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 is blessed with a wealth of stunning landscapes.
Desert and semi-desert covers most of the country, but Namibia is far from devoid of life. The wetter northern region is home to Etosha, one of Africa’s premier national parks, where diverse landscapes support lions, black rhinos and elephants. Mighty rivers – including the majestic Zambezi – mark the nation’s northern and southern borders and promise glorious sunsets and exotic birdlife.
Travelling through Namibia can be an incredible experience. Picture star-speckled skies illuminating ancient sand dunes, scores of animals quenching their thirst and a desolate coastline stretching as far as the eye can see.
Namibia self-drive safari
To experience the best of the country, don’t restrict yourself to public transport. Pack a gas bottle and stove, step into your 4×4 and hit the road. Just don’t forget that spare tyre (or two). Your home is now a tent stored in the roof rack. There aren’t any other human beings for miles and your world is packed up in your vehicle.
Your itinerary is entirely flexible, opening up the opportunity for unforgettable experiences. And Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa where you can safari solo. Self-driving in Etosha National Park is a unique chance to encounter vast numbers of animals without the services of a guide. Wake up early, get to a waterhole and wait. The animals will gradually appear from the surrounding plains, opening you a window into their lives.
Here author of our new Rough Guide to Namibia, Sara Humphreys, picks fifteen of the country’s most incredible landscapes, that reveal why a Namibia self-drive safari is the raw wilderness experience you have always wanted.
1. Dead Vlei in Sossusvlei
Featured in many a wildlife documentary, the expansive 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 light of the early morning and late afternoon.
At the foot of “Big Daddy” – the area’s tallest dune, and a deceptively long climb – lies Dead Vlei, a white clay pan dotted with the eerie, skeletal remains of dead ancient trees.
Ancient trees in the clay pan at Dead Vlei, Namibia © Agatha Kadar/Shutterstock
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 flood plains, brimming with spectacular birdlife and home to hippos, crocs, buffalo and rare antelope.
Hippo in the Kwandi River, Namibia © Oleg Znamenskiy/Shutterstock
3. Fish River Canyon
Around 160km long, up to 27km wide and 550m deep, Fish River Canyon is one of the largest in Africa. A sinuous chasm in the Earth’s crust that started to form more than 1.8 billion years ago, it’s a breathtaking 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.
Fish River Canyon, Namibia © milosk50/Shutterstock
4. Sandwich Harbour
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 vast, rippling dunes of the Namib Desert plunge into the Pacific Ocean’s icy Benguela current.
Although you can visit independently, serious beach and dune-driving skills are essential for navigating the often-challenging conditions in this area. An organised day trip is a much wiser option.
Giant sand dunes at Sandwich Harbour, Namibia © kavram/Shutterstock
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. Resident wildlife includes the desert-adapted lion, black rhino, elephant, oryx and giraffe.
African desert elephant and her baby, Hoanib River region, Namibia © Francesco Dazzi/Shutterstock
6. “Fairy Circles”
“Fairy circles” are one of the Namib Desert’s more curious, unexplained natural phenomena. From the air they 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. Self-organisation theory is the current favoured explanation.
Fairy Circles, one of the most curious natural phenomena in Namibia’s Namib Desert © LUC KOHNEN/Shutterstock
7. Oshana 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. These water holes host frogs, crustaceans and sometimes fish, which Owambo women catch in reed baskets.
Ostrich family with chicks, Oshana, Namibia © Artush/Shutterstock
8. Waterberg Plateau
Standing sentinel at the western edge of the Kalahari, the impressive table mountain Waterberg Plateau with its striking sandstone cliffs is a top place to camp and birdwatch. Waterberg (water mountain in Afrikaans) retains moisture in its 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 striking cliffs of the Waterberg Plateau, Namibia © RCoussement/Shutterstock
9. Etosha National Park
The crown jewel of Namibia’s national parks, Etosha is chock-a-block with large mammals. The protected area is home to the continent’s greatest concentration of black rhino, big cats galore and perennial favourites such as giraffe. All are 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 rainfall it transforms into a giant mirror attracting clouds of pink flamingos that come to breed.
Herd of giraffes, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Dmitry Pichugin/Shutterstock
10. The dunes of the Kalahari
Often playing second fiddle to the giant sand dunes of the Namib Desert, the scenic, more vegetated Kalahari dune landscape in southeast Namibia is less visited. Yet the area’s sprinkling of lodges and campsites make ideal retreats for those hoping to encounter some of the country’s more curious or shy mammals. These include bat-eared foxes, aardvarks, meerkats and honey badgers.
Dune at Sossusvlei © elleon/Shutterstock
11. Epupa Falls
The Kunene River marks the border between Angola and northwestern Namibia. It carves its way westwards through remote mountain scenery and desolate dune landscapes, 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 plunging dramatically into a ravine.
Epupa Falls on the Kunene River, Namibia © Radek Borovka/Shutterstock
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 at 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. They are said to have used hollowed-out branches as quivers for their poison-tipped hunting arrows.
Quiver trees in southern Namibia © Grobler du Preez/Shutterstock
One of Namibia’s most distinctive landmarks, the imposing Spitzkoppe mountain rises 700m above the surrounding desert plains, amid a handful of other bornhardts – bald, dome-shaped 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 its attractions.
Bald granite peaks, Spitzkoppe, Namibia © Radek Borovka/Shutterstock
14. Naukluft Mountains
Forming part of the Great Escarpment, the imposing Naukluft Mountains constitute prime hiking country, offering a couple of strenuous day-walks and a challenging 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 stunning.
Zebras in dry savanna, Namibia © Karel Gallas/Shutterstock
15. NamibRand Nature Reserve
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, the reserve is backed by the imposing Nubib Mountains. Its terrain is a patchwork of sand dunes, fairy circles and gravel plains that transform into shimmering grasslands after rainfall. In short, it’s a photographer’s dream.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia © LUC KOHNEN/Shutterstock
Header image: Dead camelthorn trees in the white clay at Dead Vlei © Oleg Znamenskiy/Shutterstock