Namibia Self-drive: tips before you go!
Why Namibia?If you are looking for a Self-drive African Adventure, with a mix of Safari, encounter with African Tribes, desert landscape and Dunes, without being a hard core adventurer or having a huge budget, and a relatively secure country, Namibia is the best destination for you!
I am basing myself on my travelling experience in South Africa and my friend’s self-drive in Botswana. Considering its sparse population of 2,2 million for 825,615 km2, Namibia is quite developed and has well maintained roads (tarred or gravel). After an amazing 2 weeks self-drive holidays, from the 3rd week of October 2016, with more than 4,660 km/60 hours drive, I have gathered a few tips, to help you prepare your Namibian adventure!
If, like us, you want to see the best Namibia has to offer, within a short time-frame, make sure to plan your itinerary before travelling: have a printed plan including the distances and approximate driving time. While your plans may change, it will help you to decide how to re-adjust, while considering the most important factors. Download a detailed map on your phone before you go. Even though the GPS was accurate most of the time, it did help that one of us thought about it! We drove from Windhoek to the far North, West and South in 2 weeks, with 3 drivers rotating, involving about 5 hours drive nearly everyday.
Book the National park campsites , especially Etosha and Sesriem, at least a month in advance- the earlier the better if it will be peak season. Most of the places will require payment in advance, which can be a mission if they do not accept credit cards. Outside of National parks, do not worry too much about it, if you don't have a South African bank account. For our peace of mind, and because my friend had a South African bank account, everything was booked in advance, except for the 2 last nights. Being more on the spontaneous side, while also acknowledging the value of good planning, when it comes to travelling within a short time-frame, if it had to be done again, I would have booked only National Parks campsites, and only other places that do not require advance payment. However, if you choose to do it that way, do ensure that you have a list of addresses and phone numbers in each town/village you plan to stop. Throughout our journey, except for 2 nights, we did rooftop camping, on a fully equipped car, including “Kitchen.”
Find out about the gate opening and closing times: it's normally at sunset and sunrise. All campsites (except abandoned ones!) have water, and shared toilets & showers. Communal facilities were relatively clean. Water cut happened to us once, in one of the camps, so it is a good idea to have hygienic wipes and a gallon of tap water.
Brukkaros Campsite (on the way between from Fish River Canyon & Windhoek) was abandoned at the time we were there… We did not know, had no choice, stayed there and loved it despite the lack of running water. Do not venture past the first “campsite” if you do not have a 4×4- even with one, the climb was extremely difficult!
Driving & roads
Always leave the headlights on, even during the day- visibility may be decreased on dusty roads. While the roads linking cities are tarred, half of the driving we did were on gravel roads. Sometimes, a tarred road just continues as gravel road, without warning! We have been warned about many accidents happening with tourists self-driving 4×4, not used to the road type. At the beginning, we were happy that our car came with a speed tracker, which made a very unpleasant, continuous sound if we exceed the limit … No it doesn’t “shut up” if you keep on, unless you slow down just under the limit. However, it became very annoying, as we realised that sometimes, the speed limit on gravel roads was 100km/h, and our tracker forced us to 80km/h… safety measures from the rental agency? Maybe!
As annoyed as we had been about it for one whole week, as we passed the same type of 4×4 we had, upside down, on a gravel road, in a place with no road bends (we then guessed caused by just going slightly off-road at full speed), we made peace with it- at least for the day! So, be vigilant on the road, and avoid off-road driving!
Drivers: If you plan on doing as many kilometres as we did within the same time-frame, be a minimum of 3 drivers! Even if we did relatively equal and rotations, being in the passenger's seat is also tiring… When there were no attractions or similar landscapes for hours, all the passengers were sleeping… and we were all in our mid-twenties, just in case you were wondering. Having some upbeat music (or whatever keeps you awake and alert) can definitely help! Do not rely on the radio nor your phone, as you might need the later for checking the travel guide or the map , bring a pen-drive which is more practical as it doesn't need to be charged.
Driving at night should be avoided at all cost as it may be dangerous with animals crossing the road… it is also better and safer to arrive by daylight when you don’t know the place/area.
Driving in Etosha: Be careful and respect the speed limit, as animals may cross anytime. If there are elephants near the road, slow down/stop: you do not want to get in their way!
Food & drinks
Do grocery shopping in major towns on the way. We made sure 1) to have extra drinking water at all times 2) to buy food for at least 2-3 days, depending on where we were heading. Most of the time, we did our own “Braai” (barbecue) for dinner and prepared salad/sandwich for the next day’s lunch.
Always have some snacks and water handy in the car and especially in Etosha park where you do not come across picnic sites often and should not get out of the car except at toilet and picnic areas (we had lunch at 3 pm)… With leopards and lions around, you don't want to take any risks!
Phone & internet
It is always a great idea to have a local number. MTC has the best network according to locals. We only used it to contact our guide for the Himba tribe visit, luckily no emergencies. Internet connectivity, with data or WiFi was very erratic, even in Windhoek. You may not be able to “google it”, even in a lodge that boasts free WiFi. As regards Satellite phones, we were told it was not a necessity in Namibia as there is mobile coverage nearly everywhere. This is not always true, so if you want to be 100% on the safe side, do take one… you never know! Our friends who previously visited Namibia, went exploring off-road on the Skeleton coast and got stuck in the sand with a 4×4- they had to walk 15 km (that’s even longer in the semi-dessert sun & heat) to the gate to seek help. If you are not planning to do off-road driving or drive recklessly or run out of fuel, there is no absolute need.
Fuel & cashAlways make sure you have a full tank after leaving each town or petrol station, even if you have a bit more than a half tank, plus a 25 L tank of fuel! We scared ourselves on the Skeleton Coast, thinking there was a filling station at the entrance. It is also a good idea to think about future expenses before the next town and have enough cash with you. Some petrol stations and campsites only accept cash payments.
Prefer light, cotton clothes. Typical safari colours are not a bad idea. Though, if you do not want to look like the classic Safari tourist, any colour is fine, except for very dark and thick clothes. Note white bottoms will look dirty quickly, so it's better avoid unless you don't care!
Pack lightly, particularly if you are 3 or 4 in the car. One of the things I love about travelling is that it makes you realise that you do not need that much to survive & live! The coastal areas can get quite cold. Even in Summer, we were very cold on the Skeleton coast and in Swakopmund, so do bring some warm clothes.
Sun protection & sunglasses: Think about protecting yourself from the sun, it is a semi-desert region. I am not for sunscreen (not sure it does the best for your skin), so I used Coconut oil all the time, which worked well for me. I have a tawny complexion, but I do get sun-burnt! As for sunglasses, I strongly recommend, whether you have sensitive eyes or not. And if you tend to have dry eyes, do bring a humidifier as the air is extremely dry.
Tricount was our best friend for determining the balances and sharing the costs. Any other app that has similar offline functions will do. We spent 54,000 N$ (about 900 Euros) in total, for 4 of us, excluding flights, for 2 weeks.
For the best price, book directly with the guide- they work freelance with other companies/lodges. We contacted George ([email protected] ) for the visit. Since he was not in the country, he referred us to his colleague. In Opuwo, you will see Himba & Herero people in traditional clothes, in the supermarket and on the road. While it is tempting to take a photo of a bare breast Himba lady, beside a Coca-Cola fridge in the Supermarket, do ask before taking a photo, or be super discreet about it! Photos are not always welcomed, outside guided visits and people may ask for money in exchange. The detour to Opuwo and Epupa falls is worth it, as it is your only chance to meet tribal people, plus the scenery is beautiful!
Hiking on the DunesDo not wear flip flops for hiking on the dunes! You will end up removing them and 1) freaking out about the possibility of stepping on that deadly spider you saw on the internet… although rare and shy AND not mentioned in the famous travel guide we used, 2) regretting it as the sun warms up the sand, making it unbearable to walk barefoot/with flip flops. High-ankle hiking shoes are ideal as the sand will quickly get in normal ones (though it's better than flip flops or nothing!). Do take a bottle of water especially for hiking up the dune beside the Dead Vlei.
SwimmingNever swim in any rivers, even if the danger is not explicitly mentioned in your travel guide! We tested and were lucky to not have encountered undesirable creatures! Pools, available at some campsites, is the safest option. We did not test the ocean, even in Summer, it was too cold on the Skeleton coast… and well, it’s no clear-turquoise Mauritian lagoon 😉
For highlights of our Namibian adventure, keep tuned for my next article!
If you are pressed for time, feel free to get in touch!