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Namibia is Nature’s great art gallery, a mystical world of surreal landscapes and transcendent experiences. Panoramas appear as in a dream, fantastical yet spine-tinglingly real. Giant red sand dunes, silvery-white salt pans, flamingo-fringed lagoons – no other country offers such visual euphoria.
Namibia feels like a lost world, an endless expanse of phantasmagorical landscapes that have never lost their primitive majesty. Towering orange sand dunes dominate the west, rising hundreds of meters and subtly changing color beneath the sun. Dusty plains and parched riverbeds stretch to the horizon, punctuated by rusty sandstone outcrops – many engraved with enigmatic Stone Age carvings. Herds of elephants, zebras and unicorn-like oryxes plod between isolated waterholes, while nimble bushmen stalk springbok on the horizon. Many people call these landscapes a photographer’s dream – yet photos struggle to capture either their elemental power or their delicate nuances.
There’s something paradoxical about witnessing Namibia up close. Initially it’s the vast scale of the land, the 360-degree panoramas that deliver new definitions of beauty. Yet everyone sees a different angle. Every curve of sand is subtly changing, each safari crosses new terrain, and the experience is never shared. In some countries people talk of destinations where you can escape the crowds. Just spotting another person in Namibia usually brings a brief moment of shock. In places like Sousevlei and Fish River Canyon, the otherworldly landscapes are the attraction, enthralling and captivating, pulling visitors into their hypnotic world. But wherever water flows animals invariably follow. Etosha National Park and the country’s numerous private reserves all appear stark and desolate, yet their dusty plains teem with Africa’s great mammals. The action is easily spotted, as the herds instinctively swarm to lakes and immense salt pans.
Few people get the opportunity to explore these epic vistas. They arrive like a dream, a visual array of colliding colors and contradictory superlatives, perhaps best epitomized by the unearthly landscapes of Damaraland: desolate yet exquisite, confusing but profoundly simple, impossible yet electrifyingly real. And hidden amongst it all are quintessential experiences that are never forgotten. Watch teams of lionesses ingeniously stalk prey across dusty plains. Sand-board down 300-meter dunes. Gaze upon the world’s second largest canyon. Explore historic shipwrecks and villages half buried in sand and shrouded in ocean fog. Follow the footprints of Africa’s largest elephants. No two journeys in Namibia will ever be the same. It’s not just a question of getting lost. In most of Namibia, it’s often difficult to know precisely where you are. On the southwestern edge of Africa? Or in Nature’s greatest art gallery…
- The world’s highest sand dunes burn red across the southern part of the Namib Desert. They stretch for hundreds of miles across the Namib-Naukluft, Africa’s largest national park, sparkling and twinkling as the wind brings infinitesimal changes to this 43 million-year-old landscape. A dawn climb up Dune 45 rewards visitors with a stunning sunrise over the sands of Sossusvlei, while more intrepid hikers may want to challenge themselves on the vertiginous slopes of ‘Big Daddy’ – which soars more than 350 meters above one of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes.
- Water is king in Namibia, the wildlife perennially roaming in search of a drink. Etosha National Park is one of southern Africa’s greatest game reserves: a vast, dusty land centered around the 4800km² Etosha salt pan, which holds seasonal rains and permanent waterholes that draw a steady stream of wildlife. Giraffes and rhinos wander across the plains, lions and leopards rest beside the shallow pan, and a huge array of antelope and zebra tentatively sip from the waterholes lining its southern edges. You’ll need a few days to fully experience the breathtaking scale and authenticity of this vast wilderness, where the big game are always etched against wonderfully vivid backdrops.
- Namibia has never been tamed by human hands, but its semi-nomadic tribes have harmoniously survived in these desert lands for thousands of years. The San bushmen are believed to have lived here for nearly 50,000 years, hunting various antelope species and gathering fruits, nuts and roots deep in the desert. The Himba tribes herd cattle and lounge in natural herbal steam baths, while the Ju/’hoansi bushmen continue to perform traditional healing dances and find medicine in the bush. These are some of the world’s oldest indigenous tribes, and spending time with them is always a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.
- Coastal Swakopmund is the country’s greatest urban oasis, lined with palm trees and sparkling beneath the sun. This quaint town is covered in splendid German colonial buildings, but the main attraction is the unique experiences that start from here. Go sand-boarding down the nearby dunes, ride a horse or a quad bike into the desert, or take a microlight flight or a hot air balloon ride – and witness one of the world’s wildest landscapes from the sky.
- Dramatic granite outcrops or ‘inselbergs’ rise from the sweeping plains of Damaraland in northwestern Namibia, creating surreal archways, domes and pointed peaks held sacred by the San people. This region embodies the incomparable nature of Namibia’s vast and bewitching landscapes. Giraffes stand lonely beneath shimmering red mountains, hiking trails pass through desolate overhangs adorned with vibrant rock art, and the silence is punctuated by the lonely footsteps of desert elephants and rare black rhinos. Losing yourself in the immense freedom and solitude of Damaraland is what Namibia is all about.
- Namibia has very few roads and almost nothing to disrupt the migratory routes of its giant nomads. Elephants and rhinos leave great footprints as they wander through sand and scorched salt pans. Tracking them on a walking safari is a thrilling experience – one that instils a stunning harmony with nature and an unforgettable immersion in wilderness. Follow their trails with skilled bushmen, and then marvel as they stand just meters away, with nothing but a lonely acacia tree between you.
Few countries on Earth are as raw and elemental as Namibia. Almost nowhere can compete with the visual euphoria that accompanies every angle and vista in this huge country. Simply driving between destinations can fill hundreds of spaces on the camera memory card. But some places are exceptionally unique:
- Take an enthralling journey up the Skeleton Coast, passing ancient shipwrecks and deserted mining towns submerged in sand and fog. More than 1000 ships have been wrecked on this unforgiving shore, where they stand abandoned and isolated, their wood and steel hulls being gradually eroded by nature. Elephant and giraffe skeletons further reveal the inhospitably of this coast, yet coming across a hartebeest herd or a hungry leopard isn’t uncommon. At Cape Cross, the life is intensified by the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals: up to 250,000 of them swamping the sand with their comical antics and cacophonous calls.
- Everybody knows that the Grand Canyon is the largest in the world. But does anybody know the second largest? Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia is over 100 miles long, 20 miles wide, and in places almost 550 meters deep. And you’ll have it all to yourself. Like its American rival, it’s a geological feature that defies superlatives, the scale and intensity of the experience often difficult to comprehend. There’s something spooky about standing above it, gazing down into the abyss and silently grappling with its sheer scale.
- Namibia is unique in Africa for its lack of fences and manmade barriers. All of Africa’s great mammals roam free, meandering a path across the epic landscapes. The country is filled with private game reserves, each combining luxurious comfort with effortless game viewing. Track rhinos on foot, spot lions from your secluded veranda, and watch wild dogs from the sanctuary of hidden hides. In particular, Ongava and Okanjima have a stunning array of game, and their central location makes them easy to incorporate into any Namibian itinerary.
- Ancient San artists have turned a little corner of Damaraland into the world’s most famous outdoor art gallery, with some 2,500 engravings of animals, people and mythical creatures immortalized on giant slabs of oxidized sandstone. The ancient carvings, dating back between 2,000 and 6,000 years, have made Twyfelfontein the most important site of Stone Age rock art in Africa – and in 2007, they were declared Namibia’s first World Heritage Site.
- The country’s Atlantic Ocean coastline is littered with diamonds, but Nature’s irrefutable power has scared away the bounty hunters. Kolmanskop is half hidden by sand, the abandoned 19th century wooden houses now with dunes for carpets. This mystical ghost town is a testimony to Namibia’s untamed land; sand whips through doors and piles against old oak walls, bathtubs stand lonely as buildings disintegrate around them, and the town feels like a setting for a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Nearby Luderitz provides the accommodation, delivering you to 19th century Bavaria through a delightfully atmospheric time warp.
- The Caprivi Strip forms Namibia’s panhandle, a sliver of verdant land that separates Botswana from Angola and Zambia in the northeast of the country. Elephants literally wander alongside the main road here, mud hut villages stand on vivid floodplains, and isolated tourist camps are set up beside meandering rivers filled with hippos and crocodiles. It’s serenely beautiful, the fresh shocks of blue and green a stark contrast to the rest of the country – and three lush national parks providing a host of unexpected surprises.
Although Namibia’s attractions are centered around the desert and its arid national parks, the country’s climate is certainly not uncomfortably harsh. In reality, this is a year-round destination and, while it’s definitely warm, it’s rarely suffocatingly hot. The relentless sun can be intense and mid afternoons are usually quiet resting time wherever you are, whatever time of year. Morning and late afternoon onwards is generally pleasant all year round; just remember that isolated places like Fish River Canyon are uninhabited for a reason, and going for a three-hour hike at midday is never a wise idea.
The weather follows two distinct seasons, with crystal blue skies marking almost every day of the dry season from May to October. Maximum daily temperatures hover around 70 degrees between May and August, and warm clothing is essential at night. Wildlife viewing is at its best as animals congregate around the diminishing water and there is almost no vegetation to hide behind. While this is officially the high season, this is Namibia – so don’t expect to see too many other tourists
The wet season runs from October to April but don’t expect to see that much rain. Deserts are defined by their lack of rainfall, and witnessing how a short shower can transform the landscape is a spectacular experience; green plains vividly contrast red dunes, and wildlife floods to the new oases. Other parts of the country, particularly parks like Etosha, will see short afternoon showers and blossoming grasslands. The rains won’t negatively impact your visit, although it’s more difficult to see animals at this time of year. Temperatures soar and peak in the 80s, although it will feel hotter than this beneath the sun. Like most of the year, activities are usually planned for the early morning and late afternoon.
A great time to visit, and to see all of Namibia’s attractions in their natural splendor, is the shoulder seasons. In April and May the land remains brilliantly green, although the temperatures have decreased. Similarly, the very end of the dry season brings spectacular wildlife viewing, when Namibia is at its most raw and primitive.
Namibia is an adventure through a desolate world. Receiving a liberal coating of dust and sand is part of the experience, as is driving along lonely roads and wondering if you’ll ever see another vehicle. Providing the perfect antidote is the country’s wonderfully appointed accommodation. After a day exploring there’s nothing better than a hot shower in the desert and lounging on a private veranda as the sun flickers across the horizon. Or lying on a four-poster bed and watching a magical collection of hooves approach a nearby waterhole.
Most accommodation is in luxury lodges, which are almost always unassuming – absorbed into the landscape rather than dominating it. Natural wooden features are the norm, as are incredibly spacious rooms and never-ending views. Most cater for just a handful of discerning guests and every room is well separated from the rest. Many have air-conditioning and plunge pools. ‘Boutique’ is an accommodation buzz word these days, but it’s always been the way in Namibia; it’s rare to find a lodge without an individual style or cozy intimacy. Expect to be charmed. While Namibia doesn’t have the big hotel names, it certainly knows how to deliver five-star luxury. And it knows just how to optimize the beauty of the surrounding environment.
In addition, Namibia offers the opportunity to sleep in luxury tented camps. These are serenely erected in pristine wilderness locations, maximizing the immersion in Namibia’s surreal world. Yet they come with often startling levels of comfort. This isn’t glamping: it’s a mobile five-star hotel in the bush. While the opulent canvas tents provide everything required, it’s hard not to spend at least one night sleeping on the veranda, gazing up at the impossibly starry sky.
Visa and Passport Requirements
Citizens of the US, Canada and EU countries can enter Namibia visa free for up to 90 days. Your passport will be stamped upon arrival. When flying into the country visitors should have an onward or return ticket, although this is rarely enforced by customs. It’s worth having your travel itinerary and confirmations printed out just in case.
Namibia is a very safe and peaceful country. Crime against tourists is extremely rare, especially given that the popular areas to visit are those where virtually nobody else lives. The greatest threat is posed by the landscape itself, in particular the raw African sun. Staying hydrated is essential and every vehicle should have a large back-up supply of drinkable water. Sunscreen, sunglasses and a sturdy wide-brimmed hat should be the first items on your packing list. Guides are experts at judging the conditions and ensuring that nothing strenuous is done during the hottest part of the day. Don’t let the desert conditions put you off Namibia; with a bit common sense you’ll be fine.
Similarly the free-roaming wildlife could present a problem if you don’t adhere to local warnings. Signs about crocodiles in the river, or lions on the savanna, aren’t put up to excite tourists. Local guides and tribes are experts at tracking animal movements and responding to clues. They know how to keep you safe in their natural environment. So if a hippo starts prowling around the camp at night, don’t run after it with your camera.
The southern and western parts of Namibia are malaria free all year round. The risk in areas north of the capital city, Windhoek, including Etosha National Park and the Caprivi Strip, depends upon the season. Mosquitos need water and between July and October there isn’t any. It’s another reason why the dry season is a better time to go on safari in Namibia. Antimalarial medication is usually recommended from November to June. Wherever you go in Namibia, it’s important to follow standard rules to prevent mosquito bites – namely covering your arms and legs after dusk and applying a healthy dose of repellent. Doctors will usually recommend immunizations for hepatitis A and B, tetanus and typhoid.
While the water is considered safe for drinking, it might not agree with delicate stomachs. Unsafe tap water is usually labelled. Bottled water is always available and is always recommended for isolated locations and campsites.
Time moves slowly in Namibia. Even the old German colonial towns run by a languid timetable that suits the landscape. Fully appreciating the beauty of this country requires people to slip into its relaxed rhythm. Places like Soussevlei or Etosha can’t be rushed, but need to be savored and admired – particularly given that the desert isn’t the easiest place to reach in the first place. Everything will happen in its own time, and that’s part of the country’s beauty: forget about wifi and watches, and let Nature unfurl its hypnotic spell. Dawn and dusk are always memorable times, when the wildlife is most active and the landscapes flicker beneath a swooping sun.
Namibians are generally very friendly, just don’t expect to meet too many of them. They’re proud of how developed their country is and rarely get offended by anything. Taking time to say “how are you” will always be rewarded; after all, it would be bizarre to rush meeting a stranger when there are so few people around. The Namibian diet sometimes feels heavily weighted towards meat and beer. Zebra, beef, ostrich, 1kg pork knuckles: enthusiastic carnivores are in for a treat. Vegetarians can be catered for, but it’s usually advisable to give some prior notice.
The Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African rand and both currencies are used interchangeably. Visa and Mastercard facilities are available in most tourist establishments, including hotels and shops, and your guide will usually give a prior warning if this isn’t the case. ATMs are found in most towns and at roadside garages, but in this huge country they could be over 200 miles apart. It’s always a good idea to stock up whenever you have the chance.
Namibia’s land has remained untouched and untamed for millions of years, and long may it stay that way. Respecting the environment isn’t overly preached, but such primitive landscapes should compel everyone to leave nothing but footprints.