Namibia is a country unlike anywhere else in Africa, with its extraordinary landscapes, vast isolated parks, and a sense of solitude rarely found in our busy modern world. It has a beautifully desolate appeal, and perfect for those who prefer their holidays to come with a good dose of peace, and a slice of the unusual.
So which are the best places to visit in Namibia?
1. Sossusvlei, Deadvlei and Namib-Naukluft National Park
The first thing most people think of when Namibia is mentioned isn’t animals or safaris. It’s sand dunes. And for good reason too. Sossusvlei is a vast white salt pan surrounded by spectacular red dunes, some of which are the highest in the world at 400 metres. Hidden away in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Sossusvlei is the most popular sight to visit in all of Namibia. It is usually dry throughout the year, but occasionally during periods of unusually high rainfall the salt pan fills with water creating mesmerizing reflections of the neighbouring dunes.
Standing at 380m Big Daddy is the highest dune in the area, and sits between Sossusvlei and Deadvlei. Climbing to the top is hard work but worth it just to see the sun rising over the endless sea of dunes that stretch out towards the horizon. There is also a great view of Deadvlei from the summit.
You’ll have seen pictures of Deadvlei in art shops, travel magazines and online, as it’s probably the most photographed spot in the country. The clay pan is home to several dead camel thorn trees, their darkness a striking contrast to the dunes around them and the white floor of the pan. These trees have been here for 900 years, little changed thanks to the arid climate which has preserved them.
At 50,000 km² the Namib-Naukluft Park is the largest conservation area in Namibia, and indeed one of the biggest in the world. It stretches between the central Namibian plateau across to the Namib Desert, and is characterised by vast open spaces, imposing mountains, and stunning eco-lodges which offer experiences such as quad biking, hot air ballooning and horse riding. It’s in this park where you’ll also find the Namib Sand Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for being the only coastal desert where the nature of the dunes is determined by fog.
Of course you can’t come to Africa and not factor in a bit of wildlife viewing, and luckily Namibia does this really well too. Etosha is one of the richest game reserves on the continent, and the place to go if you want to clap eyes on lion, black and white rhino, giraffe, cheetah and a host of other plains animals. Its numerous waterholes formed around an ancient salt pan makes seeing elephants almost inevitable, especially during the winter months. There are also over 340 species of birds here too, so don’t forget your binoculars.
3. Skeleton Coast
For anyone wanting to get away from it all, you can’t get much more remote than the spectacular Skeleton Coast, which lies between Swakopmund and Kunene in the west of Namibia. This famous desert wilderness where dramatic dunes meet ferocious seas is desolate yet beautiful, and offers something a little different, including wind-battered shipwrecks strewn along the sands. There is wildlife here if you look closely, but the Skeleton Coast is really all about the landscape, and it’s possible to have a go at sand-boarding, sea kayaking or even a scenic flight over this remote stretch of coastline.
4. Fish River Canyon
Continuing the theme of vast, ancient and isolated, Fish River Canyon is the place for avid hikers to come for a multi-day adventure and some alone time with nature. The canyon is the second largest in the world and at 160km long its rugged interior is very little visited. There are hiking trails along the rim offering spectacular views, and for the more intrepid and totally self-sufficient explorer there is the 90km long Fish River Canyon Trail.
Damaraland is often overlooked by visitors in favour of nearby Etosha, and as a result it’s a fascinating and uncrowded area to explore, full of rocky mountains, grassy plains and unique wildlife. Here you’ll find desert elephants and the iconic oryx as well as lions and leopard, and it’s even possible to go black rhino tracking by foot. One of Africa’s largest petroglyphs is found here at Twyfelfontein (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and it’s quite humbling to stand before the red ochre rock carvings and imagine them being painted by hunter-gathers more than 2000 years ago. The semi-nomadic Himba people can be found in Damaraland, living a secluded and traditional cultural lifestyle not unlike other tribes across central and southern Africa.
The Kalahari Desert is vast. It covers most of south-eastern Namibia as well as parts of 6 other countries in southern Africa, and is the domain of gently undulating red dunes, golden grass and San hunter-gathers. I’ll let you into a little secret. The Kalahari isn’t actually a desert, not in the true sense anyway, because it receives a fair bit of rain. Whilst the area isn’t teeming with wildlife, the animals that you do see are rather special, and include the bush baby, cheetah, honey badger, oryx and meerkat. There is a surprising variety of plant-life too, much of which is endemic to Namibia. Cultural visits, ranch tours, and guided San Bushmen hikes are the order of the day for anyone spending a few days in the Kalahari.
7. Caprivi Strip
If you’re looking for wild, remote and something a bit different, the Caprivi Stripis it! This little-visited region includes 5 protected areas and opportunities for a safari experience similar to those in Botswana. Without the same hefty price tag. Wildlife along the Okavango, Linyanti, Chobe and Zambesi rivers as well as the riverine forests is rich and abundant, and includes wild dogs and elephant. Caprivi is also a fabulous location for bird watching, with iconic species such as bee-eaters and fishing owls often seen.
8. Cheetah Conservation Centre
Namibia is the cheetah capital of Africa, and the Cheetah Conservation Centre in the Okonjima Nature Reserve, a gem of the Central Highlands offers visitors the chance to encounter the fastest animal in the world in a rather unique way. Guests can take part in feedings, experience the thrill of seeing the cheetahs run whilst hunting a lure, and take a game drive alongside these magnificent animals for some world-class photography opportunities.