Exploring Namibia: Desert Dunes, Coastal Charms, Timeless Allure

Windhoek

Namibian cities carry a distinct German character, inherited from their erstwhile colonial masters. While 75 years of South African occupation from 1915 to 1990 may have diluted that identity somewhat, it is still visible and audible in most places. If you are looking for a Bierstube where you can rinse down a Bratwurst with a large, cold beer, then Namibia is probably your best bet outside Europe.

Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, is a small city in a country with a population of only 2.7 million but a land area more than twice that of Germany. The cityscape is dominated by low-rise buildings, with a few taller structures near the Hilton and the neighboring Avani Hotel. These hotels boast lovely skybars that offer some of the best views of Windhoek. The sunsets from these vantage points are truly spectacular and not to be missed!

While English is the official language in Namibia, German is still widespread among inhabitants of European descent. That heritage is also visible in the omnipresent orderliness. For instance, except for Rwanda and, to some extent, South Africa, there are few other African countries where traffic lights are generally respected and pedestrians wait patiently for lights to turn green before crossing a street. Most streets are remarkably clean and neat, and the city looks and feels safe and well-maintained. What a refreshing change for someone used to Nairobi!

The Christuskirche, an old church surrounded by old, classic low-rise buildings and adjacent to the Independence Museum, is the most famous landmark of Windhoek.

The Gibeon Meteorites

Another famous attraction of Windhoek, the Gibeon Meteorites, is a display of ancient (about 600 million year-old) space rocks recovered from the surroundings of the Gibeon village. Placed in the juction between Post Street Mall and Werner List Street, these captivating celestial bodies are a mere five-minute walk from the Hilton and the Avani, and should be part of your Windhoek experience.

24/what?

Most things in Windhoek (and in the rest of Namibia) close at around 18:00. By sunset, the city is eerily quiet and the streets empty. Fortunately, the place remains relatively safe. If you were planning on shopping in the late evening, you may want to reconsider, though.

Spitzkoppe

As you head down the near-empty road towards Swakopmund, few detours are as rewarding as the Spitzkoppe. The few km along a dirt road off the main road will take you to a beautiful rock structure with a famous natural arch as its centerpiece. Surrounded by barren, dry landscapes, the picturesque Spitzkoppe has become one of Namibia’s most famous geological features.

While I only saw it during daytime, the most magical moments are supposedly at night, when you can gaze at the Milky Way above the arch. You are also more likely to see the spectacular rock structure devoid of crowds at those hours. Tough luck with that when the sun is up!

Swakopmund – Namibia’s Tourism Hotspot

Dotted with old, classic, well-maintained buildings in a distinct classic German architecture, Swakopmund is a place where you may forgiven for forgetting you are not in Germany.

Founded in 1892 as a coastal trade hub, the lowrise town with a population of 45,000 people is a key tourist destination in Namibia.

The iconic jetty, completed in its current state in 1914, reinforced Swakopmund’s role as a key port in the region, allowing the unloading of goods and materials directly from ships. Long decommissioned as a port facility, it remains a key tourist attraction featuring two of Swakopmund’s top restaurants.

The nearby lighthouse, built in 1903, replaced an older wooden structure from 1892 that couldn’t withstand the ocean winds and the shifting desert sands. With a further expansion in 1910, it reached its current height of 21 meters, making it one of Swakopmund’s tallest buildings, visible from most parts of the town.

Desert quad biking is one of Swakopmund’s most famous attractions and in itself enough reason to visit the town. I was obviously not going to miss out on that, and what an adrenaline moment! Cruising the sand dunes at high speeds didn’t disappoint! Camel rides are another key attraction, although the more modern, petrol-driven counterpart to the fine desert animal was enough for me!

Walvis Bay

With a population of about 100,000 people, Walvis Bay is the second-largest “city” in Namibia.

Founded in the late 18th century, it boasts the only natural deepwater harbor along the Namibian coast making it a key shipping and logistics hub for Namibia and neighboring landlocked Botswana and Zambia.

Marine Tour

Teeming with seals, dolphins, pelicans, and flamingos, Walvis Bay is a popular destination for marine tours. Although I’ve been to many of those in other destinations, I have never before seen a seal swim up to a boat and board it at high speed. Lots of dolphins and a pelican joining us on board for most of the trip made the half-day catamaran cruise a unique experience. Oh, and the bubbly and oysters didn’t hurt either!

Salt Works and Pink Lake

As a hub of economic activities in Namibia, Walvis Bay features a vast range of industrial activities, with the the salt works south of the town being among the oldest. This activity has given birth to some spectacular pink lakes whose colours extend into dark purple depending on the light setting.

Past the pink lakes, the desert unfolds, setting the stage for some of Namibia’s most famous desert tourism activities.

Sandwich Harbour

Sandwich Harbour offers an extraordinary desert experience where the vast, arid expanse meets the immense Atlantic Ocean in a stunning display of nature’s contrasts, where the dunes plunging into the lagoon creates a dramatic and picturesque landscape. The sand dunes here rank among the tallest in the world, with Dune 7 standing out as the highest, soaring majestically to 383 meters. I had already been told that anything I had seen in Dubai or Jordan was nothing in comparison, and I came to realise that was no exaggeration!

The Namib Desert, one of the oldest on Earth, is rich in iron oxide, giving the dunes their characteristic, captivating red-orange hue. Together, these elements create a setting that is as unique as it is breathtaking.

Famous for its adrenaline-packed dune bashing excursions, Sandwich Harbour offers some of the most extreme desert experiences in the world. Skilled (and some less skilled) drivers take thrill-seeking visitors across the massive dunes at high speeds at the peril of getting stuck (our driver did).

Other attractions

I only got three days in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on this trip. Enough to explore the most easily accessible attractions. About five hours south of Walvis Bay, on poor roads, there is Sossusvlei with the famous dead trees in the middle of the desert. Even further south, there is Luderitz, the neighbouring Kolmanskop ‘ghost town’, and the Fish River Canyon, second in size only to the Grand Canyon in the US.

About five hours north of Swakopmund, there is the Skeleton Coast, with its iconic shipwrecks in the desert.

Why am I talking about places I didn’t manage to visit on this trip? Well, obviously because I’ll have to visit again soon and see the places I missed out on now + a few more. Namibia is a vast, beautiful country, with lots of places to explore. I realise that I have barely scratched the surface!

Tourism in Namibia

The whole trip started with the Africa Youth in Tourism Innovation Summit & Challenge 2024 in Windhoek, where I was invited to speak. Through five massively inspiring days where great ideas and insights were shared, I also got a whole new understanding of Namibia’s tourism economy. The subsequent trip with a vibrant group of fellow tourism industry professionals from the conference was another highlight of my first trip to this amazing country.

While tourism could easily become a growth driver and a key sector of the economy, it has struggled to return to the promising trajectory it was on until Covid-19 struck. In 2019, the country received 1.6 million international tourist arrivals, whereas the figure for 2022 was a paltry 249,000.

When I see such a situation, I see potential. The attractiveness of Namibia as a tourist destination certainly hasn’t diminished, so in essence, getting back to pre-Covid levels is a matter of marketing.

While the infrastructure along the Windhoek-Walvis Bay-Swakopmund axis is good, I understand that the famous attractions north and south of the two main coastal cities are less accessible. Some tarmacked roads would undoubtedly unlock more tourism potential there, but that is another topic.

I will certainly be back to explore more of the mindblowing sceneries and high-adrenaline activities. Hopefully, more tourists will follow my example, because Namibia both needs and deserves it!

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