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Namibia: Africa’s Most Magical Place

In-the-know travelers don’t go to Namibia just for the wildlife. They’re also drawn by the astonishingly beautiful landscape, growing food scene and stunningly original modern-African aesthetic, championed by a visionary interior designer.

Well before Namibia hit the tabloids as the birthplace of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s daughter, this sparsely populated southern African country was a favorite below-the-radar destination for savvy travelers smitten with its wildly beautiful, otherworldly landscapes. These days, Namibia is attracting more curiosity and many more visitors, owing in part to a barrage of spectacular new lodges and restaurants—many of them the work of visionary interior designer and fourth-generation Namibian Heidrun Diekmann.

Diekmann is well aware that her country offers a radically different environment for visitors at a time when homogeneous design and been-there-done-that travel experiences are the norm. Travelers to Namibia find themselves in a dramatically rugged and wide-open place—one that inspires serendipitous, exploratory drives around the country more than it does fervent searches for the “big five” (the elephants, leopards, lions, buffalo and rhinos that lure tourists on African safaris). Every turn along Namibia’s dusty roads reveals a breathtaking scene: from the massive, rolling, fire-red dunes and mysterious spheres tattooed in the dune grass of the Namib—thought to be the world’s oldest desert—to the whale bones and shipwreck remains that dot the infamous Skeleton Coast like ghostly sculptures.

Through the design projects she has undertaken over the past few years—which range from a boutique hotel in an old castle to the country’s most prestigious restaurant and cooking school to ultrachic tented camps—Diekmann has been instrumental in creating a modern Namibian aesthetic. Her approach takes full advantage of the natural and cultural environment, and it differs substantially from the bush-lodge style found elsewhere in Africa. “I’m aiming for the handmade factor, which makes a space feel more tactile and special in a world where everything is mass-produced,” Diekmann explains. Each of the lodges and restaurants she designs has its own idiosyncratic style. Her signature lies in her use of the strikingly original objects, textiles and tabletop items she finds or commissions from some of the most talented artisans in southern Africa.

At the moment, Diekmann has just finished up the renovation of a dining room in the Hotel Heinitzburg, a traditional Relais & Chateaux property with 16 rooms. The building is part of a small castle built in 1914 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, by the German Count von Schwerin. Diekmann stripped the upholstered wooden dining-room chairs, painted them white, and re-upholstered them in lime green and purple fabric. “The place is all wood-paneled, dark and dungeonlike,” she says. “I wanted to make it look like a modern baroque African castle, with silver wallpaper and curtains that mirror the silvery effect. I had ostrich-egg lamps made; the eggs were painted silver and stacked on top of each other.”

Any new hires in the Hotel Heinitzburg’s kitchen—which turns out elegant Namibian and European-inspired dishes like springbok carpaccio, and scallops and prunes with beetroot—may well come from NICE, the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education, another of Diekmann’s design projects. Since it opened in 2006, NICE has become both Namibia’s hottest restaurant and its most prestigious cooking school. Cofounded by Stephan Brückner—managing director of 14-year-old Wolwedans, one of Namibia’s first and most influential luxury lodges—NICE trains cooks from disadvantaged backgrounds to staff the kitchens of Namibia’s poshest lodges. Head chef and cofounder Ralf Herrgott, a Wolwedans alum, trains students on the job as they cook dishes like vitello tonnato made with Namibian veal, or springbok loin on couscous salad, and learn to work with indigenous ingredients like Namibian truffles. The NICE cooking program is run as a nonprofit, supported in part by revenues from the restaurant, whose innovative menu and bold design have kept the tables packed.

NICE presented a double challenge, since Diekmann had to create a restaurant that was intimate and stylish enough to stand on its own as a destination, yet spacious and functional enough to accommodate the 12 to 20 students who study there each year. To make the dining area both cozy and chic, Diekmann furnished the series of rooms—arranged around a courtyard with a reflecting pool—with red- and black-leather chairs, a black fireplace, a black-topped bar and red lanterns. Diekmann gathered close-up photos of former cooks from Wolwedans—posed on dunes in the Namib Desert—and had them blown up into three-square-foot images and printed on canvas to hang on the walls. Artisans in South Africa shaped the red-and-white bread baskets out of tele-phone wire; the white table linens and red curtains were made by the small Namibia-based company Anin, which teaches embroidering skills to locals.

Diekmann’s talent at creating spaces that bring Namibia’s gorgeous outdoor vistas indoors also comes through at the new Onguma Plains Camp, a fortlike lodge whose 13 rooms all have private viewing decks or balconies overlooking the plains of Etosha National Park. Diekmann kept the interiors spare to highlight the beauty of the rough stone walls and the wild green bush outside, but to “kick the spaces alive,” as she puts it, she added startlingly bold touches of pink, lilac and lime. “Nature is such a strong, exhilarating element here,” Diekmann says, noting that inspiration for her palette came from sunsets and photographs she’d taken of the tiny wildflowers that bloom in the surrounding fields during the wet season.

Diekmann also designed the nearby, two-year-old Onguma Tented Camp, whose open-air lobby and seven guest tents are decorated with eclectic objects, like the wire-and-paper buffalo-head lamp made by South Africa’s Moonlight and Magic Studio that hangs over the front desk in the lobby. In the al fresco dining room—which serves fresh, produce-driven dishes like avocado, cucumber and basil soup and beet-and-strawberry salad—the green of the surrounding bush is reflected in the brightly dyed green springbok-hide chairs and woven copper-wire place settings.

Diekmann’s pioneering work in bringing Namibian and other African artisans to the attention of well-heeled international travelers is perhaps most evident in the Mushara Outpost, a luxury eight-tent camp just outside Etosha National Park that opened in late 2007. The lodge’s restaurant and each of its tents—serene white-and-linen spaces splashed with aqua and olive—show off pieces that Diekmann commissioned, and in some cases designed herself, in collaboration with craftspeople from African tribes. For the Outpost’s dining room, Diekmann asked a carpenter named Morne Cronje to build a 19-foot-long table out of the Namibian hardwood known as Dolf wood. Guests gather around it for lively communal dinners of comfort food cooked with local ingredients (like burgers made from naturally raised Namibian beef, and Parma-ham-wrapped asparagus from the Namibian town of Swakopmund) overseen by co-owner and head chef Mariza Pampe. Diekmann had a set of place mats woven by basketmakers from northern Namibia’s Owambo tribe. The Wonki Ware plates of white stoneware embossed with lacy patterns are made by a small South African pottery company. “I recently read that Nigella Lawson loves Wonki Ware,” Diekmann says. “I’ve been using Wonki Ware for ages, and I’m thrilled to hear that she is now a fan, too.”

On a tip Diekmann got while shopping at a market in Johannesburg, South Africa, she discovered a little-known tailor from Senegal and had him make bed throws inspired by traditional African boubous, colorful and loose-fitting robes. “I just had a street corner and a phone number,” Diekmann says, but she found the tailor in Hillbrow, a notoriously dangerous inner-city neighborhood in Johannesburg. Within one day, he had finished all the throws, using camel-colored textiles that he embroidered in circular patterns with white stitching. The adventure of tracking down the tailor and working with him to create the linens—in record time—was well worth the trouble, Diekmann says. “When you walk into a tent at Mushara, the bed throw is the first thing you see, and it’s spectacular,” she adds. “It gives the space an identity and a sense of rootedness. That’s what I try to achieve with all my designs. Give me any place that doesn’t come out of a kit!”

Published March 2008
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