Windhoek makes a great place to begin or break a journey through Namibia. The cultural sights, shopping and African urban buzz give it an edge not found anywhere else in the country. Windhoek is a surprisingly cosmopolitan, modern, well-groomed city that is eminently walkable due to its pedestrian-friendly city centre. Neo-baroque cathedral spires, as well as a few seemingly misplaced German castles, punctuate the skyline, and complement the steel-and-glass high-rises.
The Kalahari Desert – or Kgalagadi, as it is known in Botswana – stretches across 7 countries – Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s not a true desert as it receives too much rain, allowing for huge numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, plant life and insects to thrive. The Kalahari Desert is actually a fossil desert so don’t expect to find the tall sand dunes associated with Sossusvlei. The landscape is more one of golden grass and small red dunes. Its true allure lies in the eerie silence and solitude.
The best known of the Kalahari’s inhabitants are the San Bushmen, numbering only a few thousand today. They are a proud people, and are keen to demonstrate their origins and knowledge of living in the bushveld. They still retain some specific cultural and linguistic characteristics such as the very interesting and unique ‘click’ language, and listening to is a wonderful experience in itself.
Fish River Canyon
The Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s, greatest natural wonders. It measures 160km in length, up to 27km in width, and in parts a depth of 550m. Although these figures by themselves are impressive, it’s difficult to get a sense of perspective without actually witnessing the enormous scope of the canyon. In order to do this, you will either need to drive along the 25km road that serpents along one side of the canyon (with regular lookout points); or embark on a monumental five-day hike that traverses half the length of the canyon.
The Fish River Canyon is part of the |Ai- |Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, one of an increasing number of ‘peace’ or cross-border parks in southern Africa. Straddling southern Namibia and South Africa (and measuring 6045 sq km) it boasts one of the most species-rich, arid zones in the world.
Luderitz is a small piece of Germany wedged between the freezing waters of the South Atlantic and the scorching heat of the Namib Desert. The town was founded by tobacco merchant Adolf Lüderitz in 1884 and was the first German stronghold in what was then called South West Africa. However, relative isolation, poor transport links and a struggling economy have worn heavy on Lüderitz over the decades. Today the town feels a bit like it’s stuck in a time warp – a perception that delivers both gloom and a certain charm. The rocky coastline of the Lüderitz peninsula harbours huge flocks of flamingos and penguin colonies, while the adjacent Sperrgebiet National Park is arguably the country’s wildest and most pristine landscape.
The Namib Desert
The Namib Desert is often referred to as the world’s oldest desert and has been in existence for some 43 million years. It’s an immense expanse of relentlessly moving gravel plains and dunes of all shapes and sizes that stretch along the entire coastline. The entire western section of Namibia is comprised of the Namib, which spreads beyond the borders of Namibia and flows into southern Angola and the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. With ephemeral rivers flowing unexpectedly across an ancient landscape, its dunes, plains, rivers and a foggy coast have all become vital components to support an outstanding and fascinating array of bizarre desert flora and fauna.
Namib Naukluft Park
A section of the central Namib Desert incorporates the Namib Naukluft Park, the largest park in Namibia and the 3rd largest on the African continent. The present day park is a combination of the Namib Desert Park and the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park as well as sections of the Diamond Area. The combined area is just under 50,000km². Its main attractions are Sossusvlei, Sandwich Harbour and the Naukluft hiking and four wheel drive trails
Dead Vlei is a large ephemeral pan, set amid golden sand dunes that tower up to 200m above the valley floor. Dead trees, petrified and blackened by the sun, are the remnants of a bygone era, one in which the water flowed regularly. The Vlei (dry lake) rarely contains any water, but when the Tsauchab River has gathered enough volume and momentum to push beyond the thirsty plains to the sea of sand, it’s completely transformed. The normally cracked dry mud gives way to an ethereal blue-green lake, surrounded by greenery and attended by aquatic birdlife, as well as the usual sand-loving gemsbok and ostriches.
Sossusvlei, is the one attraction that should not be missed while you are in Namibia; the dunes are amazing and even though this is a popular tourist destination it’s still easy to gain a sense of solitude whilst climbing Crazy Dune or Big Daddy, or walking to Dead Vlei.
Walvis Bay is pleasant enough, particularly around the new waterfront development and along the esplanade. Unlike Swakopmund, 30kms away, Walvis Bay was snatched by the British years before the German colonists could get their hands on it. As a result, Walvis Bay is architecturally uninspiring, and lacks the Old World ambience of its northerly neighbour. In marked contrast, the area around Walvis Bay is home to a number of unique natural attractions, including one of the largest flocks of flamingos in the whole of Southern Africa.
Swakopmund is Namibia’s most popular holiday destination, and there are a myriad of attractions for enjoying the great climate including all sorts of adventure sports, quad biking, surfing, fishing and lazing on the beach. Swakopmund procures an eerie feeling, especially out of tourist season when the city feels like a surreal colonial remnant sandwiched between the Atlantic rollers and the Namib Desert. Not to be missed: the old lighthouse 21 meters (1903), the station (1901), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the steel pier (formerly boat moorings, now a promenade).
The Skeleton Coast
This treacherous coast – a foggy region with rocky and sandy coastal shallows – has long been a graveyard for unwary ships and their crews, hence its forbidding name. Early Portuguese sailors called it As Areias do Inferno (The Sands of Hell), as once a ship washed ashore, the fate of the crew was sealed. This protected area stretches from Sandwich Harbour, south of Swakopmund, to the Kunene River, taking in around 2 million hectares of dunes and gravel plains to form one of the world’s most inhospitable areas.
Moving inland from the dunes and plains of the bleak Skeleton Coast, the terrain gradually rises through wild desert mountains towards the scrubby plateaus of central Namibia. Damaraland, which occupies much of this transition zone, is laced with springs and ephemeral rivers that provide streaks of greenery and moisture for wildlife, people and livestock. Its broad spaces are one of Southern Africa’s last ‘unofficial’ wildlife areas, and you can still see zebras, giraffes, antelopes, elephants and even black rhinos ranging outside national parks or protected reserves.
Twyfelfontein (Doubtful Spring), is one of the most extensive rock-art galleries on the continent. In the ancient past, this perennial spring most likely attracted wildlife, creating a paradise for the hunters who eventually left their marks on the surrounding rocks (some paintings date back 6000 years). Animals, animal tracks and geometric designs are well represented, though there are surprisingly few human figures. Many of the engravings depict animals that are very rarely or no longer found in the area – elephants, rhinos, giraffes and lions – and an engraving of a sea lion indicates contact with the coast more than 100km away. To date over 2500 engravings have been discovered and in 2007 Twyfelfontein was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Brandberg The “mountain of fire” is a superb massif of pink granite which forms a dome that looms 2 606 metres over the surrounding plains. Its name comes from its glowing colour which is sometimes seen in the setting sun. The Brandberg is a spiritual site of great significance to the San (Bushman) tribes. The main tourist attraction is The White Lady rock painting, located on a rock face with other art work, under a small rock overhang. The ravine contains more than 1 000 rock shelters, as well as more than 45 000 rock paintings. To reach The White Lady it is necessary to hike for about 40 minutes over rough terrain, along the ancient watercourses threading through the mountain.
Kaokoland is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Southern Africa. It is a world of incredible mountain scenery, a refuge for the rare desert dwelling elephant, black rhino and giraffe and the home of the Himba people. Kaokoland differs greatly from Damaraland in terms of accessibility and infrastructure. While quite a bit of Damaraland is isolated from the outside world it is really Kaokoland which is the back and beyond, silent, huge and for the most part empty.
Etosha National Park
The 20,000 sq km Etosha National Park is one of the world’s greatest wildlife-viewing spots. For a few days each year, this immense, flat, saline desert is converted by the rains into a shallow lagoon teeming with flamingos and white pelicans. However, it’s the surrounding bush and grasslands that provide habitat for Etosha’s diverse wildlife.
It may look barren, but the landscape surrounding the pan is home to 114 mammal species, 340 bird species and 16 reptiles and amphibian species. The best way to see Etosha’s animals is to park near a waterhole and wait for the lions, elephants and springboks to turn up for a drink.
Waterberg Plateau Park
There’s nothing quite like the Waterberg Plateau in Namibia. In 1972 it became an official nature reserve for endangered animals which include sable and roan antelope, and white and black rhino. The 16km-wide sandstone plateau emerges from the flat surface of the bush like a citadel crowned with red cliffs. At its foot, enormous acacia trees protect dense, moist vegetation, which previously was the refuge of men. The porous stone that forms the plateau absorbs water from the rain and underground rivers give rise to many springs.
There are 13 regions in Namibia, but of these only the Caprivi boasts 6 ethnic tribes who travellers will encounter in the numerous villages along the way. The Caprivi is also the only region that shares its borders with 4 other countries – Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe and is surrounded by 4 perennial rivers – Chobe, Kwando, Linyanti and the mighty Zambezi! For years this area was the domain of the South African Army – wildlife suffered as a result- but with soldiers long gone, wildlife populations have recovered. These waterfront areas combine riverine forests with vast wetlands, attracting a myriad of birds and animals to the 4 National Parks found along the strip.