Happy Birthday Namibia! The country gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, a quarter of a century ago. To celebrate we asked guidebook writer Lizzie Williams to pick her top things to do in a country rich in wildlife, culture and spectacular landscapes.
1 Admire the German architecture in the quirky coastal town of Lüderitz
Perched on a rocky headland between the inhospitable dunes of the Namib and the iciness of the Atlantic, Lüderitz enjoyed prosperity in the early 1900s, first as a base for the Shutztruppe and then as a port for diamond prospectors arriving from Germany. A walk up Bismarck Street takes you past some fine examples of German colonial architecture, but the loveliest house in Lüderitz is Goerke House, which is now a museum. It is art nouveau, with local touches like the stained-glass window depicting a flock of flamingos on a Lüderitz beach.
• Pick up a town map or arrange a tour at the helpful Lüderitz Safaris & Tours on Bismarck Street
2 Search for desert-adapted elephants in Damaraland
Namibia’s famous desert-adapted elephants are often spotted ambling along the boulder-strewn Aba-Huab, Hoarusib and Hoanib river valleys. The rivers themselves are almost always dry, but the elephants use their trunks and tusks to dig holes to reach water lying beneath the sand. They have especially large feet and long legs, and can travel up to 70km a night in their quest to find water. They have have adapted their behaviour to the scarcity of food in this parched region, and hardly ever fell trees, break branches or strip bark.
• If you see elephants while driving, STAY at least 100m away. They are also in the Kunene Region.
3 Marvel at the Skeleton Coast from a scenic flight
Roughly 40km wide and protecting about one third of Namibia’s coastline, much of the Skeleton Coast National Park is impossible to get to by road as vehicles are simply not allowed into the section north of the Hoanib River. Take a scenic flight to see the wild and untamed landscape from a low-flying plane. Dried-up riverbeds, moonscapes, bizarre rock formations, and the beached shipwrecks (after which the coast was named) that litter the beaches, can all be clearly seen.
4 Stay up at night watching the Okaukuejo waterhole
Etosha National Park boasts numerous waterholes, which are the best places to switch off the engine, keep quiet, and watch the intriguing comings and goings of the animals and birds. All of the park’s camps have floodlit waterholes for night-time viewing, but the most magical is at Okaukuejo. It is considered one of the best places in Africa to see the solitary-natured black rhino. Watching one approach silently in the shadowy gloom, and then gently lap the still water above its almost mirror-image reflection, is more than enough reason to stay up all night.
5 Find spiders and geckos in the dunes on a Living Desert Tour
Namibia’s coastal dune-belt is moistened each morning by a rolling fog caused by the cool offshore air meeting the hot inland dry air. The common perception of a desert is a barren and lifeless wilderness, but this life-giving fog supports a surprisingly large number of wonderfully peculiar dune-dwelling insects and reptiles. Living Desert Tours depart Swakopmund each morning to find them before the fog disperses and they bury themselves in the sand to escape the afternoon sun. Look for goggle-eyed chameleons, tiny translucent geckos with webbed feet, snakes with eyes on top of their heads, the white lady spider that can curl into a ball and roll down a dune, and lizards that dance to keep their feet off the hot sand. The tour is always a hit with children.
6 Scramble around the ghost town of Kolmanskop
Namibia’s first diamond was found near Kolmanskop in 1908 by a worker on the Lüderitz-Aus railway, prompting a flood of prospectors from Germany. In the early days diamonds were so common they could be plucked from the sand by moonlight, and, on this immense wealth, the town flourished, with fine European houses and grand recreational facilities. But then larger diamonds were found in the Orange River in 1936 and Kolmanskop was abandoned, leaving the town to the mercy of the desert. Today you can scramble through the dunes to explore the sand-filled mansions.
7 Camp beneath the giant boulders at Spitzkoppe
Rising some 700m above the surrounding flat gravel plain, this golden ‘island’ of mountains was created by the collapse of a gigantic volcano more than 100 million years ago. Subsequent erosion exposed the granite inselbergs. There are a number of San rock paintings – the best of which are at Bushman’s Paradise. Each of the thirty or so individual campsites is wonderfully positioned among the peaceful giant boulders, making you feel as if you have a little piece of the Spitzkoppe to yourself.
8 Watch dawn break over Sossusvlei from the top of Dune 45 or from a hot air balloonSeeing the sunrise change the colours of the shifting sands of the Namib Desert is one of Namibia’s must-dos. Scramble up the 170m-high Dune 45 between Sesriem and Sossusvlei, and – as the sun rises to the east – watch it cast the opposite side of the perfectly-crested dune in shadow. A dawn float over Sossusvlei in a hot air balloon is pricey, but few people complain once they see the first rays of sun bathe the towering dunes in incredible, contrasting light. The experience is celebrated with a champagne breakfast while the silk is stowed away.
9 Take a cruise on the Walvis Bay Lagoon
One of the most important wetlands in southern African, there can be more than 250,000 birds on the Walvis Bay Lagoon in the height of summer. Along with thousands of pelicans, cormorants, flamingos, white-fronted and chestnut plovers and Hartlaub’s gulls, it also attracts migrants from as far away as the Arctic Circle. Pelican Point is home to a colony of Cape fur seals, and bottle-nose and heavy-side dolphins often come in from the ocean to swim in the quieter waters. With all this marine activity going on it’s perfect for boat cruises or kayaking. The operators provide oysters and drinks and throw fishy snacks to attract pelicans and seals.
10 Visit the wild horses of the Namib Desert
The origin of Namibia’s legendary wild horses that live on the Garub Plain is a source of much speculation. They are definitely from thoroughbred stock. Were they shipwrecked on the Skeleton Coast in the late nineteenth century, did they escape from the stud at Duwisib Castle, or were they abandoned by German troops at end of World War I? Today there are about 150. They have adapted to their desert environment, moving slowly, sweating little, and drinking as infrequently as every five days.
11 Meet the Himba
Numbering about 50,000, the Himba people (or OvaHimba) live in scattered settlements around Kaokoland and on the other side of the Kunene River in Angola. Pastoralists who drive their cattle and goats in search of grazing across the hot, gravel plains, with their red-hued painted skin, intricately weaved hair, and elaborate heavy, metal-studded jewellery, they make for a strikingly beautiful and evocative image of Namibia. They are of course hugely photogenic, but sensitivity and politeness are important when meeting them. If you always engage a local guide and never take photographs without permission, exchanges can be good fun and the Himba themselves enjoy the interaction with their curious visitors.
12 Shop for souvenirs at Windhoek’s Namibia Craft Centre
Housed in an old brewery, The Namibia Craft Centre is easily the best place to shop for quality carvings, pottery, leatherwork, jewellery and paintings. Items are sourced directly from producers to ensure rural people have an outlet for their skills and receive an adequate income. The Craft Cafe offers delicious cakes and coffees, juices made from wild figs and plums, organic wines and craft beers.
13 Explore the sand dunes beyond Swakopmund on adrenalin activities
With its German-related history and surreal pastel-coloured architecture, this attractive coastal resort is surrounded on three sides by the desert and on the fourth by the chilly Atlantic. While local visitors tend to stick to angling and then braaing their fish, tourists throw themselves into a couple of days of adrenalin sports. You can tear through the sand on a quadbike, zoom head-first down a dune on a sand-board, go-kart on a desert track, explore on the back of a camel or horse, or play a round at the desert-grass Rössmund Golf Course. Then there’s either a gentle balloon ride or an exhilarating tandem skydive to enjoy the tremendous view of the rolling dunes where they meet the wild ocean.
• Pop into the Namib-i tourist office on Sam Nujoma Avenue
14 Stargaze in NamibRand, Africa’s first Dark-Sky Reserve
The largest private reserve in the country, the NamibRand covers 172,000 square kilometres of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery in the Namib Desert. Here mountains plunge down to endless grassy plains and red vegetated dunes. It is home to Namibian favourites like the gemsbok and black rhino. There are only a handful of stunning lodges and tented camps and visitor numbers are kept low (equating to one bed per 1000 hectares) to keep tourism to a minimum in this special wilderness. The NamibRand is Africa’s first International Dark-Sky Reserve and, because of its exceptional quality of starry nights and a minimum of artificial light, it’s one of the best places in Namibia to stargaze. Sossusvlei Desert Lodge has its own observatory and state-of-the-art telescope, while the Wolwedans lodges and Tok-Tokkie Trails have guides trained in astronomy.
15 Weird and wonderful plants
Evolved to adapt to the harshest of conditions, Namibia has some of the world’s rarest and most interesting flora. But the most famous and peculiar of all – the welwitschia and the kokerboom – are tourist attractions in their own right. The low-growing welwitschia survives on moisture condensed from fog and enjoys a staggeringly long lifespan. What is considered to be the oldest, at around 1500 years, can be seen on the Welwitschia Drive from Swakopmund. The kokerboom or ‘quiver tree’ (the San used the branches as arrows), is in fact not a tree, but a giant aloe with a razor-sharp scaly bark and bright canary-yellow flowers that bloom in winter.
16 Go bird watching in the parks and rivers of the Zambezi Region (Caprivi)
The pan-handle-shaped Zambezi Region (formerly the Caprivi Strip) has floodplains, feathery green swamps, pristine woodland and tall baobabs, but the birdlife is the real highlight of this region. The African fish eagle and African marsh harrier rule the skies; pied and malachite kingfishers flit around the rippling beds of water-lilies; and the elusive Pel’s fishing owl hides in foliage at the top of the tallest trees.
• All the attractions in the region are on or off the B8, between Katima Mulilo and Rundu.
17 Get up close to cheetah
Namibia is ‘cheetah country’ and home to one third of the world’s entire population. Almost all live outside conservation areas and come under threat when they prey on livestock. A visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund or the Africat Foundation’s guest farm, Okonjima, is a great opportunity to get close to cheetah. Both provide a sanctuary for cats that become pests and advise farmers how to avoid conflict in the first place. The Cheetah Conservation Fund has a guesthouse. Okonjima has a range of accomodation from camp sites to luxury private villas.
18 Go on a tour of Katutura, Windhoek’s lively former township
Created in the late 1950s, when South-West Africa was under South African control, Katutura was Windhoek’s ‘black township’. It was further divided along ethnic lines with the Damara, Herero, Owambo and other groups separated into districts with names such as Soweto, Havana and Babylon. After the Group Areas Act was scrapped in the 1980s, many chose to remain, as Katutura had grown into a regular suburb of Windhoek with real homes and communities. Today it’s a culturally rich part of the city and home to around 200,000 people. Day tours visit the busy Soweto Market with its hairdressers, tailors and barbecue stalls; lively Eveline Street with its plethora of shebeens and mobile phone kiosks; and Penduka where Katutura women produce and sell superb handicrafts.
19 Admire the vast and blindingly-white Etosha Pan
The 120km-long and 72km-wide Etosha Pan is the central feature of Namibia’s largest national park. This huge depression is a startling expanse of white clay mud that splits into hexagonal shapes as it dries and cracks. Indeed, ‘Etosha’ is an Oshindonga word for ‘great white place’. During summers of exceptional rainfall it becomes a lake, but there is seldom more than a thin sheet of water covering it. Along the southern fringe, the network of tracks offer exceptional views of this remarkable natural feature that is so vast it can be seen from space. Shimmering with mirages and dotted with spiralling dust devils, seeing animals pace across this surreal landscape makes Etosha special.
20 Eat at NICE restaurant in Windhoek, where the top chefs of tomorrow train
The Namibian Institute of Culinary Education, NICE, hones the skills of young Namibian chefs before they go on to work in the country’s luxury hotels and lodges. Naturally, someone has to sample the food, and the super-stylish NICE restaurant offers an ever-changing menu of both classic international cuisine and local specialities such as Namibian beef, game meat, oysters and crayfish. Diners can watch the chefs at work in the glass-fronted state-of-the-art kitchen and admire the fantastic giant black-and-white photographs of them posing (with their pots and pans) in Namibia’s deserts.
21 Stare over the edge of Africa’s greatest canyon, Fish River
The highlight of the deep south, the spectacular Fish River Canyon is a huge gash in the earth – 160km long, up to 27km wide and 550m deep. Its towering rock faces and deep ravines were formed by water erosion from the meandering Fish River. Today it falls within the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park that straddles Namibia and South Africa. The best place to take in the jaw-dropping views is from the observation point at Hobas, before driving south to the base of the canyon to the hot spring resort at Ai-Ais. Alternatively, for the fit and the adventurous, there is the four-day, 85km Fish River Hiking Trail. You can hire a mule to carry your pack.
22 Visit Okahandja on the annual Herero festival on Maharero Day
During the German-Herero War of 1904-1907 General Lothar von Trotha and his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl (‘extermination order’) almost entirely destroyed the Herero population. After a pitched battle on the Waterberg Plateau, Chief Samuel Maherero led many of his people into exile in neighbouring Bechuanaland (now Botswana). These historical events are remembered on 26 August – Maherero Day – the day in 1923 when the body of the chief was returned and reburied in Okahandja alongside his ancestors. For the Herero it’s both a solemn occasion and a celebration of their culture. Visitors are most welcome to enjoy the colourful procession through the streets of Okahandja, for which the men wear military uniforms and the women voluminous Victorian bustled dresses and headdresses twisted into two points, symbolising cattle horns.
• Maherero Day is celebrated in Okahandja on the Sunday of August closest to 26 August.
23 Canoe lazily down the Orange River
A wonderful way to unwind after the rigours of the road is to take a relaxing canoe trip on the Orange River. These typically take between four and six days and cover 60-90km, but they aren’t too physically challenging and children over the age of six can join. From the river bases just west of the Noordoewer–Vioolsdrif border post, paddle first through the irrigated strip of riverbank, where grapes, mangoes and dates are grown, and then into the stark, stony and eerily beautiful Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Nights are spent sleeping under the stars in a ‘bush camp’, or you can lay out a sleeping bag on a sandbank. Meals are prepared over a campfire.
24 See ancient rock art at Twyfelfontein
An outcrop of sandstone boulders in the Aba-Huab Valley, Twyfelfontein is believed to have been inhabited for around 6000 years, first by San hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders and Damara farmers. It’s assumed the attraction was a small freshwater spring that the Damara call Ai-Ais (‘jumping waterhole’); – although the first Afrikaans farmer was less convinced it could support his livestock and in 1947 called it Twyfelfontein, meaning ‘doubtful fountain’. Declared Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, the rocks shelter more than 2500 engravings and paintings ranging in time of creation from 300BC to the 19th century. The majority depict animals – elephant, rhino, lion and various antelope – and are believed to have featured in ceremonies to empower the hunters.
25 Track desert black rhino in Kaokoland
Surviving only in the Kunene Region (Damaraland and Kaokoland), these are the world’s last free-ranging black rhino. Like desert-adapted elephants, they have evolved a remarkable ability to survive in this tough arid landscape. They drink only every third or fourth night and have agile mountaineering skills to climb onto high ledges to catch a cool breeze or forage for succulents. Believed to number around 700, they are in fact one of Africa’s few rhino populations that appear to be increasing. Rhino-tracking tourism in private conservancies contributes to their conservation as the activity helps monitor them. Excursions begin by 4WD, but thereafter it may be possible to get within 200m of rhino on foot – an exhilarating experience.