International flights arrive at Windhoek, the country’s capital and transport hub, conveniently located in the centre of Namibia. A small city, more akin to a provincial town, it’s a pleasant spot to wander around for a couple of days, taking in the few modest sights, browsing the shops and sampling the local cuisine. From here, you need to plot your route carefully; although the tarred and gravel roads are maintained to high standards in Namibia, the distances are vast, which means you can easily end up spending most of your time getting to places. That said, much of Namibia’s appeal lies in its vast, uninhabited landscapes, which are best appreciated by driving through them.
Most first-time visitors, and those short of time, travel a circuit round central and northern Namibia, but with a quick detour – by Namibian standards – southwest to the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where the towering apricot sand dunes that change colour with the light are truly spectacular. From here many visitors head northwest to enjoy the milder climate and colonial architecture of the country’s top coastal resort, Swakopmund, which lies almost due west of Windhoek. Though no beach hangout – it’s too cold to swim most of the year – it’s a fascinating place, surrounded by dunes that you can explore on foot, on horseback or on a quad bike; it’s also rapidly emerging as a centre for adventure sports, such as skydiving and sand-boarding. A short excursion south takes you to Walvis Bay, the country’s main port, where you can consort with seals, dolphins and pelicans on the lagoon.
Moving north, organized tours and self-drive travellers often take in the Cape Cross seal colony before cutting inland via the desolate, mist-shrouded Skeleton Coast National Park to Damaraland, where some of the country’s most evocative scenery lies. At the southerly limit of this region, the domed Erongo Mountains and the pointed Spitzkoppe – both composed of giant burnished granite slabs – provide wonderful hiking and birdwatching opportunities, as well as some examples of San rock paintings. Far better preserved paintings are to be found at the Brandberg, Namibia’s largest massif, further north, while the continent’s oldest rock engravings at Twyfelfontein give fascinating insights into the spiritual world of some of Africa’s oldest inhabitants. The wonderful lodges in the area make the most of the picturesque scenery and offer the chance to spot desert-adapted elephant and rhino.
It’s a bit of a detour to the mountainous northwest, where the rocky, reddish-brown land and the frontier town of Opuwo are home to the semi-nomadic Himba; a further two-hour drive north takes you up to the scenic Epupa Falls, on the Kunene River, which marks the border with Angola. Many miss out this area and head straight to Etosha National Park – indisputably the top wildlife-watching spot – where they spend a few days before returning to Windhoek, sometimes via the scenic Waterberg Plateau. With more time, a journey northeast to the verdant Zambezi Region in the panhandle reaps many rewards: lush broad-leaved forests, gliding rivers and plentiful wildlife roaming in unfenced reserves. The less-visited far south is also worth the trek for its remarkable geological fault, the Fish River Canyon, from where it’s a few hours’ drive to the quaint historical German town of Lüderitz on the coast. A trip to the sinuous Orange River, which marks the border with South Africa, provides welcome respite from the relentless heat of the interior: an opportunity to paddle through beautiful scenery and indulge in some gentle birdwatching.
Visitors with more time should consider heading southeast to gaze at the rippling red dunes of the Kalahari, even popping over the South African border into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where vast herds of large mammals follow ancient migration routes. Alternatively, round Tsumkwe, in the northern reaches of this semi-desert, an increasing number of San communities are opening up to visitors, keen to share their ancient traditions and survival skills.