Wild night out

Phoebe Smith journeys to the Namibian bush to sleep under the stars in the Onguma Nature Reserve’s unique Dream Cruiser.

Paid partnership with Onguma Nature Reserve

Wild night out

Phoebe Smith journeys to the Namibian bush to sleep under the stars in the Onguma Nature Reserve’s unique Dream Cruiser.

To listen along to the Wild Night Out story, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

It was a little after 8pm when the ranger said goodbye. I watched as the tail lights from his off-road vehicle snaked away into the distance, swerving around trees that seemed indistinguishable from the darkness, before their red glow disappeared completely.

I stood for a few seconds, listening to the hum of cicadas and crickets, rivalled only in volume by the sound of my own breathing. Standing in the Namibian bush, on a raised platform a couple of metres above the ground, I looked out at the adjacent waterhole. I was completely alone. At least, for now.

I was about to experience the one-of-a kind attraction in Onguma Nature Reserve – a 340 square kilometre segment of former agricultural land (that’s larger than all the islands of the Maldives put together), which borders the eastern edge of Etosha National Park.

The concept is simple: guests spend the night away from the lights and sounds of a lodge to feel completely immersed in the environment. Though this accommodation is by no means a back-to-basics campout.

Built from a renovated Landcruiser, the ‘downstairs’ has been fitted out with a flushing toilet, brass sink and warm shower, finished off with a blue tiled floor and walls constructed of wooden panels and corrugated iron.

A sturdy stepladder leads up to the ‘penthouse suite’ with a four-poster bed – draped with a mosquito net, bean bags, solar lanterns. There’s even a table and two chairs, where I’d just enjoyed my al fresco dinner and sundowners minutes before.

“During lockdown we had time to sit down and reflect on everything we do, and that’s when our managing partner Fritz Vorster thought up the Dream Cruiser,” explained head of operations Garry Roberts when I arrived the previous day.

As soon as I heard about it I was itching to spend the night, alone, in the wild. For most of us, an African safari usually ends with drinks at sunset and begins early the next morning on a dawn drive, after a night in our chosen hotel or lodge. But here was a chance to extend my time in the wilderness, to see the wildlife when other guests were tucked up in their beds. It was impossible to resist.

The crowds flock to neighbouring Etosha, which is more famed for its wildlife, yet in Onguma, I saw more fauna during a drive lasting just a couple of hours.

When we weren’t watching wildebeest, warthog and zebra at one of the many waterholes, Frans was teaching me about the bush itself, from pungent wild sage that can be used as an insect repellent, to the ‘worm cure tree’ (a type of albizia), the bark of which hunter-gatherers once used as a medicine against parasites.

As the sun began to set we stumbled on a pride of young lions who had made a kill and were eating hungrily, then passed a couple of elephants also tucking in to their dinner.

As the sky turned crimson ranger Frans cornered a bend in the road and suddenly my Dream Cruiser was there, like a camouflaged sanctuary, amid the trees. 

I opened the door and climbed upstairs to find Onguma’s head chef waiting to serve me champagne and a buffet of roasted vegetables, homemade breads, grapes, cheese and salad, followed by an indulgent chocolate and cream dessert.

I ate as well as the big cats had, the exquisiteness of the food only rivalled by the elevated view of the horizon, where giraffes were backlit by the last ribbons of light, the creatures’ silhouettes moving as though in a stop-motion animation.

Once Frans and the chef had said their goodbyes, I sat on the edge of the bed looking towards the waterhole, anticipating the arrival of wildlife visitors. As a photographer my camera was clenched firmly in hand. But I would soon realise that this was a safari for the ears rather than the eyes. 

Darkness crept in so slowly I barely noticed it until I decided to use the facilities and realised I needed my torch to find the light switch in the bathroom. When I went back upstairs after a warm shower, I gasped as I was greeted with a smattering of stars.

I lay across two bean bags to gaze at the unmistakable smudge of the Milky Way, the four pin pricks of the Southern Cross and the starry strip of Orion’s Belt. 

At 10pm the rhythmic chirps and calls of the bugs faded away and I got into my bed and pulled the thick duvet high around me. I dozed for a while, then woke about an hour later listening to something drink noisily at the water hole (I would later, courtesy of a camera trap, find out it was a hyena).

Instinctively I reached for my camera, but realised quickly capturing a shot would be impossible without disturbing the animal. I was forced to give up on photos and simply listen instead. 

Despite the heat of the day before, the night-time brought with it a dry cold, and I snuggled further into the bed. Around midnight the trumpet of an elephant came from somewhere ahead, and I sat up, trying to locate the pachyderm.

“An immersive safari soundscape”

Leaning out of the mosquito net I was greeted by the bright white of the moon. It was as though a spotlight was suddenly switched on and the immediate landscape was bathed in a pallid glow.

I took nature’s illumination as a cue to stay awake, to not miss out on what was becoming an immersive safari soundscape. I wedged all the pillows up behind me, and sat still. A pack of hyenas scurried by, followed by the gentle padding of something more discreet.

I looked to see the faint outline of a feline – possibly a lion or leopard. Somewhere behind me the trees rustled – likely a giraffe feeding on the scrub.

Later, when a tickle in my throat had me coughing, my own barks were called back to me by a wildebeest (known by locals as a gnu due to the sound they make) who clearly thought I was a fellow antelope in distress.

The first call was joined by another, then another – tapping in to a whole wildlife network I didn’t know existed. Before long, without meaning to, I fell asleep, comforted by my gnu brethren in the bush below. 

The next time I opened my eyes it was to the crowing of a spurfowl. The wildebeest were gone. And, at the foot of my bed the colour had already begun to seep back into the sky.

More birds joined the dawn chorus, as the warmth from the rising sun burned through the chill of night. It was very much like waking from one of the wildest dreams I’ve ever had.

Soon the ranger would be back to collect me, to serve a hearty bush breakfast accompanied by chatter about my night out in the bush. But, for a few more minutes, the wild would still be mine alone.

And there I lingered on my bed – no longer caring about photographs – while the sun streaked gold across the tangerine sky, and Namibia’s birds sang me my own personal wake-up call. 

Need to know

GETTING THERE: Access to Etosha National Park and Onguma Nature Reserve in the north of Namibia is via Hosea Kutako International Airport (WDH), 40km / 25mi east of the capital city, Windhoek. Many people transit via Johannesburg or Cape Town in South Africa (flying time 2 hours). Options include Airlink (both) or FlyNamibia (CTN) or SAA (JNB).

The distance to self-drive to Onguma is 500km/ 270 miles northbound on paved roads and takes roughly 6 hours. You can also visit Onguma as part of a fully guided tour with Namibian experts such as Ultimate Safaris.

The best way to get to Onguma Nature Reserve is by charter flight. Wings Over Africa can be chartered directly into Onguma’s own airstrip. Other companies include Scenic Air, West Air, Desert Air and Wilderness Air. Guests can also land at Mokuti Airstrip (opposite the gate to Onguma) and book a return road transfer at around N$ 1,200.00 per vehicle (subject to change).

BEST TIME TO GO: Namibia is a great destination all year round. The best time to visit Etosha National Park is during the drier, cooler months from May to October. Less water is available during this time and the animals tend to gather around the waterholes. The wet season (November to April) is less productive for spotting wildlife but is ideal for photography as there are baby animals and the vegetation and cloud build-up provides great opportunities. December to March can be very hot.

WHERE TO STAY: Zannier Hotels Omaanda is a great location to overnight near Windhoek before your flight or road trip to Onguma. Onguma Safari Camps offers a choice of five safari lodges including the new Camp Kala, The Fort, Tented Camp, Forest Camp and Bush Camp. You must be booked into one of the Onguma lodges to experience the Dream Cruiser. Booking is essential and subject to weather conditions.

FOOD: Onguma works in partnership with Oshivelo Farm in a corner of the reserve. They employ 150-180 local people (80% women) all year round and in picking season, up to 280. This is one of the main vegetable producers in Namibia. Guests also enjoy “Farm to Fork” produce served at the lodges – and at bush breakfasts and boma dinners under the stars.

MUST PACK ITEM: Pack layers as nights can be chilly but days are hot. For charter flights you are usually limited by weight and must pack in a soft bag so less is more. Bring your camera and a good pair of binoculars – although there are binoculars supplied on some of the Onguma vehicles.

HOW TO DO IT: Carrier (0161 492 1353, www.carrier.co.uk) offers a 5 night Onguma package from £8,495 per person based on 2 adults sharing. Price includes 1 night in a One Bedroom Hut at Zannier Hotels Omaanda in Windhoek with full board, 1 activity and drinks, followed by 4 nights in a Suite at the new Onguma Camp Kala, Onguma Private Nature Reserve, including the Onguma Dream Cruiser sleep out experience, on a fully inclusive basis. Price also includes return economy flights with British Airways from London Heathrow via Johannesburg, private transfers and return Private Charter flights to Onguma. Price based on departure 31 October 2023.

WHY GO: Namibia is an incredible destination with dramatic scenery and vast tracts of land and is the second least densely populated country in the world. In the north, Etosha’s famous salt pan is so enormous it can be seen from space.

In addition to being home to four of the “Big 5” (no buffalo), it is known for elephant, rare black rhino and its 340 species of birds. Staying at Onguma gives you the private reserve experience away from the crowds, but with easy access to Etosha for day drives. We recommend staying at least four nights to allow enough time to explore both Onguma Nature Reserve and Etosha National Park.

More information

Watch the trailer for A day in the life of the Onguma Nature Reserve here and see the entire docu-series at onguma.com/onguma-media.

This article was brought to you in partnership with Onguma Nature Reserve, located on the fringe of Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Onguma is home to four of the Big Five safari animals and features five lodges, two campsites and 34,000 hectares of private wilderness to explore.

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