Text ©Sharri Whiting De Masi – Re-printed with permission of the author
The Namibian experience is not just about amazing wildlife or incredible vistas. It’s also about lifestyle, about living with the sounds, smells and tastes of nature. Namibia’s spectacular southern half, bordered by the Tropic of Capricorn in the north and the South African border in the south, is home to some of the most beautiful and remote scenery in the world. The area is home to four deserts: the fierce Kalahari, the arid Nama Karoo, the diverse Succulent Karoo, and the world’s oldest desert, the Namib.
The inhabitants of Namibia’s southern half are fiercely independent and self-reliant. Forced to make the most from a land that is both harsh and lovely, it has become a kind of cowboy country. People here live in a place where neighbours may be fifty kilometres away, but they play an integral part in each other’s lives. For travellers accustomed to the crowded apartment blocks of Europe where neighbours never meet, visiting Namibia’s south can often be a life-changing experience.
An itinerary of southern Namibia might begin in the Kalahari Desert, where long parallel rows of red dunes are accented by sage-green bushes and low trees. The Kalahari is extremely arid, and only specially adapted species such as ostrich, gemsbok and springbok survive in great numbers. The desert is home to the San Bushmen, known for their extraordinary tracking skills and ability to use indigenous plants for medicines. Despite the dryness, the Kalahari is dramatically beautiful, with sunsets that wash the sky with vibrant colours.
The Nama Karoo desert runs north and south in the centre of southern Namibia. Near Keetmanshoop is the Quiver Tree Forest, filled with hundreds of strange prehistoric trees, and Giant’s Playground, a jumble of huge boulders between 160 and 180 million years old. Both are excellent photographic subjects. To the west is Duwisib Castle, built before World War I and an incongruous sight in the middle of the wide warm-hued desert plains. Its fascinating history chronicles the love story of an American diplomat’s daughter and a German baron, much of which is preserved in documents and the furnishings of the castle. Duwisib is open to public viewing.
The star of the Nama Karoo is, of course, the Fish River Canyon, formed 150 million years ago and second in size and grandeur only to the Grand Canyon. For fit and intrepid hikers, walking along the bed of the Fish River to Ai Ais is the ultimate adventure experience. Seeing the canyon in the early morning light, from the rim or from a low-flying aircraft, reveals an infinite variety of dramatic crevices and crags, with light and shadows constantly changing.
Going west from the Nama Karoo is the Succulent Karoo desert, the most diverse desert in the world. A winter rainfall area, it may be blanketed with lilies during the rainy season.
Just west of the little town of Aus, at Garub, the wild horses of the Namib run freely across endless plains. Thought by some to be the descendants of European domesticated horses brought to Africa in the 17th century, these animals live off the wild grasses that grow in the desert. Their exact origin remains a mystery. There are waterholes within the preserve, where visitors may park their vehicles to see the horses.
Continuing west towards Lüderitz, travellers will find the fascinating town of Kolmanshop, founded in the early 20th century to support diamond miners. It was a rich settlement, with its own bowling alleys, grand villas and public buildings. Champagne came from Paris, chilled with ice transported from the poles. Life was wonderful, but when the diamonds played out, the town was abandoned. Today the houses stand silent and empty, filled with the blowing sands of the desert.
Namibia is famous for its oysters and Lüderitz is arguably the place where the very best are found. Isolated and windblown, the streets of Lüderitz are lined with Ger—man colonial buildings, perched on rocks overlooking the cold, frothy Atlantic. This strangely compelling little town was the first German settlement in Namibia, dating back to 1884. The site was visited by the Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, in 1488, who found the area too desolate to stay. However, when the sun reflects off the windows of the old houses and sparkles on the ocean, Lüderitz seems friendly and welcoming, which indeed it is.
The fourth desert in Namibia’s Spectacular South is the Namib, which runs along the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of kilometres. Encompassed in the Namib-Naukluft Park, it is home to Sossusvlei and the highest sand dunes in the world. The red dune ‘ocean’ within the Namib is so sharply delineated that it is used to calibrate weather satellites orbiting the earth. The Namib offers a kaleidoscope of landscapes to the visitor, from the vibrant red sand dunes to vast white gravel plains to rugged blue-tinged mountains. Hikers and campers find numerous opportunities to explore nature in the Namib-Naukluft Park, and additional areas are being opened this year.
Accommodation in the Spectacular South is varied, ranging from campsites and self-catering properties to five-star luxury lodges and tented camps. Others are architecturally designed to blend into the desert landscape, using massive natural stone for walls or nestling into permanent dunes.
There are good places to eat when en route to the important sites in the south, including the Cañon Roadhouse, a funky place with Italian food near the Fish River Canyon; the general store/restaurant at Solitaire, famous for its apple dessert and homemade bread; and the sumptuous game buffets at Sossusvlei Lodge.
The distances between locations in Namibia’s Spectacular South can be driven easily in half a day along well-maintained tarred and gravel roads. Four-wheel drive vehicles are needed only after heavy rains or for off-road excursions. Horse riding and quad-bikes are available at several locations.
This article appeared in the Oct/Nov ‘06 edition of Travel News Namibia.