Namibia Sand, Stars & Safari
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|March 2021
One of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, Namibia is a byword for vast landscapes shaped by fierce elemental forces. From the blustery, shipwreck-strewn Skeleton Coast and wildlife utopia of Etosha in the north, through the central region — home to extreme sports hub Swakopmund and the capital, Windhoek — to the ochre dunes of Sossusvlei and the mighty Fish River Canyon in the south, this is Africa at its most wild and raw. The country’s offering to travellers is developing apace: be it safari, sandboarding or camping under the stars, adventure beckons, with new lodges and camps blossoming in remote regions. And the nation’s fascinating indigenous history and bush lore are being preserved and protected in captivating new Living Museums
Emma Gregg & Hannah Summers

WHERE OCEAN MEETS DUNE

The otherworldly landscapes of northwest Namibia — from the windswept dunes of the Skeleton Coast to arid wildernesses of the Hoanib Valley — threaten to upstage both the wildlife and the remote luxury lodges that call it home. Words: Hannah Summers

Just metres away, a week-old lion cub creeps out from the shade and looks me straight in the eye. Above him, red rock stretches into a cyan sky; below him, the dusty expanse of the Hoanib riverbed. He inches out further before his mother uncurls from her afternoon siesta and plucks him up with her mouth and returns to their cave.

In a normal safari, a sighting of a pride of just-born, desert-adapted lion cubs would be the highlight of the day. And yet, I’m distracted. For the first time on my trip to Namibia, wildlife isn’t the main draw; around me is a landscape so magnificent that it demands my almost undivided attention.

With a population of just 2.5 million people, and a landmass the size of France and England combined, untouched wilderness isn’t in short supply in Namibia. But here in the Hoanib Valley, it takes on a whole new meaning.

My journey here started the previous day. I parked my rental vehicle in the village of Sesfontein, where I was collected by Ramon, my soft-spoken guide from the Hoanib Valley Camp. “It’s a three-or-so-hour transfer,” he told me. I suppressed a groan.

But what Ramon labelled as a ‘transfer’ was in fact one of the most memorable drives of my life. First across wide expanses of sand and shrubs, and then deeper into the valley, following the course of a river that comes and goes with the seasons. Several hours later we arrived: before us, a handful of luxurious tents scattered at the base of a mountain. The view from my suite? A vast stretch of butter-coloured sand with turrets of steel-grey mountains beyond.

The landscape here explains Ramon’s gentle demeanour. Hours from civilization, there’s no room for loud voices or sharp words — or any words, really. Instead, I just want to sit and soak up everything before me. Colours I’d previously dismissed as plain — the browns and the beiges — take on a dazzling new look of saffron and scarlet as I meditate upon them. It’s utterly captivating.

For three days, I revel in its raw glory, the hours punctuated by sightings of lone black rhinos, shy giraffes and hundreds of gnarly trees and spiky bushes that have adapted to life in this sun-scorched environment.

It’s hard to imagine the ocean is just beyond the mountains, 40 miles away. It’s a seven-hour direct drive, taken on by only the most intrepid of travellers — and stories of people getting lost for days convince me to take a slower, clearer road. Eventually, the wheels crunch down a gravel strip that runs parallel to one of the most treacherous shores in the world: the Skeleton Coast.

On most days, the sun-bleached bones of whales and the rusty shells of shipwrecks and planes would sit beneath a low blanket of fog. But today, a bright blue sky makes the tumbling waves an inviting turquoise. I park up at Mowe Bay and wait for a more capable driver to shuttle me along the final stretch.

At Shipwreck Lodge, our guide, Shiimi, greets us with a smile before taking us out on the lodge’s high-speed quad bikes. We set off, accelerating up dunes so high and steep I feel like I’m hurtling into the sky. We reach the ridge and swoop down the other side. Miles and miles of golden sand spread out in front of us; the Kaokoveld, or ‘coast of loneliness’ in local Herero language, stretches beyond.

But there are more docile ways to take in this lodge’s remote setting, which sits at the mouth of the Hoarusib River. At the lodge, 10 cabins, designed in the style of shipwrecks, run parallel to the ocean and are cosily kitted out with wood-burning stoves.

Shiimi and I pitch up on the edge of the beach where a barbecued feast is laid out beside an audience of playful seals. Later, I strap myself into a seat on the roof of a jeep while Shiimi navigates the coastline, stopping to point out the remnants of the ships that ran aground on these formidable shores, and the jackals and hyenas that scavenge here for food. “To see this landscape — the ocean and the dunes — roll into one is what makes this place so special for me,” he tells us. “This place soothes my soul.”

I agree. The following morning, I wrap myself in a blanket to shield myself from the worst of the bracing Benguela Current breeze, sit back on a seat on my outside deck, and sip coffee to a soundtrack of pounding waves and wind whipping through the dunes. In the local Nama language, the word ‘Namib’ translates to ‘vast place of nothingness’. And I wouldn’t wish for anything more.

HOW TO DO IT: Abercrombie & Kent offers a 12-night ‘Discover Namibia’ trip from £3,995 per person (based on two sharing), including stays at Hoanib Valley Camp and Shipwreck Lodge, flights, car hire, private transfers, safari costs on a full-board basis and international flights. abercrombiekent.co.uk shipwrecklodge.com.na

ULTIMATE ADVENTURES FOR EVERY ABILITY

Namibia’s dramatic landscapes lend themselves to bucket-list experiences, from world-class hikes to hot air balloon rides. Here’s how to match your activities to your mettle

Hiking the Fish River Canyon Trail

More than 650 million years in the making, Fish River Canyon is Africa’s mightiest gorge. Snaking through weathered layers of cocoa-coloured sandstone, dolomite and gneiss, it dominates the arid northeastern reaches of the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, along the border with South Africa.

Visitors can drink in the canyon’s stark drama from Fish River Lodge, whose luxurious contemporary chalets perch on the rim, or from the public viewpoints. However, the most exciting way to experience this exceptional location is to tackle the classic 55-mile, five-day hike from Hobas to Ai-Ais Springs, wild camping on the way.

While it offers epic scenery, starry nights and a true sense of adventure, it’s not exactly a breeze: you’ll be on your feet for up to eight hours each day, crossing rocky terrain with a backpack loaded with gear, food and water. The toughest challenge comes near the start: a two-hour descent from the rim to the floor.

Over the following days, there are boulders to negotiate and shallow waters to wade through. Barren as your surroundings may appear, you’ll be sharing them with wild animals: klipspringers, hyraxes and Hartmann’s mountain zebras occasionally materialise, only to vanish among the rocks.

Permission to hike the Fish River Canyon trail and stay at the lodges and campsites needs to be booked in advance with Namibia Wildlife Resorts. The trail is only open from May to mid-September. nwr.com.na fishriverlodge-namibia.com

E-biking in a desert reserve

On the rubble-strewn, mountain-fringed plain that is the Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve, two looping tracks — one seven miles, the other 12 miles — invite you to explore by e-bike, either independently or with one of the reserve’s guides. Plants and animals are scarce in this pristine region, so every sighting feels like a gift. andbeyond.com

River and ocean kayaking

Namibia’s river kayaking locations couldn’t be further apart: the Orange River marks the border with South Africa in the south, while the Kunene borders Angola in the north. The Orange is a relatively gentle option but the Kunene is wilder: watch out for crocs. Exceptionally keen kayakers have linked them in a single trip by paddling the entire 1,000-mile Atlantic coast. umkuluadventures.com

Stargazing on a sleepout in the NamibRand

Can there ever be too many stars in the sky? In the NamibRand Nature Reserve — Africa’s first and only certified International Dark Sky Reserve — the heavens seem so full that it can be difficult, at first, to tell one constellation from the next, but savvy hiking guides armed with laser pointers can help decode the dazzle. Cosy camp beds, set out on the sand, allow you to enjoy the skies before you sleep. toktokkietrails.com

Running an ultramarathon

Namibia hosts several extreme running events each year, including the five-stage, 155-mile Desert Ultra across the Namib desert from Spitzkoppe, northwest of Windhoek. The course leads through arid grasslands where massive granite inselbergs shimmer in the heat-haze. Rugged conditions and wildly varying temperatures (as low as 5C at night and to up to 55C by day) make this an unforgettable challenge. beyondtheultimate.co.uk

Hot air ballooning over Sossusvlei

As any drone pilot knows, there’s endless fascination in a bird’s-eye view — and when the landscape is as richly patterned and hued as the southern Namib desert, the views can be exceptional. Once your balloon is aloft, you’ll float over dawn-tinged dunes and enigmatic fairy circles (rings of grass, thought to be caused by competition between termites and desert vegetation), perhaps spotting oryx or springboks far below. It’s utterly serene. balloon-safaris.com

Sandboarding in Swakopmund

Founded as a German enclave in the 1890s, Swakopmund has since been taken over by outdoor adventure enthusiasts. For sandboarding fans, the call of the dunes on the outskirts of town is strong. While Sossusvlei’s slopes may be three times as high, Swakopmund’s are steep enough to give you plenty of acceleration. It’s a long climb to the top, but the buzz as you hurtle down, either standing up or lying down, is worth every step. alter-action.info

Sightseeing from a light aircraft

At ground level, the Skeleton Coast can sometimes seem a desolate, windswept place. But when viewed from the air on a flight out of Swakopmund, its subtle beauties emerge. Drifts of seals clump together on the shore, Atlantic surf crashes against the dunes and, with luck, you may see desert elephants wandering the dry riverbeds. Heading south across the Namib-Naukluft National Park is thrilling, too: the desert unfurls beneath you like an abstract tapestry stitched in ochre, russet and gold. eagleeyeaviation.com.na EG

HOW TO PLAN

A SELF-DRIVE TOUR

Flying in and out of lodges and camps on small planes is a fun and fast way to travel, but to really see the country and its landscape, allocate some extra time and plan a road trip. It’s adventurous and cheap — even more so if you go for a vehicle with a roof tent. You’ll likely drive for hours without seeing another vehicle or person, so make sure you’re well prepared

1 CARRY SIX GALLONS OF WATER PER PERSON

Don’t underestimate how much water you’ll get through when driving, and always factor in unexpected stops. All locals will tell you this is rule number one.

2 PLAN YOUR ROUTE (AND YOUR PETROL)

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