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.
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.