A land of vast open landscapes, abundant wildlife and an astonishing array of natural wonders, Namibia promises adventure. Its defining feature is its desert – specifically the world’s most ancient desert, the Namib. Tortured by extreme temperatures and strong winds, and battered tirelessly by fierce waves, the Namib runs the length of the country’s 1500km wild coastline, encompassing towering, sculpted dunes and lichen-encrusted gravel plains, punctuated by dramatic isolated mountains and transected by sandy river beds. In contrast, presiding over Namibia’s eastern border, the oft-forgotten Kalahari – a semi-desert – comprises a flat, sandy terrain, studded with acacias, which transforms into shimmering grasslands, flecked with colourful flowers in the rainy season.
Other dramatic scenery includes the Fish River Canyon, in the far south, which affords breathtaking views across a deep serpentine chasm in the earth’s crust, while in the northeast, the impressive sandstone Waterberg Plateau stands sentinel over the surrounding bushveld. At the very north of Namibia, the species-rich wetlands of the Zambezi Region, a 450km arm of luxuriant sub-tropical forest that reaches out above Botswana towards Zimbabwe, provide a wholly different landscape.
While traditionally, tourists have been drawn to Namibia for its wilderness landscapes, the country is now also attracting attention for its wildlife; specifically, the increasing numbers of rare large mammals that are thriving in the semi-arid areas. Beyond the game-rich confines of Etosha – Namibia’s premier national park – the world’s largest concentrations of free-roaming cheetah stalk the plains, while desert-adapted elephant and black rhino lumber along the valleys and riverbeds of northwest Namibia. In many cases these beasts are protected by local communities working hand-in-hand with conservationists.
Though virtually devoid of people, the desert is far from lifeless, supporting a surprising variety of animal and plant life. The Namib hosts many extraordinary succulent plants and dune-dwelling endemics – especially lizards – that have adapted to the harsh conditions, and featured on many a wildlife documentary. Beyond the desert, the Zambezi Region holds almost three quarters of the country’s bird species and many large mammals not seen elsewhere in the country.
As with most other countries in Africa, Namibia’s socio-political landscape has been indelibly shaped by colonialism, specifically the regimes of Germany and then South Africa. While the adverse effects were considerable, it’s true to say that Namibia’s cuisine has benefitted from its colonial past, from cream-laden German cakes, tasty filled brötchen and good coffee, to the dried, cured meats favoured by South Africans. Namibia was one of the last countries in Africa to gain independence – in 1990 – and it has taken time for the government to realise the country’s tourism potential, just as foreign tourists have been slow to learn about Namibia’s haunting landscapes, fascinating wildlife and rich cultural diversity. Now, Namibia is becoming established on the tourist map: high-quality, affordable lodges and campgrounds are sprouting up, often in conjunction with local conservancies; rural communities are inviting visitors to learn about their cultures, traditions and modern-day challenges; and new ways of experiencing Namibia are constantly being devised, from skydiving or ballooning over the desert to stargazing in the dunes, and from tracking rhino to kayaking with crocs.