AS EXTRAORDINARY DESTINATIONS GO, NAMIBIA RANKS EASILY WITHIN THE PLANET’S TOP TEN. IT’S A PHOTOGRAPHER’S DREAM, AN ASTRONOMER’S HEAVEN, AN ECO-TOURIST’S INSPIRATION, A BIRD-WATCHER’S PARADISE AND A DESERT-LOVER’S DELIGHT. AND THAT’S JUST FOR STARTERS.
This former German colony is one of the least crowded countries in the planet. Imagine a country the size of France, (with which Namibia shares a time zone), but with only the population of Paris. Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, is Africa’s cleanest capital city.
While tourists flock to neighbouring South Africa, few venture northwards up the Atlantic Coast into Namibia. This is a pity because Namibia is a place that can’t help but attract superlatives.
Lonely Planet describes its ethereal charm: “Namibia is one of those dreamlike places that make you question whether something so visually orgasmic could actually exist. Time and space are less defined here. Landscapes collide. Experiences pile up…. “
Doesn’t it just make you want to jump on a plane? Well, there’s no jetlag when travelling from Europe, but remember our summer is their winter because it’s in the opposite hemisphere. Temperatures in high summer (Jan – Feb) can reach 35C frequently accompanied by torrential afternoon downpours, but in winter time it cools down considerably to around 20 – 25C – dropping to freezing in the desert at night.
Once the summer rains begin, however, the landscape changes dramatically. It’s a time when the animals leave their waterholes and meander around. Flash floods can occur. And thousands of flamingos flock to the 5,000sq kilometre salt pan at Etosha National Park in the north of the county as it floods over. The coastal wetlands, waterways, vast areas of savannah and seasonal floodplains, are a major attraction for several hundred species of birds, enticing bird-watchers worldwide.
Photographer, Jan Ison, visited Namibia one August and highly recommends the time of year. She spent a couple of weeks travelling around on a photographic expedition and loved her experiences so much, she’s planning to return next year.
With such diverse scenery, there’s a lot to cover in Namibia. If you’ve plenty of time, take an overland option (but check the comfort of the seating first, suggests Jan!). If your budget is flexible, you can fly between the various sites instead.
A tranquil balloon ride remains one of Jan’s highlights. “Going up in a hot air balloon over the Sossusvlei area was absolutely amazing, “ she recalls, “And then the champagne breakfast in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by amazing coloured dunes and statuesque trees…”
The sand dunes are iconic. In the Sossusvlei area, you can go dune walking, you need to be reasonably fit for this. So it was thrilling to hear from someone who’d actually trudged up those towering tangerine sand dunes that almost reach the height of the Empire State Building and felt that desert solitude described so hauntingly by the likes of Laurens Van der Post and Isabelle Eberhardt (the world’s first hippy).
The area is nirvana for photography and the best time to capture the changing colours deflected by the sunlight is around sunrise or sunset. Nearby is the famous Deadvlei (the dead marsh dotted with desiccated trees over 1,000 years old), a place Jan had long wanted to photograph.
“Unfortunately we weren’t there long enough”, admits Jan, “I had just got my camera positioned on my bean bag and taken a half a dozen images before realising the group had nearly disappeared over the sand dune to return to our coach!”
Tourists on safari are in for a wonderful surprise: Visitors can see the Big Five in the wild, making Namibia’s safari experience unique. It’s the only country in the world where black rhino roam freely and it’s also home to the desert-dwelling elephant. More cheetahs roam free here than anywhere else in the world and animals such as Oryx, ostrich, springbok and bat-eared fox can all be seen on a regular basis.
“We had great fun watching two Oryx chasing each other around one of the water holes”, recalls Jan in Etosha National Park, “Those horns are very long and I’m sure could do some nasty damage. The other animals scattered very quickly!”
The number of National Parks is set to increase as the President is eager to demonstrate his commitment to conservation. Countries around the world are studying the Namibian model of conservation, and two World Wildlife Foundation Gift to Earth Awards have already been bestowed upon Namibia.
In fact, the entire rugged west coast, a massive coastal desert straddling the Atlantic Ocean (dubbed the Skeleton Coast because of the various shipwrecks marooned there), is set to become a National Park; the largest National Park in Africa. Eco-tourism isn’t just an aspiration here, it’s a cultural raison d’être.
As well as being another amazing place to photograph, Fish River Canyon in the south of Nambia rivals the Grand Canyon in the US. This deep and wide ravine carves its way through the dry plateau for almost a hundred miles, attracting hardy hikers and trail runners during the cooler months of May to September. There’s even a four-day hike (with no facilities) and you need doctor’s approval.
But whatever your activity, what better to end each day than kicking back and staring at the night sky? Namibia features in the top three destinations on the planet for star-gazing. With virtually no artificial light or air pollution, there’s a magnificent clarity to the cloudless night sky that conspires to create the most perfect conditions for astronomy. No wonder it’s a magnet for respected astronomers as well as those drawn to holidays based upon star-gazing. There’s truly something for everyone in Namibia.