Located in between South Africa and Angola on the continent’s west coast, Namibia is a very special destination made famous by its dramatic desert landscapes and unique wildlife. It also offers a wealth of cultural experiences, from admiring ancient San rock paintings to drinking German beer in the colonial town of Swakopmund. In Namibia’s Himba villages, tribal communities continue to live as they have done for thousands of years. This is also the ideal destination for travelers that like to explore independently, with national parks made for self-drive safaris and a network of roads and towns that remain relatively safe.
Etosha National Par
Located in the north of the country around the edges of a vast salt pan, Etosha National Park is Namibia’s top wildlife destination. It is one of the best places in the world to spot endangered white and black rhinos, while other bucket list animals include lions, cheetah, elephant and leopard. It’s also a great place for birding, with 340 different avian species. Traditionally, Etosha is a self-drive destination, giving visitors the freedom to explore at will. There are several accommodation options within the park, including three main camps each with their own floodlit waterhole. Game-viewing at Etosha is best during the dry season (June to September), when animals are forced to congregate around the park’s water sources.
The Skeleton Coast
Reaching all the way from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, the Skeleton Coast derives its macabre name from the shipwrecks and whale bones that litter its desolate shore. The water is freezing, the surf is relentless and the dunes are devoid of freshwater sources. However, despite the region’s inhospitable nature, its stark scenery is amongst the most beautiful on Earth. For those that can afford it, a fly-in safari to the northern Skeleton Coast National Park is a true Namibian highlight. Discover historic shipwrecks preserved in the sand, rare desert-adapted wildlife and vast colonies of baying Cape fur seals. Inland, Himba tribes continue to eke out a living in one of the world’s harshest environments.
The Namib Desert is one of the oldest deserts in the world, and at its heart lies the Sossusvlei dune sea. Here, ocher dunes rise in spectacular star-shaped peaks, outlined against the azure sky. Staying at Sesriem Camp (located within the park gates) affords you early access to the dunes – a major benefit for anyone wanting to climb to the top of iconic peak Dune 45 in time for sunrise. Other Sossusvlei highlights include Big Daddy (the region’s most challenging climb), and Deadvlei, a long-dry oasis filled with petrified trees reaching skyward from bone-white clay. Nearby Sesriem Canyon is another photogenic highlight, while free-roaming wildlife includes the desert-adapted gemsbok and springbok antelopes.
Fish River Canyon
The Fish River Canyon is Africa’s largest canyon, second only in size to America’s Grand Canyon. Located in the south of the country, it is thought to have formed around 500 million years ago. Today, the Fish River has carved out over 100 miles/ 160 kilometers of rock, and in places the canyon walls are over half a kilometer high. You can hike the canyon, but only during the cooler months (May to September). The hike takes five days and there are no hotels or restaurants along the way. Accommodation is in tents, and hikers have to be entirely self-sufficient. The hike offers spectacular views and sightings of wildlife including baboons, klipspringers and hyraxes. At the end of the hike, ease your aching muscles in the hot springs at Ai Ais Resort.
An isolated finger jutting eastward from Namibia’s northeast corner, the Caprivi Strip is entirely different from the rest of the country. Fed by the mighty Kavango, Chobe, Zambezi and Cuando rivers, it is a green oasis known for its lush vegetation and abundant wildlife. The riverbanks are home to a selection of accommodation options, ranging from backpacker hostels to luxury waterfront chalets. The best way to experience the region is from the water, on a houseboat or sundowner cruise. There are several excellent game reserves in the Caprivi region, including Mahango Game Reserve and Mamili National Park. The birdlife is a particular draw, with over 425 bird species recorded in the Caprivi region.
Swakopmund is Namibia’s premier seaside town, and a great place to escape the summer heat. The main street is lined with palm trees and colonial German architecture, and there are several quality bars, restaurants and German bakeries for those in need of a change from campfire cooking. Though the sea is generally too chilly for swimming, water-based activities abound – including whale and dolphin-watching and shore angling. At nearby Walvis Bay, vast flocks of flamingos can be seen grazing in the algae-filled shallows. Swakopmund also borders the Namib Desert, where quad-biking, 4×4 safaris and sand-boarding activities await. The spectacle of the sand dunes meeting the sea is one that few visitors forget.
Brandberg Mountain is the highest mountain in Namibia, with an elevation of 8,442 feet/ 2,573 meters. Its name translates as “Fire Mountain”, a moniker well-deserved by the glowing orange color of its cliffs at sunset. The mountain covers an area of 250 square miles/ 650 square kilometers, and boasts one of the world’s largest collections of ancient rock paintings. Created by the San Bushmen thousands of years ago, there are more than 43,000 individual images, each one depicting local wildlife, hunting scenes and myths. The most famous painting is The White Lady of the Brandberg, believed to be around 16,000 years old. Apart from its artistic heritage, Brandberg Mountain is a rewarding destination for hikers and climbers.
Renowned as one of Southern Africa’s last true wildernesses, Namibia’s northern Kaokoland region is arid, rocky and very sparsely populated. Its towering koppies glow red in the early morning and late afternoon, and at night, the stars blaze in a sky unpolluted by human habitation. This is the traditional home of the Himba, a nomadic pastoralist tribe who have survived in this harsh environment for thousands of years. In the most remote villages, their way of life remains largely unchanged. The Himba women are famous for their ornate hairstyles, and for the blend of butter fat and ocher with which they paste their naked torsos. Cultural visits are the main attraction here, along with desert rhino and elephant tracking.