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 of 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 meaning 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 meaning that 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.
Self-Drive Namibia: Where to go
A simple ‘self-drive Namibia’ google search will immediately give you an abundance of ideas of possible routes. We opted for a fairly classic route taking in Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Damaraland, Etosha National Park and Okinjima in that order (you can see more detailed reviews of each place in my other Namibia posts). Here’s why:
- The Classic self-drive route is designed to make sure that you get a well-rounded tour of the country that takes in most of the main sights or 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 (no buffalo I’m afraid); 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 self-drive routes, whilst stopping in more places, mean that you spend a lot of time on the road. For some people that really enjoy driving, that might be a holiday in itself. However, we wanted to make sure that we had at least 2 nights in each place so that we could explore and see everything each place had to offer without constantly having to focus on getting back in the car.
- There are some areas, like the Skeleton Coast, that would be amazing to visit but are incredibly remote for a self-drive novice. We found it really tempting to stretch our route out to visit such, including Fish River Canyon, but in two weeks this would have been too much for us. If you’re planning a longer trip, then you definitely might want 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!
- We timed our trip to best suit the places we were visiting. For us that meant visiting during the dry season between June and August, which also happens to be (unfortunately) more expensive. Visiting in the dry season meant that we barely saw a cloud in two weeks and it maximized our chances of big game viewing in Etosha. It also meant that the roads were dry. Many of the roads on our route were 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 of your windscreen!
- Top up the tank every chance you get: petrol 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 petrol stations don’t accept credit cards and don’t have ATMs (Cash machines), so make sure that you have enough cash to get by. The last thing you want is to be stuck at a petrol station with no petrol 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 one on 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 of 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 self-drive company to discuss your route and the time of year you’re going in order 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 and as I wrote about in my Sossusvlei guide, 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 self-drive that I’ve ever visited.