By Victor Block
A pride of lions feasts on the body of a rhinoceros as dozens of zebra, antelope and other animals look on. Dwellers in simple mud-plastered shelters live much as their ancestors did centuries ago.
If this sounds like a setting you’d like to include on your travel wish list, think Namibia. When it comes to sampling much that sub-Saharan Africa has to offer, this fascinating country on the southwest corner of the continent can’t be beat.
Like many of its neighbors, Namibia’s history includes a colonial past and long battle for independence. Early European explorers ignored the area until the late 19th century, when Germany annexed most of the territory. Later, South Africa was in control. It wasn’t until 1990 that Namibia achieved self rule.
Traces of past German influence remain. The capital city of Windhoek displays many examples of Bavarian colonial architecture, and many restaurants serve traditional sausage, sauerkraut and dark bread.
The resort town of Swakopmund, founded in the mid-19th century by Bavarian traders and missionaries, exudes Old-World charm. Multi-hued buildings that I describe as “German gingerbread” sport whimsical domes, turrets and towers.
Namibian’s population includes 13 major cultural groups. My most close-up and personal contacts were with members of the Herero and Himba tribes.
The once nomadic Herero now are pastoral people whose wealth is measured by the number of cattle they own. Women are identified by long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses worn over several petticoats, and a headdress intended to resemble the horns of cattle. This distinctive attire is a legacy of 19th-century missionaries who objected to what they considered the immodesty of the traditional Herero garments.
The Himba, by contrast, cling to the lifestyle of their ancestors. They continue to live in small villages of cone-shaped shelters made of saplings plastered with mud and cow dung, and tend herds of sheep, goats and cattle.
Children wear only loin cloths, while their mothers follow a much more elaborate beauty preparation. They apply to their skin a concoction of ochre, animal fat and herbs, which provides a reddish hue that the Himba find attractive.
Life of a very different kind is another major reason to visit Namibia. The abundant wildlife comprises a literal animal alphabet, from aardvark to zebra. Etosha National Park is the focus of animal viewing. Covering an area the size of Switzerland, it is home to 114 mammals and over 600 species of birds.
The list includes desert-adapted animals that have learned to survive in the harsh, dry conditions. Elephants have unusually wide feet that are perfect for traversing the sand and digging for water. Some antelope can go for weeks at a time without water. The palmetto gecko licks moisture that accumulates in its eyes.
Among other animals that made my Namibia checklist were giraffe, zebra, ostrich, red harte beast, wart hogs, oryx and many other antelope, and baboon.
The most fascinating wildlife encounter was watching a pride of lions make a meal of a black rhino whose body lay adjacent to a large water hole. As they feasted, a virtual Noah’s Ark of animals watched from a distance, fearful to get too close to the kings of the jungle. Only after the lions had their fill and left did the who’s who of the animal kingdom cautiously approach the water.
The setting is very different in the area that gave Namibia its name. The Namib Desert follows the Skeleton Coast, stretching 60 to 100 miles inland. Its main feature is a surreal landscape of sculpted sand dunes that soar up to 1,000 feet above the landscape and are said the be the highest in the world. Winds blowing off the coast continuously reshape the dunes and create their razor-sharp ridges. The sand is an artist’s palette of orange, red, yellow, pink and tan hues.
Bustling towns adorned by picturesque architecture are very different from mud huts inhabited by people who live as they have for centuries. The dramatic, dry landscape of towering sand dunes is a far cry from waterholes where countless animals congregate. It is this diversity that makes Namibia such an inviting and intriguing destination.
If You Go …
Because there’s so much to see in an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined, it’s best to visit Namibia with a tour group. My trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) demonstrated why it has been named one of the top three value adventure companies in the world.
Groups are small, the hotels and game lodges where we stayed range from luxurious to comfortable, and our guides were excellent. I also like the fact that OAT undertakes charitable activities in countries where it offer trips.
OAT offers land trips around the world, and small ship cruises. For more information, go online at oattravel.com or call 800-955-1925.