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.