Although it has its fair share of wildlife, the best reason to visit Namibia is for its unique desert scenery. Between rugged mountains and towering red sand dunes (the tallest on the planet), Namibia must rank as one of the most photogenic countries in the world. Be sure to bring lots of memory cards for your phone or camera!
Wonderful as the people and wildlife are, it’s likely to be the landscapes of Namibia that impress you the most. Caught between the cold Atlantic waves and the desert, shipwrecks loom out of the mists, with only seal colonies and seabirds for company. Between beaches and dunes, sand is a recurrent theme in Namibia, as you’d expect. You can hike up the dunes and slide down them, or soar over them in a hot-air balloon. Perhaps best of all is to get to the iconic Sossusvlei before dawn and then watch as the rising sun makes the dunes glow with fire.
- Hike to the top of the soaring red dunes of Sossuslevi, the highest dunes in the world
- Watch nature unfold at a waterhole in Etosha National Park, one of the best spots for watching wildlife on the planet
- Explore the bone-littered beaches of the Skeleton Coast and wander through the shipwrecks left ashore
- Witness the mountainous landscapes of Damaraland turn burnt orange and blood red as the sun sets across the region
Gateway city: Windhoek
Best time to travel: April – October (southern hemisphere winter)
The mountainous region of Damaraland is widely reckoned to be the most beautiful part of Namibia – and that’s quite a claim. Its combination of rugged terrain and fascinating desert-adapted wildlife certainly makes it an area you simply must include on your Namibian safari itinerary. With a little luck and a good guide (and Namibian guides are among the best there are) you may spot the rare desert-adapted lions and even species you might not expect to see in such arid surroundings, including elephants. They’ve all learned to survive in this inhospitable-seeming environment, alongside a host of more outlandish species, including the bizarre Welwitschia plants. Humans have left their mark here, too: the rocky hillside of Twyfelfontein contains exceptional Bushmen engravings, including irrefutable evidence that they travelled as far as the coast (look for the carving of the penguin!). To go even further back in time, visit the eerie stands of giant fossilized trees in the Petrified Forest.
The vast Etosha salt pan in northern Namibia is the country’s most important wildlife destination, and the setting for some unique wildlife viewing opportunities. The pan itself could be the set of a sci-fi movie: it’s positively lunar. Around its edges, however, are a series of waterholes fed by underground springs which attract all manner of thirsty creatures. These include the black-faced impala, a subspecies that’s found nowhere else. Predators know that their prey must come to drink, and the waterholes are often the scene of intense action as lions spring their ambushes. The quintessential Etosha experience is watching animals appear to float as they walk along in the shimmering heat haze, while sunken hides and viewing platforms provide different camera angles. If you’ve ever wanted a close-up image of an elephant’s eyelashes or toenails, Etosha is the place to bring your lenses.
One of the most photogenic spots in Africa, Sossusvlei was seemingly created for Instagram. Of course, these soaring red dunes (the world’s highest) predate social media by some way, and you’ll feel much more of a connection with them after you’ve hiked up to the top of Dune 45, the tallest of them all. Think saturated colors: red sand and blue sky and you’ll start to understand why people can’t stop taking pictures here. When it comes to planning your Namibia vacation, it’s worth bearing in mind that the dunes are at their very best at dawn, so be sure to pick a nearby lodge – and save some energy for the trek to the top! Also in the area: the intriguing and historically significant Sesriem Canyon and Deadvlei, with its spooky but striking tree skeletons standing out against the cloudless sky.
The bone-littered beaches of the Skeleton Coast have a haunting quality to them – at first glance, there appears to be little life here – just lonely shipwrecks rusting away, and the ribs of long-dead whales poking out of the sand. The cold waters along this coast were treacherous to sailors, but support a wealth of creatures from immense, noisy colonies of fur seals to the “Strandloper” hyenas that patrol the shoreline. The occasional crude tombstone adds to the sense of this being the end of the world, but just inland, the Kaokoveld region is the traditional home of the Himba people. They’ve maintained their traditional semi-nomadic way of life, which is based on shamanic spiritual beliefs. The Himba are renowned for their habit of covering their skin with a mixture of cattle grease and red ochre, and for the distinctive way they braid their hair. A visit to a Himba village offers compelling insights into their unique desert lifestyle.
Imagine a quaint German seaside town backed by sand dunes, and complete with a candy-striped lighthouse and delectable cafés serving “Kaffee und Kuchen” and you’ve just pictured Swakopmund. This Atlantic port is a leftover from the days when Namibia was a German colony, just prior to the First World War. The Germans were here for less than thirty years, but they left an indelible imprint on the culture here, from the lace curtains in the windows to arguably the best Sachertorte in the southern hemisphere. If all this sounds a little too genteel for you, head out of town and get your adrenaline surging with a spot of dune boarding or even a tandem skydive. With the cold waters of the Atlantic on one side of town and the sands of the Namib Desert on the other, Swakopmund really can feel like the last outpost of civilization.
The capital of Namibia and gateway to its many wonders, Windhoek is a city that somehow manages to fly under the radar. True, it’s not especially large, but it offers more than enough excursions to make it a worthwhile diversion. From architecture to food and even street fashion, every aspect of life in the city reflects its blend of African and European heritage. There’s a neatness and a sense of order to much of Windhoek that’s not always apparent in some of the other cities on the continent – residents of Windhoek will proudly point out this contrast. The history of Namibia is on display in the various museums and monuments dotted around the city, while the former township of Katatura is regarded as the beating heart of the city. Newfound pride in the country’s culinary traditions is driving a resurgence in the local restaurant scene: come hungry!