Namibia - Trip of Lifetime

Of all the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia is arguably the most comprehensively tourist-friendly. Not only does it have exceptional wildlife – including a quarter of the world’s cheetahs and the last free-ranging population of black rhino – and a well-developed network of parks, reserves and safari lodges, but the landscapes of its coastline and deserts are some of the most photographed and gasped over in the world, meriting a visit in their own right. Traditional culture remains strong here despite successive colonial occupations by Germany and then South Africa (Namibia gained independence from the latter in 1990) and, for many visitors, meeting the Himba people in the far north-west, or the San (formerly Bushmen) of the Kalahari, is an enriching and humbling experience.

Add to all this efficient infrastructure and you have a recipe for invigorating, trouble-free travels. But where to start? Namibia is so vast and wild – bigger than France, with a population of just 2 million – it’s impossible to do it justice in a single trip. Topographically it varies from the dunescapes of the Namib Desert in the west to the mountainous wilderness of the north, from the forbidding flatlands of the Kalahari in the east to the stupendous Fish River Canyon in the deep south. Windhoek, the capital, is the starting and finishing point, a place to stock up and recharge (in decent guesthouses and boutique hotels); while Swakopmund, a Germanic resort on the coast, is a destination in its own right, with palm trees, gift shops, good restaurants and a laid-back feel – not to mention some of the best extreme-sports options, from skydiving to sandboarding, in southern Africa.

Most people opt to combine wildlife and landscape, and the best way to do it is by driving yourself. The road network is extensive and well maintained (and you drive on the left). Most roads are tarred and suitable for standard 2WD saloons, while, in the remoter areas, the roads are gravel, for which 4x4s are recommended (see under “Inside track” for further information on driving). Among the must-see destinations for any first-time visitor are Etosha National Park, one of the greatest places in Africa to view game, and accessible to private cars; Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on the coast; and the extraordinary, immense, apricot-coloured sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft Park. They combine well on a self-drive itinerary.
Other, more adventurous, destinations include, in the north-west, the bleakly beautiful, fog-bound Skeleton Coast, and the mountainous desertscapes of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld, home to the Himba people (you’ll need a 4x4 to explore these regions). Also, in the far south, the ghost town of Kolmanskop, abandoned when diamond-mining operations ceased half a century ago; the restricted area of the Sperrgebiet; and the geological freak show that is the Fish River Canyon. The five-day, 50-mile trek along the latter is one of Africa’s greatest hiking trails.

The dunescapes of the Namib Desert

A way to maximise your time in Namibia is to take a plane for some of the long distances. Plenty of visitors opt for a combination of flying and driving to pack in as much as possible (a bonus, incidentally, being the opportunity to see wildlife from the air); but this is, of course, more expensive than driving yourself.

The other option, if your pockets really are deep, is to fly everywhere. And the climax of any holiday by air has to be a Skeleton Coast Fly-In Safari, which promises to unlock the secrets of this haunting region on a series of flights and vehicle excursions, with accommodation in private tented camps.

For those with a passion for conservation or community work as well as game-viewing, there are camps that combine these elements. They include, in Damaraland, Desert Rhino Camp, the field HQ of the Save the Rhino Trust; Okonjima, halfway between Windhoek and Etosha, which is also home to the AfriCat Foundation; the Naankuse Lodge and Foundation near Windhoek; and Nhoma Safari Camp in the Kalahari, where guests immerse themselves in the San culture.

When to travel

Namibia is made up of desert and most areas receive little rain so it is suitable to visit at any time. April and May are warm and clear, June to August can be cold at night, and September and October are good for game-viewing as the vegetation has thinned out, and animals gather at water holes. The rainy season runs from November to March.

Safety

Observe the usual rules around wildlife and follow the instructions of your guides. Both towns and countryside are generally safe but exercise caution after dark.

What to take

Light linen and cotton clothing for daytime, including muted colours for game viewing; sun hat; sunglasses; sunblock; and a fleece for cold nights. A good pair of binoculars (8x42s) is vital for the bush.

Inside track

With all those empty roads and spectacular landscapes, driving is enjoyable in Namibia – but you can be lulled into a false sense of security if you’re not used to driving long distances, often on gravel. Make sure someone knows where you are expected to be each evening – tourists in remote areas have been known to break down and not be found for several days. Bear the following in mind at all times.

  • Observe speed limit: 120km/h on tarred roads, 80km/h on gravel.
  • Take special care on gravel, which can be deceptively tricky – for example, braking suddenly may turn your vehicle over, while you need to slow right down at dips and even on gentle curves.
  • 4WD is advisable for gravel roads.
  • Keep headlights on gravel roads.
  • When overtaking on gravel, keep to the right-hand (opposite) side of the road for a good half-mile so the plume of dust from your vehicle does not obscure the vision of the overtaken driver.
  • Take two spare tyres, plenty of water and snacks.
  • Build in plenty of time for your journey.
  • Do not drive at dawn, dusk or night-time when animals are most active and may be crossing roads.
  • Watch your fuel and fill up when you can.
  • Keep emergency numbers with you. Mobile phone coverage is generally good.