Remote deserts, ancient rock paintings, colourful tribes, a rugged Atlantic coastline, abundant wildlife parks and, of course, the iconic red sands – Namibia offers all this and much more…
The African adventure starts straightaway. Flying into Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, is a white-knuckle ride, even on cloudless days, thanks to turbulence from hot desert air rising over the mountains.
I’m travelling with my father, Bruce, and, after landing safely at Hosea Kutako International Airport, we breeze through immigration (no visa needed) and into a taxi for the hour’s drive, along well-tarmacked roads, to the city. We’re doing a short stopover here before joining an 11-day safari that will take us deep into this vast and intriguing country.
Despite its Afrikaans name – ‘windy corner’ – the city is, in fact, rarely so, usually remaining dry and warm. It’s modern and pedestrian-friendly with an eclectic mix of African and European-style shops, restaurants and architecture. Top of the tourist must-see list are the 108-year-old German school, Kaiserliche Realschule, and the Lutheran Christuskirche (oddly perched on a traffic island) – both reflecting Namibia’s colonial heritage.
Actually, the Germans are relative newcomers. Namibia contains a diverse collection of original peoples including the Nama, Himba, Damara and Herero tribes whose hunter/herder ancestors roamed the plains thousands of years ago. The Portuguese landed in the 1480s, Afrikaaner Boers came north from South Africa during the 1870s and the Germans settled a decade later to mine and farm.
They clashed fiercely with the tribes over land ownership and were ousted by British and South African forces in 1915. Renamed South-West Africa, the country was governed by South Africa until 1990 when it gained independence as Namibia following a protracted bush war. However, both German and South African influences remain strong.
Our safari leaves Windhoek bright and early. The group is small – just ourselves, a charming German couple (who speak excellent English) and Chantel, our Jenman Safaris guide, who knows Namibia inside out.
The first part of our journey takes us 370km south west through the rugged and remote Namib-Naukluft National Park, Africa’s largest game reserve. We’re heading for Sossusvlei in the southern Namib desert.
‘Namib’ means ‘open space’ and, having driven for six hours (along surprisingly smooth roads) without encountering another vehicle, it’s easy to see how the country got its name.
Sossusvlei is a white, bone-dry salt pan surrounded by spectacular red sand dunes – Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction – which can tower 400m above the desert floor. Dune 45 is the world’s most photographed and, feeling energetic, we try (and fail) to reach the top. Scrambling up dry sand is incredibly difficult, especially in the heat, and the ground seems a long way down!
Driving west towards the coast the dunes give way to wetlands and mudflats, home to thousands of birds. We’re spending two days in Swakopmund, an attractive coastal resort and Namibia’s adventure capital for the likes of surfing, quad biking, tandem skydiving and sand boarding. While dad opts for quad biking – he can never resist four wheels – I play safe with four legs and enjoy a sedate camel ride across the dunes.
The peace of the desert is a far cry from the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, on the barren Skeleton coast north of Swakopmund. Here, more than 100,000 seals and their young bask, feed and swim. It’s an incredible sight but the noise is deafening and the smell overwhelming!
It’s already halfway through our trip and we’re travelling 300km north east across the desert plains to Twyfelfontein, a World Heritage Site, and home to 5,000 ancient Bushmen paintings and engravings. Many date back 6,000 years but these depictions of rhinos, elephants, giraffes, ostriches and humans on the red sandstone remain so clear. Twyfelfontein is dry and, with no shade, blisteringly hot. During our visit the heavens open with a torrential, unusual – and most welcome – downpour.
The highlight of any Namibian safari has to be Etosha National Park. Situated on a huge salt pan visible from space, Etosha’s wide open grasslands and diverse vegetation sustain an impressive 114 species of mammal (including lion, cheetah, elephant, giraffe and leopard), 340 types of bird, with a million flamingos, and 110 reptile species. The Etosha Toshari Lodge has an excellent viewing deck and you can watch the animals doing their thing while sipping a cool Sundowner.
Our final destination is the Waterberg Plateau. This huge, 200m high red sandstone monolith is topped with lush vegetation (some of which is 850 million years old) and inhabited by thousands of birds and the elusive Black Rhino. The view over the plains is worth the climb but it’s not for those with knee problems or vertigo.
Namibia is so much more than a collection of red sand dunes. It is a beautiful, fascinating and incredibly diverse country whose people have cheerfully made the best of an often difficult way of life. I will definitely return, if only to conquer Dune 45.
Vicky and Bruce arranged their Namibian Discovery Safari through Freedom Africa/Jenman Safaris. Prices start at £1,537 per person.
• Return flights with South African Airways from London Heathrow to Windhoek via Johannesburg start at £600 per person.
• Malaria medication is needed for Etosha National Park. Speak to your GP or local pharmacist
• Jenman Safaris, call 0871 284 5010, visit www.jenmansafaris.com
• Freedom Africa, call 0333 234 3667, visit www.freedomafrica.co.uk
Words: Vicky Hales-Dutton
Photographs: Jenman Safaris
Header image: Sossusvlei