, however, even in the warmest months, it becomes temperate and even a bit chilly after dark. The nights at Little Kulala are so comfortable and serene, in fact, that one of the retreat’s most beloved offerings is an outdoor bed setup so you can slumber under the stars. There are so few predators in this region that it’s one of the few safari camps in Africa that allows fully outdoor sleeping without the protection of so much as a mosquito net.

By day, activities abound. There are nature drives and thrilling quad bike excursions, but guests primarily visit Little Kulala to access Namib-Naukluft Park for desert adventures. These include heroic hikes up sand dunes; running or sliding down said dunes; wandering among Deadvlei’s centuries-old, desiccated trees; and hot-air ballooning over an ocean of 1,000-foot-high dunes that undulate into the distance.

Little Kulala benefits from having its own exclusive gate that opens directly into the park, whereas other camps in the area need to swing through a public gate in the neighboring village of Sesriem, 15 miles north. This access makes it possible to be the first person standing on the dunes at dawn, and the first back into a plunge pool at teatime. It turns out that even in one of the most desolate places on the planet, location is everything.


Fine Hotels + Resorts®

Leela Palace is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

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Our Contributors

Todd Plummer Writer

Todd Plummer is a Boston-based writer and adventurer. He is an alumnus of McGill University and St. John's University School of Law, and his interests include skiing, safari, and sustainable travel.

Maike McNeill Photographer

Maike McNeill is a photographer and owner of Honest Work. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, her assignments take her into Africa to photograph the sustainability journeys of luxury eco-lodges and nature conservation foundations. She is a contributing member of Women Photograph and her work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler and Design Anthology.


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