Namibia is four times the size of Britain, but sparsely populated.
Etosha National Park is one of the best known safari destinations in Southern Africa. It is a dry wilderness expanse located in the north of the country that includes the enormous Etosha Pan that is the size of Belgium. Local Herero people call it Great White Place. Dry most of the year, when the rains come this gigantic salt pan fills with water enjoyed by thousands of flamingos.
The sparse vegetation here makes it easy to spot animals from a distance, and the best strategy is to simply pack a flask and picnic, head for a waterhole and wait for the game to come to you. The park is home to over 100 different animal species and over 300 birds, so while it may look rocky and barren, its waterholes attract an impressive variety of wildlife. Elephant, rhino, cheetah and lion as well as large herds of wildebeest, springbok, zebra, oryx, ostrich and giraffe can all be seen. There are good basic rest camps in the park with floodlit waterholes for night viewing, comfortable hotels outside the gates and a few luxury lodges in adjacent private reserves.
Southwest of Etosha are the vast landscapes of Damaraland, where the wildlife has adapted to the parched conditions. Game drives here usually focus on seeking out the desert adapted elephant with its large padded feet. There is also the opportunity to track black rhino with rangers from Save the Rhino Trust. Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s first World Heritage Site, is a huge outdoor museum containing the largest collection of prehistoric Bushman rock art in Africa. You can also visit a Petrified Forest and a number of strange rock formations, such as the Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain. Most visitors choose to self-drive – a 4x4 is the most popular - or if time is tight, you can fly between camps. As distances are huge, escorted small group tours are also popular, as well as overland adventure tours staying in simple rest camps or camping.
In the far north of the country, towards the border with Angola, the indigenous Himba tribes have managed to maintain much of their semi-nomadic lifestyle that helps them survive in one of the most extreme environments on earth. If your journey takes you this far north, experiencing their culture and understanding something of their way of life is a moving experience and gives real insight into this land of extremes. The colourful Herero tribe also lives north of Etosha.
Located in the Namib Desert in the south, the towering red sand dunes at Sossusvlei rise over 300m and are some of the oldest and largest in the world. They provide the most spectacular views at sunrise and sunset and climbing one of the highest, such as Big Daddy or Dune 45, is truly exhilarating, but be sure to start early in the morning while the temperatures are still cool. The bright blue skies and many hues and shadows as the light changes make for impressive photographs, and a hot air balloon ride over the dunes at sunrise will create a memory of a lifetime. Also don’t miss the superb star gazing in the clear night skies. There is a range of good places to stay near to the Sesriem Gate, which is the main public entrance.
In the southeast, the vast Kalahari is another of Namibia’s famous deserts, with its red sands and endless plains interspersed with acacia trees, grass and scrub vegetation, sustaining a surprising number of desert-adapted plants and species. The migratory Bushmen who survive in this harsh environment call it the “Soul of the World”.
In the far south of Namibia, the splendid Fish River Canyon is the second largest natural gorge in the world, after the Grand Canyon. Formed over 500 million years ago, it drops vertically without any warning and is a great place for photographers. At nearby Ai-Ais there are welcoming natural hot springs.
Further north you will find Aus in the Succulent Karoo, where from mid-August to mid-September the desert unfolds into a carpet of wildflowers and explosion of colours. It is one of the twenty most important biomes in the plant world and the most species diverse desert. Here you can visit the ghost town at Kolmanskop, which has been absorbed by the desert sands, search for wild desert horses at Garub and visit the diamond town of Luderitz.
Forming about a third of Namibia’s coastline, the Skeleton Coast National Park extends from the Kunene River in the far north to the Ugab River. Its landscapes range from rugged canyons and mountains to windswept dunes. The southern section is open to four-wheel drive vehicles while the north can only be reached on a fly-in safari. Dotted with shipwrecks and bones from the unfortunate days of the whaling industry, the coast appears inhospitable, but is in fact home to a great variety of species, including Cape fur seal and numerous seabird colonies.
Most holidays to Namibia begin and end in the capital of Windhoek, which has several stylish guesthouses and a few luxury hotels. A city tour will show you some of its old German architecture and life in a modern township. About a two hour drive out of town takes you to Okonjima, the home of the inspirational Africat Foundation and the best place in Namibia to see cheetah and leopard.
The coastal resort of Swakopmund is Namibia’s second city. The cold Benguela Current that sweeps up from Antarctica cools the desert’s heat and keeps the temperature lower here than elsewhere, with life-sustaining fog common in the mornings. As the adventure capital of Namibia, many adrenaline-inducing activities are available in the dunes including sand boarding, sand skiing, quad biking and parasailing. Also don’t miss the marine cruise from neighbouring Walvis Bay, where you can see sea birds, dolphins, seals and migrating whales in season.
Namibia is easily combined with a visit to the thunderous Victoria Falls, as there is a direct flight to the Zimbabwean side from Windhoek. If you have the time it is possible to drive there from Etosha, travelling eastwards along the lush Caprivi – a narrow finger of land stretching north of the Okavango Delta to the point where four counties meet – Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.