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Wedged between the Kalahari and the South Atlantic, Namibia enjoys vast potential as one of the youngest countries in Africa. In addition to having a striking diversity of cultures and national origins, Namibia is a photographer’s dream – it boasts wild seascapes, rugged mountains, lonely deserts, stunning wildlife, colonial cities and nearly unlimited elbow room.

A predominantly arid country, Namibia can be divided into four main topographical regions: the Namib Desert and coastal plains in the west, the eastward-sloping Central Plateau, the Kalahari along the borders with South Africa and Botswana and the densely wooded bushveld of the Kavango and Caprivi regions. Despite its harsh climate, Namibia has some of the world’s grandest national parks, ranging from the wildlife-rich Etosha National Park in Northwestern Namibia, to the dune fields and desert plains of the Namib-Naukluft Park in Western Namibia.

Windhoek, in the Central Highlands, is the country's geographical heart and commercial nerve centre, with an ethnic mix of people, while surfers and beach-lovers won't want to miss Swakopmund.
Namibia is one of those dreamlike places that make you question whether something so visually orgasmic could actually exist. Time and space are less defined here. Landscapes collide. Experiences pile up. Watch a lion stalking its prey on a never-ending plain in Etosha. Fly down a giant dune on a sandboard. Spend a night alone in the desert under a sky so thick with stars you can’t differentiate between constellations.

Nowhere else on earth does such diverse life exist in such harsh conditions. On the gravel plains live ostriches, zebras, gemsboks, springboks, mongooses, ground squirrels and small numbers of other animals, such as black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, caracals, aardwolfs and brown hyenas. Along the coast, penguins and seals thrive in the chilly Atlantic currents and in the barren Erongo mountains and Waterberg plateau the last wild black rhinoceros populations are slowly recovering.

Namibia’s desert landscape is too harsh and inhospitable to support a great variety of birdlife. The exception to this is the lush green Caprivi Strip which borders the Okavango Delta. Here, in the Mahango Game Reserve, you’ll find the same exotic range of species as in Botswana, including the gorgeous lilac-breasted rollers, pygmy geese (actually a duck) and white-fronted, carmine and little bee-eaters. Other wetland species include the African jacanas, snakebirds, ibis, storks, egrets, shrikes, kingfishers, great white herons and purple and green-backed herons. Birds of prey include Pel’s fishing owl, goshawks, several species of vultures, and both bateleurs and African fish eagles.

birds swakop birds

Likewise, the coastal wildfowl reserves support an especially wide range of birdlife: white pelicans, flamingos, cormorants and hundreds of other wetland birds. Further south, around Walvis Bay and Lüderitz, flamingos and jackass penguins share the same desert shoreline.

Situated on a key migration route, Namibia also hosts a range of migratory birds, especially raptors, who arrive around September and October and remain until April. The canyons and riverbeds slicing across the central Namib are home to nine species of raptor, as well as the hoopoe, the unusual red-eyed bulbul and a small bird known as the familiar chat. Throughout the desert regions, you’ll also see the intriguing social weaver, which builds an enormous nest that’s the avian equivalent of a 10-storey block of flats. Central Namibia also boasts bird species found nowhere else, such as the Namaqua sand-grouse and Grey’s lark.

Namibia’s largest and best-known wildlife park is Etosha. Its name means ‘Place of Mirages’, for the dusty saltpan that sits at its centre. During the dry season huge herds of elephants, zebras, antelope and giraffes, as well as rare black rhinos, congregate here against an eerie bleached-white backdrop. To see the elusive wild dog Khaudom Game Reserve is your best bet. Namibia’s other major parks for good wildlife viewing are Bwabwata National Park, Mudumu National Park and Mamili National Park.

Not all of Namibia’s wildlife is confined to national parks. Unprotected Damaraland, in Namibia’s northwest, is home to numerous antelope species and other ungulates, and is also a haven for desert rhinos, elephants and other specially adapted subspecies. Hikers in the Naukluft and other desert ranges may catch sight of the elusive Hartmann’s mountain zebra, and along the desert coasts you can see jackass penguins, flamingos, Cape fur seals and perhaps even the legendary brown hyena, or Strandwolf .

The dry lands of Namibia boast more than 70 species of snake, including three species of spitting cobra. It is actually the African puff adder that causes the most problems for humans, since it inhabits dry, sandy riverbeds. Horned adders and sand snakes inhabit the gravel plains of the Namib, and the sidewinder adder lives in the Namib dune sea. Other venomous snakes include the slender green vine snake; both the green and black mamba; the very dangerous zebra snake; and the boomslang (Afrikaans for ‘tree snake’), a slender 2m aquamarine affair with black-tipped scales.

Lizards, too, are ubiquitous. The largest of these is the leguaan or water monitor, a docile creature that reaches over 2m in length, swims and spends a lot of time laying around water holes, probably dreaming of becoming a crocodile. A smaller version, the savanna leguaan, inhabits kopjes (small hills) and drier areas. Also present in large numbers are geckos, chameleons, legless lizards, rock-plated lizards and a host of others.

The Namib Desert supports a wide range of lizards, including a large vegetarian species, Angolosaurus skoogi, and the sand-diving lizard, Aprosaura achietae , known for its ‘thermal dance’. The unusual bug-eyed palmato gecko inhabits the high dunes and there’s a species of chameleon.

In the watery marshes and rivers of the north of the country, you’ll find Namibia’s reptile extraordinaire, the Nile crocodile. It is one of the largest species of crocodile and can reach 5m to 6m in length. It has a reputation as a ‘man-eater’ but this is probably because it lives in close proximity to human populations. In the past there have been concerns over excessive hunting of the crocodile but these days numbers are well up and it’s more at risk from pollution and accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

Although Namibia doesn’t enjoy the profusion of bug life found in countries further north, a few interesting specimens buzz, creep and crawl around the place. Over 500 species of colourful butterflies – including the African monarch, the commodore and the citrus swallowtail – are resident, as well as many fly-by-night moths.
Some of the more interesting buggy types include the large and rarely noticed stick insects, the similarly large (and frighteningly hairy) baboon spider and the ubiquitous and leggy shongololo (millipede), which can be up to 30cm long.

The Namib Desert has several wonderful species of spider. The tarantula-like ‘white lady of the dunes’ is a white hairy affair that is attracted to light. There is also a rare false spider known as a solifluge or sun spider. You can see its circulatory system through its light-coloured translucent outer skeleton. The Namib dunes are also known for their extraordinary variety of tenebrionid (known locally as ‘toktokkie’) beetles.
Common insects such as ants, stink bugs, grasshoppers, mopane worms and locusts sometimes find their way into frying pans for snack and protein supplements.

Because Namibia is mostly arid, much of the flora is typical African dryland vegetation: scrub brush and succulents, such as euphorbia. Along the coastal plain around Swakopmund are the world’s most extensive and diverse fields of lichen; they remain dormant during dry periods, but with the addition of water, they burst into colourful bloom.
Most of the country is covered by tree-dotted, scrub savanna grasses of the genera Stipagrostis, Eragrostis and Aristida. In the south, the grass is interrupted by ephemeral watercourses lined with tamarisks, buffalo thorn and camelthorn. Unique floral oddities here include the kokerboom (quiver tree), a species of aloe that grows only in southern Namibia.
In the sandy plains of southeastern Namibia, raisin bushes (Grewia) and candlethorn grow among the scrubby trees, while hillsides are blanketed with green-flowered Aloe viridiflora and camphor bush.

welwischia mirabillis Namibian river

The eastern fringes of Namib-Naukluft Park are dominated by semidesert scrub savanna vegetation, including some rare aloe species (Aloe karasbergensis and Aloe sladeniana). On the gravel plains east of the Skeleton Coast grows the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis, a slow-growing, ground-hugging conifer that lives for more than 1000 years.
In areas with higher rainfall, the characteristic grass savanna gives way to acacia woodlands, and Etosha National Park enjoys two distinct environments: the wooded savanna in the east and thorn-scrub savanna in the west. The higher rainfall of Caprivi and Kavango sustains extensive mopane woodland and the riverine areas support scattered wetland vegetation, grasslands and stands of acacias. The area around Katima Mulilo is dominated by mixed subtropical woodland containing copalwood, Zambezi teak and leadwood, among other hardwood species.

Endangered species
Overfishing and the 1993–94 outbreak of ‘red tide’ along the Skeleton Coast have decimated the sea lion population, both through starvation and commercially inspired culling. Also, the poaching of desert rhinos, elephants and other Damaraland species has caused their numbers to decrease, and the desert lion, which once roamed the Skeleton Coast, is now considered extinct.

For the rest of Namibia’s lions, survival is also precarious. From a high of 700 animals in 1980, the number has now decreased to between 320 and 340. Of these, nearly 85% are confined to Etosha National Park and Khaudom Game Reserve. One problem is that reserve fences are penetrable, and once the lions have left protected areas, it’s only a matter of time before they’re shot by ranchers to protect cattle.
The stability of other bird and plant species, such as the lichen fields, the welwitschia plant, the Damara tern, the Cape vulture, and numerous lesser-known species, has been undoubtedly compromised by human activities (including tourism and recreation) in formerly remote areas.

Pre-colonial history
The first agriculturalists and iron workers of definite Bantu-speaking origin in southern Africa belonged to the Gokomere culture. They settled the temperate savannah and cooler uplands of Zimbabwe and were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site, in the southeastern part of modern-day Zimbabwe, where a well-sheltered valley presented an obvious place to settle. Cattle ranching became the mainstay of the community and earlier hunting-and-gathering San groups either retreated to the west or were enslaved and/or absorbed.

At the same time the San communities were also coming under pressure from Khoi-Khoi (the ancestors of the Nama), who probably entered the region from the south. The Khoi-Khoi were organised loosely into tribes and raised livestock. They gradually displaced the San, becoming the dominant group in the region until around 1500.
During the 16th century, the Herero arrived in Namibia from the Zambezi Valley and occupied the north and west of the country.

As ambitious pastoralists they inevitably came into conflict with the Khoi-Khoi over the best grazing lands and water sources. Eventually, given their superior strength and numbers, nearly all the indigenous Namibian groups submitted to the Herero.
By the late 19th century, a new Bantu group, the Owambo, settled in the north along the Okavango and Kunene Rivers.

Colonial history
Because Namibia has one of the world’s most barren and inhospitable coastlines, it was largely ignored by the European nations until relatively recently. The first European visitors were Portuguese mariners seeking a route to the Indies in the late 15th century, but they confined their activities to erecting stone crosses at certain points as navigational aids.

It wasn’t until the last-minute scramble for colonies towards the end of the 19th century that Namibia was annexed by Germany (except for the enclave of Walvis Bay, which was taken in 1878 by the British for the Cape Colony). In 1904 the Herero launched a rebellion and, later that year, were joined by the Nama, but the rebellions were brutally suppressed.

The Owambo in the north were luckier and managed to avoid conquest until after the start of WWI, when they were overrun by Portuguese forces fighting on the side of the Allies. Soon after, the German colony abruptly came to an end when its forces surrendered to a South African expeditionary army also fighting on behalf of the Allies.
At the end of WWI, South Africa was given a mandate to rule the territory (then known as South West Africa) by the League of Nations. Following WWII, the mandate was renewed by the UN, who refused to sanction the annexation of the country by South Africa.

Undeterred, the South African government tightened its grip on the territory and, in 1949, it granted parliamentary representation to the white population. The bulk of southern Namibia’s viable farmland was parcelled into some 6000 farms owned by white settlers, while indigenous families were confined by law to their ‘reserves’ (mainly in the east and the far north) and urban workplaces.

Nationalism & the struggle for independence
Forced labour had been the lot of most Namibians since the German annexation. This was one of the main factors that led to mass demonstrations and the development of nationalism in the late 1950s. Around this time, a number of political parties were formed and strikes organised. By 1960 most of these parties had merged to form the South West Africa People’s Organization (Swapo), which took the issue of South African occupation to the International Court of Justice.

The outcome was inconclusive, but in 1966 the UN General Assembly voted to terminate South Africa’s mandate and set up a Council for South West Africa (in 1973 renamed the Commission for Namibia) to administer the territory. At the same time, Swapo launched its campaign of guerrilla warfare. The South African government reacted by firing on demonstrators and arresting thousands of activists.

In 1975 the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) was officially established. Formed from a combination of white political interests and ethnic parties, it turned out to be a toothless debating chamber, which spent much of its time in litigation with the South African government over its scope of responsibility.

The DTA was dissolved in 1983 after it had indicated it would accommodate members of Swapo. It was replaced by the Multiparty Conference, which had even less success and quickly disappeared. And so control of Namibia passed back to the South African–appointed administrator-general.

The failure of these attempts to set up an internal government did not deter South Africa from maintaining its grip on Namibia. It refused to negotiate on a UN-supervised programme for Namibian independence until the estimated 19, 000 Cuban troops were removed from neighbouring Angola. In response, Swapo intensified its guerrilla campaign.
In the end, however, it might not have been the activities of Swapo alone or international sanctions that forced the South Africans to the negotiating table. The white Namibian population itself was growing tired of the war and the economy was suffering badly.

The stage was finally set for negotiations on the country’s future. Under the watch of the UN, the USA and the USSR, a deal was struck between Cuba, Angola, South Africa and Swapo, in which Cuban troops would be removed from Angola and South African troops from Namibia. This would be followed by UN-monitored elections held in November 1989 on the basis of universal suffrage. Swapo collected a clear majority of the votes but an insufficient number to give it the sole mandate to write the new constitution.

Following negotiations between the various parties, a constitution was adopted in February 1990. Independence was granted the following month under the presidency of the Swapo leader, Sam Nujoma. Initially, his policies focused on programs of reconstruction and national reconciliation to heal the wounds left by 25 years of armed struggle. In 1999, however, Nujoma had nearly served out his second (and constitutionally, his last) five-year term, and alarm bells sounded among watchdog groups when he changed the constitution to allow himself a third five-year term, which he won with nearly 77% of the vote.

In August 1999, a separatist Lozi faction in the Caprivi Strip launched a coup attempt –which was summarily put down by the Namibian Defence Force. In December of the same year the Caprivi Strip also suffered a spate of violent attacks on civilians and travellers, which were rightly or wrongly blamed on Unita sympathisers from Angola. These attacks destroyed tourism in the Caprivi Strip, but since Angola signed a peace accord in April 2002, the region is slowly starting to come back to life.

Namibia today
In 2004 the world watched warily to see if Nujoma would cling to the office of power for a fourth term, and an almost audible sigh of relief could be heard in Namibia when he announced that he would finally be stepping down in favour of his chosen successor Hifikepunye Pohamba.

Like Sam Nujoma, Pohamba is a Swapo veteran and swept to power with nearly 77% of the vote. He leaves behind the land ministry where he presided over one of Namibia’s most controversial schemes – the expropriation of land from white farmers to black citizens.

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