Expert Reviews – Namibia

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A place to bond with the desert and marvel at the stars
Overall rating

It’s rare for travellers to return from Namibia with anything other than glowing praise. I’m always impressed by the spacious drama of its desert landscapes, where oryx pick their way over towering, apricot-coloured dunes or stare out from under solitary camelthorn trees, ostriches dash through the shimmering haze and desert-adapted elephants lumber along dry river beds. At dusk, the air reverberates with the chinking call of geckos as Namibia’s huge skies mould themselves into a dizzying dome of stars.

Best of all, these splendours are accessible – while you might feel apprehensive about venturing into the trackless Sahara, Namibia’s great desert regions are loosely crisscrossed with decent gravel roads, making it easy enough to explore.

Sparsely populated, but with enough mineral wealth to make it one of Africa’s more prosperous countries, Namibia, though somewhat troubled by land reform issues, is largely a model of peace, stability and inter-ethnic respect. I’ve always felt very comfortable here. If you’re self-reliant and confident behind the wheel of a 4x4, you need feel no qualms about travelling totally independently, staying at simple campsites or fabulously designed bush lodges as you go.

Organised adventures are available, too, and feature some of Africa’s rarer experiences, such as spending time with Ju’Hoansi Bushmen, whose ancestors marked rock faces in the northern semi-desert with engravings of giraffes and antelopes, possibly as a wildlife primer for youngsters. You can also explore one of Africa’s loneliest coasts, track black rhinos through the semi-desert on foot, or get close to big cats in rescue centres. Some of these activities are ground-breaking in that they’re made possible through the conservancy system, whereby traditional rural communities taking a decisive role in environmental and cultural conservation. For more animal action and superb birdwatching, the busy waterholes of Etosha National Park and the riverine wilderness of the Zambezi Region, Namibia’s green lung, definitely deliver.

Wildlife in the Desert
Overall rating

I could extoll the virtues of Namibia forever. Scenically spectacular and as varied as anywhere. This is a country of endless vistas; barren deserts with the most beautiful sand dunes you’re ever likely to see; fertile swamps and grasslands, cute little towns with a distinct German air and, best of all, some of the most impressive wildlife viewing on the continent.

What makes Namibia so special though is how easy it is to take all this in on a self-drive, fully independent, safari that won’t break anyone’s bank account. Distances in Namibia might be long but the roads are generally in reasonable shape meaning a 4x4 is rarely needed for much of the country. It’s also a very safe country with crime against tourists very rare indeed even in the bigger towns (which frankly are still virtual villages). It’s true that you don’t get the sheer density of wildlife here that you might find in some other African countries, but the variety of species and relative lack of crowds make Namibia one of the best safari destinations in Africa. On one day you can be viewing a smelly, noisy colony of thousands of Southern Cape seals and on the next watching elephants amble out of the dry woodlands to a water hole. There are abandoned mining towns half-buried under sand dunes, a fascinating tribal culture and buffalo hiding in waterweed covered swamps.

If you’re looking for that perfect ‘first-time’ Africa experience but one that still holds a sense of the unexpected then Namibia is unbeatable.

Namibia: Wildlife & Landscapes
Overall rating

If you reduce the appeal of Namibia to its essence, it would be this: Namibia is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa and the wildlife here is spectacular.

If you were to choose a beautiful backdrop for your African safari, you’d be hard-pressed to improve on Namibia. If you’ve ever dreamed of sand dunes soaring high over the ocean’s waves, Namibia has that covered. So, too, Fish River Canyon, ‘Africa’s Grand Canyon’ and one of the continent’s most arresting sights this side of the Rift Valley. And then there’s the Kalahari. Or the salt pans of Etosha.

But there’s so much more to the country than these well-known landscapes. The rocky spine that traverses the heart of the country takes in some extraordinary landforms. Spitzkoppe, Twyfelfontein and Brandberg are dramatic in scale and beauty but shelter in their rocky clefts some extraordinary examples of millennia-old rock art. Further north, Damaraland is a strange and wildly pretty corner of the country with red earth and great boulders. Then there’s the Zambezi Region (Caprivi Strip), Namibia’s little-known echo to neighbouring Botswana’s Okavango Delta, with rivers, watery expanses and floodplains rich in predators and prey.

For all such beauty, if it’s wildlife that brought you here, then Namibia can promise that, too. Etosha is the most obvious places to begin, one of Africa’s elite national parks with staggering wildlife populations. But highlights are many elsewhere – the parks of the Zambezi Region could be Africa’s next big safari destination, while Damaraland with its rhinos and desert elephants and desert lions is Southern Africa’s best-kept secret. With African wild dogs in Khaudum National Park and more cheetahs than any other country on earth, Namibia is a fantastic place to go on safari.

On Safari in Namibia
Overall rating

With South Africa, Botswana and Zambia adjutting its borders, Namibia often flies under the radar of safari-seekers, but it shouldn’t. Etosha stands as one of the great wildlife viewing venues of the continent. From here it's true that no other park is snapping at its heels, in terms of wildlife possibilities, but the Namibian landscape, often captured within the boundaries of its protected areas is out of this world...literally. The landscape in places lends itself to a more lunar feel or at least something otherworldly. If you are on a self-drive safari stop the vehicle every now and then and just get outside (in parks such as Khaudum, this is allowed): savour the silence, the swirling desert sands, the towering dunes, the granite slabs rising out of constantly changing sands and the snaking desert roads disappearing into an endless horizon. It's an unforgettable place. Even on a wildlife safari it sometimes seems as though spotting animals is just a bonus, the real privilege is immersing yourself in the ancient fabric of this glorious landscape. That said, there are plenty of possibilities for those who, in particular, get their kicks from seeing herd animals such as antelope, and of course elephants whose booming population makes them a relatively easy spot. It doesn't mean you won't catch the rest of the big five - it’s one of the best places in Southern Africa to see black rhino; lions are a chance; where there is water there are sometimes herds of buffalo, and leopards are difficult to spot but never far away. And as for elephants – just head for the Zambezi Region...

The Sheltering Desert
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The Sheltering Desert is the title of a wonderful book by Henno Martin, describing how he hid out in the Namib Desert during the Second World War. Read it and you will discover why so many visitors fall under the spell of this extraordinary country.

Namibia is four times the size of Britain, with a population of fewer than two million people. Most of it is desert. Some of its rivers do not flow for years. In some places, rain falls perhaps once a century. The result is a land more like Mars than our own blue planet, but with a life of its own. In Damaraland you can track desert-dwelling elephants and rare black rhinos. In Etosha national park you can find all the big five, and you’ll never get closer to cheetahs than you can at Okonjima. But in Namibia it is the land itself that grabs the eye. At Sossusvlei you’ll marvel at brick-red dunes as high as the Sussex Downs. On the Skeleton Coast you’ll stroll through the sea fog on beaches strewn with shipwrecks, whalebones and brown hyena tracks. And in the burnt-out badlands and stony valleys of the Namib-Naukluft national park you’ll find the weird welwitschia, one of the world’s oldest, most primitive plants. Some are said to have been growing there for 1,500 years. Fly-in safaris are the way to go, providing sensational views and allowing you to reach the most inaccessible locations. Or drive yourself. Namibia has miles of good roads and very little traffic.

Sand, salt pans and stars: Southern Africa’s wild west
Overall rating

With the exception of the verdant Zambezi Region, most of Namibia is comprised of harsh and inhospitable desert, but I’ve always found it staggeringly beautiful. Namibia was the first place I really travelled in Africa; I’ve been back many times since, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Etosha National Park is one of the most popular and accessible Big 5 wildlife areas on the continent. In the bone dry winter months, the waterholes become a veritable carnival of wildlife. On my last visit, I counted 200 animals across 15 species at a single waterhole before my counting was interrupted by two young male lions storming into the midst of it all and causing a scene of absolute pandemonium.

Although Namibia has experienced a spike in poaching of its elephants and rhinos in recent years, the country enshrines wildlife conservation in its constitution and both the government and the private sector have invested considerable time and money in the development of ethical and eco-friendly tourism. Many of the private game lodges and wildlife areas also directly benefit local communities.

Given the unforgiving environment, it’s not surprising that wildlife density is not as great in most of Namibia as in some other countries in the region. But, here you can have the unique opportunity of seeing rare desert elephants, and perhaps the even rarer desert-dwelling lions. Namibia also has the highest population of free-roaming black rhino in Africa.

What Namibia might lack in wildlife density, it more than makes up for in wide open spaces, incredible vistas and big starry skies. Standing on the top of the great dunes of Sossusvlei at sunrise or sunset will always be an unforgettable experience for me, and a tour around the strange and ghostly abandoned diamond mining town of Kolmanskop is another personal favourite.

Tha aptly-named Skeleton Coast (so-called for the numerous shipwrecks that can be found here) is a hub of interesting marine life, and the incongruous coastal town of Swakopmund is an adventure enthusiast’s dream. The lush Zambezi Region, formerly the Caprivi Strip, offers a quieter alternative to Botswana’s Chobe National Park, with some excellent riverine accommodations, game viewing and activities.

Dunes, Deserts and Scenic Splendour
Overall rating

At first glance ‘the land God made in anger’ appears to be an inhospitable wasteland of sand and rock where only the hardiest plants, animals and indigenous people eke out an existence. But, safari goers who scratch a little deeper will find that the country is actually a diverse and rewarding land, perfectly suited to independent travellers wanting to explore and experience a unique, desolate and predominantly arid wilderness where gobsmacking scenery often overshadows wildlife. Dominated by the arid Namib and Kalahari deserts, this thirsty realm is home to some of the most bizarre and beautiful landscapes on earth.

The world-renowned red dunes of Sossusvlei are probably the most photographed and recognisable landscape in all of Africa. The arid Cunene region with its desert-adapted elephants, rhinos and lions makes for an unrivalled safari experience, especially when combined with the cultural experience of interacting with the fiercely traditional Himba villagers in this remote region.

Etosha, boasting the Big 5 and all of Africa’s big cats, is undoubtedly Namibia’s premier park and top wildlife-viewing are, while Khaudum is wild and full of cantankerous elephants. Jutting out east towards the Zambezi, the Caprivi Strip gives Namibia its own little slice of lush, watery wilderness and provides an excellent opportunity for safari aficionados to combine little-known wetland parks like Nkasa-Rupara with the country’s jaw-dropping desert landscapes and the wildlife abundance of arid Etosha.

If that’s not enough to entice you to visit, Namibia has excellent tourist infrastructure, plenty of self-drive safari options, and there is no malaria outside of the Zambezi region. These factors combine to make Namibia quite likely the most affordable and family-friendly safari destination on the continent. No matter which season you choose to visit in, or which regions of this sparsely population country you choose to visit, Namibia is a place of solitude, magnificent terrain, wide-open spaces and deafening silence that inevitably leaves safari goers speechless at its incredible wealth and diversity of natural beauty.

Land of open spaces
Overall rating

Namibia is one of the world’s driest and most thinly inhabited countries, supporting a population of two million spread across an area thrice that of the UK. It is a land of lonely, sun-baked roads that run like monochrome ribbons below a cloudless blue sky, a land of terrible thirsty plains and rocky mountains too ravaged and desiccated to be described as pretty, a land of great wide open spaces whose sheer scope – like the glittering night sky above them – is at once humbling, breathtaking and liberating.

For me, if any one landscape evokes Namibia as a whole, it is majestic Sossusvlei, where a series of normally dry pans, lined with spectral dead trees, shimmers below the rippled apricot dunes of the incomprehensibly large Namib-Naukluft National Park. Elsewhere, there is the gaping Fish River Canyon, one of the world’s largest ravines, as well as the quaint and fabulously isolated Germanic seaside resort towns of Swakopmund and Lüderitz, and the superlative prehistoric rock art of the Brandberg and Twyfelfontein regions.

Although Namibia is more about spectacular desert scenery – truly a photographer’s dream – than a conventional safari experience, it does offer some great wildlife viewing in places. Tracking the desert-adapted elephants and black rhinos of Damaraland is an unforgettable adventure, as is visiting the region’s largest colony of Cape fur seals at Cape Cross, in the aptly named Skeleton Coast National Park. Best of all, however, is the vast Etosha National Park, named after a vast seasonal pan that attracts game concentrations that compare favourable with any African reserve.

Harsh beauty
Overall rating

Namibia breaks the mould. Its rugged rock and desert landscapes provide a quite different backdrop – and thus different visitor experience – from any other African safari destination. For many, the country’s attractions are as much about the scenery as the wildlife. Certainly, I was taken aback by the sheer power of the landscape on my first visit, and the excitement of camping under the stars in a genuine wilderness ¬– from the huge dunes of the Namib Desert to the sculptured rock formations of Damaraland – left an indelible impression.

Nonetheless, the wildlife enthusiast will still find plenty to get excited about. Etosha is undoubtedly one of Africa’s top ten game parks, with its huge dry season concentrations of game – and abundant predators – creating some of the best waterhole spectacles on the continent. Big game also occurs in smaller numbers elsewhere in the north, from the Zambezi Region, the one area of the country with enough water to support species such as hippo and buffalo, to the Kaokoveld, where desert-adapted black rhinos and elephants are a unique attraction. And it’s not all about big game: the arid landscapes are home to numerous lesser-known species that are hard or even impossible to find elsewhere, from brown hyena to shovel-snouted lizard. Birders can pursue endemics, such as dune lark and Rüppell’s korhaan, and enjoy the great water bird spectacles of the coast, where flamingoes, pelicans, cormorants and others flock in huge numbers to sites such as Walvis Bay.

Roughly 15% of Namibia is protected within reserves, and the healthy tourist infrastructure ranges from simple national park accommodation to upmarket lodges. Specialist activities such as balloon rides and bushman tracking aim to make the most of the desert experience. Despite its rugged landscapes, the country has a good transport network and is an excellent destination for the independent, self-drive traveller. And you don’t have to be a wilderness pioneer: I was amazed at how far you can take a simple family car – just so long as you plan your petrol stops in advance.

An unrivalled canvas for your photos
Overall rating

Namibia is oft-overlooked as a safari spot, but this largely desert-like country harbours some striking animal encounters. The sandy landscape of Etosha National Park provides an unusual backdrop to your animal images, setting them instantly apart from photos with more familiar greenery and savannah settings. The often arid park's many waterholes are the perfect place to picnic, offering sightings of varied species at the same time. For me though, a trip around Namibia is as much about the landscape as the animals that inhabit it. Sand plays a large part in the set design, be it the white sand of the Skeleton Coast or the shifting russet-coloured dunes of striking Sossusvlei. Further south, there's the Fish River Canyon, a sight that will keep you staring for hours, while the crashing waves of the icy Atlantic seem to provide some refreshment in this scorched but beautiful land.

Natural wonders of Namibia
Overall rating

If you love dune-scapes and deserts, then Namibia is the place for you. The iconic views of Dune 45 and Deadvlei at Sossusvlei certainly live up to even the highest of expectations, particularly in the early morning light. Taking a helicopter flight or a hot-air balloon trip over the desert puts into perspective its sheer vastness, with nothing but a sea of sand as far as the eye can see. There is life in the desert though – the dunes themselves are slowly moving with the winds, and clever wildlife has adapted to survive the parched conditions. It’s worth hiring a guide for a desert walk, to really understand the complexities of life and survival here.

But if wildlife is your passion, then head to Etosha, particularly in the dry season when all sizes of animals from antelope to elephants head to the shimmering Etosha Pan followed closely by hungry predators – at 5000 sq km it covers almost a quarter of the entire National Park. For a different perspective to Namibia’s wildlife, head to the Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip), that odd streak of land jutting out into Zambia, Angola and Bostwana, which is dominated by huge rivers and lush floodplains. The wildlife isn’t as prolific as in Etosha but there are far fewer tourists and the change of scenery into a watery wonderland is stunning.

If you enjoy walking, the Fish River Canyon and surrounding farmlands offer glorious but challenging trekking through one of the world’s most dramatic gorges – with nothing around you for miles and miles other than the spectacular scenery, the region offers wild camping in its truest sense. Be prepared for the heat and dryness here – at one point after a long day’s walk, we threw ourselves fully clothed into the river, desperate to cool down. The Naukluft mountains offer gentler day walks or another tough eight-day trek, the Naukluft Hiking Trail, which I haven’t yet summoned up the courage to attempt.

With all these natural wonders, it’s easy to overlook Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, which is a shame because its centre is a pleasant, pretty area in which to wander. A township tour of Katutura helps to unravel the history of this vast yet sparsely populated country which only achieved independence in 1990 and provides an insight into the lives of the locals here.

Unspoilt wilderness and unique and stunning landscapes offering a variety of contrasting safari expe
Overall rating

A hauntingly beautiful country that stretches along the west coast of southern Africa, with wide open spaces, big skies and some of the earth's most mystical and vivid sunsets, any visitor is blown away by the way Namibia ‘looks’ – the landscapes here are totally different to any other African country. As one of my favourite destinations, I have an endless list of why it appeals so much, but I think overall its Namibia’s unconfined space, silence and extremes that make it so interesting – it’s literally exposed to the mercy of the elements and how the flora and fauna, even the littlest things like insects and plants, and in some regions the people, survive in such an inhospitable environment is fascinating to see. It features a brutally hot climate, shimmering sun soaked plains, rugged mountains, great canyons, barren red-sand deserts, and a furiously wild coast.

I find it an incredibly rewarding safari destination – not just for animals (which, while they are numerous in their diversity, are less in concentrations than other southern African regions) but for its fascinating variety of habitats. Most types of big game can be found in the parks and reserves such as Etosha, including a number of rare species, and even in the desert you'll find elephant, rhino, and numerous antelope. The birdlife too is magnificent, especially so in the well-watered fertile finger-like Zambezi Region which is nothing like the rest of the country’s arid landscapes.

While the official tourist hot spots are spread all over the map, it has a fully developed infrastructure an impressively organized tourism industry with an excellent choice of accommodation and activities. Despite its vastness, I also find its geographical location is a bonus too; it provides an ideal addition to visits to South Africa and Botswana, and where the Caprivi ends in the east, the traveller is within a stone's throw of the mighty Victoria Falls.

From the sublime to the surreal
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The number one reason most people visit Africa is for the wildlife, but in a country like Namibia the landscape is equally, if not more, enthralling. A country of stark extremes, Namibia should be at the top of any serious traveller’s wish list. From towering rust-red undulating dunes at Sossusvlei and the gravity-defying rock formations and Petrified Forest of Damaraland to the endless golden grassy plains of the Kalahari and verdant river ways and wetlands of the Caprivi Strip, the landscapes of Namibia are unlike anywhere else on the continent. What’s more, these strikingly beautiful ecosystems support a myriad of wildlife. Lion, elephant, rhino, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest – you’ll find them all here and more. This is truly the place for a safari with a difference. Yet for all its wild, wide-open spaces, Namibia still retains much of its old colonial charm. Sea-mist shrouded towns like Lüderitz and Swakopmund with their ornate Wilhelminische-style architecture will have you questioning whether you’re still in Africa or if you’ve been magically transported to Bavaria. That is, until you step back in the interior and come face-to-face with the country’s nomadic Bushman and Khoi-speaking people. While there are a number of African countries I’d be wary of exploring on my own, Namibia isn’t one of them. Paved highways may be few and far between, but the gravel roads are generally well maintained and suitable for even a two-wheel drive. So do yourself a favour and plan a self-driving trip of Namibia.

The stark beauty of Namibia
Overall rating

Most of Namibia’s environment is arid and harsh, and yet there are few people who wouldn’t call this country beautiful. The desolate landscapes of the Namib Desert are picture perfect. Photographers, myself included, love to get creative here. I would be happy to come back to Namibia over and over again for the scenery alone. I love driving along the empty roads, with not a soul in sight, just emptiness. A lot of the country is very monotonous, but at the end of a long dusty journey there is usually another natural wonder.

Namibia is also an amazing wildlife destination. The Skeleton Coast is a great place to see marine wildlife including the Cape fur seal. Etosha National Park, with its pans of water attracting a big variety of animals, is one of the great parks in Africa. But it was some of the more remote places that really captured my heart. Tracking desert elephants in Damaraland has been a highlight in my African travels. A place that really impressed its isolation on me was the Kaokoland. Wildlife is thin on the ground here, but the fact that there is any wildlife at all seems amazing. My highlight was the simple sight of a lone gemsbok, walking between the dunes and kicking up dust against the setting sun.

So many different types of desert!
Overall rating

Three times bigger than the UK, but with a population of only 2.5 million, there is a lot of space and wilderness in Namibia. Much of it is desert, comprising the Namib Naukluft in the west and the Kalahari in the east. The landscapes are astonishing with rocky mountains, moon-like gravel plains and of course the spectacular red sand dunes at Sossusvlei.

From a safari point of view, Etosha is Namibia’s jewel in the crown, and if you go in the dry season there is a non-stop procession of game at the water holes. Etosha is one of the best places in all of Africa to see black rhino. Other highlights in Namibia include the spectacular Fish River Canyon, the quirky Germanic town of Swakopmund, the misty coast of shipwrecks, the deserted ghost town of Kolmanskop, and my favourite place of all, Damaraland in the far north, with its desert elephants and Himba people.

And for something completely different, there is the Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip) in the north west, which is lush green with a little-visited cluster of game reserves.

Namibia is a safe, easy country to travel around and is well geared for tourism. Just don’t underestimate the distances, how far apart petrol and water supplies are, and always treat the gravel roads with respect.

Best of all, enjoy the wide, empty spaces, spectacular scenery, starry skies and silence. Namibia is a landscape photographer’s dream and will draw you back for a return visit.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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