Travel: Self-drive holiday with a difference in the nature wonderland of Namibia
South Africa and Botswana tend to be the big destinations for Irish holidaymakers seeking Africa's big animals but Namibia has oodles to offer when it comes to theatres of wildlife. Sean Sheehan cracked out his maps and took to the sometimes dusty roads of this vast country for a driving holiday like no other
NAMIBIA might be 12 times the size of Ireland but, with a population of only 2.5 million people and all the wide open spaces that implies, it is truly a nature wonderland.
The southern African country has a history of colonial oppression; its Herero people were victims of the first recorded genocide of the 20th century and under South Africa rule – not relinquished until 1990 – apartheid was imposed.
But these days it's an independent and peaceful country, amid whose stunning beauty a self-drive itinerary provides a holiday like no other you are likely to experience.
Right-hand drive and empty roads make driving a breeze in Namibia but sometimes surfaces are unpaved and care is needed. Covering the country properly necessitates some lengthy car journeys but keeping on the move guarantees that every day will bring something new and surprising.
From the airport, it is worth bypassing the country’s capital, Windhoek – there is little of interest there – and heading for somewhere like Spitkoppe: a bare landscape of granite peaks, inselbergs, rising in unforgiving isolation from gravel plains.
Horse riding, cycling and walks are available at the scenically stupendous Spitzkoppen Lodge and less costly accommodation is available near Brandberg, the country’s highest mountain (2,573m). Bushman rock art from the Stone Age features on walking tours while starry nights and a liberating sense of seclusion from a too-busy world are guaranteed extras.
From Spitzkoppe it’s a short drive to palm-tree-filled Swakopmund, a holiday resort and a living relic of colonialism; it should not be skipped on journeys up or down the coast. Walvis Bay is half an hour away and equally unmissable: pelicans galore, glorious flocks of hundreds of flamingos and dolphin-spotting boat trips.
Swakopmund is the jumping-off point for the vast and unremittingly elemental Namib Desert. Tented camps allow you to stay overnight while day and half-day tours from Swakopmund provide a crash course in desert ecology and bring you very close to the sidewinder snakes, translucent geckos, lizards and chameleons that live in and under the sand.
The Namib Desert is not uninhabited; it’s just not humans that live there.
Desert elephants are now only to found in parts of Namibia (apart from a small herd in Mali), not in the Namib Desert but, between May and October, they are seen regularly along dry river beds.
With a healthy appetite – needing up to 250 kg of fodder a day – they search relentlessly but patiently for drought-tolerant plants. Lodges in their neighbourhoods employ trackers to seek them out in nature drives.
Seeing animals on the large scale of elephants and the like has for too long been associated with holidays in South Africa and Botswana – however, although often overlooked, Namibia has plenty to offer when it comes to theatres of wildlife.
Etosha, the country’s flagship national park, is designed to be explored not by tour groups but by visitors driving around in their own cars (four-wheel drive is not necessary; speed limit is 40mph) and stopping at viewing points near waterholes where animals congregate.
Rhinos and other dangerous animals are present and leaving your vehicle is strictly forbidden. Etosha’s salt pan, covering a quarter of the park, shimmers magically in the sun and attracts giraffes, elephants, wildebeest, zebras and svelte antelopes like the unicorn-like oryx and the curly-horned kudu.
There is no shortage of accommodation close to Etosha and Ongava Lodge deserves a mention, not because it is yards from the Park’s entrance but for its restaurant and bar that overlook a watering hole surrounded by a forest of mopane trees.
Watching rhinos and elephants at dusk while sipping a cocktail comes close to decadent luxury but at the time this won’t occur to you. Even better than the floor show is the experience provided by crouching in the lodge’s hide. It is only yards away from the watering hole and at around 10pm each evening it becomes an animal’s Piccadilly Circus.
The well-watered highlands to the south of Etosha are quite different as this is where large cattle and game farms are to be found, many of which offer accommodation and activities. One of these farms has become the base for the non-profit AfriCat Foundation, looking after and rehabilitating unwanted leopards and cheetahs (not the farmer’s favourite animal).
AfriCat’s Day Centre is open for day visitors but to see the big cats up close you need to stay at Okonjima, a lodge under the same management and the income from which helps support the foundation. The lodge’s park, bigger than the original farm, is home to released animals and the highlight of any stay is tracking the radio-collared leopards, 40 of which roam wild here, from an open jeep and, on foot, tracking cheetahs.
You’ll be flabbergasted at just how close you get to them.
Namibia is sui generis; there is nowhere like it in the rest of Africa and hiring a car is the perfect way to explore and experience the country. Without the draw of sandy beaches and five-star resorts, it provides a variety of memorable moments. There is marvellous accommodation, and meals, beer and wine are inexpensive.
The wildlife is stunning, whether on open plains or in the world’s oldest desert – or just out the window of your vehicle. You come all the way to Namibia and on an open road in Etosha what you see is a zebra crossing.
The town of Swakopmundd developed when the Germans – colonial rulers of Namibia from the 1880s until 1915 – made it their chief port and, while it fell into decline after the British Union of South Africa annexed the country in 1915, its well-preserved buildings retain the colonists’ nostalgia for their homeland.
The heritage is more than architectural: schnitzel and good beer are on the menus, you’ll hear German spoken on the streets and the owners of the quality craft shops are mostly descendants of German families who never left.
It’s a very likeable destination for rest and recreation: adrenalin-fuelled adventure activities are easily arranged here and there is a justifiably named hotel called The Delight. Swakop, as locals call it, has bars, coffee shops and good restaurants that range from white tabled-clothed and candle-lit The Wreck (£20 for a three-course meal and £7 for a bottle of South African wine) to the less expensive and convivial At The Dome where game like oryx is cooked to order
:: The best time to visit Namibia is during the is dry season, April to October; for further information, see travelnamibia.co.uk
:: An 11-night tailor-made itinerary to Namibia costs from £3,230 per person based on two people travelling and including flights, accommodation (three nights bed and breakfast, eight nights half board) and car rental. Book with Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266, rainbowtours.co.uk)
:: British Airways flies from Belfast to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, via London and Johannesburg
:: Tommy's Tours & Safaris run superb tours of Namib Desert.
:: InfoMap’s Namibia is easily the best road map and includes a detailed map of Etosha National Park; Bradt’s Namibia travel guide is invaluable for planning an itinerary; Stuart’s Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa will help identify the wildlife.