Picture of a family running down a sand dune in the Namib Desert

Travelers to the Namib Desert run down the steep face of a coastal dune in Namibia’s Erongo region.

Photograph by John Warburton-Lee Photography, Alamy

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life, by Keith Bellows

"The Namib Desert is rugged, diverse, barren, beautiful, and a fascinating place to take your kids. In such a completely remote environment, it’s just you and the earth,” says Julian Harrison, African safari guidebook author and president of Premier Tours, who took his American kids to Namibia when they were 7, 9, and 11. “For my family, it was very much a bonding experience. Without other distractions you can spend time communicating and exploring the landscape together.”

And there’s lots to explore in these 1,200 miles of desert along the South Atlantic coast of Africa, not only because of the ecosystem’s sheer size, but also because the dunes rarely present the same face twice. Wind changes the dunes’ edges and erases tracks like waves on a beach—the shifting force is enough to cause entire dunes to migrate dozens of feet each year. A competition to see who can jump the farthest down a dune face can be an exhilarating family experience, the traces of which are wiped clean the next day.

The daytime heat draws moisture-laden air inland from chilly coastal waters. The effect produces a blanketing fog that is often the only source of water for this parched environment. Although the Namib Desert doesn’t have the abundance of plants and animals found on other parts of the continent, it does feature a collection of unusual ones—gnarled trees, lichens, fog-catching beetles, and fleet-footed sand lizards have had time to evolve to survive on the sand. Desert-adapted elephants, bat-eared foxes, hyenas, ostriches, oryx, and Africa’s largest population of black rhinos eke out an existence roaming the dunes and their periphery.

The key to successful travel with children in the Namib Desert is not to zoom through. More than the landscape, it’s the small things that kids will appreciate: “Stop and look for tracks, bugs, flowers—you’ll see more things than most people who rush past. It looks so empty, but it’s such an alive place,” says Gary Webber, a guide who has worked with several tour agencies to bring families to Namibia—he’s now starting his own company that targets families with young children traveling to the region (see www.weboftours.co.za).

While the animals adapt, you don’t have to—most camps catering to families are outfitted with canvas tents that are more like buildings, with beds, hot and cold running water, bathrooms, ceiling fans, and glass sliding doors. Wolwedans Dune Camp, for example, is surrounded by the NamibRand Nature Reserve in the Sossusvlei area; the reserve includes nine former farms, the owners of which agreed to preserve their land for wildlife.

For those who really want to immerse themselves in a remote desert, however, Serra Cafema camp, along the Kunene River near Namibia’s border with Angola, is little more than seven thatched canvas huts amid more than 300,000 acres ripe for exploration; it is serviced by several tour companies.

When out exploring in the dunes there, you might spot members of the nomadic Himba tribe who build temporary huts with mud or dung, moving with the seasons. “You see their homes in the distance, little specks in the middle of this vast, vast desert—it’s this little node of civilization,” says Harrison. Visiting these communities, “the kids were awestruck. We made a point to talk to them about the similarities and differences between the Himba way of life and ours. For my children, it was eye‑opening.”

Know Before You Go

Fast Fact: In some spots here, strange dark circular patches pepper the dunes. Scientists haven’t uncovered these so-called fairy circles’ origins or purpose; theories include animal dust baths, poison leaked from plants, traces of meteor showers, and underground gas vent leaks. Your family can adopt and name a fairy circle near Wolwedans Lodge, with fees supporting the NamibRand Nature Reserve.

Insider Tip: Want to go without a tour company and find accommodations on your own? The most popular gateways to the Namib Desert are Sesriem and Sossusvlei, a short trip from picture-perfect red dunes. For a more remote experience, however, stay on the private tract of desert south of there in the NamibRand Nature Reserve or venture 50 miles north of Sesriem to the less frequented Solitaire—both areas are accessible by road with a rented vehicle.

Books for Adults: The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin (2002): This is the autobiographical tale of two German scientists and a dog fleeing World War II by heading deep into the Namib Desert, surviving on the land for two and a half years.

Books for Everyone: The Namib: Secrets of a Desert Uncovered by Mary Seely and John Pallet (2008): Read descriptions of the landscape, how it is maintained by the sea and winds, and the animals and plants that depend on the desert for survival.

Movie: Babies (2010): A funny and fascinating documentary about how young children are reared in four different parts of the world, including Namibia, by the Himba people.

Music: My First Time by Unathi (2005): Listen to modern African sounds by Namibian-born Unathi, who gives hints of R&B, Afro-Jazz, soul, and house music. Recommended by National Geographic Music.

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