The Namib is the oldest desert in the world. And the most beautiful part of it, the Namib-Naukluft National Park, has the highest dunes in the world. This sandpit is incredibly dry, but it’s still home to many animals. This combination makes it likely to be the most beautiful desert in the world.

Namibia means ‘vast place’, an apt description for this huge landscape. The Namib Desert is around 100 kilometres wide, and it curls up the coast of Namibia like a snake. It’s an immense area where space and quiet rule everything. It’s one of the few deserts in the world that literally ends in the sea.

Scientists believe that the Namib is 55 million years old, though some even believe this sandpit is 120 million years old. The wind is the sculptor here, and the typical red dunes are the highest in the world. The entire area is filled with contrasts. It’s a desert, but it’s also home to the highest mountain in Namibia. The Brandberg is 2.573 metres high and in the north-west of the Namib desert.

This area seems quite uninhabitable for humans. Though along the edge of the desert there have been discoveries of numerous forms of rock art by the San people, who have lived in the area for centuries. The rock art is incredibly special, most of it is drawn on rocks, and in parts it’s carved into the rock, it’s likely they used quarts as a carving tool.

Despite our technology and knowledge, it’s still difficult to put a date to the many images created by the San, which mostly depict hunting scenes. Scientists believe they could be between 2.000 and 16.000 years old. The San are often considered to be the oldest humans in the world. Researchers think that there have been humanoids in Africa for around 500.000 years.The modern-day San, who are their descendants, have been in this area for around 25.000 years. They mostly hunted using bow and arrow, dipping the arrowheads in poison. They also collected tubers, roots and fruits of specific plants. Their knowledge of the land, the seasons, the plants and animal behaviour is unrivalled.

Namib-Naukluft National Park has many famous areas, such as:

  • Sossusvlei, where it only very rarely rains – and when it does it attracts a lot of animals
  • Deadvlei, adjacent to the Sossusvlei. This extremely dry land exhibits the harsh conditions in the desert
  • Sesriem Canyon, a kilometre-long, narrow gorge (sometimes only two metres wide) cut out by the Tsauchab river
  • Dune 45, this is the only dune you’re still allowed to climb in the park. This is to limit the impact of tourism on the environment.

The road to the Namib Desert. Corno van den Berg

The national park comprises the most interesting parts of the Namib Desert. It’s a perfect mix of landscape, people and animals. When you visit, it’s like being given a puzzle, where you are given little pieces of information on how people and animals manage to survive here, and have adapted to the harsh conditions here. It fills you with respect and gives an idea of how adaptable nature is.

Many people travel to the Namib-Naukluft National Park in organised groups, but you can also hire a car and make your own way around.

Must do! Tips:
Ride a sand board down a Namibian dune
Ever wanted to surf down a sand dune? Near the town of Swakopmund you can race down a dune on your stomach (or standing, if you can manage) on a sand board. It’s not as fast as skiing, but it’s definitely quite an experience. There are no lifts so you have to climb up yourself. You can book your sand boarding experience in Swakopmund. Do note: you end up with sand everywhere. Literally!

Look for a fossil: the welwitschia
The Welwitschia Nature Drive in Namib-Naukluft NP offers you the chance to see quite a special plant: the Welwitschia.You can only see this plant in the southern parts of Africa and it can reach up to 1.500 years in age. The drive could also include encounters with animals such as the oryx, springbok and zebra. The trip takes about 4 hours to drive if you leave from Swakopmund. Take the drive early in the morning or late in the afternoon, these are the best times to spot animals as they are active around those times, and the temperature is more pleasant then as well.

Visit Ton van der Lee’s Solitaire
Back in 1996, the Dutch author Ton van der Lee bought a car in Cape Town and started driving north. He ended up in the town of Solitaire, the only place with fuel for many miles. Besides the petrol station (which often doesn’t have fuel), there was a small shop and an old house. Two men lived there, who mostly lived off hunting. Van der Lee started a campsite here, and a small restaurant, which still bears his name. When it got too busy, he left town. These days, it’s mostly a rest stop for tourists. Take your time here. Try the delicious fresh apple pie, and take photos of the many rusty cars along the road.

Take a night walk through the desert
At nightfall you can take a guided walk in the Sossusvlei. You won’t just learn about the landscape, but also about the wisdom of people who have lived here, and still do.

Find the Namib Desert’s ‘Little Five’
You won’t find the Big Five of safari animals here, but they do have a Little Five. One of those is the Namaqua chameleon, one of only two kinds that live in Namibia. There are also several lizards and spiders that can handle the heat of the desert. A special little critter is the FitzSimons burrowing skink, which can only be found here. The sand-dwelling spider, also known as a cartwheeling spider, is a remarkably light-coloured spider. And the most famous might be the Peringuey’s adder, also known as the sidewinding adder. You can take a tour to find these small creatures, which is really worth doing. Ask locally to find a tour operator.

Best time:
The Namib Desert is considered to be a ‘landscapes park’. If you’re into landscapes, the best time to visit is in winter. The temperature between April to late October is around 25 degrees Celsius. The wind comes from the east, which can still be really warm. It does get much cooler at night.

You can encounter animals here any time of year, though you’re more likely to spot them near the few remaining water holes in summer.