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Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Namibia

Soaring dunes & shipwreck coasts

Our Namibia Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Namibia or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
11 hours

Time zone
GMT +2

Currency
Namibian dollar (N$). It is linked on a one-to-one basis with the South African rand

Language
English is the official language. Afrikaans is widely spoken. German and indigenous languages - including Oshivambo, Herero and Nama - are also spoken

Travel advice
(UK/US) None

Travel Guide

Overview

Namibia is one of Africa's most exciting travel destinations, an untamed and otherworldly place that offers abundant opportunities for adventure and is a photographer's dream.

The country's wild natural beauty is its major draw card, with key attractions such as the world famous Etosha National Park, the breathtaking Fish River Canyon and the enormous sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Whether you're self-driving across the plains; watching wildlife in a national park; skydiving above the Skeleton Coast; or sandboarding down a towering dune: it's easy to see why Namibia earned a reputation as one of the continent's adrenalin sports hotspots.

There's more to see and do than most could manage in a single trip, but plan ahead and you'll be surprised at just how much you can fit in. Your Namibia travel itinerary will, of course, depend on the amount of time you have. But it's virtually impossible to visit without seeing at least a part of the region that gives the country its name - the Namib - or the country's other great desert, the Kalahari. In these silent wildernesses you can often travel for miles without seeing another soul, although you'll soon discover that there's life even in areas that at first might seem entirely forbidding. The Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Himba people, among others, have learned to survive in Namibia's arid landscapes and learning about their culture during a Namibian trip is a rewarding experience.

There's great wildlife viewing, too. Namibia is the last place on earth where black rhinos roam free; there are desert elephants and mountain zebras; huge seal colonies on the coast; and cheetahs in greater numbers than almost any other part of Africa.

Conservation is of great importance and Namibia is proud to be the first country in the world to include protection of the environment and wildlife in its constitution.

Culture & etiquette

Meeting Namibia's tribal groups is best done with a local guide, who can introduce you and tell you about their beliefs and behaviour. Elsewhere, people are generally pleased to meet foreigners who have travelled to their country, so you can expect a warm welcome in shops, lodges and at tourist attractions.

Be courteous when photographing people, particularly if visiting the Himba or other tribes. Visit with a guide, learn about their lifestyle and ask through the guide if it's OK to take pictures. If you don't have a guide, ask first and respect their wishes.

Dress is generally very informal and most people on holiday wear shorts, sandals and T-shirts. Light, cool clothing is recommended, plus a sweater for nighttime. Sturdy walking boots are advised for safaris.

Drink

Windhoek lager (now available in some UK supermarkets) is one of the best quality African beers. It's drunk by everybody and makes for a perfect ice-cold sundowner. South African Castle and Hansa Pilsener are also widely available. Specialty German beers can also be found in bars in the bigger towns, while wine drinkers are well catered for too - with plenty of good quality and affordable South African wine.

Festivals

Independence Day, on 21 March, is marked with singing, dancing, speeches and other festivities in most Namibian towns and villages. Music and dance can also be enjoyed during the twice-yearly Oruuano of Namibia Arts Festival, which features an array of arts and cultural performances in Windhoek in September and November.

Another important festival takes place on the weekend closest to 26 August, when the Herero people gather in Okahandja (70km north of Windhoek) for a memorial service to their deceased chiefs. The highlight is a parade through the town that passes some of the chiefs' graves, with the Herero men dressed in military attire and the women in their voluminous and colourful traditional dress.

A more lighthearted affair takes place in October, when the people of Swakopmund celebrate their German connections by drinking beer, eating sausages and listening to ‘oompah' bands during their own version of Germany's Oktoberfest. Continuing the German theme is Windhoek's annual Karnevale in April, with street parades and a masked ball among the fun events.

Food & drink

Game meat, particularly oryx, kudu and other antelope is common, and there is excellent seafood to be had in the coastal resorts of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Biltong is a staple, while braais (barbecues) are popular among Afrikaan and German groups. Indigenous groups eat lots of mealie pap (a doughy maize paste) and oshifima, the millet version often served with meat or vegetable stews. South African favourites such as bobotie (a meat pie with a savoury egg custard crust) are also popular. German influences, meanwhile, can be seen in the strudels, Black Forest gateaux and pastries of Namibia's cake shops.

Geography

Namibia is situated on the west coast of Africa, bordering Angola and Zambia in the north, South Africa in the south and Botswana in the east. This ancient and sparsely populated land is roughly four times the size of the UK and with very little rainfall and only five perennial rivers (the Cuando, Kunene, Kavango, Zambezi and Orange) much of the country comprises desert or semi-desert landscapes. For most travellers this is precisely Namibia's appeal: a chance to experience the wild, seemingly empty expanses that make this a beguiling corner of the continent.

There are four distinct zones, each with its own characteristics and attractions, although the most dominant geographical feature is the Namib Desert, the world's oldest at 80 million years old. Its name is a Nama word meaning ‘vast place', which is a fitting one given this long coastal desert occupies almost a fifth of the country and runs along Namibia's entire Atlantic coast, a distance of roughly 2,000km. In its centre is a sea of enormous red and orange sand dunes, which are one of the country's major tourist attractions.

Inland from the Namib is a semi-arid mountainous plateau on which most of Namibia's towns and villages are situated, as well as the capital Windhoek. Continue east and you'll reach another of Africa's great deserts, the Kalahari, while to the south lies another of the country's major geographical attractions, the Fish River Canyon. The remaining two zones are in the southeastern corner of the country, which is typified by low-lying plains covered with scrub vegetation and the far north of the country - around Kavango and the Caprivi Strip - which is the only area that receives enough rainfall to sustain forests and farmland. If you visit this area you'll notice the landscape turn from brown to green as you head north from the immense salt pan of Etosha National Park.

Getting around

Internal flights are often the speediest way to get around, with around 300 airstrips dotted across the country serving towns, villages and major tourist destinations such as the dunes of Sossusvlei. Be sure to get a window seat to enjoy the views of deserts and dunes on the way.

Self-drive is another popular option and more and more visitors are choosing to drive themselves around the country. Wexas Travel can advise on car hire options should you wish to explore Namibia independently.

Driving is on the left, as in the UK. There are more than 37,000km of gravel roads (and only 5,400km of paved roads) so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is necessary if you plan on travelling extensively in remote areas. Some vehicles come with roof tents and camping equipment, although roadhouses and lodges are situated at regular intervals on the main routes - so plan your overnight stops carefully and allow plenty of time to reach your destination as the distances are often vast and journeys can take longer than the map might suggest, especially on unpaved roads. That said, driving in Namibia can be a tremendous adventure and allows access to far-flung parts of the country where you'll often have the open road to yourself as you travel at your own pace beneath the wide African sky.

Namibia's railway company, TransNamib Starline Passenger Services, is a third option, although its twice-weekly route between Upington in South Africa and Windhoek is rather slow as the trains are primarily used for freight and there are lots of stops along the way.

History

Although a young country in terms of statehood, having gained its independence as recently as 1990, Namibia is an ancient land - and the earliest archaeological finds from the southern part of the country suggest that humans wandered its vast plains and harsh desert around 45,000 years ago. Elsewhere, rock art discovered in Damaraland shows that the San Bushmen inhabited the land at least 27,000 years ago. Like their descendents today, they were traditional hunter-gatherers and were extraordinarily successful at surviving in the desert.

Around 2,000 years ago the San were joined by the khoi-khoi (Nama) who had migrated from modern-day Botswana. They reared livestock and could therefore lead a semi-nomadic existence, but both groups lived harmoniously. The ninth century AD saw the arrival of a third group, the Damara, who shared common cultural and linguistic ties with the Nama, and by the early nineteenth-century they were living all over Namibia. Later, Bantu-speaking tribes from the Great Lakes of east and central Africa migrated into the north of the country, bringing with them skills such as pottery and metal working. Around the same time, the cattle-herding Herero people moved into Namibia and their need for pastureland saw them move increasingly southwards. This led to conflict with indigenous groups over the best grazing lands and water sources - and the San and Damara were gradually forced onto the fringes of the Namib and Kalahari.

Portuguese mariners were the first Europeans to visit Namibia but due to its barren and arid coastline it was long overlooked by colonialists. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the territory was annexed by Germany (except for Walvis Bay, which was taken by the British for the Cape Colony). Herero and Nama rebellions to German rule were brutally suppressed, with large numbers interred in concentration camps or forced to work on the railroads or mines.

German colonial rule came to an abrupt end when its troops surrendered to a South African expeditionary army during the First World War. The League of Nations sanctioned South Africa to rule the country - then known as South West Africa - but not annex it, although South Africa gradually tightened its grip and in 1949 granted parliamentary representation to the white population, whilst confining Namibia's indigenous peoples to ‘reserves'.

Discontent grew and led to the emergence of a nationalist movement and the South West Africa People's Organization (Swapo) took the issue of South African occupation to the International Court of Justice while simultaneously launching an intense guerilla campaign. Fighting escalated during the 1980s, but in 1990 independence was finally granted - under the presidency of Swapo leader Sam Nujoma, who had led the organisation in exile for 30 years. After changing the constitution so that he could serve a third term, he stepped down in 2005. By that time the government had begun to expropriate white-owned farms and this land reform programme continues to be a hot topic.

Shopping

Food and camping supplies can be picked up at general stores and supermarkets, most of which are open from 0900-1700 Monday to Friday and 0900-1300 on Saturdays. Very few places are open on Sundays.

South African and other international brands can be picked up at shopping malls in Windhoek and Swakopmund. These are also the best bet for buying jewellery, with registered dealerships selling locally mined and polished diamonds and other semi-precious stones at a good price. When buying diamonds remember the fours Cs: cut, colour, clarity and carat.

African arts and crafts such as wood carvings, baskets, ceramics and Herero dolls are other possible souvenirs, although handicrafts can be more expensive in Namibia than neighbouring countries. San goods, such as arrowheads and ostrich egg jewellery can be bought in the northeast. Craft centres and safari lodge shops are the best starting point if you're interested in buying local curios.

Clothing and carpets made from the wool of the hardy karakul desert sheep and leather goods are also made locally. Vellies - boots made from kudu or gemsbok leather - are a particular specialty.

Tipping

A 10 per cent tip is customary in restaurants. In bars, tips are appreciated though no expected. Elsewhere, tipping for good service is a nice gesture for tour guides, drivers and porters - many of whom rely on tips for their livelihoods. A tip of N$20 a day for guides and N$10 a day for drivers is a useful starting figure to keep in mind.

Where to eat

Restaurant fare is typically Germanic, South African or international. Supermarkets offer a good choice if you're camping or self-catering. In the bush, nothing beats a beer and a braai.

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