What not to take on your Namibia trip – an 11 month old baby…
Having recently travelled to Europe with my then 6 month old son, the idea of doing an educational trip to Namibia with my husband and my now 11 month old son didn’t seem all that daunting. I obviously knew from previous experience that educationals can be very tiring, but I hoped that as we were going to be travelling almost every day between 4-6 hours that my son would sleep most of the way and the trip would be fairly easy. I soon found out that travelling with a 6 month old is very different from travelling with an 11 month old!
Our journey started with a very early departure from O.R. Tambo International Airport. On arrival at Hosea Kutako International Airport, we were met by a local representative and transferred to Rivendell Guesthouse where we would be overnighting. The guest house offers affordable accommodation and is well situated for clients travelling in and out of Windhoek. Most of the day I spent with the owner of ATI Holidays who was kind enough to take me around Windhoek and show me some of the new properties which have recently opened up in Windhoek, as well as some older properties which have been refurbished. The highlight of all the properties we visited was the new Olive Exclusive! Windhoek finally has a true 5 star boutique hotel, all the rooms are beautifully and individually decorated and some even boast their own private plunge pools. Continue reading
Travel from Namibia’s rocky interior through waves of sandy dunes to one of the wildest coasts on the Africa continent. Explore the animal riches of world famous Etosha National Park and marvel at the unique red desert scenery in Damaraland. Whether you’re exploring by Land Rover, airplane, hot air balloon or on foot, you’ll find Namibia’s extreme topography to be a feast for the senses.
No trip to Namibia would be complete without a visit to the Skeleton Coast. Named for the bleached whale and seal bones that once littered the shore, today skeletons still remain; the last remnants of more than a thousand vessels that ran ashore.
See the shape shifting sand dunes of the Sossusvlei as the perfect opportunity to try your feet at sand boarding. Try your hand at one of the many invigorating activities available around Swakopmund. Enjoy world-class birding in the nearby Walvis Bay.
Location: Southwest Africa, astride the Tropic of Capricorn and beside the South Atlantic Ocean. Its main borders are with South Africa, Botswana and Angola, though it also adjoins Zambia.
Climate: Subtropical desert climate
Population: 2,044,147 (2006 estimate)
Other main towns: Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Luderitz
Economy: Major earners, mining, including uranium diamonds and other minerals; agriculture; tourism
Currency: Namibian dollar (N$), equivalent to (and interchangeable with) South African Rand.
Language: English (official), Afrikaans, German, several ethnic languages (most in Bantu and Khoisan language groups)
Religion: Christianity; traditional beliefs
International telephone code: +264
Time: April to October GMT +1 and October to March GMT +2 (except Caprivi Strip: GMT +2 all year)
Electricity: 220 volts.
Flag: Diagonal red stripe bordered by narrow white stripes which separates two triangles: one green; one blue with a yellow sun motif.
Namibia’s most popular areas
Namibia’s capital spreads out in a wide valley between bush-covered hills and appears, at first sight, to be quite small. Driving from the international airport, you pass quickly through the suburbs and, reaching the crest of a hill, find yourself suddenly descending into the city centre.
As you stroll through this centre, the pavement cafes and picturesque old German architecture conspire to give an airy, European feel, whilst street-vendors remind you that this is Africa. The office blocks are tall, but not sky-scraping. Around you the pace is busy, but seldom as frantic as Western capitals seem to be.
Like many capitals, Windhoek is full of contrasts, especially between the richer and poorer areas, but it lacks any major attractions. For casual visitors the city is pleasant; many stop for a day or two, as they arrive or leave, though few stay much longer. It is worth noting that the city all but closes down on Saturday afternoons. So be aware of this is you plan to be in town over a weekend.
Despite being the administrative centre of the large Hardap Region, which stretches from the Atlantic coast to Botswana, Mariental still avoids being a centre of attention by having remarkably few attractions. It is central and has a sprinkling of efficient businesses, ranging from Desert Optics optometrists to the PP supermarket on the north side of town, serving the prosperous surroundings farmlands.
Standing on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, in an area which has long been a centre for the Nama people of Namibia, Mariental and its immediate surroundings were recovering from serious flooding. Despite that, this area receives virtually no rain in some years. As a result, Namibia’s successful commercial farmers have diversified in order to survive. The current trend towards managing native game rather than farm animals, and earning income directly from tourism, is just an example of this. Similarly, the shrinking trade in pelts of karakul sheep – once so important to southern Namibia – seems to be concentrating around the town, while an ostrich abattoir has established Mariental as an important centre for the country’s ostrich farming, which is expanding rapidly as markets open up around the world for the ostrich’s lean, low-fat meat.
Hardap Dam Recreational Resort
About 250km from Windhoek, and less than 25km from Mariental, lies the Hardap Dam, creating Namibia’s largest manmade lake. The dam’s upper reaches of the Fish River to provide water for Mariental and various irrigation projects. It is surrounded by a small reserve, complete with rest camp.
Pronounced ‘Keet-mans-verp’, which is often shortened in slang to just ‘Keetmans’, Keetmanshoop lies about 480km south of Windhoek at an altitude of 1,000m. The tar roads from Luderitz, South Africa and Windhoek meet here, making it the hub of southern Namibia’s road network, as well as the administrative centre of this region.
Originally there was a Nama settlement on the banks of the seasonal Swartmodder River here, also known as Swartmodder. Then, in 1866, the Rhenish Missionary Society sent Johan Schroder here from their establishment station at Berseba. He organised the building of a church and named it Keetmanshoop, after Johan Keetman, one of the rich benefactors who had paid for the building.
In 1890 that church was swept away by a freak flood, but a new one, was built on higher ground, was completed five years later. This was disused for years, but restored and declared a monument in 1978. Now it shelters the town’s museum, so at least visit this, even see you see nothing else here.
Fish River Canyon
At 161km long, up to 27km wide, and almost 550m at its deepest, the Fish River Canyon is probably second in size only to Arizona’s Grand Canyon – and is certainly one of Africa’s least visited wonders.
This means that you sit dangling your legs over the edge, drinking in the spectacle, you’re unlikely to have your visit spoiled by a coach-load of tourists, or to leave feeling that the place is at all commercialised. In fact, away from the busier seasons, you may not see anyone around here at all.
Luderitz and the Southwest
Thought the European colonisation of Namibia started in the south westerner corner, this remains perhaps the country’s least-known area for visitors. At the end of a long road, Luderitz is now being rediscovered, with its wonderful turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, desolate beaches, and position as the springboard for trips into the forbidden area, the Sperrgebeit.
Trapped between the desiccating sands of the Namib and the freezing waters of the South Atlantic’s Benguela current, Luderitz is a fascinating old German town, full of character. It is usually sleepy and laid back, with relaxed locals who often have time to talk. Around the centre of town, are painted in improbable pastel shades, which makes Luderitz feel like a delightful toy town in times.
The air is tangibly clean, even on the foggiest of mornings. Local Namibians say that Luderitz can have all four seasons in a day, as the weather can change in hours from bright , hot sunny, to strong winds, to dark, cold and foggy – and then back to sunshine again. This variation, together with a cold sea and the prevailing southwest wind, rule out Luderitz as a beach destination, though brave souls still take brief dips from the beach near the Nest Hotel or round the peninsula.
In the evening, there are few lively bars, and a handful of quiet restaurants, notable for their seafood. But the entertainment here pales in comparison with Swakopmund. Because of its location, Luderitz is not somewhere to ‘drop in on’ as you need to make a special journey to come here – but it is worth visiting for its architecture, its peninsula, and to see a part of Namibia which seems almost unaware of the outside world. Try to avoid Sundays, tough, when almost everything closes down, and the town is empty.
Tourism is having an impact here, but only gradually. Several new hotels have been opened in the last few years, and more guesthouses have opened their doors.
The Namib-Naukluft National Park
People have different reactions when they encounter a desert for the first time. A few find it threatening, to arid and empty, so they rush from city to city, through the desert to avoid spending any time there at all. Some try had to like it for those same reasons, but ultimately find a little which hold their attention. Finally there are those who stop and five the place their time, delighting in the stillness, strange beauty and sheer uniqueness of the environment. The desert’s changing patterns are subtly adapted life forms fascinate them, drawing them back time after time.
Namibrand Nature Reserve
Covering about 2100km², an area equivalent to about half the size of Belgium, the NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of the largest private reserves in Africa. Ling south of Sesriem, it borders onto the main Namib-Naukluft National Park in the west, a boundary of about 100km, and in the east its extent is generally defined by the Nubib Mountains.
There are a wide variety of different desert landscapes and environments within this, from huge red sand-dunes to vegetated inter-dune valleys, sand and gravel plains, and some particularly imposing mountains. It is a spectacular area of desert.
There are several ways to visit this, all utilising small lodges and camps as bases for expert-led guided trips. If you want a detailed look at the central Namib, with guides who understand it, this is an excellent complement to a day or two of driving yourself around Sesriem and Sossusvlei.
Sesriem Area and Sossusvlei
When people speak of visiting the Namib Desert, this is often where they mean. The classic desert scenery around Sesriem and Sossusvlei is the stuff that postcards are made of – enormous apricot dunes with gracefully curving ridges, invariably pictured in the sharp light of dawn with a photogenic gemsbok or feathery acacia adjacent.
Sesriem and Sossusvlei lie on the Tsauchab River, one of two large rivers which flow westward into the great dune-field of the central Namib, but never reach the ocean. Both end by forming flat white pans dotted with green trees, surrounded by spectacular dunes – islands of life within a sea of sand.
Swakopmund and Walvis Bay area
Flying low over Namibia’s coastline is probably the best way to get a sense of perspective about it. You see how it divides the South Atlantic Ocean from the baking desert. Both seem harsh and unforgiving.
Clinging to the boundary, often under a blanket of morning fog, are Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Politically, Walvis Bay has always been vital. It has the only deep-water harbour between Luderitz and Angola. Historically, Swakopmund is probably more interesting, with old German architecture to rival that in Luderitz.
Most visitors stay in Swakopmund, which tends to be the livelier of the two, though birdwatchers may prefer Walvis Bay. Both have a good choice of small hotels and restaurants, making them obvious stops when driving between Namib-Naukluft Park and the Skeleton Coast or Damaraland.
The Skeleton Coast
By the end of the 17th century, the long stretch north of Swakopmund had attracted the attention of the Dutch East India Company. They sent several exploratory missions, but after finding only barren shores impenetrable fogs, their journeys ceased. Later, in the 19th century, British and American whalers operated out of Luderitz, but gave this northern coast a wide berth – it was gaining a formidable reputation.
Today, driving north from Swakopmund, it is east to see how this coast earned its name of the Coast of Skulls or the Skeleton Coast. Treacherous fogs and strong currents forced many ships onto the uncharted sandbanks that shift underwater like desert’s sands. Even if the sailors survived the shipwreck, their problems had only just begun. The coast here is but a barren line between an icy, pounding ocean and the stark desert interior. The present road runs more or less parallel to the ocean and often feels like a drive along an enormous beach –with the sea on one side, and the sand continuing forever on the other.
For the first 250km or so, from Swakopmund to about Torra Bay, there are almost no dunes. This is a desert of gravel and rock. Then, around Torra Bay, the northern dune-sea of the Namib starts, with an increasingly wide belt of coastal dunes stretching north to the Kunene River. But nowhere are these as tall, or continuous, as the Namib’s great southern dune-sea, south of the Kuiseb River.
At first sight it all seems very barren, but watch the amazing wildlife documentaries made by the famous film-makers of the Skeleton Coast, Des and Jen Barlett, to realise that some of the most remarkable wildlife on earth has evolved here, Better still, drive yourself up the coast road, through this fascinating stretch of the world’s oldest desert. You will not see a fraction of the action that they have filmed, but with careful observation you will spot plenty to captivate you.
The Koakoveld is one of Africa’s last Wildernesses. Namibia’s least inhabited area; it stretches from the coastal desert plain and rises slowly into a wild and rugged landscape. Here slow-growing trees cling to rocky mountains, while wild grass seeds wait dormant on the dust plains for showers of rain.
Because of the low population in the northern parts of Kaokoveld, and the spectacularly successful Community Game Guard scheme, there are thriving populations of game here, living beyond the boundaries of any national park. This is one of the last refuges for the black rhino, which still survive here by ranging wide, and knowing where the seasonal plants grown.
It is also home to the famous desert elephants. Some naturalists have cited their apparently long legs, and proven ability to withstand drought, as evidence that they are actually a sub-species of African elephant. Though this is not now thought to be the case, these remarkable animals are certainly adept with at surviving in the driest of areas, using their amazing knowledge of the few water sources that do exist.
Translated as the ‘Place of Mirages’, ‘Land of Dry Water’ or the ‘Great White Place’, Etosha is an apparently endless pan of silvery-white sand, upon which dust-devils play and mirages blur the horizon. As a game park, it excels during the dry season when huge herds of animals can be seen amidst some of the most startling and photogenic scenery in Africa.
The roads are all navigable in a normal 2WD car, and the park was designed for visitors to drive themselves around. If you insist on guided trips then look to one of the private lodges just outside the park or, better, to the concession areas in the Damaraland. Etosha is a park to explore by yourself. Put a few drinks, a camera and a pair of binoculars in your own car and go for a slow drive, stopping at the waterholes – it is amazing.
There are three rest camps within the park, and several lodges outside its boundaries, and yet the park is never busy in comparison with equally good reserves elsewhere in Africa.
While Etosha is the main attraction in the north of Namibia, the region south of it has much interest. Large farms dominate these hilly, well watered highlands, and many have forsaken cattle in favour of game, to become guest farms that welcome tourists. Okonjima Guest Farm has been one of the first of these, and is a major draw for visitors. Many of the others are less famous, but they still offer visitors insights into a farmer’s view of the land, and opportunities to relax. On the eastern side of this area, the Waterberg Plateau is superb, though more for its hiking trails and scenery, and feeling of wilderness, than for its game-viewing.
Rundu and the Caprivi Strip
The north of Namibia is generally very lush, watered by a generous annual rainfall. East of Owamboland – which means northeast of Grootfontein – lie the regions of Kavango and Caprivi.
These support a large population, and a surprising amount of wildlife. The wildlife has visibly increased in the national parks here in the last few years, helped enormously by various successful community-based game-guard and conservation/development programmes.
Unlike much of the rest of Namibia, the Kavango and Caprivi regions feel like most Westerners’ image of Africa. You will see lots of circular huts, small kraals, animals, and people carrying water on their heads, these areas are probably what you imagined Africa to be like before you first arrived. By the roadside you will find stalls selling vegetables, fruit or wood carvings, and in the parks you will find buffalo hiding in the thick vegetation. This area is much more like Botswana, Zimbabwe or Zambia that it is like the rest of Namibia. This is only what you would expect if you look at a map of the subcontinent, or read the history of the area; it really is very different from the rest of the country.