Although this article, Namibia Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Namibia, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Taking up an area of just more than 824.000 km2 with a north-south length of 1500kms and an average east-west width of 600kms, Namibia is three times as large as Great Britain, but with a population density of only 2.4 persons per sq/km, making it the least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia.
The terrain of Namibia consists largely of desert and arid, semi desert with very little surface water, and can be divided into four main geographical areas:
• In the far western reaches, the 2 billion-year-old Namib Desert stretches from the South African border in the south along the Atlantic coast, all the way into Angola at an average width of around 100 kms. The eastern and central parts of the desert is characterised by extensive dune fields and rises to an elevation of around 600m ASL, while the northern and southern ends of the desert are defined by vast gravel fields.
• The western boundary of the central highlands is defined by the Brandberg Mountain range that peaks at 2579m. This escarpment flattens out into the Central Plateau that gradually descends in to the lowlands of the east. Most towns and settlements in Namibia are located on the Central Plateau, with the largest city, Windhoek, at an elevation of 1654m ASL.
• The far eastern reaches consist mostly of the great Kalahari Basin that covers parts of seven countries, including parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This area is mainly characterised by dune fields, savannah grassland with isolated wooded areas, sparse vegetation, large saltpans, and little surface water.
• The northeastern reaches that include the Caprivi, Kavango, and Ovamboland regions are relatively flat, and is covered by dense bushveld interspersed with isolated pockets of open sand flats.
Namibia has no perennial rivers apart from those that form its borders: the Orange River in the south, and the Kunene-, Okavango-, and Zambezi Rivers in the north. All other rivers in Namibia are generally dry and only flow during the wet season, with flows that range from day to only a few hours.
Namibia is uniformly hot during summer with temperatures in excess of 300C that can persist for several weeks. Daytime temperatures in winter that stretches from June to September, average around 160C but nighttime temperatures can drop to below freezing. Namibia has an average of 8 hours of sunshine every day, except at the coast, where thick mist and dense cloud cover can persist for several weeks at a time.
Annual rainfall, which is often accompanied by severe thunderstorms, varies from 50 mm in the central Namib, to falls of more than 700 mm in the Caprivi, and occurs during summer. Only the far southern reaches of Namibia receive some rain during the winter.
• Best time to visit:
Although Namibia can be visited during any time of the year, it is advisable not to visit the Central Plateau during December, January, and February, because of the extremely high summer temperatures. These months are best spent at the coast, where the cold Atlantic currents have a moderating effect on the high daytime temperatures.
The best time for game viewing is between the months of May and October, when most of the vegetation has thinned out, but also because the scarcity of surface water forces game to con-gregate at the water holes, both natural and artificial.
There are no parts of Namibia that are not worth visiting, whether from an off-road tourism perspective, or otherwise. While certain parts of the country like the Central Plateau for instance, may be too uncomfortably hot in summer, there is always the dramatic Skeleton Coast to escape to. This spine-chillingly beautiful part of Namibia starts in the South with spectacular wild flower displays, and while parts of the coast are not accessible by vehicle, no matter how tough, the parts that are will leave an indelible impression. The sheer desolation that characterises the coast is accentuated by the haunting remains of human settlements, shipwrecks, and the skulking silhouette of brown hyenas on the beaches. There are many striking coastlines in the world, but none that can remind the visitor of the fleeting presence of his tenure on Earth in quite the same way as this 2 billion-year- old desert can.
The far north with its dense bushveld offers some of the best game viewing in Africa; some would say even better than the famous Kruger Park, but the main attraction of the north lays in the fact that the off-road tourist can travel for several days without encountering another vehicle. The north is also home to dramatic mountains, extreme mountain passes, and the Kaokoland- another region that clearly reminds the visitor of the age of the Earth, and the brevity of human life.
The lowlands of the west are mostly covered by shimmering, silvery grassland punctuated by mountains made blue by distance, isolated granite and sandstone outcroppings, roads that disappear into the horizon, and silence; a roaring, all-encompassing silence of a magnitude that one has to experience first-hand to believe. Sossus-and Dead Vlei can be tourist-y but by planning a visit to these apricot coloured dunes and vast pans for the late afternoon, the off-road tourist can claim the entire Namib Desert for himself.
Namibia has been described as the “Land the Creator made when he was in a particularly good mood”, and evidence of this abounds. From the desert elephants of the north, to sheep grazing on miniscule, almost invisible succulent plants among the vast gravel beds of the south west, to the hundreds of plant, insect, and animal species that never see surface water, but subsist on the dense mist rolling inland from the Atlantic coast for tens of kms, to the wetlands of the Zambezi Region- previously the Caprivi Strip. Fully two thirds of this region consists of flood plains, and is home to more than 400 bird species and huge herds of migrating buffalo and elephant in the dry season. Some of this wilderness is only accessible with 4×4 vehicles during the dry season, and the mopane forests, floodplains, riverine forests, grasslands, and acacia woodlands all combine to make this area one of the most scenic areas south of the Sahara Desert, and on a par with the more famous Okavango Delta. Namibia is truly a world in one country, and offers everything to everyone; the decision what to see first is up to you, but make sure you have plenty of time- because there is much to see.
Fully 18% of the country’s surface area consists of National Parks, Game Reserves and protected areas, but a feature that is unusual in Southern African protected areas, is the presence of large numbers of the indigenous population that live in some of the parks in Namibia. The successful management of many of the protected areas in Namibia relies on the presence of local populations in the parks to counter poaching, and to act as custodians and micro-managers of the various fragile eco-systems of most of the parks.
This 6,274km2 park in the northeastern reaches of the country is an important link in the elephant and buffalo migration routes, and large numbers of these mammals can be seen in the dry season as they move through the park. Apart from the Okavango-and Kwando Rivers that form two of the boundaries, the park has no permanent surface water, and the terrain consists of deep Kalahari sand that supports extensive woodlands. The most unusual feature of this park is the fact that thousands of people are allowed to live in the park, where they practice their age-old customs and way of life.
Wildlife numbers have largely recovered from the effects of severe poaching during the Angolan conflict and species such as roan and sable antelope, kudu, impala, reedbuck, Chobe bushbuck, red lechwe, sitatunga, giraffe, zebra, and blue wildebeest are well represented, and large numbers of elephant and buffalo move through the park between Botswana and Angola. The rivers abound with hippo and crocodiles, while predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, and African wild dog occur across the park. The riverine areas also provide habitats for bird species such as Pelas Fishing Owl, African Wood Owl, Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Narina Trogon, Grey-headed Parrot, and Red and Yellow-billed Oxpecker, where they breed in large numbers.
Another fascinating sight in this park is provided by the reminders of the military occupation of the area by the erstwhile South African Defence Force. The hulks of several blown-up battle tanks and other military detritus can be seen all over the park, where today these war relics provide shelter to small mammals and birds.
This Park between the Swakop-and Kuiseb Rivers is at 49,768 km2, not only significantly bigger than Switzerland, it is also the largest game park in Africa, and the fourth largest in the world. However, its main attraction does not lay in the wildlife: the wildlife that does exist here is vastly overshadowed by the magnificent scenery.
The main characteristics of the landscapes here are dramatic massive blood-red granite outcrops, the highest (and some of the oldest) sand dunes in the world, the surreal Naukluft Mountains, and Sandwich Harbour at the coast, which is a large, shallow lagoon about 80kms south of Walvis Bay, within the boundaries of the park.
Although wildlife numbers have increased in recent years, game is relatively scarce but species such as steenbok, springbok, Oryx, kudu, mountain zebra, dassie rat, chacma baboon, rock dassie, and klipspringer do occur in some parts of the Naukluft section of the park. The larger park complex is also home to about to 200 bird species.
Known by the Khoi-San people as “The Land That God Made in Anger”, and by sailors as the “Gates of Hell”, the Skeleton Coast National Park is a land of roiling mists, gemstone encrusted beaches, rusted shipwrecks, bleached whalebones, and desert-adapted elephants. Although the name derives more from whale skeletons than from the skeletons of ships, more than a few human skeletons have littered the desolate beaches of this remote and distinctly intimidating environment.
Stretching along the Atlantic Coast from just north of Swakopmund all the way to the Angolan border, only the southern parts of the park can be explored freely; however, no motor cycles are allowed in the park. Access to the area north of Torra Bay is prohibited, and can only be accessed by the fortunate few that can afford the fly-in safaris offered by a handful of concession holders. Terrence Bay offers an upmarket campsite but camping at Torra Bay borders on the primitive, and is available only during December and January.
However, this desolate place is not just about the dead and their skeletons; animal life abounds here, and is home to a larger number of large animal species than many other Southern African game reserves. Species such as desert-adapted rhino and elephant, lion, cheetah, giraffe, gemsbok, zebra, springbok and spotted and brown hyena, are common sights.
The D826/C27 routes between Aus and the NamibRand Private Nature Reserve are called the “Garden Route of Namibia” with very good reason, which is saying a lot in a country that is one vast, open, and very scenic panorama. The Namibian tourism authorities have seemingly given up on the immense task of identifying tourist routes that are more scenic than others are, but this route is the nearest thing to a “perfect route” as it is possible to come in a country that has no “unattractive” regions.
If you can, imagine endless red, arrow-straight roads cutting through shimmering grasslands on horizon-to-horizon plains whose flatness are strikingly accentuated by apricot-coloured sand dunes under a sapphire-blue sky. Then add a large measure of silence, and to top it off, imagine you are the last living person left on Earth. If you can do this, you have seen the most scenic route in Namibia. Go try it- you will never forget it.
The world may be full of ghost towns, but none is as eerie as Kolmanskop near the town of Luderitz. The town is now half-sunken into the Namib Desert, but it is not too difficult to imagine hearing the sound of an oompah-band from the bar, or the thud-thud of bowling balls coming from the deserted bowling alley. This town was home to hundreds of diamond diggers and their families- the last of which left around 50 years ago, some not even pausing to remove the curtains from their homes.
This ghost of a town offers some of the best photography opportunities in all of Southern Africa, but a permit (obtainable in Luderitz) is required to visit the area.
At 170 000 ha in extent, this reserve on the edge of the Namib Desert is one of the largest (and best-managed) private game reserves in all of Southern Africa. It is also the reserve where you are the least likely to come across other tourists since accommodation here is limited to one bed/1000 hectares, with a maximum of 20 beds in any given spot. Game drives are also coordinated in such a way that only one vehicle is allowed on the trail in any of the six concession are-as at any one time, a feature that makes this the least crowded reserve in Africa, if not the world.
The reserve also offers hiking trails, called “softpacking”, during which your backpack is trans-ported for you. Included in the price are three-course meals cooked by a proper chef, and sleeping under the stars on camp beds. The south of the reserve also offers self-drive routes on demarcated off-road trails, a self-catering guesthouse that can accommodate up to ten people or a campsite for those who prefer roughing it, instead of sleeping indoors.
Sossusvlei may be overrun by tourists during certain times but it is here, and at the nearby Dead Vlei, that one really gets a sense of the mind-numbing, 2 billion-year history of the Namib Desert. In the late afternoon, the utter silence accentuates the dead camel thorn trees on the huge mud flats among the apricot-coloured dunes, lending an otherworldly and ethereal atmosphere to the scene; reminding one of the eternal nature of the Namib Desert. This is an unforgettable experience and a must-see destination on any tour of the African continent.
The origin of this harem of feral horses is still shrouded in mystery, but regardless of their origin, or the several films that have been made about them, these horses symbolise the freedom of the wide-open plains between Aus and Luderitz. These horses are also among the very last remaining truly wild horses left anywhere in the world and seeing them is worth making the detour on the B2 route.
Hot air ballooning over the Namib Desert
If seeing the Namib-Naukluft National Park from the air just after dawn is not on your bucket list, it should be. Watching the sun rising over the vast dune fields is an experience better seen than just read about- and even if you think the flight was too short, you will not forget it; not because of its duration, but because of the feeling of utter freedom as you float silently over the oldest desert in the world. The flight ends with a lavish breakfast among the dunes; expect ice-cold champagne, smoked salmon, and zebra salami- all served with freshly baked croissants.
As far as beer-drinking and German cuisine goes, Namibia is as close to Germany as you can get without actually going to Germany, and the Swakopmund Brauhaus is the best place in Namibia to sample both. This microbrewery is as famous for its house-brand beer, Camelthorn, as it is for its eisbeins, schnitzels, and Erdinger, another famous beer of German origin.
Sandboarding in Swakopmund
Some of the sand dunes around Swakopmund are high enough for you to reach speeds in excess of 70 kms/h- while you slide down them on a piece of hardwood that looks like a hybrid between a sled and a surfboard. This is a much as fun as you can have anywhere, and most sand boarding companies will pick you up (and drop you off again) from your hotel, or other accommodation, as well as give you lunch and couple of beers/soft drinks after several hours of sliding down some of the highest sand dunes in the world.
The first image that comes to mind when you think of Namibia is one of an endlessly vast, flat plain. Mountain passes, and extreme passes at that, do not ordinarily spring to mind, but the truth is that Namibia has some of the most difficult, challenging, and potentially dangerous mountain passes on the entire African continent. In total, Namibia has eight official passes, most of them cross the es-carpment formed by the Brandberg Mountains, but the one pass that deserves special mention is Van Zyl’s Pass, an unofficial pass that from a purely off-road driving perspective is by far the most dangerous and rewarding.
This pass/route in the Kaokoland gives a completely new meaning to the word “ultimate”. Lo-cated in the spectacular Marienfluss Valley, this 10 km-long extreme route is only passable downhill in an east-west direction, and all attempts to traverse the route in the opposite direc-tion have resulted in the destruction of vehicles, and/or severe personal injuries to drivers and passengers.
The route consists of large, sharp, and moveable rocks on both ridiculously steep uphill and downhill sections, and it should only be attempted by drivers with exceptional technical driving skills. Vehicles must have above average ground clearance, low range, proper protection in the form of skid plates, and tyres with large tread blocks- ordinary sand or mud tyres cannot cope with the rocky conditions.
Although only about 10 kms long, this extremely challenging route can take more than 6 hours to complete. This is not a case of cruising downhill on a route with some rocks: below are some tips on how to complete this dangerous route successfully and hopefully, without having suf-fered irreparable vehicle damage, or worse, personal injury.
• It is not possible to traverse this route while towing any type of trailer.
• Remove everything from the roof racks. Due to the extreme camber of some sections on the route, even the weight of rooftop tents can cause a vehicle to rollover, and almost all rollovers on this route have been due to loads on roof racks.
• Engage first gear in low range, and allow the vehicle to roll down the gradient against engine braking. Engage all diff locks, do not use the clutch, and do not change gears under any cir-cumstances.
• Do not deflate tyres! The sudden weight transfer as the road camber changes can (and do), cause rollovers with deflated tyres. Moreover, deflated tyres cannot cope with the extreme deformation caused by uneven, sharp-edged rocks that can shred tyres, damage rims, or cause tyres to peel off the rims.
• If a passage or section looks dangerous, stop, and fill in holes to prevent vehicle damage.
• Never attempt this route alone, or with only one vehicle; it is almost certain that you will need another vehicle as an anchoring point to haul yourself over some of the more diffi-cult/dangerous spots.
This pass across the great Escarpment connects the Namib Desert with the Khomas Highland, and from its highest point offers a spectacular view over much of the Namib Desert. With a very steep gradient that varies from 1:4.5 to 1:6, it is also Namibia’s steepest pass with a height difference of close to 1000 metres in only 4 kms of road length. Although this pass is accessible to most vehicles, it requires your full attention at all times.
This gravel pass on the C26 route also crosses the escarpment in central Namibia, but large sec-tions of the pass is impassable in wet conditions, even with proper 4×4 vehicles. Traversing this pass involves several small water crossings; however, prolonged rainfall can cause these streams to flood, which can cause extremely slippery conditions and potentially dangerous rock falls. Nonetheless, the Gamsberg Pass is a perennial favourite among off-road drivers because it is Namibia’s highest (2,347m), and longest pass, but also because of the scenic views of the Kuiseb River, the route offers.
Namibia has many small towns, and almost all have some claim to fame. Many were directly in-volved in the many wars that were fought in the country, while others should be famous for the fact that they survived the harsh desert conditions. Sadly, or fortunately, depending on the point of view of visitors and/or residents, most towns in Namibia survive today only because of tourism, a circumstance that has robbed many towns of their frontier-inspired never-say-die character. However, there are too many historical towns in Namibia to list them all here: below are a few of the more important tourist destinations, but the enterprising off-road tourist in Namibia should have no difficulty in finding and exploring the small-town treasures of Namibia.
Located just north of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic coast, Swakopmund has some of the best-preserved examples of German architecture in Namibia, among which are the Altes Gefängnis prison, designed in 1906 by Heinrich Bause, and the Woermann Haus, a mansion with an impressive tower.
The main attractions of this resort town include the Swakopmund Museum, the National Marine Aquarium, a spectacular crystal gallery, and some of the highest sand dunes in the world. You can also play a round of golf on the Rossmund Desert Golf Course, one of only five completely grassed-over golf courses located in deserts in the entire world. Also, visit a camel breeding farm, and the Martin Luther- an 1896 vintage steam locomotive that was abandoned in the desert after it suffered a fatal mechanical breakdown.
Located in the National West Coast Recreational Area, and named after Major Hentie van der Merwe, this popular holiday and fishing resort is built around a fresh-water spring in the Oma-ruru River delta. Although the town’s greatest assets are the remoteness of its location and the spectacular fishing opportunities it offers, the area has become somewhat tourist-y in recent years, but is still worth a visit nevertheless.
Also known as the “garden Town” of Namibia, Tsumeb is without doubt the prettiest town in the country. Huge flamboyant trees, hundreds of jacarandas, and colourful bougainvillea line the streets of the town that was once the mining capital of Namibia. The Tsumeb Museum houses an extensive collection of rare minerals, as well as the restored artillery pieces that were dumped into Lake Otjikoto by the defeated German forces at the time of the signing of the Khorab Peace Treaty.
This town is home to the 3000 year-old Walvis Bay Lagoon, a Ramsar Site, and arguably the most important wetland sanctuary for coastal birds in the entire Southern African region. Thousands upon thousands of pelicans and both Greater and Lesser Flamingos congregate here- turning the entire lagoon pink during certain times of the year.
A lesser-known “attraction” in Walvis Bay is its salt roads- roads here are surfaced with coarse salt, instead of the more usual asphalt.