Namibia’s southern region, which shares a border with South Africa, has a lot to offer in terms of wild desert landscapes and outdoor activities, from canoeing on the Orange River through the otherworldly desert scenery of the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park to the jaw-dropping majesty of Africa’s largest canyon, the Fish River Canyon.
Welcome to the south
Southern Namibia may not be a popular safari destination, but it makes up for it with breathtaking desert landscape, including sandy plains studded with quiver trees, jagged granite mountains, and enormous rock formations. The Fish River Canyon is the most famous attraction in southern Namibia, but the remainder of the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is also full with desert treasures, including the world’s most diverse succulent flora. Lüderitz is a fascinating colonial town on the coast, while adjacent Kolmanskop, a ghost town, is one of Namibia’s most photographed locations and is located on the edge of Namibia’s newest national park, the Sperrgebiet. The park, which was formerly a diamond mining location that was closed to the public for a century, is now open to visitors on guided expeditions to see a lush succulent biome, a massive rock arch, and two intriguing ghost villages. The Orange River flows through vast desert landscapes near Namibia’s border with South Africa. Paddling along the river in a canoe for a few hours or days is the ideal way to soak in the southern beauty at a leisurely pace. The NamibRand Nature Reserve, on the outskirts of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, is a wide concession where you may observe desert species like oryx and springbok against a backdrop of apricot-colored dunes and silvery plains.
|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, which spans the South African border, contains some wildlife, including oryx, springbok, zebra, and baboons, but it’s not a top safari destination due to its low animal density and lack of big game. Instead, visitors come to see the park’s out-of-this-world Mars-like vistas of soaring mountains, boulder-strewn plains, dramatic quiver trees, and tremendous plant variety (try to visit in August and September when wildflowers are blooming). The park is the world’s sole dry biodiversity hotspot, including the world’s most diverse collection of succulents. The |Ai-|Ais thermal hot springs are another attraction of the park, where you may relax in outdoor baths in a picturesque setting beneath the shade of mountains.
Fish River Canyon
The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park’s outstanding attraction is the ancient water-carved Fish River Canyon, Africa’s greatest canyon at 550 metres deep and 160 kilometres wide. Standing on the rim of the gorge, staring down into the chasm, you realise how little and insignificant you are in the face of nature’s grandeur. The 85-kilometre multi-day Fish River Canyon Hike, which crosses half the length of the gorge, is the greatest way to get to grips with this geological wonder if you’re prepared for a struggle.
The Orange River
When visiting southern Namibia, canoeing adventures on the Orange River, which creates a natural border with South Africa, are a must. Paddling down the river at a leisurely speed is the ideal way to take in the desert beauty, whether you have a few hours or a few days. There are a few outfitters who provide guided excursions that include all meals and camp setup, so all you have to do is spend your days paddling and swimming and your evenings sleeping under a star-studded sky.
Lüderitz, a colonial seaside town with ancient homes and restaurants selling great fresh seafood (don’t miss the local oysters) and boat trips to a Cape fur seal sanctuary and penguin colony, is a fascinating destination to explore. Kolmanskop, a nearby abandoned diamond mining town, is now a ghost town and one of Namibia’s most picturesque locations. Wandering about the town’s deteriorating structures, which are slowly being consumed by the desert sands, is unsettling. Keep an eye out for the herd of wild horses – the world’s only wild desert horses – that wander this part of the desert and may often be spotted along the road as you drive between Lüderitz and Aus. The lovely Quiver Tree Forest in Keetmanshoop, where 250 of the rare and striking looking quiver trees (or kokerboom) stand vigil over grass and pebbles, is another worthwhile roadside stop.
Sperrgebiet National Park
The Sperrgebiet National Park, located south of Kolmanksop, is Namibia’s newest park and a former diamond mining location that was closed to the public for a century. The majority of the park is still off limits, but guided tours are now available to visit a stunning rock arch, a diamond mine, and two frightening ghost towns that are being eaten by the desert.
NamibRand Nature Reserve
The private NamibRand Nature Reserve, located near Namibia’s central area, gives an opportunity to see a variety of animals, including oryx, springbok, kudu, zebra, and giraffe, in beautiful surroundings of grassy plains bordered by mountains and waves of burnt orange sand dunes. The Tok Tokkie Trail, a three-day guided trek on the reserve, is easy to accomplish (and extremely pleasant – wonderful meals are made each night at an outdoor camp) and is a terrific opportunity to get up close and personal with the Namib and learn more about its unique plant, insect, and animal life.
It’s rather simple to drive to southern Namibia from South Africa, so if you’re planning a vacation to South Africa, try travelling to Cape Town and hiring a car from there to drive up to Namibia.
Hiking the Fish River Canyon is best done during the colder months of May to September, and reservations must be made a year in advance.
While the summer months of November to March are scorching hot in the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, it’s a great time to go canoeing down the Orange River since you’ll spend most of the day on the river and sleep under the beautiful night sky.
If you are not on a guided tour, do not attempt to enter the Sperrgebiet (Forbidden Region). It is a diamond mining area, and you will be penalised for trespassing without a permit.
— Bronwyn Reynolds, Fizzin