I chose Namibia as my first African country to visit because it just seemed to have everything I wanted to see rolled into one place. Abundant wildlife that I had seen only in zoos? Check. Surreal landscapes? Check. Wonderfully friendly people? Ghost towns? Shipwrecks? Unique accommodations? Penguin island colony? Art nouveau architecture? All checks. In this vast, often desolate country twice the size of California but populated by only two million people, you will very often find yourself at a distance from civilization, yet you’ll never be very far from something fascinating to see and do. These are my favorites.
#1 Thrill at the Wonderful Wildlife in Etosha National Park
My brother, sister-in-law, and I had been in Etosha National Park for all of 30 seconds before the zebras showed up. Then the giraffes. Then the springbok. And the helmeted guineafowl and the kudu and the elephants. One of Africa’s largest national parks teems with such an abundance of wildlife that all you have to do to spot it is glance out your car window. In fact, you will be so enthralled by these amazing animals in their natural habitat that you’ll find you’ve spent three hours covering only 20 miles of Etosha’s 8,600 square miles. A relaxed lioness dozing under the shade of an acacia tree could well occupy a half hour of your time, and a stop at a waterhole requires a good hour just to watch the scene change as groups of animals come and go in what proves to be a rather orderly and unspoken hierarchy that at first seems utterly chaotic. Warthogs will cross the road ahead of you, jackals will scamper by, lilac-breasted rollers will take flight in a stunning display of color, ostriches will lope across barren landscapes, and wildebeest, hartebeest, elands, and oryx at the side of the road will stare at you with as much curiosity as you have for them. A few camps around the park provide the only places where you can safely get out of your car, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find some animal action here, too, like a couple of businesses of striped mongoose engaged in a turf war.
#2 Journey Into the Past at Kolmanskop Ghost Town
One of the top five ghost towns in the world had been high on my list of things to see in Namibia for years, and when I finally got to visit it about 20 years after learning of its existence, it definitely did not disappoint. The remains of this former diamond-mining town still stand in an unforgiving environment, but nature is making progress against them. Since the town was deserted in 1956, the desert sands have been reclaiming the built legacy of Kolmanskop ever so slowly, drifting through broken windows and missing doors into the architect’s house, the hallways of the hospital, and the ice plant, forming formidable indoor dunes. The rail tracks are to be seen only in short stretches, like pairs of snakes shaking sand off their backs for a few feet before hiding underground again. Some displays and a couple of fully recreated rooms, such as the two-lane bowling alley, provide a good hint of what this very wealthy town of 1,600 would have been like at its apex. Now it’s a shell of its former self, an utterly captivating ghost town where you can let your imagination run wild.
#3 Climb an Orange Sand Dune
The orange sand dunes in the Namib Desert in the Sossusvlei region rise up to nearly 1,000 feet on both sides of the solitary road that runs for about 40 miles from the Sesriem gate to Sossusvlei. One of the world’s best displays of orange, these magnificent formations derive their color from the oxidation of their high concentration of iron. The sun’s progress across a cloudless sky makes them come alive with shifting shadows throughout the day. The most popular dune, thanks to its unique shape, lies 45 kilometers in from the Sesriem gate. Aptly, if not unimaginatively, called Dune 45, it presents an irresistible opportunity to do a little hiking. The parking area lies just yards off the road, and as soon as you remove your footwear, you’re ready to start your barefoot climb upwards. The angle of incline becomes progressively steeper and more challenging the higher you ascend, and you may spy a little black spider or two on your way up. The wind that blows here on a regular basis will pelt your skin relentlessly (make sure your camera is well protected); indeed, it’s strong enough to blow the sand right off the peak of the dune, creating photo-worthy shots of orange grains aloft against a pure blue sky. The view from the top, and the pride of accomplishment, validate the effort and will secure its place as one of your most memorable Namibian experiences.
#4 Stay at Unforgettable Desert Camps
Superior service in the middle of nothing: The desert camps and lodges scattered around Namibia offer unique accommodations that you are unlikely to forget. On the one hand, they have everything you would expect from a world-class hotel — attentive service, wonderful amenities, outstanding dining, and luxurious rooms to slumber in. But these camps take it all a giant step further. At Desert Homestead Outpost in Sesriem, for example, you’ll be welcomed at the end of a dusty road by a friendly staff member bearing cool, wet towels and glasses of papaya juice. At Doro Nawas, in the Damaraland region, the welcome includes a song by whichever staff members happen to be around at that moment. At Etosha Safari Lodge, you’ll get your pick of three uncrowded swimming pools. At Mushara Bush Camp, sit around the warm fire on chilly nights on the thatched veranda. Watch families of warthogs stroll by the comfortable terrace of Okonjima Plains Camp. Dinner may be served al fresco, with lanterns clustered at the base of a hill; a wine selection may be presented in a local click language; and a menu that is always truly Michelin worthy (if a chef can make red cabbage delicious, you know you’re in good hands) will have you eagerly anticipating your next meal. And you’ll get more than just a room to sleep in — you’ll get your own little house. Private outdoor showers, rooftop bedding, tremendously expansive views, nighttime skies filled with stars, and utter silence will all contribute to one of your most memorable travel experiences.
#5 Eat Unusual Food in Unusual Places
The cuisine was far and away the most unexpected delight in Namibia. Frankly, I didn’t know what to anticipate, but after a first meal of tasty tapas and a Malawian shandy in the capital city of Windhoek, I knew that whatever came across my palate would be fantastic. Of course, the meals served at the desert camps were uniformly outstanding, but when you’re on your own, it’s surprisingly easy to treat your taste buds to something remarkable. At Joe’s Beerhouse in Windhoek, you can start to awaken your inner carnivore with kudu, oryx, springbok, or zebra, chased down with a Namibian lager or a shot of Jagermeister. At the splendid Bahnhof Hotel in the little town of Aus, you’ll savor the crumbled oryx schnitzel filled with camembert, cranberries, and bacon, and then a slice of delicious kiwi cheesecake. At the hotel in Helmeringhausen, a tiny settlement that comprises a hotel, gas station, and not much more, you’ll somehow find perhaps the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted. In Swakopmund, the Ocean Cellar Restaurant will delight you with hake croquettes with preserved lemon cream fraiche and harissa beet puree, while The Tug Restaurant (designed and built around an original oil-fired tugboat) serves up seared kingklip with lentils and a lemon-butter sauce, and a fantastic dessert of marula nuts with cream cheese, pineapple essence, unsalted butter, and pistachio ice cream. In Outjo, the unpretentious Outjo Bakery rewards with surprisingly good grilled chicken and butternut fusilli. Apparently, no matter where you choose to dine in Namibia, you’ll be very happy!
- Go on a leopard drive in the Okonjima Nature Reserve.
- Explore the German art nouveau architecture in Luderitz.
- Learn about the ancient San hunters via the millennia-old petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein.
- Hunt for shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast.
- Soak in the fiery sunsets over the Atlantic Ocean from a beach in Swakopmund.