The 10 Best Places to Visit in Namibia
Driving along the lonely B8 through the Bwabwata National Park, travelling companion snoring and drooling against the window, I passed a man on a bike loaded with a fearsome pile of firewood. I waved. He waved back and wobbled. We laughed and thus concluded the highlight of an otherwise uneventful hour-long drive from Victoria Falls.
Then in the distance - and in Namibia you can see far into the distance; almost into the future some would say - I saw a shadowy figure skulking on the edge of the road.
I peered ahead, trying to see what ten minutes into the future held for me. The shape turned into a dog and I sat back deflated. Just a dog, for the Bwabwata National Park is a pioneering community-driven conservation area where people and wildlife live in harmony: a true Eden.
My future foretold, I nonetheless slowed upon nearing the site of the skulking creature only to find myself eyeball to eyeball with a cheetah, its unmistakable tail and primed poise silhouetted against the dark grey tarmac. I slowed to a stop, travelling companion gurgling and glooping to life, and sat mesmerised by the hypnotic yellow eyes; eyes that spoke volumes about wild, primal power and did I detect a hint of arrogance?
"Oh, yeah," the creature said to me, the message laser-etched onto my retina with its steely glare, "I'm the fastest creature on Earth: 0-60mph in three seconds, three strides. Top speed: 75mph. What can you do?"
And with that he whipped around and trotted off into the bushes with a lithe, commanding movement easily the most graceful I've ever seen as its long tail gave me the bird.
"What? What?" the passenger speaks.
"Cheetah! Cheetah!" I said.
"You missed it."
"Mmf. How far is Rundu? I need to pee."
And so our road trip continued. You see, we live in Namibia and this sort of thing happens all the time. Lucky for those who experience it but for those who miss it there'll be many more such distractions along the way.
Namibia has some beautiful, unique and extraordinary scenery. Attractions abound and activities are limitless. But it's the whole journey that is the most extraordinary attraction of them all. Just driving through the country will be an experience quite unlike any you've had before. While parts of Namibia resemble other places - like the Kruger Park and Okavango Delta - no other place on Earth comes close to resembling Namibia.
To give you a short-list of attractions, an overview of Namibia's best places to see - a Namibia bucket list - is to chop up the whole extraordinary experience into chunks of mundane practicality. An unwelcome task made all the more unwelcome for having to exclude arguably some of Namibia's finest attractions in favour of the headline-grabbing, limelight-stealing top 10 highlights of Namibia.
Here they are then, in order of popularity, the 10 best places to visit in Namibia:
Sossusvlei is the endless sea of rust-red dunes, the bleached white pan and its gnarled ancient trees. Sossusvlei is the oryx flashing its flowing tail and giving you front and side views of its extraordinary features in front of a bright red dune that soars into the deep blue sky above.
A visit to Namibia is incomplete without making the long trek into Sossusvlei, climbing Big Daddy and sitting atop the world's tallest dune looking out over a sea of equally big dunes disappearing into the western horizon.
And from the air, in a hot-air balloon at sunrise, the landscape just beggars belief.
Let's face it: most visitors to Namibia are Africa first-timers and they want to see animals. Big ferocious animals that they've only ever seen on telly or in pictures. And for that, we have Etosha National Park, one of Africa's greatest game reserves and an assured safari experience second to none.
With the full quota of wildlife including elephant, lion, leopard, black and white rhino, cheetah, caracal, brown and spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra and many antelope, the mammal count is impressive - 114 to be precise. Birdlife is equally impressive with 340 species on record including a high proportion of raptors.
The unique natural waterholes that surround an ancient pan attract a daily parade of wildlife and staying in the park gives you a floodlit spectacle to boot. Stay in the private parks on the edge, take a guided safari through the park or just sit at a waterhole with a thermos and your binos - whichever way you want to experience it, Etosha is the genuine African safari experience.
Half way between Namibia's top two attractions, Swakopmund is the natural base from which to explore the Skeleton Coast - a fog-shrouded desert wilderness of ferocious seas, apparently lifeless interior and its own fare share of visual oddities.
Dunes meet sea at the Skeleton Coast and there is a lot to see and do here that makes Swakopmund an ideal break to the vast distance between Sossusvlei and Etosha.
Desert tours, sea kayaking and scenic flights are complimented by a host of adventure activities including quad biking, paragliding, sandboarding and skydiving. Get close to nature and closer to your loved ones in a single day. There's nothing like an adrenalin rush to sort life's priorities from life's trivialities.
Without doubt a destination in its own right but, being so achingly close to Etosha en route from the Skeleton Coast, the beauty and solitude that is Damaraland is so often missed.
Home of desert-adapted elephant, rhino and lions as well as oryx, springbok and hundreds of bird species, Damaraland is at once beautiful, unique and fascinating with rocky mountains, grass-covered plains and every conceivable range of brown from dark russet to bleached blonde. Except the sky which is invariably a deep vivid blue.
Ok, ok, we know Vic Falls is not technically in Namibia but it's only a hop, skip and jump away from the tip of Caprivi (via Botswana's Chobe game reserve no less) making this Natural Wonder of the World a very popular add-on for our private, tailor-made tours.
What can you say about Victoria Falls to someone who hasn't seen it? Some would say, "Meh, it's just a waterfall," and yet even they will came away awestruck and somehow brought down to size by the sheer power of nature.
Victoria Falls is a cliff one mile wide and 100m straight down. Over this precipice the Zambezi plunges at the mind-boggling rate of 90 million litres a minute. The noise is terrifying, the vertigo feeling alarming and the view - from a rain forest across the gorge at eye-level with the cascade - is mesmerising. The spray in high water season will soak you to your underwear.
And then of course there are the adventure activities. The so-called Flight of Angels is an absolute must as is a gentle sunset cruise on the placid river upstream of the falls. After that you're on your own. Try white-water rafting or a game viewing safari in either the Zambezi National Park on the Zimbabwean side or the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambian side.
On that note, we've answered two vital Victoria Falls questions in separate posts:
- When is the best time to visit Victoria Falls?
- Which side of Victoria Falls is better: Zambia or Zimbabwe?
Up to this point you've seen the great sand sea of Sossusvlei, experienced the extraordinary desolation of the Skeleton Coast, seen some pretty amazing scenery and unique wildlife in Damaraland, had a big 5 safari in Etosha and witnessed the world's largest waterfall in all its thundering glory. What else could you possibly want?
Sossusvlei is a dot inside one of the world's largest conservation areas. Covering 50,000sq km, the Namib-Naukluft park begins on the plateau of central Namibia and drops to the vast basin of the Namib Desert - the 20-million year-old remains of an ancient sea.
Wide open spaces framed by purply-blue mountains and impossible sunsets make the Namib-Naukluft a place of singular beauty and peace. The only sound you'll hear is the gentle breeze and time seems to stand still as though the clock stopped circa Paleocene times (indeed there are preserved dinosaur footprints dotted around the country).
If you've seen Sossusvlei or can afford a few extra days, the Namib-Naukluft Park has some sensational eco-lodges - like Wolwedans, Desert Homestead and Moon Mountain Lodge - that offer a magical desert experience. Horse riding, quad bike trails, scenic drives and overnight hikes and hot air ballooning all offer a unique take on the world's oldest and most beautiful desert. We're not biased. Not at all.
The Caprivi region is like Botswana Lite: it's on the same floodplain, the same rivers flow through it and the same animals drift in and out of the two countries on their seasonal migration paths.
Often Botswana knocks our clients' budget into touch and we have to haul back on our recommendations. Enter the Caprivi and its off-the-beaten-track wilderness. On massive perennial rivers and dense floodplains, the safari lodges in the Caprivi offer an experience of the African bush you've probably pictured in your mind since watching The Lion King.
And you won't be disappointed. The scenery, wildlife, birdlife, tranquility and luxury of the safari lodges are every bit as amazing as the more expensive destinations further south.
Red sand dunes, swaying bleached-blonde grass and endless blue skies: the Kalahari is for escapists.
Home of the San Hunter-Gatherers, the Kalahari is not without its share of wildlife including lions, oryx and those adorable meerkats bopping their heads and chirruping at each other all day, the Kalahari is a place of beauty, contemplation and giant venison steaks.
Whichever way you measure it, the Fish River Canyon is enormous. Poised on the edge your view is of a vast flat land incised by rivers flowing for millennia.
Above ground, quiver trees and odd cacti dot the stony plains and the whole experience is somewhat eerie in its isolation, like you wouldn't be surprised to stumble on a location shoot for the sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre - only there's nobody around to massacre. And we mean nobody. The place is a vast and empty land blissfully untroubled by humans.
Last and only last because of its remote location, difficult access and the impossibly stiff competition before it, Kaokoland is like Damarland on full volume, on steroids, on a mission to become the least explored part of one of the least populated countries on Earth. Kaokoland is special. Here is where we Namibians "get away from it all" although quite what we're getting away from is a mystery to me.
Enormous, virtually impassable mountain ranges, all the desert-adapted wildlife of Damaraland to the south and mile upon square mile of uninhabited, scenic splendour. Kaokoland is where the fascinating Himba people live - off the land in harmony with nature.
Best suited to adventurous self-drive 4x4 camping adventures with more than one vehicle, Kaokoland is quite likely on everybody's second-visit bucket list. And a second visit you will want after skimming the surface of this ancient and beautiful country.
Now. How the heck to decide which of these incredible Namibia attractions to visit. These are our most popular base tours that we then modify to suit our clients' preferences:
- Classic Namibia Self-drive Safari - 15 days From US$3235 pp (Our pricing)
- Namibia Highlights Fly-in Safari - 7 days From US$4790 pp (Our pricing)
- Namibia, Botswana and Victoria Falls Self-drive Tour - 18 days From US$4918 pp (Our pricing)
The vast distances between attractions makes getting to them all without rushing is impossible. A fly-in safari may appear to cost a lot more than a self-drive but comparing time spent en route and time at destination, the higher price starts looking like excellent value. Compare driving and flying and you will be amazed.
Hooked? Ready to pack?
Page last updated: 7 May 2014