Windhoek: awe and wonder
Written by Tess Paterson
On September 28, Qatar Airways launches flights to Windhoek, gateway to the arid wonderland of Namibia. Writer Tess Paterson takes us on a road trip through a world of giant dunes, lunar landscapes, and extraordinary wildlife.
Vast and rugged, Namibia is not a destination to be rushed. From the parched northern Kunene region to the tidy fog-swept Eurocentricity of Swakopmund, it’s a rare blend of contrasts, true wilderness, and adventure.
Situated at the very centre of the country, Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, is a sun-baked spot with a small-town feel. Surrounded by low mountains, the central business hub morphs rapidly into suburbia. A former German colony, modern Windhoek is suffused with the language and buildings of another time. Take the Tintenpalast, or the rather lovely Windhoek Railway Station on Bahnhof Strasse, circa 1912. While the official language is English, you’re as likely to hear German and Afrikaans as you are Oshiwambo, the lingua franca of almost half the population. As the start-and-end point for most holidaymakers, this cosmopolitan city boasts a number of good guesthouses and vibrant eateries. A frontier town of sorts, it’s imbued with an upbeat sense of anticipation that precedes a longed-for adventure.
From Windhoek, it’s a five-hour drive to Sossusvlei – the vast salt and clay pan surrounded by ruddy dunes. Situated in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, this remarkable coastal desert region forms part of the Namib Sand Sea World Heritage Site. Laden with bottled water, we immediately begin the slog to the top of Big Daddy, the area’s tallest dune at around 325m. Even in autumn, it’s a vivid scorcher of a day, so it’s heads down, focusing on the dune’s crisp undulating spine. From the top, the view is extraordinary. Deadvlei below is an expanse of dry clay – punctuated by wind-parched camel-thorns thought to be almost a millennium old.
There’s no shortage of luxury accommodation on the park’s edge, and Wilderness Safaris’ Little Kulala Camp has the added bonus of its own private entrance to Sossusvlei. Eleven thatched suites are dotted along the desert floor, surrounded by breathtaking nothingness. Pared-down stone-linen interiors aside, each suite has a private plunge pool and, to my delight, a rooftop bed if you feel like sleeping beneath the stars.
“The Namib is the oldest coastal desert in the world, filled with fascinating adaptations,” comments Wilderness Safaris marketing manager Carli Fremmer. “In the northern parts, you’ll find both desert-adapted black rhino and elephant, and you may well see a lion heading down a red dune. While these animals might look familiar, they behave in a completely different way in this harsh environment.”
Here in the south, you’ll find resilient residents such as oryx, springbok, and ostrich. “Our regular sightings range from brown hyenas and aardwolf to the bat-eared fox,” adds Carli, “but our guests are drawn in by the smaller sand-dwelling creatures too. Nothing captures the sound of the desert like the barking gecko.”
Around 40km south of the Sossusvlei entrance lies the NamibRand Nature Reserve. A model of low-impact, high-quality tourism, this not-for-profit was founded in the mid-1980s when a series of former livestock farms were returned to nature. “The desert is a sensitive ecosystem, and having large groups of tourists did not bode well for its preservation,” says NamibRand CEO Nils Odendaal. By allowing tourism concessions and collecting park fees, Nils’s small team has created a holistically managed, financially sustainable reserve. At 220,000 hectares, it’s also one of the largest private reserves in Africa. “Our guarantee of small guest numbers provides a true wilderness experience,” Nils adds. Put simply, that’s a total of 220 guests in an area the size of Mauritius.
Accommodation in the NamibRand ranges from upmarket camping to ultra-luxurious lodges. &Beyond’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is a beautiful counterpoint to the distant rugged dunes; it’s all bone-coloured elegance and unapologetic comfort. Torn between chilling and going a little Mad Max, you’ll be hard pressed to say no to the many activities on offer. Eric Hesemans’ Namib Sky Balloon Safaris operates daily sunrise flights. “The Sossusvlei region is probably the biggest attraction in Namibia right now,” he says. “The desert is incredibly beautiful, and the flights are all about the landscape; any game is an added bonus.” Eric begins by ascending to 1,000m to give an eyebrow-raising overview. Then there’s a leisurely descent, with a bit of artful hovering just centimetres above the coral-coloured dunes. After meandering for some 20km, we land just in time for an indulgent outdoor breakfast.
Some 400km north of Windhoek lies Etosha National Park. Accessible, malaria-free, and teeming with game, this pristine reserve has an atmosphere like no other. Watching an enormous elephant enjoying a dust-bath in the chalky white sands sums it up: timeless rhythms, the constant quest for water, and a blinding, shimmering heat-haze. One quarter of the park is covered by the Etosha pan – an aeons-old depression which, after exceptional rains, reverts to a shallow lake, attracting thousands of migrating flamingos.
If you’re staying at one of the park’s six camps, the floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo is recommended. From significant sightings, such as the endangered black rhino, to the ‘lesser’ creatures, like the eight owl species that call Etosha home, this park should not be missed.
Namibia’s stark and isolated coastline runs from the Skeleton Coast in the north to the Sperrgebiet in the south. Roughly halfway, just a little south of Swakopmund, is Sandwich Harbour. Die-hard Namibian Theunis Keulder runs Sandwich Harbour 4x4, specialising in tours of this stunning ecologically sensitive area. He also charters catamarans into the open sea, an experience which he describes as a brilliant day out for families. “The magic is the nature; it’s virtually untouched,” he enthuses. Sandwich Harbour forms a natural tidal lagoon surrounded by vast dunes, and access is totally tide-dependent. “It’s a Ramsar Site (wetland of international importance), as is the nearby Walvis Bay Lagoon, so the birding is outstanding,” he explains.
“On a good day, we’ll see up to 50 different bird species, including the endemic dune lark.”
From its ever-shifting dunes to its inselbergs and drought-accustomed animals, this timeless, windswept country will continue to beckon you back.
Stars in your eyes
With its 825,000 sq. km of wild, sparsely populated space, Namibia is one of the best star-gazing regions in the world. The International Dark Sky Association has designated the NamibRand Nature Reserve as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserve. “Thanks to its exceptionally dark skies, NamibRand is only the second place on earth after Big Bend National Park in Texas to achieve Gold Tier status,” explains Nils Odendaal, CEO of NamibRand. At Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, a state-of-the-art observatory is available to guests, complete with a Meade telescope and resident astronomer. See the Milky Way in all its vast, silent perfection. Utterly unforgettable.
Katutura Bicycle Tour
Experience the vibrant heart of Windhoek on a guided bike tour through the township of Katutura. During Apartheid rule, this blacks-only suburb was given the name ‘the place we do not want to be’. Enjoy a leisurely half-day cycle, stopping at the Penduka Project, known for its handcrafted textiles, the bustling market, and the Goreangab Dam.
If you’re starting off your Namibian tour or are just in town for business, a sundowner at this quirky, castle-themed spot is just the ticket. The garden terrace looks out over the town – a stunning sight at night – and there’s Leo’s at the Castle if you’re after a gourmet-type meal. Commissioned by a German count for his fiancée over a century ago, this hotel on the hill is a Windhoek institution.
Indulge in some souvenir shopping at the Namibia Craft Centre – you’ll find it in Tal Street at the Old Breweries Complex. A wonderful place for gifts, it’s home to 40 stall-holders from various parts of the country. From wild-silk scarves and black-and-white photographs to ostrich-shell jewellery, the selection is extensive. Keep an eye out for the current exhibition at the Omba Gallery, and finish off with coffee and cheesecake at the Craft Café.
Namibia for the family
Just 15km north of Windhoek, in the Eros Mountains, Equitrails offers horse-riding for all levels. Overseen by passionate equestrian Sam McCartney, the guided sundowner rides through the valleys and river beds are a great way to experience your surroundings. For the more adventurous, there’s a four-hour trip into the mountains with breakfast and panoramic views. And, if time allows, enjoy a serene day-ride with picnic and game-spotting en route.
From a towering 100m sand dune outside Swakopmund, Alter Action offers both lie-down and stand-up sandboarding. Accompanied by experienced instructors, you’ll begin by lying on your stomach and whizzing headfirst down a practice slope. By the third ride (called ‘Lizzie’), you’ll be confident with speeds up to 60kph; faster still from the heady slope called ‘Dizzy’. Suitable for children 10 years and older; younger children are welcome to ride with a guide.
Rock of Ages
Twyfelfontein, northwest of Windhoek, is Namibia's first World Heritage Site. Not only is the scenery spectacular – vast boulders, open plains, bleached grass – but it’s a priceless open-air gallery of rock art. Around 2,000 engravings exist, thought to be up to 6,000 years old. The work of San hunter-gatherers, it’s a stunning record of animals, people, and ritual, etched on flat and upright slabs. This moving, timeless place shouldn’t be missed.
A notable contrast to the rugged landscape, Namibia has some outstanding luxe getaways. This is simply the best way to chill when you’re on or in between safaris.
On the outskirts of Etosha National Park, eight kilometres from the Von Lindequist Gate, this luxurious retreat forms part of the Mushara Collection. Just two private villas make it an ideal escape – a serene and exclusive foil to a morning’s game-watching. Amply sized with 140sqm of living space, here you can catch up on some reading in the intimate library. Or, relax in your own private sala next to the plunge pool. High on privacy and comfort, this is a fantastic way to experience Etosha.
The Olive Exclusive
Windhoek’s first all-suite hotel is a coolly contemporary spot with a distinctly African heartbeat. Overlooking an olive grove, the seven suites (three Junior suites; four Premier with private plunge pools) reflect carefully considered luxury. From your own dining room to Wi-Fi and satellite TV, it’s a stylish, well-equipped base to begin your holiday. The modern interiors are richly textured – raw timber floors, tactile rugs – with notable photographic artworks by South African Micky Hoyle. Savour breakfast at The Olive Restaurant.
Boulders Safari Camp
The newest addition to the renowned Wolwedans Collection, this exclusive camp offers just four luxurious tents in the southern part of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. It’s a classic safari experience, with guided drives, superb walks, and a nearby plateau that has quite epic views for sundowners. Perfect for a two-night stay, either for couples or a group of eight, it’s a worthwhile add-on to neighbouring lodges such as Dune Lodge, or &Beyond’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge.
Distance: 6,415 km
Flight Time: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a week