Why visit? Namibia is a true one-off.
It is named after the world’s oldest desert, which extends for 80,000sq km across a coastal belt moulded by 50 million years of arid conditions. The Namib abounds with unusual dry-country life forms: the bizarre gymnospermous welwitschia, the Peringuey’s adder, the rapier-horned oryx and Africa’s last desert-adapted rhinos and elephants. The majestic scenery reaches its apex at Sossusvlei, where the world’s tallest dunes tower like rippled apricot mountains above cracked pans. The dry climate has helped preserve some of Africa’s finest ancient rock art, while the dramatic Atlantic coastline is renowned for its concentrations of seals and marine birds. More conventionally African, there’s Etosha National Park, one of the continent’s top destinations for wildlife viewing and photography.
The sense of space. This is one of the emptiest places on Earth, supporting two million people in an area thrice the size of Britain, second only to Mongolia in terms of population density. By day, the long sun-baked roads can be navigated for hours without encountering a hint of human habitation. By night, panoramic skies, sparkling with uncountable stars, are embalmed in a silence broken only by the occasional chatter of a barking gecko or distant whooping of a jackal or hyena.
Top sights and attractions
Etosha National Park This immense park in the north of Namibia is centred on Etosha Pan — a 4800sq km sump of shimmering saline flats. The main arena for game viewing is a series of 50 waterholes that flanks the pan, attracting a host of thirsty wildlife, from lion and cheetah to elephant, greater kudu and giraffe. One of the best places outside South Africa for rhino viewing, Etosha is also the only protected stronghold of the endemic black-faced impala, while a checklist of 340 avian species includes the charismatic secretary bird and crimson-breasted shrike.
Waterberg Plateau Though it lacks the volume of wildlife associated with Etosha, this scenic park offers a rare opportunity to track white rhino, giraffe and antelope, including roan, sable and eland, on foot. Great birding, too.
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei A scenic highlight of the incomprehensibly vast Namib-Naukluft National Park, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are large salt and clay pans enclosed by ancient dunes that stand up to 300m tall. Deadvlei, its cracked floor punctuated with a forest of centuries-dead acacia trees, is particularly photogenic at dusk and dawn. Hiking through thick sand to the crest of Dune 45 epitomises the old cliché about taking two steps forward and one back.
Fish River Canyon The centrepiece of the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, this 160km-long, 25km-wide and 550m-deep canyon vies with Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge as Africa’s largest canyon. It is staggeringly huge when viewed from the observation points that line the rim, and even more dramatic if you book onto a five-day hike along the floor.
Cape Cross Seal Colony Named after a crucifix erected in 1486 by the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão, this rocky cape on the arid Skeleton Coast hosts the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals, comprising some 200,000 adults and 50,000 pups. Overlooked by a viewing platform, it has a visual impact almost as overwhelming as the acrid aroma of guano and continual bleating of ewes and lambs.
Quiver Tree Forest The striking quiver-tree — so-named because its branches were once used by hunter-gatherers to make quivers — is a type of succulent aloe that can grow to be seven metres high. Some 250 of these bizarre trees grow among a set of rocky outcrops in this photogenic national monument forest near Keetmanshoop.
Swakopmund and Walvis Bay Swakopmund, an enclave of early-to mid-20th-century German architectural trends set on the mouth of the Swakop River, is a burgeoning adventure tourism capital, offering everything from dune-boarding and quadbiking to sea-kayaking excursions to seal and penguin colonies. Nearby Walvis Bay Lagoon is a Ramsar wetland that hosts large concentrations of flamingo, pelicans and the very localised Damara tern.
Damaraland The main haunt of Namibia’s famous desert-adapted elephant and rhino, this region also supports one of sub-Saharan Africa’s richest repositories of prehistoric rock art, including specimens thought to be 5000-plus years old. Highly accessible Twyfelfontein is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that incorporates more than 2000 engravings. The less accessible Brandberg is decorated with more than 40,000 individual paintings, among them the so-called White Lady of the Brandberg, a striking white-pigmented figure that actually depicts a male shaman hunting.
Himba villages The most visually striking of Namibia’s indigenous peoples, the Himba of the Kunene region are traditional pastoralists who still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle and regard their livestock to be a measure of wealth. The women stand out for their ochre-dyed, plaited hairstyle, animal-skin clothing and copper and cowry-shell jewellery. Any visit to a Himba camp is best arranged through a culturally sensitive local operator.
Lüderitz The quirky old fishing port of Lüderitz is renowned for its brightly painted Art Nouveau buildings and other time-warped colonial gems such as the pale-blue Goerke House, built in 1910, and an Evangelical Lutheran Church consecrated two years later.
Out-of-town highlights include marine birding at desolate Diaz Point, and the eerie ghost town of Kolmanskop, a once-booming diamond-mining centre abandoned in 1956 and since partially swallowed by the surrounding sand.
• Getting there South African Airways, Air Namibia and British Airways fly to Windhoek. Direct flights from Europe take up to 12 hours but most go though Johannesburg, adding about three hours to the journey.
• Where to stay Upmarket lodges and city hotels serve all the main attractions. Good-value chalet accommodation is available at national park rest camps, and a network of backpacker hostels and campsites caters to tighter budgets. The weak exchange rate makes accommodation and eating out very affordable by international standards.
• When to visit Namibia is worth visiting at any time. The deserts receive minimal rainfall, but midsummer (December-March) is when daytime temperatures are highest and least comfortable. Etosha National Park is best in the dry season (June-October), but birdlife is most varied and prolific countrywide in summer.
• How long do you need? Distances are long and the main attractions are widely scattered. A minimum of two weeks is recommended, but it wouldn’t be difficult to dedicate a month to Namibia.
• TA tip With its wide-open roads, low traffic volumes and abiding sense of space, Namibia is Africa’s ultimate self-drive destination. So while group tours are available to suit most budgets, they tend to dilute the very qualities that make Namibia such a singular destination.