Namibia is gloriously unique. Almost nowhere else on earth will you find such staggering beauty, awe-inspiring scenery, limitless horizons, the oldest living desert in the world, game parks teeming with wildlife, wildly beautiful and treacherous coastlines, and so few people –fewer than two per square km. Be prepared for sand dunes that roar, rumble and wander, shipwreck-littered barren coastlines, some of the most desolate and spectacular scenery in the world, vast desertscapes, sand-invaded ghost towns, great gravel plains, water wildernesses…but let me start at the beginning.
Over 500 years ago, a daring little band of Portuguese sailors set sail from Sagres, the furthermost western point of Europe, to find fortune and new lands for the Crown. These intrepid sailors pushed back the edges of the known world until they entered the waters of the southwest coastline of Africa. In 1485, Captain Diego Cao and his battered crew finally dropped anchor off a desolate beach thousands of km from home and safety. Today you can see a replica of the cross they erected just north of Swakopmund at Cape Cross, where thousands upon thousands of Cape fur seals congregate. (You’ll smell them long before you see them…)
Swakopmund, historical building (Image courtesy of dvine-estates.com)
The little town of Swakopmund clings to the edge of the continent as it has done since the first 40 German settlers, complete with household goods and breeding cattle, were landed with 120 German colonial troops from the Marie Woermann, just 408 years after Diego Cao. There’s something surreal about Swakops. On the one hand it’s like a quintessential tiny portion of Europe with its seaside promenade, pavement cafés, fine German colonial buildings, friendly and neat-as-a-pin pensions, and fine hotels. On the other hand, when eating your chocolate torte or drinking your good German beer under a striped umbrella, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this little town, squashed between the relentless Atlantic and the harsh desert, is situated in one of the wildest and most untamed parts of the African continent. Swakops today is also one of the adventure centres of Africa, second only to Vic Falls in Zimbabwe. So if you’re an adrenaline junkie try your hand (or feet) at skydiving, sandboarding, jet skiing, kayaking, dune-buggying, paragliding or wave-skipping in a light aircraft. Or what about a day, moonlight, sunrise or sunset horseback or camel rides through riverbeds and up into the moonlike landscape?
Skeleton Coast (Image courtesy of TalTara)
From Swakops, go north into the awesome Skeleton Coast Park and Conservation Area. The Portuguese, facing the crashing seas of this icy coast in their tiny, frail caravels, called it the Coast of Death. Littered with innumerable shipwrecks, bleached whalebones, marauding jackals and sea birds, this part of Namibia is one of my favourites.
Dunes near Swakopmund
South of Swakops is one of the most beautiful and unusual routes in the world. The tarred coast road between Swakops and Walvis Bay is dwarfed by magnificent towering sand dunes on one side and the wild Atlantic on the other. Walvis Bay is a paradise for anglers and birdwatchers. The old whaling station at Sandwich Harbour is one of Africa’s most important wetlands comprising mud flats, a huge salt lagoon and freshwater pools. Tick off thousands of flamingos, cormorants, pelicans, terns and other seabirds as well as migrant waders in season.
Sossusvlei (Image courtesy of Massmo Relsig)
And now for the oldest living desert in the world, one that fulfils all our romantic ideas of what a real desert should look like (think Lawrence of Arabia) – Namibia’s Namib Desert.
Here, Sossusvlei is one of the most remarkable sights in the Namib-Naukluft Park, one of the biggest nature reserves in Africa. Towering dunes, said to be the highest in the world, rise dramatically over 1 000 m above the surrounding plains. A knowledgeable and friendly guide (or you can do it on your own) will hike with the fittest to the top of “Big Daddy’, the highest sand dune in the world. Or you can climb halfway and then sit and marvel at the stupendous views. The couch potatoes can climb as far as Dead Vlei and then make their leisurely way down to sit in the shade of the camelthorn trees to watch the bird life, or focus their binoculars on the distant climbers. Sip sundowners in the desert, go hot air ballooning at dawn over the dunes, or marvel at the life that is found in this harsh environment – not big game – but a wealth of bird and insect “specials”, unique plants and geological formations.
Damaraland (Image courtesy of Dietmar Temps)
Damaraland in northwest Namibia is a desert of a totally different kind. It’s a landscape of almost unsurpassed rugged beauty formed by millions of years of unending geological movement. Vivid brick-red sediments complement grey lava slopes punctuated by black fingers of “frozen” basaltic rock creeping down from the jagged rocky horizons. But there is life – and plenty of it – in this seemingly inhospitable landscape. Marvel at the dozens of Welwitschia mirabilis plants – reputed to be the world’s longest-living plants – that can live up to 1 000 years old. On my very first trip I spotted a newborn Cape Hare sheltering under a 500-year-old “youngster” plant. Just think, when this plant was the same age as this tiny furry creature, Columbus was sailing for the New World and the Portuguese to Namibia. And it’s in Damaraland that you’ll find the legendary desert elephants.
Namibia’s list of unique natural wonders is a long one. I’ve only been able to tell you about a few of them. As for the great game park of Etosha, among other amazing places – well, those will have to wait for another time…