Namibia – Gold Coaster Rebecca Dannock emails us from the other side of the world with her take on life in Africa.
Whenever anyone meets new people, or reconnects with people they haven’t seen for years, there is one of obligatory questions. What do you do for a living? I get this question a lot when I return to my first home, the Gold Coast. My answer is a little bit out of the box. I don’t answer accountant, shop keeper or lawyer etc. But rather – I am a zoologist, living in Africa. Then, the question floodgates always open.
The most confusion seemed to occur when I said, “I live in Namibia.” It seems most Australians have barely heard of Namibia, and certainly haven’t considered travelling there. It’s not surprising. In Australia, we tend to think of the ex-British colonies when we think of Africa. We mostly think of South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. Those are the countries we hear about frequently. When most Australians go on holiday to “Africa” they mean to one of those countries. But in my view, Namibia is one of the most amazing countries on the planet. I am proud to call it one of my homes.
Throughout my time living in Namibia, and my subsequent trips to catch up with old friends and revisit my old stomping grounds, I have been fortunate to experience a lot of what it has to offer and so here, I offer a beginner’s guide to travelling in Namibia.
As Australians we should be flocking to Namibia. It doesn’t matter if you are an adventure junkie, a safari lover or even someone a bit scared of the deep, dark, mysterious continent known as Africa. Namibia is the place for you. Most people call it Africa-light because it is relatively safe, bribery is uncommon and getting around as solo travellers is quite easy. Which makes it a great introduction to Africa. And for most Australians, it feels a little bit like home. After all, it bears such a striking resemblance to Australia. When Broken Hill experienced extreme rainfall, Mad Max’s desert-landscape became a green wonderland. The production team had to find a new place that looked like Australia. So, they filmed in Namibia’s amazing Skeleton Coast area.
Namibia has enough red soil, purple jacarandas, acacia-covered plains, fields of termite mounds and long straight roads to fool you into thinking you’re still at home. They also have roughly the same population density. With approximately 2.5 million people in just over 800,000 km2, they have about one-tenth of the population of Australia, in about one-tenth of the land size. But what they lack in metropolises, they make up for in wildlife, which is where the comparisons to Australia end – Australia may have wildlife, but not the powerful predators or hulking herbivores of Africa.
Upon arriving in Namibia, you will undoubtedly land in Windhoek, the nation’s capital. As cities go, Windhoek isn’t buzzing. There are some good curio (souvenir) shops. But, not much else to hold a traveller here for more than a night to recuperate from the plane ride. But Namibia is the land of the self-drive and, if you choose this option, Windhoek is a great starting point. You can pick up a rental car here and stock it up with food for your journey at one of the many supermarkets (Spar is always my go-to), before heading off on your adventure.
If you spend a night in Windhoek, and aren’t a herbivore, I would suggest Joe’s Beerhouse. Joe’s is a behemoth of a beer house with a menu that will leave no meat-eater unimpressed. It is a tourist go-to, and I would usually avoid tourist haunts. But, it is also beloved by locals for the cold beer and array of game meat on offer. Joe’s is a great place to ponder your next move, over a plate of Namibia’s prized game meat. There are so many places to visit in Namibia, the pondering could take some time! But the menu is big enough to keep you going!
Etosha National Park
The shining jewel in Namibia’s crown is Etosha National Park, where I was fortunate enough to pitch my tent for over three years. No visit to the country is complete without at least a few days in Etosha. The park is teeming with an abundance of wildlife, rarely seen elsewhere. If you go during the dry season, the waterholes will be packed with animals all trying to get their fill before returning to the salty grass plains. These waterholes make wildlife viewing easy. By day, they are packed with antelope, ostriches and often lions on the hunt. By night, rhinos, giraffe and elephants make use of the ‘off-peak times’.
You can sleep in the park, at one of five Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) camps. All vary in their offerings and prices (three offer camping and chalets, one offers luxury tents and the other offers camping only). Or you can stay at one of the many lodges that border the park. For a truly special wildlife experience, stay in NWR’s Okaukuejo campsite or chalets for at least one night. Here, you can sit, mesmerised, at the Okaukuejo waterhole long after dark watching as black rhino, usually solitary, come to socialise and shy giraffe come to drink.
Other places to travel in the country depend on your preference. Going for the wildlife? Then the north-east of the country, which borders Botswana’s Okavango Delta, is a superb option. This area is a far cry from the dry, salt pan environment of Etosha. Instead, it is a a lush paradise filled with hippos, water birds and crocodiles. It also has less visitors than Etosha, making it a wilder experience. The Bwabwata and Mahango national parks offer an array of wildlife viewing opportunities. But my favourite experience there was having a sundowner drink at Horseshoe Bend in Bwabwata National Park. Watching hundreds of elephants play, drink and swim in the river was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It really will stay with me for life.
Other wildlife hotspots include the conservancies in Damaraland in the country’s north. This dry, desert area looks like it should be a lifeless wasteland. Instead, desert-adapted rhino, giraffe, elephant and lions roam Damaraland. The backdrop here is just as spectacular, with Namibia’s red-earth strongly on show, thanks to the minimal, desert vegetation. While you are in Damaraland you can also head to Twyfelfontein. Here you can see rock art at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. These ancient rock carvings and paintings form one of the largest concentrations of rock art in Africa. With over 5,000 depictions at the site, they are thought to have been carved and painted up to 6,000 years ago. Experiencing this art with a professional guide will also give you a glimpse into the past and present lives of some of Namibia’s indigenous tribes.
Namibia’s Coast – Swakopmund
If you’re an adventure junkie, Swakopmund, on Namibia’s coast will be your go-to. You can skydive over the Skeleton Coast. It is named for the shipwrecks that scatter the coastline, making for stunning photographs. Or, if skydiving isn’t your thing, you can take a scenic flight over the area, no jumping out required. When you are back on terra firma, you can fuel up with a delicious meal at The Tug Restaurant. It serves a variety of seafood which Swakopmund is known for. I would always go to this restaurant when I was missing the Gold Coast’s seafood. Also on offer is surfing the Atlantic. Although, the water’s low temperature will shock a seasoned Gold Coaster. You can quad bike across the coastal dunes, or on a four-wheel-drive tour.
World’s Largest Sand Dune
If it is big dunes that you’re after, you should head to the south of the country, to Sossusvlei. Here, you’ll find the world’s largest sand dune. The dunes in Sossusvlei seem never-ending. On a clear day, which is most days in Namibia, you’ll experience views of bright orange and red dunes against a breathtakingly blue sky. These dunes are so spectacular that they make all other dunes seem like a let-down. Even dunes in the Sahara! In Sossusvlei, you can drive through the dunes and even climb some of them. Then, spend the evening camping under a blanket of stars.
Namibia is a land of contrasts, with its lush wetlands in the north-east and desert landscapes elsewhere. It offers unparalleled wildlife viewing, culture in the form of some of the oldest rock art in the world, extreme star viewing and adrenaline-inducing activities. All of this make it a perfect place to visit.
Namibia – Getting there
The easiest way for Australians to reach Namibia is to fly via Johannesburg, South Africa and then take an onward flight, landing in Windhoek. Air Namibia, South African Airlines and British Airways fly between Johannesburg and Windhoek.
Namibia – Getting around
Depending on your preference, you can either take a group tour or self-drive. If it is a tour you are looking for, most group tour companies, like Intrepid, offer tours. Queensland-based Matson and Ridley Safaris offer small group safaris led by a zoologist in Namibia and other African locations while supporting local wildlife conservation. For self-driving, I recommend Asco Car Hire. Their cars are well maintained, they are easy to contact in emergency situations and their prices are competitive.
Namibia is a relatively easy country to self-drive thanks to good maps and roads which are well sign-posted. The country’s roads, while often gravel, are all well maintained, but in some national parks you will need to four-wheel-drive as the tracks can have thick sand or water crossings. Unlike more remote parks, Etosha is easy to get around as all roads are compacted gravel.
If you are looking for luxury, both Natural Selection and Wilderness Safaris operate throughout southern Africa. For less well-known lodges, I can personally recommend Susuwe Island Lodge and its sister lodges. They operate in the north-east region. Ongava lies on Etosha’s southern border, and Okonjima which is enroute to Etosha from Windhoek.
For camping or mid-range options, Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) often have the best location in parks, thanks to government ties. NWR’s camp sites are usually well maintained. If you are prepared for basic accommodation (and laughing off the occasional oddity, like a mirror hung too high to be useful), NWR’s chalets are fairly good options. After all, in Namibia, location should be your first, and main priority.
Namibia – When to travel
Most tourists come in the dry season, between June and September. This is when wildlife viewing is at its easiest. However, there is spectacular wildlife all year around. Which means if you want to avoid the crowds, especially in busy parks like Etosha and Sossusvlei, it is worth considering an off-peak visit.
Don’t want to travel far? then we have plenty of things for you to see right here.