Namibia throws enough stark beauty at you to blow a hole in your mind and your soul. The infinite white beaches of the Atlantic coast melt into the vivid red sands of the Namib. The landscape falls away into the ancient Fish River Canyon and then rises again to endless semi-desert, before dropping you unexpectedly into the vibrant African city of Windhoek. For those with an adventurous spirit and a 4x4 vehicle, the Kaokoveld and the gorgeously ornamented Himba people who inhabit it, are waiting to be discovered.
Namibia is not merely a desert wonderland – it features rich agricultural areas, rivers, waterfalls and a feast of cultural tradition.
FISH RIVER CANYON
This is the second largest canyon system in the world. The area is a national park, and contains protected wildlife. The main attraction here is the fantastic geology and hiking trails. Winter is the best time to hike along the 86 kilometer trail, as the temperatures reach extremes in summer.
A bustling, cosmopolitan city, Windhoek is the essence of modern Africa. Here it is possible to sit at a continental-style café and watch the passing parade of businessmen, tourists, street hawkers and Herero women in full traditional dress. Windhoek is well equipped with luxury hotels, restaurants, guest houses and an international airport. There are a number of small nature reserves nearby, providing a break from city life.
This huge area of true desert features a stunning array of landscapes, perfect for exploration in a 4x4 vehicle. The giant red dunes of Sossusvlei are best viewed at dawn, when the rising sun plays with the palette of colors. The dunes are situated 60 kilometers from Sesriem camp. The last section of the route can only be traversed in a 4x4 or on foot.
It is possible to walk freely in the park, but take plenty of water, wear closed shoes to protect you from scorpion stings, and beware of the extreme temperatures of sand and sun. Here you are likely to see Gemsbok (Oryx), a fascinating antelope which is adapted to withstand a rise in blood temperatures up to 40 degrees celsius, using a special blood-cooling system.
Just north of the park are the towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Walvis Bay is a fishing town where pelicans and flamingoes flock to the shallow lagoons along the Atlantic coast. The buildings of Swakopmund were built in a German colonial style, and stand in strange contrast to the desert surroundings of the town. Nearby, a number of adventure operators make use of the spectacular dunes, offering sand-boarding and dune riding on three-wheeled motorcycles. This area is the best place to look for the miraculous Welwitchia plant, which survives the harsh environment by spreading its thick, spongy leaves along the ground.
The coastline here was named for the ships which were wrecked on the sand-bars and reefs of the Atlantic. Later, tons of sand blown in from the interior pushed the shoreline back, leaving the ships high and dry on the beaches. This area is only accessible to 4x4 vehicles, but is well worth a visit for photographers, and lovers of the drama associated with the power of the sea.
Etosha means “Great White Place”, a name given to describe the huge salt pan surrounded by dry grasslands which is the Etosha National Park. The game viewing here is superb. A number of waterholes attract game from the surrounding dry areas, and it is possible to park at one waterhole for an entire morning and watch an incredible variety of wildlife moving cautiously to and from the water, constantly on the look-out for predators.
The park has three well-equipped camps. Okaukuejo is famous for its floodlit waterhole, where rhino and lion are often seen. Halali is a small camp set in a tranquil woodland, perfect for bird-watching. Namutoni was once a German fort and now provides excellent accommodation near the northern entrance to the park.
The Herero women who live here adopted an interesting style of dress after contact with Lutheran missionaries – cotton dresses made from yards of printed fabric, worn with huge, horn-shaped hats.
A 4x4 vehicle is recommended for exploring this area. The geology here is spectacular – from the egg-shaped granite formations at Spitzkoppe to the ancient volcanic rocks of the Brandberg. The region is rich with Bushman rock art – most famous is the “White Lady of the Brandberg”, as well as paintings and etchings at Twyfelfontein. To the east, near Kalkveld, are fossilized dinosaur footprints estimated at 150 million years old.
Also only accessible by 4x4, this is the home of the Himba, who still follow a traditional lifestyle, covering their skins and hair with ochre and relying largely on a subsistence economy. Kaokoland reaches up to the Kunene River, which forms the northern border with Angola. The river follows a path of rapids and waterfalls. the Ruacana Falls are the highest in Africa, while Epupa Falls are probably the most remote and beautiful – a tranquil paradise in a harsh land.
On the way to Caprivi, it is worth a detour to the sights near Tsumeb and Grootfontein. Near Tsumeb is Otjikoto lake – the home of the rare Otjikoto cichlid fish. West of Grootfontein is the Hoba meteorite site. The Caprivi strip provides road access to Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as well as a beautiful drive through sub-tropical woodlands and the Caprivi Game Park.
Namibia is so vast and lovely, that it becomes difficult to choose where to go, and for how long. The distances between places are staggering, so flying is an attractive option. There are, however, a number of options for travel including self-drive, guided 4x4 tours, and travel by train. All of them provide a unique view of a country of magnificent proportions and staggering beauty.