I SPENT EIGHT DAYS IN NAMIBIA without seeing an elephant. I saw elephant tracks through Damaraland and elephant dung through Brandberg, but not one elephant. In fact, I didn’t see any of the Big Five. But here’s what I saw that was even better.
The eerie Skeleton Coast and its frenzy of seals.
The Bushmen called the Skeleton Coast “The Land God Made in Anger” while Portuguese sailors named it “The Gates of Hell.” Others just know it as the world’s most inaccessible shore. Here is where crows fly through ocean fog and jackals lick the bones clean of springboks while the Atlantic crashes over skeletal remains of rusted shipwrecks. It’s where one would expect to be banished to a purgatory of Tafel Lagers and seal bones while waiting for judgement.
Of course, it’s not all desolate despair along the Skeleton Coast. There’s the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, which is one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in the world. And by largest, I mean a giant cuddle puddle of 200,000 loud, smelly, and chaotic seals rolling around like dog-dolphins and making a mixed sound of cows in labor, goats in distress, and Gollum.
Feeling down after spending a day on the Skeleton Coast? Take one look into the giant, black eyes of a seal pup and suddenly, all is right with the world.
The bald granite peaks of Spitzkoppe.
An ancient volcanic remnant in the middle of the Namib Desert, these bald granite peaks date back 120 million years and translate to “pointed dome” in German. Giant boulders balance on rocky slopes as if a breeze could roll them off and peaks rise like wet sand dripped in a pile. Spitzkoppe’s highest outcrop reaches roughly 700 meters above the desert, making it a popular destination for high-grade rock climbing.
Not to mention, Spitzkoppe was the filming location for 2001: A Space Odyssey’s iconic Dawn of Man sequence. Y’know, just in case you needed any more reason to check out the “Matterhorn of Namibia.”
Massive sand dunes to sandboard down.
While Namibia’s largest sand dunes are south in Sossusvlei, the slightly smaller — yet still gargantuan sized — dunes of Swakopmund tower over the desert, sloping into the Atlantic coastline. Interested in sustainable tourism? Sandboard with Alter Action — the first company in Namibia to use snowboards to teach people how to safely board down the dunes. Of course, not saying you won’t end the day with sandy and scabbed knees from eating it once or twice or six times, but hitting speeds of 72 kph as you sweep down the side of a dune from a peak of 100 meters? Totally worth it. Even if that means digging sand out of every crack and crevice for a week afterwards.
The stars and paintings of Brandberg Mountain.
Brandberg, Namibia’s tallest mountain, is decorated by over a thousand rock paintings dating back at least 2,000 years ago — the most famous painting being the White Lady, who ironically is a medicine man, in a dramatic hunting scene.
The name Brandberg is Afrikaans and German for fire mountain, while the Damara call it Dâures for burning mountain and the Herero call it Omukuruvaro for mountain of the gods. However, as grandeur as it may be, its real impressiveness lies in the Milky Way smear and clear sight of the Southern Cross surrounded by a massive cluster of stars at night. It’s enough to ruin all future star-gazing experiences and will make you a forever foe of any and all light pollution.
The Victorian-style of the Herero women.
You can spot a Herero woman by her heavy Victorian-style dress and horn-shaped headgear. Influenced by the wives of German missionaries and colonists who arrived in Namibia in the early 20th century, their dresses are hand-sewn with a unique personality of chaotic and colorful patterns and fabrics.
Prideful of their outfits and style, the Herero women often sell their dolls at roadside markets, all made and hand-sewn with their traditional colorful dresses and real hair tightly twisted into braids.
280 million-year-old trunks from the petrified forest.
Declared a national monument in 1950, this unique “forest” is a deposit of massive stone tree trunks frozen in time through a process of diagenesis.
According to scientists, the trunks of the petrified forest aren’t endemic to the area. Instead, they believe they were washed down in a massive flood following one of the Ice Ages. In the process, this flood would have also carried sand and mud, which coated the trees in a thick layer preventing air exposure and decay. After millions of years of pressure, silicic acid dissolved the wood and replaced it with quartz, giving us the perfectly petrified trunks we see today.
The beautiful and traditional Himba people.
Thought to be the last nomadic people of Namibia, Himbas live in the northern region of the country. In a traditional Himba tribe, the women perform the labor-intensive work such as carrying water, constructing the mopane wood homes with a concoction of red clay soil and cow manure, collecting firewood, cooking meals, and crafting clothing and jewelry. The men are in charge of tending to the livestock, farming, animal slaughtering, and politics.
Himbas are recognized by their bare chests, clothing made from calf skins, and their otjize paste-covered skin — a mix of butterfat and red ochre for a cleansing protection. Adolescent boys have one braided hair plait while the girls sport numerous hair plaits covered in otjize paste. For married women or for those who have given birth, the ornate headpiece Erembe is worn, which is made from sheepskin and molded from the red-hued paste.
One of the most important parts of the Himba village is their holy fire, the okuruwo. Always lit, it represents the ancestors of the villagers who act as mediators with the Himba’s god, Mukuru. While most Himbas welcome visitors, it’s important to note that outsiders shouldn’t walk in the sacred area between the chief’s house and the fire.
The rock engravings of Twyfelfontein.
Twyfelfontein is practically an art gallery for rock carvings. The site, having been inhabited for 6,000 years, was used by hunter-gatherers and the Khoikhoi herders as a place of worship. During religious rituals, at least 2,500 engravings were carved, making it one of the biggest collections of rock petroglyphs in Africa. Because of this, UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein as Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007.
Just imagine chiseling through desert varnish over a course of thousands of years to engrave giraffes, ostriches, lions, rhinos, and seals. Take it from someone who can’t even stick with one brand of toothpaste for too long — that’s commitment.