I first went to Namibia in 1998 and have been back many times since. In that time I have met, tried, and tested many different service providers, car hire companies, lodges, campsites and routes. I’ve done it in everything from a four-door saloon car to specially built 12-seater four-wheel-drives, one modified to take a wheelchair-bound client.
Namibia has a surprising variety of landscapes, the oldest tribes in Africa, and some rare and stunning fauna and flora, from desert-dwelling elephants and rhinos to 2000-year-old plants. There is a similar variety in itineraries, campsites, and lodges.
Namibia is easily explored on a self-drive basis, which gives maximum flexibility and even though the roads are 70% gravel roads, with a suitable vehicle the driving is easy; I’d always recommend a raised SUV or pick-up truck over a normal road car. There are also a number of set-date group guided trips to experience the main highlights of the country on a budget. And if you want to see more in less time and have a very exclusive experience, then a flying safari is the way to go.
The sand dunes of the southern Namib Desert five hours from the capital, Windhoek.
Desert-dwelling elephants, black rhinos, and lions in the other-worldly wildernesses of northern Damaraland and Koakoland.
Abundant game in Etosha NP.
Leopard and cheetah tracking at Okonjima, three hours north of Windhoek.
In the far south, the supremely photogenic deserted mining settlement of Kolmanskop and the fantastic Fish River Canyon.
Amazing scenery throughout the country.
If it rains, it rains between November and March, the rest of the year is very dry. In the winter months of June, July and August, night time temperatures in the desert can drop to freezing. Daytime temperatures are 25-31°C.
Namibia is a country we know extremely well; I have been there nine times, spending a total of 27 weeks in the country, coming it from north to south and east to west. Matthew O’Brien, one of our Senior Safari Consultants, used to guide overland tours there, and Ines Moosmann, our Sales and Product supremo, has spent over two months here too.
To paint a bit more of a picture of the many wonders of this beautiful and diverse country, we have put together a selection of our individual highlights.
Kicking off is Matthew.
It is hard to conjure up the adjectives to describe your feelings when you first set your eyes on Dead Vlei. I can remember the first time I saw pictures of Dead Vlei in postcards and thought that such a place couldn’t be real. The colours were too vivid and too contrasting. Those postcards had to have been manipulated. There was the whiteness of the salt pan, the sharp ochre colour of the towering sand dunes and the deep blue of the sky that you find in parts of the world that haven’t been touched by air pollution.
The journey to Dead Vlei is an exciting one. It is located 66km inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park on a stretch of road that winds through the oldest desert in the world, past some of the highest sand dunes in the world, all of which are bright orange, with the occasional Oryx and Springbok running on them.
About 5km before you get to Dead Vlei, the tar road ends and turns into a 4x4 sand road. If you have your own 4x4 and know what you are doing, you can proceed along the sand road yourself, keeping your revs up so that you don’t get stuck. Digging your car out of sand is not anyone’s idea of fun. If you don’t have a 4x4, you can either walk the last 5km, or catch the shuttle that will take you there. The shuttle is quite an experience as the drivers load you into the back of an open game viewer and roar through the sand like rally drivers while you cling to the roll bars.
Once dropped off in the parking lot, in the shade of the only tree there, it’s just 400 more metres to go and after one short climb up a tiny dune, you can lay your eyes on Dead Vlei and confirm to yourself that those postcards were not lying. Most people stop and stare for a few minutes to take it all in before finally heading into the Dead Vlei to marvel at it all and take their own post card pictures.
It might seem weird to be writing about a seaside town as one my favourite places in a land of contrasts such as Namibia, but you have to remember what you will have been through to get to the town and the sights you will have seen along your journey. Most people who arrive in Swakopmund do so after bouncing along a corrugated dirt road for hundreds of kilometres. To those travellers from more developed parts of the world where everyone has a nice smooth tar road running past their gates, finding what actually amounts to a dirt highway snaking its way through the driest landscape in Southern Africa must be quite an experience. Then the corrugations end, the dirt turns to tar and you have arrived in Swakopmund, Namibia’s seaside playground. It is perhaps a weird place to have a seaside resort, as the Atlantic Ocean is freezing and the town is usually blanketed in sea fog every morning.
But just outside the town is 35km belt of sand dunes where you can go quad biking, sand boarding or camel riding. Out in the freezing cold sea, there is also much to see. There are daily sightseeing cruises that will get you up close to dolphins, Cape fur seals and pelicans. There is also the Swakopmund Sky Diving Club. This is arguably the best place in the world to go sky diving because of the consistency of the desert weather. They claim to have more clear sky diving days than any other sky diving club in the world. This is where I did my first sky dive and if it was more affordable, where I would have done many more sky dives.
After an eventful day of activities and fun in the, well, cold, we finally come to my favourite part of Swakopmund; watching the sun set at the Tiger Reef Beach Bar. Now, you probably won’t find the Tiger Reef Beach Bar in any main tourist guides and it isn’t where tour guides take their guests for dinners, but it is one of my favourite restaurants in Southern Africa, for the setting. The bar is literally the last building in Swakopmund and is built on the beach. You need a 4x4 to park there. The floor of the bar is beach sand and you can take your shoes off when you enter and walk around in the sand. This is where I like to come, order a plate of chips, a local Tafel Lager and watch the sun set over that frigid Atlantic Ocean. I can’t think of a better way to end the day. Don’t forget your jacket.
Ines heart beats to these Namibian tunes.
Namibia Rand Reserve/Wolwedans
The Namib Rand Reserve offers the most beautiful desert scenery, where mountains meet the desert that looks like a soft, orange and light green carpet and all that with no crowds of people. Activities are all private, guided by fantastic guides who not only find the bigger game like all the common desert adapted antelopes, zebras, giraffe and baboons, but also the invisible inhabitants of this harsh environment like hares, moulds, mice, moles, beetles, spiders, lizards, chameleons and other reptiles. A highlight is an excursion on horseback, which really makes you feel one with nature and brings you to the most special spots.
Etosha is the only national park in Africa with an semi-arid environment and its main characteristic, the Etosha Salt Pan is so large that it can be seen from space. Despite this dry environment you can find an abundance of wildlife here, congregating around the many waterholes. Nowhere else can you find as many species sharing a waterhole as in Etosha, it’s usually a lively gathering of giraffe, zebras, wildebeest, elephants, rhinos, jackals, warthogs, lions, and numerous antelope species and all with the background of white earth and blues skies; beautiful and fantastic for photographers.
Fish River Canyon
The second biggest canyon in the world might not be as spectacular as some of the other well-known canyons in the world, but it is still spectacular to see how the river has snaked its way through the rocks all the way from Seeheim to AiAis, on the border to South Africa. My favourite spot here is Fish River Lodge, where you will also be the only one around and your room will look straight down into the canyon, with incredible sunsets, which is pretty special. The hikes from there also take you down into the canyon, rather than just along the rim and you can even camp overnight in the canyon and make it a multi-day hiking excursion.
I’ve got to say, these are pretty cool spots, mainly. Swakopmund doesn’t do much for me these days, though the size of steaks at Kuki’s are always impressive. Etosha has superb wildlife, Okaukuejo waterhole is a rhino magnet at night, and the elsewhere elusive blavk rhino is easy to see. Big cat sightings are common too, and it is the only place where I have seen Aardwolf in daylight, mating nonetheless. Wolwedans is s-t-u-n-n-i-n-g, both the reserve and the accommodation, I love it there, such a special place. And enjoying a sundowner round the fire (it gets cold at night) at Fish River Lodge having spent the day descending into the canyon and then bounding back up, is a delight.
But my favourites involve desert-adapted wildlife in Damaraland and Koakoland, where not only elephants, rhinos, and lions roam, but where the game is truly wild, not hemmed in by any boundaries. Giraffe, zebra, oryx and springbok can be encountered as you cruise along the gravel roads through the ever-changing and ever-stunning landscapes.
Damaraland is a huge, untamed, ruggedly diverse and beautiful region with prehistoric water courses, open plains, grassland, massive granite kopjes and deep gorges. Along the coastal belt, the geography has vast sand areas that are able to sustain small, but wide-ranging, populations of desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, giraffe, ostrich and springbok. Elephant and rhino move through euphorbia bush country. It's also home to the highest peak in the country, Brandberg, and its ancient "White Lady" rock art.
Damaraland extends 600km south of Kaokoland down to the main road to Swakopmund at Uis, and extends 200km inland from the Skeleton Coast. Named after the Damara people in the area, the name is still commonly used, although the entire region has now been renamed; the southern section is in the Erongo region and the north forms part of the Kunene region.
The remote northwest corner of Namibia, the remotest part of the country, is one of my favourite places on the planet. Now part of the Kunene Region, it's rugged yet sublimely beautiful, with incredible craggy mountains, coastal desert, huge areas of sand in dried-up river beds full of trees and bushes, and the country’s only flowing waterfalls at Epupa and Ruacana. Stretching north from the Hoanib River up to the Kunene River and the Angolan border, the region is home to desert-adapted wildlife; elephants, black rhino, lions, giraffe, springbok, Hartmann's zebra and around 5,000 Himba pastoralists. The game is relatively sparse, but so rewarding to see it, and the backdrops make excellent photographs in the early morning and late afternoon light, when the pastel shades glow. From ragged mountain ridges, to sandy plains dotted with bushes or tufts of grass, the landscapes are postcard porn. Boating or canoeing on the Kunene, and putting a cheeky foot or two on Angolan soil is a bonus. Kaokoland is also the place from where the Skeleton Coast can be experienced in the most depth, if staying at one of the up-market lodges , like Shipwreck and Hoanib Valley Lodge.
Self-driving in the far north is for the intrepid, experienced, and prepared only. There is no cell phone coverage in most parts, and very few to no passing vehicles, depending where you are. Some of the routes involved driving through thick sand, navigating with a mix of GPS and dead-reckoning. It is possible to drive part of way, and then make use of a lodge transfer service or light aircraft for the final leg.
My final favourite place is also the last on a classic circuit, Okonjima Game Reserve, halfway between Windhoek and the Etosha National Park; only a two-and-a-half-hour drive or a brief flight into the reserve’s private airstrip. At the end of a trip, it’s a great last stop to give yourself the best chance of having a good encounter or two with leopard and cheetah, and potentially brown hyaena and pangolin, as well as the in-house patients of the AfriCat Foundation.
Too far west to be East Africa, too far north to be southern Africa, and not quite central Africa either, Zambia is not only a geographical anomaly when it comes to safari destinations, but also very different in other aspects too.
You may have heard of its reputation as the birthplace of walking safaris, or the adventure capital of southern Africa with Victoria Falls, or its excellent guides, the best on the continent, along with their colleagues in Zimbabwe. Compared to South Africa, Botswana, and Kenya, the lodges are generally more outdoorsy and authentic (a number of the seasonal camps are rebuilt every season), though there are some opulent options too. And compared to these wildlife tourism hotspots, Zambia has remained largely off the radar, for no good reason. It's my favourite safari destination, no doubt partly because of the lack of tourists in most of the parks, but also for the variety of habitats, the diversity of activities, the abundance of wildlife, and the quality of the guiding.
Access is usually into the international airports at Lusaka or Livingstone, often via Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, or Dubai. The usual way to get around the various key locations is by light aircraft.
Whilst Livingstone has one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls are immensely popular, the rest of Zambia has long since been something of a secret backwater. Despite being host to superb safari, arguably some of the best, visitor numbers remain low. Yet those to do make the effort to get here are rewarded with rare levels of intimacy and authenticity, often falling in love and returning time and again.
Lusaka, the capital, sits in the middle of the country, more or less. At seven o’clock, in the south, Livingstone and Victoria Falls have a wide range of activities, and a good mix of hotels, guesthouses, and safari lodge style places to stay. From chopper rides down the gorges and over the falls, microlight flights, rhino tracking on foot, bungy jumping, white water rafting the rapids downstream, or more sedate canoeing upstream, sundowner G&T cruises with sumptuous nibbles, there is plenty to keep visitors occupied. Oh, and you can also walk opposite the widest single sheet of falling water in the world.
The most frequented safari area is South Luangwa National Park, way over in the east of the country, up at two o’clock. South Luangwa has a range of lodges and bush camps, and it was here that Norman Carr pioneered the walking safari back in the fifties (watch the video below to hear about his legacy). Most of the lodges don’t have the same level of sophistication as the top lodges in neighbouring Tanzania, Kenya, or the safari mecca of South Africa, but the wildlife experience, thanks in part to the excellent guiding standards here, is top-notch.
Add to that the picturesque floodplains, the lovely Luangwa River, and you get my personal favourite location for a green season safari, and in my top five over all. You can choose from classic 4x4 game-watching, day or night, half-day walks, walking between camps, a combination of walking and driving, or, between December and April, boat-based game-viewing too. South Luangwa is very strong for cat sightings, and the usually elusive leopard is a common sighting here. I’ve seen at least one on almost every day I’ve spent there, and on one three-night trip, 2 lion kills and a leopard kill.
My beloved Wild dogs are also well-established here, and some of my favourite Wild dog sightings are from South Luangwa. Watching them mess around with Zebra one sunset, and give the run around to an elephant mum and calf at a waterhole one afternoon were endearing moments. Access is via scheduled flights to Mfuwe.
Another great safari area is Lower Zambezi NP, at three o’clock from Lusaka, with superb camps and a wide range of activities. The Zambezi River is wide here, and boat-based game-viewing, canoeing, sundowner cruises, and tigerfish fishing are all possible in addition to the usual walking and diurnal or nocturnal 4x4 game-viewing. Opposite Zimbabwe’s famous Mana Pools, it shares its northern border with the huge rift escarpment. With a mix of beautiful leadwood and fig forests and rolling grass plains, the different habitats here encourage a wide variety of flora and fauna, though oddly it has no giraffe. The huge densities of wildlife tend to stay close the river, and game drives and canoe safaris often encounter large herds of elephant, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest. The riverfront is also ideal leopard habitat and it's not uncommon to see one of these rare predators lazing in a tree beside the river. Lower Zambezi is only visited between April and November.
Another top safari area is Kafue, at nine o’clock from Lusaka, a huge and little-visited reserve well worth considering. The size of Wales, it’s a magical landscape but one that receives substantially less attention than both the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa. The wildlife viewing isn’t as abundant, but few places can match them, however with a little bit of patience and an appreciation of beauty and solitude, Kafue can be ideal. In actual fact, the park has a larger variety of species than anywhere else in Zambia, including cheetah, sable antelope and the elusive roan antelope, and it’s the only area where hot air ballooning is possible. With a mix of forests, plains, savannah, and the Kafue River, canoeing and boating are on the menu alongside day and night drives and walking. Out to the west, Busanga Plains attract huge herds of plains game from July to November. Other parts of the park are open year-round.
For those seeking more solitude and a step back in time, North Luangwa, with a focus on walking safari, might be your cup of chai. 50% bigger than Luxembourg, with just three small camps, including three-tent Mwaleshi, and two-chalet Takwela, located at the honey pot; the junction of the Mwaleshi River with the Luangwa River. The lion along the Mwaleshi River are known for their confidence and walking safaris can get great views, you will feel like a true explorer of old. Open only in the dry season between June and October, there are very few vehicle tracks, though more are being created to enhance the variety of game-drive areas. With enormous herds of buffalo, ever-present predators, remarkable birdlife, the rare Cookson’s wildebeest, and few human visitors, North Luangwa is one for the safari purists’ list.
Whilst Liuwa Plain, far to the west, is a remote and little-known safari area, it’s fast becoming an addition to the to-see list of the discerning safari aficionado. Its 3,660 km2, the same as Delaware’s land area more or less, of broad savannah are home to the second biggest wildebeest migration on the continent, a flourishing cheetah population, the famed Lady Liuwa lion pride, hyenas in clans of 50 or more, zebra, red lechwe, eland, buffalo, tssebe and more than 300 bird species, Africa's densest concentration of endangered wattled cranes and other rare game. Yet it remains one of Africa's greatest secrets. The solitary camp, King Lewanika opened in 2017 and only has six tented villas, so if exclusivity is your bag, this is the place for you.
At just 254 km², Luambe is one of Zambia’s smallest national parks. Situated on the eastern bank of the Luangwa it lies in the heart of the Luangwa valley between North and South Luangwa national parks. The park was declared in 1938 making it one of the oldest conservation areas in Zambia.
The wildlife found in Luambe is similar to that of its larger neighbouring parks and includes all the typical large herbivores, carnivores as well as some less well-known species, but they are generally present at lower densities than in the bigger parks. The advantage of Luambe is visitor density. With one small losge, you will have the place essentially to yourself.
Habitat diversity in Luambe National Park is enormous and within a few kilometres the vegetation ranges from riverine forest, cathedral mopane woodland, floodplain acacia thickets to the sausage tree-dotted open grasslands of the Chipuka plains.
There are over 200 species of bird in Luambe and elephant populations as well as those of lion and leopard are said to be on the increase – so it’s well worth visiting now before everyone else catches on. From the south it’s a three to four-hour drive from Mfuwe on dirt road through the Nsefu sector of South Luangwa National Park. From Lundazi it’s a three-hour drive on dirt road to Luambe’s northern entrance making it easy to combine with either or both of its neighbours.
So, there you have Zambia, in a nutshell. Loads to do, not enough time to do it all. So if you want to go, have a read of our Zambia pages here and check out some of the sample itineraries we have, or drop us a line here.
It’s not a budget safari destination though, so if you are on a tight budget, check out our African safari specials to other countries here
The Kruger, possibly the best-known safari destination in the world, synonymous with safari. Established in 1898, The Greater Kruger Park extends over some 22,000 square km (8,500 sq. miles). That’s the size of Wales if you are European, and Massachusetts if you are North American. (If you are neither, it’s flippin’ big). It supports a total of 500 bird species, 145 mammal species, and 110 reptile species, including an estimated 13,000 elephants, 40,000 buffalo, 2000 lions and more rhinos than any other protected area. We aren’t allowed to say how many, but it is lots and lots. The only decent wildlife reserve with a higher density of rhino is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal.
What's the difference between the Greater Kruger Park and Kruger National Park?
The Greater Kruger Park is comprised of the Kruger National Park (KNP) and a number of private reserves next to the KNP. The fences between the private reserves and the KNP came down 23 years ago allowing the animals to move freely..
The KNP is managed by Sanparks, a government-run organisation, and covers about 80% of the total area. Tarmac roads run through the middle of it, there are numerous large rest camps, of which at least half a dozen have over 100 one to four-bedroom units, camping sites, and fast food restaurants catering to self-drive clients. The private reserves are managed by groups made up of small lodges and camps. Many lodges and camps only have between six and twelve one-bedroom chalets or luxury tents. No self-driving is permitted, there are no tarmac roads, and vehicle movements are carefully managed.
From a fauna and flora point-of-view, there there is not much difference. The parks are next to each other and there are no fences between them, so the animals and birds who call the area home can roam freely, and are found in both. In saying that, however, the area is large, so habitats differ and of course animals gravitate toward whichever habitat is best for them. Some areas are better known for their leopard sightings, others for elephant, and so on.
The parks that make up the GKP are quite strict about how many people are allowed in at a time. This means that your safari experience is far more exclusive and you won't be trying to get through dozens of other cars to see a lion kill or catch that special photo of a zebra baby. This is not an exaggeration. I have seen 50 vehicles in a scrum to look at a pride of lion lazing in the bush 50 yards from the road between Satara and Skukuza.
Guided Wildlife Experiences
Game-viewing in the private reserves is facilitated and managed by experienced and knowledgeable guides with excellent tracking skills in open-sided 4x4 game-viewing vehicles with a maximum of 9 guests from your lodge in them. Some lodges limit it to six No self-driving is permitted. The majority of the time, your vehicle will be the only one at a sighting.This ensures that you see not only the keystone species, but also the birds and the little fellas, who are arguably equally important in the local eco-system. On each game drive you stop for a break at a scenic point, get out of the vehicle, and enjoy refreshments and snacks. Game-viewing can also be conducted on foot, allowing a greater understanding of and connection with the bush.
The lodges and tented camps in the private reserves are more high-end than those found in the KNP. With limited numbers of guests at each, you are assured of a far more private and exclusive experience. Hospitality is personal and service is a priority, to ensure that you get the best possible safari experience. All the lodges have a watering hole, river, or lake, meaning that there is good chance of seeing wildlife when you are not out on safari too. Many lodges are also unfenced, so having interesting visitors around the grounds is not uncommon.
Our favourite private Kruger reserves
Sabi Sand with Mala Mala covers 780 sq km. The Sabi River and Sand River run through the area providing diverse habitats for the huge range of animals. Sabi Sand is known especially for its big cat sightings, most notably of the elsewhere elusive leopard. We have never had a client who has spent three night here without a good leopard sighting. It is the least budget-friendly of the private reserves, but at the upper end of scale has some excellent value-for-money lodges, with excellent attention to detail and fine dining combined with top=drawer wildlife sightings. My “Big Five record” of 2 hours 35 minutes was set here. Granted, the rhino was a 10-second arse-end encounter, but we had 45 minutes with a leopard and her two cubs eating a kudu up a tree, and a 20-minute coffee break watching mating lions…..
One of the largest privately-owned reserves in South Africa, Klaserie covers 600 sq. km of land along the Klaserie River. The owners are strongly committed to conservation and the park hosts three great conservation projects: the Ground Hornbill Project, Rhino Protection and The Elephant Project. Generally, the habitat is more open than Sabi Sand, which is great news for cheetah fans. With less of a reputation than Sabi Sand, the prices for the same level of comfort are lower too.
Bordering the KNP on one side and Klaserie on the other, Timbavati is also a prime game-viewing area, and a hot spot for African wild dogs (Cape hunting dogs), my favourite mammal (other than my kids), great for cheetah, and also pretty good for leopard. It also has the only wild white lions left in the world. Lodge rates here are also, on average, lower than in Sabi Sand.
Balule, Thornybush, Umbabat, Manyeleti, are good private reserves, and there are also Jocks and Lukimbi private reserves within the KNP.
When to go
Dry season –May to September – Winter
There is virtually no rainfall during the whole of winter, humidity is very low. and there is almost no risk of malaria. As water becomes scarce wildlife is attracted to permanent water sources. Temperatures from the evening to mid-morning can be chilly.
Wet seasons–October to April – Summer
It is hot and humid in summer. Temperatures can reach over 40°C/104°F, although average daytime temperature is 32°C/90°F. Mostly rain falls in the afternoon or at night. The rains bring green grasses, seeds, flowers, and as a result, more birds. The rains also mean there is no dust, and, other than Christmas and Easter, fewer tourists.
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.