After months of stifling social restrictions and the stressful confinement of lockdown, you’re probably itching to escape. So, as air travel cautiously awakens from hibernation, now’s a good time to start planning for a “post-Covid” trip – and there’s no better destination for re-energizing the soul than the mesmerizing desert landscapes of Namibia.
Under any circumstances, Namibia’s awe-inspiring scenery, extraordinary desert-adapted wildlife and glittering night skies are reason enough for it to make your bucket list. But in a world threatened by Covid, a sparsely inhabited country – Namibia is the least-densely populated one in the world after Mongolia – brimming with outdoor attractions becomes an even more compelling destination. Social distancing is simply not an issue! From canyon trekking to rhino tracking, dune-climbing to bird-watching, marvelling at ancient rock art, or simply relaxing round the campfire gazing up at the Milky Way, there’s plenty to do and see. What’s more, if you decide on a self-drive safari – arguably the best way to experience the country – you’ll be travelling in your own bio-secure bubble. After an initial supermarket pitstop to stock up with supplies, you can avoid people altogether if you prefer.
Beyond the usual international car-rental firms, Windhoek has a number of operators that specialize in 4x4s (usually a Toyota Hilux) – equipped with a roof or ground tent and all manner of other camping equipment, if desired. Outside the rainy season (usually Nov–Feb/March) a 4x4 is not essential for the most popular self-drive circuit, which sticks to smooth tarred and well-maintained gravel roads. An SUV such as a Renault Duster is a good compromise.
The beauty of a self-drive is the possibility of mixing and matching camping, glamping and lodge stays. There’s often a choice of accommodation to suit all kinds of visitors and budgets within the same reserve or conservancy.
The classic tour takes you southwest to the country’s most iconic landscapes of the ancient Namib Desert. A dawn climb up one of the towering apricot dunes at Sossusvlei is rewarded with breathtaking views across the mutating colours of the rippling dune sea as the sun rises. Below, the ghostly white clay pan of Dead Vlei is dotted with skeletal trees. Yet there’s more life than you might imagine in this harsh terrain, which is home to some unique creatures. Cartwheeling spiders and dancing lizards have evolved distinct desert survival strategies, alongside the magnificent oryx and strutting ostriches. Arguably the most inventive is the “tok-tokkie” beetle, which on foggy mornings races to the top of a dune to stand on its head, allowing droplets to condense on the body and trickle down into its mouth.
Those with time may meander south to the Fish River Canyon. One of the world’s largest, this jaw-dropping gaping wound in the Earth’s crust was formed millions of years ago – by the death throes of a giant serpent, according to local Nama folklore. To the west, close to the coast, lies the eerie diamond-mining “ghost town” of Kolmanskop, whose once-grand buildings are slowly being swallowed by the sand.
Then head northwest to the coast. A spectacular desert drive skirts the imposing, jagged mountains of the Great Escarpment before sweeping across gravel plains cleft by dramatic ravines, to the colonial seaside resort of Swakopmund. After so much driving you’ll be ready to expend some energy: sandboarding down dunes, skydiving above the desert, or paddling among spirited seals in nearby Walvis Bay Lagoon. This avian haven provides shelter to more than 150,000 birds, including carpets of rose-pink flamingos.
By striking inland, then heading north, you end up in Damaraland. Here, majestic desert-adapted lion, elephant, giraffe and black-rhino – the world’s largest free-roaming population – inhabit the dry beds of the Ugab, Huab and Hoanib rivers. These ephemeral rivers, running mostly as underground aquifers, carve out dramatic gorges and broad sandy valleys that strain towards the legendary Skeleton Coast. Some stellar wilderness campsites and environmentally sensitive lodges here allow you to get up close and personal to these threatened beasts, while aiding conservation efforts and benefitting local communities (see www.conservationtourism.com.na). The Damaraland and Desert Rhino camps are just two examples (www.wilderness-safaris.com).
Namibia’s premier wildlife reserve is Etosha National Park, which – dare I say it? – is the size of Wales, and is stuffed with animals. At the many waterholes, you can observe elastic-necked giraffe or assorted antelope drinking while herds of elephant bathe. In the meantime, keep an eye out for lions idling beneath the acacia trees, shunning the scorching midday sun. At the heart of the park, stretches a giant salt pan, visible from space. A shimmering white haze in the dry season, it turns a silky olive after rains, and in years of above-average rainfall, floodwaters leak into the pan to produce a vast mirror, attracting spectacular birdlife, including large flocks of pelicans and flamingos.
To ensure your tourist dollars benefit the local population, seek out community-run operations and lodges that have strong social commitment. The country’s much praised conservancy system means that many places are part or fully owned and/or managed by local communities. These often offer village visits that afford insights into their various cultures and development programmes. Consider a stay at the award-winning Damara-owned Grootberg Lodge, or its sibling Hoada Campsite. To visit the semi-nomadic Himba – whose women are famed for daubing their bodies with otjize (a rich ochre pigment mixed with fat) – head for the remote northern town of Opuwo, where the local Himba-run tourist office can organize a guided visit to a traditional settlement. Alternatively, at Namibia’s eastern border, by Botswana, at the edge of the acacia-studded Kalahari Desert, the remote JulHoansi San community of IIXaIIoba is keen to share some of their bushcraft skills and traditions.
No… if you follow the curious pan-handle at the top of the map, you enter the lush sub-tropical Zambezi Region. Sunset cruises on the eponymous river are a highlight, skirting snorting hippos, past banks home to lazing crocs and flecked with brilliantly coloured bee-eaters. At the eastern extremity, reed-filled wetlands are home to mammals absent from the rest of the country – lumbering buffalo, attractive red lechwe and puku antelope – as well as a dazzling array of more than 450 bird species. The socially committed Nkasa Lupala Lodge or neighbouring Rupara RestCamp are rewarding choices here.
From the UK, the easiest way to travel to Namibia is to fly via Frankfurt with Lufthansa, which offers daily flights to the Namibian capital, Windhoek. Alternatively, British Airways has just resumed daily overnight flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, in neighbouring South Africa, from where it’s an easy one-hour by air to Namibia.
The hospital-grade air filters used on aeroplanes make flying a lot safer than you might think, and you can reduce the risk further by taking a window seat and minimizing your movement round the plane. Plus, the fact that most destinations, including Namibia, demand proof of a negative Covid test before flying (see below) decreases the likelihood of your fellow passengers being infected in the first place. What’s more, mask-wearing is obligatory on almost all international flights and airlines have also upped the ante regarding health and hygiene: extra sanitizing of aircraft before take-off, temperature testing of staff (in some cases) and altered meal-and-beverage services to restrict contact between crew and passengers.
At the time of writing, on arrival in Namibia, all visitors had to present a laboratory-certified negative PCR test (not a self-test) taken within 72 hours of arrival. Then you’re free to explore. However, protocols may change, as may quarantine regulations in the UK, or other country of origin, on your return; so keep up to date with developments and check your insurance for any last-minute cancellation should regulations become too restrictive.
Reassuringly, Namibia also has strict hygiene protocols for all sectors of the tourism industry, from lodges and campgrounds to car-rental firms and tour operators. Check the Namibian Tourist Board website for the latest information.