Namib desert, red dune Dune 45 and Big Mama at Sossusvlei, Namibia
Dune 45, Sossusvlei, Namibia
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Nature & Wildlife

Sifting the Sands of Namibia on an African Safari

7 min read
Published on Jan 26, 2018
Christian Baines
By Christian BainesContributing Writer

With geography unlike any other country in Southern Africa, Namibia offers an African safari experience – and a cultural holiday – unlike anywhere else. From climbing the world’s tallest dunes, to capturing the stark contrasts of the Deadvlei on film, to abandoned ghost towns, to wildlife found nowhere else in Africa, Namibia is all about doing things just a little differently.

Sossusvlei - Land of the Dunes

The first image that comes to mind when we think of Namibia is often the Deadvlei. Dotted with dead and blackened acacia trees, this vast white clay pan lies in stark contrast to the vibrant orange dunes that cross it, particularly in the late afternoon sun. In fact, I think this was the first image of Namibia I ever saw, in the 2000 cult movie, The Cell, in which the Deadvlei represents the surreal imagined landscape of someone’s mind. Except the beauty and contrasts here are very real.

The Deadvlei is located just 2 kilometres from the Sossusvlei pan, which is arguably Namibia’s most famous attraction. The word vlei in Afrikaans means "marsh," and while the ground in the Deadvlei has dried up, there remains enough moisture in Sossusvlei (refreshed by a river that flows through the Namib every 5 to 10 years) to add a touch of green to your photos. The dunes are accessed via the Sesriem Gate, which also marks the entrance to the Sesriem Canyon. This means you can wander between 35 metre canyon walls and climb the 80 metre Dune 45 on the same day. Dune 45 is the highest of the Sossousvlei dunes and is made up of 5 million year old sands. In fact, the Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and to this day, Namibia sees the least rainfall of any sub-Saharan African country.

Still, visitors on an African safari shouldn’t for a moment think that there isn’t life here. Besides the obvious greenery dotting the dunes and white clay pans, a surprising variety of animals have adapted to this harsh desert environment. These include small reptiles and insects including geckos and snakes, but also some large mammals such as the Oryx, the symbol of Namibia. The desert is also home to unique species of desert lions, along with hyenas, springboks, baboons, bat eared foxes, and southern Africa’s largest population of wild cheetahs. You won’t see them in large numbers as you will in some other parts of Africa, or even Namibia for that matter, but they do exist, and are a critical part of what makes Namibia so fascinating. The Namib Rand Nature Reserve is a private reserve in the Sossusvlei region, and is a great destination for that slightly different African safari.

Quiver Tree (Aloe dichotoma) in the Namib Rand Nature Reserve in Namibia
Quiver Tree in the Namib Rand Nature Reserve

Exploring Etosha National Park

If the ever-present wildlife keeps it low key in Sossusvlei, it’s out on display in Etosha National Park, Namibia’s most famous contribution to Africa’s list of great wildlife destinations. Centred on the Etosha Salt Pan, the park is typically dry, but it does see a reliable wet season, attracting flamingos and pelicans to the pan while the waters remain. The somewhat more reliable moisture here supports a wide range of other animals in the park, including giraffes, lions, the occasional leopard, elephants, recently re-introduced white rhinos, springboks, wildcats, hyenas, mongoose, and one of the healthiest populations of rare black rhinos in Africa. Ostriches are another reliable sighting among the 340 bird species that call Etosha home. Stop by Fisher’s Pan for your best chance at some great birdwatching on your African safari.

Etosha Waterhole, Namibia
Etosha waterhole

Sharing the Wilderness in Damaraland

Another scenic region of Namibia rich with wildlife is Damaraland, in the central north of the country. The meeting point between the harsh deserts that line the Atlantic coast, and the beginnings of Southern Africa’s lush, wet interior (nothing will jar your sense of the region like comparing Namibia to Botswana’s Okavango Delta), Damaraland has supported life, both human and animal, for thousands of years. Here, you’ll see herds of desert elephants, zebra, kudu, springboks, baboons, and giraffes, alongside the endemic species that have adapted to Namibia’s arid climate. Making Damaraland particularly unique is the ancient culture of the San bushmen, who are believed to have thrived here in one form or another for over 30,000 years. Though spread throughout many parts of Southern Africa (Botswana has over twice the San population of Namibia), it is in Namibia that the San are particularly famous, both as a living society, and the originators of some of the country’s most famous rock art. Precursors to the Bushmen believed responsible for at least some of the art include the Khoikhoi. You’ll find most of their legacy in Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage region that is also home to a series of spectacular rock petroglyphs.

Twyfelfontein Rock Art in Damaraland, Namibia
Twyfelfontein Rock Art in Damaraland

Ghosts Towns and Shipwrecks

Though it spent over three decades as a German colony, followed by a period of South African rule, Namibia has always found a way to shake off ambitious outsiders. Remnants of attempts to tame the country litter the landscape in the form of shipwrecks and abandoned towns. Just to the west of Damaraland lies the eerie stretch of land known as the Skeleton Coast. Known to the Bushmen as "The Land God Made in Anger," and to Portuguese sailors as "The Gates of Hell," this dune dominated coastline is the last resting place of numerous vessels, and in some cases, the vessels sent to rescue them!

Aerial view of seals and a shipreck on Skeleton Coast, Namibia
Aerial view of seals and a shipwreck on Skeleton Coast

It isn’t just humans who’ve run afoul of the treacherous coast. Whale and dolphin remains have been found throughout what is now Skeleton Coast National Park. You might be forgiven for thinking the whole area is a sandy and silent graveyard, but life does thrive here, in the form of vast colonies of seals and scurrying ghost crabs. You might also hear the low hum of a toboggan riding down the dunes, as a visitor’s joy ride releases pockets of air beneath the sands. Forced to surrender its colonies at the end of the First World War, Germany left behind some fascinating traces of its attempt to tame Namibia. There’s no better example than Kolmanskop, a diamond mining town in the country’s south, about 10 kilometres from the port town of Luderitz. Once one of Namibia’s richest towns, it contained a hospital, power station, school, theatre, ice factory, the Southern Hemisphere’s first x-ray station, and even a casino and bowling alley! By the late 20s, many of the residents had moved on to newer, easier to reach diamond deposits, and by 1954 the town lay abandoned. The desert has been slowly reclaiming it ever since, sharing its past only with curious tourists and photographers on an African safari, who wander through.

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Nature & Wildlife
Christian Baines
Christian Baines
Goway - Contributing Writer

Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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