Namibia is the land of shifting sand dunes and moving deserts; of colossal red rocks and mountains that go from the savannah to the sky. It’s a land of frothy and unforgiving Atlantic swells, doffing their cap to the storms of the Cape of Good Hope, or spraying salty sea over the seal-peppered bays of the Skeleton Coast. Unsurprisingly, it’s the landscapes and the backcountry that have helped to catapult this great slab of West Africa to the forefront of adventure tourism on the continent.
Since the fall of apartheid (which came to these parts on account of South African hegemony in the 80s), the country has been a rare picture of political stability – despite, that is, perhaps just a few nostalgic national socialists who pine for the ‘golden days’ of German rule. Come to Namibia with the sand board waxed, the walking boots primed and the prejudices well and truly abandoned, because you’re sure to leave awed by its wondrous, if little-championed, beauty!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Namibia:
1. Etosha National Park
If you can only stop by one of Namibia’s national parks, make it this one.
Yes sir, Etosha has been famed for its wealth of rare animal life for more than 100 years – it was first proclaimed a game reserve way back in 1907! Today, the region, which encompasses dry and cracked salt pans and the labyrinthine valleys of the Leopard Hills (stalked by their eponymous beast, of course), is the safari kingpin of the country.
Come and spy out the African bush elephants and plains zebras at the watering holes, get a glimpse of the uber-rare black rhino, or witness the springing springbok.
Set deep in the territories of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where the scorching African sun beats down and sidewinder snakes drift over the undulations of sand, the salt pan known as Sossusvlei is the Namibia of travel brochures.
Beset by huge, hulking dunes – some of the highest in the world, in fact – it’s a place that rarely fails to take the breath away.
These great sculpted sections of desert shift in the winds, and some parts – like the colossal mound of Dune 7 – clock up whopping heights of more than 350 meters above sea level.
4X4 tours are the most popular way to see the sights, and visitors can expect to spy out the likes of antelope and oryx, springbok and ostrich as they delve into the wilds.
There are few places in all of Africa like the carved lands of Kaokoland.
Bisected by winding river ways that meander like desert snakes through the rock-ribbed mountains and the great Grand Canyon-mimicking escarpments of the north, the region is remote and untouched.
Today though, it’s slowly becoming more open to tourists, who flock in after safaris in nearby Etosha.
They mainly come to encounter the perennially-smiling Himba folk, who’ve scraped a living from the wilderness here as nomads for centuries.
Kaokoland is also the home to the fascinating mountain elephant; specially adapted for life with little water.
Between the Saxon half-timbered facades that line the exterior of the Altes Gefängnis jail, the ochre-hued Woermannhaus and the other clutch of indelibly European architecture that peppers the downtown of this beachside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, it’s easy to see and feel the German influence.
And it doesn’t end there, because beer halls and hops-scented pubs all spill onto the wide sands of the Swakopmund beach (one fringed with a lovely, lively promenade), and there are even dubious Nazi trinkets and lederhosen aike still available in the craft markets. Weird.
5. Skeleton Coast Park
There are few landscapes that define the wilds of Namibia as well as the Skeleton Coast Park.
This great stretch of endless sand dunes and crashing Atlantic waves runs for no less than 500 kilometers from top to bottom.
It’s delineated by the spot where the arid deserts of the inland meet the ocean, and famed as one of the most dangerous sections of shoreline in the world.
There are countless rusting carcasses of old tankers and skiffs, fishing boats and convoy ships to testify to this.
Tales of perished sailors still abound too, making this very much the domain of the wandering Namid elephant and the stalking hyena – not humans.
Windhoek is an interesting little place that is something of a capsule of Namibia as a whole.
Sat virtually smack bang in the heart of the country, the city started life as a small pastoral settlement, known for its babbling freshwater spring.
Today, that water table keeps the interior of the town – from palm-dotted Zoo Park to manicured Parliament Garden – nice and green.
There are Bavarian-style towers belying the old German influence too, along with a series of typically Swabian beer bars that make for a surprisingly good nightlife.
Then there’s the rougher side, where the trials of Namibian life come into focus: Katutura, the endless barrio; Okuryangava and its tin-shack homes.
Twyfelfontein isn’t known for its fascinating wealth of wildlife, or for any buzzing metropolitan character – in fact, it isn’t really even a town at all.
Instead, this spot in the midst the dusty Kunene Region in the very heart of northern Namibia is famed as the home of some of Africa’s most prolific displays of ancient rock art.
Tagged – unsurprisingly – by UNESCO back in 2007, it’s thought that the spot has be inhabited for as many as six millennia.
It’s spread over a series of more than 16 individual sites, each exhibiting their own curious anthropomorphic petroglyphs.
What’s more, the area itself rarely fails to take the breath away; what with its patchwork of soaring table mountains and rolling savannah plains.
8. Namib-Naukluft National Park
Already mentioned on this list as the area containing the iconic dunes and salt flats of Sossusvlei, the seemingly endless sea of sand that is the Namib-Naukluft National Park is certainly worth a second mention on account of the wealth of other bucket-list-busting must-sees that exist between its boundaries.
Take Deadvlei; a cracked and withered landscape of sun-scorched acacia trees (some thought to be as much as 700 years old!) and mud flats.
And then, closer to the beaches and the town of Swakopmund, the landscapes become truly otherworldly, as the parched plains rise to ridgebacks that resemble the maned spine of a stalking hyena!
The Spitzkoppe is one of the most captivating sights of the Damaraland and of Namibia’s backcountry as a whole.
When it was encountered for the first time by German troops back in the early 1900s, comparisons were immediately drawn with the chiseled summits of Switzerland’s Matterhorn.
It’s clear to see why, with that twisted and contorted mass of granite stone soaring more than 1,700 meters above the rolling desert plains.
Ancient rock paintings also crowd around the base of the mountain, there’s a great campsite here, and oodles of carved rock formations – arches, caves, bridges – to wonder at.
Caprivi, or more appropriately the Caprivi Strip, is a long, thin needle of land that pokes its way into the heart of west southern Africa from the northern reaches of Namibia.
Almost half the length of Namibia proper, it’s home to habitats and climactic zones simply not found elsewhere in the country, and plays an important role as a connecting bridge for rare wildlife migrating inland and towards the coast; creatures like the Namibian elephant and the African wild dog.
After a civil war in the 1990s, the area is now returning to focus on its unique flora and fauna, which includes zebras in the Mahango Game Reserve, blue wildebeest in Bwabwata, and verdant savannah in Salambala Conservancy.
The famed ghost town of Namibia is an eerie and haunting place.
Since the whole place was abandoned in the middle of the 20th century, the homes have slowly crumbled and the various municipal buildings have dilapidated.
It was not always the case: Kolmanskop was once one of the richest towns in the country; famed for its diamond boom – they say the sparkling jewels were just lying on the ground here in the 1900s! At its height, the spot had its very own school, fire station and ice factory.
Today though, its empty shell is visited by hundreds of tourists a year, who come to see the abandoned way of life and snap photos of the spooky emptiness.
12. Walvis Bay
Thanks to its tactical position on the Atlantic coast, with access to one of the finest deep water harbors this side of the Cape of Good Hope, Walvis Bay has been a plaything for the historic superpowers in the African theater of war.
The Portuguese passed this way, then the Brits, then came the Germans in the First World War, each raising evermore elaborate dock structures and depots.
Now, with the colonial conflicts long in the past, the city is one of the top tourist draws in all of Namibia.
It’s got kitesurfing along its beaches, oodles of fishing opportunities, tour organizers touting excursions to the bird-rich islands out at sea, and sand boarding on the dunes of the Namib Desert.
13. Penguin Islands
Following neatly on from Walvis Bay, this smattering of rocks and tiny islets that poke above the Atlantic close to the spot of coast where the erstwhile German harbor town can be found is another top draw for travelers in the region.
As the name suggests, they are occasionally dotted with colonies of the country’s trademark Jackass Penguin (an unfortunate name, we know!). However, those flat-footed waddlers aren’t the only draw.
There are breathtaking headlands and cliffs to see, along with a whole host of other unusual avian and sea life.
14. Fish River Canyon
The Fish River Canyon winds and weaves between the great mountains of southern Africa in truly majestic fashion.
Red-hued rocks tower atop the valley bottom, pits of deep sand and colossal boulders spot the landscape, and the sunsets glow blood-red against the rugged ranges known as the Three Sisters.
For intrepid travelers, the hiking path that runs the length of this great wonder can hardly be resisted.
It crosses high passes and arduous tracts of dusty lands, covering a mega 88 kilometers from start to finish.
The gateway to the National West Coast Recreation Area is one of Namibia’s most popular high-season tourist draws for domestic travelers.
Oodles of folk leave behind the city streets of Windhoek and head to the wind-blasted shoreline here.
They come to ride rumbling 4X4s over the undulating desert dunes, to break out into the inhospitable wildernesses of the Skeleton Coast, and to see the thousands of seals that pepper the beach banks to the north of town.
The town is also known for its diversity of marine life, which draws anglers and boaters to boot.