There’s more than one way to enjoy all that Namibia has to offer, so why not transform your trip from a run-of-the-mill holiday into an unforgettable adventure? By Lizzie Williams.
Skydiving with Ground Rush Adventures (www.skydiveswakopmund.com.na) is a Swakopmund must-do for the adrenalin junkie. Extremely popular tandem free-fall jumps for novices take place after the morning fog has lifted. After a brief safety chat, you board a small plane for a 35-minute scenic flight over Swakopmund as you prepare yourself for the jump. This involves being strapped between the thighs of your tandem jump master and shuffling to the door of the plane. At 3500 metres you both tumble into the sky for a mind-blowing 30-second free-fall at around 220 kmph – a totally exhilarating experience. Then the parachute opens and you float to the ground for a 10-minute ride enjoying the breathtaking desert scenery. A cameraman jumps too, with a camera strapped to his helmet. DVDs and T-shirts are for sale and the clubhouse is a good place for a celebratory drink after jumping.
Namibia is a birdwatcher’s haven – with a wide range of habitats, it is home to some 630 species. The parks and reserves along the Kwando/Zambezi rivers complex in the Caprivi Strip, with their combination of floodplain, open grassland, mopane and riverine woodland as well as papyrus-lined waterways, have the highest concentration of birds in the whole country and are rated among the top 10 birding sites in Africa. Further south, the Etosha Pan serves as a breeding area for flamingo, while the waterholes around the park have plenty of birding activity, where sometimes raptors can be seen dramatically attacking smaller birds. The wetlands of Walvis Bay are considered some of the most important coastal wetlands in Africa. Pelicans, flamingos, gulls, gannets, plovers and oyster catchers are common. The area is also the breeding ground of the endangered Damara tern, while the nearby dunes are home to the Gray’s lark and the dune lark, all three endemic to Namibia. Go to www.sabirding.co.za
3 Scuba Diving
There are several locations in Namibia that are perfect for the keen scuba diver…
• Dragon’s Breath The largest known subterranean lake in the world is in the cave referred to as Dragon’s Breath on the Harasib farm.
• Lake Otjikoto is 76m deep, and qualified divers can explore an underwater museum of armament and weaponry from the First World War.
• Harasib Cave and Lake Entered via an opening on top of the Ghaub Mountain, a special feature of this lake is the spectacular array of stalactites and stalagmites.
4 Mountaineering & Rockclimbing
Referred to as Namibia’s Matterhorn, the vast granite dome at Spitzkoppe rises about 1000m above the desert plains between Windhoek and Swakopmund. Brandberg is another a sought-after area for both mountaineers and backpackers, but, due to the extremely rugged terrain and limited water, excursions should only be undertaken by the experienced and fit.
5 Canoeing on the Kunene River
Flowing through wild, arid mountains on the border between Namibia and Angola, the Kunene promises remote and exhilarating canoeing and rafting. Whitewater rapids, with forbidding names like Smash and The Crusher, intermingle with calmer stretches where you may spot Africa’s largest lizard – the 2m Nile monitor. A highlight of a river expedition on the Kunene are the Epupa Falls, a wonderful series of cascades dropping a total of 60m. For more information see www.felixunite.com
6 Quad biking
An excellent way to explore the dune field on the coast between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay is by quad bike. There are numerous operators, including Desert Explorers, (www.namibiadesertexplorers.com), and Outback Orange, (www.outback-orange.com). Quad biking enables access to parts of the tranquil, ever-changing dunes that four-wheel drive vehicles are not permitted to enter – simply because the wind re-shapes the tracks of the much-lighter bikes. Those who are a little unsure of their biking prowess, can choose 160cc semi-automatic bikes, or can go hell-for-leather on a 200cc manual. Tours are around 35 kilometres and are multi-guided. Slow and fast groups are included in the same tour, thus catering for both the complete novice and the adrenalin-seeker. From the edge of the Swakop Riverbed, trails cross the flat gravel plains before going into the dune belt where the fun starts. Plough the bikes through the crests of the dunes and there are some very exciting steep ascents and descents.
7 Scenic flights
For those who are short of time, a number of companies, including Atlantic Aviation (www.flyinnamibia.com), Pleasure Flights and Safaris (www.pleasureflights.com.na) and Wings Over Africa (www.flyinafrica.com), offer short scenic flights from Swakopmund. These vary from one-hour flips along the coast to all-day safaris to northern and southern Namibia that include landings and four-wheel-drive excursions. From the air, in a small low-flying plane, there are tremendous views of Namibia’s desert landscapes, dried-up riverbeds, moonscapes, rock formations, mountains and gravel plains. Most flights are in single-engine, 6-seater Cessnas, which have the wings above the windows for better viewing. The most popular trip is a two-hour flight from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei, which goes over the massive dune field and returns along the coast over flamingos, seals and shipwrecks. A longer trip touches down in Sesriem, from where you can explore the dunes on foot.
Gliding over fantastic desert landscapes in a hot air balloon is the perfect way to get a grip on Namibia’s startling scenery and cloudless, silent skies. There are two options for sunrise balloon rides: one over the giant crimson dunes, dead pans and rugged mountains of Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft, and the other over the eerie moonscapes near Swakopmund with views of Spitzkoppe rising in the northeast and the Naukluft Mountains to the south. It’s a very memorable way to start the day, and a Namibian sunrise as it burnishes the desert red is not easily forgotten. Both trips are elegantly concluded with a champagne breakfast while the silk is stowed away. The Sossusvlei excursion is operated by Namib Sky Adventure Safaris (www.namibsky.com), and clients are collected half an hour before sunrise from Le Mirage, Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, Kulala Desert Lodge, Little Kulala, Sossusvlei Lodge, and Sesriem Campsite. Africa Adventure Balloons (www.africanballoons.com) run the Swakopmund option and clients are picked up from hotels in Swakopmund one hour before sunrise.
Namibia’s coastline is famous for its superb fishing, and many local cars seem to have sets of rods permanently attached to their roofs. The cold, clean waters of the South Atlantic provide rich feeding grounds for a wide range of species, including kob, West Coast steenbras, blacktail, galjoen and catfish, (shark is also caught on a tag-and-release system). Day trips with all equipment go from Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Henties Bay; choose deep-sea fishing or angling from remote and beautiful beach locations. If you’ve never tried fishing before, this is a superb introduction. If all goes well, the operators will clean and gut the fish for you, and if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation, you can cook it for dinner over the braai. Try Aquanaut Tours, (www.aquanauttours.com) or Levo Tours, (www.levotours.com). The Kwando and Zambezi rivers that shape the Caprivi Strip in the northeast of Namibia support good populations of freshwater fish like tiger fish, bream, nembwe and barbel. Boats and tackle can be arranged at any of the riverside lodges.
Hiking in the bush is an excellent way of getting a close look at Namibia’s diverse flora and fauna. Whether you walk for an hour or a week, you are sure to see something new and interesting. The good news is that most parks have well-marked trails, but remember, owing to high summer temperatures, tough terrain and scarcity of water, hiking in Namibia requires careful planning. The five day/85 km Fish River Canyon trail is Namibia’s most challenging trail (though it’s closed from September to April because of temperatures in excess of 45°C). Other challenges are the three day/50 km Ugab River Hiking Trail and the eight day/120 km Naukluft Hiking Trail; all these three require high levels of fitness. At an intermediate level there are fantastic hikes in the Naukluft Park, Waterberg Plateau Park and Daan Viljoen Game Park and easy trails around the Parks’ restcamps. Most hikes are administered by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (www.nwr.com.na) but additionally almost every guest farm in Namibia has mapped-out hiking trails on their properties. Before you head off, make sure you have the right equipment, especially well-fitting and sturdy boots.
11 Desert tours
Early morning fog generated by the icy Benguela Current in the Atlantic Ocean meeting the warm desert air of the Skeleton Coast drifts inland over the Namib Desert, providing precious moisture for the flora and fauna in this incredibly harsh environment. Because of this, far from being a desolate, lifeless landscape, the desert is full of scurrying, clinging life, adapted to survival against the heat and aridity. Tours from Swakopmund with Living Desert Adventures, (www.livingdesertnamibia.com) go into the dune belt to discover little creatures such as geckos, snakes, insects, dancing lizards, the white lady spider and desert chameleons. The guide also takes out a magnet and draws the iron ore out of the sand in such a way that you can write on a dune. Similar walks are conducted at the base of the giant dunes at Sossusvlei with Sossus-on-Foot, (firstname.lastname@example.org), by the absorbing ‘Boseman’ (bushman) and his team, through Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, stopping to point out the small creatures and explain the desert flora and fauna along the way. Most people are surprised at how much life occurs in the dunes and children love these tours.
12 Rhino tracking
Northern Damaraland features rocky, desert scenery and a surprising wealth of arid-adapted wildlife, which includes the largest free-roaming black rhino population in Africa. Wilderness Safari’s Desert Rhino Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com) is a mobile tented camp located in the Palmwag Concession which collaborates with the Save the Rhino Trust. Rhino trackers head off in the early morning to scout ahead and look for spoor, and then you’ll be driven to within a kilometre of the rhino’s location. Then, the approach is on foot to get close enough to get a good view but meanwhile keeping a safe distance. To the east of Palmwag, Grootberg Lodge (www.grootberg.com) also offers rhino-tracking on foot, and black rhino can also be sometimes spotted on private game farms in the region during game drives.
13 Dolphin and seal cruises
Half-day boat tours are on offer on the Walvis Bay Lagoon to see seals, dolphins, flamingos and pelicans and a host of other waterfowl. Seals are often fed fish by hand. Most trips end with fresh oysters and champagne. If you’re lucky, there’s also a chance of spotting whales as they make their way along their migratory routes to and from the Antarctic. Try Mola-Mola Safaris (www.mola-namibia.com) or Pelican Tours (www.pelican-tours.com), both of which operate from the Walvis Bay Yacht Club. If you want to get closer to the wildlife you can paddle a kayak with Eco Marine Kayak Tours (www.emkayak.iway.na) around Pelican Point on the lip of the lagoon. The seal colony here is thought to be 28,000-strong and the playful seals are well known for jumping over the bows of the kayaks and nibbling at the paddles. Dolphins, too, are curious about the flotilla of kayaks and often swim underneath and breach the surface nearby. A fast paddler might even have the honour of a dolphin swimming alongside his or her kayak.
14 Horse riding
Reitsafaris Namibia (www.reiterreisen-namibia.com) offer the 400-km Namib Desert Ride, one of the toughest trails in the world. The route runs from the Khomas Hochland across the plains of the Namib-Naukluft Park, ending on the beach in Swakopmund 12 days later. For the less experienced, Okakambe Trails (www.okakambe.iway.na), near Swakopmund, offer two-hour sunset and moonlight rides into the desert. Desert Homestead and Horse Trails, near Sesriem (www.deserthomestead-namibia.com) offer sunrise rides which include a full breakfast, or sunset rides into the desert with gin and tonic. There are also plenty of opportunities on the privately owned guest farms, where short scenic/game rides can be organised.
As Alex Stauch of Albatross Paragliding Adventures (www.namibiaparagliding.com) explains, Namibia is a paraglider’s dream. “These dunes offer one of the safest places to learn the art of free flight. There are no obstacles, just mile upon mile of sand dunes.” After learning the basics of aerodynamics you’ll be issued with a harness and helped to take off, fly and land.
16 Sand boarding
The best way to conquer the towering dunes around Swakopmund is to zoom down them on a traditional Swakop sand board with Alter Action (www.alter-action.info). The beauty of sand boarding is that the sand is not abrasive, it’s obviously not cold, and you can board in shorts and T-shirts. The worst that can happen is that you walk away covered in sand. For the lie-down option you’re supplied with a large flat piece of waxed hardboard, and the idea is to lie on the board, push off from the top of a dune and speed headfirst down the sandy surface; speeds easily reach 80 kilometres per hour. No experience is necessary. Stand-up boarding requires more skill. It is a very similar technique to boarding on snow and uses standard snowboarding equipment. If you’re a snowboarder, then try out those turns, free-style jumps and big spray curves on the smooth sand. Beth Sarro from Alter Action invented sand boarding at Swakopmund and has taken thousands of people through the dunes over the years; it’s exhilarating and lots of fun.
First published in Travel Namibia magazine, issue 6