Namibia’s dramatic landscapes provide the perfect backdrop to a wealth of outdoor activities, from ballooning across the spectacular dunes of Sossusvlei to hiking down the Fish River Canyon or gazing up at the stars from the darkness of the desert. There’s also plenty of scope for extreme sports, such as skydiving, kitesurfing or hauling your body through the desert in an ultramarathon.

Wildlife viewing

Namibia’s most famous reserve and the best location for spotting large mammals is Etosha National Park, where you stand a good chance of seeing large numbers, especially in the dry season (July–Oct), although numbers of elephant and buffalo are beginning to return to the newer reserves in the Zambezi Region. Namibia also hosts the world’s largest cheetah population and there are several cheetah conservation projects that you can visit if you want a near-guaranteed sighting. More intriguing perhaps are the guided excursions into the Namib Desert from Swakopmund that focus on some of the extraordinary smaller creatures that have adapted to this harsh environment.

Birdwatching

Boasting over 650 species of birds, including numerous near-endemics, Namibia provides plenty of birdwatching opportunities. Peak times for avian activity are during the rainy season (Nov–April), when food is more plentiful and nesting occurs. Migrants from Europe and other parts of Africa generally arrive in October and leave around April. While most of the country is home to desert bird species, Walvis Bay hosts southern Africa’s most important coastal wetlands, enjoyed by around 250,000 birds during the migration season. Though synonymous with flamingos, which constitute the bulk of the population, and are visible all year, a host of other waders and seabirds also draw birders and casual visitors alike. The freshwater wetlands and rivers of the Zambezi Region also provide a wealth of tropical birdlife, from the iconic fish eagle to rainbow-coloured bee-eaters and the extraordinary-looking spoonbill and hammerhead. Several river lodges here offer birdwatching river trips. Batis Birding Safaris (w batisbirdingsafaris.com), based in Swakopmund, runs birding tours all round Namibia and further afield.

Hiking

While the harsh desert terrain does not make for ideal hiking conditions, Namibia offers a few classic multi-day trails, for which you’ll need to be in good physical condition and will usually need to carry your own camping gear, food and water. In addition, several of the private reserves and guest farms have developed a range of one-day trails, some for tourists of more moderate fitness levels.

Justifiably, the most popular hike is the hardcore, five-day, 85km hike along the spectacular Fish River Canyon, which needs a minimum of three people for safety reasons and cannot be done in the extreme heat of summer. On account of the trail’s popularity, advance booking is a must. The rocky terrain of Naukluft in central Namibia is also favoured by hikers, offering a variety of trails, some of which can be walked in a day, though others need several days.

The sandstone Waterberg Plateau three hours north of Windhoek is also a prime area to explore on foot. In addition to short day-walks around the camp, a more strenuous, unguided four-day hike (43km) and a three- or four-day guided trail are usually available (April–Nov), though at the time of writing the multi-day hikes had been suspended indefinitely on account of increased anti-poaching security on the plateau.

Other favourite places to explore on foot include the private NamibRand Reserve, which abuts the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where you can undertake the interpretive three-day guided Tok Tokkie Trail, which offers a desert experience that includes fine dining and camping out under the stars. Alternatively, consider ascending Namibia’s highest peak in the Brandberg massif that towers 2km out of the gravel plains of former Damaraland; three- to five-day hikes are available, taking in some of the best-preserved San rock art on the continent.

Adventure sports

Swakopmund is the country’s centre for adventure sports, with several operators offering an increasingly diverse array of activities. On land, the action centres on the dunes: sand-surfing, sand-boarding, power-kiting and even sand-skiing are all possible, along with more established diversions such as quad biking. Skydiving and paragliding are airborne diversions while the truly fit and masochistic might consider one of Namibia’s ultramarathons and other desert challenges that take place in the Namib and in the Fish River Canyon (see w marathons.ahotu.com/calendar/namibia/trail).

Watersports

Given the lack of water generally in Namibia, watersports are restricted to the perennial rivers at the north and south ends of the country, and on the coast. Surfing and kitesurfing are both available in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, though Lüderitz, further south down the coast, has a reputation for windsurfing and kite-boarding world speed records.

A limited range of kayaking opportunities exist at either end of the country and on the coast in the Walvis Bay lagoon, where the aim is to get close to the wildlife, in particular the Cape fur seals and the prolific birdlife.

Day- and multi-day canoeing trips through stunning scenery take place on the Orange River, on the South African border, while the camps and lodges on the Kunene at Epupa offer half-day rafting trips.

Horse riding

Travelling by horseback is a great way to get off the beaten track in the desert, without the accompanying hum of a 4WD. The experienced international outfit Hidden Trails (w hiddentrails.com), which specializes in multi-day high-end horse safaris worldwide, offers several all-inclusive itineraries in Namibia for experienced, fit riders. The Namibia Horse Safari Company (w namibiahorsesafari.com) in Aus, southern Namibia, also organizes all-inclusive ten- to eleven-day horse safaris for fit intermediate and experienced riders through the Namib, along the Fish River Canyon and in Damaraland.

Catering for riders of all abilities and for those who wish to spend less time in the saddle, several lodges for the Namib-Naukluft National Park and adjacent NamibRand Reserve offer popular sunrise and sunset rides. Check out Wolwedans and the Desert Homestead Lodge w deserthomesteadlodge.com, for example. In the Eros Mountains, and accessible from Windhoek, Namibia-based Equitrails (w equitrails.org) caters to riders of all abilities offering a range of less pricey tours, from a couple of hours to a couple of days in the saddle, overnighting on a guest farm. Okakambe Trails in Swakopmund also has a varied equestrian menu, from short rides into the Swakop riverbed and the moon landscape, to overnight horse safaris of one–five nights, covering 20–30km per day and sleeping in tented camps.

Stargazing

Thanks to a low population density, low air pollution and virtually non-existent light pollution, the pitch-black sky above Namibia’s desert landscape is one of the top places in the world for stargazing, especially in the dry winter months. For prime viewing, head for the Gamsberg Mountains around 100km southwest of Windhoek, where the Hakos Guest Farm (w www.hakos-astrofarm.com) offers astronomy tourism. In Swakopmund, Stargazing Adventure (w stargazingadventure.com) organizes excursions into the desert with a large portable telescope, while top of the pile sits the NamibRand Reserve – Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. The luxurious lodges here, and some near neighbouring Sossusvlei, have their own telescopes for guests.

Essentials

Everything you need to know before you set off.

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