Desert & dunes
The 80-million-year-old Namib Desert, with its endless, seemingly lifeless sand dunes and barren coastline, stretches for more than 2,000km along the Atlantic coast from Angola to South Africa. The largest of the Namib’s dunes – some measuring 3oom tall and considered the highest on earth – are in the Namib-Naukluft National Park at Sossusvlei. Climbing to the top of these towering pyramids of bright peach-coloured sand is well worth every bead of sweat for the silent and awe-inspiring views, best at sunrise and sunset when the colours are constantly changing.
Alternatively admire them from a dawn balloon trip when you can float above as the sun’s first rays paint the razor-sharp dune crests in a warm red light. Another aerial option is a scenic flight from Swakopmund – from the air you can clearly make out the patterns of dry riverbeds, rock formations, gravel plains and giant dunes marching determinedly towards the sea.
Four-wheel drive tours of the dune-belt outside Swakopmund with Living Desert Adventures demonstrate how the desert is far from being a desolate, lifeless place. Tiny tracks in the sand give the game away: this place is in fact full of scurrying, clinging life adapted to the heat and aridity. Guides point out little creatures such as translucent lizards, dancing spiders and desert chameleons, which incredibly survive by absorbing droplets of water from the fog that rolls off the Atlantic each morning.
The dune sea along the southern coast is known as the Sperrgebiet (`Forbidden Zone’) because of its historical association with diamond mining and is an empty and restricted region. However, you can visit Kolmanskop which is perched on an exposed dune outside Luderitz. Prospectors flooded here in the early 1900s when diamonds were so common they could be plucked from the sand by moonlight, but it was abandoned in the 195os and is now a ghost town. A visit takes in the museum and a scramble over the dunes to explore the once-palatial German buildings, now occupied by seeping sand, pushed through doorways and windows by the wind.
Did you know?
Swakopmund’s 300m iron jetty dates to 1912. The first German women settlers aged 18-20 (considered past their prime at home) were shipped out to the new colony as nurses. The young male settlers would line the jetty waiting for the boat and whisk away the women immediately, some marrying within a few days. Swakopmund residents tell how their ancestors were married to complete strangers. Today the jetty is a meeting place for romantic dates; there’s an oyster bar at the end.
Despite its aridity, prolific waterholes enable game-viewing in Etosha National Park to be on a par with Botswana’s Chobe or Zimbabwe’s Hwange. Etosha means ‘great white place’ in the Herero language, and the park is dominated by the Etosha Pan. Seeing animals pace across this surreal expanse of white, cracked, dry mud that shimmers with mirages and spiralling dust-devils is what makes Etosha so special. The rest-camps of Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni have floodlit waterholes for exciting night viewing, while Onkoshi and Dolomite camps offer more luxurious sleeps inside the park .
Cape Cross on the Skeleton Coast marks the spot where Portuguese mariner Diogo Cao first set foot in 1486, and today is the location of a colony of Cape fur seals. Why they choose to sit on the same rock is unknown, but they do. As many as 200,000 gather here in breeding season, turning it into an extraordinary carpet of bleating black, with countless more heads bobbing offshore. The colony attracts predators such as black-backed jackal and brown hyena, which pace along the beach.
Since the 197os the Zoom-high, flat-topped Waterberg Plateau National Park has been a secure sanctuary for endangered species, including white rhino and the rare roan and sable antelope. The patchwork of wooded areas, grasslands and ravines on the top is good hiking territory, and walks ranging from one hour to four days can be organised from Waterberg Camp (Namibia Wildlife Reserves; www.nwr.com.na).
The pan-handle shaped Caprivi Strip is a land of fertile, flat floodplains surrounded by perennial rivers, a far cry from the arid lands of the Namib. The main attractions are the 450 species of birds; 50 or more can be seen in just an hour or two, with the rare Pel’s fishing owl topping most Caprivi bird wishlists. Mammals here include crocodile, hippo and wetland antelope; elephant migrate across the rivers from Botswana. Wildlife may be spotted in the small Caprivi reserves of Mahango, Mudumu, Mamili and Bwabwata, or from Caprivi’s lodges.
The real beauty of Namibia, however, is that you might see wildlife anywhere – you don’t have to be within the national parks. While driving along wilderness roads, look out for gamboling springbok, stately oryx, trees heavy with weaverbird nests and many other creatures.