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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Etosha National Park, covering more than 20,000 sq km, is one of the world’s great wildlife-viewing venues. Unlike other parks in Africa, where you can spend days looking for animals, Etosha’s charms lie in its ability to bring the animals to you. Just park your car next to one of the many waterholes, then wait and watch while a host of animals – lions, elephants, springboks, gemsboks etc – come by not two by two but by the hundreds.
Nowhere else in Africa will you find anything quite like Fish River Canyon. Whether you're getting a taste of the sheer scale and beauty of the place from one of the lookouts, or hiking for five days to really immerse yourself in its multi-faceted charm, Fish River Canyon is a special place.
Sossusvlei, a large ephemeral pan, is set amid red sand dunes that tower up to 325m above the valley floor. It rarely contains any water, but when the Tsauchab River has gathered enough volume and momentum to push beyond the thirsty plains to the sand sea, it’s completely transformed. The normally cracked dry mud gives way to an ethereal blue-green lake, surrounded by greenery and attended by aquatic birdlife, as well as the usual sand-loving gemsboks, and ostriches.
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.
Although it's much less famous than its neighbour Sossusvlei, Deadvlei is actually the most alluring pan in the Namib-Naukluft National Park – it's arguably one of Southern Africa's greatest sights. Sprouting from the pan are seemingly petrified trees, with their parched limbs casting stark shadows across the baked, bleached-white canvas. The juxtaposition of this scene with the cobalt-blue skies and the towering orange sands of Big Daddy, the area's tallest dune (325m), is simply spellbinding.
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.
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.
Exploring the largely undeveloped 384,000-hectare Khaudum National Park is an intense wilderness challenge. Meandering sand tracks lure you through pristine bush and dry acacia forest and across omiramba (fossil river valleys), which run parallel to the east–west-oriented Kalahari dunes. With virtually no signage, navigation is largely based on GPS coordinates and topographic maps, so visitors are few, which is precisely why Khaudum is worth exploring – Khaudum is home to one of Namibia's most important populations of lions and African wild dogs, although both can be difficult to see.
Only recently recognised as a national park, Bwabwata was established to rehabilitate local wildlife populations. Prior to the 2002 Angolan ceasefire, this area saw almost no visitors, and wildlife populations had been virtually wiped out by rampant poaching instigated by ongoing conflict. But the wildlife is making a slow but spectacular comeback. If you come here expecting Etosha, you’ll be disappointed. But you might very well see lions, elephants, African wild dogs, perhaps even the sable antelope and some fabulous birdlife.