Namibia: Ten to Know

A riotous sea meets a desert of peaked, tangerine-colored sand dunes, home to species of flora and fauna that have adapted to survive here. The glaring beauty of Namibia is at once dramatic and subtle. Southern Africa’s best-kept secret attracts seasoned safari travelers who have explored the continent extensively and continue to suffer from that not-so-tragic illness referred to here as “khaki fever,” an obsessive-like love of exploring and sleeping in the bush. Understanding some crucial pieces of information is key to determining whether a trip there is right for you.

1. Namibia is about visiting the landscape, not necessarily seeing animals.

Technically, Africa's "Big Five" (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos and leopards) all live in Namibia, but travelers looking to spot and photograph dozens of these majestic creatures will be disappointed, as the country is home to only handfuls of each species. Going on game drives to see animals is not really the point of a trip here. Guests will be taken on adventurous drives in four-wheel Land Rovers, but it will be primarily to explore the landscape, understand the geology and marvel at vistas that include sand dunes, huge swaths of desert and violent coastlines.

2. …but there are some extraordinary species here.

What Namibia's animal population lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in cool quotient. Species have adapted over millions of years to survive and flourish in the particularly harsh climate of the Namib Desert. Lions, whose ancestors originally hailed from the South African plains, have changed their physiology to live without drinking water, receiving most of their hydration from their prey's meat. (They can amazingly go for months or even up to a year without drinking water.) Elephants in the Namibian bush, too, have as many similarities with their Savannah cousins as they do differences. Desert-adapted pachyderms are on the smaller side, and have thinner legs, no doubt a survival detail that has helped them travel the required dozens of miles each day to find food and water. In Sossusvlei, there are beetles that get their water from condensation collected atop their backs, trees that collect fog on their branches in the early morning hours and bushes whose roots reach down yards to get hydration from underground rivers. Needless to say, Darwin would have had a field day here had he ever made it to this remote land.

3. Don't expect a lot of bells and whistles.

Namibia's beauty lies in its intricacies. You come here to sit atop soaring sand dunes and stare out into isolation. A visit here is about being silent and taking it all in. Stoic, and severe, Namibia's land has been largely left alone—resulting in so much having adapted—and it seems to be quite happy to be left to its own devices. Watching sand dunes obscure footsteps as though erasing evidence of humans seems designed to hypnotize—or at least to encourage visitors to contemplate their existence from a difference perspective.

4. Visiting local tribes requires a sensitive touch.

Namibia is home to two semi-nomadic peoples: the “click language” Khoisan-speaking tribes, consisting of Bushmen (or San) and the Ovahimba people. The majority of Ovahimba (or, Himba) people still live very traditional lives, traveling with their herds of livestock to follow graze-able land and living in small, hastily built huts made of sticks and elephant dung. Himba women are stunningly beautiful, with elaborate hairstyles, colorful jewelry and have a red sheen color to their skin, thanks to a homemade ocher tincture that protects them from harsh sunlight and mosquitos. Serra Cafema can arrange for visits to a Himba village to meet members of the tribes and learn about their lives and customs, but these trips need to be done with respect and advanced planning. Despite how sensitive we are to these people whose lives we're visiting, it can be awkward to be the fully dressed Westerners meeting half-naked tribes people. Study up on other culture before visiting and ask your guide tons of questions before you leave the lodge. Once with the Himba people, always ask before taking photographs and request that your guide translate questions and conversation. If offered the opportunity to buy crafts, do so without haggling.

5. Come Informed…

Namibia was under the brutal power of imperial Germany as a colony from the 1880s through World War I, apartheid-fueled South Africa for much of the 20th century and has only been independent since 1990. The country has seen far more than its fair share of tragedy at the hands of its ‘leaders’ throughout the years, but the country today stands as a strong democracy and one that is devoted to its environment. In fact, when the constitution was drafted for its independence in 1990, environmental conservation was written into the country’s bylaws. Indagare’s favorite camps and lodges have their own charities, which protect the land as well as people, and aim to teach children the importance and specifics of animal and geographic conservation.

6. … And Ask a Lot of Questions

Namibians are understandably proud and protective of their land and people. Guides here need to be really excellent at their vocation in order to convey the country's particularities and special qualities. Appropriately introducing a rare beetle, for example, and pointing out the adaptation of certain bushes and trees, arguably takes more panache than driving guests to a bluff to watch the great wildebeest migration. All Wilderness guides are world-class, but very much so in Namibia, where most staff is local and have spent their lives studying this incredible place. Many staffers speak multiple languages, including English, Afrikans and local dialects, and are committed to having visitors fall in love with their country. You will spend a lot of time with your guides, from early in the morning until they walk you to your tent after dinner, and have plenty of opportunities to discuss Namibia's future, tourism's impact on the country and its land, as well as learn about their own lives.

7. Be open to some surprises.

One of the aspects that make safari such an incredible experience, is the opportunity to be surprised. The child-like amazement is high when you're in the African bush, surrounded by incredible landscape, wild animals and serene wilderness. Lodge staff take pride in creating surprises for each guest's stay, be it a candlelit dinner in a forest clearing, the chance to slide down a sand dune on your back or to take a quad bike ride along a riverbed at sunset. Be open to going with the flow and try to have "yes, please" be your answer to any question that starts with, "Would you like to…"

8. Be prepared for some exhilarating—some might say scary—flights.

In Namibia, planes are the primary mode of transportation between camps and they can be as small as four-seater Cessnas with only one pilot. The pilot does everything, including checking the plane before take-off, refueling during stops, loading and unloading luggage and handing out water bottles and snacks for the trip. Flights stay at low altitudes, and during times of strong wind and when the most intense of mid-day heat is rising, can be bumpy. Travelers who get motion sickness should take precautions, and people who have a fear of small planes might feel uncomfortable or anxious. But those who stick it out benefit from truly spectacular views and an exhilarating experience, as this land is meant to be seen from the sky. The Sossusvlei and Skeleton Coast areas are particularly enchanting, and on clear days, allow the opportunity for spectacular photographs.

9. Pack appropriately.

As in most deserts, nights in the Namib are very cold and days get very hot. The sun is strong, but (for better and worse) the wind from the southwest is constant. These gusts pick up sand, and blow the fine grains around with gusto, which, when it hits your skin, can feel like an intense exfoliation treatment. Long pants that unzip at the knee might not be the most fashionable look, but they are convenient for day trips that begin with 35° F mornings and last into 90° mid-days. Layers and long-sleeved shirts are recommended to protect arms from the sun and sandy wind (and, in the north, insects) and I was grateful for my fleece, sweater and two scarves, which keep me warm before sunrise and after sunset. Needless to say, a high spf and safari hat that protects your neck are crucial, and your camp will provide you with a water bottle to refill throughout your stay. Bringing a good camera is recommended, and it's also fun to travel with your iPhone so that you can take videos.

10. Put on your out-of-office.

Most camps in Namibia do not have Wi-Fi or cell service, so guests must be prepared to be off the grid for the entirety of their time in the bush. Wilderness camps typically have one computer for guests to use to check email, but Internet service is via Ethernet and exceedingly slow. Being in the Namib Desert and elsewhere in Namibia is a remote affair, so being disconnected from the outside world seems appropriate, and adds to the austere experience. Oddly, the only time that you might get cell service in the bush is while at an altitude of a few thousand feet: flying. So if you need to send a text, keep your phone on and in your hand when boarding.

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