National Parks of Namibia

© Elephants and the Dust of Etosha
By Amy Schoeman

Untarnished wilderness, horizons that expand to infinity, abundant wildlife and the inimitable Namib - a moist coastal desert hosting a range of hauntingly beautiful landscapes and spectacular geological phenomena: all draw travellers to Namibia's NPs, reserves and conservation areas time and again.

Visitors can view wildlife in the quiet seclusion of the African bush, or marvel at the majesty of endless space created by vast seas of sand, and return home revitalised by the silence and solitude.

Just under 14% of Namibia's surface area of 824,295km2 has conservation status, either as a park, reserve or recreation area. These are owned by the Namibian government and managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET).

Namibia's 21 parks and recreation areas represent 13 different ecosystems, ranging from the vast dune belts of the Namib and the dwarf scrub savannah of Etosha to the species-rich tropical flood plains and waterways of Kavango and Caprivi in the far north-east. Most parks have well-equipped rest camps with bungalows, restaurants, shops, service stations and camping sites. These are managed by the parastatal company, Namibia Wildlife Resorts.

Namibia's flagship conservation area is the Etosha National Park. In 1907 the original park was proclaimed as Game Reserve No. 2 by the German colonial Government. It encompassed the Etosha Pan and a section of Kaokoland, extending over 90,000 km2 to the Atlantic coast. This area was progressively diminished until, by 1975, it was reduced to its present size of 22,270 km2. Nevertheless, it is still one of Africa's largest game reserves.

Consisting of saline desert, savannah and woodlands, Etosha's definitive feature is Etosha Pan, a vast, shallow depression of approximately 5000km2. For the greater part of the year the pan is a bleak expanse of white cracked mud which shimmers with mirages and dust devils on most days.

Seeing teeming herds of game against this eerie backdrop, referred to in the local language as the 'great white place of dry water', makes the Etosha game-viewing experience unique. The park has three resorts, each with its own distinct character - Namutoni in the east (centred around the historical Namutoni Fort), Okaukuejo in the west (renowned for its floodlit waterhole) and Halali in the middle.

Namibia's most versatile conservation area is the Namib-Naukluft Park, an immense wilderness with key features such as the Sossusvlei dunes, Sesriem, the Welwitschia Trail, Sandwich Harbour, the Naukluft Mountains and the Kuiseb Canyon.

The park is managed as a wilderness area, and accordingly has no large rest camps, only serviced camping sites. An amalgamation of the Namib Desert Park (proclaimed in 1907), the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park (created in 1966), unoccupied public land and a section of Diamond Area 2, it was proclaimed in 1979 as one integrated reserve. Following the addition in 1990 of another portion of Diamond Area 2, it now has a vast surface area of almost 50,000km2.

The Skeleton Coast Park, proclaimed in its present form in 1973, extends from the Kunene River in the north for 500km to the Ugab River in the south. The attraction of this remote desert wilderness is its extraordinary landscape, ranging from sweeping vistas of windswept dunes to rugged canyons with richly-coloured volcanic rock walls and extensive mountain ranges.

Its changing moods and aura of mystery and impenetrability are due to the dense coastal fogs and cold sea breezes generated by the icy Benguela Current, and the many shipwrecks that lie scattered along its treacherous shores.

In the north, the Mahango Game Reserve borders on the perennial Okavango River. Characterised by riverine forests, a broad flood plain, magnificent baobabs and large herds of elephant and red lechwe, the Mahango is one of Namibia's most diverse and fascinating conservation areas.

Proclaimed in 1989, it links up with the Caprivi Game Reserve across the river and harbours rare game species such as sable and roan antelope, bush buck, reedbuck, tsessebe and sitatunga, a rich birdlife of over 400 species, and hippos and crocodiles.

The protection of Namibia's rare and endangered species was initiated in 1972 when the Waterberg Plateau Park, 300km north-east of Windhoek, was proclaimed a sanctuary and breeding ground for endangered animals such as white Rhino, eland, buffalo, roan, sable and tsessebe.

Conservation of the black Rhino in the western arid regions (today's Kunene region) gained momentum in the early 1980s. Today Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa with a growing population of black Rhino, within as well as outside national parks.

Skeleton Coast

The park is divided into two sections, the northern wilderness reserve and the southern park, each about 800,000ha. The Skeleton Coast presents a harsh, baking and solitary landscape best known for its colossal sand dunes. Gravel plains, salt pans, four major riverbeds, deltas, quicksand, springs and sculptured rock formations are also found.

Sparse populations of gemsbok, springbok, ostrich and Desert Elephant. Mountain Zebra, Giraffe, hyena, jackal and even Lion seen along coastal riverbeds after rains. Herbivores feed on grasses and shrubs that survive on underground water.

Over 100 varieties of lichen cling to rocky outcrops reached by coastal fog. Dunes alive with geckos, snakes, spiders, termites, wasps and beetles. Over 300,000 wading birds visit seasonally, including flamingos and pelicans. Home to one of the world's rarest terns.

Known for its solitude and grandeur. Fishing off the beaches, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve and a hundred or so shipwrecks. Hiking along riverbeds during cooler months (April to October).

Only two places to stay: Torra and Terrace Bay camp sites (the latter also has fully catered accommodation). Both resorts must be pre-booked. One company operates fly-in safaris to a concession in the northern sector.


Created 1989 to protect 385,000 wild, remote and untouched hectares on the edge of the Kalahari. Situated in north-east Nambia. Old, stabilised Kalahari sandveld, with flat clay pans and omuvambas (dry fossil riverbeds). These river courses are dotted with waterholes tapping underground sources, peat and reed beds.

Vegetation thicker than other Namibian parks. Acacias, terminalia, seringa and leadwood trees dominate; stands of mopane and Rhodesian teak in the north and baobabs in the south. Notable populations of tsessebe, roan, gemsbok, buffalo and giraffe, which draw lion, cheetah, hyaena and wild dog. The 300 bird species include 70 migrants.

The attraction of this park is its remoteness and untouched wilderness. A minimum of two 4x4 vehicles is required for entry. Two camps, each providing simple wooden huts and basic camp sites with communal facilities.


Etosha Pan (120x70km) covers about 25% of the 22,270km2 park. Much of the rest is closed to the public. The pan's white sands are often dry for decades but may hold water for a few months after good rains. Animals find food in the surrounding nutrient-rich grasslands and woodlands.

Drinking water is obtained from 52 natural waterholes and springs around the southern edges. Pan fringed with small shrubs and mopane trees. To the west, woodlands of tamboti and terminalia. Weirdly contorted moringa trees in the Haunted Forest. In the east, wild fig, thorn and marula trees and Makalani (Hyphaene) palms.

Etosha's game and birds are typical of savannah grasslands but encompass several endemics - notably the Black-faced impala and the Damara dik-dik. 114 mammal species including Black and White rhino, big herds of springbok and a full range of predators. 110 types of reptile; nearly 400 bird species, amongst them uncommon hawks, eagles and other raptors, ostrich, korhaans, Blue cranes and flamingoes.

Over 700km of game-watching roads, with spaced toilet facilities and viewing platforms. Walking prohibited. Lodges around the park run guided tours. Good facilities at the three fenced rest camps, including air conditioned bungalows, flats, camp sites, restaurants and floodlit waterholes. Advance booking essential. Five private luxury camps and a game ranch adjoin the park. Fly-in safaris operated.


One of the largest parks in Africa: just under 50,000km2 (bigger than Denmark). Created in order to protect one of the world's oldest deserts.

Four discernible environments: massive, gold-orange sand dunes, up to 385m; river valleys and pans with underground water; vast quartzite gravel plains dotted with granite columns; and rugged granite and limestone mountains. Two largely subterranean rivers flow west. At Sandwich is one of Africa's most important coastal wetlands.

Grasses grow on the more stable dunes; along riverbeds are various acacias, wild figs, other hardy trees and pockets of comparatively lush vegetation. The famous Welwitschia plants are found in the north; Euphorbias, commiphera, aloes and succulents grow in the mountains.

Herds of springbok, zebra and related grazers are followed by hyaenas, jackals, cape foxes and other foragers. Gemsbok, geckos, lizards, crickets, spiders, sidewinder snakes and the rare Grant's golden mole. At night: Cape hares, squirrels and mongooses. Many birds including ostriches, korhaans, raptors, sandgrouse, bustards and larks. Also home to Mountain zebra.

Dunes are the top attraction. Hiking trails (10-120km); a short 4x4 trail; balloon trips over the southern Namib and birding in Sandwich harbour lagoon. About a dozen serviced camp sites; a Government lodge at Sesreim. Several private, mainly upmarket, lodges and guest farms on the park outskirts. Swakopmund has five good hotels.

Waterberg Plateau

Established 1972 as a 40,549ha sanctuary for endangered species. The 250m-high, 50x16km plateau sits above an arid plain. Its loose covering of Kalahari sand acts like a sponge. Absorbed rainwater percolates porous sandstone until it is diverted sideways by impermeable stone. It then surfaces in springs on the southern slopes. 479 species of indigenous plants. Vegetation ranges from acacia savannah on the plains to grassed woodlands on the plateau.

90 mammal species, 25 large, including both Black and White rhino. 200 bird species including Namibia's only breeding colony of Cape vultures, five species of hornbill, 20 types of bat and the rosy-faced lovebird. 13 frog varieties - one very rare black and orange specimen.

Gentle game walks. A 45-minute mountain climb and two hiking trails (3-4 days). Guided tours stop at viewing hides and a vulture restaurant. Rest camp with comfortable bungalows, camping facilities, restaurant, shop and swimming pool.

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