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Namibia: Africa’s Golden Child

What's good enough for Angelina...

By Bill Wiatrak September 25, 2015

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Image: Shutterstock

Many Americans had never heard of Namibia until Angelina Jolie and Brad made a trip there to give birth to Shiloh. There’s not a lot of big news that comes out of this country, because it’s still relatively newly independent, there’s a small population, and Namibia seems to have learned what not to do from its neighbor and former landlord, South Africa. This is one of the favorite vacation spots of southern Africans, and Angelina allegedly fell in love with it while shooting Beyond Borders. If it’s good enough for Angelina, it must be awesome, right?

Namibia is awesome. It’s spread out with miles and miles between attractions, with a quirkiness that’s perfect for a traveler looking for something a bit different. If you want to really get away from the crowds, this is definitely the place. It’s the size of Spain, Germany and France combined, but its population is only about 2 million. Combined with a trip to Cape Town, it’s a fantastic journey, and safer than most of the countries in Africa. The currency is stable, people speak English and are tourist-friendly, and American dollars go further here than at home.

One of Namibia’s biggest draws is the cartoon-orange sand dunes at Sossusvlei, which are the biggest in the world. You might have seen dunes before, but you haven’t seen these. Getting there is half the fun. The park is about six hours from the capital, Windhoek, and between the wide, empty spaces you find weird little places like Solitaire, an essential stop that has more vintage wrecked cars than it does people, along with interesting mountain passes and amazing views.

The dune area is a national park, so you’re likely to see oryx, ostriches and lots of gazelles. There’s a camping park right inside the main gate that frequently sees animal visitors, at both morning and night. Many travelers will drive to the dunes early in the morning to watch the sunrise on the dunes. A few are accessible for climbing, but it’s harder and they’re taller than you think.

Etosha National Park is one of the most famous game parks in the world. It’s unique in that its center is a salt pan, and many of the animals and plants here have adapted to live with less water. The park has several interesting campgrounds, with one actually built on the edge of the pan. There’s really nothing to see at this particular lodge, except a really flat ocean landscape with no water, but at least you don’t have to squint to see behind bushes. Most of the camps in Etosha have lodges and a watering hole where animals gather. You can watch and photograph them in the comfort of the facilities without being stuck in a car. The more clever animals ignore fences, so you might encounter a group of mongoose or jackals running around the camp looking for food scraps.

Damaraland, in the western desert, is a unique spot. At first glimpse, you might think you’re in Arizona. The famous petroglyph site of Twyfelfontein lies in the heart of the area, and it’s one of the best places to see animals carved in stone thousands of years old. The area was first discovered by Europeans less than 100 years ago, and to date over 2,000 carvings have been found of giraffes, ostriches and other animals that Damaraland ancestors hunted and bragged about on giant stones.

Visiting one of the traditional villages in the area is a little touristy, but you’ll get those National Geographic photos that you’ve been looking for. The people will show you how they make clothing out of goat skin, produce jewelry, and manufacture medicine out of plants and elephant dung. If that’s not exciting enough, they’ll make fire from two sticks, tell you how they make beer out of weeds in ant beds, and teach you the game of mancala. Tribal fortunes have been won and lost at this game, so don’t bet anything you can’t afford to lose. There’s a lot of interesting mountain passes and photogenic rock formations in the area, so it’s a great place to hike if that’s your thing.

The easternmost point of the country of the Caprivi strip connects to upper Zambezi and Okavango river. It’s less than two hours to get to Victoria Falls from the Botswana border. Victoria Falls, divided between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is a spectacular place to visit. It’s the second-largest waterfall in the world, and visas can be obtained upon arrival quickly and painlessly. If you collect countries, it’s possible to visit four within a few hours. The Okavango river area has its own mini-version of the famous Okavango Delta, with lower prices and less crowds.

The central coast is famous for its fishing, and Henties Bay is a mecca for anglers from all over the world. Less than an hour north is one of the planet’s largest seal colonies, where as many as 20,000 Cape fur seals lounge around, breeding, eating, fighting and doing whatever seals do in their spare time. The site is easily accessible, and you can get right next to the seals without disturbing them. An hour or so south of Henties, the resort town of Swakopmund is a weird fusion of Germany, Holland and Amity Island from Jaws. It’s the place that Namibians go for their holidays, and it’s got several cute restaurants, German bakeries, and things you’ll appreciate if you’ve been driving in the desert for too long. The beaches along the coast aren’t exactly famous for being sunny and calm, but they’re not crowded. And if you’re interested in shipwrecks, keep an eye out: the waters are rough in Namibia, and a record number of sailing vessels have met their demise along the coast. There’s a reason that the northern section is called The Skeleton Coast.

Why should you go to Namibia? It’s a weird and wonderful one-of-a-kind experience that you won’t find anywhere else.

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