I snapped out of my daydream to feel the car coming to a stop. I had been hearing Afrikaans for hours as we bumped along a corrugated dirt road, dust billowing behind us. No wonder I had drifted off.
The scenery looked pretty much the same as it had a few hours back: gravel desert, rock mountains, no sign of life.
We all stepped into the heat to confirm a flat tire. Flat tires are routine in this area; it’s almost a surprise if you don’t get one. But in 15 minutes, my 2 native Namibian friends and safari lodge owners had us back on the dirt road, kicking up dust.
Desert Hills and We Kebi
It wasn’t long after our flat that we pulled into Desert Hills Lodge, my first introduction to a group of lodges owned by a family I’d be working for over the next few weeks.
Despite the luxury accommodation and stunning, though sparse, scenery, the nightly wind in this specific pocket of land could be like a hurricane, making it impossible to have a sundowner (sunset drink) or even an appetizer outside without getting blown off the deck.
All of this I learned as we were taken on a grand tour. I was mesmerized by how surreal the desert looked from this angle, offset by the lodge’s simple colors, but I was relieved to hear my ultimate destination still lay ahead. We were on our way to a lodge called We Kebi, another extremely remote location, a place with plenty of animals and dramatic sunsets to witness with nothing more than a light breeze.
We Kebi means ‘invitation’ in the language of the native San Bushmen. The individual thatched bungalows mimic the style of the native (and clever) weaver bird nests that fan out in the trees outside of the main lodge like outstretched arms: an invitation to a beautiful desert oasis.
A Home for Wildlife
The lodge’s iconic brand is the zebra face. It references the rescued pet zebras the lodge is known for. These “pets” are actually sent back into the wild every couple of years because it seems impossible to keep them domesticated. The excommunication usually comes after a guest is bitten or, in one scenario, a woman’s purse was eaten.
Unusual animals were everywhere here at We Kebi. We had cheetahs and a leopard, a hyena, caracal kittens (wild African cats), and a one-week-old red hartebeest. They had all been orphans, carried in by locals or limping to the lodge themselves, straight to the owner’s wife who spoke a secret animal language.
We Kebi was my home for weeks, but the surrounding wildlife and our area’s sunrise and sunset never got old. Eland, wildebeest, our domesticated and wild zebra, a lone giraffe and even a waterbuck would approach the lodge on a daily basis: a little watering hole in a dry desert. On fields outside of the immediate lodge area were springbok, white rhinos, impala and kudu.
I welcomed guests when they arrived, explaining the activities and the lodge itself, served meals and cleaned, but there were entire afternoons (the heat reaching 100–110F) where there was nothing to do but read and write, play with the owner’s kids and orphaned pets, or take a nap.
One afternoon, clouds swept into an otherwise constant blue sky. There was a buzz that we might get rain, something we hoped for every day in vain. When the wind picked up and the first large raindrop fell, everyone stopped what they were doing and came to watch from the main lodge.
The rain came down in sheets, soaking the mosaic-rock walkways and outdoor furniture, beating down on the wildebeest that were now running and bucking with happiness out to a distant field. Even the zebras were giddy, biting each other and bucking. I looked around: we were all motionless and utterly quiet, some seated, watching this scene unfold like a movie.
The Speed of Time
Living in the desert, time slowed down. Hours in the heat could feel like entire days, days could feel like weeks. I got to know the entire staff intimately. After weeks of working together, I was finally entrusted to learn about their far-away homes in the north of the country, their tribal customs, their children and girlfriends, how many days it would take to hitchhike home (2) on their limited time off, and how hard it was for an entire culture to simply put food on a family’s table.
I became part of the owner’s family, too: spending afternoons in the pool with the kids or teaching them how to use my camera; visiting their neighboring farm to pick spinach and herd sheep, or being included in Sunday family lunches. When I said my final goodbyes, 5-year-old Matt ran away while 3-year-old Nella clung to my leg and I had to fight back tears.
I loved We Kebi and imagined what it would be like to stay forever: living amongst wild animals I had only previously read about, noticing time passing slowly, and watching the rain as if it were the coolest movie out this year.