How daunting is going to Africa for the first time? We asked US-based travel writer Hillary Richard, who was embarrassed to admit she’d always wanted to go to Africa but never had. For her inaugural safari she set her sights on the untouched wilderness of Namibia. So how did she get on?
Africa, the one continent I was most obsessed with visiting, had somehow always evaded me. Every time I started to plan a trip, the details became overwhelming. Where do you begin exploring such a diverse, incredible continent? What country would be best for a first-timer? Where was the most accessible wildlife to be found, with the fewest crowds?
Then I read about Namibia. As a lifelong animal lover, my main reason for visiting Africa was to observe creatures thriving in their natural habitats. With over 130,000 square kilometres of protected wilderness, one of the lowest population densities, nine national parks, and provisions for conservation written into its constitution, Namibia sounded like everything I was looking for. There are wide open spaces, untouched wilderness, and authentic cultural experiences to be had.
The benefit of going somewhere completely new is that you can approach your adventure with an open mind. I was ready to experience whatever Namibia had in store for me.
I booked a self-drive vacation with ATI Holidays, a Windhoek-based company that helped me plan a nine-day itinerary around the northwest of Namibia. Since that area is vast and largely empty, the idea was to plan the route with specific lodges in mind and visit Etosha National Park, Kunene and Erongo at my own pace.
On my first day, I set off on the 400km drive to Etosha. Everything was a novelty, from the baboons and warthogs that ran across the road to the road signs warning me to watch out for elephants. Even the giant red termite mounds were interesting – even more so when I learned that termites are a popular food source in Namibia. (Allegedly, they taste like crunchy peanut butter.)
I rarely saw another car on the road, so it felt as if fate had intervened when I pulled over to take some photographs. Maria, from the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, stopped next to me to ask if I was OK. She had just rescued a six-month-old pangolin with a broken foot. She took this rare creature out of her car to show me. Within 24 hours of landing in the country, I was examining the fingernail-like scales of a creature most humans will never see.
My streak of luck continued once I arrived in Etosha, where my first wildlife sighting was a black rhino casually chewing leaves off a tree. There are roughly 5000 black rhinos left in the world. I hadn’t been expecting to see one at all, let alone from three metres away. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first up-close encounter with such a powerful, endangered animal.
Over the next few days I found new thrills everywhere. I came face-to-face with herds of springbok, zebras, kudus, oryx, wildebeest, elephants and giraffes, while exploring as much of this 22,270 square kilometre park as I could. Since the animals are so adroit at blending in, I figured it would be tough for a novice like me to spot them. The secret is to visit the watering holes – especially at dawn and dusk – and to remain patient and still for as long as possible. I watched a young male lion, claws out and ready to pounce, slink behind a bush near a herd of impalas. The antelope spotted him and huddled together at the other side of the pan, staring him down until he skulked towards a shady tree and went to sleep. Each night, over dinner and drinks at the Etosha Safari Lodge, guests and staff excitedly compared wildlife sightings from their days’ exploration.
Namibia calls itself the land of endless horizons. I watched as bands of colour spread across the sky for my first Namibian sunset, and could understand the moniker. The next morning, when I peered out from the full-length window of my cabin and watched the sun come up, I vowed to catch every sunrise and sunset for the rest of my trip. The landscape changed as I drove on, and so did the horizons. The sunsets were always spectacular, turning the rich warm light into deep purples and blues.
I left Etosha and headed southwest for four hours, into Damaraland. The landscape steadily became greener and more mountainous. Set on 8000 hectares, in an extremely remote location, Huab Lodge is a destination in itself. This wildlife reserve was the perfect place for a safari drive: I spotted oryx, a python and several of the 210 bird species that inhabit the area. During a guided nature walk under golden light at sunrise I learned all about the area’s vegetation. The two-hour drive further west towards Grootberg Lodge brought me far up into the mountains, into a landscape I hadn’t expected to see in Namibia. My 4WD chugged upwards as the dusk cast an orange and gold hue over the mountains. I admired the sunset from Grootberg’s wrap-around deck, and wondered about trying out the freezing cold infinity pool.
When I woke up the next morning and stepped outside my cabin, I was shocked. My room was on the edge of a cliff, and I had a stunning view of the endless landscape before me. I felt as if I had found the edge of the world. Later in the day, as the dassies (rock hyrax) sunned themselves, and their babies, on the stones in front of my porch, a lion’s roar echoed from deep within the valley.
Over the next couple of days, I delved into Namibia’s culture and history. The Himba are a semi-nomadic people who have managed to preserve and retain much of their traditional lifestyle. Himba women famously cover themselves from head to toe in red ochre several times a day to cleanse and protect their skin. Several hours away, the Living Museum of the Damara offers a different kind of tribal experience. In this unusual cultural project, local educators recreate life in a traditional Damara village, from craftwork to dancing to starting fires using simple friction.
Namibia’s first World Heritage Site is nearby – the famous Twyfelfontein petroglyphs. This area has been inhabited for at least 6000 years and, thanks to its dry climate, the rock engravings are amazingly well preserved. It was easy to pick out the various outlines of rhinos, giraffes, men and lions. A Twyfelfontein guide connected the dots to interpret the messages these images were meant to relay to fellow tribesmen.
As I left Grootberg and headed two hours south over the mountains, I noticed a table on the side of the road. It was artfully decorated with cow skulls, porcupine quills, gemstones and geodes. I rarely saw any sign of civilisation between stops, so I was intrigued. From the can full of bills, I gathered that this was a store of sorts selling found objects. There were plenty of gorgeous geodes (which I collected as a child growing up on the other side of the planet), but no store owner in sight. I bought two, placing my Namibian dollars in the can under a rock and hoping they wouldn’t fly away.
Viewed from the road, Doro Nawas resembled a wartime bunker in the middle of nowhere. Up close, it was a beautiful luxury lodge with a helpful, happy and welcoming staff. After enjoying a perfect candlelight bush dinner, we were given an impromptu astronomy lesson, learning about several constellations. I have never seen as many stars in a night sky as I did in Namibia, and never have they seemed so close and so large. The beds in each cabin have wheels, so you can move them out onto the porch and sleep under the open sky. Despite the fact that my cabin was next to a popular lion path pocked by leftover paw prints, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Right after I moved the bed outside, something let out a bloodcurdling scream in the darkness. When I shone my flashlight I briefly caught sight of two bright eyes in a bush, at which point I swiftly rolled my bed straight back inside!
Namibia is home to one particularly remarkable animal: the desert-adapted elephant. In addition to being taller and thinner than their Etosha counterparts, these elephants are more aggressive, thanks in part to their frequent run-ins with farmers. Nevertheless, on a cold pre-dawn morning covered in fog, I set out with a Doro Nawas tracker in search of these renowned creatures. As with the black rhino and the pangolin, I was warned that my chances of spotting them were low. After an hour of intense tracking, we arrived at a valley full of elephants and their calves. It was rare and thrilling to see so many at once.
Delighted, I set off towards my final destination, four and a half hours south into the Erongo Mountains. The Erongo Wilderness Lodge is set in a unique ecological area where the desert, mountains and bush ecosystems meet. I joined a sunrise hike up one of the mountains and was rewarded with spectacular views of the sandy-coloured valley as the sun rose. Over breakfast, I watched dozens of gorgeous lovebirds swarming in the trees and scouring rocks in search of seeds. After an outdoor shower in my tented cabin, it was time to head back to Windhoek for my flight home.
Namibia may be the land of endless horizons, but it’s also the land of endless surprises – each one better than the last. I saw creatures I never knew existed, and I met amazing people. It was my first foray into Africa. It most certainly won’t be my last.
Hillary Richard travelled with ATI Holidays. Managing director David Cartright advises: “Namibia lends itself to a self-drive holiday more than any other southern African country. The roads – even the gravel ones – are well maintained and sign-posted, making it the perfect destination for the first time visitor to Africa. However, Namibia is a big country and we recommend a minimum of two nights in each destination. Take it slow. That’s what Africa is all about.”