Hitting the Road: Namibia
By Scott Dicken
Are you feeling adventurous? Does driving in South Africa not quench your thirst because it isn’t adventurous enough? Are other tourist hotspots like Zambia and Botswana too much too soon? If the answers to all these questions are ‘yes,’ then Namibia might just be the right place for you to shake off the shackles of organized overlanding and hit the open road on a self-drive tour. Namibia is a fantastic place for a first-timer experiencing southern Africa: its tourist infrastructure is well-developed, and you won’t struggle to find both budget and high-end accommodation along any of the routes you might pick. An entire tourist industry has sprung up in Namibia around the adventurous self-driver, and you’ll find plenty of resources and local companies able to support your planning and booking process (although you won’t necessarily need them). The major car rental companies all operate out of Windhoek’s international airport and provide basic Namibia-specific driver training before you leave. Also, the road infrastructure is as simple as they come, meaning it’s near impossible to get lost.
Where to go:
A simple ‘self-drive Namibia’ google search will immediately give you an abundance of ideas of possible routes. The most popular tends to be a classic route encompassing Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Damaraland, Etosha National Park and Okinjima in that order. Here’s why:
- The Classic self-drive route is designed to make sure that you get a well-rounded tour of the country taking in most of the main sights and activities. In Sossusvlei, you get the world-famous dunes; Swakopmund is the capital of adventure where you can kayak with seals in the ocean and go sand-boarding; Damaraland gives you the opportunity to search for rare desert-adapted elephants and rhinos whilst relaxing in luxury lodges; Etosha is the most famous of Namibia’s game reserves and offers the chance of spotting 4 of the big 5; and Okinjima is one of a few stopover options on the way back to Windhoek Airport that provides a chance to spot big cats and visit the Africat Foundation.
- Some of the more complex routes, whilst stopping in more places, entail significant time on the road. For some people that really enjoy driving, that might be a holiday in itself. However, most people will want to make sure that they have at least 2 nights in each place to explore everything each place had to.
- There are some areas, like the Skeleton Coast, that would be amazing to visit but are incredibly remote. It may be tempting to stretch the route, but in two weeks you will want to avoid over-exertion. If you’re planning a longer trip, then you definitely might wish to consider some of these more remote places. They’re off the beaten path which means that far fewer people visit. So, if you’re looking for a true taste of ‘exploration,’ then this enhanced itinerary might be for you!
- Visiting in the dry season ensures that you will barely see a cloud and maximize your chances of big game viewing in Etosha. It also ensures that the roads will be dry. Many of the roads on the Classic route are gravel or mud (the toughest being from Windhoek to Sossusvlei). During the wet season, these roads can become particularly difficult to drive (or impassable). If your trip has to be at a certain time of year, you may want to consider different routes and towns to ensure that the drive isn’t too difficult. After all, you’re supposed to enjoy it! What will become clear during your planning process is that, unlike some holidays, you need to make sure that you research and understand the demands of the route and adjust accordingly. Given the sparsity of roads in Namibia, it’s not that easy to adjust a route mid-trip.
Top 10 Tips for When You Hit the Road:
- Make sure you stock up: Make sure you stock up with provisions before you hit the road and replenish in every town when you get the chance. Stores may potentially be few and far between (in fact you can go hours without seeing another driver let alone a town or store). As always, there’s an inclination to buy soda and sweet treats but make sure you also have sensible provisions like water and energy bars. If you do break down (which hopefully won’t happen), then it could be several hours until help arrives. Water will also help get the dirt off your windscreen!
- Top up the tank every chance you get: gas stations can be hundreds of miles apart. As a result, make sure that you top up the tank at every opportunity you get.
- Carry enough cash: Many gas stations don’t accept credit cards and don’t have ATMs, so make sure that you have enough cash to get by. The last thing you want is to be stuck at a gas station with no fuel and no way to pay for some!
- Make sure you have a good old-fashioned map: Mobile phone data plans will likely be useless –you won’t have any signal at all most of the time. I highly recommend renting or bringing a GPS, but they can always fail. So, make sure you have a trusty map. Most of the car rental companies will provide you with one upon arrival. My guess is that you’ll look at it and think it can’t be right because there are too few roads, but lo and behold, it’s correct! As I mentioned previously, there are so few roads, even the most directionally-challenged people will struggle to get lost in Namibia!
- Stick to the rules of the road: This especially applies to the speed limits. The roads are unbelievably straight for large stretches and cars are few and far between. The inclination is to therefore unwittingly speed up, but Namibia has a fairly comprehensive program of operating speed cameras on major tarred roads that will catch you at the slightest opportunity. We were also told that some rental companies use on-board GPS to track your speed, and if you exceed the speed limit more than an unspecified number of times, they’ll fine you when you return the car. It’s hard to say how true this is (we weren’t fined).
- Keep your eyes on the road: The scenery is amazing, and the roads are straight; both of which could lead to you taking your eyes off the road. We encountered a lot of wildlife whilst driving (giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, guinea fowl and antelope), and nobody wants to be scraping a guinea fowl off the windscreen!
- Stick to roads your car can handle: The roads will be a combination of tar, gravel and mud, depending on your route. The conditions of the gravel and mud roads can deteriorate quickly in the wet season and may only be passable in 4x4s. Make sure you speak to your car rental company to discuss your route and the time of year you’re going to make sure you have a car that can handle the conditions you’ll encounter.
- Be prepared for a bumpy ride: It won’t always be comfortable, but it will hopefully always be enjoyable. If you suffer from car sickness, this probably isn’t the best trip for you if I’m honest. But in seriousness, if you aren’t used to driving on gravel or mud, then make sure you take things easy until you get used to the differences in deceleration and cornering. Over-excited tourists are apparently the main source of road traffic accidents in Namibia. Lastly, be careful of driving into deep sand – it’s incredibly easy to get stuck!
- Carry your driver’s license and ID with you at all times: ID checks are conducted at police checkpoints coming in and out of major towns (these aren’t anything to worry about so don’t get nervous). You’ll need your driver’s license and passport at the ready. The likelihood is that you won’t be asked to provide them (they tend to wave obvious tourists straight through), but the last thing you want is to have to get out and search through your bags for IDs.
- Most of all, enjoy it! Namibia is one of the greatest places to drive that I’ve ever visited.
About the Author: Scott Dicken is a world traveler and amateur photographer on top of being employed full time at an internationally known company. His love of travel is evident – you can read more articles like this at takephotosleavefootprints.com