05 Jul Northern Namibia Travel Tips + Photos
My impression of Northern Namibia:
While I was very impressed by the spectacular sights of Southern Namibia, click here for my post and photos of Southern Namibia, I found Northern Namibia to be equally impressive, maybe even more!
Northern Namibia is sparsely populated, the roads are much less developed and the terrain is much more rugged than the South. But this is precisely what makes Northern Namibia adventuresome!
Click here to see my photos of Northern Namibia
What are the main highlights of Northern Namibia?
Here are some of the top sights of Northern Namibia:
1. Etosha National Park – the main national park of Namibia and the best place for wildlife viewing. Did you know that Etosha National is malaria free!
2. Etosha Pan – massive salt pan near the Etosha National Park. It is completely white so bring your sunglasses!
3. Twyfelfontein – Namibia’s first UNESCO Heritage site that is home of numerous ancient rock engravings.
4. Damaraland – a stunning and rugged landscape where you’ll find animals such as elephants, zebras and rhinos that have adapted to the barren landscape.
5. Skeleton Coast – people called it the ‘Land that God Made in Anger’. Massive sand dunes collide with angry waves of Atlantic Ocean. Haunting!
6. Swakopmund – beach resort and a great place for seafood.
7. Okonjima Nature Reserve – a sanctuary for rescued wild cats such as cheetah and leopards. You can also stay here – it has fantastic accommodation and food.
8. Himba Village – a ‘village’ where you can meet and see the culture of the Himba people of Namibia.
What I did in Northern Namibia:
I did a 7-day group tour with a tour company and saw the eight highlights listed above. The following is my itinerary and travel tips.
Day 1: Windhoek to Okonjima
We left Windhoek in the morning at around 10 am and travelled north to Okonjima Nature Reserve, a conservation group for African wild cats. The drive was about 3 hours.
Along the way, we stopped at Okahandja, a small town where you can find Namibia’s largest wood carving market and see the Herero people.
Travel Tip: There are many wonderful wood carvings in the open air market in Okahandja but I found the atmosphere touristy and the vendors pushy. If you decide to buy something here, take your time to look around and be prepared to bargain hard.
Look out for beautifully dressed Herero people. Okahandja is also the administrative center for Herero people and you will find them around town, dressed in colourful clothes as pictured on the left.
Herero and Namaqua Genocide: It is estimated that between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereros and 10,000 Namas died during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide that occurred between 1904 and 1908 when German colonial powers drove them into the desert and left them to die from starvation and dehydration.
Travel Tip: At Okonjima, we went on a jeep tour of the large conservation park where saw up close some of the cheetahs that are going through the rehabilitation program. While it is interesting to learn about AfriCat’s conservation efforts, nothing beats seeing wildcats in the wild. I would recommend visiting here if you were not able to see any wild cats (especially cheetahs) at Etosha National Park. On the other hand, the Okonjima Lodge nearby is outstanding! The cottages, the food and the ambiance are all great. It is worthwhile to stop here for the night before making your way to Etosha.
Day 2: Okonjima to Etosha National Park
We left Okonjima early morning and drove to the eastern side of Etosha National Park. By lunch, we arrived at Namutoni Camp, Park, where we had lunch and did an afternoon game drive. Click here to see my photos of wildlife in Namibia.
Travel Tip: One thing you should be aware of is there are fewer animals in Etosha when compared to a safari in South Africa or Tanzania. All the animals you will see in South Africa or Tanzania, including the Big Five, are present in Etosha but just less in number. So the chances of seeing them are lower. In fact, I did not see any lions in Etosha but literally saw hundreds of lions in Serengeti, Tanzania. (At the same time, I saw a number of rhinos in Etosha but none in Serengeti). While the volume (not the type) of animals are less, so are the people. In the Serengeti, during peak season, you will see hordes of trucks clamouring to see the animals. By comparison, Etosha gets much fewer tourists. For me, Etosha felt much less touristy and more authentic. You will have to drive around more, work a bit harder to find the animals. But when you do, chances are, you will either be the only one or just a handful of people there.
Day 3: Etosha National Park Game Drives and Etosha Pan
We woke up early again, had breakfast, then did another game drive, driving from to Namutoni, the eastern part to Halali Camp, which situated in the middle of the park. Along the way, we visited a few more waterholes and saw the massive Etosha Pan.
Travel Tip: The Etosha Pan is a 120 km long, dry and salty, lakebed that formed about 10 million years ago. If you are lucky, you can sometimes see animals on the Pan, which makes for great photos. I was there for a very short time and did not see any animals. The Etosha itself is a vast area and there is not much to see other than the Pan itself. However, I recommend seeing The Etosha Pan, especially if you have not seen anything like it before. And it makes for great photos. Be warned though, the area is quite hot. You won’t be able to stay out on the Pan too long and also, so make sure to take water, sunscreen and a hat.
Travel Tip: After dinner, I went to see a ‘floodlit waterhole’, which was one of the highlights of my safari in Namibia! What is a floodlit waterhole? In some parts of the park, they have put non-intrusive floodlights near watering holes, where animals gather after sunset. Not only do many animals come there after sunset to drink water but also to hang out and play-fight. It is a really cool place see wildlife politics. Make sure to take a flashlight with you as you have to walk a little bit away from the camp to these watering holes, in the dark.
I saw elephants, rhinos, hyenas, jackals, zebras and many other animals come by, hang out, play, drink water and leave. This has been one of the coolest wildlife viewings I have done in Africa.
If you are planning to take photos of animals at the floodlit waterhole at night, I recommend going before sunset to set up your camera and tripod. To minimize disturbing the animals, the lighting is quite soft and therefore not ideal for taking photos. Sadly, most of my photos were blurry, like the one on the left.
Day 4: Etosha National Park to Grootberg
Himba Village visit. After another short morning game drive, we left Etosha and headed towards the small town of Kamanjab, where we then visited a Himba Village, supposedly, ‘the only traditionally functioning Himba community outside the far north Kaokoland region of Namibia’.
The Himba people are a semi-nomadic people who are indigenous to Northern Namibia. Their customs are quite interesting. Himbas are animists and their god is called Mukuru, whom they worship through smoke from a fire. Because of the scarcity of water, the Himbas also ‘bathe’ with smoke.
Travel Tip: To be honest, I found the Himba Village highly commercialized and tad exploitative. To me, the ‘village’ did not seem quite authentic and I have mixed feelings about my experience (which I will share in another post) but other people in the tour I was with seemed to appreciate it. Some people brought pencils and writing books to share with the community and I think if you do visit a Himba village, this is the more appropriate way to do it.
After Himba Village visit, we camped overnight in Grootberg area, which is really special as the whole campsite is set amidst massive boulders and mopane trees.
Travel Tip: There are some luxury camps and basic camps with shared bathroom in this area where you can stay at. I stayed in a basic camp. Regardless of which level of accommodation you choose, I recommend spending the night amongst these boulders. It was a cool experience to wake up early morning and walk among these massive boulders.
Be aware that the roads here are very basic and bumpy so expect to be to be treated to a ‘Namibian massage’ as you drive.
Day 5: Grootberg & Twyfelfontein
The next morning we drove through Damaraland.
What’s special about Damaraland? Damaraland is home of the Damara people who form about 8% of Namibia’s population, is an incredibly rugged and scenic route. Damaraland is also where you will also find Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, and Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO Heritage site with one of the largest and oldest collections of petroglyphs in Africa.
Twyfelfontein. This place was inhabited by San hunter-gatherers as long as 6,000 years ago, who used the area as part of shamanic rituals and worship. Twyfelfontein is Namibia first World Heritage Site and a really special place in all of Africa. Interestingly, the area as abandoned for hundreds of years and only rediscovered by colonial settlers after World War II.
Travel Tip: There are about 2,500 rock carvings here and there is some walking involved. The terrain is not even and you have to do a small amount of climbing as well. And because of heat emanating from these rocks, the area can feel really hot. So make sure to wear a hat, sunscreen and wear sensible footwear. You can only visit the site if you hire a guide from the front offices. The guides are quite good and will give inside information on the carvings and the inhabitants of the ara.
Day 6: Twyfelfontein, Skeleton Coast, and Swakopmund
The next day we continued to drive through Damaraland scenery, passing by Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountains. We then made our way west towards the coastal city of Swakopmund, which is the country’s largest resort city and very popular with Namibians.
Travel Tip: I found Swakopmund to be just an OK city. It is right next to the Atlantic Ocean and while the beaches are nice and clean, the water is cold. In fact, when I was there in August, I found Swakopmund windy, cloudy and downright chilly. Having said that, Swakopmund does have some nice hotel, great restaurant and is famous for fresh seafood. So it is worthwhile to stop here for a night to refresh and eat great seafood. It may be worthwhile to spend an extra day or two do the activities listed below.
Things to do near Swakopmund: While Swakopmund itself is not inspiring, it does have a number of activities in the surrounding area which are a lot of fun and highly recommended.
Visit a seal colony: You can see a massive seal colony, often numbering up to 200,000, at Cape Cross, 120 km north of Swakopmund. It is really cool to see so many seals in one place, hanging out, fighting, fishing for food, mothers nursing their small ones, etc.
Travel Tip: The whole area is loud and smelly, however. And also, quite chilly. I was there in August and it felt still quite cool so keep your jacket nearby. What makes this place extra special is that you can see the seals up close and they will even come to you if go to the beach. Be careful if you walk off from the sectioned off area as they can bite!
The Land that God made in Anger:
You can also see the incredible Skeleton Coast, whom sailors referred to as ‘Gates of Hell’ and locals called it ‘The Land that God made in Anger’. Skeleton Coast is one of the most treacherous coastlines in the world because of strong currents and dense fogs. What makes the Skeleton Coast truly special are an eerie mix of shipwrecks and bones that litter the enormous coastline. The area is desolate, surreal and the spooky collection of bones and shipwrecks truly justify Skeleton Coast’s name.
My favourite activity in Swakopmund:
I took a small plane, which sat 4 people, including the pilot and flew over the Skeleton Coast. I very highly recommend this!
Flying over you will see colourful salt lakes (pink, green, blue), lots of birds (beautiful flocks of flamingos along with our small plane) and massive sand dunes battling it out with the Atlantic Ocean for supremacy. It is one of the most special travel experiences I have ever had.
The battle for Supremacy:
Flying over the Skeleton Coast was one of the most fun experiences in Namibia! The Namibian sand dunes, which are some of the oldest and largest in the world, wage a battle for supremacy over the Atlantic Coast, which in turn is doing its best to slowly cut the sand dunes in size.
Day 7: Swakopmund to Windhoek
One the last day, we drove back from Swakopmund to Windhoek, which takes about 4 to 5 hours.