Namibia has always been a favourite with Travel Africa readers. It is unlike any other destination on the continent, offering first-time and experienced safari-goers alike something new and interesting. We can’t get enough of it either, which is why we’ve run an article on Namibia in nearly every one of our 75 issues.
Because it is so vast, it is a country that demands some research and planning. Which places to include in an itinerary; how to get between them; how long to spend in each place; what time of year is best to visit…?
So where do you begin? To set you on your way we have compiled a list of Namibia’s key attractions and offered some advice on the practicalities, and who you could travel with. We hope it will all help get you started on your way to this extraordinary country.
Northern Namibia is as much a land of contrasts as the south, with arid mountain deserts and lily-coated waterways. The Waterberg National Park soars above the acacia savannah with sheer orange cliffs populated by rhino, buffalo, leopard and more. Visitors with a love of wildlife can enjoy game drives and walks, while those who prefer the more dramatic can appreciate the 60-tonne Hoba Meteorite, the largest of its kind in the world, which resides near Grootfontein. In the north, too, you will find Etosha National Park, one of Africa’s greatest wildlife sites.
Sandy plains, rugged mountains and rock-strewn hillsides define much of northwest Namibia’s landscape. The arid and scenic Kaokoveld is the ancestral home of the pastoral Himba and herds of desert elephants, which migrate along the river valleys alongside giraffe and a variety of buck species. Lining the Atlantic shore of this region is the isolated Skeleton Coast, known for its sand dunes, gravel plains, saltpans and thick ‘shipwrecking’ fog. The northwest is also the site of the Petrified Forest of Twyfelfontein, which contains over 2400 rock engravings, the Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes, and the Ugab Vingerklip (Finger Rock).
The well-known town of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, Namibia’s major port, are located out west. Swakopmund offers the history buff an opportunity to appreciate the well-preserved German colonial buildings, such as the old State Railway Station. To the south are wetlands, famed for the rich birdlife and fantastic sporting opportunities. Besides watersports, the huge coastal dunes are set up for sandboarding, parasailing and quad biking. Further south is Sandwich Harbour, one of the most important coastal wetlands in Africa. Nearby is the National West Coast Recreation Area, a favourite for anglers. Much loved by rockclimbers is Spitzkoppe, the ‘Matterhorn of Namibia’, with its sheer granite walls up to 600m high. Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, hosts Africa’s largest open-air art gallery.
An area of wide-open spaces and utter solitude, the south offers the visitor a glimpse into the extraordinary. The main attraction of the sourthern region is the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where spectacular red sand dunes climb 300m into the Namibian sky. Nearby is Dead Vlei, with its pure white clay floor seemingly planted with desiccated camel thorn trunks. South of Sossusvlei is the stunning NamibRand Nature Reserve, which hosts almost the entire variety of stunning desert and mountain landscapes, not to mention a wide range of wildlife. Also found in this region of Namibia is the world’s second-largest canyon, which plunges dramatically down to the depths of the Fish River. It’s possible to hike the canyon during the relative cool of the winter.
Eastern Namibia is home to the town of Gobabis, which is the starting point for the Trans-Kalahari Highway that links Namibia to Botswana and South Africa. This town is an important cattle ranching centre that grew up around a mission station established by Freiderich Eggert in 1856. Gobabis has sites of historical significance and connections to the rest of the country, and it is here that the visitor can fully appreciate the San culture. In this area the Ju/’hoansi, Kxoe and !kung live and work on local farms, and crafts produced in the Omaheke Region are marketed by the Omaheke San Trust, an organisation that helps marginalised Bushman families living in the region.
The Nyae-Nyae area, ancestral home of the Ju/’hoansi San, the Kaudum Game Park, and the Mudumu and Mamili National Parks are all found in Namibia’s northeast. However, each of these destinations offers something unique to the tourist, including game and birdlife. To the far northeast is Impalila Island, described as ‘The One Island in Africa Where Four Countries Meet’, and the Zambezi River with its superb tiger fishing and birding.
Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, is surrounded by mountains – the Eros range to the east, the Auas range to the south and the Khomas Hochland to the west. This bustling city, with its well-preserved German colonial buildings and wide range of services, is an ideal starting point for visitors to Namibia.
Namibia offers a wide range of options to travellers, from budget self-drives to high-end fly-in safaris. There’s a fantastic choice of properties and creative companies to choose from, too. Tying them all together, however, is a challenge, so time to call in the experts. We invited three operators to suggest one of their favourite Namibia itineraries.
1. Exploring the land of contrast, offered by Safari Consultants www.safari-consultants.com
Day 1: Kalahari Red Dunes
Collect vehicle and depart for the Kalahari, famous for its beautiful red linear dunes and grassy valleys.
Days 2-3: Tok Tokkie hiking
Explore NamibRand Nature Reserve on foot – desert plains, dunes, pristine nature and find how the desert comes to life with crazy critters that survive in this harsh and spellbinding landscape.
Days 4-5: Kulala Desert Lodge
Onto the iconic dunes of Sossuvlei, stay in a private reserve with an excursion to the towering apricot dunes included.
Days 6-7: Beach Hotel, Swakopmund
The Skeleton Coast and adventure centre of Namibia, where you can join optional activities.
Day 8: Camp Kipwe, Damaraland
Stunning landscapes and ancient rock art abound, along with free-roaming desert elephant found wandering the dry riverbeds.
Days 9-10: Grootberg Lodge, Northern Damaraland
Iconic environmental lodge perched on the edge of a plateau, where you’ll track black rhino.
Day 11: Dolomite Camp, West Etosha
Onto Etosha and game drive in one of the best game reserves in Africa – look for elephants, predators and plains game.
Days 12-13: Ongava Game Reserve, Etosha
More game drives and a guided tour on the reserve included – search for rhino and lion, among others.
Day 14: Okonjima Plains Camp
Famous for the AfriCat Foundation – see cheetah up close or track elusive leopard.
Day 15: Windhoek
Return to Windhoek and take onward connection.
14 nights from £2165 per person, travelling in low season.
2. Classic Namibia self-drive, offered by Real Africa www.realafrica.co.uk
Day 1: Windhoek – Olive Grove Guest House
Your air-conditioned 4WD vehicle with detailed route map, mobile phone and cool box will be delivered to your guest house.
Days 2-3: Etosha – Ongava Lodge
Etosha offers stunning scenery and prolific wildlife. Stay within a 68,000-acre private ‘Big Five’ game reserve bordering the park and enjoy guided game drives.
Days 4-5: Damaraland – Doro Nawas Camp
This beautiful red rock landscape is home to the famous desert-adapted elephants and ancient rock art at World Heritage Twyfelfontein.
Days 6-7: Skeleton Coast – Cornerstone Guest House, Swakopmund
Visit the seal colonies at Cape Cross and go whale- and dolphin-watching in wonderful Walvis Bay.
Days 8-9: Namib-Naukluft National Park – Hoodia Desert Lodge, Sossusvlei
Your guided tour will include Dead Vlei salt pan and Sesriem Canyon.
Day 10: Klein Aus – Eagle’s Nest
Enjoy superb walks from this private farm on the edge of the Namib Desert, with spectacular views across wide-open plains.
Days 11-12: Fish River Canyon – Fish River Lodge
Perched on the edge of Fish River Canyon, this spectacular lodge provides a stylish base and awesome vistas. Perfect for some R&R.
Day 13: Kalahari Desert – Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch
Finish your self-drive with a stay at a traditional game ranch. The Kalahari’s vegetated dunes support a fascinating diversity of wildlife.
13 nights from £3490 per person sharing, including international flights, 4WD vehicle hire.
3. Luxury Fly-Drive Safari, offered by ATI Holidays www.infotour-africa.com
Days 1-4: Sossusvlei / Namib Desert
After a night in the capital fly south into the heart of the world’s oldest desert, taking two nights in the incredible NamibRand Reserve, before transferring up to Sossusvlei. Here you will enjoy a further fully-inclusive night, and the opportunity to explore the highest dunes in the world.
Days 5- 6: Swakopmund
Take a scenic flight to the coast for two nights in Swakopmund. Included is a remarkable, full-day trip to Sandwich Harbour.
Days 7-8: Twyfelfontein
Take delivery of your 4WD vehicle and head north into the rolling boulder-strewn terrain of Damaraland, home to the rare desert-adapted elephant. Stay two nights in a luxurious lodge close to Twyfelfontien, location of the largest collection of rock etchings in southern Africa.
Days 9-10: Etosha
Head northeast towards Etosha National Park for two nights at a private lodge bordering one of Africa’s premier wildlife-viewing environments. Take inclusive guided game drives into the park, keeping your eyes peeled for, among others, black rhino, giraffe and lion.
Days 11-12: Okonjima Bush Camp
Spend your final two nights in the company of the Africat Foundation, tracking both leopard and cheetah, and learning more about their incredible conservation work.
Day 13: Windhoek
Make your way back to Windhoek in time to meet your onward flight home.
12 nights from £3200 per person (valid November 2014 to June 2015).
Namibia has 42,000 kilometres of open road to explore, making it a fabulous destination for a self-drive holiday. The main roads are well-maintained and perfectly safe, if taken carefully. For the more adventurous, the many off-road tracks that criss-cross the country make it easy to escape into Namibia’s vast open spaces. Driving instructor Richard Hoff offers his ten top tips for a successful road trip.
1 Carry at least sixty litres of water, two spare tyres, a satellite phone and a GPS.
2 Drive with lights on at all times so you can be seen much more easily on the dusty roads.
3 Know your fuel range. Many 4WD vehicles have long-range tanks. Fill up at every possible occasion. In the rural areas filling stations are often few and far between.
4 Keep a good following distance when travelling in convoy. At 80km/h keep around eight vehicle lengths between you and the car in front. At 100kmph keep ten vehicle lengths – especially in dusty conditions.
5 On gravel roads, try to avoid braking hard or swerving. Don’t get carried away on the flat straight routes: keep your speed down to about 80kmph. It you have a blow-out try to keep your steering wheel straight and coast to a stop.
6 Make sure your tyres are correctly inflated. Dry riverbeds, rocks, mud and dunes all require lower tyre pressure, while tar and gravel need harder tyres. Stick to the guidelines provided by the car rental company and the diagram inside the driver’s door.
7 Many of Namibia’s rivers are ephemeral and you might suddenly find your way blocked. If the water is fast flowing and visibly high then find another route. Otherwise, always walk a river crossing before driving it. If you can walk it, you can drive it as long as the water is not deeper than the top of your tyres.
8 Take it easy and rest regularly. Taking a break every hour allows you to enjoy more of the scenery. When you pull over, stop well clear of the edge of the road.
9 Don’t make your own trails when venturing off-road. Stick to the existing ones – there are enough of them around Namibia. Don’t drive down a track where you are not sure of a way out again. When making use of trails or tracks, it is advisable to have two or more vehicles travelling together.
10 If you run into trouble and don’t have a satellite phone with you, your best bet is set your spare tyre alight. The thick black smoke this produces can be seen for miles around and the tyre burns for a long time. The smoke should alert some of the numerous bush pilots to your plight. It is also a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary with the car rental agency so the authorities know where to start looking for you should you go missing.
SPEED: On any road surface other than tar, never exceed 80km/hour.
BREAKING ON DIRT ROADS: Never break hard, especially going into a corner.
ANIMALS: Always look out for animals on the side of the road.
TYRE PRESSURE: Reduce your tyre pressure to cope better on sand and gravel roads.
FUEL: Never let your tank dip below 50 per cent and always assume you’ll have to pay in cash.
Language: English (official), Afrikaans, German and 14 local languages and dialects across 13 regions and ethnic cultures.
Time Zone: GMT+2
International dialling code: +264
Visas: UK, US and most European passport holders do not require a visa to enter Namibia.
Money: Namibian dollar (N$), currently tied to the South African rand, which is widely accepted for cash payments. Banks are capable and efficient. Traveller’s cheques in UK£ and US$ are both accepted. Most hotels, restaurants and shops accept credit cards; petrol stations require cash. ATM machines (BOB tills) will accept foreign cards: you must select ‘credit card account’ regardless of actual account type.
Getting there: Air Namibia (www.airnamibia.com.na) flies to Windhoek from Frankfurt. British Airways (www.ba.com) and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) fly from London Heathrow to Johannesburg and offer good connections to Windhoek.
International flights: Air Namibia operates a limited service. Small, reliable, privately-run 4-to 6-seater light aircraft link lodges and bush airstrips all over the country. Flying is the only way to access the northern Skeleton Coast.
Self-drive: Roads are excellent, the traffic signals and signposting clear, making driving a pleasure. The trunk roads are very good tarmac, but most others are smooth gravel: stick to 80kmph on these as going faster frequently leads to accidents. A 2WD is ideal unless visiting in the rains or heading to offbeat areas like Bushmanland or Caprivi.
Safety: Namibia is generally a very safe country.
Health: Malaria occurs in the northeast and central Namibia – principally in Caprivi, Kavango, Owambo, and northern Kunene. It does not occur in all these areas throughout the year, so it’s best to consult a travel clinic for the appropriate precautions a few weeks before you leave.
www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk is a good source of information.
Find out more: Namibia Tourist Board (www.namibiatourism.com.na)
“Namibia is the perfect destination for first time self-drivers in Africa. It is rewarding and exciting to travel at your own pace, but I would suggest spending at least half a day with a local guide in Etosha. While the park trails might be easy enough to follow, nothing beats local knowledge to maximise your chances of some great game viewing. The guides at Mushara, for example, have literally grown up in Etosha and can find in an hour what might take a first time visitor a week.”
Ben Forbes, Naturally Namibia
“If you are heading off the beaten track, self-driving allows you the opportunity to discover the remote, the beautiful and sometime desolate scenery of Namibia – in a way no other style of safari can really offer. The Horse Shoe Lagoon, near Bwabwata National Park, is a fine example of a little-known, yet prime game viewing environment. travel by 4WD is need only in the pristine Kwando River area. Take a picnic and let the wildlife come to you.”
Jane Durham, Okavango Tours & Safaris
Like many aspects of the country, the climate in Namibia is diverse and there are advantages to visiting in each of the seasons. Whatever time of year you visit, it’s odds-on that the sun will shine on you whenever you visit as the country has an average of 300 sunny days a year.
• Winter (May-September): Temperatures in the interior range from 18°C to 25°C during the day. Below freezing temperatures and ground frosts are common at night.
• Summer (October-April): Average interior temperatures range from 20°C to 34°C during the day. Temperatures above 40°C are often recorded in the extreme north and south of the country.
• The coast, influenced by the cold Benguela current, boasts a relatively stable range of 15°C to 25°C. Heavy fog is fairly common at night.
• Humidity is generally very low in most parts of Namibia, but it can reach as high as 80 per cent in the extreme north during summer.
• The rainy season is from October to April. The average rainfall varies from less than 50mm along the coast to 350mm in the central interior and 700mm in the Caprivi. The sporadic rains do not affect road travel significantly, but tourists should exercise caution when crossing or camping in riverbeds during the rainy season, as flash floods are common.
• Pack both warm and cold weather clothing for any visit to Namibia. Hats, sunglasses, lip balm, moisturiser and sun block are all essential.
Originally published in Travel Africa edition 68, Autumn 2014