It’s hardly controversial to say that one of the biggest draws of traveling to sub-Saharan Africa is the prospect of seeing wildlife. But, if you’ve ever been on a traditional safari, you know they can involve a lot of sitting around in an off-road vehicle, waiting for animals to reveal themselves. During the longer stretches, I often find myself itching to whine, “Are we there yet?”
However, in Namibia, my patience was rarely tested. That’s because the country’s wildlife isn’t its greatest attraction. Though there are plenty of animals to observe—especially in Etosha National Park where lions, giraffes, zebras, and more roam in all their glory—in Namibia, it’s the topography that takes center stage.
“The landscape changes every ten minutes,” I tell my guide, Michael, as we bump along in a Toyota Land Cruiser.
On a custom trip I’ve arranged with CW Safaris, we are to travel northwest from Namibia’s centrally located capital, Windhoek, to the rugged wilds of the Damaraland region. Despite the option of a direct, mostly paved route, I settle on a longer course that will get us there via the coast.
A couple dozen miles west of Windhoek, the asphalt abruptly gives way to a dirt road that snakes through the Khomas Highland, whose rolling amber mounds of metamorphic schist wouldn’t look out of place in a spaghetti western. I start snapping away at the countryside before Michael interrupts me. “This is nothing,” he warns.
Within the hour, he pulls off the main road so I can get a glimpse of what, in his mind, is truly “something”: the Gamsberg Plateau, a hulking sandstone table mountain known for being one of the best places to stargaze in southern Africa.
As we continue moving west, the dusty brown mountains of the central Highland are replaced by one of Namibia’s most iconic topographical elements: sand dunes the color of a harvest moon. (Who hasn’t seen a postcard emblazoned with the much-photographed “Dune 45”?)
The greatest hits keep coming as we encounter the Deadvlei, a white-clay pan spiked with the dark silhouettes of long-dead camel thorn trees, in the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park. Surrounded by red dunes, the landscape here is nothing if not surreal—it’s no wonder the region has been used in dream sequences on the silver screen.
Red sand continues to dominate the landscape as we approach the coast. In Swakopmund, a resort town that retains the architectural style of its German colonial past, we fill up the tank with gas—and our bellies with oysters—then head north to explore Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
We pass vast sandy plains splashed with brightly colored lichen (which can “smile,” if you know how to make them) and the jagged outlines of ships that have long ago met their fate on rocks hiding beneath the surf. Massive rib cages and other bones, remnants of the coast’s whaling boom, also punctuate the shore.
At Cape Cross, the macabre landscape takes on a livelier tone, as hundreds of very living seals go about their business on the beach. I’m told the area, now protected as a reserve by the Namibian government, is home to one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world. Judging by the stench, I believe it.
We veer away from the coast and the terrain undergoes yet another dramatic transformation, the ancient basalt of the Etendeka Mountains rising up in front of us. We make a brief detour for the chance to admire the Klip River Valley, a vast rift where Earth’s crust had split open over millions of years to spectacular effect, before tackling the final leg of our journey.
When at last we arrive in heart of Damaraland, we are greeted by a collection of ocher boulders that are positioned in such a peculiar manner that they almost seem staged. “Is that a sculpture?” I ask Michael, pointing toward a giant pile of rocks en route to Mowani Mountain Camp, our home base for the night.
“No, it’s natural,” he replies, though he admits that he, too, first thought the collection was the result of deliberate intervention. “I call it Ape Man Rock.”
I can see where he got the name; depending on the angle, the pile resembles a human—or his simian forebear. Though there are no apes to be found in Namibia, our conversation reminds me of all the wildlife we have encountered on our trek—desert elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildcats, even a lone black rhino.
But even if I hadn’t seen any animals at all, my trip to Namibia still would have been exhilarating.
When landscapes are the main attraction, there’s no need to ask, “Are we there yet?” because you’re already there, wherever you are.
Erik Trinidad spends most of his time crisscrossing the globe in search of exotic food, high adventure, and scientific curiosities. Follow his travels on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @theglobaltrip.