Namibia is perhaps best known for the dunes at Sossusvlei. At over 300m high, they are the highest dunes on Earth. Iron in the sand oxidises and gives the dunes a reddish colour. The dunes look different colours depending on the light and time of day. Most visitors try to get to the dunes as the sun rises and the dunes are a deep red colour, at midday a soft washed out pastel and in the setting sun, yellow and black. They are a magnet for photographers wanting to capture the magic of the interplay of sand and light.
The dunes form part of the Namib Naukluft National Park in the Namib Desert which is the oldest desert on the planet. The dunes are thought to be sand from the Orange River, which has been washed into the ocean and then swept back ashore by the wind and waves to create the dunes.
There is no accommodation in the park near the dunes, and in fact, most lodges are quite a drive away. To catch the sunrise light, guests will have to get up very early. Once in the park, visitors drive past famous dunes such as Dune 45, which many guests like to climb to admire the view of the surrounding landscape. The largest dune is called Big Daddy.
One of the main attractions is walking to Dead Vlei. This is a usually dry pan, which only fills around once a decade. It has a stand of dead trees which died when the pan dried up and their skeletal branches against the dunes make for atmospheric photographs.
Skeleton Coast National Park
The Skeleton Coast is one of the remotest destinations in Africa. A vast stretch of desert along the west coast of southern Africa it is a forbidding environment. The currents off the coast are treacherous and led to many ships being wrecked along the coast. Their skeletal remains still poke out of the dunes. The region is scattered with bones from the whaling operations of the last century. Hence the regions name of Skeleton Coast.
Despite its forbidding appearance, the region is home to a surprising array of wildlife. A bit inland, guests can seek out the elusive desert-adapted elephants and black-maned lions. The private conservancies are home to a thriving population endangered black rhino. Guests can enjoy game drives to see out desert specialist species including brown hyenas, jackals, giraffes, kudu antelope and zebras. The coast is home to one of the largest seal colonies at Cape Cross.
The Skeleton Coast region is divided into two sections – the southern sector from the Ugab River to Torra Bay is accessible to everyone. From Ugabmund to Springbokwater a permit needs to be purchased. The area north of Torra Bay is considered the most beautiful stretch of coastline. This area is restricted to a few tour operators who hold concessions to operate here. Charter flights are needed to access these luxury lodges and guests are assured privacy and seclusion.
Etosha National Park
Etosha is Namibia’s greatest wildlife attraction. The park is formed around a large salt pan, its name Etosha means ‘great white space’ and most of the time is dry. It is the remains of an ancient inland sea which has dried up over millennia. Today, the nearly 5000km square pan is surrounded by savannah plains which are home to plentiful wildlife. Several man-made waterholes supply water to the wildlife of the region and many different species of wildlife congregate in great numbers making for incredible game viewing.
Most of the waterholes are near park accommodation which is basic but they have floodlit waterholes as many species choose to drink at night and this affords great game viewing. There are a couple of private concessions with great luxury lodges on the edge of Etosha. The region is home to large herds of plains game like zebra, wildebeest, springbok and the rare black-faced impala and tsessebe. Etosha is also home to one of the largest remaining populations of Black Rhino in the World.
During the wet season from November to April, the rains fill the shallow pan, which creates an algae bloom which shrimp hibernating come out of the ground to feed on. The shrimp attract thousands of Greater and Lesser flamingos, Pelicans and a wide variety of waterfowl to the pan.
The coastal town of Swakopmund is known for its beautiful art deco architecture. Namibia was a German colony and the town’s architecture has a Germanic influence. It has a laidback vibe with cafes bars serving cuisine influenced by Namibian and Bavarian flavours, as well as tasty local beer. The town is also the departure point for many adventures in the surrounding desert and adventure sports. Dune sandboarding, 4×4 dune trails and skydiving are popular.
Drips to see the flora and fauna of the Namib Desert also depart from here. Guests search for small critters such as the Palmetto gecko or the golden mole. Another popular activity is a day trip to the Welwitschia Plains. This is a region where a very special plant called a Welwitschia is commonly found. These plants are some of the oldest plants on the planet individual plants could be thousands of years old. Each plant only ever produces two leaves, which are very tough and leathery and they just continue to grow. They thrive in this harsh environment, only getting moisture from fog which rolls in off the Atlantic Ocean.
Namibia’s capital city is Windhoek which is almost in the centre of the country. The main international airport lies outside the city, so it is the main starting point for many vacations in Namibia. The city has a small-town feel, despite being the capital of the country. It is beautifully laid out with manicured lawns and the historic downtown is filled with interesting architecture such as the Officer’s House and Alte Feste, Equestrian Memorial and the German Lutheran Christuskirche or Christ Church which combines neo-gothic and art nouveau styles.
Tours to Katatura, the main township are popular. The trip provides a study in contrasts of life in Namibia under the former apartheid regime. The township is up and coming, with interesting markets and local shops to visit where guests can learn about Namibian culture. German and English are widely spoken and many of the restaurants in town serve German-inspired food as a nod to the country’s colonial heritage. The local breweries make the best beer in Africa.