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Travel: Dancing to a different dune in South Africa

Kokerboom Tree in Arid Valley Richtersveld (Getty Imgaes/iStock)
Kokerboom Tree in Arid Valley Richtersveld (Getty Imgaes/iStock)

DO you have Wi-Fi? Is there a hairdryer in the room? Two of the most-asked questions when Scottish holidaymakers check in to a hotel. However, in South Africa’s Northern Cape, there are neither.

When I told family and friends about my impending adventure, everyone assumed I was heading to one of its “bucket list” cities, Cape Town or Johannesburg but in fact my destination was somewhat more isolated.

The less-travelled-to Northern Cape is the biggest yet least populated of the country’s nine provinces.

Daunted by the prospect of being offline, and off grid, I stay in the heart of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari Desert, but soon learn that being “disconnected” actually allows me to re-connect – with myself and the world around me.

Guide keeping lookout (Laura Coventry)

Getting here is a long journey – we fly from Glasgow to Heathrow to Johannesburg to Upington – but the trip is well worth the 14 hours spent in the air.

The first stop is at the basic-but-pleasant Molopo Kalahari Lodge. From here we embark on our first night-time game drive and enjoy dinner at ‘Aunt Koera’s’ lodge, lit only by two small battery-powered torchlights. A dance around the fire (the bushmen, not us!) follows our sticky malva pudding dessert and ends our traditional evening under the stars.

Next day, we head for Xaus Lodge, which involves a thrilling, undulating ride in an open-air safari jeep over red sand dunes. It’s so remote the nearest actual road is more than an hour’s drive away.

Although there is no electricity, fresh running water (it comes from a borehole and is non-drinkable), wall-mounted TV, or phone signal, the lodge is welcoming and comfortable.

It even has a swimming pool which the local leopard drinks from during the night… My terrace looks over a salt pan, where fresh lion paw prints were discovered hours before our check-in.

Armed with an LED torch and a bottle of cool water for drinking, I head to my lodge for the night and sleep surprisingly well (with my doors and windows firmly closed). As I lie in the dark, I try not to think about the potential number of nocturnal visitors lurking outside as I sleep.

White water rafting (Getty Images/iStock)

Next morning, as the beautiful African sun rises, Xaus Lodge manager Richard points out some hyena paw prints less than a metre away.

Xaus Lodge is in the process of becoming solar-powered and hopes to be awarded dark-sky reserve status, because of its complete lack of artificial light pollution. During an evening of stargazing we clearly spot the Milky Way, Beetlejuice, Orion, the Southern Cross, shooting stars and other galaxies, in eerily-silent surroundings.

Next stop, Augrabies Transfrontier National Park on the Namibia border is home to the world’s sixth-largest waterfall, which is spectacular when it’s in full flow.

If you venture to the Orange River then try white-water rafting and catch-and-release hand-line fishing with Kalahari River & Safari Co.

We’re in the picturesque Green Kalahari region, a favourite with Hollywood film crews for its breathtaking scenery.

The Death Cure, the third instalment in the Maze Runner sci-fi action series, was filmed here last year.

African Vineyard Bedroom

If you fancy staying somewhere less remote, head to the relaxing sanctuary that is the African Vineyard Guest House in Kanoneiland.

There is both an indoor and outdoor spa complete with a treehouse terrace; and rooms are furnished with antiques and quirky items made from African wood and pipework, complemented by exposed brickwork.

Now, this type of trip is not for everybody: the environment can be harsh, the heat intense (it’s 40°C in summer/ 34° in the shade) and it’s almost completely offline.

When I first arrived, I didn’t think it would be very “me”, but the longer time passes, the more I enjoy this much-needed escape to a land without emails, phone calls, WhatsApp pings and reality TV.

The Facts 

Laura flew Glasgow to Heathrow with BA (from £84 return), Heathrow to Johannesburg with South African Airways (from £721 return) and Jo’burg to Upington with Airlink (£352.50 return) flysaa.com.

She stayed at Xaus Lodge, £299 per person per night (xauslodge.co.za), and African Vineyard Guest House, £40 pppn (africanvineyard.co.za).

South African Tourism UK Office (southafrica.net/uk/en)