A Tour around Namibia

Africa's Undiscovered Jewel
  |  Gorp.com

What are the ingredients for the 'perfect' African safari destination? Lot's of animals, few people, good roads, great weather and reasonable prices? How about political stability, a low crime rate and a currency which is at an all-time low against the US Dollar? Add to all that a low incidence of malaria, fascinating cultural experiences, interesting cuisine, and a long list of things to see and do other than just viewing wildlife. Namibia is surely the only African country which boasts all of these, and more.

Namibia, which is one of the world's most sparsely populated countries, is in south-western Africa. It is a wonderful destination for a wild-life safari, especially for people who enjoy rugged scenery and desert landscapes. Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest national parks in which to observe a remarkable diversity of Africa's wildlife, including the rare black rhino, elephant, lion and cheetah. The park has three camps which offer reasonably priced bungalow and chalet accommodation, while several private lodges just outside Etosha also give the visitor a choice of more exclusive, luxurious quarters.

The spectacular dunes at Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert are considered to be amongst the most impressive sights in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Namibia's landscapes and abundant wildlife are enhanced by a rich cultural heritage (Herero, Nama, Himba and many more) and some intriguing colonial influences, notably German. Swakopmund, a popular beach resort on the Atlantic coast, looks for all the world like a Bavarian village, buildings complete with steeply angled roofs, so that the snow can slide off, naturally... Imagine this in one of the driest places in the world, and you'll have a good idea of the contrasts and anachronisms that make Namibia such an interesting place to visit.

On a recent visit, driving from Windhoek, the mile-high capital city, via the Khomas Hochland to Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Ocean coast, I was again struck by how few other vehicles there were on the road. For someone used to the busy freeways of Houston, it is nothing less than miraculous to drive for an hour or more and not see another car. This is not unusual in Namibia, which is about three times the size of Germany, but has a total population of only 1.6 million people. Even in Etosha Game Reserve, the country's most popular tourist attraction, one can enjoy relative solitude at a water hole, observing game with little interference in the way of other vehicles.

Other highlights from my visit include simply spectacular game-viewing in Etosha, amongst others witnessing an altercation between an aggressive black rhino and a group of young elephant bulls at the famous floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo camp. At one stage a black rhino came to graze on some green shoots at the base of the camp 'fence', and we found ourselves literally just feet away from this pre-historic behemoth, its prehensile, pointed upper lip clearly visible. A truly unforgettable experience, but one which was almost rivalled by the spectacle of dozens of boisterous elephant bulls jostling for position at the water hole.

At Swakopmund the bird-watching was excellent, with hundreds of waders seemingly posing for the Kowa 'scope. We marvelled at some of the massive sand dunes in the area, which are no less imposing than the better-known dunes at Sossusvlei.

Driving a few miles further north along the coastline, we tried our hand at a little surf fishing and I caught a near ten kg (about 22 pounds) 'kabeljou' in relatively shallow water with a rod and reel best suited for a catfish pond! Grilled over the coals later that day with a baste of butter, garlic and a bit of lemon juice, the fish was as good as any my family and I have ever enjoyed.

The A-frame accommodation at the municipal chalets, where many fishermen stay, is very basic and should be avoided unless one is on a very tight budget.

The free-loading pelicans which feed on the cast-offs from the anglers do put up an impressive display, though. Swooping down from a chalet roof, they carefully calculate distance and wind speed, turning gracefully into the breeze just like an aircraft on short finals, losing just enough air speed to dip down to the ground and snatch up a five kg (11 lb.) fish head as if it were a match stick.

There are many really nice hotels and pensions in Swakopmund to choose from, including the highly rated Schweizer Haus and the Strand Hotel.

The drive from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay — just to see what the latter was like — turned out to be an expensive lesson as the front windshield of the VW Jetta was finely pitted by a desert wind which was sweeping huge amounts of abrasive sand across the road. Instead of stopping to minimize the potential damage, I pushed on at about 50 mph which was quite safe on this asphalt road, but which resulted in the windshield having to be replaced. If you ever find yourself in Swakopmund, look at the condition of vehicle number plates (aka tags) and you will see first-hand what I'm referring to: the lettering on many of them has been almost completely obliterated by the scouring effect of the wind-blown sand.

In the south of the country the Fish River Canyon is no less impressive than its more famous North American counterpart, although it is considerably smaller. The great advantage of the Fish River Canyon is that one can enjoy its natural, largely unspoilt beauty in almost complete peace and quiet. Ais-Ais, a popular hot springs resort at the lower extremity of the canyon, can become rather busy in the winter holiday months, but the upper reaches of the canyon and the Fish River Trail are very sparsely visited. This is not an area to be visited in the summer, though: day time high temperatures routinely reach 100F.

The best time of the year to visit Namibia — and Etosha — is in the dry winter months when game is forced to concentrate around remaining sources of water, either natural springs or artificial boreholes. Game-viewing is at an optimum from June to October, although some people prefer the months of April and May, just after the 'rainy' season, when the veld is in good condition and the climate is ideal. For keen bird watchers the best time is from November through February or March, when large numbers of migrant waders are present and when spectacular concentrations of birds, often running into thousands, may be seen in places such as the Walvis Bay lagoon.

Bird-Watching In Namibia

Namibia is a good choice for the serious birder, even if you had birded elsewhere in Africa previously. The country has a formal bird-list of 609 species of which 423 are resident. Namibia is one of two African countries (the other one being Kenya) with the highest degree of endemicity, and visiting birders would not want to miss special endemics such as Herero Chat, Dune Lark, Hartlaub's Francolin, Monteiro's Hornbill, Carp's Black Tit, Rockrunner, Whitetailed Shrike, Barecheeked Babbler, Gray's Lark, Rosyfaced Lovebird and many others.

A representative birding tour should take in the desert towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, renowned for its concentrations of shorebirds, flamingoes and cormorants; continue on through Damaraland (lots of endemics) to the renowned Etosha Game Reserve, excellent for game and birds; and proceed further north to Rundu and the Mahango Game Reserve in the north-east corner of the country for more woodland species.

Special thanks to Bert du Plessis of Fish Eagle Safaris for contributing his Namibian experiences.

Story copyright © Bert du Plessis. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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