Namibia is perhaps most famous for its sweeping sand dunes and magnificent game reserves. However, in between the dunes of Sossusvlei and the wildlife sanctuary of Etosha National Park, there lies a lesser-known treasure - the wild, untamed landscapes of Damaraland. This semi-desert region is one of the country’s most spectacular, with vast, arid plains intersected by sudden towering outcrops of rust-colored granite. Here, elephant and rhino roam free, and the stars at night are like a thousand fires burning against the black backdrop of the velvet sky.
The Road From Swakopmund
Namibia is a country custom-made for self-drive safaris, with easily navigable gravel roads, minimal traffic and an exceptionally low crime rate. One of the most commonly driven routes to Damaraland starts in Swakopmund, the adventure capital of Namibia’s west coast. From there, it’s approximately an hour's drive to Henties Bay, stopping en route to admire the wreck of the Zeila wallowing in the surf at the beginning of the Skeleton Coast. At Henties Bay, the road to Damaraland turns sharply inland. The cold, moisture-laden air of the coast melts away, to be replaced by the hot desert sun.
Into the Wild at Spitzkoppe
For travelers on this route, the first taste of Damaraland’s alien rock formations comes as the flat, arid scrubland on either side of the road gives way without warning to the jaw-dropping granite peaks of Spitzkoppe. Often referred to as the “Matterhorn of Namibia”, Spitzkoppe is more than 120 million years old. The tallest of its many outcrops reaches 5,853 feet/ 1,784 meters towards the blue, blue sky; and at its feet nestles one of the country’s most remote campsites. For those with a ground or rooftop tent, a night at one of these sites offers the opportunity to experience wilderness at its very best.
Sunset at The Arch
There are many ways to spend your time at Spitzkoppe. At the camp reception, one can book a walking tour with a guide from the local village to see the area’s ancient rock art. Birders will find many endemic and near-endemic mountain species in the surrounding scrub, including the vividly colorful rosy-faced lovebird. Perhaps the most unforgettable activity, however, is a sunset walk up to the campsite’s natural granite arch. From there, one can watch as the last light paints Spitzkoppe’s peaks with gold, before the moon rises to be framed for a few perfect moments within the arch’s embrace.
Damaraland's Himba Tribes
After Spitzkoppe, the road into the region’s heart shows very few signs of life, save for the occasional makeshift shack on the side of the road. Here, women from Damaraland’s Himba tribes sit in the shade, waiting to sell beadwork and mobiles made from shaped tin to passing tourists. The Himba are an indigenous people whose culture has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Their traditional dress is no exception, and the Himba women on the roadside are bare-breasted, their skin and hair coated with an ochre-and-fat paste that acts both as a cosmetic and as protection from the sun.
Twyfelfontein's Ancient Rock Art
Damaraland’s history can be experienced firsthand at Twyfelfontein, an arid valley whose name means “Doubtful Spring”. Here, the valley walls are adorned with ancient rock etchings, some of which are believed to be 6,000 years old. Professional guides give visitors the opportunity to walk amongst the etchings, which were carved by the area’s Late Stone Age tribes. It is thought that they used drawings of animals or animal tracks to share information about their hunting trips to other regions. Etchings depicting penguins and seals show just how far the nomads traveled in their quest for food.
With such an abundance of natural beauty, it comes as no surprise that there are endless adventures to be had in Damaraland. Twyfelfontein is the most famous example of the area’s rock art, but there are friezes and figures to be found in many other places, including at Brandberg, Namibia’s highest peak. Hiking, rock-climbing and birding are all popular pastimes in Damaraland, while most lodges offer the opportunity to track the region’s rare desert-dwelling black rhino and elephant on foot. Both populations are especially adapted for life in the desert, and are unique to Namibia.
Luxury in the Desert
For some, bush campsites like Hoada Camp offer the most authentic way to experience Damaraland. For those that want their wild with a serious helping of luxury, however, Grootberg Lodge is an excellent option. Perched high on the top of a plateau, the lodge’s infinity pool overlooks the breathtaking Klip Valley, where black-chested snake eagles ride on invisible thermals over the void. Amongst the excursions offered by the lodge is a sundowner drive across the plateau to a viewpoint, where the valley and its layered escarpments fade towards the horizon in a dozen different shades of lavender and blue.
Wherever you choose to stay and however you decide to spend your time, visiting Damaraland will undoubtedly be a highlight of your Namibia adventure. The closest major airport is in Windhoek, and from there the easiest way to get there is to drive - either in a hire car, or with an organised tour. The gravel roads that traverse the region can be both challenging and slow, but are generally suitable for 2WD and 4WD vehicles. The dry season (May to October) is the best time to visit for wildlife viewing, as the elephants retreat up the Huab River when the rains arrive. The wet season (November to April) is best for birding.