Traveller's Guide To: Namibia

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The incredible wildernesses of this vast south-west African country offer wildlife watching, adventure sports, ancient art and plenty more

Is there anybody there?

Only just: the former German South West Africa is the second-least populated country (the first being Mongolia). Only two million people live in an area bigger than Britain and France combined.

This month Namibia completes its second decade of independence. Once governed by South Africa's apartheid regime and before that, by Germany, this diamond-rich desert nation made history on 21 March 1990 by becoming the last territory in mainland Africa to break free from its colonial rulers. For southern Africa's pro-democracy campaigners, it was a high point in an exhilarating period of change.

Namibians marked the occasion with a lengthy session of back-to-back "sunrising" – all night partying – and this year, they're gearing up for more of the same. The ruling party, SWAPO, which has been in office since 1990, will also celebrate its latest election victory and introduce its new cabinet.

Come June, Namibia will be a safe haven for those who'd like to explore southern Africa while avoiding the World Cup crowds. That's not to say, however, that football fans won't be welcome – a Namibian safari would make an excellent side-trip before or after the matches. What's more, with all but the priciest June flights to Cape Town and Johannesburg sold out, adventurous fans who have yet to book would do well to consider Namibia as a gateway: fly into Windhoek, and the final hop to South Africa is quick and easy. Those with time to spare could even travel by road, following the 1,300km Cape-Namibia route; scenic diversions along the way include Sossusvlei, Fish River Canyon and Namaqualand.

Where do I start?

The capital, Windhoek, will be the hub of this year's grand Independence Day celebrations. It's an unassuming city – many safari-goers skip it altogether – but it knows how to throw a party. On 21 March the 25,000-seat Independence Stadium will be awash with colour, noise and flexing torsos as sports competitions, fashion shows, tribal dancers and local bands fill the arena.

Windhoek is tiny compared to South Africa's energetic but edgy urban sprawls; its population is about 300,000, whereas Greater Johannesburg boasts 10 million souls. It feels more like a provincial market town than a sub-Saharan capital; everyone seems to know everyone.

The commercial centre, a hassle-free collection of shops, offices and German colonial buildings, is surrounded by quiet enclaves of tidy villas with bougainvillea-draped walls. It's easy to tour Windhoek's modest landmarks on foot, admiring the early 20th- century buildings on Independence Avenue: Christuskirche with its gingerbread facades and lofty steeple, and Alte Feste, a German-built fortress housing part of the National Museum (Mon-Fri 9am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–12.30pm & 3–6pm; free).

There's accommodation for all budgets, from the cosy Chameleon Backpackers Lodge (00 264 61 244347; chameleonbackpackers.com), with beds in a six-person dorm for N$100 (£9) and private doubles from N$250 (£22), both including breakfast, to the glitzy Windhoek Country Club Resort (00 264 61 205 5911; legacyhotels.co.za; doubles from N$2700 (£233) with breakfast). By September, Namibia's first Hilton (hilton.com) will have opened in the heart of the city.

Show me the wildlife

Etosha National Park, whose southern gate is about 420km north of Windhoek, is the obvious target: it's one of Africa's greatest wildlife-watching destinations. The backdrop to the action is the 120km-wide Etosha Pan, a livid scar of sun-baked salt fringed by grasslands and bush. A constant parade of zebras, springbok, wildebeest, ostriches and their predators picks its way through the heat haze to congregate at Etosha's waterholes, particularly during the driest months, July to October. Many of the waterholes are accessible by vehicle; one of the best is Okaukuejo in the south, which often attracts black rhino and is floodlit after dark.

Within the park, there's comfortable accommodation at the state-owned camps managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (00 264 61 285 7200; nwr.com.na); three of these, including the one at Okaukuejo (where double rooms cost from N$1,300 (£112) including breakfast), have been spruced up in recent years and a fourth, the secluded, environmentally friendly Onkoshi Camp, is new (double chalet from N$9,000 (£777) for full board including activities). There's also a scattering of luxury lodges just outside the park.

Much of Namibia is forbiddingly arid, but there's far more life in its parched valleys and dunescapes than you might think. Among Namibia's intriguing array of desert-adapted species are lizards which dive into the sand to escape danger, and oryx, striking-looking antelopes which switch off their sweat glands when water is scarce (at which point a vascular cooling system kicks in to stop their brains boiling).

One Namibian beetle, the stenocara, has the knack of doing handstands on the dunes when it's foggy to allow the water droplets which condense on its back to roll down to its mouth. Meanwhile an endemic tree, the welwitschia, chooses not to waste resources on growing a trunk; instead it sags on the ground, looking much like an aloe that's been run over by a truck. The tactic works – it can live for more than 2,500 years.

The desert-adapted elephants of Damaraland and the Skeleton Coast are particularly charismatic – Namibia is the only country in the world, apart from Mali, where these thirsty herbivores can survive long periods of drought by using their tusks to prospect for water in dry-season river beds.

Operators ready to guide you around Namibia's wildlife hotspots include Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica. com), which offers a one-week fly-in safari from £3,448 per person, including flights from London, transfers, activities and full board accommodation; and Somak Holidays (020-8423 3000; somak.com), whose itineraries include a 12-night Four Deserts guided tour, driving through the Kalahari, the Nama Karoo, the Sperrgebeit and the Namib. Prices for this start from £2,789 per person, including flights from London, transport by minibus and half board accommodation.

I want to bond with the desert

For wrap-around views of ochre-coloured sands and dusty plains tufted with fairy circles – mysterious rings of grasses with a bare patch in the middle – travel south to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Nothing can beat the exhilaration of striding up a mighty dune, one step forward, half a step back, then running at full tilt down its steepest slope.

There are several places to stay at Sossusvlei, just outside the park, within easy reach of some of the most beautiful and curvaceous dunes. Most are comfortable, popular lodges where, every evening, chefs load up the braai with fresh local V C kudu, springbok and ostrich. But to experience the dunes at the magical hours of dawn and dusk, you'll want to stay inside the park, at the Sesriem Gate campsite (N$125/£11 per person) or Sossus Dune Lodge (double chalet from N$3600/£311 for full board), both run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (00 264 61 285 7200; nwr.com.na). When the heat of the day has faded and evening begins to settle over the landscape, barking geckos make their presence felt by not (as you might assume) barking, but making a distinctive "chink" – an unforgettable desert sound.

Bordering the park is the NamibRand Nature Reserve, one of Africa's largest private reserves, home to Wolwedans (00 264 61 230616; wolwedans-namibia.com), an alluring desert lodge whose chalets have open views of beautiful sandy plains backed by crumpled mountains (doubles from N$5710/£493 for full board including activities and bar).

I'm ready for action

Hiking the Fish River Canyon in south-west Namibia is one of southern Africa's classic outdoor experiences. This five-day, 80km endurance test takes you through an imposing landscape of sand and rock, your head pounding in the heat. The trail, which is open from 1 May to 15 September, starts near Hobas campsite (00 264 61 285 7200; nwr.com.na; N$100 (£9) per person) and ends up at Ai-Ais. Access is limited to 30 physically fit hikers per day. You need to book in advance through NWR.

To drink in the views without tramping the tracks, try Fish River Lodge (00 264 63 683005; fishriverlodge-namibia.com), recently opened on the western rim of the canyon; it has strikingly modernist rooms and a small pool overlooked by sculptural quiver trees (doubles N$2,000/£173 for half board). If you'd like to hike the canyon in style, the lodge will provide a guide and private chef.

On the Atlantic coast, due west of Windhoek, is the resort town of Swakopmund, Namibia's extreme sports capital, with several operators offering a choice of quad-biking, dune buggy racing and sand-boarding to thrill seekers. Founded in the late 19th century, Swakopmund remains the most Germanic of Namibian towns: German-style beer is brewed here and the restaurants offer Teutonic fare. There's a fascinating glimpse of old Deutsch-Südwestafrika in the vintage photos lining the landings of the venerable Hansa Hotel (00 264 64 424200; hansahotel.com.na; doubles from N$1,820/£159 with breakfast).

What about ancient culture?

To explore a little of Namibia's San Bushman heritage, head for Twyfelfontein in Damaraland, where rock engravings depicting giraffes, antelopes and a long-tailed lion offer beguiling traces of the past: they may have been a wildlife primer for youngsters. The surrounding plains are strewn with enormous boulders, resembing the aftermath of a giants' game of marbles.

Nestled among a heap of these are the thatch-topped luxury tents of one of Namibia's most imaginative wilderness lodges, Mowani Mountain Camp (00 264 67 697008; mowani.com; doubles from N$3,800/£332 half board). Its new sister lodge, Camp Kipwe (00 264 61 232009; kipwe.com; doubles from N$2,300/£201 with breakfast), is just as delightful, with eight sweetly austere igloo-shaped huts, all with breathtaking views.

In the remote village of Tjokwe in north-east Namibia, members of the Ju'Hoansi Bushman tribe invite visitors to share their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a few days, mugging up on desert survival skills such as animal-tracking, digging for water-rich roots and identifying medicinal plants.

Five-day trips to Tjokwe run by Wild at Heart Safaris (wildatheartsafaris.com) can be booked through Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com), with prices starting at £810 excluding flights.

What's that strange shape on the top right of the map?

That's the Caprivi Strip, a corridor nearly 300 miles long, stretching from the main part of Namibia to the Zambezi River. It was created as part of late 19th-century colonialism, when Britain ceded Germany access to the river that ultimately led to the Indian Ocean, in return for Zanzibar (the UK threw in the North Sea island of Heligoland as a makeweight).

The Caprivi Strip was an active military area during the independence struggle over Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1980s. Today it's an emerging adventure destination. Generous rains make it by far the lushest part of the country, its waterways, papyrus reedbeds and riverine forests teeming with hippos, crocodiles and birds. Several safari lodges grace the Kwando and Kavango riverfronts and the new responsible tourism company Conservancy Safaris (kcs-namibia.com.na; UK enquiries through Kamili, 0115 937 7475; kamilisafaris.com) will launch a programme of luxury camping trips later this year. To explore the Namibian Zambezi, at the tip of the Strip, hop aboard a houseboat; a four-day cruise for six costs about £270 per person for full board, excluding flights and transfers, through Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk).

Travel essentials: Namibia

When to go

* Namibia is an all-year-round destination, but game-viewing in Etosha is best during the driest months (July to October). In the rainy season (January to March), floods may block some roads, particularly in the Caprivi Strip. From November to January, day temperatures exceed 30C; June to August are the coolest months.

Getting there

* Air Namibia (0870 774 0965; airnamibia.com.na) has connections from a range of UK airports to Frankfurt, where it continues to fly to Windhoek. The alternative is via Johannesburg with South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com), though this is a long trip.

Getting around

* For longer journeys, Air Namibia is the easy option: domestic flights link Windhoek to Walvis Bay, Luderitz and other cities. Intercape (intercape.co.za) runs long-distance coach routes from Windhoek to Cape Town, Walvis Bay and Victoria Falls; short hops are by local combi van services. Namibia also has a developing railway network, including luxury sleepers.

Many visitors join a guided safari, travelling by light aircraft, Land Rover, minibus or all three. Self-drive is also popular, particularly with second-time visitors: it's easy to rent a 4x4 vehicle in Windhoek with optional extras such as rooftop tent, cooking equipment, child seats and spare fuel tanks. Agencies include Odyssey Car Hire (00 264 61 223269; odysseycarhire.com); daily rates start at N$1,000 (£87). Driving distances are long and minor roads can be bumpy and isolated but the key sights – Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Damaraland and Etosha – make a circuit easily achievable in two weeks.

Language

* English, the official language, is understood in all but the remotest areas. Afrikaans, the first language of most white Namibians, is the nation's lingua franca; German is also widely spoken.

Health

* Travellers should ensure their polio, diptheria and tetanus vaccinations are up to date. Most of Namibia is malaria-free but if your trip includes the far north, anti-malarials are recommended.

Currency

* The Namibian dollar (N$) is something of a fiction, since it is on a par with the South African rand, and coins and notes from either currency are accepted – though the N$ is rarely recognised outside, so don't get left with any.

More information

* Namibia Tourist Board: 020-7367 0962; namibiatourism.com.na

Go wild: Life in the desert

If you were inspired by Joanna Lumley's attempts to comb burrs out of the fur of a sedated cheetah on the ITV documentary Catwoman last autumn, then you'll want to head for the conservation foundation that hosted her.

AfriCat in Otjiwarongo (00 264 67 304566; africat.org) tackles the problems which arise when cheetahs' natural territories and farmers' ranches overlap. Guests at Okonjima (00 264 67 687032; okonjima.com), the gorgeous luxury lodge created by AfriCat's founders, can find out about its current research and education programmes and watch rescued cheetahs pace around their bush enclosures like athletes before a race. AfriCat also runs PAWS (00 264 67 307933; pawsnamibia.org), a working-holiday company which offers total immersion in its conservation work, doing anything from dismantling old fences to assisting in a big-cat relocation operation. Two-week experiences cost £650 per person for full board, excluding flights.

For an intimate and absorbing snapshot of the life of a desert lion researcher, you can spend a few days in the field with expert Dr Flip Stander by joining one of the specialist trips run by Conservancy Safaris (kcs-namibia.com.na; UK bookings through Kamili, 0115 937 7475; kamilisafaris.com; N$27,950 for five days' luxury camping with guided transfers, excluding flights).

Finally, if you like the idea of spotting the plump flank of a black rhino as it trundles through the bush and – even more thrillingly – following it on foot, then you should stay at Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland, south-west of Etosha, for at least a couple of nights (00 264 61 274500; desertrhinocamp.com; double safari tent from £827 for full board and activities).

Run by Wilderness Safaris, a South African operator, the camp doubles as a base for Namibia's Save The Rhino Trust; guests can join expert trackers on their daily monitoring expeditions.

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