If one mentions Namibia, most people immediately envision red sand dunes, perhaps with an oryx on top. That image is not incorrect, it is simply the most photographed (and perhaps visited) part of Namibia; Sossusvlei. However, the country has much more to offer.
In terms of landscapes, the east side of Namib Naukluft park, away from the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei closer to the coast, is simply phenomenal: huge red-brown mountain in a sea of golden-yellow grass, under big skies. Especially at dusk or dawn the scenery can look quite unworldly and jaw-droopingly beautiful.
But there’s not just that region where scenery-enthusiasts can fill their memory cards with stunning images. There’s also the famous Skeleton Coast with it’s shipwrecks, Kaokaveld with it’s ultimate remote desert scenery, and Damaraland with it’s dramatic rocky landscapes. Last but not least, there’s Fish River Canyon, second biggest canyon in the world.
In terms of wildlife, Etosha National Park is certainly the place to be. In all but the wettest months, vast numbers of animals flock towards permanent waterholes, obviously with predators in tow. But for animal lovers there’s more than just Etosha. At the coast there’s huge seal colonies, with brown hyena and jackal preying on them. There’s also the Waterberg plateau with lodges that offer pleasant game drives and hiking trails, taking you close to white rhino. Not too far from there you can visit two of Namibia’s leading cheetah conservation projects. The Caprivi strip offers nice game viewing as well; the marshlands between Zambezi and Chobe rivers, as well as the area along the Chobe river can be absolutely prodigious.
Namibia is also the home of the Himba tribe, arguably Africa’s most photogenic tribe. But to see them you need to travel high up north, preferably even all the way up to the Kunene river, which is the border with Angola.
Planning your safari in Namibia
But how does one get to all these places and attractions? Namibia is a rather large country, and all aforementioned regions are far apart. The easiest way is to get around by light aircraft. Fly-in guests can get to some wonderful and blissfully remote lodges. But for those who do not have a high-end budget; self-drives is the way to go. The trick is to limit your inter-attraction distances. After all, you want to fully enjoy what Namibia has to offer, and not rush from one place to the next. The attractions you can visit therefor greatly depend on the time you can spend in the country.
A "short" safari
A typical two-three week itinerary may include some or all of the following destinations;
The Kalahari desert
Windhoek will typically be your starting point, as that’s the hub for most international airline routes. Only a few hours south from there is the Kalahari desert; long red dunes alternate with grassy valleys.
It’s a nice first place to stop for a night or two, and it does have a fair number of relatively affordable lodges offering activities such as game drives and hikes. Oryx, giraffe, kudu, zebra, blue wildebeest and eland are all fairly easy to find.
And of course there’s meerkats!
A few hours west from the Kalahari is the famous Sossusvlei. Most vistors stay for two nights / one full day. Most if not all lodges offer day trips to Sussusvlei, and that’s the activity most visitors fill their one day with.
All day trips to Sossusvlei follow a fairly typical scenario, which includes climbing a dune before sunrise, visiting Deadvlei, descending into the river gorge at Sesriem, etc.
If you like to hike, we advise staying one night/day longer, and visit Namib Naukluft Park. There’s an adventurous 16km hiking trail in the mountains that follows - for a large part - a flowing river. The scenery is stunning, and it’s a wildlife haven; you’ll see lots of birds, but also baboons, klipspringer, etc. At regular intervals there’s fresh water pools with very clear water and it’s safe to swim. Not many people visit this place, so you get this “Garden Of Eden” feel.
From Sossusvlei to the coast is not the shortest drive, but it is quite an interesting one, through the Kuiseb pass and then into the desert. The temperature soars but then inexplicably drops, until you realise it’s because you’re getting near to the coast.
Walvis Bay is rather utilitarian and of little interest to tourists, so most visitors drive on to Swakopmund which has lots of accommodation options and some great seafood restaurants.
However, most people do return to Walvis Bay as it is the base of one of the most epic day trips the country has to offer; a 4x4 safari to the lagoon, where you’ll find lots of birdlife and a seal colony, followed by a picknick with fresh seafood on the beach. In the afternoon you return back to Walvis Bay via an adventurous 4x4 track in the dunes. A combination of sailing and a 4x4 trip is also possible.
The Skeleton Coast
After a second night in Walvis Bay it’s time to head further north. The point is to make your way to Etosha, but how you get there depends on the amount of days you want to spend in the country.
If you’re not in a hurry, we advise making a day trip to the Skeleton Coast. It’s a very remote and quite desolate stretch of coastline, but beautiful in it’s own way.
You will not find a lot of wildlife, but by contrast the cold water is full of life. Offshore, there are vast shoals of fish, and these attract quite a large number of seals.
Twyfelfontein & Damaraland
At one point you will need to turn back inland, and leave the Skeleton Coast.
You can do this early on and dried to Twyfelfontein, keeping the impressive Brandberg mountain on your left. But then you’ll hardly have seen any of the Skeleton Coast so we’d advise to at least drive up to Cape Cross and then come back down, before driving inland).
Or you can drive east on the C39 towards Damaraland.
Both Twyfelfontain area as well as Damaraland have a good selection of lodges offering game drives and bush walks.
At Twyfelfontein it’s fairly easy to get to desert-adapted elephants. There’s oryx, springboks, ostriches, giraffes, jackals, brown hyenas and lions as well.
At Damaraland some lodges offer rhino-trekking. To see a black rhino on foot is quite unique. On the Grootberg plateau you’ll also find zebra, kudu, oryx and springboks.
A few hours further northeast from Damaraland you’ll find Etosha National Park. It’s the richest wildlife area in Namibia.
At more than 22.000 square kilometers, it’s an enormous park, but a large section of that is a vast open salt pan.
Most animals are found to the south of this pan, but there’s a fair amount in the west section as well.
Animal viewing is incredibly easy, as all game come to drink at the permanent waterholes.
The problem with Etosha is that it has traffic issues due to a lack of roads; the most used entry gates are in the south and east, and at some points all traffic between these two gates has to pass the same roads and/or waterholes.
We therefor advise to stay at one of the private reserves bordering the park; Ongava, Onguma, Mushara… there’s lots of great places to choose from.
They are more expensive, as they include two safari activities per day, but you could still combine a regular lodge (from which you do self drives in the park) with a concession-based lodge, if you want to keep it more affordable.
From Etosha, it’s about a four hour drive to Windhoek. But if you’ve got a few more days to spare, an excellent place to spend a few nights is the Waterberg Plateau.
Lodges offer nice game drives and very good bush walks. Rhino sightings are pretty much a guarantee.
You can also visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund or Africat; two conservation projects well worth your support.
A longer trip
A three-four week itinerary can (compared to a shorter safari) additionally include these more remote destinations;
Windhoek is the location of the main international airport, so most visitors pass through here at least once in their trip.
Most people opt to immediately travel on to their first "real" safari destination on their itinerary and to not stay in Windhoek overnight.
But to be honest, if you have the time then Windhoek has quite a nice selection of hotels and lodges, so if you feel that you'd rather recharge your batteries and first recuperate from long international flights before starting your safari, then Windhoek is a rather relaxed and pleasant place to break a journey.
Fish River Canyon
If you’ve got enough time, then Fish River Canyon should certainly be on your safari itinerary. It’s a long drive all the way south from Windhoek, but it’s very doable if plan a short stay in the Kalahari region close to Mariental first.
This very impressive canyon is the second largest river erosion feature on the planet after the Grand Canyon. The views are epic, but lodges also provide some good opportunities for desert safaris and hiking.
If you decided to go to Fish River Canyon, then Luderitz area is a logical stop on your way back north, to Sossusvlei.
Luderitz is an old diamond mining town, and has been neglected for a long time (the diamond rush did not last long). In recent years, tourists started showing interest in the town, and these days, due to some very good lodges offering great service at a decent price, the town is starting to look much better. The waterfront is now rather pleasant, and there’s companies offering boat trips in search of whales, dolphins an seals.
Top attraction is the famous ghost town of Kolmanskop, a town which is now slowly being reclaimed by the desert.
Looking to stay longer in Sossusvlei area? Namibrand is an excellent choice! This is a private reserve, about 2500 square kilometers in size. The scenery here is other-worldly, with a bizarre palette of colours.
It only has four high quality lodges, offering safari activities in an unspoilt and very exclusive and blissfully peaceful desert area.
You’ll see ostriches, jackals, zebras, springboks, oryx, and maybe even a cheetah.
They also offer hot air balloon rides.
On your way from the coastal towns to Damaraland & Etosha, you could pay a visit to Brandberg. This is Namibia's highest mountain. The name of the 30 km long and 23 km wide Brandberg derives from the glowing colours that the setting sun paints onto the mountain range as if the mountain was on fire.
The Brandberg is famous for its numerous rock paintings, apparently 50.000 of them can be found all over the mountain. Some of these 2000 to 4000 year old paintings are difficult to access.
The area offers great hiking possibilities (make sure you bring plenty of water and do not attempt longer hikes in the hottest months), but lodges nearby also offer scenic sunset drives and desert elephant tracking.
If time allows, then you can travel further north from Etosha, all the way up to the Kunene River, which is the border with Angola.
You’ll find some great accommodation options here. It’s a great place for walking and hiking, and for quad bike rides in the dunes.
But most importantly; it’s the best spot to visit a Himba tribe. They are remarkably famous for covering themselves with a paste that is a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment. They do this to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water scarcity, and to protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland, as well as to protect themselves against mosquito bites.
If you decided to explore the Caprivi area as well, then Tsumkwe provides the perfect stopover.
It is by far the best spot to meet and interact with local Bushman tribespeople and learn something of their ancient way of life.
This remarkable tribe continue to follow their traditional tribal ways in remote villages amongst the great sand forests.
Your best option here is Nhoma Camp, renowned for providing authentic interaction with Bushman tribespeople.
If you’ve put the Caprivi strip on your safari itinerary then Mudumu & Mamile are your best options.
These two small reserves are well watered, with verdant forests and grasslands, unlike the deserts of western Namibia.
There is a very broad range of wildlife here, including lions, leopards and cheetahs.
The lodges here are able to offer Botswana style safari at a fraction of the price!
Our favourite lodges in Namibia
Onguma - The Fort
Accommodation; Brick & wood rooms cottages with private viewing deck.
Location; On it's own concession, east of Etosha National Park, overlooking the Etosha pans.
Meals; Buffet style breakfast, plated dinners.
Lodge facilities; Restaurant, pool, bar.
Activities; Private hide, Etosha game drives, Onguma morning game drives, bush walks.
Price Range; 300-350$ pppn.
&Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge
Accommodation; ten stone and glass desert villas with endless vistas, framed in the background by the ever-changing colours of the Namib dunes.
Room type; Twin or double bed setup. Aircon. Wifi. Private plunge pool. Bedroom with retractable skylights for in-bed star-gazing. Fireplace. Two rooms can be linked for a family or friends traveling together.