A vast land of mesmerizing landscapes, abundant wildlife and an astonishing array of natural wonders, Namibia promises adventure. Its defining feature is the Namib, an ancient desert that runs the entire 1500km of the country’s wind-lashed coastline. Encompassing towering dunes, dramatic mountains and lichen-encrusted gravel plains, it’s populated by desert-adapted beasts, with flamingos and colonial German architecture bringing splashes of colour to the waterfront. Capital Windhoek has a distinctly European feel, but you won’t want to linger too long; from here tempting arterial roads reach out to geological wonders in the south, and the beguiling Kalahari to the east, inhabited by some of Africa’s oldest peoples. To the north lie game-rich reserves and the majority of Namibia’s elusive population, from where the country’s lush panhandle lures you to within touching distance of Victoria Falls.
Arguably the most impressive natural wonder in Namibia is the Fish River Canyon, in the far south, which affords breathtaking views across a deep serpentine chasm in the Earth’s crust, while in the northeast, the impressive sandstone Waterberg Plateau stands sentinel over the surrounding bushveld. At the very north of Namibia, the species-rich wetlands of the Zambezi Region, a 450km arm of luxuriant subtropical forest that stretches out above Botswana towards Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls, provide a wholly different landscape.
While, traditionally, tourists have been drawn to Namibia for its wilderness terrains, the country is now also attracting attention for its wildlife; specifically, the increasing numbers of rare large mammals that are thriving in the semi-arid areas. Beyond the game-heavy confines of Etosha – Namibia’s premier national park – the world’s largest concentrations of free-roaming cheetah stalk the plains, while desert-adapted elephant and black rhino lumber along the valleys and riverbeds of northwest Namibia. In many cases these beasts are protected by conservationists working hand in hand with local communities – communities that are also beginning to open up to visitors, who can learn more about these cultures and lifestyles.
The Namib also hosts many extraordinary succulent plants and dune-dwelling endemics – especially lizards – that have adapted to the harsh conditions, and which have featured in many a nature documentary. In complete contrast, the lush, subtropical Zambezi Region holds almost three-quarters of the country’s bird species and many large mammals not seen elsewhere in the country.
As with most other countries in Africa, Namibia’s socio-political landscape has been indelibly shaped by colonialism, specifically the regimes of Germany and then South Africa, which resulted in the imposition of apartheid and the Namibian War of Independence that lasted over twenty years. While the adverse effects were considerable – and some still endure – it’s true to say that Namibia’s cuisine has benefited from its colonial past, from cream-laden German cakes, tasty filled brötchen and good coffee, to the dried, cured meats favoured by South Africans. Namibia was one of the last countries in Africa to gain independence – in 1990 – and it has taken time for the government to realize the country’s tourism potential, just as foreign tourists have been slow to appreciate Namibia’s haunting scenery, fascinating wildlife and rich cultural diversity. Now, Namibia is becoming established on the tourist map: high-quality, affordable lodges and campgrounds are sprouting up, often in conjunction with local conservancies; rural communities are inviting visitors to learn about their cultures, traditions and modern-day challenges; and new ways of experiencing Namibia are constantly being devised, from skydiving or hot-air ballooning over the desert to tracking rhino or kayaking with crocs.