With vast expanses of deserts, mountains, canyons and savannas, Namibia is a backdrop of endless horizons.
On the remote southwest coast of Africa, the country is home to some of the world’s most diverse and distinctive landscapes, each offering genuinely unforgettable experiences. Hike across crimson dunes, towering rock formations and lush countryside. Drive over black-tar roads, slicing through dusty, white sand plains beneath dramatic pink clouds. Walk among ancient acacias that defy nature as they stand tall, dead but not petrified, stretching toward the sun. Stargaze from the desert up into one of the world’s darkest skies. Explore a diamond-mining settlement turned ghost town.
These are just some of the most spectacular things you can do on a journey through Namibia.
Experience the awe of the Kalahari Desert
The Kalahari Desert is a vast and desolate expanse of harsh land and extreme temperatures that nonetheless teems with wildlife, with leopards, cheetahs, black-maned lions, herds of elephants and packs of wild dogs all plentiful. The desert floor in Namibia turns red as the dunes rise and mix with iron oxide from the Orange River to the south, setting the scene for some of the most iconic sunsets in Africa.
For more than 30,000 years, the Kalahari has been home to the San, Africa’s first people and its oldest culture. Visits to San communities help preserve their hunter-gatherer traditions while offering much-needed support for individuals and families. You’ll also hear one of Africa’s oldest click languages: the San language, called Khoisan, has the most distinct clicks of any, at five. Explore these meaningful cultural experiences through such NGOs as Ju/’Hoansi-San, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Naankuse.
Visit a ghost town in the desert
A once thriving diamond mining settlement, Kolmanskop is a strangely fascinating ghost town slowly being claimed by the Namib Desert. As the sand constantly shifts, filling up windows and doorways, you may have to crawl through a side window to get into some of the structures. Once inside, you’ll see traces of human life in the form of brightly painted walls, stenciling, wallpaper and telephone hardware. You can explore the buildings by walking through onetime workers’ homes, a schoolhouse, a hospital, a shopping center, a bowling alley and the first X-ray lab in the Southern Hemisphere. A millionaires’ row lies higher on the dune, where the mine’s director, architect, bookkeeper and other higher-ups once resided.
Each time you enter a new building, you’ll find something unique, like a bathtub carried into another room by the rising sand. Look down and you’ll find footprints of small critters and birds. If you’re lucky, you might even spot one of Africa’s rarest predators, the brown hyena; the region is a protected area for these beautiful, shy canines.
Entrance to the park requires a permit, which you can purchase 10km (6 miles) away in the port town of Lüderitz. Splurge for the photographer’s pass if you want to avoid the afternoon crowds, as it allows you to enter before or after the gates close, when you’ll get a true sense of the site’s eeriness. Winds sing through the rafters and move loose boards and metal, making a visit here a surreal experience for the senses.
Plan a road trip across Namibia
Most travelers don’t consider going on a road trip when visiting Africa – yet Namibia is a self-drive wonderland, a country of wide-open spaces where the scenery constantly evolves and shifts from desert to mountains to verdant valleys. But be sure to plan your drives carefully, as the distance between places of interest can range from 200km (124 miles) to 600km (372 miles) or more. Once you’re off the main highway, it could be hours before you see another vehicle. What will delight you instead is wildlife like oryx, zebra and giraffe.
The roads in Namibia are graded A to D, with A being a broad paved highway and D being a rough dirt “road.” All rentals of 4x4 vehicles come outfitted with two spare tires and two gas tanks, along with many additional options for safety and comfort. Bring your adventurous spirit and the proper supplies – and expect the road trip of a lifetime.
Stare into the abyss of a prehistoric canyon
The world’s second-largest canyon, Fish River Canyon is a one-of-a-kind geological wonder. The site dates back more than 500 million years, and its sheer scale and raw natural beauty are a sight to behold. As you approach the area, you’ll think you landed on another planet: giant crimson boulders stacked upon each other create exciting formations and outcrops that make this place feel truly otherworldly.
Hiking and mountain biking in the dry winter months are popular with adventure enthusiasts. Several lodges in the area offer morning and evening drives, the latter making a requisite stop for alfresco cocktails.
Take part in Namibia’s roadside traditions
Though stations and food options are few and far between on Namibian roads, unusual and quirky roadside stops tend to pop up in the middle of nowhere. Stop at McGregor’s Bakery in the tiny settlement of Solitaire for the best apple pie in Africa, or the equally rustic shop at Betta Camp between Aus and Sesriem. If you’re traveling in the north during the rainy season (January to March), you’ll likely see locals waving you down while holding oddly shaped white objects. These strange-looking items are giant mushrooms called omajova: they’re cultivated by termites – and they’re simply delicious. If you bring some back to your lodge, the chef might be able to include them in your meal.
Hike an immovable dune
Sossusvlei is one of the best-known attractions in Namibia for good reason. Bright red dunes, some of the tallest in the world, surround a contrasting dry pan of salt and clay. Called star dunes, these dunes take shape from winds that blow in every direction, with razor-thin spines that seem no more than a single grain of sand wide atop the ridge. Hikers can enjoy early-morning climbs up them – especially Big Daddy, the tallest at 325m (1066ft).
A little farther west is Deadvlei, a photographer’s delight. The name translates to “dead marsh,” since it was once a lush wetland filled with shrubs and acacia trees. Around 600 years ago, the surrounding dunes rose higher, eventually cutting the river off from the pan for good. All that remain are stark black skeletons of trees. The air is so dry and hot here that the trees will never decompose. Rising from the scorched white pan, they are flanked by the tallest of the dunes, and set against a piercing blue sky.
The launching point to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei is in the town of Sesriem, and only a couple of lodges are located within the park gates. Staying at one of them allows you to enter the area before sunrise, which is essential if you want to beat the scorching desert heat.
Stargaze into Africa’s darkest sky
Astrophotographers come from around the world to capture the night sky in Namibia. The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world, and it’s so sparsely populated that much of it has zero light pollution, with guaranteed clear skies in June and July in Sossusvlei. As a result, stargazers enjoy peerless views up to the galactic center of the Milky Way, in all its celestial glory. The Southern Cross constellation is also visible, a rare treat for those visiting from the Northern Hemisphere.
Take in some history in Windhoek
Most international flights arrive in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital and largest city, so your adventure in Namibia will likely start and stop here. Do make sure you linger for a few days.
Windhoek has much to see and do, especially for history buffs. The National Museum of Namibia offers historical and zoological displays, including ancient San rock paintings. Next door, the Independence Memorial Museum houses artifacts, drawings and dioramas that narrate the country’s history and its struggle for freedom. For a bird’s-eye view of the city head to the museum’s top floor and enjoy a drink on the “Balcony of Love.” From here, you can see Christuskirche (Christ Church), the oldest Lutheran church in Namibia and Windhoek’s most notable landmark.
Go where the desert meets the sea
There are few places on earth where giant dunes touch the ocean shore, yet on Namibia’s western coast the dunes of the Namib spread all the way west to an untamed and rarely charted section of the Atlantic Ocean. This part of the coast is hundreds of miles long, and the best place to experience it is by setting out from Swakopmund, Namibia’s largest coastal city. Take a 4x4 tour over the dunes to the shore, across ephemeral rivers to lagoons filled with migrating flamingos.
Walk among skeletons on the beach
The northern coast of Namibia is home to a hostile stretch of coastal desert called the Skeleton Coast. The almost constant crashing of waves plus dangerous and hard-to-see rocky outcroppings create a barren and merciless land. Named for the broken and rusting remains of the ships that sank then washed ashore, the beach is also a graveyard for whales and desert wildlife, whose bleached bones litter the golden sand. Sea mist and fog circle around, making for a hauntingly ethereal experience.
Savor the view from above
Viewing Namibia from the air offers magical views of its wildly diverse landscape. Hot-air balloons and doors-off helicopter tours provide unforgettable scenes and photographic opportunities in almost every region of interest. For example, an early morning flight over Sossusvlei lets you watch the sunrise over dune crests, creating sharp contrasts of light and shadow, while flying over the Skeleton Coast in search of shipwrecks offers a bird’s-eye view of this dramatic coastline. Those on a luxury adventure can opt for scenic fly-in safaris.
And, yes, you should go on safari
Since many species have adapted to life in the harsh desert, animals in Namibia can be seen from the road or even from your lodge. Yet for the most amazing display of wildlife, take a safari in Etosha National Park to see concentrations of big game like elephants, giraffes, lions, and white and black rhinos. The park is also home to a significant percentage of the world’s cheetahs.
Etosha is famous for its watering holes, some in prime view of game lodges; they offer the chance to see the scores of animals that come from various areas of the dusty pan in search of water. Expert guides drive you in open-air vehicles to the best viewing spots of the day, educating you on species and their behavior, as you watch, mesmerized.