Explore Africa’s Great Attractions: Namib Desert
The Namib Desert in Namibia
- The Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld desert region covers an area of 806,000 km2.
- Some 3,500 species of plants are found here, about half of which are endemic.
- Namib means “vast” in the Nama language.
- Existing for at least 55 million years, the Namib is one of the oldest deserts in the world.
- Some of the world’s tallest sand dunes (over 300m) are found in the Namib Desert.
- Temperatures can reach as high as 60°C during the day and below the 0°C at night; some areas receive less than 10 mm of rain each year.
International flights will take you to the capital of Namibia, Windhoek. The dunes of Sossusvlei in the heart of the Namib desert are located approximately 350 km south-west of Windhoek by road, preferably in a high clearance vehicle (SUV or 4WD) as the desert terrain can become a little treacherous.
Namibia is one of the sunniest countries in the world, with an average of 300 sunny days a year.
But the Namib receives less than 10 mm of rain annually and is almost completely barren. Morning fogs from the ocean are a regular phenomenon along the coast, and much of the life cycle of animals and plants in the Namib relies on these fogs as the main source of water.
January and February are hot when daytime temperatures in the interior can exceed 40ºC (104ºF), but nights are usually cool. We recommend visiting from May to October when the cooler winter temperatures make exploring the desert enjoyable.
Why You Should Visit
The Namib Desert, with thousands of kilometres of sand and sparse human habitation, is uniquely isolating and magical. Not only can you expect to encounter plant and animal life endemic to the desert, but in southern Namib, you will experience the best place on the planet for star-gazing. Explore the dunes on foot, or on the back of a camel, or participate in the many adrenaline-fuelled adventures this magnificent natural wonder has to offer.
What to Do
Located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, Sossusvlei is a salt and clay ‘pan’ surrounded by its famous sand dunes.
In the Nama language, ‘sossus’ translates as a dead-end or place of no return, while in Afrikaans the word ‘vlei’ refers to a shallow lake or marsh. Together, the name Sossusvlei roughly means a dead-end marsh.
This region of the desert between Lüderitz and the Kuiseb River comprises a vast dune sea with some of the tallest and most spectacular dunes in the world, ranging in colour from pink to vivid orange. Here, the sand is approximately five million years old where several dunes exceed 300 meters in height. The popular ‘Big Daddy’ dune at 300 meters, attracts thousands of climbers and sandboarders annually, but the highest sand dune in the world is Dune 7, standing 383 meters tall.
At 170 m, Dune 45 is probably the most famous and photographed in Sossusvlei and is easily accessible, just off the road 45 km from Sesriem. The best time to visit is late afternoon, when the left side of the dune is in shadow, creating extreme contrasts and incredible photo opportunities.
This dune is located 5 km inside the park gate and is partially covered by vegetation, making it more distinct from other dunes in the area.
It’s a perfect location for sunrise, where you can watch the daybreak over Sesriem and the mountains to the east.
Deadvlei and Hidden Vlei
Located about 3 km from Sossusvlei is Deadvlei and Hidden Vlei, famous for its 900-year-old fossilised Acacia trees scorched black from the harsh sun, which dots an expansive white clay pan amongst giant dunes.
Moving north from Sossusvlei, the sand gradually gives way to a rocky desert that extends all the way from Sossusvlei to the Swakop River. This area is traversed by the Tropic of Capricorn and is characterised by an expansive lunar-like landscape called Moon Valley — an internationally known tourist attraction 30 km east of Swakopmund. Once a large mountain range, erosion has reduced it to rolling, low-lying hills. For the past two million years, the Swakop River and its many tributaries flowed through this valley, giving it life and shaping the natural phenomenon of today.
Approximately 30 to 50 km inland from Swakopmund, between the Swakopmund and Khan Rivers, is the Welwitschia Plains — home to the famous Welwitschia mirabilis plant endemic of the Namib Desert. A coniferous dwarf tree related to the pine tree, the Welwitschia is a living fossil that can live up to 2000 years. They provide shelter for most of the smaller endemic and semi-endemic resident fauna of the gravel plains, including birds such as Gray’s lark, snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, and insects.
Numerous other interesting plant species can be viewed in the area, as well as over 100 species of lichen.
Unique Animals of the Desert
Namibia’s most recognisable icon, the Oryx is highly adapted to the harsh desert terrain and can survive in an environment where most antelope would perish. They are able to extract enough moisture from their food to survive in this unforgiving terrain, and during the hottest part of the day when no shade is available, turn their bodies in such a way that most of their body surface faces away from the sun.
Known as Africa’s apex predators, the magnificent desert lions are unique to the Namib. Hardy and highly adapted to survive in these extreme conditions, they don’t need to drink water but get all the moisture they need from their kills such as ostrich and oryx.
These unique animals found only in the Damaraland region of the Namib and Mali, have adapted to desert life by having smaller bodies, broader feet and longer legs than their African relatives. In the wet season, they prefer fresh young leaves and buds but can survive on a myriad of drought-resistant plants in the dry season.
Other fascinating desert-adapted wildlife of the Namib Desert include wild Desert horses found in the region of Luderitz, which are the feral descendants of German cavalry horses from WWI.
The Skeleton Coast
A 40 km wide and 500 km long coastal stretch between the old German colonial town of Swakopmund and the Angolan border, the coast is virtually uninhabited, hostile and thoroughly untamed. Here the cold and unpredictable Benguela current of the Atlantic Ocean clashes with the dune and desert landscape of north-western Namibia.
The name is derived from a large number of whale skeletons found in the area, used by the Ovahimba tribe to build their huts.
Numerous ships have stranded here thanks to the thick fog, the rough seas, unpredictable currents and stormy winds. The eerie remains of an estimated 500 ships are scattered along the coast, from wooden Portuguese galleons that were submerged hundreds of years ago to modern steel-hulled vessels. Some wrecks can be found as far as 50 metres inland, as the desert slowly moves westward into the sea, reclaiming land over a period of many years.
The scenery varies from lengthy beaches and towering sand dunes, rocky coastal valleys, oasis-like springs and sandy peninsulas that protrude into the South Atlantic. A massive seal colony is found at Angra Fria and crocodiles, sea turtles and a variety of birdlife abound at the mouth of the Kunene River.
While surfers might seek the lengthy breaks and barrels, others will find the thrill of pitting their fishing skills against Bronze Shark, Kabeljou, Steenbras, Galjoen and Black Tail more exciting, the Skeleton Coast is one of the best places on the planet for surfing and beach angling.
Surrounded by the Namib Desert on three sides and the cold Atlantic waters to the west, Swakopmund is a coastal town where the Swakop River drains into the Atlantic Ocean every five years. Founded in 1892 as the main harbour for German South-West Africa, Swakopmund has many examples of German colonial architecture like reinforced stone arches and exposed half-timbering.
Like Lüderitz on the south coast, and in other Namibian towns, many inhabitants still speak a variant of German called Südwesterdeutsch (German südwest, southwest, referring to the country’s former name, South West Africa); while younger people also call it Namsläng (i.e. Namibian slang) or Namlish.
Whether a safari in the glorious Okavango Delta is on your bucket list, or if you are drawn to the origins of mankind in the Great Rift Valley, or crave the simple solitude of beach-combing a place where yours are the only footprints in the sand, exploring these three magical places on the African continent is sure to change you forever.