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EXTREME NAMIBIA - Some of the World's DARKEST Skies

  
  

In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

Something once abundant across the globe is becoming rarer and rarer. Once common enough to be revered as deities, guides or spirits by our ancestors, these things are now disappearing so fast that many city-dwellers will likely see only one or two in a night. Even in rural areas, sightings are becoming more and more difficult, necessitating special equipment.

Only in the world’s most remote regions are these things still abundant. Those lucky enough to experience an encounter are still as awe-inspired as their ancestors were centuries ago, captivated by the wonder of nature.

Namibia is well-known for its conservation efforts – and fortunately its commitment to preservation has extended to these things – which have been sadly neglected in much of the world, their value unappreciated.

These things are stars and planets. And Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve is Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve – meaning that at night, they fill the sky in abundance. Asteroid belts, orbiting moons, nebula and red dwarfs populate the heavens, while the Milky Way cuts a path through the cosmos, creating a sparkling spectacle for all those lucky enough to experience it.

NamibRand – Home to the Celestial Safari

Namibia's deserts are the place for a different type of safari. With some of the world's darkest skies, you could find yourself trying to spot storms on Jupiter, a shooting star or the Southern Cross through a powerful telescope.

Moonrise in Namibia

Moonrise over the Namib-Naukluft National Park

This month, CNN voted Sossusvlei Lodge, on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, amongst the world's top 12 hotels for stargazing.

"This award-winning resort prides itself on giving back to the community and environment, whether by recycling, producing solar power or raising funds for local charities. Even the individual, adobe-style units in shades of sand and peach complement the yellow grasses and sun-burnt mountains of the desert. At night, guests can immerse themselves in the Milky Way with telescope and stargazing help from the staff."

&Beyond's Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is located within the Dark Sky Reserve itself, and an observation platform houses another enormous telescope. Picking out the faintest constellations is possible here, as oryx gather on the plains below by the light of the stars.

If you prefer a more intimate astronomical adventure, the rooms at the Desert Lodge have skylights above the beds. Tuck yourself beneath the sheets and gaze upwards, enjoying one of the darkest nights you'll ever experience. The only drawback is that the full moon is a virtual floodlight - bring an eye mask!

AndBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

A skylight over the bed offers an intimate stargazing opportunity at &Beyond's Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

The truth is, this region's skies are so unspoilt by light pollution that whether you have a telescope and a skylightlight or not, booking a room at any of the lodges here will mean you are in for a truly magical night. It's also a timely reminder that it's not just the things we can touch that need preserving.

Retired physics professor Dr. George Tucker, who identified the NamibRand as a potential Dark Sky Reserve and led the certification effort, says “Viewing the pristine night sky over the NamibRand is an unforgettable experience. Being recognized as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserve will serve to promote and protect this valuable resource. Achieving this status is a significant accomplishment not just for the NamibRand, but also for Namibia and all of Africa.

NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

The NamibRand Nature Reserve, just before the stars come out

Dark Sky Facts

  • NamibRand Reserveʼs nearest communities are small and lie almost 100 km away, so the sky here is one of the darkest yet measured.

  • “Gold Tier” is the term used to describe reserves with nighttime environments that have little to no impact from light pollution and artificial light.

  • There are currently only four certified International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, and only two of these are Gold Tier – NamibRand Nature Reserve, and Aoraki Mackenzie, in New Zealand.

Practical Information

  • Check out accommodation in this region on our accommodations listing page.

  • Why not try camping under the Milky Way for the ultimate adventure? Read more here

  • There are flights to Sossusvlei and the Namib Rand Nature Reserve from Windhoek and Swakopmund. The journey time is 1hr 15 mins.

  • You can also drive to Sossusvlei in around five hours from both Windhoek  (375km)and Swakopmund (390km). The journey can be carried out on good gravel roads in a two wheel drive vehicle.

Abstract Beauty - A Flying Safari over Namibia

  
  

Safari (noun) /səˈfɑː.ri/a journey or expedition, for hunting, exploration, or investigation, especially in Africa.

Namibia's landscapes and wildlife are like none other in Africa, and a Namibian safari reflects this. The classic image of driving round an East African game park in search of the Big Five doesn't apply here; instead visitors can track rhino on foot, ride horseback past herds of giraffes, take a hot air balloon safari above Sossusvlei at sunrise, or park for the day by an Etosha waterhole.

But Namibia's true trump card is its vast landscapes, and the best way to see them is not necessarily from the ground. This requires quite a different type of safari - one that takes in endless seas of dunes, classic shipwrecks hundreds of meters from the shoreline, flocks of flamingoes flying over green lagoons, and flat-topped mountains whose plateaus are as high as the tiny plane you are flying in.

A flying safari presents Namibia's land and seascapes as you have never envisaged them, and is sure to bring out the inner artist in even the most reluctant photographer. Enjoy our gallery of seemingly abstract aerial photographs, and see if you can tell where they were taken!

Flying over NamibRand Nature Reserve

Flying over Namib-Naukluft National Park

Flying over the Namib Desert

Flying over Sossusvlei

FLying over Sandwich Harbour, Namibia

Flying over Walvis Bay

Flying over Sandwich Harbour

Want to know more about booking a flying safari? Contact a Namibia Safari and Tour Guide today!

The companies below offer scenic flights. Click on the links to visit their website and find out more:

EXTREME NAMIBIA - the world's most free-roaming black rhinos

  
  

In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

The black rhino is one of the world's most endangered species. Between 1960 and 1995, numbers dropped by a horrifying 96.7%, mainly as a result of poaching for their horns.

Critically endangered scale

Black rhinos are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN's Red List

Today, Namibia is home almost half of the world's population of black rhino - most of these are found in Etosha National Park. It also has the world's largest population of black rhino that has survived on communal land - without conservation status - and therefore without fences. These are the unusual desert-adapted black rhino of Damaraland, in Namibia's stark northwest; and visitors are able to track these amazing creatures with experienced local guides to find out more about their behavior, their habitat, and how they are protected.

Here, a tourist tells her story...

In Search of the Black Rhino

At first glance, everything in boulder-strewn Damaraland looks dead - dry twigs instead of bushes, scorched earth instead of grass, parched beds where rivers should flow. It seems impossible that anything can survive here - let alone something as large as a rhino. But that is what the trackers have just found. They set off at dawn, as the guests at the community-owned Grootberg Lodge are just awakening, and radio back to camp once they have homed in on their target. We have a rhino. And his name is Hans Otto.

After driving along a bumpy trail, we abandon our safari vehicle and the trackers appear on foot from the bush. We are given strict instructions: do not wear bright clothing. Do not make a noise. Walk in single file. And always obey the trackers. Knowing that a well-camouflaged, horn-wielding beast weighing over a ton is roaming the bushes, nobody fancies doing otherwise.

Rhino tracker and Damaraland

A rhino tracker sports an anti-poaching t-shirt (left); a herd of springbok in Damaraland (right)

We wander along dry river beds, through bushes, up a hill, with the trackers constantly scattering handfuls of sand to see which way the wind is blowing. We have to remain downwind of Hans Otto. We discover scarlet-coloured bugs that look like they are covered in velvet; an enormous pair of kudu horns that are too heavy to lift; various animal droppings; and a lonely mountain zebra, watching us from a hilltop.

Kudu horns and giraffe droppings

Our guide, Clement, finds kudu horns (left) and giraffe scat (right)

Then everyone stops dead and falls silent. We can't see Hans Otto, but the trackers' behavior has made it clear that he is nearby. And then we spot him, his earthy, red-brown body standing in contrast to the green leaves that surround him. The black rhino, one of the world's last, just a few meters away.

Black rhino tracking, Namibia

The tracker locates Hans Otto in the bushes

Cameras click, but we hardly dare breathe or move. The trackers sift sand, and edgeforward. Hans Otto turns to face us.

"When you can only see one horn, it means he's looking right at you..."

I pray that the rhino's eyesight is as bad as it is alleged. We are definitely close enough to get charged.

The trackers finally say it is time to return to the vehicles, so that we won't distress Hans Otto too much. We have been in his presence just a few breathtaking minutes, but it seems that time has stood still.

Black rhino, Damaraland

Hans Otto looks right back at us

Rhino Facts:

  • The black rhino is not black - it is in fact the same color as the white rhino! The name "white" is actually derived from "weit" - the German word for "wide". White rhinos have wide, flat mouths as they graze on grass. In comparison, black rhinos have pointy, hooked lips as they eat leaves from trees and bushes.

  • Black rhinos are smaller than white rhinos - but they are much more aggressive. Fights between black rhinos are likely to result in death - and they also charge humans.

  • Height: 132–180 cm at the shoulder. Length: 2.8–3.8 m. Weight: 800 to 1,400 kg. The larger front horn typically is 50 cm long, but occasionally well over a meter.

  • Rhinos' eyes look unusually small. They have very poor eyesight, and rely much more upon hearing and taste - which is why you must always remain downwind of a rhino!

  • Conservation strategies in Namibia have included re-training poachers as rangers, removing the rhinos' horns, and translocating them to virtually inaccessible areas such as the Waterberg Plateau. These methods work: only a single rhino was killed in Namibia in 2012 - in comparison to over 600 (black and white) in South Africa.

Practical Information:

A Revival of Ancient Bush Skills in Caprivi

  
  

Imagine a school without desks and chairs, without walls or a blackboard. Imagine learning skills that have been learned over thousands of years, passed down through the world’s most ancient culture. Imagine being able to identify dozens of species – from an ant to elephant – without ever seeing a single one.

Children learn in Bwabwata, Namibia

The real-world San classroom. Photo: Friedrich Alpers of IRDNC

To those of us unfamiliar with life in the bush, this seems like an impossible task. But for the San (also known as the bushmen), with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom and a lifetime spent tracking wildlife, the knowledge is innate. For millennia, their ancestors lived throughout southern Africa as hunter-gatherers with a subsistence lifestyle that made little impact on nature. Over the last thousand years, however, the San have suffered social disintegration and the erosion of their traditional values and skills as a result of oppression, persecution and loss of their land.

But in Caprivi – the small strip of Namibia sandwiched between Angola and Botswana – a group of San elders are determined to work with their youth to regain some of the skills they have lost. They hope that this will renew pride in their identity and culture, as well as creating opportunities for the youngsters to obtain employment in tourism.

The elders have developed the Tekoa Training Program in collaboration with Namibian NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), with funding from WWF and USAID. Locally-employed community rangers, who have worked in the region for two decades, impart their bush skills to San children during the program, which takes place in Bwabwata National Park.

San trackers in Bwabwata

Newly-qualified San tracker-trainers in Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Friedrich Alpers of IRDNC

As the school kids, aged between 6 and 14, set off in single file down a fresh elephant track; the San tracker trainers, Alfred and Benson, point out millipede tracks, trapdoor spider hideouts, evidence of a scorpion’s nocturnal activities, tracks of a sable antelope rounding up his herd, and the footprints of a hunting leopard. They show the youngsters see where a tree squirrel leapt, a puff adder writhed, a gecko caught a moth and an impala marked his territory – all without spotting a single animal.

The kids are beaming with enthusiasm and eagerness to continue the exploration: the endless knowledge; the skills development of tracking; the learning of animal behavior; and the monitoring of endangered wildlife, such as cheetahs, wild dogs, roan antelopes and other rare species found in their park home.

These children are being given the opportunity to develop tracking and ecological management skills that are critical to preserve our natural system and the environment. Over the next few months, more than 200 rural children in Namibia’s remote north-east will learn the skills of their forefathers, and be able to apply these skills when looking for work and to contributing to finding sustainable solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.

This post is based on original article by Karine Nuulimba of IRDNC

Find Out More:

EXTREME NAMIBIA - The World's OLDEST Desert

  
  

In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

"Namib" is the Nama word for "vast" - and this desert, stretching for 1,600km along Namibia's coast, is certainly the embodiment of vastness. The most arid parts of this sandy expanse receive an average of just 2-5mm of rainfall a year, which would manke you think that this is 1,600km of nothing - yet even here, in one of the planet's most extreme wildernesses, life perseveres.

Namib desert from the air

The Struggle for Survival in the Namib

Bizarre plants, innovative insect, and mammals with their own "cooling systems" all manage to eke out an existence in the Namib; read on to find out about some of nature's most extreme adaptations!

Camlthorn trees in Deadvlei

Camelthorn trees are a characteristic sight in the Namib - most notably the fossilized remains of those in Deadvlei, which date back over 900 years, but have not rotted thanks to the extreme dryness. The tree's huge thorns deter overgrazing, and its deep roots can tap water sources located up to 50m underground. Because competition for the water is so tough, they have also developed a way to avoid growing too close together: their seeds, which grow in large, crescent-shaped pods, will only germinate once they have passed through the digestive tract of an animal. The animals then wander and disperse the seeds, far from the source. Clever!

Desert-adapted elephant

Desert-adapted elephants are not a distinct species of elephant, but their behavior is quite unlike that of savannah elephants. They walk up to 60km a day between water sources, and have learned to dig waterholes with their tusks. If this fails, they can go up to four days without drinking. Their home range can be an astonishing 2-3,000 square kilometers, and their feet are wide to facilitate walking across these great distances on the soft desert sand. Desert elephants they walk carefully to avoid knocking down trees, breaking branches or scraping bark - unlike their savannah cousins, which are known for being highly destructive.

A giant welwitschia

A very old welwitschia, standing around the height of a man. Its two leaves have shredded, making it look like there are many more. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

The welwitschia is one of the world's oldest - and oddest - plants. It is the only species in its family, and throughout its lifetime - which can be up to 1,500 years - it will only grow two leaves, which can each measure up to 4 meters long. The welwitschia only grows in this region of Namibia and Angola, and given the arid nature of the Namib, it is believed to survive on the dew caused by the frequent fog. Welwitschias are truly prehistoric-looking, and are believed to date back to the Jurassic period.

Oryx in the Namib Desert

The oryx, also known as a gemsbok, is a common sight in the Namib desert, thanks to its incredible adaptations to the intense heat and lack of water. The oryx has an effective "cooling system" - blood is pumped through cooler vessels around its nose while it breathes rapidly - which means that while its body temperature can reach over 40 degrees celcius, their brain remains much cooler. The high body temperature means it loses very little water through sweating - which is good news, as they can rarely drink, and have to obtain most of their liquid from food. Additional adaptations include efficient kidneys to produce highly concentrated urine, a white belly to reflect the heat back onto the sand, and the ability to breate up to 210 times a minute - wow!

Namib Desert Facts

  • The Namib, at 55 million years old, is the world's most ancient desert, as well as being one of the driest. Much of it is protected as part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park which covers almost 50,000 square kilometers, making it larger than Switzerland.

  • Rainfall varies from 85mm in the westm to just 2mm in the east - but the area is often covered by a thick fog, which allows plants and animals to survive thanks to the dew it creates.

  • Another souce of water are the rivers. Although the beds seem to be almost always parched, there is permanent waterflow underground which creates linear "oases" on the surface.

  • Watch a fascinating video about some of Namibia's most extreme desert-adapted wildlife - including rolling spiders and invisible snakes - here.

Practical Information 

  • Sossusvlei is one of the most visited destinations in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, but visitors can also enjoy hot air balloon rides, quad biking, desert hikes, paragliding and sand boarding. Download our Adventure Travel Planning Guide to find out more!

  • True adrenaline junkies might prefer something a little more challenging - 100km of Namib Desert is a tortuous race which takes place near Sossusvlei in extreme weather conditions. Alternatively, one of the toughest foot races on earth is the Namib Desert Challenge which covers 228 km of inhospitable, desert terrainover five stages of high-endurance ultra-running. Read more about these events in our Endurance guide.

  • If you want to get up closer to some of the species that have learned to survive in the desert without venturing to the Namib, visit Swakopmund's Living Desert Snake Park - it houses a variety of snakes, scorpions, geckos and monitor lizards with information about each.

  • Spend a thrilling day tracking desert-adapted elephants - contact a Namibia tour operator to plan your tracking experience. You can also find your ideal accommodation near the Namib Desert in our Accommodation Guide.

Namibia Named One of AFAR Magazine's Top Travel Destinations

  
  

Etosha Water Hole

Last week, AFAR Magazine listed Namibia as one of it's top travel destinations for 2013

"In October, Namibia proudly displays its diverse landscape--as well as its deep commitment to conservation and environmental management--when the country welcomes the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit. Situated on southern Africa's wild Atlantic coast, the country often surprises first-time visitors with its dramatic white salt plains and spectacular stretches of beach along the Skeleton Coast. On safari, expect to spot endangered black rhinos, giraffes, lions, and flamingos in Etosha National Park. Extraordinary Journeys offers four unique safari itineraries that include stops at some of the country's most luxurious tent camps; REI Adventures introduced its first 10-day safari this year."

Namibia is not new to AFAR's team of professional and amateur travel writers. AFAR's Namibia page highlights almost 50 adventures from Himba village visits to sandboarding to tracking desert-adapted elephants.

Take AFAR's advice and visit Namibia! Click here to find a Namibia travel adventure that's right for you.

A Taste of Namibia: Kamanjab Steaks

  
  

A quintessential Namibian experience is the family braai or barbecue, but not just anyone can man the grill - it needs to be the braaimaster, and their skills will be on trial!

If you want to make the cut with your Namibian friends, try this recipe for Kamanjab Steaks, taken from My Hungry Heart by Antoinette de Chavonnes Vrug (and published in Travel News Namibia, which you can download online thorugh our app here)

Kamanjab steaks, Namibia

You'll need 2kg of venison steak (or any other steak if you don't have venison). You can use cuts from the loin, leg (topside or silverside) and shoulder, but you can really use any cut, since the tenderising and marinade ensure that it is always soft.

Marinade

  • 30 ml mustard powder

  • 30 ml barbecue spice

  • 60 ml lemon juice

  • 60 ml oil

Sauce

  • 50ml butter

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 125g bacon, chopped

  • 100g mushrooms, chopped

  • 250ml cream/milk

  • 30g cake flour

  • 50ml mayonnaise

  • 50ml chutney

Cut steaks (two per person) into 1cm-thick slices and beat with a mallet to tenderize the meat.

Cover steaks with olive oil and juice. Sprinkle with mustard powder and barbecue sauce. The steak can remain in this marinade for 3-4 days.

In a very hot, metal steak pan on the fire or on a gas hob, fry the steaks in searing hot butter for 30-60 seconds on each side to seal.

To make the sauce, fry the onions, bacon and mushrooms together in the same steak pan until tender. Mix all the other ingredients together and add to the pan. Stir to thicken.

Place the meat into an oven proof dish, cover with the sauce and keep warm until you are ready to eat.

Grab a Windhoek Lager, and enjoy!

Fore more recipes, download our Digital Publications app by clicking below:

EXTREME NAMIBIA - The World's HIGHEST Dunes

  
  

Namibia is a country of almost-superlatives. The second-least densely populated country in the world is also one of the newest, and is home to some of: the largest dunes, the darkest skies, the oldest cultures, the biggest conservation areas in Africa, the world's last rhinos and the most complex languages on the planet - to name but a few!

In this weekly blog series we explore some of Namibia's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

Taking on Big Daddy

Sossusvlei is surely Namibia's most iconic landscape. The rust-red dunes, bleached white pans and deep blue sky are instantly recognisable, and symbolise the country's vast, dry, uninhabited expanses. The dunes here are some of the highest in the world, and the tallest in this area - at a whopping 325m (1,066ft) - is the appropriately named Big Daddy.

The more popular - and widely photographed - Dune 45 is just 80m high, but people still like to climb the monster Big Daddy for two main reasons: firstly, because it overlooks the surreal landscape of Dead Vlei, a white pan filled with the dark fossils of camelthorn trees, and secondly because climbing Big Daddy gives you ultimate bragging rights.

Climbing a dune in Sossusvlei

Two adventurers climb a massive dune.

Embarking on your climbing expedition

It's not for the faint-hearted. Climbers need to start early - and round here, early means waking at 4:30am. This allows time to reach the park gate when it opens at sunrise, and then make the 65km drive to Sossusvlei in a 4x4 over the soft sand. An early start also displays the dunes as their most picturesque. The rising sun causes one side to glow a fiery red, while the other is entirely in the shadows. It truly is a paradise for even the most amateur photographer. As the sun soars higher in the sky, the landscape appears to flatten as the shadows disappear.

If the early wake-up call has left you feeling dizzy, ascending Big Daddy's crest will really make your head spin! It takes an average of 50 minutes to reach the first plateau - which rewards adventurers with awesome dune panoramas, a peek down into Dead Vlei, and gorgeous photo opportunities.

Climbing the crest of Big Daddy

Climbers take on Big Daddy

Continuting to the second peak requires stamina, bravery and an extremely large bottle of water. It takes at least another hour with the sun now high in the sky and not a spot of shade in sight! But of course, the views from the top are astounding, and if you reach the summit, you have truly conquered one of nature's harshest giants.

Now comes the reward - running down the soft sand of the slipface. Two hours of endurance to the top - five mintes of sheer pleasure bouncing down to the the bottom! The adrenaline rush will give you enough energy to take a stroll around Dead Vlei for some photos, before a well-earned lunch at a shady picnic spot.

SOssusvlei and Deadvlei, Namibia

Running down Big Daddy (left); Climbing Big Daddy offers an unusual view of Dead Vlei (right)

Sossusvlei Facts

  • Big Daddy is the tallest dune in Sossusvlei but not in the Namib Desert - that honor belongs to the giant 383m Dune 7.

  • In the Nama language, "Sossus" means "a gathering place for water". "Vlei" is Afrikaans for "a shallow lake".

  • The dunes of the Namib were created by sand being carried on the wind from the coast. The wind in Sossusvlei itself blows from all directions meaning the dunes are known as "star" dunes - as they cause the sand to form a star shape with multiple "arms". This wind pattern also means that the dunes hardly move.

  • The sand here is five million years old. It is comprised mostly of tiny grains of coated in a thin layer of iron oxide, giving the Namib its distinctive red color.

Sossusvlei from the air

An aerial view of the dunes at Sossusvlei gives a sense of scale

Practical Information

  • The park gate is just past Sesriem, and is open between sunrise and sunset. From here, the 65km drive to Sossusvlei takes about an hour.

  • At the base of Dune 45 - 45km from the gate - there is a small parking area and a dry toilet. Sossusvlei has a larger parking area with more toilets and a picnic area. There is no water here, so bring plenty.

  • The route beyond this parking area (another 4km to Sossusvlei) can only be covered in a 4WD vehicle. Alernatively, there is a 4WD transfer service, or you can walk.

  • The climate here is extreme, even in winter. Visitors should bring at least two litres of water, sunscreen, a sunhat, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirt. Be aware that the sun is also reflected upwards from the sand!

  • Read a local painter's perspective on Sossusvlei and see a photo gallery of the region.

  • Don't fancy scaling one of the world's highest dunes? Take a look at Gondwana Collection's 360 degree panorama of Sossusvlei instead!

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