An Arid Adventure - The Namibian Desert Safari Experience

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A Namibian safari is something that you will never forget: incredible vistas, surprisingly varied ecosystems (considering a lot of it is desert), and wonderful wildlife experiences. Experiencing Namibia as a self-drive is highly recommended as you have the opportunity to stop whenever you want to simply allow your brain to comprehend the extraordinary scenery that you can see. It is the arid nature of the Namibian environment that makes an incredible visual impact on any traveler.

Sossusvlei – A Sea of Sand Dunes

Sossusvlei features most often at the top of people’s most memorable experiences in Namibia – here, you can see iconic and rich red sand dunes, stark and white dried-up salt pans, and dark chocolate brown petrified trees dotted artistically across the landscape. You simply cannot take a bad picture here.

Dead Vlei in Sossusvlei, is visually stunning with gigantic star-shaped mountains of sand, encompassing at least half of the area. Nothing really prepares you for this unusual scenery and it takes a bit of getting used to, in order to comprehend the magnificence of it all.

Make sure you plan ahead and get up early so that you are at the main entrance gate as the sun rises. It is a long day but definitely worth it and you will probably return to your accommodation completely frazzled – both in body and mind!


Where to stay:

Kulala Desert Lodge is located in its own private reserve that borders Sossusvlei; here you can get private access to the sand dunes. The great thing about Kulala is that you can sleep out under the stars on specially-made beds on top of your private cottages. And if it does get a little bit cold, then you can retreat to your other bed inside. The choice is entirely yours.

What to see:

Magnificent sand dunes! Why not attempt to climb one of these? The views from the top are astounding.

Namib – Naukluft – Wild Walking

Driving from Sossusvlei towards Swakopmund, you will have the absolute pleasure of traveling through the stunning landscape of the Namib Naukluft Park, which covers almost 50,000 square kilometers and is one of the largest conservation areas in Africa. Make sure you allow sufficient time to observe it. The roads are spectacular, so be sure to stop, take photographs, and have a picnic surrounded by space and silence.

Although Rostock Ritz is not actually in the Namib Naukluft, it is right on the very edge and it might as well be there with the scenery that it has to offer from the lodge. Put on your walking boots and hike the numerous self-guided trails based on the lodge’s reception.

Have your own mini-adventure and hike along the ridge tops keeping an eye out for zebra and oryx. You would be forgiven for thinking that these animals could not survive in this area, especially in the rocky areas, but be prepared to be very surprised! The colors of the area are astounding: rich ochre reds and pinks dotted with burnt brown scraggly bushes, a vivid green cactus, or a bright white vein of quartz. There is too much to take in and it’s worth simply sitting and enjoying the view – this is the essence of Namibia.

namib desert

Where to stay:

Rostock Ritz Desert Lodge is a lodge that blends beautifully with its environment, with minimal ecological impact. People that stay there are looking to immerse themselves in a desert environment.

What to see:

Simply explore the surrounding area by walking one of the numerous trails. Make sure when driving that you stop frequently to take in the scenery.

Northern Namib – Naukluft – Welwitschia Wonders

A very popular feature of the Namib Naukluft Park is the Welwitschia Trail which lies just east of Swakopmund. Some of these plants are estimated to be around 1,500 years old and you can take a scenic drive along the Welwitschia trail stopping at recommended points, one of which looks over a valley known as Moon landscape, which is obviously named! Take time here as the scenery is really eerie and it is hard to believe that you are still on Earth. Follow the route which is marked with stone cairns so you know when to stop and learn something new about the environment.

The Welwitschia plant is a botanical curiosity and there are large concentrations found along this trail. These weird species have separate male and female plants which are pollinated by beetles, which are also pretty rare, so it is a wonder that these plants have managed to survive for so long and in such an arid and inhospitable environment. The end of the trail is marked by one of the largest plants in the area and is certainly worth a visit.

welweitshia plant

Where to stay:

Cornerstone Guesthouse, Swakopmund, is one of the friendliest places in Swakopmund and the owners’ knowledge is incredible. Stay at either their B&B or one of their self-catering apartments on the seafront.

What to see:

There are numerous things to see and do at Swakopmund, ranging from water-based activities to desert safaris. Things to do include catamaran trips to see pelicans and flamingos, canoeing with seals, desert tours to see the smaller animals and a remote Sandwich Harbour experience.

The Coast – Wrecks and Seals

Continuing up the coast from Swakopmund, suddenly you are away from human habitation with only the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto windswept beaches. This is treacherous for shipping and there are numerous shipwrecks along the coast, particularly further north in the Skeleton Coast National Park.
The coastal road is very bleak and arid despite the proximity to the sea. You may think that few things grow here, and you are probably right, however, just north of the turnoff to the Cape Cross Nature Reserve is an enormous lichen field where you can get out of your car and sprinkle a little water on the ground and see them all come to life. It is extraordinary.

Driving along this road you probably won’t have seen much wildlife but turning off to visit the Cape Cross Seal Reserve you are suddenly assaulted with the sound and smell of thousands of seals, a population increasing to more than 250,000. There are huge barking bulls, females calling for their young and black seal pups bleating pitifully for milk – it is a deafening cacophony enriched by the acrid smell of seal dung. Despite this rather unpleasant intrusion on your senses it is mesmerizing to watch the mini-stories within this seal colony unfold!


Where to stay:

Cape Cross Lodge is set on the bleak Skeleton Coast and this harsh remoteness is what makes it so memorable.

What to see:

Driving up the coast is awe-inspiring to see some of the shipwrecks and a visit to the Cape Cross Seal Colony is a must.

Southern Damaraland – Bushman Engravings

Moving inland from the coast, you can see stretches of land strewn with boulders, rocky outcrops, and geological formations in a multitude of colors. Namibia’s World Heritage site, Twyfelfontein, is an open-air gallery of over 2,000 rock engravings, representing one of Africa’s largest concentrations of important rock art. Estimated to be around 6,000 years old, it is believed that these pictures of creatures and signs were created by the medicine people to record their experiences among the spirits. These beautiful rock engravings are a connection to our past and a legacy to be protected.

There are a number of different trails to walk along to see these beautiful carvings, and they have been cleverly designed for different levels of fitness. Taking a guided tour allows you to learn more about the people once living in this harsh environment. There are even pictures of flamingos here, which makes you wonder whether the area had water, or whether it was from people who had traveled the vast distances from the coastline on foot.

Close by is the Petrified Forest where a cataclysmic event millions of years ago changed enormous tree trunks into stone, Burnt Mountain which burns a brilliant scarlet red as the sun sets, and the Organ Pipes which are another geological curiosity of the area.

rock engravings

Where to stay:

Mowani Mountain Camp is beautifully blended into rocky outcrops and some of the luxury canvas rooms have outdoor baths and showers in the overhangs of the local rocks. Wake up to the peace and tranquility of the desert and the spectacular view onto the vast open plains of Damaraland.

What to see:

A visit to Twyfelfontein is a must, and also a safari to search for the elusive desert elephants is highly recommended. Take time to watch the sun go down on top of the warm rocks and watch the colors change from pale golden yellow to deep russet red.

Northern Damaraland – Track Black Rhino

Traveling even further north from Mowani, there is the opportunity to explore the vast concession area that is home to a number of rare black rhinos. If you have the time then this is an absolute gem of a place and you will certainly be in the middle of nowhere!

Desert Rhino Camp works in conjunction with Save the Rhino Trust and here you can participate in tracking black rhinos. Be prepared for a full day of traveling and immersing yourself in the environment. The undulating terrain of Damaraland is very difficult to do justice in describing the scenery: if you are agoraphobic certainly do not come here. But if you are into ever-changing panoramic views, contrasting colors, and the sense of being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, then this is certainly the place for you.

The anticipation of seeing these endangered animals is well worth the full-day safari and you may even get the opportunity to see lions, hyenas, and other animals. It is the ultimate safari experience in an arid environment. And the best thing is that at the end of the day you can watch the sun set over the magnificent scenery – an unforgettable experience.


Where to stay:

Desert Rhino Camp is in a vast private concession and the enormous luxury canvas has private verandas overlooking a vast expanse of scenery which is an absolute privilege to stay in.

What to see:

Track adopted black rhino and other wildlife and experience the privilege of being in some of the most stunning scenery that you may ever have the opportunity to visit.

Self Drive Across Etosha – A Wildlife Extravaganza

From Desert Rhino Camp the road winds its way through some incredible passes and over some amazing mountain ranges towards the large flat expanse of Etosha. Etosha National Park is one of southern Africa’s most spectacular wildlife reserves and its uniqueness in wildlife sightings justifies its title as the country’s flagship park. The enormous salt pan of Etosha, which means Great White Place, temporarily fills with water during the rainy season which attracts a host of flamingos and pelicans.

Normally Etosha is an arid area with water normally only present in the pans dotted around the park and these permanent waterholes entice many animals into drinking. The beauty of Etosha is that it has marvelous game sightings and the expectation of seeing something remarkable keeps you alert for hours on end.

Doing a self-drive across the park involves the excitement of planning a route trying to encompass as many waterholes as possible. However, don’t switch off when driving from one waterhole to the next, as some of the most incredible sightings can be seen away from these busy areas and you may have that unique opportunity of having a one-to-one with one of the “big five” game animals – a lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. So keep your eyes peeled.

The beauty of driving yourself is that you can stop and look at things for as long as you want to and you don’t get swept up with other people trying to spy as many animals as possible. Some of the best memories when visiting Africa are collected by traveling at a slow pace and allowing the surroundings to speak for themselves. So pay attention to the smaller things, sit and relax at waterholes, and just enjoy the scenery – you never know what is coming around the corner.


Where to stay:

Staying outside the park is much more cost-effective and there are many lodges that have their own waterholes as well, so you can sit in front of the floodlit arena and have your own play pan out for you. Try Ongava on the western border and Mushara or Onguma on the eastern border – all are unique and quintessential safari camps.

What to see:

Wildlife of course! Immerse yourself in this incredible national park and make sure you give yourself enough time to cross it. Nine hours should be enough to cover 190km (118mi).

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Jenny Bowen

Jenny has been organising specialist safari for 15 years through her business: Sense Africa. She is a qualified ecologist, and enjoys writing about the many once-in-a-lifetime experiences of Africa. Follow her blog for more African Safari stories and information, and keep up-to-date on the wonders of Africa by following her on Twitter or Facebook

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