For a remote country dominated by bone-dry deserts and arid mountains, Namibia has a surprisingly diverse and complex history. Settled first by San Bushmen and then by migrating African herders and farmers, European involvement only began in the late 1800s. A brief but influential episode under German colonial rule preceded 70 years of South African control. Namibia's subsequent freedom struggle was set against the backdrop of the Cold War and it was only in 1990 that the country won its independence.
Home to significant deposits of precious metals, uranium and diamonds, the mining industry dominates Namibia's economy and accounts for a quarter of its revenue though it is tourism which is one of country's major employers, accounting for 18% of total employment. Offshore gas deposits are set to be exploited in the future.
Twice the size of Germany but home to only 2.1 million people, Namibia has the world's second-lowest population density. Most Namibians are Ovambos but significant minorities are present and include the Herero as well as San Bushmen, Germans and Afrikaners. The overwhelming majority consider themselves Christian though traditional beliefs still hold sway in rural areas.
English is Namibia's official language but German and Afrikaans speakers will find themselves understood throughout the country. Much of Namibia's modern culture is similar to South Africa's but the country is home to some of Africa's best rock art as well as the traditional-living Himba people of the Kaokoveld who still adorn their bodies in a mixture of animal fat and natural pigments.
Most of Namibia's population lives on the relatively fertile central plateau but it's the Kalahari and Namib Desert environments that define the country. Running all the way to the icy Atlantic Ocean, the red-sand Namib is the world's oldest desert and home to the famous dunes of Sossusvlei. Open woodlands and grassy savannahs are the main features of the more watered north, while extensive wetlands are found in the Caprivi Strip (newly renamed the Zambezi Region), an oddly shaped part of Namibia left over from the colonial era.
Environmental protection is constitutionally guaranteed and some 15% of the country is given over to parks and reserves. Wildlife is prolific, even in Namibia's deserts where familiar species such as elephant and lion have adapted to the demanding conditions, but it's the country's flagship Etosha National Park that delivers the country's best game viewing. Home to a mix of both savannah and desert species, Etosha is particularly famous for its floodlit waterholes and as a stronghold for endangered creatures such as cheetah and black rhino.
Other wildlife highlights include the small but teeming Caprivi reserves which offer amazing bird watching and large elephant and buffalo herds as well as the unique Waterberg, an isolated plateau full of classic savannah animals.
At a Glance
It's home to dramatic desert and mountain scenery, the world's highest sand dunes and wildlife-packed game reserves but safe, friendly and wide-open Namibia is an easy country to visit and even self-drive around.