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.
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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.
Where to go in Namibia
International flights arrive at Windhoek, the country’s capital and transport hub, conveniently located in the centre of Namibia. A small city, more akin to a provincial town, it’s a pleasant spot to wander around for a couple of days, taking in the few modest sights, browsing the shops and sampling the local cuisine. From here, you need to plot your route carefully; although the tarred and gravel roads are maintained to high standards in Namibia, the distances are vast, which means you can easily end up spending most of your time getting to places. That said, much of Namibia’s appeal lies in its vast, uninhabited landscapes, which are best appreciated by driving through them.
Most first-time visitors, and those short of time, travel a circuit round central and northern Namibia, but with a quick detour – by Namibian standards – southwest to the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where the towering apricot sand dunes that change colour with the light are truly spectacular. From here many visitors head northwest to enjoy the milder climate and colonial architecture of the country’s top coastal resort, Swakopmund, which lies almost due west of Windhoek. Though no beach hangout – it’s too cold to swim most of the year – it’s a fascinating place, surrounded by dunes that you can explore on foot, on horseback or on a quad bike; it’s also rapidly emerging as a centre for adventure sports, such as skydiving and sand-boarding. A short excursion south takes you to Walvis Bay, the country’s main port, where you can consort with seals, dolphins and pelicans on the lagoon.
Moving north, organized tours and self-drive travellers often take in the Cape Cross seal colony before cutting inland via the desolate, mist-shrouded Skeleton Coast National Park to Damaraland, where some of the country’s most evocative scenery lies. At the southerly limit of this region, the domed Erongo Mountains and the pointed Spitzkoppe – both composed of giant burnished granite slabs – provide wonderful hiking and birdwatching opportunities, as well as some examples of San rock paintings. Far better preserved paintings are to be found at the Brandberg, Namibia’s largest massif, further north, while the continent’s oldest rock engravings at Twyfelfontein give fascinating insights into the spiritual world of some of Africa’s oldest inhabitants. The wonderful lodges in the area make the most of the picturesque scenery and offer the chance to spot desert-adapted elephant and rhino.
It’s a bit of a detour to the mountainous northwest, where the rocky, reddish-brown land and the frontier town of Opuwo are home to the semi-nomadic Himba; a further two-hour drive north takes you up to the scenic Epupa Falls, on the Kunene River, which marks the border with Angola. Many miss out this area and head straight to Etosha National Park – indisputably the top wildlife-watching spot – where they spend a few days before returning to Windhoek, sometimes via the scenic Waterberg Plateau. With more time, a journey northeast to the verdant Zambezi Region in the panhandle reaps many rewards: lush broad-leaved forests, gliding rivers and plentiful wildlife roaming in unfenced reserves. The less-visited far south is also worth the trek for its remarkable geological fault, the Fish River Canyon, from where it’s a few hours’ drive to the quaint historical German town of Lüderitz on the coast. A trip to the sinuous Orange River, which marks the border with South Africa, provides welcome respite from the relentless heat of the interior: an opportunity to paddle through beautiful scenery and indulge in some gentle birdwatching.
Visitors with more time should consider heading southeast to gaze at the rippling red dunes of the Kalahari, even popping over the South African border into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where vast herds of large mammals follow ancient migration routes. Alternatively, round Tsumkwe, in the northern reaches of this semi-desert, an increasing number of San communities are opening up to visitors, keen to share their ancient traditions and survival skills.
Top image © Przemyslaw Skibinski/Shutterstock