Only in Namibia can watching a single elephant be far more powerful than witnessing an entire herd, and can staring out at a sea of sand feel like a religious experience. That’s partially thanks to the otherworldly landscapes, which elevate every wildlife sighting and outing to supernatural status. On my recent trip to the sparsely populated African nation, I was awed by the simple act of a sole bull elephant strolling on an arrow-straight path across the sandy, dried Huab River in Damaraland, jagged mountains rising purple and blue behind his approaching and growing silhouette, slow footsteps eventually audible. By Kathryn Romeyn
There’s beauty in the minuscule and mighty alike in Namibia — a photographer’s paradise, even for amateurs. While it’s not undiscovered, wildlife-rich destinations such as South Africa, Tanzania, and Botswana typically seduce those seeking quantity. Wildlife here might be in less prolific numbers (though there’s a healthy population of rhinoceros), but Namibia is arguably about quality, as well as colours so wild you almost don’t believe your eyes.
Here’s how to plan a trip to Namibia
The last five years have been huge for tourism, evidenced by dozens of new luxury lodges and camps — see Zannier Hotels Omaanda, Zannier Hotels Sonop, Shipwreck Lodge, Hoanib Valley Camp, the fantastical four-bedroom villa The Nest @ Sossus, a total rebuild of andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, and Wilderness Safaris’ Little Kulala renovation. The pandemic didn’t stop this progress, despite a dearth of international visitors.
While adventurous road trip lovers can take on Namibia independently, the custom travel creators of Extraordinary Journeys are qualified to put together an epic itinerary and coordinate the logistics of charter flights. Leaving the details to them elicits exciting surprises, like a jaw-dropping Scenic Air flight from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei during which dunes fall into the Atlantic Ocean, colonies of seals frolic in the scalloped surf, shipwrecks loom, thousands of flamingos fly in synchronised fashion, and countless moments feel like soaring above an entirely different planet.
“There needs to be some art and beauty in your world to really appreciate it,” said Scenic Air pilot, Anthony, on our first flight from Windhoek. We were heading north to Onduli Ridge, but it felt more like we’d landed on Mars. In reality, it was Damaraland’s Doro !Nawas Conservancy, which at points looks like Joshua Tree on steroids.
“The roads are bumpy, but they say bumpy roads lead to beautiful destinations,” said our guide, William, as we approached a futuristic circular lodge perched among massive boulders. He was right: Namibian conservation travel company Ultimate Safaris opened Onduli Ridge in April 2021, and it’s a fantastical semi-arid oasis that’s most striking as the sun begins its daily descent and illuminates the granite in bright orange.
From that wraparound deck, restaurant, and bar spreads a limitless, sublime expanse that’s exciting yet calming. In the distance lies Twyfelfontein and its UNESCO World Heritage site of evocative sandstone engravings done by San people some 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. We searched for vulnerable Angolan giraffes one day, and desert-adapted elephants another, tracking sizable footprints before discovering a mama and baby nursing, playing and bathing in ethereal sand. (Desert adapted rhinos are another worthwhile goal requiring a dedicated, purposeful pursuit.) I felt like a superhero riding an e-bike through the super-flat, highly textured landscape, and learned about impressive anti-poaching efforts, fairy circles, and local fauna and flora, like the euphorbia damarana bush (dangerous to everyone but rhinos). “Those [rhinos] are being protected like presidents,” said William.
It’s not all high adventure: Namibian-made gin and tonics are a must during jaw-dropping sunsets, which precede creative dinners. The gorgeous free-form pool might just be the most serene place in Africa, and the six luxury huts are wholly original structures, with bathrooms built around behemoth boulders. Turndown service takes full advantage of the suite’s 180 degrees of louvred doors, and staff rolls the plush king bed out onto the panoramic wooden deck for nights spent under the stars.
The remote NamibRand Nature Reserve’s landscapes are equally endless, nuanced, and vivid. Kwessi Dunes sits astride a wavy pink dune that provides ample opportunity for relaxed days watching iconic oryx (Namibia’s national animal), dazzling zebras, a lone ostrich, and even black-backed jackals drinking in the watering holes by the elevated turquoise pool. This Natural Selection lodge of 12 thatched-roof canvas chalets is prone to unbelievable hourly changes, with the colour palette stretching to include neon oranges, cotton-candy pinks, and eerie purples saturated to psychedelic effect as the days wear on.
Quad bike outings, slow scenic drives, bird-watching, sundowner jaunts, and stargazing (from your outdoor shower-equipped chalet’s second bed in Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve) all lead to special, surreal moments. But a day trip to Sossusvlei in the UNESCO-protected Namib Sand Sea should be a part of every itinerary, too.
Spending time amid this instantly recognisable natural wonder — a panorama of colossal coral dunes and salt and clay pans — is far more compelling than even photos suggest. The garland of sculpted sand is breathtaking in the truest sense, especially on the breathless hour-long clamber up Big Daddy, which is like walking a tightrope made of the finest particles while gaining 1,066 feet of elevation. Up I wobbled, placing my boots in my husband’s disappearing footprints like a stair-climber melting away. The black diamond-grade descent was the biggest trip, like what I imagine walking in space to feel like. At the bottom, the sun-baked white clay pan of Deadvlei, ancient camel thorn trees rising like skeletons, is yet a different world.
Less than an hour from Windhoek, the physically and spiritually unique Habitas Namibia, which opened last year and marries two concepts that, once combined, seem like a no-brainer: safari and wellness. Arrival involves warm hugs and intention setting around a clay pot of Himba myrrh. The vibe throughout the 15 tented accommodations as well as the bohemian main tent, restaurant, and pool is celebratory, wrapping art, culture, and music into an all-embracing sensory hug.
On this vast lowveld savanna, a commercial farm being rehabilitated and rewilded, guides share knowledge — such as the fun springbok fact that they pronk (jump) as a sign of happiness and fitness — while navigating roads respectfully and intuitively. “You can’t preach about conservation if you’re going to forget about the little animals and their burrows to go see something big,” our guide, Shaanika, told us as we gawked at two white rhinoceros through binoculars.
Some days begin with hilltop yoga timed to the golden rising sun, while others wrap with the practice of meditation in the bush, followed by artisanal sundowners. Johannes, a San guide, shares stories over bonfires and enlightens guests on the tribe’s hunter-gatherer practices during nature walks that are like mini bush survival lessons. Spa therapies incorporate calabash gourds, Eastern modalities, and red hematite body masks à la the iconic Himba women. Creative and local meals are each as nourishing and beautiful as the black wildebeests, giraffes, and elephants down the hill. Here, elements of surprise are integral, joyful, and meditative all at once. Take, for instance, a thrilling music and dance performance by multicultural artists who drummed, stomped, chanted, and hip-shook their way to melted inhibitions (ours) and a high energy level (all of us) against purple skies. This was the mostt liberating gift, a way to foster true connection — not just to Namibia’s wilderness, but the wild within us all.