Eight ultimate adventures for every ability in Namibia

Namibia’s dramatic landscapes lend themselves to bucket-list experiences, from world-class hikes to hot air balloon rides. Here’s how to match your activities to your mettle.

Published 4 Feb 2021, 08:05 GMT
Sandboarding down the dunes in Swakopmund.

Sandboarding down the dunes in Swakopmund.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Hiking the Fish River Canyon Trail

Rating: extreme

More than 650 million years in the making, Fish River Canyon is Africa’s mightiest gorge. Snaking through weathered layers of cocoa-coloured sandstone, dolomite and gneiss, it dominates the arid northeastern reaches of the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, along the border with South Africa.

Visitors can drink in the canyon’s stark drama from Fish River Lodge, whose luxurious contemporary chalets perch on the rim, or from the public viewpoints. However, the most exciting way to experience this exceptional location is to tackle the classic 55-mile, five-day hike from Hobas to Ai-Ais Springs, wild camping on the way.

While it offers epic scenery, starry nights and a true sense of adventure, it’s not exactly a breeze: you’ll be on your feet for up to eight hours each day, crossing rocky terrain with a backpack loaded with gear, food and water. The toughest challenge comes near the start: a two-hour descent from the rim to the floor.

Over the following days, there are boulders to negotiate and shallow waters to wade through. Barren as your surroundings may appear, you’ll be sharing them with wild animals: klipspringers, hyraxes and Hartmann’s mountain zebras occasionally materialise, only to vanish among the rocks.

Permission to hike the Fish River Canyon trail and stay at the lodges and campsites needs to be booked in advance with Namibia Wildlife Resorts. The trail is only open from May to mid-September.

Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa.

Photograph by AWL Images

2. E-biking in a desert reserve

Rating: easy

On the rubble-strewn, mountain-fringed plain that is the Sossusvlei Private Desert Reserve, two looping tracks — one seven miles, the other 12 miles — invite you to explore by e-bike, either independently or with one of the reserve’s guides. Plants and animals are scarce in this pristine region, so every sighting feels like a gift. 

3. River and ocean kayaking 

Rating: extreme

Namibia’s river kayaking locations couldn’t be further apart: the Orange River marks the border with South Africa in the south, while the Kunene borders Angola in the north. The Orange is a relatively gentle option but the Kunene is wilder: watch out for crocs. Exceptionally keen kayakers have linked them in a single trip by paddling the entire 1,000-mile Atlantic coast. Book with Umkulu Adventures

4. Stargazing on a sleepout in the NamibRand

Rating: easy

Can there ever be too many stars in the sky? In the NamibRand Nature Reserve — Africa’s first and only certified International Dark Sky Reserve — the heavens seem so full that it can be difficult, at first, to tell one constellation from the next, but savvy hiking guides armed with laser pointers can help decode the dazzle. Cosy camp beds, set out on the sand by operators including Tok Tokkie Trails, allow you to enjoy the skies before you sleep.

5. Running an ultramarathon

Rating: extreme

Namibia hosts several extreme running events each year, including the five-stage, 155-mile Desert Ultra across the Namib desert from Spitzkoppe, northwest of Windhoek. The course leads through arid grasslands where massive granite inselbergs shimmer in the heat-haze. Rugged conditions and wildly varying temperatures (as low as 5C at night and to up to 55C by day) make this an unforgettable challenge.

Climbing the towering Dune 45, Sossusvlei.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

6. Hot air ballooning over Sossusvlei

Rating: medium

As any drone pilot knows, there’s endless fascination in a bird’s-eye view — and when the landscape is as richly patterned and hued as the southern Namib desert, the views can be exceptional. Once your hot air balloon is aloft, you’ll float over dawn-tinged dunes and enigmatic fairy circles (rings of grass, thought to be caused by competition between termites and desert vegetation), perhaps spotting oryx or springboks far below. It’s utterly serene.

7. Sandboarding in Swakopmund

Rating: medium

Founded as a German enclave in the 1890s, Swakopmund has since been taken over by outdoor adventure enthusiasts. For sandboarding fans, the call of the dunes on the outskirts of town is strong. While Sossusvlei’s slopes may be three times as high, Swakopmund’s are steep enough to give you plenty of acceleration. It’s a long climb to the top, but the buzz as you hurtle down, either standing up or lying down, is worth every step.

8. Sightseeing from a light aircraft

Rating: easy

At ground level, the Skeleton Coast can sometimes seem a desolate, windswept place. But when viewed from the air on a flight out of Swakopmund, its subtle beauties emerge. Drifts of seals clump together on the shore, Atlantic surf crashes against the dunes and, with luck, you may see desert elephants wandering the dry riverbeds. Heading south across the Namib-Naukluft National Park is thrilling, too: the desert unfurls beneath you like an abstract tapestry stitched in ochre, russet and gold.

Read more travel guides and tales for Namibia

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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