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Unveiling Namibia: a beginner’s guide

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The term ‘hidden gem’ is often bandied about, but Namibia is one of the few places left in the world where you have a chance to explore a country unlike anywhere else on Earth with few other tourists. In fact, as one of the least densely populated places on Earth, Namibia is the perfect place to get away from it all and embrace a land where there might just be more animals than people.

With spectacular desert scenery, the wildlife-rich Etosha National Park and the haunting beauty of the Skeleton Coast, Namibia offers a unique experience for travellers. It’s a place to reconnect with the natural world, to marvel at planet Earth and some of its magnificent wildlife.

Namibia sits above South Africa, below Angola and to the west of Botswana. It has Portuguese, Dutch, British and German influences from its colonial past and was under South African administration until independence in 1990. Today, Namibia is a multicultural society, with urban centres like Windhoek reflecting a blend of African, European and other cultural influences. In this beginner’s guide to Namibia, we invite you to delve into this extraordinary country.

Best natural landscapes in Namibia

Namibia is a land of contrasts, boasting the world’s oldest desert and some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the world. It’s a photographer’s dream, with sweeping desert vistas disappearing into the horizon, towering sand dunes, mountains and an immense salt pan. First in our top three sights is Sossusvlei, where magnificent burnt orange dunes, sculpted by the wind into intricate shapes and patterns, rise to heights of up to 300m and are among the tallest in the world.

In the south of the country, you’ll find the dramatic Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world. Glimpse the Earth’s geological history by hiking into its depths – in places up to 550m – and gaze up at the sheer cliffs and towering rock formations. You’re likely to spot baboons and ground squirrels, while viewpoints along the canyon rim offer stunning perspectives of its vastness and grandeur, particularly during sunrise and sunset when its colours come alive in the shifting light.

Along the northwestern edge of Namibia, the Skeleton Coast in the Kunene Region is a rugged and untamed wilderness bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Sand dunes, rocky outcrops and mist-shrouded cliffs create a hauntingly beautiful and eerily atmospheric panorama, while treacherous waters and dense coastal fogs are responsible for numerous shipwrecks that litter the shoreline, giving rise to its eerie name. It’s home to a surprisingly diverse array of wildlife, including desert-adapted elephants, lions and hyenas, as well as a variety of bird species.

View of Fish River Canyon in Namibia

Where and how to see Namibia’s local wildlife

Namibia is home to an incredible array of species and has the only desert in Africa inhabited by elephants, rhinos, giraffes and lions. One of the best places to see wildlife is Etosha National Park, a vast expanse of savannah and salt pans teeming with animals, including the largest population of free-roaming cheetahs. Take a self-drive safari through the park or book a guided safari, game drive or nature walk, and track the desert-adapted elephant and the rare, black-faced impala.

For wildlife of a different sort, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is home to one of the largest settlements of these animals in the world. They congregate on the rocky shoreline, attracted by the good fishing of the Benguela Current. Get up close and kayak beside them or observe via the reserve’s raised walkway, from where you might also see black-backed jackals and brown hyenas preying on the pups, while flamingos and oystercatchers look on.

Namibia’s national animal is the oryx, or gemsbok, a large antelope with long horns and distinctive black and white markings that contrast with their fawn body. Find them grazing in groups on the arid savannah, such as the Namib or Kalahari Desert.

Seals resting at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve in Namibia

Namibia’s top city highlights and experiences

The gateway to Namibia is the vibrant capital city, Windhoek. Experience a blend of African and European influences and warm Namibian hospitality in one of Africa’s cleanest and safest cities. It has a thriving arts scene, with regular festivals, and restaurants serving diverse cuisines from around the world, including traditional German food and beer. Stroll the iconic Independence Avenue, with its colonial-era buildings and bustling shops, and browse handmade crafts and artworks from local artisans in the craft centre.

The picturesque coastal resort town of Swakopmund is the holiday destination of choice for Namibians escaping the desert heat. It has a quaint a mix of German colonial architecture and palm-lined streets. It’s also the country’s adventure capital, where adrenaline junkies can book sandboarding excursions down colossal dunes or quad-biking expeditions through the desert.

In the harbour city of Walvis Bay, take a boat trip to view dolphins, seals and sometimes even whales, while a few miles away at Sandwich Harbour, birdwatchers are in for a treat with an abundance of flamingos, pelicans and other magnificent species to admire.

View of Christ Church in Windhoek, Namibia

Unmissable places in Namibia for cultural immersion

Namibia is home to one of the world’s oldest cultures, the San communities of the Kalahari Desert, and the Himba people, a semi-nomadic group who have inhabited the Kunene Valley for more than 500 years. The best way to learn more is via one of the cultural heritage tourism projects that work in partnership with the indigenous communities and arrange visits to the villages and townships. It generates an income to preserve their cultures and traditions, supports new projects, and helps send children to school.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein has one of the largest concentrations of rock carvings in Africa, estimated to be between 2,000 and 6,000 years old. They were made by hunter-gatherer communities and depict giraffes, rhinoceroses, elephants and other animals, as well as human figures, and are of immense cultural and archaeological significance.

Rock carvings in Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Unique experiences you can only find in Namibia

One of best things to do in Namibia is to climb to the top of one of the Sossusvlei sand dunes to experience a sunrise or sunset over the desert landscape. For a more tranquil experience, soar above the dunes on one of the world’s top hot air balloon trips, and enjoy panoramic views of the otherworldly landscape as the sun rises over the horizon.

The NamibRand Nature Reserve has some of the darkest skies in the world, so take an opportunity to gaze at more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life in this remote wilderness, and reflect on the vastness of the universe.

Always wanted to go skydiving? Take off from Swakopmund and do it over the oldest desert in the world. Other unique experiences include exploring the eerie shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast and hiking to the top of the iconic Brandberg Mountain.

Sunrise across sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia

Planning your trip – when to go

Namibia has a varied climate across its different regions so weather can be unpredictable, especially during the wet season. Be prepared to adjust your itinerary or activities and pack clothing suitable for hot days and cool nights. The best time to visit Namibia largely depends on the type of experiences you’re seeking and the activities you want to do.

Dry season (May to October)

Clear skies, sunny days and comfortable temperatures make this peak tourist season. It’s the best time for wildlife viewing because water is scarce and animals congregate around waterholes – meaning you’re likely to see more.

Wet season (November to April)

Expect some rainfall, particularly in the northern regions, with afternoon thunderstorms and hot, humid temperatures. The desert bursts into life, making it a wonderful time to experience the landscapes looking lush and witness breathtaking sunsets against dramatic skies.

Shoulder seasons

March to April and September to October balances fewer people, favourable weather and pleasant temperatures, and wildlife viewing is still possible.

December and January are officially wet season, but the Christmas holidays mean it’s a popular time. Expect higher tourist numbers and book accommodation and activities well in advance.

Road leading to Spitzkoppe in Namibia

Namibia travel advice and how long to visit

Namibia is a vast country and the best way to get around is by hiring a car, which gives you freedom to explore and to cover some of the large distances at your own pace. Guided tours will help maximise your time, make the most of the destination, and enhance your overall experience.

In a week it’s possible to see the highlights of the deserts and national parks and to go on a safari. In two weeks, you’ll experience the country in more depth and see the main attractions without spending too many hours in a vehicle in one day.

Most visitors to Namibia will require a tourist visa, which you can obtain on arrival at the airport or border crossing. All visitors must have a valid passport for at least six months after the date of entry with at least three blank pages for entry and exit stamps. The official currency of Namibia is the Namibian dollar, although South African rand is also widely accepted.
Hygiene standards and food safety are generally high in most restaurants and hotels, and the water is safe to drink outside of rural areas.

Make it happen

Are you ready to plan your Namibian adventure? Chat to one of our local experts today – they’ll help get you started by planning a tailor-made trip that suits your needs.

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