Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with nearly 20 percent of its lands protected. The sky meets the land around every turn, a single road leads into the horizon — one lane up, one lane down — and hours pass without a power pole, car or person to interrupt the mind-blowing landscapes, each seemingly more amazing than the last.

In celebration of a milestone birthday, we spent three weeks traversing the country: two photographers leaving Washington for Africa with only seven nights of lodging booked. In the popular animal-viewing destinations like Etosha, or the monumental sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, bookings are essential. We left the other days open for wandering, exploring, camping.

Although most of Namibia’s roads are well-groomed dirt, real exploring requires a
4-x-4 truck — preferably with a front and rear deferential lock. (If you’re not familiar with “def locks,” you will wish you were the day all four tires are buried in a foot of loose sand.) 

In Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, we retrieved the Toyota Land Cruiser, fitted with an oversize fuel tank, 40 liters of water, a refrigerator, rooftop tent, pots, pans, silverware — even sheets, mattresses and sleeping bags. After a visit to the local supermarket for some essentials and a pricey stop for fuel, we headed north to Etosha, reaching our first reservation at Halai campgrounds in the center of the park six hours later.

After three days of lions, cheetahs, hyenas and rhinos, we headed to reservation number two: Dolomite Camp, on the western edge of Etosha, another six-hour drive. It was becoming clear that sticking to a schedule in Namibia was unwise, especially for a pair of photographers keen on capturing the beauty. In 18 days, we traveled north to south along the Skeleton Coast, to Swakopmund, then on to the Sossusvlei sand dunes, then the Quiver Tree Forest before another full day brought us to our southernmost destination, Luderitz. 

All in all, we clocked more than 2,500 dusty miles — and soon started plotting our return.

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Karine Aigner is a freelance photographer and former photo editor at National Geographic. Ken Geiger is the deputy director of photography at National Geographic magazine. Follow them on Instagram @kaigner and @kengeiger.