Breaking barriers in Namibia

Free-roaming wildlife and few tourists positions the southern African country of Namibia as an ideal choice for ethical and intimate animal encounters

Across the scrubland her eyes met mine and I couldn’t help but hold my breath. You’re told repeatedly on safari that the wildlife sees you not as an individual, but as one with your vehicle – yet the lioness was staring directly at me. There were just three other people in the seats behind me, but for that moment they ceased to exist and it was just her and I.

Namibia game
Game drive in Etosha

Then, from behind the acacia, two sub-adult males ran between us and our gaze and the spell was broken.

I watched for a while as they played like kittens, rolling in the dust and pawing each other’s faces tenderly. Then they suddenly stopped, stood up and, without a backwards glance, disappeared into the bush.

It was an intimate first sighting of one of the Big Five and I wasn’t even in one of Namibia’s National Parks yet. I was in the Onguma Nature Reserve, a 340 square kilometre patch of land that is larger than the islands of Malta which borders the famous Etosha National Park.

Formerly segregated patches of agricultural land, 30 years ago its owners began buying the farms and removing the fences and invasive species, allowing the land to rewild and attract wildlife back.

Now there’s an abundance of antelope, zebra, lion, elephant, giraffe, and even the critically endangered black rhino (a levy on each room helps pay for the 24/7 Anti-Poaching Unit who patrol the reserve), all of which can be seen on game drives from one of the five lodges or two campsites (providing accommodation options for all budgets).

By day I saw the lions a second time – this time a pride of nine – just after they’d made a kill. I watched kudu, wildebeest, zebra and warthog at the watering hole from the comfort of my room, and at sunset I watched the silhouettes of giraffe march against the red light of the setting sun. And for each encounter no other safari vehicles were anywhere in sight.

Crowd-free critters

Namibia cheetah
Namibia has the world’s largest cheetah population

Wide-open spaces, far from the madding crowds, can be easily enjoyed across Namibia. It’s one of the least densely populated countries on earth, though luckily, that only applies to human residents.

This southern African country is home to the Big Five, 700 species of birds, the largest population of free-roaming black rhino found anywhere in Africa and the largest cheetah population in the world.

Namibia impala
Impala at the watering hole in Onguma

In its waters along the Skeleton Coast it has a healthy population of southern right whales; Etosha’s salt pan (so big it’s said it can be seen from space) attracts millions of breeding flamingos as well as the much-desired big mammals; and around the Damaraland, Kaokoland and Kunene regions unique desert adapted elephants, rhino, lions and giraffe can all be spotted.

In short Namibia is a garden of Eden for wildlife watchers. And, due to its safety record and being relatively free of malaria, Namibia is fast becoming a popular safari destination for families.

And particularly since the pandemic, says Garry Roberts, General Manager of Onguma Nature Reserve.

“We’ve seen an increase in larger multi-generational family groups come to stay, looking for a more intimate experience that they can enjoy together,” he says.

Thanks to a good road network, self-drive has always been a favourite way to explore for couples of all ages.

The whole vibe is ‘off-the-beaten-track’, and it’s a country less built-up compared to neighbouring South Africa (case and point being the small, unassuming capital of Windhoek). True, it has less fine dining options and wine tours, but for those who like a safari destination with an authentic feel and less people, Namibia delivers

“Previously, Namibia has been an undersold destination,” says Amanda Bailey, Africa Product Manager at Carrier.

“But we have recently experienced an increase in demand which we’re excited to see. It has one of the most scenically beautiful backdrops in Africa and is full of dramatic and diverse landscapes and our clients enjoy relaxed and private wildlife encounters within the concessions of Ongava and Onguma.”

Namibia tribe
Tribespeople of the Otjozondjupa Region

James Westrip, Founder and Director of Africa Collection, agrees. “Travellers are becoming more adventurous in their desire to really get ‘off grid’. Lodges like Shipwreck Lodge, Hoanib Valley Camp and the ‘glamping’ camps are increasingly popular. Plus many, indeed most, of the lodges that Africa Collection partners with in Namibia have conservation at the heart of their offering. By partnering with local communities, agencies and conservation projects we/they can create long-term sustainable conservation benefits.”

What’s new

Flight connections: In July 2021 Lufthansa launched their Eurowings Discover long-haul airline which flies from the UK to Windhoek via Frankfurt. It is not only the most competitively priced option, but also has the shortest travel time. And in November launched a connection with Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport making it perfect for South Africa add-ons.

Namibia views
Sunset views from Onduli Ridge

Accommodation: Following a fire that destroyed the former Treetop Camp, the exclusive four-suite Camp Kala in Onguma Nature Reserve has now opened offering luxury accommodation right by a busy waterhole. There’s enough wildlife to see right from the bed, but guests also have exclusive use of the reserve in the morning. Indulgent spa treatments including African inspired massages and facials take place overlooking the bush.

Abercrombie & Kent’s Okahirongo Elephant Lodge reopened in April following an extensive refurbishment.

The lodge, located in Namibia’s distant northwest, has seven individual suites, a two-bedroom family suite and an infinity pool.

Camp Doros has opened in the heart of Damaraland. Each of the six tents (one of which is a family unit) is raised on platforms, uses solar-powered energy, recycled material for furniture, and wastewater processed through a sophisticated reclamation process. Guests can follow the world’s last free-roaming black rhino with master trackers on foot.

Flying Safari: For those who want to eschew road travel, Audley Travel has launched an eight-night flying safari around Namibia which combines star-gazing in the dunes and desert of Sossusvlei and Sesriem, black rhino tracking in Damaraland, and wildlife watching in Etosha from £7,305pp.

Top Wildlife Experiences

Wild sleep: Overnight in the new Dream Cruiser near Etosha for a unique safari soundscape. Created following a lockdown brainstorming session, Onguma’s custom built, two-level land cruiser with shower and flushing toilet, offers the ultimate luxury night out in the bush to watch the stars and hear the wildlife call at your own private waterhole.

Marvel at meerkats: Located just 30 minutes from Windhoek Airport, luxury boutique lodge Omaanda is the best way to finish (or start) a Namibian adventure. Based at the Zannier Reserve (which is home to wildlife that has been injured, orphaned or otherwise harmed) it offers the chance to spend sunrise with meerkats; and enjoy a conservation drive.

New perspectives: Both amateur and professional photographers will love the new waterhole Onkolo Hide at the Onguma nature reserve adjacent to Etosha. Bookable by any guests it has comfy seats, camera beanbags, washrooms and windows at ground level that can open to get unparalleled pictures.

Track & trek: Based in central Damaraland, two-year old Onduli Ridge overlooks Namibia’s highest mountain – Brandberg. The property as well as e-bikes are run off 100% solar power and offer a freeing way to track the desert rhino and elephants who thrive in this arid landscape.

Where to book it

RAINBOW – 0208 131 3658
A six-night trip includes one night at Zannier Hotels Omaanda near Windhoek; two nights in the Onguma Nature Reserve, staying at Camp Kala and on the dream cruiser; two nights at Onduli Ridge and one night at Olive Grove from £5,595pp, including international flights and internal flight transfers.