South Africa might get all the attention, but Namibia knows how to draw the crowds, too.
- Observing wildlife—the elephant, for instance—that has adapted to the harsh desert.
- Climbing the world’s tallest sand dunes.
- Tracking black and white rhino on foot.
- Viewing pre-historic rock art of the original Bushman communities.
- Chasing cheetah—the largest population in the world.
There are good reasons why major North American travel companies are showcasing in new journeys that Namibia is indeed a safari destination with a difference. Geographically, it straddles two great deserts: the Namib (after which it is named), the oldest desert on the planet and whose sea of red sand stretches along the Atlantic coastline all the way to Angola; and in the eastern interior, the Kalahari, a vast and sparsely vegetated savannah that sprawls across the border into South Africa and Botswana. Variously governed until independence in 1990 by Germany and South Africa, traditionally Namibia is the homeland of 12 major ethnic groups, with the majority from the Owambo tribe, and other groups visitors meet such as the nomadic Himba people of the north, and even the San and Tswana bushmen of the Kalahari.
Namibia’s expansive landscape embraces Windhoek, the capital and gateway to national parks and game reserves that boast a huge variety of wildlife living in a kaleidoscope of environments. Here, giraffes amble across the blinding white salt pans of Etosha National Park; gemsboks plunge headlong up the impossibly steep and soaring red dunes at Sossusvlei; and riverbeds provide just enough water to support specially adapted animals such as oryx, jackal, springbok, ostrich and spotted hyena. During flood season, migratory birds appear along the marshes and rivers, while seals by the many thousands colonize lonely beachheads along the Skeleton Coast. And lest you think the landscape is lifeless, the reality is astonishing—there are approximately 4,000 species of plants, 676 species of birds and 217 species of mammals. And in such a dry place, the sun-loving lizard species numbers 125—the richest lizard fauna in Africa.
We found no more enthusiastic cheerleader for the wonders of Namibia than Moira Smith, Africa director for Goway Travel. “Namibia is in demand in the last couple of years. Namibia is magnificent, with its unique, other-worldly landscapes, with 40 percent of the land under conservation management.” Smith’s list of wonders includes the desolate Fish River Canyon in the south, second only to the Grand Canyon in size and grandeur; the towering sand dunes at Sossusvlei, “utterly mesmerizing”; charming Swakopmund, a city on the coast of western Namibia of German origin and Namibia’s adventure hub—from surfing and sandboarding, to horse-back riding and skydiving; and wild and magical Damaraland, with its bushman relics and desert-adapted elephant and rhino.
getting your rhinos right
Speaking of rhinos, both black and white rhinos are found in Namibia. But it’s good to know that the difference between the two has nothing to do with color; in fact they’re about the same dark color. The white rhino gets its name from the German word “weit,” meaning wide mouthed, while the black rhinos have a hook-lipped mouth.
Custom designed in partnership with World Wildlife Fund experts and local researchers involved with wildlife conservation, Natural Habitat Adventures is focusing solely on one species in its new Namibia: In Search of the Desert Rhino itinerary. Staying at the Desert Rhino Camp, guests will be tracking the desert rhino on foot in private reserves such as the Palmwag and Ongava private concessions and heading out on night drives and other bush walks. Ongava is adjacent to wildlife-rich Etosha National Park, explored “off piste” in 4x4s. With accommodations all along the way in isolated luxury camps, other highlights of this 10-day itinerary include flying along the Skeleton Coast to Damaraland, viewing such wildlife as giraffes, gemsboks and desert-adapted elephants, plus going on cultural visits with the local and nomadic Himba community. Departures, each limited to 12 participants, are scheduled Sept. 29 and Oct. 17 in 2015, and the tour is priced from $9,895 pp sharing.
chasing the wildlife
On Absolute Travel’s 12-day Pure Namibia tour, a special feature is a visit to Okonjima, home to the AfriCat Foundation, a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to creating conservation awareness, preserving habitat and supporting animal welfare. AfriCat runs the largest cheetah and leopard rescue and release program in the world, and in the last 17 years, over 1,000 of these predators have been rescued and over 85 percent released back into the wild. Tour activities include leopard tracking by vehicle, a visit to the cheetah welfare project and a visit to the night hide where nocturnal animals such as porcupine, caracal, honey badger and even leopard show up. Other trip highlights include rock-art viewing at Twyfelfontein (a UNESCO World Heritage site); tracking desert-adapted elephants; exploring Hartmann’s Valley; visiting authentic Himba settlements; overnighting on an “island” on the Skeleton Coast; staying in the NamibRand Nature Reserve; and ATVing and climbing some of the world’s highest sand dunes. Priced at $16,400 pp sharing.
Absolute Travel: (212) 627-1950; absolutetravel.com
Namibia Tourism Board: namibiatourism.com
Natural Habitat Adventures: (800) 543-8917; nathab.com or travel-consultants.nathab.com
TOUR OPERATOR INTEL
Goway Travel’s Africa director, Moira Smith, points out that it’s easy to love a country hosting four of the five Big Five—free-roaming lions, elephants, leopards and two species of rhinos, as well as 23 colonies of Cape Fur seals that inhabit the Skeleton Coast, where hundreds of thousands of flamingos descend on Walvis Bay’s lagoon. On Walvis Bay cruises, she points out, on view are dolphins, seals, leather-back turtles and often whales. Additionally, Namibia is noted for its stars not its nightlife, and according to Smith, “many lodges have astronomers in residence to guide guests around the skies.” And those skies are clearest in winter, April to November; Smith’s favorite travel months are May and September.
With 17 different itineraries available, Goway has a full roster of options for touring. Consider three examples, all priced at a pp sharing basis:
- Exploring Namibia is a 13-day, small group tour covering both the northern and southern highlights in-depth: Kalahari Desert, Fish River Canyon, coastal Luderitz, Sossusvlei, NamibRand Nature Reserve, and Sesriem Canyon. Staying in first class lodges and camps and priced from $2,749.
- Best of Namibia Circuit Flying Safari is the company’s luxury best seller, allowing for flexibility to experience different destinations over a short period of time, with the added bonus of glorious flightseeing. This 7-day itinerary features the sands and red dunes of Sossusvlei, the stark plains of Damaraland, and the amazing wildlife abundance on the savannah of Etosha National Park. Featuring deluxe lodges; priced from $8,027.
- Jewels of Namibia appeals to the intrepid traveler, who, because of safe and secure surroundings, as well as a good road and accommodations infrastructure, travels easily on this 12-day self-drive itinerary, exploring NamibRand Nature Reserve, Sossusvlei and Damaraland. Accommodations at first-class hotels and camps, priced from $2,749.
Tammy Vu, product manager for Travcoa, points out that “we used to offer Namibia on an escorted group-tour basis. However, so much of what you need to cover in the country is best done by air, and for a group, you need larger aircraft than those readily available—such as 12-seater Caravans—to make operations easier and keep the costs reasonable.”
The Travcoa alternative was to move Namibia from an Escorted Journey to a Private Journey, operated with mostly the Cessna, which is a five-seater, points out Vu, “but we charter for four passengers to leave room for extra luggage.”
Called Red Sands of Namibia, the 8-day itinerary starts with a light aircraft flight from Windhoek and spends two nights in the NamibRand Nature Reserve. From accommodations in the Wolwedans Dunes Lodge, guests go on game drives, viewing antelopes, oryx gazella, springboks and more than 100 species of birds. Continuing overland, the next stop is the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, set along the towering red sand dunes of the Namib Desert. Here, for two days, guests enjoy dune walks or guided nature drives, including a sunrise outing to view dramatic, mile-long Sesriem Canyon. Next, guests fly north to Damaraland, staying at the Mowani Mountain Camp and spending two days on safari drives in search of elephants, oryx gazella, springboks, lions, cheetahs and black rhinos. Also available are guided bike excursions and a tour of the ancient Twyfelfontein rock carvings. Then, guests fly back to Windhoek for the final night at the Olive Boutique Hotel. The tour is priced from $4,545 pp dbl land-only, and $1,700 for inter-tour air.