Why we like it
- Home to one of southern Africa’s most challenging hikes
- Plenty of fascinating history from the desert’s diamond rush days
- Ideal road trip country with great roads and lots of places of interest
- Varied and vast scenery – think canyon crevasses, desert dunes, and endless open space
- Manmade and natural wonders that have stood the test of time
Unless you’re blessed with all the time in the world, you’re likely not going to take Namibia on all at once. So, we divide it into north and south. We promise that your tour of the southern Namib will be so full of awe-inspiring scenery, spine-tingling tales of war, desert diamond secrets, and exhilarating adventure. It’s the best place to start.
Doing the southern Namib circuit means standing at the edge of the magnificent Fish River Canyon and even descending all the way into it if you’re taking on the epic five-day hiking trail. This is a place of bubbling natural hot springs, a quiver tree forest, an abandoned diamond mining town half-swallowed by the desert, and a wonderland of wild horses near the one-horse town of Aus. The southern Namib region is begging to be seen by road-trip enthusiasts and photographers. An introduction to Namibia’s scenery.
Fish River Canyon and Ai-Ais National Park
Fish River Canyon is located in the far south of the country, within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, shared with South Africa. It’s funny because you would imagine something as enormous as a 27km-wide, 160km-long canyon in the earth’s surface would be visible from a distance, but it isn’t. You won’t see the real deal until you’re standing at the end of a great big drop and the ridges and valleys of Africa’s largest canyon are carved out in front of you.
For those who like the reward of a physical challenge, the five-day hike along the Fish River on the canyon floor is a must. Hikers from all over the world challenge themselves to this carry-all trail and if you’re looking for a real adventure in nature, get a small group of keen trekkers together for this one. It must be booked in advance and you must be a minimum of three people in a group. It’s only open from May to September (otherwise it’s just too hot) and it incorporates about 85km in total, ending at the Ai-Ais Hot Springs (i.e., bliss).
Non-hikers can explore the rim of the canyon from various viewpoints which are accessible by car. There are information boards with interesting facts about the canyon and its human and natural history at the main viewpoint, about 10km from the entrance gate. The earlier the better for photographers who will appreciate the morning’s golden glow on this spectacular marvel.
Namibia’s Gondwana Collection offers some really great accommodation options and a favourite of ours is the Canyon Roadhouse, which could double as an old car museum. It has a nice, cold swimming pool, a classic roadhouse-style bar, and a cycling track through the rocky terrain surrounding the lodge.
Quiver Tree Forest and Giant’s Playground
The story goes that the quiver tree – a type of aloe endemic to this part of Namibia – was named after their traditional use by Namibia’s desert dwelling San people. The branches of the tree, once hollowed out, became the perfect vessels to carry Bushman arrows, and thus, it became the quiver tree in English.
These desert-adapted “upside down trees” don’t occur in forests, and so to see them gathered together in the Quiver Tree Forest near Keetmanshoop is a special sight. They stand up on an otherwise stark and rocky landscape and at sunset the scene is particularly mesmerising. Photographers will love the opportunity to capture their eerie silhouettes against a brightly stained sky, or the emerging stars above.
Near the congregation of quiver trees is the Giant’s Playground, which is also worth seeing. It is a landscape of the most peculiarly arranged dolerite boulders, which stand in mounds of balancing rocks. Over time (something in the region of 180 million years) the dolerite rocks pushed through the surface of the earth and have withstood the weathering elements that eroded everything else around them. So now, these “giant building blocks” stand tall between scattered quiver trees and are pretty cool to climb and scramble over. Photo ops galore!
Lüderitz is the diamond mining capital on the southern coast of Namibia, and it is both embellished and scarred with a history of colonisation, war, and of course, diamonds. Its choppy coastline and windy weather conditions give it a rough kind of beauty rather than the appeal of quaint seaside town. Bear that in mind as you round the last dune in the desert and glimpse the small town on the shore of the Atlantic.
Lüderitz has some really superb German architecture lining the streets, including Felsenkirche and Goerke House, which are two well preserved establishments worth seeing. It has an active fishing harbour and waterfront with sea-facing restaurants and accommodations, stocked with nice, cold German beer!
The town streets are mostly dirt and dust and the buildings are brightly painted. There are some fascinating historical attractions, and some have a painful history rooted in German colonisation, like Shark Island. Kolmanskop – an old ghost town partially swallowed by the desert – is definitely Lüderitz’s most popular attraction and for good reason. We’ll get to that in a minute…
Take a walk along Agate Beach and look for beautiful agates in the sand. Eat fresh German brötchen and pate with a view of the sea and take in the sort of “stuck in time” appeal of the place. For some sightseeing and adventuring, you can take a guided 4×4 desert tour to the prohibited diamond mining territory of Sperrgebiet and see the remains of ghost towns, mines, and the Bogenfels rock arch that plunges into the sea.
Kolmanskop is one of Namibia’s most famous destinations because it is so unique and embodies all that is eerie. There have been books written about this old town in the desert and plenty of photographers have succeeded in capturing its grandeur and sadness at the same time. In its heyday – around 1910 – Kolmanskop was booming with wealth, overflowing with diamonds, and was home to only the richest members of society who could tolerate desert conditions.
Located about 15km inland from Lüderitz, the famous ghost town is now at the mercy of the ever-moving desert sand. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, there were over 1000 people living at Kolmanskop, getting rich off the millions of tons of carats that were being collected from the desert floor. The town residents liked the finer things in life and their homes were opulently decorated. A bakery and even an ice factory (desert necessities) were set up and life was quite grand! But once bigger and better diamonds were discovered near on the Orange River in 1927, Kolmanskop was quickly abandoned and over time, dunes swallowed that old bakery and the fancy finishings were looted by opportunists in nearby Lüderitz.
Fast forward to today, this ghost town is an alluring spot well worth visiting. You can walk through the dilapidated buildings and learn about the people who lived there and how life worked. Make sure you go with a local guide who will have all the anecdotes about who had a pet ostrich and how 40 children entertained themselves in the desert!
Aus and the wild horses
To add to the mystery of the Namib Desert, the existence of wild horses near the tiny town of Aus is something of a fairy tale. No one really knows whether they are descendants of the German soldiers’ horses lost in the desert during the war, or whether they came from stud farms during the same time, around 1915. What we do know is that they are totally feral and quite the sight to see in a landscape as stark and vast as the southern Namib.
Just 20km from Aus is a gravel road turn-off towards the Garub waterhole, which is the primary source of water for these horses for hundreds of square kilometres. They are of course desert adapted and wildly resilient, so they can travel huge distances without drinking. Your best chance of seeing them is from the hide overlooking the Garub waterhole, which is a good place to park off if you’re overnighting at Klein Aus Vista. The desert views will not disappoint you!
In south-eastern corner of Namibia is the Kalahari Desert, which the country shares largely with Botswana and South Africa. While the Namib Desert on the coast of Namibia is the oldest in the world, the Kalahari in the east represents one of southern Africa’s most iconic landscapes and it begs to be explored. Think black-maned lions, cheetahs, brown hyenas, honey badgers, and herds of springbok!
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park crosses over the borders of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa and is a spectacular and unique destination with a loyal following of avid 4×4 travellers, kitted out campers, and keen photographers looking for “the ultimate” desert wildlife experience. The Namibian entrance is at Mata Mata – and if you enter and leave the park through the same gate, you can access the park in all three countries without needing a passport or visa for South Africa or Botswana. Alternatively, use the Kgalagadi as a destination while road tripping across borders.
Waterholes in the park are little hubs of activity. Predators readily hang around in wait of prey coming for a drink, and you’ll have the chance to see black-backed jackals leaping for Namaqua sandgrouse, a mother cautiously bringing her cubs to drink, or a pale-chanting goshawk following a Cape cobra in search of prey.
This is a place like no other but beware the extreme desert weather! During the summer, temperatures sear into the 40s, and volatile thunderstorms can bring a lot of wind and dust. In winter, nights can drop well below freezing, so be prepared!
The southwestern coast isn’t a place to don your swimsuit and relax on the beach. Let the fascinating history and stellar scenery of this area guide your visit and you’ll leave with an inimitable appreciation for the Kalahari and respect for the resilient animals that inhabit it.
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