From the towering dunes of the Namibia Desert, which stretches for 1500 km along the Atlantic Coast, to the endless white plans of Etosha, Namibia’s vast open spaces lie at the heart of an amazing travel experience.
FOUR TIMES THE size of Great Britain and with a population of just over two million, Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. And while assuring visitors plenty of elbow room, the country’s vast open spaces lie at the heart of an amazing travel experience that is unlike any other.
From the towering dunes of the Namib Desert which stretches for 1500 km along the Atlantic Coast, to the endless white plains of Etosha, one of Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuaries, Namibia unfolds a kaleidoscope of magical landscapes, unchanged with the passage of time. In the south, the Fish River Canyon is perhaps the continent’s most awe-inspiring sight, while the rough seascape of the Skeleton Coast, littered with shipwrecks and bleached whale bones presents one of the most surreal experiences on the planet.
Scattered into the mix are charming German colonial towns which sit anachronistically at the edge of the desert; abandoned mining outposts half swallowed by sands; and nomadic settlements where tribes lead lives not very differently from their ancient ancestors whose rock engravings in the valleys of Twyfelfontein are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite the long distances, Namibia’s attractions are easily accessible thanks to its highly developed tourism infrastructure. World class tour operators offer a variety of well organized 4X4 road safaris, camping tours and treks to suit every taste and budget, with itineraries extending from 3 to 18 days. Accommodation options range from 5 star luxury resorts to eco – friendly campsites where the adventurous can sleep under starry African skies.
Namibia’s centrally located capital Windhoek is the ideal base for exploring the vastness of country. Though many of the city’s major landmarks such as Christuskirche and Tintenpalast (Parliament Building) hark back to Namibia’s days as a German colony when it was known as German Southwest Africa, Windhoek also boasts plenty of modern architecture and is known for its remarkable cleanliness. The Windhoek Country Club built in 1995 to host that year’s Miss Universe pageant offers superior lodgings and excellent service along with a casino and 18-hole golf course.
South to Sossusvlei
Driving south to Sossusvlei brings a taste of the dramatic landscapes that are the hallmark of the Namibian road trip. Just after the town of Reheboth, the gravel road decends into a starkly beautiful wilderness where grassy plains and low hills stretch out in every direction for as far as the eye can see. Passing by herds of mountain zebra, solitary Oryx and the occasional vehicle, the 375 km gravel route to Sossusvlei can be covered in 5 hours – with the immense dimensions of the remote landscape giving the journey a dreamlike feel.
The visually stunning Sossusvlei pan is the most visited part of the Namib Desert. Formed over millions of years when the course of the Taschaub River was smothered by shifting sands, the dried out pan is surrounded by the world’s tallest dunes which rise up to a staggering 450 metres above the ground. Sossusvlei is part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and a couple of night’s stay in the area is recommended to better appreciate the grandeur of the world’s oldest desert.
Sossusvlei Lodge, billed as the ‘Gateway to the Namib’ is located not far from the park entrance and offers luxury accommodation that blends perfectly into its desert surrounds. Along with alfresco dining to views of springbok and ostrich drinking at the floodlit watering hole, it is a place to enjoy glorious sunsets and perfect solitude.
The best time to visit the Sossusvlei pan is at dawn when the dunes seem to glow and change colours through shades of deep orange and red as the sun begins its ascent. Those climbing to the top of Dune 45 are further rewarded with sweeping all round views of a sea of massive, crescent-shaped dunes that extend all the way to the horizon, It is a truly magnificent sight that evokes the sheer power of nature, amidst the deafening silence that pervades the scene.
Nearby, the white clay pan of Deadvlei presents a ghostly spectacle. Surrounded by major dunes, the basin resembles a lunar landscape in which the blackened skeletons of ancient camelthorn trees stand starkly against the white clay, their branches reaching out eerily to the sky. Another major attraction in the area is the narrow Sesirem Canyon whose Afrikaans name refers to the six Oryx skin belts that pioneers had to use to lower buckets to the pools below.
Though there are some good hiking trails in Sesirem as well as the adjoining Naukluft mountains, the country’s top hiking destination is the Fish River Canyon which lies much further to the south. The most popular camping and hiking trail here is a 4 day; 85 km expedition through the world’s second largest canyon that ends at the Ai-Ais hot springs. Shorter and less daunting hikes are also available, as are mule safaris in which all backpacks and equipment are transported by a team of mules.
It’s another 350 km from Sossusvlei to the coastal resort of Swakopmund. After a brief stop at the town of Solitaire, which comprises mainly a petrol pump and a general store, the road heads north over the Naukluft Mountains, soon crossing the sign that marks the Tropic of Capricorn. At a secret desert location near here crews have been filming Mad Max: Road Fury, the latest edition of the Mad Max franchise.
Arriving at the Atlantic Ocean after days in the outback, Swakopmund paints a pretty picture. The town’s colonial origins are quite evident in the traditional German buildings dating from the early 1900s, with names such as Hohenzollern Haus and Altes Amtsgericht. On the palm-lined seaside promenade, along with the historic former lighthouse there are many cafes and art galleries, and restaurants serving the freshest seafood. Off season the town bears a near-deserted look, making it a great place to stay a few days to soak in the delightful ambience. Although Swakopmund is known for its old world charm, the town is also the extreme sports capital of Namibia. The action lies in the surrounding desert where professional adventure companies offer a host adrenaline fuelled activities such as skydiving, parasailing, quadbiking and sandboarding. Also on offer from nearby Walvis Bay are dolphin cruises which include a visit to Cape Cross where tens of thousands of seals gather in boisterous colonies.
Namibia is a country of amazing contrasts and adventure lovers are truly spoiled for choice here. From watching lions in the wildlife-rich Etosha National Park, to exploring the basalt valleys of Damaraland and the thick woodlands of Kavango, there is a lot more to be discovered. But wherever you choose to go, you are assured to have a series of powerful, soul-lifting experiences that will remain etched in the mind forever; and will make you want to return to Namibia -Land of the Brave.