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Our guide to the Namib, oldest desert on Earth

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Few places can lay claim to as many superlatives as the Namib Desert; oldest desert on Earth, home to some of the tallest dunes in the world, the largest national park in Africa, and arguably the eeriest coastline. This is a landscape that’s stood for around 55-80 million years, and it’s not hard to feel almost dwarfed by the sheer volume of history these shifting sands have seen. From the Skeleton Coast to the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the finest of all the Namibia deserts boasts wildlife, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and landscapes that astound and challenge in equal measure.

Read on to find out how you can incorporate this otherworldly landscape into your trip to Namibia with our guide to the Namib, the oldest desert on Earth.

What and where is the Namib Desert?

Stretching out for more than 1,200 miles along the Atlantic coast of Angola, Namibia and South Africa, the Namib Desert is a vast expanse of red ochre-hued sand, where soaring dunes rise skywards as if in competition with the dazzlingly blue and endless skies. The largest area of the desert can be found in Namibia and accounts for 15% of the country, and it may come as no surprise that its name actually means ‘vast place’ or ‘area where there is nothing’ in the local language. This is a landscape of such unimaginable scale and drama, it’s a humbling reminder of the power of nature and the extraordinarily diverse beauty of our planet.

Not only is it vast in size, the Namib Desert is in fact the oldest desert in the world. While estimates of how old the Namib Desert is vary, the consensus is that it dates back at least 80 million years. So as you’re trekking over sand dunes, you may well be following in the (large) footsteps of dinosaurs. Vast in size, vast in history, and vast in scale – this desert is also home to some of the tallest dunes in the world, towering up to an astounding 300 m. And if that’s not enough (did we mention the many superlatives?), it’s also home to Africa’s largest national park and rivals South America’s Atacama Desert as the driest place on Earth, with some areas receiving just 2mm of rain a year.

The Namib desert with views of Sossusvlei

Places to visit in the Namib Desert

While desert landscapes may conjure up images of endless expanses of sand, the variety within that is what makes the Namib Desert so unique. This coastal desert is a land of extremes, from shipwrecks peeping out of the sands of the aptly named Skeleton Coast, to the fog-drenched shores where chilled mists roll in from the sea, creating an eerie, otherworldly sight.

Sossusvlei is one of these phenomena. Rising high above the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the Namib’s dunes can reach 300 m and many lie in Sossusvlei, including the eponymous Sossusvlei dune, Big Daddy, Deadvlei and Hiddenvlei, creating a staggering contrast of burnt orange sands against a sky of cloudless blue. The varying shades here, from apricot to ochre, are a result of the oxidation of the iron over many years so that the older the dunes, the darker the colour. At its heart, an immense salt pan adds another dramatic contrast – the white of the salt left behind by the seasonal floods.

Close to the main entrance to the Namib-Naukluft National Park and two miles from Sossusvlei lies the Sesriem Canyon, a natural gorge carved out by centuries of erosion of the Tsauchab River. Deep pools of water offer rare refreshment for animals, while the shade it provides can prove to be a welcome respite for visitors.

The Skeleton Coast may not sound particularly appealing, but this ghostly coastline is one of the many highlights of the Namib Desert. The dense fogs that roll in from the Atlantic combine with the shifting sandbanks and strong currents to create the treacherous conditions for ships that have earned the area its eerie title. Skeletal remains of wooden ships and sun-bleached whale bones spike up from the sands, while the near complete emptiness of the landscape contributes to the spectral quality of the Namib’s coastal desert.

On the edge of the desert, Twyfelfontein in Damaraland is one of the most beautiful regions in Namibia, a scenic landscape of wide open plains, rugged wildernesses and dramatic rock formations. Beautiful as the landscape is, the main draw is the ancient rock engravings, created thousands of years ago by Damara hunter-gatherer groups and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wildlife of the Namib Desert

The Namib Desert’s burnt ochre sands and arid landscapes may appear inhospitable to life, but the telltale tracks hint at the reason behind its nickname of the “Living Desert”. From the smaller inhabitants – beetles, spiders and lizards – to bucket-list sightings of desert-adapted animals including lion, hyena, leopard, cheetah, and springbok, the Namib desert teems with life.

Lying within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Sossusvlei’s seemingly unlivable dunes are actually home to a wealth of desert wildlife including springbok, ostrich, and oryx, while the Skeleton Coast may be deadly for ships that stray too close to its unpredictable shores, but its coastal habitats are home to extensive seabird colonies and cape fur seals, particularly on the Cape Fria headland. The dense rolling fog creates vital moisture to sustain life across the Skeleton Coast, from smaller insects and plants to desert-adapted elephant, zebra, giraffe, lion, kudu, and jackals, while underground rivers are a life source for those who can dig down far enough.

An oryx looks back as it journeys across the Namib Desert

Unique experiences and activities to try in the Namib Desert

The unique landscapes of the Namib Desert deserve to be experienced in equally memorable ways. While exploring the vast dunes of Sossusvlei and climbing the appropriately named Big Daddy is a must, taking to the skies offers a singular perspective on the undulating landscape below. Floating high above the Namib Desert is a chance to truly appreciate its immense scale, its changing tones and rippled waves. From the shimmering white of the Deadvlei salt pan, with its dots of leafless ancient trees, to the coastline fringed with mists, the Namib Desert is even more extraordinary from above.

The Namib Desert is also made for adventure. The dunes are transformed into a vast playground as you speed across the sands on a quad bike or gallop through on horseback, while a desert drive in the late afternoon is a chance to experience the majestic beauty of the changing colours as the sun sets. Adrenaline junkies might find they’ve met their match with dune boarding, where speeds of up to 50 mi are possible as you hurtle headfirst down the dunes.

A nature drive, whether as a self-drive or with a guide, brings you closer to the wildlife of the Namib-Naukluft National Park – keep your eyes peeled for lion, fennec fox, springbok and elephants that have all adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert. For a slightly more temperate climate, head to Walvis Bay for boat cruises to spot rare white pelicans, flamingos, dolphins and seals, while taking to a kayak off the coast of Swakopmund lets you observe the seal population from the water.

For an after-dark adventure in the Namib Desert, the NamibRand Dark Sky Reserve is both a wildlife paradise and a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserve, where its pristine wilderness and absence of light pollution create the conditions for some of the finest star-gazing in the world. Almost 90 mi from the nearest settlement, the absolute darkness here affords staggering viewings of the Milky Way, the constellations, and distant planets.

The rock engravings in Twyfelfontein are another unmissable experience in the Namib Desert, while the unique Damara Living Museum attempts to preserve and highlight the culture and lifestyle of the Damara people, one of the oldest indigenous cultures in Namibia.

View of Spitzkoppe beneath the Milky Way in the Namib Desert

Tips for planning your visit: when and how to get there

As you might expect from a desert, the heat is more bearable in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter so we’d suggest planning your visit between July and October, when the temperatures hover around 20°C and the chance of rain is low. The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, is likely to serve as your entry point to Central Namibia, and its German heritage, architecture and lively dining scene make it a destination worthy of further exploration.

Make it happen

To find out more and start planning your trip to the Namib Desert, take a look at our suggested itineraries and let our local experts be your guide to the Namib Desert.

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