Travel guide to visiting Namib-Naukluft National Park

One of the oldest deserts in the world


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C28, Namibia

GPS: -23.082217255254, 15.167770348663

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The Namib-Naukluft National Park is the fourth largest nature reserve in the world and the largest conservation area in Africa. It is 400 kilometres long and 150 kilometres wide. Its total surface area is therefore around 50,000 km², the size of a country like Slovakia or Costa Rica. The name of the park includes two former protected areas of the country: the Namib coastal desert and the steep Naukluft Mountains. In recent years, many sites or specialized travel guides have rightly considered the Namib-Naukluft National Park as one of the most beautiful natural sites in the world. This vast and burning land contains a sea of sand swept by ocean winds.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, German settlers established a national park in this wilderness. They created a diamond mining area around the coastal town of Lüderitz and the small village of Aus, which they named Sperrgebiet. This former “forbidden zone” now includes several ghost towns scattered across the vast Namib Desert. They were abandoned shortly after the First World War following the withdrawal of German troops in the face of the British colonial army of the Union of South Africa. In 1979, the Namib-Naukluft National Park became a sanctuary for the Hartmann’s mountain zebra (a mountain zebra species). This water-poor reserve is subject to various expansions to preserve the dune landscapes and the sandy desert of the Namib. Classified as one of the most emblematic sites in Namibia, the park is divided into four geographical sections: the Sossusvlei sand dunes, Dead Vlei (dead trees) and Sesriem Canyon to the south, the Naukluft mountain range to the east, the Namib Desert in the centre and the Sandwich Harbour lagoon to the west (where cold ocean currents meet extremely hot sand dunes).

Along the Atlantic coast south and east of Walvis Bay, Namib-Naukluft National Park is inhabited by many endemic species of birds, insects, reptiles and snakes. It has a thousand different varieties of plants and is home to numerous mammals despite its very hostile living conditions. It is the fog generated by the ocean that is at the origin of an unsuspected wild life in this extreme environment. The great arid spaces of the Namib have been occupied by man since the Stone Age. Like the vast sand dunes of Big Daddy and Big Mamma or Dune 45, they are endowed with breathtaking landscapes changing colour with the sunlight. The vegetation, wildlife and ephemeral rivers of the fragile balance of the Namib-Naukluft National Park are increasingly threatened by climate change.

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  • The vastness and splendour of endless landscapes (rocky massifs, steep cliffs, wide valleys, deep gorges, arid desert, dry land, clay plateaus, red sand dunes, beaches and coastal stretches); the contrast of burning sand mountains with the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean
  • The salt and clay desert of Sossusvlei; the Sesriem and Kuiseb canyons; the gorges and various volcanic rocks of the Naukluft Mountains; the inselbergs and kopjes (rocky outcrops) with their incredible colours
  • Sossusvlei’s Big Daddy and Big Mamma sand dunes which are among the highest in the world (almost 300 metres); Dune 45 and its characteristic ochre colour (relatively easy to climb on foot)
  • The stunning scenery of Dead Vlei (at the foot of Big Daddy) and Hidden Vlei (these two lakes, which have been dry for a thousand years, are home to petrified acacia trees on clayey soil); the limestone Hamilton Hills ; the Welwitschia Valley (lunar scenery); the ghost towns dating back to colonial times and witnessing the Diamond Rush (Kolmanskop, Pomona, Holsatia, Garub and Elizabeth Bay); the exploration of shipwrecks along the coast
  • The wetlands of Sandwich Bay lagoon attracting tens of thousands of birds and countless colonies of breeding fur seals (accessible only by permit); the Walvis Bay Salt Works frequented by flamingos (large salt production area); the underground rivers in the Namib desert (including the Huab River) which favour the emergence of wildlife; the Tsondab, Tsams, Tsauchab, Khumid, Hoasirub and Kuiseb rivers; the spring waters of the Naukluft Mountains; the mysterious fairy circles (circular areas traced in the ground and devoid of vegetation)
  • The profusion of wildlife : oryx, springboks, zebras, giraffes, desert elephants, leopards, black rhinoceros, cheetahs, brown hyenas, foxes, black-backed jackals, wild horses, aardvarks, ostriches, vultures, black eagles, bustards, Namaqualand chameleons (the only species of chameleon to live in the desert), sand lizards, horned desert vipers… ; the typical desert flora: wild flowers, shrubs, semi-desert savannah and succulent plants
  • Climbing and hiking activities, flying over in a plane or hot-air balloon, sand skiing, stargazing at night
  • The spectacle of a sunrise or sunset at the top of the park’s sand dunes; the superb Waterkloof Trail (17 kilometres) and Olive Trail (10 kilometres) hiking loops through the Naukluft mountains
  • The NamibRand Nature Reserve, one of the largest in Southern Africa (east of the Namib-Naukluft National Park); the desert expanses and ghost towns of the Sperrgebiet National Park in the south; the Skeleton Coast in the north (named for the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred on this inhospitable strip of Namibia’s coastline over the last 5 centuries)
  • The area of the park alone represents 10% of the total area of Namibia. The vast Namib Desert is considered to be one of the oldest in the world, some 55 million years older than the Chilean Atacama Desert (by way of comparison, the Sahara Desert was formed only 5,000 years ago). This ever-expanding desert sees its sand advancing inland at a rate of one kilometre per century, pushed by coastal winds (it extends up to 160 kilometres inland from the Skeleton Coast). The orange-coloured substance of the dunes is due to the strong presence of iron in the sand. This very fine iron rust and corrodes in contact with the oxygen in the ambient air.
  • The Namib Desert actually consists of two seas of sand dunes, stacked one on top of the other. The foundations of the ancient sea of sand date back more than 20 million years. The younger sand on the upper part of the dunes has been accumulating for 5 million years. These sand dunes regularly change their silhouette depending on the direction of the wind. They are formed by the deposition of sand from thousands of kilometres away. Thus, 400,000 m3 of sand is deposited each year on the Namibian coast by rivers, ocean currents and wind force.
  • The Namib is one of the most inhospitable deserts because it almost never rains, a few drops a year at best (the equivalent of 20 mm of rainfall). Yet, from a biological point of view, it is one of the most prolific deserts on the planet. Only a few drops of water are needed to revive the vegetation. The slightest amount of water that falls from the sky is instantly absorbed by the plants, creating a formidable floral carpet and producing a large quantity of grass. This natural phenomenon can be observed up to 60 kilometres inland and deposits 1 litre of water per m². The presence of underground rivers in this extreme environment is vital for the growth of trees (whose roots will draw water several dozen metres underground) and the survival of large herbivores.
  • Foggy winds fed by the cold oceanic Benguela Current (originating from Antarctica) create humid fog in this coastal desert. Many animals have developed very ingenious water harvesting systems to survive in the Namib. But the warming of the Benguela current observed in recent years could have consequences on the reduction of fog phenomena and thus on the survival of the fauna.
  • About a hundred elephants remain in the sandy plains and mountain ranges of the Namib Desert after having been hunted on a large scale by European settlers. These giants have larger legs and wider feet than elephants living in the wooded savannah to cover longer distances. They are constantly on the move in search of water and pasture for food (they consume 160 litres of water per day). Desert elephants can stay four days without drinking by finding water concentrated in green leaves and plants or thanks to the presence of ephemeral rivers. The matriarch, the eldest of the herd, adopts a nomadic life according to the seasons. She is in charge of moving her fellow herdsmen in search of food and ensuring the resilience of the young elephants, who are considered to be more vulnerable.
  • Emblem of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the oryx is the desert antelope. It is endowed with a great capacity of resistance to cope with the hot and arid conditions of the Namib. A ventilation system in its nose allows it to cool its blood and its light coat cleverly reflects the heat emitted by the sun. The oryx can go two weeks without drinking a drop of water and withstand a very high body temperature (45 °C).
  • In some ways, the Namib Desert has a distinctly West African feel. Herds of wild horses, imported by the German settlers in Lüderitz at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the Diamond Rush, populate this arid region where the temperature range can easily exceed 50 °C between day and night. Descendants of German cavalry horses, they managed to survive around the Garub well, located near the small village of Aus. This water well had been dug by the Germans to supply the steam locomotives linking Namibia to South Africa. It is the only permanent water point that exists within a radius of several tens of kilometres. These free-roaming horses live in herds of several families and are among the usual residents of the Namib desert, namely oryx, ostriches, jackals and brown and spotted hyenas. They depend on the scarce annual rainfall in the desert (60 days a year on average) in search of thin grazing areas.
  • The salt and clay desert of Sossusvlei serves as an endorheic basin (a kind of closed basin without a mouth) for the Tsauchab River. This ephemeral river, mostly dry, is at the origin of the formation of the Deadvlei site (in the past it ended its course on the Atlantic coast 60 kilometres away). The dead trees of Dead Vlei are centuries old and are located below the sand dunes. Contrary to appearances, these trees died from drowning, due to too much water, at a time when this area was flooded. Today, the little water carried by the Tsauchab River into this ancient marshland is automatically absorbed by the clay soil. With blackened branches, these trees are made of wood that is so dry that it cannot rot or decompose due to the high ambient heat. They grow alongside some desert plants such as barilla plant (succulent plant) and a species of wild melon (nara) whose fruit is edible.
  • According to a local legend, the fairy circles of Namibia are the footprints left by gods. These strange circles, drawn in the sand of the Namib Desert, are on average 5 metres in diameter. The formation of these circles is the work of the sand termites, who dig underground galleries and devour the roots of grasses. Termites are vital for the balance of the Namib desert ecosystem and remain a source of food for many animals: bat-eared fox, aardvark, golden Mole, aardwolf (the smallest hyena species in the world)…
  • The Skeleton Coast is home to the largest contingent of fur seals in the world (nearly one million invidious).
  • Namibia is one of Africa’s leading diamond and mineral producers (40% of the country’s export revenues are generated by diamond mining).
  • A series of satellites launched by the European Space Agency has immortalized part of the Namib Desert in 2019 through a superb video.
  • Discover the sand dunes of the Namib and Sossusvlei at dawn to enjoy the marvellous atmosphere of the place, in the absence of the first groups of tourists.
  • It is strongly recommended using a vehicle with four-wheel drive to travel on the sandy tracks of the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
  • Abundant water supply is a must before any excursion or hike in the park. The days are boiling hot while the nights are freezing at the edge of the desert.
  • The purchase of a permit is required to visit ghost towns buried by sand (including Kolmanskop, the most famous old mining town in the region). It can be issued on request in the nearby town of Lüderitz.

Where to eat

  • Moose McGregor's Desert Bakery
    (the Bagdad Cafe of the Namib)
  • Desert Homestead Lodge
    (revigorating stop)
  • Sossusvlei Lodge Restaurant
    (large choice of local meats)

Where to go

  • Duwisib Castle
    (fortress full of curiosities)
  • Swakopmund Museum
    (rich and varied exhibitions)
  • Namib Sky Balloon Safaris
    (unforgettable experience)

Where to stay

  • Dabis Guest Farm
    (authentic Namibian farmhouse)
  • Wolwedans Dune Camp
    (prestigious refuge)
  • Desert Sossusvlei Lodge
    (luxurious and perfectly located)