Namibia can be a harsh and unforgiving land, and nowhere is this more evident than along the Skeleton Coast. A windswept wasteland of dark green scrub and calcified sand dunes, it is littered with the rusting carcases of ships washed ashore by the merciless Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not all hostile. The area is also home to the colourful Himba people whose love of elaborate hairdos and jewellery have made them one of the most photographed tribes in the world. Their home overlaps another of Namibia’s natural marvels, Etosha National Park, which boasts an abundance of wildlife: everything from the tiny Cape sparrow to the magnificent African elephant can be found here.
Towns and cities are few and far between in Namibia, thanks to its low population. Even the capital, Windhoek, is not much larger than a medium-sized British settlement. But the city’s lively nightlife, colonial architecture, thriving culinary scene and excellent beer make it a pleasant place to while away a few days – even if the town planners did make a habit of naming roads after dictators. Anyone fancy a stroll down Robert Mugabe Drive?
Namibia’s second city, Swakopmund, is lighter on the dictator nomenclature, but none the worse for it. The coastal town has a sunny charm that is all its own. Appearing like a mirage in the desert, the city is home to palm-fringed beaches, a gorgeous collection of colonial buildings and a sizeable German-speaking population.
And just outside the city lie the rusting remains of the Martin Luther, an abandoned steam locomotive that tried to tame this wild land and failed – a metaphor, surely.
Things to see and do
Sandwiched between the Namib desert on one side and the rough Atlantic sea on the other, the fact Lüderitz exists at all is surprising in itself. The gateway to the Sperrgebiet (Forbidden Area), Lüderitz is quaintly Teutonic, boasting surreal German Art Deco architecture, and thoroughly Bavarian style cafes and pubs. The nearby Lüderitz peninsula is also worth a visit thanks to its enormous flocks of flamingos.
Birdwatching in the Caprivi Strip
One of Africa’s top 10 birdwatching destinations, the Caprivi Strip is a place of tropical rainforest, green hills and slow-flowing rivers. As a result, its avian population comprises more than 339 species, including some unique to the region. Along with birds, the region is home to hippos, crocodiles, lions, giraffes, waterbuck, and antelopes.
Climb Sossusvlei's dunes
Leave early to climb giant Dune 61 before sunrise for a truly once-in-a-lifetime view. As the sun climbs, the colossal dunes seem to shift shape and colour. It’s mindbendingly beautiful. Visit the nearby Dead Vlei to see a bizarre landscape that's more Dr. Seuss than Mother Africa.
Do conservation work at AfriCat Foundation
This non-profit rehabilitation centre (www.africat.org) cares for cheetahs, leopards, lions and endangered wild dogs on a rescue-and-release basis. There's a luxury lodge for overnight visitors, and activities include tracking rehabilitated cheetahs, spotting hyenas on foot, and leopard safaris in a game-viewing vehicle.
Eat out in Swakopmund
Founded by the Germans, Swakopmund doesn’t just look like Dusseldorf in the desert – it makes food like it too. As a result, the city is one of the best places to eat in Africa, heavy on the meat and potatoes, but no less delicious for that. If you want to see how it’s grown, take a trip to a desert asparagus farm.
Etosha National Park
Take a game drive in Etosha National Park, the third largest game reserve in Africa, which is home to vast herds of elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and antelopes, as well as hyenas and big cats. The mammoth Etosha salt pan is surrounded by over 22,000sq km (8,500 sq miles) of grasslands and low bush which is brilliant game-viewing territory.
Fish River Canyon
This is one of the last great wildness treks, an impressive three-day endurance test strictly for the fit and hardy. Hikers need to join an organised trip with an experienced guide, and be self-sufficient throughout the trek. Due to the risk of flooding and the high summer temperatures the hiking trail is only open from 1 May to 31 August. Whilst in the area, you can also visit the Quiver Tree (Kokerboom) Forest to see these bizarrely elegant giant aloes, once used by the San people to make quivers for their arrows and now protected.
Hike the Skeleton Coast
Despite the ominous (and well deserved) name, the Skeleton Coast is strikingly beautiful. Take a three-day nature trail along the Ugab riverbed and gravel plains of the forbidding wind-whipped Skeleton Coast Park, where you’ll find desert-adapted plant species such as welwitschia, lithops and delicate lichens. Get an eerie close up look at the shipwrecks scattered along the coast, most of which have become seaweed-coated Cape Cormorant colonies.
During the 1980s, most of the 3000 desert elephants that lived in Namibia's Kunene were killed by hunters and poachers. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated local conservationists, their population currently stands at around 600. Several volunteer programmes are available, including Elephant Human Relations Aid (www.desertelephant.org) which allows elephant enthusiasts to lend a hand.
Meet the Himba in Kaokoland
Learn about tribal customs and desert survival techniques by visiting the kraal (homestead) of the Himba, an indigenous semi-nomadic community in the Kaokoland region of northern Namibia. You’ll find a real warmth and playfulness about the Himba, who live in unusual beehive mud huts.
Safari in Namib Naukluft National Park
With its rolling red dunes, rocky escarpments and flat, dusty savannah, Namib Naukluft National Park is a great place to indulge in a safari. The Namib Naukluft is part of the Namib Desert, believed to be the world's oldest desert. Here, oryx, hyena and gemsbok stroll over the burnt orange dunes tufted with grasses that stretch into the horizon.
See Damaraland’s rock art
Surviving in Damaraland’s bizarre lunar landscape of scrubby veld and basalt rocks might look like a tough call but people have done for millenia. Early inhabitants left behind fascinating rock engravings, of which the White Lady of the Brandberg is best known. The fantastical Petrified Forest, a collection of around 50 fossilised trees is nearby, as is Burnt Mountain, Namibia’s highest peak.
The attractive Namibian capital features German colonial architecture including the iconic Christuskirche. A tour of the Windhoek lager brewery is recommended, and the National Museum, housed within the Alte Feste fortress is worthwhile. In the centre of Post St Mall, there’s a quirky display of the meteorites that hit Namibia during the Gibeon meteor shower.
Track black rhinos in Damaraland
One of the planet’s most endangered species, black rhinos are well-protected in Namibia thanks to excellent conservation work and fearful penalties for poachers. Rugged Damaraland is home to a desert-adapted variety, which you can track as part of an ongoing initiative to monitor and protect the animals from poachers.
Watch seals at Cape Cross
This isolated stretch of rocky shore near Walvis Bay is home to a huge, malodorous Cape fur seal colony. Around November, plenty of young pups can be seen huddled next to their mothers. Organised tours can be arranged from Swakopmund – just prepare for a nose-wrenching experience.
Waterberg Plateau Park
Waterberg Plateau Park is a mountain reserve with striking red sandstone cliffs and natural springs as well as rare animal species, including Namibia’s only colony of Cape vultures. The park is home to black and white rhino, sable antelope and blue wildebeest. Self-guided bush walks are well signposted and four to eight day loops are available.