What makes Namibia different from anywhere else in Africa?
Boasting the biggest "wow factor" are the rippling dunes of the Namib Desert. They are at their most spectacular around Sossusvlei, where they change colour with the light and are interspersed with ghostly clay pans dotted with skeletal trees.
The Namib is also home to Namibia’s Small Five – extraordinary, acrobatic, desert-dwelling creatures including cartwheeling spiders, dancing lizards and headstand-performing beetles. Lodge guides or tour operators in Swakopmund (good options include Turnstone Tours, Charly's Desert Tours and Living Desert Tours) can help you seek them out.
Other desert curiosities include Fairy Circles (strange unexplained alien-like discs of bare earth), and Kolmanskop, an abandoned diamond-mining town being swallowed up by the sand.
Duwisib Castle, a fairytale German fortress built in the middle of nowhere, is also worth a visit. German colonial rule has left other incongruous legacies, too – most notably high-quality beer and mouth-watering cream cakes. Where else in Africa can you bite into a slab of Black Forest gateau while gazing across a desert landscape?
Which are the best spots to go on safari?
Namibia’s big advantage over the likes of Kenya and Botswana is that, even in high season, you can often savour your wildlife viewing without a competing posse of other safari vehicles.
Top safari billing goes to vast Etosha National Park, which is packed full of crowd-pleasing big cats, giraffe, elephant, rhino and herds of zebra, wildebeest and assorted antelope. Visit during the drier, cooler winter months (July–September) when vegetation is sparser and animals are forced to congregate round the water holes. Keen birdwatchers may prefer to catch summer migrants (November–February).
However, the smaller, lusher reserves sprinkled along Namibia’s curiously shaped panhandle – Bwabwata, Nkasa Rupara and Mudumu – are just as rewarding. They offer boat trips along the Kavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi rivers, getting you close to snorting hippos and idling crocs, as well as some spectacular birdlife.
Namibia’s famed desert-adapted elephant and black rhino (Africa’s largest free-roaming population) inhabit the northwest’s Kunene Region. Cheetahs too range the plains of Namibia – in greater abundance here than anywhere else on the planet. During the dry season, stay in one of Wilderness Safaris’ remote lodges, whose proceeds help support the animals’ protection.
I'm travelling solo. What do I need to know?
Travelling solo in Namibia is doable, though challenging. There's a limited transport network and most of what you are likely to want to see and do lies far from the handful of urban centres. The good news for backpackers, though, is that Namibians are generally extremely helpful and hospitable.
The not-so-good news is that opportunities to meet fellow travellers are mainly confined to a handful of hostels in the pleasantly provincial capital Windhoek, as well as the coastal resorts of Swakopmund and Lüderitz. Here you can hook up with local operators offering a range of desert, mountain and water-based activities.
How can I make sure I'm travelling responsibly?
For a start, minimise your environmental footprint by carbon offsetting your flight there and taking buses where you can, supplemented by trips with local tour operators. Self-drivers might contemplate a more eco-friendly saloon car (rather than the favoured 4WD), which is adequate for reaching many attractions – and cheaper, too.
Be mindful of Namibia’s fragile desert: stick to well-worn tracks and avoid leaving damaging and unsightly scars on the landscape. Staying at the more rustic community campsites, and lingering longer at fewer destinations, will also help minimise your impact while helping the local population.
If you can’t resist the comforts of lodge accommodation, check their eco-credentials before booking. This should include enquiring about staff working conditions and making your views known to management if you’re not satisfied.
For ethical tours, it’s hard to beat an expedition with Conservancy Safaris Namibia, which is predominantly owned, managed and operated by semi-nomadic Himba communities located in the scenic yet remote northwest of the country.
Is it safe?
Whether you’re on a bus, hitching a ride or strolling round town, Namibia is one of the safest countries in Africa. The usual tourist precautions apply, of course, particularly in the diminutive capital Windhoek – and it's best to only visit former townships in the company of someone who lives there, or on a guided tour.
Greater threats are posed by the natural environment and by wildlife (than by two-legged dangers). Don't drive at night, when the risk of hitting wildlife wandering across the road is much higher, especially in rural and northern areas
Searing summer temperatures (topping 40°C in some places) can result in dehydration, sunstroke or heat exhaustion. And while Namibia is a first-rate self-drive destination, with predominantly high-quality tarred and gravel roads, you should seek advice from your car-rental company on the necessary precautions to avoid getting lost or stranded in the desert.
How can I explore Namibia on a budget?
Cheaper than neighbouring Botswana and only slightly pricier than South Africa, Namibia is a moderately inexpensive destination, provided you’re prepared to camp.
Save money by travelling by bus: Intercape Mainliner offers affordable, reliable long-distance transport to all the main urban centres. For under half the price, you could ride in riskier (in terms of driving standards) and less comfortable minibuses and shared taxis – these are used by most Namibians. Hitchhiking, on the other hand, is inadvisable on account of the lack of traffic, sweltering conditions and absence of people to call on if you get stuck.
To reach the national parks (a mere US$3–6 per day), consider an all-inclusive camping trip from Windhoek with the likes of Wild Dog Safaris or Chameleon Safaris. Alternatively, team up with fellow travellers at hostels and rent a vehicle (and camping equipment if necessary) to explore the country, staying in Namibia’s fabulous wilderness campsites.
For those on a shoestring budget and with no desire to plan, overlander trucks on the classic Cape Town to Victoria Falls route cover several Namibian highlights from around US$65 per day.
Explore more of Namibia with The Rough Guide to Namibia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.