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Africa’s south-west coast contains a number of important seal colonies, and Cape Cross is one of the most significant. The vistas are wild: windy, wavy and often foggy. There are literally thousands of seals here, and wooden walkways allow visitors to get very up close and personal with these fascinating mammals. Very close, in fact, so be sure to bring a scarf to cover your face – the smell can be rather overpowering. Cape Cross is only an hour from Swakopmund, so if seals are the main reason for visiting, a daytrip will suffice. The beaches north of the seal colony are quite attractive, and many visitors choose to go for long walks along the shore. But the seals are by far the biggest attraction, and while they are hardly warrant a trip to the coast in their own right, they do deserve the short detour from Swakopmund or a quick stop along a Skeleton Coast drive.
Damaraland is a dramatic, strikingly beautiful part of Namibia. Bordered to the west by the Skeleton Coast, and dominated by the Etendeka Mountains, the ochre-brown and reds of the soil and rocky outcrops is interspersed with golden grasslands, shrubs and bushes, patches of ancient leadwoods and the oddly-shaped bottle trees. There is a surprising amount of wildlife in this arid environment, and much of it has adapted to the harsh conditions. These include desert-adapted lions and elephants, and the largest population of free-roaming black rhinos in Africa. There are plenty of Hartmann’s mountain zebras here, as well as large populations of kudu, springbok, giraffe, meerkats and the particularly well-suited oryx, who can survive even in the heart of the Namib Desert. And if there is one thing you can be sure of in Damaraland it is that there will be plenty of space around you – no crowds here. In a country famous for its striking landscapes, Damaraland still manages to stand out for its beauty.
Desert Rhino Tracking
Palmwag Concession, Damaraland
Damaraland has the largest population of free-ranging black rhinos in Africa, and the vast and striking ochre-coloured scenery of north-western Namibia is a wonderful place to see these increasingly rare giants. Tracking rhinos is no game – great care must be taken both to protect the visitors and to keep the rhinos undisturbed. Tracking is done on foot, although cars are used to bring guest to within walking distance; trackers from Save the Rhino Trust will have been out since before dawn to locate the animals. Provided that the rhinos do not detect the presence of people there is no limit to how long can be spent with them. The open landscape and many hills means that you can get a much better view of the rhinos than in most other parts of the continent, since black rhinos normally prefer woodland and thick bush. Not so here in the desert, so get ready for a unique experience in one of the most beautiful places in Africa.
The road to Epupa is long and dusty, and it is difficult to imagine anything but more dust and rock at the end of it. So when the green riverine valley that contains Epupa appears beyond the crest of a hill, its lushness makes it seem almost surreal. Epupa itself is a ramshack town, with a few camps and some tin houses. The Cunene River is the lifeblood of the region, and rafting trips are one of the most popular activities for visitors. The river also forms the border to Angola – it is possible to visit an island in the middle of the river, which a sign proclaims to be part of Angola. A few hundred metres downstream from the village are the Epupa Falls, a breathtaking series of waterfalls best viewed from the hilltop just west of Epupa. This also provides the best view of Epupa village. Guided tours will be offered to visitors, but are unnecessary - it is an easy walk to do on your own. Epupa is inhabited primarily by the Himba, who most likely attract more tourists than the falls do. This part of Namibia is a true wilderness, and the rewards of making this journey are well worth the effort.
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park is huge – over 22,000 square kilometres, not much smaller than Belgium. The habitat varies greatly, from thick shrub and woodland to open grassland and the massive Etosha saltpan. Too big to drive around during a normal visit, the waterholes are the big drawcards: park yourself by one and watch oryx, wildebeest, ostrich, springbok, elephant, giraffe, zebra and perhaps rhinos or lions come for a drink. The roads are mostly excellent, so getting around is easy, and the photographic opportunities are endless. Winter and spring are the best times to see wildlife congregate around the waterholes, whilst visiting in late autumn (April to June) will mean that the much greener park is virtually yours alone, as few other visitors make their way here at this time of the year. As always, early mornings and late afternoons provide the best light and the best chances of seeing cats, although waterholes are frequented anytime as soon as the heat has begun to build up, from late morning onwards.
Fish River Canyon
In a country famous for its striking scenery, Fish River Canyon still stands out. The second largest canyon in the world by most accounts, watching the sun rise or set over its main valley must be considered a highlight of any Namibian journey. For those with more than a few days to spend, mule trails follow the Fish River and make for an unforgettable experience. Wildlife, such as kudu and springbok, has recently been released in the reserve and can now be spotted with relative ease. The area beyond the canyon is coloured red by the iron content of the sandstone and dolorite, which – when contrasted against the normally bright blue sky – makes for a memorable sight. But the canyon itself is doubtlessly the highlight of a visit to this part of the country, and even a short stop at the main viewpoint is well worth the journey.
Few African peoples grace as many coffee-table books as the Himba, considered one of the continent’s most photogenic people. And this is true: not only are they remarkably relaxed about having their pictures taken, but their red ochre skin and fabulous hair create a striking contrast to the ever-blue skies of northern Namibia. The Himba are a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe, closely related to the Herero, and live in the most inhospitable part of Namibia, the arid north. They settled there as a result of decades of persecution by other tribes. Many Himbas adhere to a largely traditional way of life, despite the availability of modern clothing, housing and technology. Visiting a Himba village is a surprisingly genuine experience, but please take care to do this responsibly. Employ a Himba guide from one of the settlements (such as Epupa or Opuwo). This will ensure fair payment to the members of the village, usually in the form of mais, sugar, salt and other much-needed foodstuffs. Never give gifts directly to the children, as this encourages begging. And don’t haggle too much when shopping for handicrafts – this is one of very few sources of income for the Himba. Visiting a Himba village is a fascinating experience, allowing a glimpse into a simple but hard way of life, and is easily combined with a visit to Epupa Falls.
Namib Desert Sand Games
The Namib Desert is a place not just of magnificent vistas, but also of plenty of fun in the sand. Two of the most popular activities are quad biking and dune boarding. The latter provides the greater adrenaline rush and consists of throwing oneself off the top of tall desert dunes on a flimsy piece of wood or plastic at speeds up to 80km/h. Particularly friendly guides may offer a lift back up the dune - otherwise it is a long, hard walk. Quad bikes follow set circuits, and neither activity is permitted outside of specifically denoted areas, so the effect on the environment is minimal. For those wishing something a bit different, why not give sand skiing a go?
Namib Desert Scenic Flight
Hold on to your hats, because it’s going to get windy – at least if you open your window! A scenic flight over the Namib Desert, organised out of Swakopmund or Sesriem, is a must-do, and is particularly interesting if combined with a ground visit to the dunes. The aerial view provides a perspective impossible to come by on foot, and seeing the colours shift from grey dunes to red, and from green vegetation to blue ocean, is an unforgettable experience. The early morning and late afternoon trips are the best, as the low sun creates long shadows that add to the already stunning patterns visible below the plane. Skydiving is another option, but a scenic flight allows you to take in much more of the landscape, including shipwrecks and abandoned diamond mines. A thoroughly memorable experience.
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei
The most famous section of the Namib Desert, and one of the few places where the public has access to the famous red dunes, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei (‘vlei’ simply means ‘pan’) are two of Namibia’s biggest tourist attractions. A number of the dunes can be climbed, providing views across the red sea of sand. But equally striking, and sublimely surreal, are the stark contrasts provided by the dead trees, light ground, red dunes and blue sky at Deadvlei itself. It is a hostile and stark environment, but closer observation of the sand reveals the tracks of many small desert dwellers, and grass hugs the slopes of many of the dunes. The desert is best visited in the early morning or late afternoon, when it is cooler (but make sure to bring plenty of water anyway). Note that although rare, this park occasionally floods. That - and strong winds - can result in the roads becoming impassable and conditions generally unpleasant. Equally unpleasant to some might be the huge crowds of people that flock to see these dunes, particularly during winter. The only way to avoid this is to stay inside the park, as this allows for earlier access to the dunes. Ostrich and oryx, able to survive in this extreme environment, can be seen on the 60 km drive from the park gate to the parking area. This section of the Namib Desert is without a doubt a must-see for all visitors to Namibia.