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  • Writer's pictureImogen Hall

Big trips: Namibia with kids



With easy access to wildlife, the world’s largest sandpit to explore, well-managed tourist interaction with local tribes and fewer potential health risks, Namibia has much to recommend it to families seeking a safe African adventure - as we discovered in April 2017.


Sure, there are long distances to be covered on gravel roads, accommodation gets booked up quickly and anti-malarials can be on the cards if you go at certain times of the year, but all these obstacles can be surmounted with some sensible planning.


Wildlife watching is child’s play


Namibians are rightly proud of how incredibly easy it is to see wild animals all over the country. Children will love spotting a herd of wildebeest during a long day’s driving, but for a proper safari experience Etosha National Park is particularly good for families. With a well-established self-drive infrastructure, you can bring your hire car and go at a pace that works for your children (shorter and more frequent game drives usually keep little ones happy) and crucially you can return to the rest camps for comfort breaks without having to disrupt anyone else’s viewing. You can also use books, snacks and games to keep small people entertained when they’ve had enough but you want to keep going.


However, what makes Etosha really perfect for families are the accessible and safe watering holes which attract so many of the local wildlife, especially at night, which are close to the rest camps. Elsewhere in Africa the wildlife watching tends to end when you are back at camp, in Etosha it’s just getting going. Okaukuejo Camp is particularly known for the atmospheric encounters at its watering hole around sunset, and for that extra-special frisson of excitement they run night drives too (with a minimum age of six).


Tip: George, nine years old, recommends taking wildlife books so you can become an expert at identifying the different impala and the beautiful variety of birdlife you see.


The open road: we never got bored of these signs


Explore the world’s largest sandpit


Would could be more exciting than running down the most enormous sand dune you’ve ever seen? Or taking a jeep ride that feels like a roller-coaster up, down and over the dunes? These thrills appeal to big and little kids alike, and are a fantastic bonding experience for the whole family. However, there’s much more to a trip to the Namibian desert than adrenalin highs: as we found, it can also be a fascinating introduction to how nature survives in one of the world’s toughest environments.


From Swakopmund take a 4x4 guided tour out to Sandwich Bay where the Atlantic laps the giant dunes and you can see seals, flamingos and cormorants along the way. In Sossusvlei learn why the sand is that famous deep red colour as you watch the colours change as the sun rises over Dune 45. Then make sure you take a leisurely walk through Deadvlei where a good guide will explain the geological history and introduce your children to the current inhabitants by following tracks and watching movements in the sand.


Tip: getting up in the middle of night to go on an adventure is super exciting for kids so stay in the park (either at the campsite or Sossus Dune Lodge) to ensure you have access to the dunes at sunrise; also remember it’s cold at night in the desert so take layers for the early start, plus the obligatory snacks to keep energy levels up as both the sun and tiredness kick in.


Enter a cultural classroom

Anyone who wants to spend time with indigenous people anywhere in the world needs to do their research ahead of a visit to be sure you’re not contributing to anything exploitative, and Namibia is no different. But, when you do find the right approach it’s an incredible way to educate your children about different cultures.


The Damara Living Museum was established by the Damara people to educate both their young people and tourists on their culture and is a relaxed and enlightening introduction for children. You can also arrange days visiting the Himba tribe through some of the lodges such as Opuwo County Lodge around Opuwo in the remote Kaokoland. If you really want to immerse your family you could try the two-day trip available at the the Living Hunter’s Museum of the Ju/'Hoansi on the fringes of the Kalahari. In many cases, handmade curios will be available so do give your children some pocket money and help them make their own contribution to the tribe they have just visited


Tip: Harry, seven years old, remembers seeing being surprised at seeing women’s breasts so talk to your kids about nudity beforehand and remind them to ask permission before taking a photograph.


Nothing to see here: taking a well-deserved break in Damaraland


Eat, drink and be safe


The influence of both nearby South Africa and the historical association with Germany on the cuisine of Namibia makes for a delicious travel experience for small and bigger palates. Pastries, cheese, ham and pasta all cater easily for those in your party who may have less adventurous tastes while their parents can sit back and enjoy beautifully executed meals with an equally delicious glass of wine. An essential stop on the road to Sossusvlei is Moose McGregor's Bakery in Solitaire, which serves delicious apple pie to weary travellers in the middle of the desert. As elsewhere in the world, children love to explore a new supermarket so take them along to chose their own road-trip snacks.


In terms of health, one of the best things from a parent’s point of view about a trip to Namibia is that the water is safe to drink. This means that all those little hands going everywhere can be washed easily and safely. Normal hygiene rules apply and you may choose to drink bottled water but you can relax knowing teeth-brushing and hand-washing are not potential hazards. Malaria is a concern in certain areas (an area which widens at specific times of the year) and you should visit your travel doctor for advice, but it’s perfectly possible to plan a trip that avoids any malaria risk.


Tip: Winnie, three years old, loved the spoonful of jam which accompanied her daily anti-malarials (a spoonful of sugar really does help this particular medicine go down children’s throats)..


Get your teens’ adrenalin pumping


Not for nothing is the relaxed German colonial town Swakopmund known as Namibia’s adventure capital. From here and nearby Walvis Bay you can go dune boarding, sky diving, quad biking, sailing, surfing, kayaking, fishing: you name it, you can do it. It’s the perfect bribe for the teen who may be accompanying the family somewhat reluctantly. And if you need further incentives, when your heart and stomach have returned to base you can enjoy some excellent coffee and cake at one of the many German bakeries around town.


Perhaps less adrenalin-inducing but no less of an adventure is camping out in the Namib desert. Sleeping outdoors is fun for children anywhere but in Namibia you can add the thrill of potential wildlife sightings and the fact that you don’t necessarily need canvas over your head. Dozing off with the stars above you might not make for the best night’s sleep but it sure is exciting. A good place to start is the Sessriem Camp Site but a guided camping tour can take you further off the beaten track.


Tip: once again it’s all in the research, so make sure you chose a reputable company (such as Ground Rush Adventures) that is happy taking teens and that your insurance covers all of you for what you are doing.


Don’t forget

  • Plan well ahead as the tourist infrastructure here is still developing and demand often outweighs the number of good options.

  • Driving distances are long and bumpy: make sure you take audio-books, playlists and a good list of mind games such as twenty questions and I spy to keep the kids occupied, and have something fun to look forward to at journey’s end.

  • Get each child their own set of binoculars. You won’t regret it.

This article first appeared on Lonelyplanet.com in October 2017, following our trip at Easter that year.

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