Why visit Namibia?
Issue 1 (November 2007) Few have returned from a trip to Namibia with anything other than supreme praise. Its serene deserts and wild, rugged landscapes have inspired many an intrepid traveller, but, for all its accessibility, even the most popular of its tourist hotspots rarely feel crowded – for now. Chris McIntyre highlights its most compelling attractions.

 

Namibia is a land of superlative scenery and tremendous variety, from sinuous ridges atop the world’s highest dunes to windswept beaches where the icy Atlantic crashes into the seemingly endless Namib Desert. Lush papyrus swamps, craggy mountain ranges, lichen plains and rolling ranchland complete the picture: the scale and drama of the wilderness alone is enchanting.


Visitors can witness huge concentrations of big game in Etosha, follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs (literally), walk around a petrified forest, sip champagne at sunrise in a soaring hot-air balloon, track endangered black rhino in Damaraland, giggle at meerkat family antics in the Kalahari, be enlightened by the bushmen’s environmental knowledge and gaze at glittering starlit skies.


Most of the country’s scenic highlights and cultural attractions are easily accessed on good roads in a 2WD hire car; this freedom to travel independently is a real pleasure. Stopping to stay at homely guest farms or exclusive lodges you will benefit from well-informed local guides and genuine hospitality, while camping allows for complete escapism.

 

Skeleton Coast
Treacherous swirling fogs and strong Atlantic currents wrecked the many ships that earned this coastline its inauspicious name. It’s a remote wilderness where pounding, icy seas meet one of the world’s oldest deserts, the Namib, as it stretches into an endlessly forbidding, stark interior. Enter from the south, through the park gates adorned with a large skull and crossbones, to journey into a harsh but captivating and fragile landscape: lichen-encrusted gravel fields, dune belts, rugged canyons, natural clay castles, and desolate sandy beaches, home to Cape fur seals, black-backed jackals, the rare, endemic Heaviside dolphin and the unusual coastal lion.

 

Swakopmund
Sandwiched between waves and dunes, Swakopmund is a quaint Germanic town and Namibia’s original holiday resort. Its many delightful and relaxed guesthouses and restaurants make it a pleasant stop. It’s also an adventure sports capital, with surfing, skydiving, sand boarding, dune biking and dune thunderball attracting a young crowd.

 

Walvis Bay
Twenty miles south of Swakopmund, at the end of the Trans-Kalahari Highway, Walvis Bay’s lagoon is a magnet for birdwatchers, with large flocks of pink flamingos, fishing parties of Cape pelicans and countless migrant water birds. Gentle kayaking allows for close up encounters with playful seals. In season, sightings of humpback, southern right, minke and killer whales are possible.

 

Namib-Naukluft National Park
Covering 50,000km2, the Namib-Naukluft is one of Africa’s largest conservation areas. The breathtaking landscapes are every photographer and hiker’s dream: towering apricot dunes and acacia-dotted pans at Sossusvlei; Sesriem’s smooth sandstone canyons, and the rocky ranges, tumbling waterfalls and lush ravines of the Naukluft Mountains. Hike the knife-edge at the top of a dune, take to the skies for a blissful pre-dawn balloon trip, spot gemsbok in river oases, discover ancient welwitschia plants and marvel at simply stunning scenery. Bordering the park, the great guides in the large, private Namib Rand Nature Reserve bring to life a spectacular area of rolling red dunes and expansive gravel plains.

 

Lüderitz
Lüderitz is steeped in history: the discovery of Stone Age tools tells of early Khoisan presence; nearby, in 1487, Bartolomeu Diaz became the first European to set foot in southern Africa; German traders followed, and in 1908 the diamond rush took hold. Today Lüderitz is a sleepy harbour town with well-preserved German architecture surrounded by desolate beaches and shifting dunes. Visitors can relax, enjoy inexpensive seafood, and visit the jackass penguin colony on Halifax Island.

 

Sperrgebiet
The coastal belt of land stretching south of Lüderitz to South Africa is the Sperrgebiet, or Forbidden Zone. Covering an enormous 26,000km2, this area of desert plans, marching dunes and turn-of-the-century diamond ghost towns was declared off-limits in 1908. Register in advance with the authorities and it’s possible to venture along its empty roads through hauntingly remote scenery. From July-September, head to the Orange River border to see blooms akin to those in Namaqualand.

Southern Kalahari & Fish River Canyon
The ancient ‘fossil desert’ of the Kalahari is a far cry from the true desert of the Namib, west of here. Deep red dunes are covered with vegetation and support large numbers of game: oryx, giraffes, bat-eared foxes and delightfully endearing families of meerkats. Measuring 161km long, 27km wide and almost 550m deep in parts, the Fish River Canyon is probably the second largest canyon in world. Perch on the edge of the rocky cliffs surrounding the chasm to see the russet, meandering river below. And keep an eye out for the occasional kudu and klipspringer, rock hyrax and plentiful baboons. It’s possible to hike along the canyon floor but this is not for the faint hearted: the five-day, self-guided adventure offers no easy way out after the start and little shade, making it one of the continent’s toughest hikes.

 

Windhoek
The capital city: a small, friendly, pleasant place in which to start or end a trip. Neat suburbs, vibrant pavement cafes, eclectic restaurants, old Germanic architecture and modern shopping centres lend the place a distinctly European air, whilst bustling markets and street stalls piled with tempting curios remind visitors it’s Africa.

 

Northern Kalahari & Bushmanland
Characterised by sand, stands of ancient baobabs and shallow seasonal pans that attract flocks of flamingos at the start of each year, this area is harsh, difficult to access, and yet thoroughly rewarding. The Ju/’hoansi !Kung people, known as the San or Bushmen, live in small, very remote villages here, and it’s possible to join excellent trips to stay with these communities. Witnessing their understanding of their environment is an eye-opening, humbling experience, and the more visitors are willing to get involved with daily activities, the more insight and warmth they will receive. It’s not to be rushed: allow 3-4 days.

 

Caprivi Strip
The Caprivi Strip is unlike much of the rest of the country. Generous annual rainfall and the presence of four great rivers – the Chobe, Linyanti, Okavango and Zambezi – give this finger of land a lushness and a higher density of people. Bordering Botswana to the west of the strip is the delightfully diverse Mahango National Park where riverine forest, permanent papyrus reedbeds and Kalahari desert all meet, attracting more birds than any other Namibian park. Animal lovers will be wowed by the particularly high numbers of hippos and crocodiles. Mudumu National Park, on the banks of the Kwando River, offers excellent game with large numbers of elephant, buffalo (unusual in Namibia), lion, red lechwe, roan and sable. Continue from here, across a new bridge spanning the Zambezi, to end your trip at Zambia’s Victoria Falls.

 

Etosha
Etosha, meaning ‘Great White Place’, is an area of hazy horizons and open vistas; a vast pan of silvery white sand, where dust devils dance around the tens of thousands of animals who come to quench their thirst in the park’s waterholes. Certainly one of Africa’s best game parks, the dry season brings the greatest concentrations of animals. A strong lion population, along with leopards, cheetahs, elephants, black and white rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and 300 bird species make this a wildlife wonderland. Self-drive around the park is surprisingly easy, even by 2WD, with game easy to spot, a well-kept road network, clear signposts and rest camps; luxury accommodation and guides are found in the private reserves, such as Hobatere and Ongava, bordering the park.

 

Damaraland
Bushmen lived in this area for several thousand years. The imposing granite domes (inselbergs) that rise from the lichen-covered gravel plains in southern Damaraland conceal their ancient caves and shelters, along with a wealth of early rock art. Most paintings, including the famous White Lady, can be found in the Tsisab Ravine on the northeast of the Brandberg massif. North of the Huab River the gravel plains reach up to ancient lava beds, which appear as burnished, flat-topped mountains. Here, four huge private reserves protect rare desert-adapted elephant and black rhino in areas of rugged wilderness. Excellent guiding and conservation initiatives ensure a unique experience.

 

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