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Namibia trip planner: 6 of the best in-depth routes

Wildlife, dunes and vast starry skies – it's no wonder you rated Namibia as your Top Country in our 2020 Reader Travel Awards. Now, you can use these perfectly-designed routes to plan your dream trip...

An oryx wandering through Sossusvlei Desert in Namibia (Shutterstock)

1. Natural highs

Best for trail hiking, sandboarding & rhino tracking

Hot air balloon flies over the Sossusvlei plato of Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Hot air balloon flies over the Sossusvlei plato of Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Duration: 12 to 14 days

Route: Fish River Canyon  • Lüderitz & Kolmanskop • Sossusvlei • Swakopmund  • Palmwag Concession

When to go? May to mid-Sept for manageable temperatures and the chance to hike the Fish River Canyon

Hardcore adventurers love Namibia. To many, these big, wide-open spaces spell freedom and possibility, such as the 85km multi-day Fish River Canyon trail, which is variously steep, rocky and sandy underfoot, with a tough climate – hot by day, cold at night.

Bear in mind you’ll have a heavy rucksack packed with a water purification kit, camping gear and all the soothing beers you need, so you’ll be shattered (in a good way) by the end.

North of here lies Namibia’s diamond mining area, the Sperrgebiet, a remote national park with restricted access. Base yourself in the German-style coastal town of Lüderitz and, between bouts of kitesurfing, venture into Kolmanskop, an eerily photogenic ghost town all but swallowed by the desert. Next, move on to Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

You’ll recognise its dunes immediately – they’re among Namibia’s most-photographed sights – but nothing can prepare you for the giddy thrill of running down one.

For even more of a buzz, head to Swakopmund to go sandboarding and skydiving, then north to Palmwag, where you can track rare black rhinos in the wild – one of Africa’s great wildlife adventures.

2. Cultural encounters

Best for city life, rock art & local encounters

Herero women in traditional headdresses, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Herero women in traditional headdresses, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Duration: Eight to 10 days

Route: Windhoek • Brandberg & Twyfelfontein • Erongo & Kunene • Kalahari Desert

When to go? Any time. Go in Oct for Windhoek Oktoberfest

When visiting traditional rural areas, seek out a reputable tour company or guide who works with communities as willing partners, fairly and respectfully.

The best encounters are more an exchange than a performance. Before you reach the rural areas, there’s plenty to see. You can detect the German influence in capital Windhoek, a city famed for its lager and Oktoberfest.

Art is strong here, too, with a half- dozen galleries and a craft centre, set in a former brewery, that has beautiful jewellery and textiles. As you head north, you’ll catch glimpses of the past in the rock art of the Brandberg Massif and Twyfelfontein.

In the heart of the Herero community, you may see women dressed in huge skirts and otjikaiva headdresses with horn-like points, while in the far north-west are the Himba, their skin and hair rubbed with ochre.

Kunene Tours and Safaris, Damaraland Camp and the Hoanib Valley Camp can all arrange community-friendly visits to local villages. Finally, head west to the fringes of the Kalahari and Tsumkwe Lodge in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy to learn about traditional desert bushlore from San Bushmen.

3. Wildlife safaris

Best for classic safari sights, elephants & rhinos

Portrait of a wild lion in southern Africa (Shutterstock)

Portrait of a wild lion in southern Africa (Shutterstock)

Duration: 10 to 14 days

Route: Etosha NP • Erongo & Kunene • Okonjima & Otjiwarongo

When to go? May to Oct (dry season), when the landscapes are clear of vegetation and animals gather at waterholes; Aug to Sept has a lot of dust

Home to some of Namibia’s most impressive congregations of wildlife, Etosha NP should be right at the top of your wishlist. If you’ve been on safari before – in South Africa or Kenya – you’ll notice the differences that make a Namibia safari utterly unique.

Etosha’s signature landscapes are vast and shimmering. From May to October, water is so scarce that animals amass at waterholes in huge numbers. It’s common to see numerous species sharing a single water source – small and large, predators and prey – creating a tense and graphic illustration of biodiversity that’s rare elsewhere in Africa. If you choose, you can explore this park on your own terms, in your own time, as self-drive is perfectly feasible.

Then continue in north-west Namibia, where, with luck, you’ll encounter rhinos, elephants and the Namib Desert’s lions, the subject of a long-running research project. Return to Windhoek via AfriCat at Okonjima or the Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo, where you can see big cats at close range and learn about their challenges.

With more time to explore, you could combine your trip with a visit to the Okavango Delta, Linyanti Marshes and Chobe NP in neighbouring Botswana – an unmissable opportunity to see several habitats in one trip.

4. Desert walking

Best for camping, ecology & the ‘little things’

Namib-Naukluft, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Namib-Naukluft, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Duration: 10 to 12 days

Route: NamibRand NR • Mundulea NR • Ongava GR

When to go? Mar to May and Aug to Nov, when the weather is dry and nights aren’t too cold

Namibia delivers on expert guided desert and bush walking escapes. On most occasions, you won’t see large animals on your walks, but the upside is that you’re free to relax and there’s much to discover, from the intricate structure of weaver bird nests to the delicate coloration of small reptiles.

The NamibRand’s Tok Tokkie Trails offer total desert immersion. Their three-day walking safaris spend two nights camping under the stars, with back-up teams to transport everything and prepare both bucket showers and meals.

Next, travel north-west to Mundulea Nature Reserve in the Otavi Mountains, between Etosha NP and Waterberg Plateau. Cattle used to graze this beautiful area but the wilderness has gradually reclaimed it. Four days is a good length of time to explore with Mundulea’s expert guide Bruno Nebe, camping out each night.

Crown your trip at Ongava Game Reserve, which is home to bush pads from which you can track white rhino or enjoy nature walks, listening to bird calls and spotting butterflies. Guests at Andersson’s at Ongava have the opportunity to meet ecological scientists and conservationists working at the Ongava Research Centre. Safari drives, outdoor dining and wildlife-watching from a water-level photographic hide are available here, too.

5. Birdwatching safaris 

Best for ostriches, flamingos, eagles & bee-eaters

Greater flamingo with reflection on the surface, Walvis Bay, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Greater flamingo with reflection on the surface, Walvis Bay, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Duration: Eight to 14 days

Route: Etosha NP • Caprivi Strip • Waterberg Plateau Park

When to go? Nov to Apr (green season) for flamingos and other migrants in breeding plumage

At the heart of Etosha NP is Etosha Pan, a salt flat so big, it’s visible from space. Within days of the first rains in November, the dry grasslands that surround it transform. Fresh grass means insects and seeds, a bonanza for its birds – of Etosha’s 340 avian species, around a third are only present during the green season.

By January, Etosha Pan turns into a lake, its shallows pink with thousands of wading flamingos. You’ll see more at Fischer’s Pan, along with blue cranes, storks and other water birds.

After Etosha, explore wetlands and waterways in the Caprivi Strip (Zambezi Region), home to 450 species. Stay in the treehouse-like Nambwa Tented Lodge in Bwabwata NP, or Ichingo Chobe River Lodge overlooking the Chobe River, and watch kingfishers, skimmers and bee-eaters by boat.

Then return south via Waterberg Plateau, a good place to find a Namibian speciality, the Rüppell’s parrot. Lastly, while the migrant birds may not have arrived by the late dry season months (Sept to Oct), there’s still plenty of species to be seen, such as ostriches racing across the plains, lilac-breasted rollers adding splashes of colour to desert perches and raptors soaring overhead.

6. Starry desert nights

Best for stargazing, solitude & special occasions

The Milky Way over a forest of Quiver trees, Namibia (Shutterstock)

The Milky Way over a forest of Quiver trees, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Duration: Eight to 10 days

Route: Kanaan N/a’an ku sê • NamibRand Nature Reserve • Sossusvlei • Skeleton Coast NP

When to go? May to Oct (dry season) for clear skies and excellent wildlife watching

Namibia’s southern heavens have some of the clearest skies on the planet, and one of the best spots to get stars in your eyes is Kanaan N/a’an ku sê Desert Retreat. This lodge is set in an open landscape east of the Namib-Naukluft, far from capital Windhoek.

It’s owned by a conservation organisation that aims to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and improve the lives of the marginalised San Bushmen. There’s always a riot of stars above the NamibRand Nature Reserve, one of Namibia’s most beautiful protected areas.

Its russet and ochre sands are tufted with blond grass and dotted with fairy circles, cleared by termites. Wolwedans makes an alluring base here for scenic drives and sundowners. On the edge of the NamibNaukluft, near Sossusvlei, Little Kulala offers hot air ballooning and nights in the open on a star bed platform with nothing but the blankets between you and the sky.

End your trip on a high at the Skeleton Coast’s new luxury escapes, such as Hoanib Valley Camp, the clever Shipwreck Lodge, or the remodelled Serra Cafema.

And the writer's own experience...

Black Rhino at Okaukuejo Waterhole in Etosha National Park in Namibia (Shutterstock)

Black Rhino at Okaukuejo Waterhole in Etosha National Park in Namibia (Shutterstock)

Jungle or desert – which are you? It’s the type of question Wanderlust loves. If you’d asked me 15 years ago, I’d have said jungle, without a moment’s hesitation. Why would I pass up a lush, humid, bird-rich tangle of green for the austerity of gravel plains, rocks and dunes? But that was before my first visit to Namibia. It was a trip that blew my prejudices to smithereens.

Namibia’s deserts offer vast, time- sculpted panoramas, packed with drama, beauty and subtle colour, from the spiky kokerboom groves of the Quiver Tree Forest in the far south to the NamibRand’s ginger-and-bone grasslands, to Sossusvlei’s curvaceous dunes and Damaraland’s boulder-like rock formations, scattered with prehistoric art. To my relief, the arid heat was entirely manageable, and there were relatively water-rich areas, too, in the north-east.

But the biggest revelation was that, despite their unforgiving climate, the deserts are intriguingly rich in life. As a safari destination, they’re a sophisticated choice. Every species I encountered had adopted a fascinating survival strategy, prompting me to view familiar creatures such as elephants, lions and beetles with new respect. And there were plenty of animals to see.

While many Namibian species are masters of camouflage, the landscapes they inhabit are so open that if there’s an ostrich, oryx or desert-adapted zebra within a couple of kilometres, then chances are you’ll spot it. So far, my adventures in this peaceful, progressive and conservation-focused nation have been escorted, but Namibia is also ideal for a self-drive holiday in a rented 4WD camper or a well-equipped high-clearance car. 

While it helps if you’re experienced, the road network is easy to navigate. By travelling independently, you can just set your own pace, lingering at favourite campsites and sampling different homestays with local tribes along the way. If you can, treat yourself to a few nights at Namibia’s supremely elegant rustic-luxury safari lodges as well. Built out of natural materials and artfully decorated with found objects and plenty of African art, most of them look as if they’ve fallen straight out of the pages of a lifestyle magazine.

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