Striking red sand dunes, a bleak and treacherous coastline, rolling waves, dramatic rocky giants, superb wildlife watching opportunities, ancient tribal art, stunningly desolate landscapes, waving local children, blazing African sunsets, a star-studded night sky and the endless open road await those who venture to Namibia.
On our 11-day visit we devoured it all (though not the wildlife… or the children) and had a fantastic time roadtripping between the parched arid lands of the south and the lush plains of the north.
With long distances and harsh environments though come a few practicalities to consider. These are our most useful tips to take into account before setting off on your Namibian adventure.
For those looking to take a digital detox, Namibia is a pretty good place to do it.
In the major cities you’ll find decent 3G, outside of them you’ll be largely without service.
While we thoroughly enjoyed being able to switch off and disconnect for a few days, we would recommend making sure your phone is stocked up with Offline Maps of your route, audiobooks, podcasts and some epic road tunes to get you through the many, many hours you’ll be spending on the road.
The majority of roads in Namibia are gravel; some corrugated and potholed, others winding and narrow, most in a generally good condition. But whatever travel time Google Maps suggests, you’ll probably need to add an hour or three on for good measure.
For safety reasons our rental agency imposed a strict 80 km/h speed limit on all gravel roads – regardless of whether the legal limit was higher or not – which we also had to factor into driving times to ensure we arrived before dark.
The majority of car accidents caused by tourists in Namibia are single vehicle incidents from speeding or loss of control on the gravel surface. While it may have taken us a little longer to get where we were going each day, these precautions are definitely there for a reason.
Generally the only stretches of tarred road where you can put your foot down are those extending directly out of Windhoek.
We saw so many visitors buying armfuls of plastic water bottles – you really don’t need to. The tap water in Namibia is perfectly safe to drink, although it may taste a little different than what you’re used to.
Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up at your accommodation. Every camping area we stayed at had a communal tap or a kitchen area where we could refill.
Map to October is considered the best season to go – it’s dryer, temperatures are more comfortable and rainfall almost non-existent. There are also far more visitors making use of the favourable conditions, prices soar and in places with little development you may struggle to find suitable accommodation.
We visited during March, the low season, purely by chance and didn’t feel it lacked anything because of it. We left with memories of solitary walks on empty dunes, sightings of 7 lions lazing in the shade and the unparalleled magnificence of the starry African sky etched forever in our minds.
The slight downside was the scorching temperatures at Sossusvlei (it reached over 40 degrees during our visit) and the density of bush in Etosha which theoretically makes game spotting much harder.
We also never needed to book anywhere in advance and still had our pick of the prime camping locations.
Although the value of the Namibian Dollar (tied to the South African Rand) has been dipping lower over recent years, for those really trying to shoestring their way around the country it may not be as easy as you expect.
Limited public transport runs between major towns and some villages, but, more than likely, these won’t get you anywhere near the natural wonders you have come to see. Intercape runs services along the main highway that bisects the country between South Africa and Angola with side routes to Walvis Bay and the Caprivi Strip. Check here for their routes.
The expanses of inhospitable desert also receive very little traffic making hitchhiking over long distances a little problematic, although we did see locals waving us down on some stretches of road.
We found hiring a car and camping to be the most practical and economical way to explore. These are some expenses to factor in when budgeting for your trip:
Fuel: Travelling great distances on gravel roads meant we chewed through fuel. On our 11-day trip we drove around 2,500 km and spent a little under US$300 on fuel.
Camping: The cost of camping ranged widely from about US$9 per site to US$20 per person. The upper end of the scale was for prime camping spots, including Sesriem Camp, the only campground allowing access to Sossusvlei for sunrise, and the camps inside Etosha. Both are definitely worth the extra expense, but ones we hadn’t factored into our original costs.
Park fees: Almost every place we visited in Namibia fell inside one reserve or another, each with a permit or entrance fee attached. Although very reasonably priced, this added an almost daily expense of $10 (for 2 people) to our budget.
Car insurance: With the majority of roads being gravel, minor incidents such as cracked windscreens or punctured tyres are not uncommon. If you are renting a car consider taking out the maximum insurance excess. For us this added around US$260 to our car rental fee, but as we were unlucky enough to receive a chipped window on our second day, we were glad we had it.
We stayed in some truly lovely camping sites in Namibia. Some shaded by a canopy of foliage or with a waterhole frequented by rhino and antelope just a short walk away.
For those not looking to build and rebuild their home every night, there are also some seriously beautiful lodges scattered around the country, often with prime positioning, private chalets and a sweeping outlook over the African plains.
Namibia is a one of the safest countries in Africa and during our time there we always felt perfectly safe, but, particularly in the bigger cities, it pays to take a few precautions.
Never leave valuables or bags visible on the seat of the car when you are not there and in some areas it is not recommended to wander alone at night, especially with a handbag.
The boy scouts were onto something when they came up with this one and in this infinite arid landscape, it’s really a practice we recommend employing.
On our first day we set out from Windhoek with two half-empty reusable water bottles rattling between the seats. Fast forward two hours and we were out of water without a hint of civilisation on the horizon, darkness fast approaching and about three hours of driving still ahead of us.
After this we took to carrying a 5L bottle of water in the back that we refilled every morning and used to replenish our smaller bottles throughout the day and in case of an emergency.
If you’re driving be sure you have a spare tyre and if you plan on going really off grid, two would be best. And this probably goes without saying, but it also helps if you actually know how to change it ;).
Particularly in the more arid southern regions, petrol stations are few and far between. Be sure to keep an eye on the fuel gauge and fill up wherever you can.
Well-stocked supermarkets are also not commonplace outside of major towns. Buy in bulk when you have the chance.
We only saw a fraction of what this beautiful country has to offer and with just 11 days there we would never presume to be experts in it all. The ochre-painted Himba tribes of the remote north, the pulsing veins of the Caprivi Strip to the west and the eerie ghost town of Kolmanskop and depths of the Fish River Canyon further south were all experiences we had to shelve for a later date.
Of the little part we did see though, we were constantly struck by its stark landscapes and boundless horizons. But for all its emptiness, Namibia remains a remarkably beautiful place to explore and even a short stay is sure to be an epic one.