Sandboarding, surfing, and riding horseback through dunes – a Namibian adventure is unlike any other African safari. After years of being overlooked in favor of Kenyan savannas or Ugandan rain forests, Namibia has recently embraced the continent's most overlooked geographical feature – the desert – and is spending close to $1 billion modernizing its airports and paving its roads while putting 40 percent of its entire 318,000 square miles under conservation management. The resulting infrastructure has helped establish an unprecedented African safari – a largely unexplored journey through the 1,200-mile-long Namib Desert, a 100-mile-wide strip of apricot-colored dunes hugging the Atlantic Ocean.
After flying into the capital city of Windhoek, drive north to the 8,600-square-mile Etosha National Park, one of the best places in Africa to easily spot large game like desert-adapted elephants, black rhinos, and blue wildebeest. At dusk, hire a park outfitter and ride into the dunes on horseback to sleep beneath the planet's second-darkest night sky. (Unlike safaris elsewhere, you can slumber outside in certain parts of Namibia – the absence of lions means you won't get eaten.) "Other places won't let you leave the Jeep to experience animals," says Sonya Bradley, director of CW Safaris. "Here you get within 30 feet of a rhino and hide behind a bush. If he smells you, he'll charge. It's the most thrilling minute of your life."
The next day, hop an hour-long plane ride west to the coastal town of Swakopmund, rent a sandboard from Alter Action Sandboarding, and head for the region's 300-foot dunes. "You fly down the sand with this amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance," says Tristan Cowley, co-founder of the outfitter Ultimate Safaris. Expect a workout for your quads – there are no lifts. Afterward, stop by the Brauhaus and order a pint of Camelthorn Weizen, a microbrew named for the indigenous trees consumed by local camels. "A great cloudy, crisp beer," says Cowley.
From the city limits, go a few miles north or south to surf the notorious Skeleton Coast, a desolate seascape running the entire length of the country. More than 1,000 shipwrecks sunk by offshore rocks litter the sand alongside the bones of whales and seals. Though it has a macabre feel, the Skeleton Coast gets consistent four- to eight-foot waves from May to September – making it one of the last great frontiers in the surfing world. "It's a harsh and desolate environment but an awesome beauty," Cowley says. "With fog in the morning, you don't see another person for miles."
More information: South African Airways offers daily flights between Johannesburg and Windhoek, Namibia. CW Adventures offers 10-day/9-night luxury trips starting at $7,398. May to October is the dry season and is considered the best time to visit.