If Namibia is 'Africa for beginners', as is often said, what a wonderful place to start.
Few countries in Africa can match Namibia's sheer natural beauty. The country's name derives from its (and the world's) oldest desert, the Namib, and there are few more stirring desert realms on the planet – from the stunning sand sea and perfect dead-tree valleys at Sossusvlei to the otherworldliness of sand dunes plunging down to the ocean at Sandwich Harbour and the Skeleton Coast. Inland, running through the heart of the country, a spine of mountains creates glorious scenery – the Naukluft Mountains, the Brandberg, Spitzkoppe, Damaraland and the jaw-dropping Fish River Canyon. With rivers and wetlands in the Caprivi Strip and the endless gold-grass plains of the Kalahari, it's difficult to think of an iconic African landscape that Namibia doesn't possess.
Make no mistake: Namibia is one of Southern Africa's best places to watch wildlife, at least in the country's north. Etosha National Park belongs in the elite wildlife-watching destinations – big cats, elephants, black rhinos and plains game in abundance. Two other areas are emerging as complements to Etosha. Damaraland is a wonderful place to see desert-adapted elephants and lions, and also happens to host Africa's largest population of free-ranging rhinos – rhino tracking is a real highlight here. Over in the Caprivi Strip, the wildlife is returning, with Bwabwata and Nkasa Rupara becoming wonderfully rich parks to explore. This being Namibia, there are private reserves (Okonjima and Erindi premier among them) as well as game farms that serve as havens for rescued wildlife.
At some point during your stay in Namibia, you may well look around and wonder if you've fallen off the end of the earth. This tends to happen most often along the country's barren, sandswept coastline. From Walvis Bay to Lüderitz, the desert that forms the Sperrgebiet National Park is almost a truly trackless waste for much of its territory, but tours out of the latter can take you across it. Away to the north, along the Skeleton Coast to the Angolan border, shipwrecks along the shore only heighten the sensation that humankind is here very much at the mercy of the elements. Then there's the Kalahari, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy…
Namibia's human story is every bit as interesting as that written in the rocks, soil and sand of the country. Through their architecture and museums, Lüderitz, Swakopmund and Windhoek tell a complicated story of colonial settlement and oppression, while elsewhere the many traditional people who call Namibia home tell a different tale altogether. The Himba, occupy the country's far northwest, and the San live in the east.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Namibia.
The best-known breeding colony of Cape fur seals along the Namib coast is in this reserve, where the population has grown large and fat by taking advantage of the rich concentrations of fish in the cold Benguela Current. The sight of more than 100,000 seals basking on the beach and frolicking in the surf is impressive to behold, though you’re going to have to deal with overwhelming piles of stinky seal poo. Bring a handkerchief or bandana to cover your nose – seriously, you’ll thank us for the recommendation. No pets or motorcycles are permitted, and visitors may not cross the low barrier between the seal-viewing area and the rocks where the colony lounges.
Sandwich Harbour, 56km south of Walvis Bay in Dorob National Park, is one of the most dramatic sights in Namibia – dunes up to 100m-high plunge into the Atlantic, which washes into the picturesque lagoon. The harbour is now deserted and a stirring wilderness devoid of any human settlement. Birdwatchers will have a field day and Sandwich Harbour 4x4 facilitate half- and full-day trips down here. Sandwich Harbour historically served as a commercial fishing and trading port. Some historians suggest that the name may be derived from an English whaler, the Sandwich, whose captain produced the first map of this coastline. Still, others contend that the name may also be a corruption of the German word sandfische, a type of shark often found here.
Windhoek’s best-recognised landmark, and something of an unofficial symbol of the city, this German Lutheran church stands on a traffic island and lords it over the city centre. An unusual building, it was constructed from local sandstone in 1907 and designed by architect Gottlieb Redecker in conflicting neo-Gothic and art nouveau styles. The resulting design looks strangely edible, and is somewhat reminiscent of a whimsical gingerbread house. The altarpiece, the Resurrection of Lazarus, is a copy of the renowned work by Rubens. To view the interior, pick up the key during business hours from the nearby church office on Peter Müller St.
In 1905 the need for a good cargo- and passenger-landing site led Swakopmund’s founders to construct the original wooden pier. In the years that followed, it was battered by the high seas and damaged by woodworm, and in 1911 construction began on a 500m iron jetty. When the South African forces occupied Swakopmund, the port became redundant (they already controlled Walvis Bay), so the old wooden pier was removed in 1916, and the unfinished iron pier – a starkly beautiful thing – was left to the elements.
This recently overhauled waterfront aquarium provides an excellent introduction to the cold offshore world in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most impressive is the tunnel through the largest aquarium, which allows close-up views of graceful rays, toothy sharks (you can literally count the teeth!) and other little marine beasties.
Twyfelfontein (Doubtful Spring), at the head of the grassy Aba Huab Valley, is one of the most extensive rock-art galleries on the continent. In the ancient past, this perennial spring most likely attracted wildlife, creating a paradise for the hunters who eventually left their marks on the surrounding rocks. Animals, animal tracks and geometric designs are well represented here, though there are surprisingly few human figures. Many of the engravings depict animals that are no longer found in the area – elephants, rhinos, giraffes and lions – and an engraving of a sea lion indicates contact with the coast more than 100km away. To date over 2500 engravings have been discovered, and Twyfelfontein became a national monument in 1952. Unfortunately, the site did not receive formal protection until 1986, when it was designated a natural reserve. In the interim, many petroglyphs were damaged by vandals, and some were even removed altogether. A significant amount of restoration work has taken place here in recent years, a welcome development that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the international community. In 2007 Twyfelfontein was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the first such distinction in the whole of Namibia. Guides are compulsory; note that tips are their only source of income.
One of Namibia’s most recognisable landmarks, the 1728m-high Spitzkoppe rises mirage-like above the dusty plains of southern Damaraland. Its dramatic shape has inspired its nickname, the Matterhorn of Africa, but similarities between this ancient volcanic remnant and the glaciated Swiss alp begin and end with its sharp peak. First summited in 1946, the Spitzkoppe continues to attract hard-core rock climbers bent on tackling Namibia’s most challenging peak. The Spitzkoppe is administered by the Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET), and attended to by the local community. Local guides are also available for a negotiable price, and they provide some illuminating context to this rich cultural site. Although you do not need technical equipment and expertise to go scrambling, climbing to the top of the Spitzkoppe is a serious and potentially dangerous endeavour. For starters, you must be fully self-sufficient in terms of climbing gear, food and water, and preferably be part of a large expedition. Before climbing the Spitzkoppe, seek local advice and be sure to inform others of your intentions. Also be advised that it can get extremely hot during the day and surprisingly cold at night and at higher elevations – bring proper protection.
Tsisab Ravine is the epicentre of the Brandberg's rock-art magic. The most famous figure in the ravine is the White Lady of the Brandberg, in Maack’s Shelter. The figure, which isn’t necessarily a lady (it’s still open to interpretation), stands about 40cm high and is part of a larger painting that depicts a bizarre hunting procession. In one hand the figure is carrying what appears to be a flower or possibly a feather. In the other, the figure is carrying a bow and arrows. While doubts remain as to the subject's gender, the painting is distinctive because ‘her’ hair is straight and light-coloured – distinctly un-African – and the body is painted white from the chest down. The first assessment of the painting was in 1948, when Abbé Henri Breuil speculated that the work had Egyptian or Cretan origins, based on similar ancient art he’d seen around the Mediterranean. However, this claim was eventually dismissed, and recent scholars now believe the white lady may in fact be a San boy, who is covered in white clay as part of an initiation ceremony.
The prominent Evangelical Lutheran church dominates Lüderitz from high on Diamond Hill. It was designed by Albert Bause, who implemented the Victorian influences he’d seen in the Cape. With assistance from private donors in Germany, construction of the church began in late 1911 and was completed the following year. The brilliant stained-glass panel situated over the altar was donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, while the Bible was a gift from his wife. Come for the views over the water and the town.