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.
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 guestfarms 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, bookings need to be made many months in advance. 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.
Though only established in 2015, the six-day Khomas Hochland hiking trail, which covers 91km across five guestfarms (also with a shorter 53km route over four days) is becoming increasingly popular. It offers fine views of the highlands; what’s more, there are ways of easing the endurance pain by slackpacking – having your food, bedding and any other luggage transported from camp to camp for you. See Hike Namibia for more information.
The sandstone Waterberg Plateau three hours north of Windhoek is also a prime area to explore on foot. At the moment, however, you are restricted to short day-walks around the camp, and up to the plateau ridge, as 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 Brandberg massif, which 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, and offering spectacular panoramic views.
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 or sand-boarding are 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.
Given the general lack of water in Namibia, watersports are inevitably restricted to the perennial rivers at the north and south ends of the country, and to 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 exists. You can paddle about on the Walvis Bay lagoon, where the aim is to get close to the wildlife, in particular the Cape fur seals and the prolific birdlife. On the other hand, you can enjoy day- and multi-day kayaking trips through stunning scenery along the Orange River, on the South African border, while the camps and lodges on the Kunene at Epupa offer seasonal half-day rafting trips.
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, 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 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, for example. In the Eros Mountains, and accessible from Windhoek, Namibia-based Equitrails 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 guestfarm. 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 to five nights, covering 20–30km per day and sleeping in tented camps.
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. Though almost anywhere away from the few urban areas can provide you with a glittering night sky and opportunities to marvel at the Milky Way, for prime viewing, head for the Gamsberg Mountains around 100km southwest of Windhoek, where the Hakos Guest Farm specializes in astrotourism. Kiripotib Guest Farm is another magnet for astronomers or would-be astronomers, while top of the pile sits the NamibRand Reserve – Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. The most luxurious accommodation here, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, has its own telescope and resident astronomer for guests.
There are few more magical experiences than ballooning across the dunes of the Namib at dawn, topped off by a champagne breakfast in the desert. Although you’ll only be in the air around an hour, you’ll need to set aside a large chunk of the morning, once pick-ups and preparation time have been factored in. Currently, departures are only from Sossusvlei.
Desert ecology and responsible travel
Namibia’s desert landscape is a fragile environment, where it’s easy to inflict lasting damage through a few careless actions. Careering across seemingly desolate dunes on a quad bike can be exhilarating fun, as can charging down the side of a sand dune, but both actions threaten some of the desert micro-fauna, most of which lives less than 10cm below dune surface. The eggs, larvae and young of beetles, spiders and reptiles are especially vulnerable on the dune slipface (the steeper incline on the lee side), where these animals concentrate. In particular, you should keep clear of patches of stabilizing vegetation. Generally, the least damage is caused by walking up and down the crest of the dune.
In Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, most tour operators are responsible and operate within designated areas, aimed at minimizing the impact on the dunes, and employing guides who ensure that sand-boarding is carried out only on specific slopes, and that on quad bike tours, everyone follows in the same tracks, on set routes, behind the guide. It is generally individuals who have their own bikes and vehicles driving “off-piste” that cause the most damage.
Several companies (notably in Lüderitz) offer off-road wilderness camping adventures through the Namib, but before embarking on one, you need to satisfy yourself that they are trying to minimize their impact on the environment. It is worth asking: what is the maximum number of vehicles they travel in; whether they always follow the same tracks; what they do with their camping waste; and whether they use stoves rather than making fires. There is a culture of machismo among some off-road drivers – evident even in some of the Sandwich Harbour tour drivers – that can lead to a greater environmental footprint than is necessary.
Similarly, when corrugations on some of the gravel roads become uncomfortable it’s very tempting to drive onto the adjacent, often harder, desert crust, and make new parallel tracks. As well as leaving unsightly marks that can stain the landscape for years, this poses a threat to birds’ nests, such as those of the endangered Damara tern, and may also destroy barely discernible lichen and other plants that have taken hundreds of years to grow, and which provide vital nutrients or shelter for other wildlife. Penetrating the desert crust by off-road driving also exposes softer sand and soil to wind erosion.