I can't pinpoint when I started dreaming of Namibia, but it's moved toward the very top of my must-see list! Located just north of South Africa, it's covered almost entirely by the Namib Desert, where it gets its name. It's a dry, sandy, otherworldly landscape, like visiting Mars, and it made a spectacular backdrop to the film Mad Max: Fury Road. Twice the size of California but with only 2.7 million inhabitants, Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world, after Mongolia, so they've been social distancing for a long, long time! This former German colony has some of the highest sand dunes in the world, and they're a big reason people come here. Big Daddy is a dune over 1,000 feet tall, almost as tall as the Empire State Building.
It's a very special safari destination too where wildlife has uniquely adapted to desert life. Namibia is a leader in conservation and was the first African country to incorporate protection of the environment into its constitution; 43% of land is protected here along with communal conservancies. As a result, the wildlife population is thriving, while elsewhere it's declining. Namibia has the world's largest population of the endangered black rhino, and it's the only country in Africa where free-roaming lion populations are increasing. Importantly, the largest population of free ranging cheetahs in the world are in Namibia -more than 50% of the global population. Tourism in Namibia really benefits local conservation efforts!
Namibia is best if you want a variety of experiences and landscapes and if you're a bit of an adventure-seeker who likes the outdoors, wildlife, and discovering off the beaten path places. Namibia is quite safe and is truly the ultimate road trip with remarkably beautiful landscapes and luxurious lodges - in the middle of nowhere. English is the official language, giving a bit of familiarity in this exotic land.
WHEN TO GO
May-October are dry months and offer the best game viewing, with an increase in hotel rates too. The shoulder seasons of March-April and November are a great value, and May is the sweet spot for value and comfort, avoiding peak season prices that begin in June. June-August is their winter when it can get to freezing at night. Desert conditions can mean extreme range of temperatures in a single day. Summer months (our winter) can reach over 100 degrees but get much cooler at night, and that's why activities are best for early mornings and late afternoons. Remember - it's a dry heat!
HOW TO GET THERE
There are no direct flights from the US or Canada to the capital, Windhoek. Since Namibia shares its southern border with South Africa, most layovers from North America are in Johannesburg (JNB) and then a short connection north to Windhoek (WDH). To avoid Europe, Americans can arrive on South African Airways via JNB, Kenya Airways via Nairobi, Qatar Airways via Doha, or Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa. If you connect in Europe, fly Lufthansa or Air Namibia via Frankfurt. Plan for 10-14 days in the country to experience it all. Botswana and South Africa safaris pair very well with Namibia too!
GETTING AROUND NAMIBIA
There are two main ways to explore Namibia. First, travel private in a luxury 4X4 Toyota land cruiser that seats up to seven guests who prefer to savor Namibian landscapes with an exceptional, highly trained local guide. Land cruisers are equipped with adjustable seats, a pop-up roof, air conditioning, onboard fridge with water, personal library with guidebooks and maps, and charging ports. Generally, every two days there are four to five hour drives when traveling between destinations, and these are very scenic drives with plenty of beautiful stops for sightseeing and picnic lunches of freshly-baked bread, hot meals, fresh fruits and vegetables, hot coffee/tea, cold juices, and snacks. Alternatively, if epic road trips don't appeal to you, opt for small aircraft, especially if you're short on time; internal flights are about 1 hour long, and this kind of touring is typically done in small groups with other guests staying at the same lodge, which can arrange safaris via their own guides and vehicles. You must pack light to travel this way because of the 44 lb. per passenger soft-shell bag limit for checked and carry-on!
START IN WINDHOEK Namibia's capital and largest city is where everyone arrives and departs. Hosea Kutako International Airport is 45 minutes from downtown. You only need one night here, perfect for resting up after your journey. There's little sightseeing to do in Windhoek, so you can use this time to simply relax and enjoy your boutique hotel.
FIRST STOP - ETOSHA
Typically your tour guide will meet you in Windhoek for an overview and some time getting to know you and your travel preferences and passions. To start first with the safari, head off on a five hour drive to Etosha national park and your luxury property inside one of the private game reserves - Onguma or Ongava. The Fort is a particularly spectacular lodge in Onguma game reserve, located beside a watering hole. Three nights are recommended here. You'll spend mornings inside the national park and late afternoons inside the reserve. Activities include game drives, bush walks, photographic hide, sundowner drives, and boma dinner (open air dining experience). Animals you might see, especially from May to mid-November, include elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelopes, lions, hyenas, and cheetahs.
NEXT - DAMARALAND
Damaraland is a four hour drive from Etosha, and a captivating landscape of mountains, desert, and plains. Two nights here are recommended to admire the desert-adapted elephants and rhinos, dramatic scenery, and the Twyfelfontein Rock Engravings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you'll see more than 2,500 petroglyphs from the Stone Age depicting animals and hunters from over 5,000 years ago. The local wildlife story is fascinating because elephants need on average 50 gallons of water per day to survive, but there are no rivers or waterholes in Damaraland; yet the elephant numbers are increasing. You'll love staying at the intimate Mowani Mountain Camp, nestled among giant boulders with amazing views across Damaraland.
COOL OFF AT SWAKOPMUND
Take a break from the desert in this coastal town for one or two nights after a five hour drive from Damaraland. You'll have plenty of time at leisure to admire the distinctive German architecture and waterfront plus a full day catamaran excursion cruise to Sandwich Harbour to see flamingo flocks and huge sand dunes sloping to the ocean. Stay at a beachfront hotel in the town's historic center, such as The Strand, and enjoy its spa plus home brews in their German beer garden with Namibian flavor.
BEST FOR LAST - SOSSUSVLEI This is why I dream of Namibia. Pictured above, these landscapes have a grip on my imagination I can't shake, and I can't wait to see them for myself one day! Arrive here on a scenic five hour drive from Swakopmund to spend two or three nights and take in the country's main highlight: white salt pans surrounded by tall dunes that look out of this world. Depending on the time of the day, the dunes shift locations and even colors from red to pink with the sun and shadows. Deadvlei pan is home to 900-year-old, black, scorched, camel thorn trees - frozen in time and unable to decompose in the dry desert environment. Activities can include scenic nature drives, sundowners in the desert, hiking, horseback riding, hot air ballooning, e-biking, star-gazing, and sleeping under the stars. The Sossusvlei Desert Lodge recently completed a $3.5 million renovation and is owned by one of my favorites in Africa, andBeyond. It has 10 glass and stone villas, and each suite has a fireplace and private plunge pool - overlooking this amazing desert. There's even a resident astronomer, with a state-of-the-art telescope.
BONUS SPOT - SKELETON COAST
You can stay right inside Skeleton Coast National Park at Shipwreck Lodge, the only lodging in the park, and sleep in one of its 10 shipwrecked-shaped chalets for the ultimate Instagram shot. Take day trips to see seal colonies, remnants of shipwrecks, abandoned diamond mines, sand dunes, and unforgettable sunsets. Shipwreck Lodge is for higher budgets, but truly an experience like no other.
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