Sand, endless sand. The Namib Desert extends and there is nothing. Except this isn’t a place of nothingness.
At first glance every angle is the same. Orange dunes stretch for eternity. Nothing appears to change in this ancient place. But spend more time in the Namib Desert and you soon learn that every angle is different.
The sand is shifting, day after day after day. And this desert holds endless secrets. The Namib is the wildest place in Africa, a wilderness that holds you captive from first moment to last.
Make a visit here and you truly connect with your wild side. This article has all the information you need, including places to see, things to do, and essential trip planning.
What and Where is the Namib Desert?
Stretching for over 2000 kilometres along Africa’s southwestern coast, the Namib is one of the oldest deserts in the world. The dunes here are higher than anywhere else on the planet.
As its name suggests, this desert is located in Namibia. It runs the entire length of the country, sneaking into Angola and South Africa as well. It’s connected to another great desert, merging with the Kalahari to the east.
The sand dunes literally rise from the Atlantic Ocean, carpeting an area larger than Western Europe in nothing but sand. It’s such a monumental barrier that colonialists didn’t reach Namibia until 1884; nobody could penetrate the dunes and hundreds of ship wrecks appear like ghosts along the shore.
Amazingly, life does exist here. Elephants roam. Rhinos find refuge. Giraffe swing their necks at rivals. You can feel the desert’s primitive majesty, an enveloping landscape that remains completely untouched by human hand.
Places to Visit in the Namib Desert
This ancient desert induces a transfixion. From every angle it initially appears to be the same. Yet every ridge, every curve, every dune has its own distinctive shape. The sand shifts in colour throughout the day, from yellow to red to black beneath the moon. Tomorrow the sand will be different, perpetual wind making it change day after day.
Look a little further and there are places of wild intrigue within the Namib Desert, places that show everyone a different angle. These are the places you need to visit. And while the journeys are long, these destinations are accessible to visitors who have time.
Namib-Naukluft National Park
Most people come to the desert to see sand and there is more sand surrounding you in Namib-Naukluft than any other place in Africa. This is the continent’s largest national park and the sand dunes burn red, sparkling and twinkling beneath the sun.
Both Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are located within this national park, along with Dune 45, a famous place to climb for sunrise or sunset.
The landscape is some 43 million years old and the best way to appreciate it all is on a sightseeing flight. Driving through takes a lot of time – but what a journey!
This is the most famous destination in Namibia. If you’ve seen photos of the Namib Desert then it’s probably from somewhere near Sossusvlei. Located around a six-hour drive from Windhoek, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei showcase the raw splendour of the desert.
Sossusvlei is an ancient pan that can be a little of an anticlimax. When rain falls in the Namib it floods this pan, attracting wildlife and bringing lush green colours to the landscape.
Unfortunately, you can’t predict this phenomenon – to experience Sossusvlei in flood requires a lot of good fortune. When it rains you’ll probably get stuck as the four-wheel tracks become impassable.
Deadvlei, on the other hand, is one of the highlights of traveling in Africa. Dead trees stand like skeletons on the pan, 600 years old and still awaiting the rain.
Sand dunes rise hundreds of metres above the pan, offering a brilliant place to watch the sun rise. The entire area is carpeted in dunes and the world has few more inspiring landscapes than this.
You can walk the ridge line and climb dunes around the pans. It’s also possible to walk across the pans. While Sossusvlei and Deadvlei provide a focal point to the adventure, the real highlight is the desert itself; just to be in the middle of such a raw wilderness is worth the long journey.
Deadvlei and Sossusvlei are just a few hundreds metres apart, in an area known as Sesriem. A number of lodges and camps are hidden within the dunes here, with options for all budgets and comfort levels.
The typical itinerary is to spend one or two nights at a camp. Then take an early-morning four-wheel drive trip to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei. You have to go early because it’s no fun walking up sand dunes when the sun beats down.
Sesriem is the most popular place to go in the Namib Desert because it’s the most accessible. You need a four-wheel drive to get here and there is no public transport – although hitchhiking is an option if you don’t have a car or want a tour.
Fish River Canyon
Almost everybody knows that the Grand Canyon in Nevada is the largest canyon in the world. But any guesses on number two?
Fish River Canyon is over 150 kilometres long, 30 kilometres wide and over 500 metres deep. Unlike The Grand Canyon, you’ll have it all to yourself. There’s something spooky about standing above it, gazing down into the abyss and grappling with the landscape’s sheer scale.
The canyon is located in the south of the Namib, in a dusty barren space with surprisingly few sand dunes. You can go on short tours into the canyon or take a scenic flight above it.
There’s also a five-day hiking trail running the length of the canyon. You’ll need to carry all your supplies and have a letter from a physician or doctor stating you are in good health – it’s far more difficult than climbing Kilimanjaro.
Most of Namib Desert is covered in diamonds, but nature’s power has chased away the bounty hunters. Kolmanskop is a wonderful example of this, an eerie and evocative ghost town that has been taken over by sand.
Abandoned 19th-century wooden houses have sand dunes for carpets here. Bath tubs stand lonely as the buildings have disintegrated around them. Keen photographers won’t find a more enchanting setting anywhere else in Africa; the whole town feels like a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie.
Getting here can be a struggle. It’s a dusty four-hour drive from Namibia’s main highway and a good two days of travel from a town of any significant size.
Luderitz is going the same way as Kolmanskop. This 19th-century Bavarian relic is also being overtaken by sand, on its way to becoming a ghost town.
You’ll find guesthouses and lodges here; it’s a good base to make a morning or afternoon trip to Kolmanskop.
Swakopmund is a little slice of Germany, with palm trees and a backdrop of endless sand dunes. The world’s highest dunes are located around 30 kilometres outside the town and you can go sand boarding down them – we’d recommend a more expensive tour that uses quad bikes to go up the dunes, because it’s a sweaty sandy slog otherwise.
Swakopmund is a good place to rest while exploring the Namib Desert. You’ll find restaurants, bars, guesthouses, an okay beach and a stunning sunset view. Although the town is small enough to walk across in one hour, a few facilities and comforts go a long way when you’re deep in the Namib!
This is also the first stop for many visitors coming to the desert. You can literally walk 30 minutes out of the town and be completely surrounded by sand. Why not take a sleeping bag with you and camp beneath the stars? 🙂
Other activities include sky diving, township tours, hot air balloon rides, trips to the Skeleton Coast and quad bike tours to the sand dunes.
Enchanting shipwrecks are hidden in sand and fog, giving the Skeleton Coast its name. They stand isolated and abandoned, along with giant elephant and whale skeletons.
Visiting the shipwrecks is a bumpy four-wheel drive journey heading north from Swakopmund. Amazingly, life does exist here. You might see a herd of gemsbok, one of the top ten largest antelope species in Africa.
Making a stop at Cape Cross is a must. Here there is a huge breeding colony of Cape fur seals. Their comical antics cover the sand and their smell can be overwhelming, as can be their grunts and squarks. 🙂
Dazzling granite outcrops litter the landscape of Damaraland, a wild and empty place north of Windhoek. There isn’t that much sand here, although you’ll still encounter the 200-metre dune here and there.
Giraffe stand lonely beneath red mountains. The silence is punctuated by a lone elephant. Bizarre rocky overhangs create the most incredible photos. This isn’t exactly the Namib Desert, but it is a neighbouring desert area in Namibia.
Damaraland is also home to one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of rock art. The nomadic San people left messages on the rocks, telling visual tales of a leopard nearby, or of spearing a gemsbok.
Water is king here and animals cluster around the waterholes, including those on the flat Etosha salt pan.
A huge array of antelope roam, including hundreds of thousands of gemsbok. Elephant herds wander lonely against the desert dust. Rhinos are found in abundance and the big cats are relatively easy to spot on such a flat, mostly featureless landscape.
You’ll need at least three days to experience Etosha properly. Fortunately, it is one of Africa’s cheapest safari destinations. There are a number of good value camps within the park and you can bring your four-wheel drive vehicle and tent should you wish.
Planning a Trip to the Namib Desert
Windhoek has the country’s main international airport. You can also fly into Walvis Bay, which is close to Swakopmund. Most flights from Europe to Namibia require you to transfer in South Africa.
Many people visit on a longer overland journey around Southern Africa. A classic route is to start in Cape Town and drive north through Namibia, then across Botswana or the Caprivi Strip to Victoria Falls. When coming from Johannesburg you can also drive through Botswana and into Namibia.
The most important consideration is how you will get around. You really need your own wheels in the Namib Desert, either a rental vehicle or a guided tour.
There is hardly any public transport and none to the more famous destinations. You could try to hitchhike, which is how many of the locals get around. When there is so little traffic almost everyone stops to pick up passengers. They usually ask for a few dollars as contribution for the fuel.
If you’re renting a vehicle then it has to be a four-wheel drive. No vehicle can be fully desert-proof and for long journeys it’s worth splurging for a proper 4WD like a Toyota Landcruiser, rather than a city hybrid.
Planning an Itinerary
Remember, the Namib Desert is enormous; it’s practically the size of Austria.
One highway runs the length of the country but most of the destinations are located to the west of this. Just to travel between closeby destinations can take all day.
Once off the highway many of the roads are dirt tracks, in varying states of quality. You can’t go fast here and if you try to cram in too much, then it can seem that all you do is drive.
Realistically you need to make the Namib Desert a two-week holiday. Even that isn’t enough to visit all the destinations listed in this article.
Never underestimate the greatest desert of them all. It’s truly wild and you’ll need patience as well as a sense of adventure.
There aren’t many other adventures like it. So good luck and happy travels! 🙂