Namibia: Where the Desert is Full of Life

By Johanna Read June 14, 2018

The elephants walk softly by, each one nibbling off the sparse trees as they search for water in the dusty desert. Unlike elephants who live elsewhere, Namibia's desert elephants rarely destroy trees. They seem to understand that an uprooted tree will never provide food for their family again.

Home to the oldest desert in the world, Namibia provides ample opportunity for your kids to learn about the fragile, dry environment, and how humans and animals have adapted to it.

While it's a splurge vacation, your family will never forget Namibia's incredible landscape and people. Namibia is one of the safer countries in Africa, making self-drive safaris and camping possible, which can cut costs. In addition to campsites, Namibia offers medium- to high-end safari lodges too, usually tented. A stay at any means drifting off to the sounds of nearby animals.

Search for elephants

Namibia's desert elephants are the favourite of many visitors. Only 600 live along the Skeleton Coast, so finding them takes some work. Smaller than other African elephants, desert elephants rely on the fog that rolls in off this dangerous stretch of ocean full of shipwrecks. The fog keeps the sparse vegetation alive, providing essential moisture and nutrients to the elephants' diet. Kids enjoy looking for clues to determine when elephants were last in the area, such as estimating the age of their dung and searching for footprints in the dust.

Desert elephants have longer legs, smaller bodies and bigger feet than their cousins who live just a few hundred kilometres away in Namibia's (slightly) wetter Etosha National Park. The animals tend to congregate around the few water holes, seemingly posing for photographers on a more traditional African safari in Etosha.

Visit a semi-nomadic Himba family

Humans have adapted to Namibia's fragile, dry environment, too. The Himba, one of Namibia's indigenous peoples, live not far from the desert elephants. One of the few remaining nomadic peoples of Africa, they bring their cows and goats to water, but rarely drink it or even touch it themselves. Instead of washing with water, Himba women make an ochre and animal fat paste to use as soap, moisturizer, insect repellent, sunscreen, makeup and deodorant, put on via an elaborate beauty regime occupying several hours of their day. Children are very important in Himba society. Women who have had a child, for example, wear hats with horns and long ochre-covered braids. Girls ready for marriage wear braids in front of their faces. Married men wear hats, and unmarried men have a single braid. Himba dress for women and girls means their breasts are exposed. Ankles are considered more provocative and are covered with large beaded cuffs. 

Explore the world's oldest desert

Further south, you've probably seen pictures of the Namib Desert, the oldest on Earth. Even young kids are likely to take stunning photos.

Near Sossusvlei, climb an 80-metre high sand dune to watch the sunrise. The night is cool, so dig your bare feet into the sand — the grains below retain the heat from the day. Look carefully, and kids can spot the footprints and scat of the animals that visited during the night. Tours offer the chance slide down dunes like you're sledding on snow.

Nearby, at Deadvlei, walk a kilometre to see 900-year-old skeletons of camel thorn trees. The trees died when climate change blocked the river supplying their water about 200 years ago. The landscape looks like it's from another planet, with the trees' almost-black branches starkly contrasting against the white salt pan, orange sand dunes and bright blue sky. The dunes here are some of the biggest in the world, with several almost reaching the height of the Empire State Building.

Track cheetah on foot

Help your kids to get a better understanding of how people need to interact carefully with their environment. A visit to Okonjima Nature Reserve, home of The AfriCat Foundation, may prompt discussion on the effects of human encroachment on animal habitat. The Foundation educates Namibian farmers and children about habitat loss and the coexistence of humans, livestock and wild predators. They study cheetah, leopard, lion and wild dogs, and care for orphaned and injured carnivores.

Families can accompany rangers while they check on the cats' ability to thrive on their own. It's easier to spot leopard here than elsewhere on the continent, as the animals are used to being checked on and less likely to hide in trees.

Ramp up your adrenaline and track cheetah on foot. While cheetah much prefer baboon as prey, it's still unnerving walking through the bush knowing they're nearby, and to sit on the sand watching them cool their bodies after a baboon chase. This walking safari is safe as long as kids are old enough to follow rangers' instructions to be quiet and still.

The country's fragile environment and being so close to Namibia's inhabitants, whether cats and desert elephants or humans, is sure to inspire your kids and their passion to protect the planet.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CIBC or their partners.

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