The country of Namibia on the southwest coast of Africa has long been a favorite of European travelers who want to enjoy exotic safari tours, quiet seaside retreats, and camping road trips through the spectacular countryside. While Namibia has flown under the radar of most American tourists, there are plenty of compelling reasons you should visit now.
1. It’s Safe
You’ll feel welcome in Namibia no matter what language you speak. (All photos: Bill Fink)
No Ebola, no known IS militant groups, low crime rates, plus the water is drinkable, and there’s a good travel infrastructure. The country has benefited from its popularity as a travel destination for Europeans and South Africans for decades. Yes, Namibia’s desert is inhospitable, and there are cobras and lions and wild dogs living in the wilderness, but these animals shy away from humans. This is also a country that has been free from political violence since it won its independence from South Africa in 1990. The apartheid era wasn’t quite as extreme in Namibia as in South Africa, and because of this, the present era doesn’t have quite the racial tension that you’ll feel in Johannesburg.
2. It’s Cheap
You’ll have plenty of beer money with the exchange rate here.
Namibia’s currency is pegged to the South African rand, whose value vs. the dollar has plunged by more than 40 percent in the past four years. The strength of the dollar combined with the country’s below-the-radar destination status means there are good deals to be had in lodging, tours, and souvenirs. A four-star hotel like Swakopmund’s Hansa Hotel runs just $170 a night, while a beer at a nice bar costs only about $1.50.
3. Safari Like Tarzan
An up-close cheetah sighting.
If baboons are jogging along the highway to the capital, you know you aren’t in Kansas anymore. While the jungle is mainly in Namibia’s far northeast along the Caprivi Strip, most of the country is a safari paradise. You can see a wide variety of animals, including critically endangered rhinos; plenty of impala, springbok, and kudu; and even the elusive desert elephant on tours with companies like Namibia Tracks and Trails. Namibia is also home to the world’s largest cheetah population. A visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund sanctuary will give you an up-close-and-personal introduction to these speedy mammals. Game preserves dot the country, offering guaranteed animal viewings within a fenced-in perimeter. Or try your luck in a more natural, wild setting like Etosha National Park.
4. Explore the Ocean Like Aquaman
The many locals at Cape Cross seal colony.
People think of an African safari as all about the lions and giraffes and hippos, but in Namibia, when the land ends, the safari is only beginning. Dolphin- and whale-watching tours operate year-round in Walvis Bay; fishing charters dot the entire coastline; and the Cape Cross seal colony is something to behold: over 100,000 barking, waddling, swimming (and unfortunately also pooping) seals crammed into a half-mile-long coastal zone, like the world’s biggest animal beach party.
5. Find a Desert Escape Like Mad Max
All the sand dunes without the crazy mutants.
The latest sequel in the Mad Max film series, Fury Road, due out May 15, was filmed in the towering sand dunes, bleak deserts, and dramatic rocky landscapes of central Namibia. You can’t rent a crazy postapocalyptic vehicle during your visit, but self-drive tours are very popular, and you’ll be able to cruise through some of the same countryside featured in the movie — with the added benefit that you won’t be chased by deranged mutants. Aside from being spectacular to look at, the dunes provide a playground for sandboarding, sand sledding, crazy four-wheeling ATV tours, and other adventure activities.
6. Take a Road Trip Like the Griswolds
Singing “99 Bottles of Beer” probably isn’t necessary with scenery like this.
In a harsh and lonely countryside populated with lions and wild dogs, Namibia is a surprisingly popular family camping destination. In the December holiday season, masses of Namibian, South African, and European families pack the family in a camper van for a road trip to the many public campgrounds across the country (thankfully not located in lion territory). Mild weather, wide-open landscapes, and a beautiful night sky make Namibia sort of like middle America, but with wild zebra and impala wandering by. To avoid Griswold-like mishaps, just be sure to check your shoes for scorpions, and don’t put your tent in a spot where you see elephant tracks.
7. Eat the Surf & Turf Special
Oysters are everywhere in Namibia.
“Dude, there’s a safari on my plate!” said one happy traveler at a restaurant. Sure, exotic animals are nice to look at, but how do they taste? You won’t be eating any endangered species, but Namibia is still a meat-eaters paradise, offering world-class beef from its cattle farms, and tasty game meat like impala and springbok steaks, wildebeest carpaccio, kudu filets, and other meaty treats from its plentiful grazing herds. Near the coast, you can complete the surf-and-turf special with freshly caught local fish, such as kingklip, and ubiquitous oysters from Namibia’s flourishing aquatic farms.
Related: New Name for Namibian Town Is a Tongue-Twister
8. Meet the Locals
Don’t miss a chance to engage with the friendly people here.
While it’s easy to visit Namibia as part of a safari tour and not interact with anyone beyond your European guides and a few shy staff members from local tribes or souvenir vendors, Namibia offers the opportunity to interact with some of the 95 percent of the population who are not of European descent. One example of the many community-based tourism activities is a visit with a locally-run township tour in Swakopmund, where you can engage with people on the street and in schools, and even get a lesson in the Damara “click language.”
WATCH: Lesson in Namibian Damara click language