Visitors to Namibia’s coastal region often head to Swakopmund for its stunning dune coast which is flanked by the magnificent Atlantic Ocean. Here adventurers can experience the thrill of whizzing down a dune on a sand board or quad biking their way over the sandy peaks.
The seemingly hostile and uninhabited Namib Desert
High adventure in an ancient desert
Swakopmund is known as the adventure capital of Namibia, whilst the aptly named Namib, meaning vast and empty, is known as one of the oldest deserts in the world. Just looking at the arid landscape, you would never think it was home to a teeming, dynamic ecosystem of specialized tiny animals and resilient flora and fauna. The eye-opening “Living Desert Tour” is such a fascinating experience because it reveals the Namib’s many hidden treasures to those who go on it.
The ever enthusiastic and entertaining guide, Chris Nel from Living Desert Adventures
Started in 2005 by Chris Nel, Living Desert Adventures offers an educational day tour through the sand dune deserts of coastal Namibia. The trained guides enthusiastically introduce visitors to the resilient insects, arachnids and reptiles that call the Namib home.
Can you spot what creature is lurking in the grains of sand?
(Photo courtesy of Chris Nel from Living Desert Adventures)
What you can expect on the tour
The tour starts at 08:00 (with the guides collecting you from your place of residence) and lasts from 4 to 5 hours. Participants will be introduced to conservation practices in the area, the unique geological structure and a brief overview on how the desert was formed.
You will hear about the “muesli” and “milk” that gives life to the arid landscape’s residents, the “little 5” and all manner of other interesting facts. The informal, fun presentation style of the guides was a wonderful bonus.
The real gems of the tour of course are the tiny animals that the guides are able to coax out of hiding to introduce to the guests. On your tour you will definitely be meeting a few of the deserts best known residents, so here are some crib notes on these wonderful creatures so you know what to expect.
The Namib Dune Gecko:
Note the longer than usual legs to help with heat regulation.
This web-footed gecko is endemic to the area and, being nocturnal, can usually be found on the compacted wind side of a dune where it feeds at night. It comes in a variety of colours, but its webbed feet, large fixed lens eyes and transparent skin give it a beautifully unique appearance. If you are lucky, you might even catch it cleaning its large eyes with its long tongue.
The Namaqua chameleon:
A chameleon, on the prowl for lunch.
This large, squat champion of the desert is one of the fastest chameleons in the world. It has an amazing colour range which goes from basic muted colours when it is angry or trying to attract heat, or brighter reflective colours when it is trying to reflect the sun in the heat of midday. The Namaqua chameleon, like other chameleons can also swivel its eyes in both directions at the same time.
The Sidewinder or Peringuey’s adder:
The small adder making its way across a dune.
If you are luck you may just catch sight of one of the smallest adder species in the world, known as the “Dune Adder”. It has eyes strategically placed on top of it’s head, which allow the snake to conceal itself under the sand whilst still surveying the surroundings for prey. If you pay close attention on your trip you should catch a glimpse of its distinctive side-winding tracks on some of the dunes.
Honourable mention should also go to the shovel snouted lizard, Fitzsimon’s burrowing skink, the Dancing White Lady Spider and the wide variety of Tok Tokkie Beetles.
The Dancing White Lady Spider who mesmerized us cartwheeling and karate-like moves.
Some tips for the tour
Bring along sunglasses and a hat- it is the desert after all!
Have a camera ready if you’re a keen photographer. These tours are a great opportunity to capture some memorable “Little Five” photos.
Remember that the tour is suitable for children too- the guides are especially good with getting younger kids involved and interested.
The Importance of Ecosensitive Tours
The Living Desert Tour is all about education and sustainable tourism. Guides take great care to ensure that desert animals are returned unharmed to their environment and are undoubtedly sensitive to the delicate ecosystem of the Namib.
The final part of the tour includes a scenic dune drive, also conducted in an eco-sensitive way using dedicated paths and ensuring the area is minimally disturbed.
If you’re interested in doing the Living Desert Adventure, you can get all the info you need to make a booking from the contacts listed below. It should be noted that this a popular activity and you should book in advance if you want to avoid disappointment.
More on this topic
Swakopmund is known as Namibia's adventure tourism capital - but in between surfing down sand dunes, kayaking with seals and quad biking across the coastal desert, it's worth taking a day to explore some of the town's more urban pleasures. Here's five of our favourite:
1. National Marine Aquarium of Namibia
Main tank at the aquarium, where sharks swim above your head
The newly-renovated attraction showcases the marine species that thrive in the South Atlantic's chilly Benguela Current. The centrepiece is a large aquarium filled with fish and sharks, and the walk-through tunnel that allows visitors to get scarily close to these fearsome creatures.
Colourful panels give information about Namibia's fishing industry and local species such as Cape fur seals. There is a tank containing rays, and at 3pm each day the fish are fed. Try and visit on a Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday - and you'll see divers in the large aquarium feeding the sharks by hand!
Open: Tuesday - Sunday, 10am - 4pm
Closed: Mondays, Christmas day and New Year's day
Feeding: Daily at 3pm
Feeding by divers: Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays
2. Living Desert Snake Park
Though feared by many, snakes are actually surprisingly hard to spot in Namibia. So it'll be a relief for serpent fans to know that many of Namibia's native species can be seen - and photographed - in Swakopmund, at the Living Desert Snake Park. This compact reptile house has aquariums containing numerous venomous and non-venomous snakes, as well as geckos, scorpions, and even a couple of huge monitor lizards. Stuart Hebbard, who founded the Snake Park almost two decades ago, is happy to chat about the various species he cares for, and visitors can see the snakes being fed each Saturday.
Hebbard hopes to move the Snake Park to a new, larger location this year, including a walk-in cage allowing guests to get up close to the safer species! Watch this space for more information.
Western diamond-backed rattlesnake at Swakopmund's Living Desert Snake Park
3. Swakopmund Museum
This museum, founded in 1951, has some of the most in-depth exhibits about Namibia's flora, fauna, geology, archaeology culture and modern history - all under one roof. The wildlife room exhibits stuffed specied which are almost impossible to see on safari - such as the aardvark and golden mole. Fossils and meteorites are on show in the geology department,and Namibia's many diverse ecosystems are explained in the botanical department.
Ancient culture is explored in the archaeology room, with well-preserved pots and centuries-old jewellery. Contrast this with the exhibits exploring Namibia's contemporary culture - with body decorations, weaving and clothing from the Himba, San and other communities.
Himba cosmetic boxes on display at Swakopmund Museum
Open: Daily from 10am-5pm
Entry: Adults: N$ 25, Students N$20, Children (aged 6-15) N$10
4. Karakulia Weavers
Take a trip to this workshop on the outskirts of town to see the wool of the karakul sheep being spun, dyed and woven into intricately patterned wall hangings and rugs. The talent of the weavers is astounding - as they create patterned abstracts resembling Namibia's dunes, African rock art designs or wildlife scenes on the huge hand-operated looms.
The workshop was founded in 1979, and it has now developed an international reputation. The craftspeople can make custom designs to order, and if you don't have space in your suitcase for a full-sezed rug, they will reliably ship your purchase safely to your home.
Karakulia's staff benefit from training, employment and adult education sessions.
A skilled weaver works on a rug design at Karakulia
5. Kristall Galerie
A unique way to spend your time in Namibia - at a crystal gallery. With exhibits to please the young and not-so young, Kristall Galerie houses the world's largest crystal cluster, estimated to be 520 million years old! Standing 3 metres tall, it took five years to excavate from the Namibian earth. The gallery also has a scratch pit - where you can sift for semi precious stones - and a replica of a mine.
Those looking for souvenirs will love the Gem Shop - selling rough gemstones as well as unique jewellery and carved artworks. Visit the Craft Area to see these pieces being created.
The replica cave. Image from Kristall Galerie's Flickr page.
Find the perfect place to stay in Swakopmund with our accommodations guide.
Get some ideas about more adventurous exploits in the region - download our Adventure Travel Planning Guide.
Discover other cities and towns in Namibia.
Looking for a getaway destination for you and the kids, that doesn't involve jam-packed fairgrounds, 24hour Xbox relays or shopping malls and cinemas? When children come into the mix, it can really leave you stumped for holiday ideas. Somehow "the desert" doesn't come to mind. But it should.
There's a reason why National Geographic ranked the Namib Desert as the best family trip in the world. Cast your family out into the middle of nowhere, and life as you know it comes to a standstill. Just you, your family and the great outdoors.
Namib Desert, Photo courtesy of Namib Rand Family Hideout
Go climb a mountain. Play in the dirt. Let a beetle crawl on your hand. Surf down a dune. Smell the seals. Let cloud shapes tickle your imagination. Discover dinosaur footprints. See a rhino in the flesh. Fall asleep on the backseat of the car. Find the creatures of the living desert. Pitch a tent. Camp under the African sky. Sit around a fire. Listen to stories. Tell stories. Hear the hyenas laughing at the moon. Count the stars in the Milky Way. Catch the sunrise. And start all over again.
Being the second least densely populated country in the world, it sometimes feels like you are the only people on earth. But never fear - help is always close at hand should you need it.
Namibia is one big adventure for everyone in the family, no matter what age. Bring your kids out to Namibia, and Namibia just might bring the kid out in you.
Namib Rand, Photo courtesy of Tok Tokkie Trails
Just some of the family friendly places and activities in Namibia:
NamibRand Family Hideout has all the flexibility of self-catering accommodation surrounded by one massive sand pit... the desert! Older kids can go sandboarding or try a 4x4 self-drive trail for themselves. Why not invite more families to join you? Or if you'd like something a little more private, there's a one-party campsite, which is always fun.
Take the time to explore all the life in the desert, big and small. Tok Tokkie Trails offers a 2 night/3 day guided, leisurely walking safari, with "desert luxuries" for nature lovers who would rather not be roughing it. The trail is conducted in small and personal groups from 2-8 people - perfect for a family.
Organise a tour with Mabaruli African Safaris with anything from game drives, quad bike rides and dolphin boat cruises to visiting the Himba and San for an unforgettable cultural encounter.
Camping is a family adventure in itself! Pitching the tent, cooking together and sleeping outside with Namibia as your back garden. Some good family campsites are Brandberg White Lady and Epupa Camp. Or have a look at some of these campsites in Namibia.
For older and more adventurous children, there is sandboarding, quad biking, camel riding and a host of other adventure activities available. To find out more, download our Adventure Travel Planning Guide here.
Onguma Game Reserve offers the option of accommodation in a separate fenced-off camp for families that would rather not have wildlife roaming freely around their rooms
Andersson's Camp, Wilderness Safaris is a self-acclaimed "family camp", situated just outside Etosha, with a waterhole of its own, and has two family units tents connected by a raised boardwalk.
Namib Grens guest farm lies en route to Solitaire, built into the natural boulders, with dedicated family accommodation at Bushman's Rest - a completely private thatched house ideal for a large family or group of friends.
For a totally relaxed atmosphere, Farm Okomitundu has a bungalow playhouse right by the pool so the little ones can play to their hearts content while you sip a little something by the water.
Small and fascinating creatures of the Namib Desert, Photo courtesy of Tok Tokkie Trails
Around the campfire near Etosha, Photo courtesy of Andersson's Camp, Wilderness Safaris
Pally, the Ultimate Sandboarding instructor, just outside Swakopmund
Time together in Deadvlei; Photo courtesy of Mabaruli African Safaris
Tips for travelling in Namibia with the kids
Break up the long drives: Namibia is a vast land, and you'll be tempted to try and squeeze it all in. The scenery along the way definitely makes the long distances worth your while, but small kids might not be as enthusiastic about it as you are! If you’re driving for a long time, try stop every couple of hours and take in the sights along the way. If driving long distances is not ideal for your family, there are also internal flight options.
Pack a few distractions: Make sure you pack something for them to do in the car if they start getting restless on the long drives - some games, an ipad or books, but be careful of car sickness.
Take extra snacks and refreshments: It can get mighty hot in the car, and the next pit stop can take a while in a country as empty and expansive as Namibia. So be sure to pack some water and cool drinks to keep the family going on the road.
Make them part of it: Sometimes, game watching can be a test of patience. Make the search part of their experience, and see who can spot what first. Hand them the camera every now and then so they can start documenting the sights and sounds for themselves, and really get into it.
Don’t be too demanding: There will be many early mornings and long drives which can take its toll on the younger ones, so don’t expect them to be attentive all the time. Let them sleep when they want to and just wake them up when something more interesting happens. Try not pack in too many drives, and make sure you have some time to relax back at the lodge.
Save the best for last: Instead of rushing through to the big five straight away, get them excited about even the smallest of discoveries along the way – from beetles in the sand to baboons along the road.
Watch the small kids: Most lodges in Namibia have swimming pools, which you'll want to dip in and out of on a hot day. However, they are not covered with safety nets, so be vigilant if travelling with small children. And don’t forget that you are in the wild - respect that wild animals are wild!
Ask about child policies: Most lodges will do their best to help you and your family, giving early dinners to small children, helping clean baby bottles and even sometimes even baby-sitting. But it’s best to check before booking, whether or not the lodge can accommodate your needs.
Let the little ones read up about Namibian wildlife in National Geographic for kids.
To get started on your Namibian family adventure, read our Travel Planning Checklist and download our Namibia Travel Planning Guide.