From the spectacular dunes of the Namib Desert to the serpentine chasm of the Fish River Canyon, the rugged mountains of the Great Escarpment to the acacia-studded sands of the Kalahari, Namibia has no shortage of stunning landscapes.
Desert and semi-desert covers most of the country, but Namibia is far from devoid of life. The wetter northern strip hosts Etosha, one of Africa’s premier national parks, brimming with lions, rhinos and elephants, while the rivers – including the majestic Zambezi – mark the nation’s northern and southern borders and promise glorious sunsets and exotic birdlife.
To celebrate the release of The Rough Guide to Namibia, author Sara Humphreys has picked fifteen of the country’s most incredible landscapes.
1. Dead Vlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park
Featured in many a wildlife documentary, the giant sculpted apricot dunes round Sossusvlei are justifiably one of the country’s major attractions. Not only are they extremely high, but they magically change colour in the early morning and late afternoon light.
At the foot of “Big Daddy” – the area’s tallest dune, and a deceptively long climb – lies Dead Vlei, an eerie, white clay pan dotted with skeletal trees several hundred years old.
2. Kwando River
More than 450 bird species inhabit the lush, sub-tropical Zambezi Region, Namibia’s curious panhandle that stretches across the top of Botswana.
Head for one of the idyllic lodges along the beautiful Kwando River, which meanders through the Bwabwata, Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara national parks. The parks offer an enticing mix of woodland, reed beds and floodplains, brimming with spectacular birdlife and home to hippos, crocs, buffalo and rare antelope.
Around 160km long, up to 27km wide and 550m deep, this is one of Africa’s largest canyons. A sinuous chasm in the Earth’s crust that started to form more than 1.8 billion years ago, it’s a jaw-dropping sight.
Most visitors are content to gaze across the rim, or peer into the abyss at the various viewpoints. But a handful take on the gruelling five-day Fish River hike along the canyon floor, before recovering in the hot springs of |Ai-|Ais at the end of the trail.
Heading south on a 4×4 adventure from Walvis Bay – Namibia’s main port – to the avian-rich lagoon of Sandwich Harbour takes you along wild coastline. Here, the Namib Desert’s vast, rippling dune sea plunges into the Pacific Ocean’s icy Benguela current.
Though you can go independently, serious beach and dune-driving skills are essential to navigate the often-treacherous conditions. An organised day-trip is a much wiser option.
5. Hoanib River, Kunene Region
One of a dozen ephemeral rivers that transect the remote and rugged northwest, the Hoanib only flows following heavy rains. But the underground aquifers ensure that the broad dusty riverbed is punctuated by oases that nourish a host of hardy animals: desert-adapted lion, black rhino, elephant, oryx and giraffe.
6. “Fairy Circles”
From the air, “fairy circles” – one of the Namib’s more curious, unexplained natural phenomena – appear to be giant polka dots on a vast piece of scorched cloth. Closer inspection reveals them to be discs of bare earth, encircled by rings of grass that are taller and healthier than the surrounding vegetation.
Possible explanations for their occurrence have included poisoning by rival toxic plants, being eaten by sand termites or even created by aliens, though self-organisation theory is the current favoured explanation.
7. Oshanas in northern Namibia
When the rains from the Angolan Highlands eventually flood the flat, dusty terrain of central northern Namibia, they transform the landscape into a picturesque patchwork of life-giving oshanas (or iishana). These are shallow depressions presided over by makalani palms that become seasonal ponds, hosting frogs, crustaceans and sometimes fish, which Owambo women catch in reed baskets.
Standing sentinel at the western edge of the Kalahari, this impressive table mountain with its striking sandstone cliffs (pictured here) is a top place to camp and birdwatch. Waterberg (water mountain in Afrikaans) retains moisture in the porous sandstone nourishing vegetation that supports more than 200 bird species.
The plateau’s inaccessibility also encourages the breeding of endangered species to supply other national parks: look out for roan and sable antelope and white and black rhino while on a guided game drive.
The crown jewel of Namibia’s national parks, Etosha is chock-full of large mammals, including the continent’s greatest concentration of black rhino, large cats galore and perennial favourites such as giraffe – all drawn to the reserve’s numerous water holes during the dry season.
Etosha’s defining feature is a vast, ghostly salt pan – Africa’s largest – which is visible from space; in years of exceptional rain it transforms into a giant mirror attracting clouds of pink flamingos that come to breed.
10. The dunes of the Kalahari
Often playing second fiddle to the giant sand dunes of the Namib, the scenic, more vegetated Kalahari dunescape in southeast Namibia is less frequented by tourists. Yet the area’s sprinkling of lodges and campsites make ideal retreats for those seeking out some of the country’s more curious or shy mammals: bat-eared foxes, aardvarks, meerkats and honey badgers.
11. Epupa Falls
Marking the border between Angola and northwestern Namibia, the Kunene River carves its way westwards through remote mountain scenery and desolate dunescapes, before emptying into the ocean on the Skeleton Coast. The river is most impressive at Epupa Falls, where you can watch it trip and tumble over a series of cataracts before it plunges dramatically into a ravine.
12. Quiver trees
The quiver tree’s distinctive crown of waxy leaves is a common sight around the arid rocky terrain of southern Namibia. At times a lonely sentinel on an escarpment, the tree’s greatest concentrations can be found in the Quiver Tree Forest and Mesosaurus Fossil Site, north of Keetmanshoop.
Actually a giant aloe, the quiver tree gained its name from the Khoisan people, who are said to have used the hollowed-out branches as quivers for their poison-tipped hunting arrows.
One of Namibia’s most distinctive landmarks, the imposing Spitzkoppe mountain rises 700m above the surrounding desert plains, amid a handful of other bornhardts – dome-shaped bald granite outcrops. Glowing like gold in the afternoon sun, the place attracts climbers, hikers, stargazers and cave-painting enthusiasts in equal measure.
A stay at the community-run campsite affords the opportunity to explore the mountain’s surreal, weathered rock formations: giant granite boulders and fascinating rock arches formed millions of years ago are just two of the attractions.
Forming part of the Great Escarpment, the imposing Naukluft Mountains constitute prime hiking country, offering a couple of strenuous day-walks and a gruelling multi-day trail. Unexpected springs and pools tucked away in ravines nourish a wealth of wildlife, including klipspringer, kudu and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. The views from the plateau top are simply breathtaking.
One of the largest private reserves in Africa, NamibRand boasts some of the country’s most spectacular desert scenery and most exclusive wilderness accommodation.
Bordering the famous Namib-Naukluft National Park, this reserve – backed by the imposing Nubib Mountains – is a patchwork of sand dunes, fairy circles, granite boulders and gravel plains that transform into shimmering grasslands after rainfall. In short, it’s a photographer’s dream.