Monday 21 October 2019

The Namibia Bucket List: 10 things to do on your next African adventure

From the 'Ghosts of Etosha' to the world's largest free-roaming cheetah population, Namibia is a wildlife lover's dream...

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune in Namibia. Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune in Namibia. Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images.
A lioness in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson
A zebra in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson
Black Rhino blocking the path. Photo: David Dawson
David in the Deadvlei
A cheetah in Namibia. Photo: David Dawson
An abandoned lighthouse on the Skeleton Coast. Photo: David Dawson
Sundowners in Okonjima. Photo: David Dawson
Leopards in Okonjima Nature Reserve. Photo: David Dawson
A White Elephant in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson
The Zelia India, on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. Photo: David Dawson
A tiny Dik Dik in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson
Tourists climbing the dunes in the Namib Sand Sea. Photo: David Dawson
Himba Woman with ochre hair. Photo: David Dawson
Desert Adapted Elephand and Calf in Namibia. Photo: David Dawson.

David Dawson

Namibia, the driest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to hardy animals and friendly people. With good infrastructure and a developed tourism industry, it's a relatively easy place to get around, too.

I have travelled around the world, and visited several countries in Africa, but Namibia holds a special place in my heart. It was long on my bucket list, and didn't disappoint. Here are 10 reasons why you should add it to yours.

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1. Vast Deserts

Tourists climbing the dunes in the Namib Sand Sea.jpg
Tourists climbing the dunes in the Namib Sand Sea. Photo: David Dawson

The Namib Sand Sea is Africa's only fog desert (where fog drip supplies moisture to support life), and one of the oldest deserts in the world.

It's protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. Running north-south for much of the length of the country, it reaches all the way down to the sea. On some of the dunes you can see small beetles, made famous by David Attenborough's Planet Earth II. They scale dunes the size of mountains at dawn to collect water from fog - it forms droplets on their bodies and provides them with precious grams of water.

I realised how out of shape I was when climbing the famous Dune 45. To be fair, it's over 170m tall and the fine soft sand makes the ascent tough going. The view over Deadvlei from (ok, near) the top is well worth it though!

2. The Deadvlei

David in the Deadvlei.jpg
David in the Deadvlei

Like something out of a Mad Max film (much of Fury Road was actually filmed in Namibia), Deavlei is literally a dead valley in the desert, created when an underground river changed its path, taking the only water source with it. Now it’s a salt pan with dead trees set against a backdrop of bright red sand dunes and a cloudless, rainless sky.

The spectacle at dawn is a must see, and for amateur and professional photographers alike a kind of pilgrimage across the dunes. It's pretty surreal at times - being here really does feel like some kind of dystopian future; a dead place - albeit one where people walk around taking the perfect Instagram shots.

3. White Elephants

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A White Elephant in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson

In Etosha National Park there are elephants that cover themselves with mud so lightly coloured it makes the elephants appear white when it’s dry. These elephants range far and wide in search of water and vegetation, and as they appear on the dust-filled horizon they have a ghostly appearance, gaining the nickname the ‘Ghosts of Etosha’. I’m sure they are doing what they have done for years, but the way they appear out of the haze headed straight for a water hole they can’t see is still pretty eerie.

4. Leopards

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Leopards in Okonjima Nature Reserve. Photo: David Dawson

Namibia is still a place where you have a decent chance of seeing leopards, one of the world’s most elusive cats. We saw some in Okonjima camp, part of the Africat Foundation, set up to ensure the survival of Namibia’s large carnivore species. It’s part of a 55,000 acre nature reserve that was once farmland, but now allowed to return to its natural state.

Although some of the leopards are collared, even with a radio transmitter there are no guarantees and it’s still only a tool in the experienced guide's kit. If there is a better adventure in the world than tracking Leopards in the wild armed with nothing more than a camera, a hat and a promise of a sundowner than I haven’t heard of it!

5. Cheetahs

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A cheetah in Namibia. Photo: David Dawson

Namibia is also home to the world’s largest free-roaming and wild cheetah population. The animals are under pressure from humans, as they are in all of their habitats, so seeing one of the most beautiful cats is always difficult. Even in National Parks they are under threat, being pushed out by stronger and bigger carnivores, like Leopards, Lions and Hyenas that will kill them or their cubs to reduce competition.

In Okonjima you are able, under strict guidance, to leave the safari vehicles behind and follow them on foot. It’s amazing how much more respect you gain for these creatures as soon as you step out. Previously, I thought these big cats were nothing to fear, being much lighter than their lion cousins. However, you quickly realise that perfectly capable of reaching motorway speeds in the blink of an eye.

The guides are always very calm, and by staying in a group and not running away you are kept safe, even from the two brother cats that tolerated us for a few minutes before trotting down the track in search of their breakfast.

6. Desert-Adapted Elephants

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Desert Adapted Elephand and Calf in Namibia. Photo: David Dawson.

Elephants are such a must-see, they make my Namibia bucket list twice! Desert Elephants were once thought to be a separate sub-species of the African Elephant. They have longer legs, smaller bodies and wider foot-pads to cope with the conditions. They have also made behavioral changes, migrating further as water patterns change, and water holes dry up and food runs out.

How they find new water holes is a combination of sense and memory - the animals travel up to 70km during cooler nights to find new water sources. Often, there isn’t even anything to see on the surface, and the elephants have to dig down to get to the water.

As they roam over such a wide area; taking the time to follow their tracks down dry riverbeds and being lucky enough to see them in their natural habitat is a really special experience in Namibia.

7. Black Rhinos

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Black Rhino blocking the path. Photo: David Dawson

Rhinos are such a delicate subject in Namibia, as the war between poachers and rangers continues on. The request of tourists is that if they do take pictures of rhinos, they make sure they are not Geo-tagged with the phone or camera’s GPS co-ordinates, as this could tip off poachers to the whereabouts of these gentle giants.

Seeing a rhino with its horn intact is bittersweet, as it’s a tool to the rhino, using it for protection and fighting - but unfortunately, it puts it a greater risk. The Namibian government reportedly removed hundreds of horns from rhinos in an effort to protect them.

It feels a little sad writing about their fight for survival rather than what impressive creatures they are. Rhinos really are the tanks of the natural world; I remember reading about how a five-year-old might name animals - and calling them a battle unicorn seems perfectly apt nowadays.

It's not only rhino that need all the help they can get, however - it's much of the bush wildlife; and by travelling with a responsible operator tourists can help to ensure these animals have the land and the protection that they so desperately need for generations to come.

More: Black Rhino are back in Kenya - and tracking them on foot is a dream come true

8. The Himba People

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Himba Woman with ochre hair. Photo: David Dawson

The last semi-nomadic people of Namibia, the Himba people I met were very friendly, and proud of their traditions - as well as sharing them with us. Many have their skin covered with a mixture of ochre and butterfat, helping keep it clean and protected from the sun in such a dry environment.

Hair plaits (above) are made from a similar mixture, with different styles signifying different marital statuses. It’s a long way off the beaten track to meet them, but heading out to re-supply some essentials and trade stories is worth the bumpy track.

9. The Skeleton Coast

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The Zelia India, on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. Photo: David Dawson

The Skeleton Coast is one of the top things to do in Namibia, taking its name from a time when whale and seal bones littered the coast - a legacy of the whaling industry. In modern times, the name remains fitting - more than a thousand skeletons of ships are strewn up and down the coast, caught by offshore rocks amid heavy fog.

After a long and very hot few days, the fresh sea air is very welcome. We stayed in Swakopmund, an old German colony, which still retains many of its original character. A lot of people either head out on quad bikes into the dunes, or catch some surf on the South Atlantic swell here. We went for the more sedate option, with some of our group heading out on a catamaran with Champagne while my wife and I went kayaking.

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Sundowners in Okonjima. Photo: David Dawson

Even that was an adventure, with our guide being a Schalk Louw, a former motorcycle stunt rider (on Mad Max:Fury Road) who drove us out across the sand to pelican point in the biggest four-by-four I’ve ever seen, nicknamed ‘the limo’.

The reason we headed out so far out on the spit of sand is so that we could kayak in waters surrounded by seal pups playing. Even our quiet days turned out to be an adventure in Namibia!

10. Etosha National Park

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A zebra in Etosha National Park. Photo: David Dawson

Aside from the animals that make Namibia a unique place for wildlife viewing, Etosha National Park also provides for great viewing of general big mammals.

Different to game viewing in East Africa, the land is much drier, especially in winter, and animals will travel great distances to visit waterholes, with natural ones supplemented by some that are man-made.

The Etosha Pan that gives the park its name is a 120km salt pan on the edge of the savannah - it provides a stunning backdrop to many a wildlife picture. In the rest of the park, zebra and giraffe are common, but always lovely to see, especially with the slender giraffes gracefully bending down to drink.

With a bit of luck you should be able to spot lions and hyenas, although leopards and cheetahs are harder to see. Time and luck are required.

Time is certainly one of the things you will be wishing for in Namibia... one more trip, one more day out on safari, or just one last sundowner.

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