When people think of travel to Africa, it’s likely safari touring comes to mind. About two years ago I went on safari in South Africa and it was spectacular — by the end of Day #2 I’d seen both The Big 5 and The Ugly 5! While Namibia has safari offerings, especially in Etosha National Park, for this trip I decided to go beyond the obvious and explore the lesser-known experiences.
This wasn’t very hard, as most of my readers are from the USA and Canada, a demographic typically unfamiliar with Namibia tourism. I say that both because North Americans traveling to Namibia isn’t common and also because every single person I told I was going responded by saying “Where is that?” “Is that in South Africa?” or “Really? Are there even things to do in Namibia?”
The answer to this last question: a lot! I now place Namibia at the top of my “most underrated destinations” list, along with Slovenia and Honduras. Namibia felt very safe — though the bumpy roads and vast desert mean you should know how to change a flat and carry lots of extra refreshments. People also speak English making it easy to ask for help, and there is a well-developed tourism infrastructure.
Oh, and guess what? I didn’t even need to book a safari to see zebra, baboons, kudu, springbok, warthogs, jackals, ostrich and giraffe; I saw Namibian wildlife simply by driving through the country (especially near the fence of Etosha).
To help you plan your trip to Namibia, here is my advice on packing and what to do (beyond safari).
For those who have read my Exploring SoHo NYC In Style post you know I’m a big fan of Beside-U Bags, as I love being able to stay organized without sacrificing fashion. The bags each have a slew of interior and exterior pockets, pen and gadget holding compartments and water bottle pouches, as well as luxe leather and shiny nickel accents and gorgeous graphic print interior lining. Namibia is a place you’ll likely be carrying camera gear and multiple lenses, and both bags fit my DSLR, an extra lens, JOBY travel tripod, GoPro Hero4 and an intervalometer along with my everyday essentials like sunglasses, cell phone, credit cards, cash and malaria medication.
Namibia should be a place where you exercise a fondness for light clothing and accessories and light colors, so for this trip I opted for the Bethany Leather Trimmed Wide Satchel Bag in Rose Dawn and a Grenada Leather Trimmed Multi-Pocket Crossbody Bag in Moon Grey. Both bags are lightweight (less than 1 pound) and water resistant. In fact, I stupidly left the satchel too close to the shoreline at the beach in Swokopmund and it got hit by a wave, though nothing inside, not even my phone, was damaged.
For travel safety, the spacious RFID-blocking zip pockets mean your identity is protected, while a whistle dangle assists in times of distress. A pretty layered logo adds to the bag’s design.
As for things to do in Namibia, I’ll say nine days was not enough to see everything this beautiful country had to offer, though I did get to see a lot. Here are 13 highlights from the journey:
1. Savor A Quirky Meal At Joe’s Beerhouse In Windhoek
My guide George from Vulkan Ruine Tours & Transfers said Joe’s Beerhouse is one of, if not the, most famous restaurants in Namibia. After eating there myself I can understand why. As soon as you walk in your senses go wild from the mashup of eclectic decor. Outside are koi ponds, wooden boats and signs stating the house wine is Jägermeister, while the interior is scattered with lamps crafted from wooden fishing tools, trees growing from the floor with clocks and coconuts dangling from their branches, and walls lined with Jägermeister bottles and game heads (they really like booze and meat).
Speaking of game, this is also where you can put all those tasty safari animals (not the endangered ones) onto your plate, like oryx, springbok, kudu, zebra…though vegetarian options like lasagna and crispy mushrooms tempt the palate, too. The atmosphere is fun, festive and downright weird at times.Joe's #Beer House may be the quirkiest restaurant in #Namibia. Here's why. Click To Tweet
2. Climb The Otherworldly Rocks At Spitzkoppe
Spitzkoppe reminds me of Wadi Rum in Jordan, with desert landscape covered in otherworldly rock formations ripe for climbing and yoga poses. I ran around like a kid who inhaled too many pixie sticks, hopping from rocks to caves to archways and just immersing myself in the scenery (and showing off some yoga poses). You can camp here or just spend a few hours like my group did, though whichever you choose I’d recommend purchasing some handicrafts and local gemstones at the entrance from the Damara women and their children, thought to be Namibia’s first inhabitants after the bushmen and the Nama. This is one of the top things to do in Namibia, in my opinion!
3. Sandboard The Namibia’s Highest Commercial Dunes
While Namibia’s highest dunes are in Sossusvlei reaching dizzying heights of 1,784 meters (5,853 feet), tour operators don’t offer excursions there. For those wanting a desert adrenaline rush, you should instead head to the Namib Desert’s Dorob National Park, where golden dunes painted by Mother Nature with chocolate, vanilla and caramel swirls reach about 100 meters (328 feet).
My tour operator for the day was Alter Action, whose package included two hours of sandboarding, lunch with beer and soda, and a video of the day for about $25-$31, depending on if you do lay down or standup boarding. I chose the former as I was told I could get better GoPro footage from this angle (it also looked more relaxing yet fun).
The experience mixed beautiful views and adventure with laughs as we all took turns wiping out, rolling down mounds and eating dirt. Luckily the soft sand broke our falls and left us in laughter instead of tears. For me, the real highlight was the red and brown hues of the sand contrasting brightly with the cerulean sky, white speckled clouds and, from the top of the dunes, the cityscape of Swakopmund.
4. Hit The Beach In Swakopmund
Along with sandboarding, Swakopmund is home to some beautiful Atlantic Ocean coastline worth exploring the many things to do in Namibia. Paraglide or skydive over it, have a meal on the pier, or just spend a day lounging in the sand with a good book and swimming in the ocean. You can also do cartwheels like a crazy person, like me.
In this city I stayed in one of my favorite accommodations of the trip: The Beach Hotel Swakopmund. My room had a private balcony, great shower pressure, strong Wi-Fi and reliable air conditioning. Moreover, the rooftop pool offered gorgeous city views, and the onsite restaurant served upscale yet affordable local seafood.
5. Hike To The “Painted Lady” In Brandberg
Brandberg’s namesake mountain is the highest in Namibia, sitting at 2,606 meters (8,550 feet). The two-day round-trip summit isn’t the only reason to visit this mountain though, as it’s home to over 50,000 rock art paintings by ancient cultures, made for healing and communication purposes using natural dyes like animal blood, ground sandstone and charcoal.
The most famous of these is the highly detailed “White Lady,” who researchers have found is actually a male shaman. This is given away by the penis decorations, antelope-tail fly whisks, knee and arm straps, and dancing rattles used during ritual performances. Surrounding the figure are spiritual animals and psychedelic visions from the local shaman after consuming hallucinogenic desert plants, like an oryx with human legs and people with animal features. It’s an inspiring and eye-opening look back in time, and the hike itself takes you two-hours round trip through beautiful Namib Desert landscape.
Tip: Go as early as possible to avoid the scorching sun.Have you met #Namibia's famous White Lady? She's an important piece of #history! Click To Tweet
6. See Ancient Rock Carvings At Twyfelfontein
This experience is actually very different from the previous. First of all, you’ll see rock carvings (not paintings) from 2,000-6,000 years ago. Moreover, the landscape is more dramatic with broken sandstone chunks of all sizes immersing hikers in the landscape. As you weave through the rock you’ll note ancient art as well as the layered landscape contrasting jagged red rock, bright blue sky, forest green flora and pearly watercolor clouds. History and nature mixed wonderfully at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
7. See Petrified Forest At The Petrified Forest Near Khorixas
While my guide called this a hike, it was actually a short 20-minute walk through the desert, albeit an interesting and educational one. A local guide pointed out enormous petrified trunks of cone-bearing trees reaching 45 meters (148 feet) in length, thought to be 260 million years old.
Essentially, the trees were turned to stone, or what is known as “wooden opal.” While some are above ground others are buried in sandstone — while some you can even play as a musical instrument, each section of the wood making a different sound. The attraction, which is a national monument, is located 42 kilometers (26 miles) west of Khorixas.Get 25% off @BESIDEUOFFICIAL bags until 6/6/16. Code JESSIEJOURNEY25OFF #travel Click To Tweet
8. Indulge In Infinity Pool Action At Opuwo Country Lodge
I stayed at the Opuwo Country Lodge when visiting the local Himba people, and the view alone is worth a stay here. There’s an Infinity pool complemented by lounge chairs overlooking Opuwo and the surrounding mountains — quite the sight at sunset, especially with a domestic Windhoek Lager in hand. During this time the clouds look like they’re on fire, with pinks, oranges and purples swirling about heavenly pillows that appear close enough to touch.
The rooms are also nice with flagstone showers, comfortable beds and air conditioning. For food, the restaurant serves everything from tender oryx steaks to Namibian mussels in garlic cream sauce to kudu carpaccio.
9. Experience Well-Preserved Culture At A Himba Village In Opuwo
The highlight of my entire tour exploring things to do in Namibia was a Himba Village visit. Unlike some village experiences that can feel like you’re at a human zoo this felt authentic, as my guide George helped our group to communicate (the Himbas speak Otjihimba) and assimilate instead of being awkward outsiders.
I wandered the small village interacting with the people, playing with the children, gaining an understanding of the always-burning Holy Fire and how it connects the Himbas to their ancestors, getting a better education on the importance of livestock (it’s essentially the Western version of money), and viewing the cow dung and straw huts. In fact, I even went into one and saw how the Himbas crush up ochre stone to make body paint — they even painted my arms — to use for beauty, sun protection and skin health.
To say thank you, I purchased some handicrafts from the blankets setup by the Himba women. It felt like a true exchange instead of simply going in without a guide, not knowing what was going on and giving money blindly to take some photos (so keep in mind, a good guide will be essential for this).A #culture visit to a Himba village in #Namibia taught me a lot. Here's why. Click To Tweet
10. Eat The Game
Ask a Namibian what their favorite food is and you’ll likely hear “meat.” If you press further, they’ll probably say “game” or “red meat.” In fact, my guide told me on Christmas he’ll often just eat an enormous plate of meat with maybe a little salad and some milk. After tasting for myself I can understand why. My favorite: the Oryx Steak. Leaner than beef and very tender and juicy (unlike Kudu, which can be quite tough to chew).
11. Take In The Views At Grootberg Mountain
Grootberg Mountain Pass crosses Grootberg Mountain and offers gorgeous mountain, valley and neat basalt rock formation views (as well as numerous instances of cars that have toppled over the high curvy road, so wear a seatbelt!). I went through this pass driving on C40 from Opuwo to Terrace Bay Resort on the Skeleton Coast. I’d recommend grabbing a photo of the flat-topped peak before you enter the pass as well as once you’re immersed in it.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as I saw the endemic Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras — really cool to see on the mountain valley ledges vs in the national park.
12. Take In Eerily Beautiful Views On The Skeleton Coast
Talk about otherworldly landscapes! While Namibia is full of opportunities for taking gorgeous shots of dunes, deserts, bright blue skies with pearly puffy clouds and mountain peaks, the Skeleton Coast has a more Edgar Allen Poe feel. Beautiful beaches and misty skies combine with washed up shipwrecks and whale bones to give an eery feel that’s also stunning. Despite thinking my accommodation at Terrace Bay Resort was haunted, the sunrise and scenes Skeleton Coast National Park offers are worth the trip to this remote spot.
13. Explore The World’s Largest Seal Colony At Cape Cross
Warning: you’ll want to bring a cloth to cover your nose and mouth for this excursion, as the hundreds of thousands of adorable Cape fur seals that live here absolutely stink. That being said, the sight is amazing as are the sounds, with the blubbery creatures belly waddling along the beach and making noises akin to a dying goat.
As it’s a breeding ground, you’ll see hundreds of cute seal pups splashing in the waves and cuddling on their mothers. It was definitely one of my favorite spots to photograph on the trip.Here's how to see #adorable seals in #Namibia. Don't miss it! Click To Tweet
Local Guide: I used Vulkan Ruin Tours & Transfers and was extremely impressed with their dedication to responsible tourism and education. My guide, George, and driver, Martin, were both fun and knowledgable, helping to facilitate all activities in a way that helped our group get the most out of them. I would recommend requesting them when making your booking.
When To Go: Namibia is a year-round destination; however, for wildlife viewing June through October is best as it’s dry season.
Currency: The Namibian Dollar. As of March 3, 2016, the exchange rate is about $1 USD = $15.67 Namibian Dollars.
Language: English is the national language, though most also speak Afrikkans and German (Namibia experienced a period of German rule from 1884 under German South-West Africa).
Staying Connected: If you travel a lot a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker affixes to your SIM to give you local rates and eliminate roaming charges in 200+ countries. Otherwise, you can purchase a local SIM card from MTC. My starter pack cost about $5 and lasted me for eight days of pretty consistent use. Note: You’ll need an unlocked phone to be able to do this. You can call you cell phone provider to have this done if it’s not already.
Dress: Dress is casual and comfortable. While I’d read many guides saying you must cover your shoulders and knees, I didn’t find this to be the case in reality. While I’d skip dressing provocatively, shorts, tanks, tees and sundresses are totally fine.
Outlets: The four of us on my tour group ALL mistakenly brought the wrong converters. I even brought a 150+ country converter and it still didn’t work. Make sure to get this one.
Must-Pack Essentials: Along with your typical gear, make sure to have:
- Light long sleeve shirt to block sun (I love the insect-repelling NosiLife line from Craghoppers)
- A hat (I like this insect repelling one from Craghoppers)
- Scarf-shawl (great for chilly nights and plane/car blankets)
- A Telephoto lens
- Namibian/South African Converter
- Personal alarm siren
- Pickpocket-Proof Garments (again, something I always pack)
- BUFF (for sun and dust protection)
*This post was sponsored by Beside-U Handbags, a brand I use both for travel and my everyday wear. My trip to Namibia was hosted by the Namibia Tourism Board. All opinions are 100% my own.