Expert Reviews – Namib-Naukluft NP

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The Big Empty
Overall rating
4/5

The Namib – it means open space – is a region of superlatives. Not only is it the world’s oldest desert, but it is also the biggest park in Africa, covering an area larger than Switzerland. Originally created to protect the rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra, it was enlarged in 1970 and extended again in 1979 when the area south of the Kuiseb River was added, including the dramatic Sesriem canyonlands and the blood-red dunes of Sossusvlei. Soaring into the blue for almost 1,000 ft, their spectacular crests are the world’s tallest sand hills. Besides spotting mountain zebra you could be rewarded by the sight of springbok, gemsbok, kudu and klipspringer, and a list of 200 bird species including black eagles and lanner falcons. But most visitors come for the wilderness experience itself in a desert whose mountains, kloofs and endless moonscapes are seldom less than stunning – especially in the first and last hours of daylight. In complete contrast to the desert itself with its gravel plains and weird welwitschia plants is the coast itself at Walvis Bay, just south of Swakopmund, where huge numbers of flamingos and pelicans share the lagoons and salt flats with thousands of plovers and sandpipers.

Seas of Sand
Overall rating
4/5

Sprawling across southwestern Namibia, the Namib Desert is a scenically spectacular and thirsty realm whose seas of sand stretch all the way from the west coast of Africa to the Naukluft Mountains. Capable of sustaining life despite very arid conditions and home to some of the most bizarrely beautiful landscapes on earth, it is a place of endless rolling dunes, solitude, wide-open spaces and deafening silence. I forewarn every first-timer that the Namib will probably be the most impressive landscape they’ll encounter during their travels around Namibia: a bold claim in a country renowned for its gobsmacking scenery and breathtaking natural beauty. But it’s true; the immense awe-inspiring landscapes, juxtaposition of colours, towering red dunes at world-renowned Sossusvlei and spellbinding scenery will leave you dumbfounded. The only small criticism I can level at this iconic desert park is that its deserved and growing popularity means Sossusvlei is getting busier and this is slowly eroding some of its incredible wilderness vibe; but, for the most part, the Namib is a very soulful and special place indeed. Don’t come here for wildlife, but if you’re a connoisseur of stunning landscapes and appreciate arid beauty, then this place should definitely top your agenda.

A desert dream
Overall rating
4/5

The highlight of this barren but breathtaking national park is the majestic dunes of Sossusvlei, which rise like giant waves above the parched salt pans that punctuate the desert floor. At sunrise and sunset the changing colours and contours are truly special and it’s not hard to see why Sossusvlei is often cited as the most photographed natural wonder in the world.

What most of the photos omit are the droves of tourists that you’ll see traipsing up and down the dunes like long lines of ants, and the big tour buses hammering along the main road through the park.

Nevertheless, every time I get to the top of Big Daddy or Dune 45 (you can walk up both) and look out over the endless sea of sand, none of that really matters. The sheer beauty of the place drowns it all out.

Not surprisingly given the unforgiving environment, there isn’t a lot of wildlife around, though you can get spectacular shots of the occasional ostrich or Oryx with the dunes behind them. Or if you’re exceptionally lucky, you might spot the endangered desert lions that somehow continue to eke out an existence across Namibia’s driest areas.

Desert and dunes: A photographer’s dream
Overall rating
4/5

Sossusvlei is a landscape like no other, with dunes and desert a palette of colours ranging from deepest orange to palest gold. Stay at the campsite within the park to get a vital 15 minute advantage over those staying outside for the best sunrise shots. We came across Deadvlei at dawn almost by accident (due to a lazy lack of research). The unexpected beauty of the silver-white pan against the backdrop of burnt orange dunes with long-dead trees like wizened fingers reaching up to the sky was unforgettable. And the iconic Dune 45 is perfect for sunrise or sunset photo-shoots if you can make the half-hour walk to the top. But this isn’t an area to come for wildlife unless you’re fascinated by smaller creatures and desert survival.

Less well-known but also scenically dramatic are the mountains of the Naukluft Park. With its spectacular gorge of psychedelic rocks in shades of pinks and purples and dotted with quiver trees, the 10km Olive Trail is far more beautiful than the 17km Waterkloof Trail, although that has stunning views from the plateau. Take plenty of water though – the walks can be hard-going in the heat.

Desert delights
Overall rating
4/5

My single visit to this enormous park – Africa’s largest – remains one of my most satisfying wilderness experiences. The towering apricot-coloured dunes at Sossusvlei are world famous, both as a spectacular tourist playground and a haven for desert wildlife, but there is much more to this park than sand. In three days of wild camping at Bloedkoppie, not another soul passed though our campsite; just the jackals that left their tracks around our tent each night, and the springbok and ostrich that trekked past by day. At Sesriem I had my only ever sighting of a striped polecat, as it popped out from the roots of a camelthorn, and awoke at night to find a magnificent gemsbok just metres from my tent, horns glinting silver under the desert moon. And hiking the rugged trails of the Naukluft, to the east, I watched mountain zebra cresting a distant ridge and Verreaux’s eagles hunting dassies along the escarpment.
This is not a park for big game – though naturalists can seek out such unique desert-adapted oddities as the welwitschia plant and fog-basking beetle – but no visitor should leave Namibia without experiencing the sheer power of its landscapes. Memorable moments are guaranteed.

Cinnamon dunes and skeleton trees
Overall rating
4/5

Picture Namibia in your mind and you’ll probably conjure up an image of giant sand dunes in gorgeous shades of ochre, ginger and gold, under huge blue skies. The place you’re imagining is the Namib-Naukluft National Park. I’d say this is the quintessential Namibian park.

The place most people head for is Sossusvlei. To me, this place feels pretty touristy – it has enough accommodation to house coachloads of visitors – but this is, of course, all relative, since nowhere in Namibia ever feels as crowded as the really popular safari destinations elsewhere in Africa. And come dusk, when the geckos start calling and the stars come out, you get a true sense of being enveloped in the desert.

By day, you can float over the sands by hot air balloon or set out by vehicle to admire the spectacular dunes and possibly climb one or two. Getting to the top can be a struggle if it’s hot but I love the exhilarating feeling of running down again. You’ll also see dramatic salt pans dotted with sculptural, skeleton-like camelthorn trees, and fairy circles (mysterious bare patches in areas of pale, tufty grass).

Namib-Naukluft: The World’s Most Beautiful Desert?
Overall rating
4/5

If you love deserts as I do, you’ll love the Namib-Naukluft. Within the borders of this vast park lie vast tracts of the Namib, the oldest desert on earth and perhaps the most beautiful. The sand dunes here, sculpted by the winds down through the millennia are stunning and also happen to be some of the tallest examples of their kind on the planet. To stand high on a sand summit and see the razor-sharp ridgelines rippling out to a horizon that never seems to end is breathtaking in the truest sense of the word. It’s a very well established stop on the Namibian safari circuit and Sossusvlei can feel like the antithesis of a desert wilderness in high season. But the accommodation is outstanding and varied, and the desert is sufficiently large to mean that it is easy to find a corner with not another soul around. Deadvlei, too, is simply gorgeous with its orange dunes and silhouetted tree trunks. And for real solitude, try hiking the gorges of the Naukluft Mountains, watching for leopards and klipspringers as you go.

Of deserts, dunes and dust
Overall rating
4/5

Mesmerising, striking, evocative, remarkable – it’s hard to choose one word to sum up the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Encompassing part of the Namib Desert and the Naukluft mountain range, the landscape here is as strikingly varied as it is uniquely beautiful. At the heart of the park are the towering dunes of Sossusvlei. Arguably, Namibia’s most spectacular and best-known attraction, it’s a dream location for budding landscape photographers. Here under the watchful eye of a brilliant blue sky, enormous undulating red dunes stretch endlessly to the horizon. Best captured in the low light at dusk or dawn, the dunes’ colour changes dramatically from a dusky pink to sizzling red to vibrant orange and back again. It’s impossible to resist the urge to hike — or as in my case slowly plod — up at least one of the dunes. Big Daddy as it is aptly known is the tallest standing at about 325 metres, but others make for easier climbing. Sitting atop one of the dunes, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance and solitude of this remote place. That is, if you managed to beat the crowds! But don’t linger too long, there’s much more to discover. Hidden behind the sea of dunes is the eerily surreal Dead Vlei. A dried-out salt lake, its parched clay basin is punctuated by the scorched remains of dead trees, some more than 900 years old. May to October is the best time to visit. The desert heat builds rapidly. So sunhats, sunscreen and water are a must.

Gemsbok on the Dunes
Overall rating
4/5

Although I wouldn’t rate Namib-Naukluft as a great safari destination per se, I regard it to be one of the most special places in Southern Africa, thanks to its scenic immensity. The scenic highlight is Sossusvlei on the park’s western border. Here, the world’s tallest dunes – rippled apricot mountains formed by red sand blown across from the Kalahari – tower above a series of parched seasonal pans that are spectacular at any time, but especially on the rare occasions when they fill up with water, as they did on our most recent visit. for a month once or twice per decade. The Namib supports a low volume of wildlife: in my experience the handsome oryx antelope is the most common large mammal, often to be seen filing nobly across the crest of a dune. An unforgettable attribute of the Namib is the pure beauty of its panoramic night skies, whose embalming silence is broken only by the occasional chatter of a barking gecko or distant whooping of a jackal or a hyena.

One of the world’s oldest and most scenic deserts, famous for its majestic giant dunes
Overall rating
5/5

I am always blown-away by the beauty of Sossusvlei; the Namib Desert’s towering rust-red sand dunes blown into razor-sharp ridges by the wind is easily one of the most spectacular and powerful landscapes in Africa. The best time to visit is at sunrise, when the constantly changing play of light gives the desert remarkable tints and textures. Climbing one of the dunes is a must, and it doesn’t matter how many other people are scrambling up the sandy walls; for me, the essence of timelessness and the sense of solitude is an unforgettable experience. If you’ve got the cash to splash, other alternatives are a scenic flight from Swakopmund or a hot air balloon from Sesriem for an aerial perspective of the endless rippling sea of dunes. On the rare occasions when it rains, the desert responds amazingly quickly, producing a miracle of sprouting grasses.

Sossusvlei, a photographer’s dream
Overall rating
4/5

Namib-Naukluft Park is a place of exceptional beauty. The starkness of a desert-scene is not everybody’s cup of tea. You either love it, or you hate it, but I think it would be difficult for anybody not to be in awe of some of the more spectacular areas of this park. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty of the dunes when I first arrived in the famous Sossusvlei area. This area has been photographed to death, which would normally put me off, but not this time. I couldn’t get enough looking for different angles of the curves and shadows on these giant sand heaps. In an exceptionally wet year, Sossusvlei sometimes fills up with water, which makes for an amazing scene where the dunes reflect in the water below. This place is a photographer’s dream. There isn’t much wildlife around, but ostrich, gemsbok and springbok are easily seen. For hiking, the less spectacular but much less visited Naukluft part of the park has many trails available.

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