With easy access to wildlife, the world’s largest sandpit to explore, well-managed tourist access to local tribes and fewer potential health risks than elsewhere on the continent, Namibia has much to recommend it to families seeking a safe African adventure.
Sure, there are long distances to be covered on gravel roads, accommodation does get booked up quickly and anti-malarials can be on the cards if you go to Namibia at certain times of the year, but all these obstacles can be surmounted with some sensible planning.
Wildlife watching is child’s play
Namibians are rightly proud of how incredibly easy it is to see wildlife all over their country, and your children will love being able to spot herds of zebras, wildebeests and springboks during a long day’s driving. But for a family safari, nothing compares to visiting the astounding national park of Etosha in Namibia's north. With a well-established self-drive infrastructure, it allows you to bring your hire car inside and go at a pace that works for your children (shorter and more frequent wildlife drives usually keep little ones happy) and crucially you can return to the rest camps for comfort breaks without having to disrupt anyone else’s viewing. You can also use books, snacks and games to keep small people entertained when they’ve had enough but you want to keep going.
However, what makes Etosha really perfect for families are the accessible, safe and floodlit watering holes located in rest camps which attract so many of the local wildlife, especially at night. Elsewhere in Africa the wildlife watching tends to end when you are back at camp, in Etosha it’s just getting going. Okaukuejo Camp is particularly known for the atmospheric encounters at its watering hole around sunset, and for that extra-special frisson of excitement the park offers guided night drives too (with a minimum age of six).
Tip: George, nine years old, recommends taking wildlife books so you can become an expert at identifying the different antelopes and the beautiful variety of birdlife you see.
Explore the world’s largest sandpit
What could be more exciting than running down one of the world's most enormous sand dunes? Or taking a jeep ride that feels like a roller-coaster going up, down and over the surreal sandscapes? These thrills appeal to big and little kids alike, and can be a fantastic bonding experience for the whole family. However, there’s much more to a trip to the Namibian desert than adrenaline highs: it can also be a fascinating introduction to how nature survives in one of the world’s toughest environments.
From Swakopmund take a 4WD guided tour out to Sandwich Bay where the Atlantic laps the giant dunes, and you can see seals, flamingos and cormorants along the way. In Sossusvlei, within the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park, learn why the sand is that famous deep red colour as you watch the hues change as the sun rises over the mammoth-sized Dune 45. Then make sure you take a leisurely walk through the ancient ghost forest in Deadvlei, where a good guide will explain the geological history and introduce your children to the current inhabitants by following tracks and watching movements in the sand.
Tip: getting up in the middle of night to go on an adventure is super exciting for kids, so stay in the park (either at the Sesriem Camp Site or Sossus Dune Lodge) to ensure you have access to the dunes prior to sunrise; also remember it’s cold at night in the desert so take layers for the early start, plus the obligatory snacks to keep energy levels up as both the sun and tiredness kick in.
Enter a cultural classroom
Anyone who wants to spend time with indigenous people anywhere in the world needs to do their research ahead of a visit to be sure they are not contributing to anything exploitative, and in Namibia it is no different. But, when you do find the right approach it’s an incredible way to educate your children about different cultures.
The Damara Living Museum, about 10 km north of the famous Twyfelfontein Rock Engravings, was established by the Damara people to educate both their young people and tourists on their culture and is a relaxed and enlightening introduction for children. You can also arrange days visiting the Himba tribe through some of the lodges such as Opuwo County Lodge around Opuwo in the remote Kaokoveld region. If you really want to immerse your family in some enthralling culture, you could try the two-day trip available at the the Living Hunter’s Museum of the Ju/'Hoansi on the fringes of the Kalahari. In many cases, handmade curios will be available so do give your children some pocket money and help them make their own contribution to the tribe they have just visited.
Tip: Harry, seven years old, remembers being surprised at seeing women’s breasts so talk to your kids about nudity beforehand and remind them to ask permission before taking a photograph.
Get your teens’ adrenaline pumping
The relaxed German colonial town Swakopmund isn't known as Namibia’s adventure capital for nothing. From here and nearby Walvis Bay you can go sandboarding, skydiving, quad biking, sailing, surfing, kayaking, fishing... you name it, you can do it. It’s the perfect bribe for the teen who may be accompanying the family somewhat reluctantly. And if you need further incentives, when your heart and stomach have returned to base you can enjoy some excellent coffee and cake at one of the many German bakeries around town.
Perhaps less adrenaline-inducing, but no less of an adventure is camping out in the wild. Sleeping outdoors is fun for children anywhere but in Namibia you can add the thrill of potential wildlife sightings and the fact that you don’t always need canvas over your head. Dozing off with the stars above you might not make for the best night’s sleep but it sure is exciting. An incredible place to start is the campsite beneath Spitzkoppe, Africa's 'Matterhorn' (the aforementioned Sesriem Camp Site is an easy option too). If you want to get further off the beaten track, go for a guided camping tour.
Tip: once again it’s all in the research, so make sure you chose a reputable company (such as Ground Rush Adventures) that is happy taking teens and that your insurance covers all of you for what you are doing.
Eat, drink and be safe
Both nearby South Africa and the historical association with Germany have influenced the cuisine of Namibia, and it makes for a delicious travel experience for small and bigger palates. Pastries, cheese, ham and pasta all cater easily for those in your party who may have less adventurous tastes, while their parents can sit back and enjoy beautifully executed meals with an equally lovely glass of wine. An essential stop on the road to Sossusvlei is Moose McGregor's Bakery in Solitaire, which serves delicious apple pie to weary travellers in the middle of the desert. As elsewhere in the world, children love to explore a new supermarket so take them along to chose their own road-trip snacks.
In terms of health, one of the best things from a parent’s point of view about a trip to Namibia is that the water is safe to drink. This means that all those little hands going everywhere can be washed easily and safely. Normal hygiene rules apply and you may choose to drink bottled water but you can relax knowing teeth-brushing and hand-washing are not potential hazards. Malaria is a concern in certain areas (an area which widens at specific times of the year) and you should visit your travel doctor for advice, but it’s perfectly possible to plan a trip that avoids any malaria risk.
Tip: Winnie, three years old, loved the spoonful of jam which accompanied her daily anti-malarials (a spoonful of sugar really does help this particular medicine go down).
● Plan well ahead as the tourist infrastructure here is still developing and demand often outweighs the number of good options.
● Driving distances are long and bumpy: make sure you take audio-books, playlists and a good list of mind games such as 'twenty questions' and 'I spy' to keep the kids occupied, and have something fun to look forward to at journey’s end.
● Get each child their own set of binoculars. You won’t regret it.