A Look Into the Future
Our 4-part Namibia Dusty-Nation Blog continues with our top Namibia Travel Tips.
A conversation between me before our Namibia trip and me after:
Me, pre-Namibia trip: “Holy moly! Namibia is the hardest place I’ve ever had to plan a trip for. Kim and I still have so many unanswered questions and nagging doubts even though we’ve read tons of blog posts on Namibia road trip tips, all the travel guides, and talked to a bunch of friends who’ve been before.”
Me, post-Namibia trip: “Why don’t you ask me? Kim and I just finished our trip. We learned all the answers the hard way.”
Me, pre-Namibia: “Umm… sure, I guess. This feels weird. I’m not sure about how it’s going to work. But, hey, you seem like a cool and knowledgable guy.”
Kim: “Chris, who are you talking to? You have to get out more…”
Namibia Travel Tips Outline
Your Namibia travel tips are organized into three sections:
Is planning almost every night of your Namibia trip in advance a good move?
Normally we prefer to only book our first night or two in advance and plan the rest as we go (one of our Travel Tips Our Moms Never Told Us), but that strategy wouldn’t have worked so well in Namibia.
- A few campsites really are worth it and really do book out well in advance—the ones in Etosha, NamibRand, and Sossusvlei, for example.
- Planning on the road would be a huge pain in the butt. It’s challenging enough at home. On the road when you have limited cell reception it can become borderline impossible.
- There’s not a lot of room for improvising. Camps can be an hour drive away from each other, so it’s not like you can drop in on one after the other checking availability.
Bonus planning tips:
- Consider buying 100 minutes of call time to Namibia on Skype to use for pre-trip planning. It’s cheap, $7 US, and probably the fastest way to make reservations because most campsites’ and lodges’ online booking sites suck.
- Look beyond the camps all the bloggers and guidebooks write about like Madisa, Hoada, and Palmwag. To do so, use the iOverlander app and on Google Maps search terms like “camp” in specific areas to identify lesser-known camps. That’s how we found some nice ones like Camp Gecko and Camp Mara, for example.
Will you regret not staying at the places every other guide recommends like Swakopmund, Spitzkoppe, and the Sesriem Camp?
Definitely no regrets for staying outside the park in Sossusvlei.
Sossus Oasis Campsite, which is a few hundred meters outside the gates and the official campsite, worked out fine.
We were grateful to have followed some unconventional advice to avoid the mad early morning rush to get the “perfect sunrise light” and go in the afternoon instead.
We had all of Deadvlei to ourselves! It was worth braving the 40°C dry heat for.
The only downside was it was too hot to climb the dunes, which many of our friends had raved about.
Even more definitely no regrets for not staying in Swakopmund.
We could not understand why people say such nice things about “Swakop.”
Compared to most towns in South Africa, it’s a “hole,” as Kim’s client Ian likes to say. Even the name, Swakopmund, is unattractive.
Maybe it’s one of those “most beautiful girls in a small town” situations; people’s expectations are too low from having spent too much time in the desert.
Staying at Goanikontes Oasis, a camp under new ownership and only a 30-minute drive on well-maintained roads outside of town, was an excellent alternative. From there, we could check out the town, eat there (Tug lived up to the hype and Tiger Reef’s setting was even better), then get the heck out.
We regret not staying in Spitzkoppe.
Clambering around on the big boulders and grippy slopes around Spitzkoppe was easily the most fun physical activity of our whole trip. It would’ve been nice to have had more time there.
We didn’t stay because they said they were fully booked when we were planning, so we made alternate arrangement. When we showed up, though, they had tons of space.
Good thing we decided to stay inside Etosha, though.
Yes, Etosha’s campsites are way overpriced for what they are—dirty, crowded, and basic—but the water holes make it 100% worth it.
We over-use the word “awesome,” but observing elephants, rhinos, buck, and hyenas drink water there at sunset as we drank wine and sunrise as we drank coffee was truly awesome.
Do you need to spend any time in Windhoek?
Other than a couple of decent spots—local crafts and souvenirs from the Craft Centre, and the worthy-of-the-hype, over-the-top decor of Joe’s Beerhouse—Windhoek felt like a provincial version of Nairobi, which is not a compliment.
Which resources are the most helpful for planning?
We liked Rough Guides the best out of the three guidebooks we got—Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Bradt.
The iOverlander app we already told you about proved to be useful for reading reviews and identifying some stops to make on the road when we didn’t have cell reception.
For Etosha, it would have been really cool to have some podcasts or an audiobook that provided information and fun facts about the animals you were looking at. We looked, but couldn’t find any.[Readers: Anyone out there have any suggestions? Let us know in the comments.]
This isn’t a planning resource, but we were super glad to have had some audiobooks to keep us from losing our minds during the MANY monotonous hours on Namibia’s horrible roads. For fun stories about life as a safari guide, give Whatever You Do, Don’t Run a listen.
Did you need physical maps?
Yes and no.
For Etosha, we definitely could have used a detailed guide to the water holes, which to visit, and when.
Could you get by without ever camping or cooking?
More easily than we thought. There were lodges all over and they all offer food.
But even if you could afford to not camp, you’d miss out by doing so.
Probably our favorite night of our entire Namibia trip was at NamibRand Family Hideout, where we “had to” camp but thereby had unforgettable dune-top sunrise and sunset views to ourselves.
Camping in Namibia was more comfortable than we thought, anyway. Sure, you sleep in a tent, but many of the camps had clean, private bathrooms with hot showers, power, communal pools, and plenty of space.
As for food, many campsites offered good-value dinners, so we could have gotten away with camping but not cooking had we wanted to. We made the right choice to eat with our hosts at camps like Goanikontes Oasis, Camp Gecko (great chat and great views!), and Kamanjab Rest Camp (Elodie is a mean cook!).
But we also made the right choice to cook (or braai, as they say in Namibia) a couple of meals on our own. It was fun, surprisingly tasty (thanks to Kim), and… there’s not much else to do anyway.
What did you wish you’d packed?
- Firelighter. The bags of wood we bought didn’t come with kindling, so, as we learned the hard way in NamibRand, you’ll have a hopeless time trying to start a fire without it. Get this Omuriro stuff as soon as you arrive in Namibia.
- Braai utensils. The campsites don’t provide them and if you don’t want to use your hands to flip your meat, bring your own. Last minute we packed a wooden spatula which came in handy.
- Chairs and a table, maybe? Some camps didn’t provide these, but they wouldn’t have fit in the VW Polo we rented anyway.
Other than that, if anything we overpacked because you spent the majority of our time sitting in your car looking at stuff, which we could do naked. We decided to wear clothes anyway, which we could easily wash by hand and dry in a matter of minutes in the desert.
Props to us for packing these things, by the way:
- Puffy jackets. We used them in Swakopmund all day and most evenings once it started to get chilly in the desert.
- The little battery-powered lamp we bought at a supermarket was handy for cooking and eating in the evenings and mornings.
- Tin foil. We went through a whole roll of it for cooking veggies over the fire.
- Wine from South Africa. The selection in Namibia is limited and expensive.
How expensive was it?
Not too bad, fortunately.
The remote restaurants, gas stations, and provision shops could have bent us over and taken full advantage of our lack of alternatives. But they don’t!
Gas was about 13 NAD a liter ($0.90 US), multi-course meals around 200-300 NAD ($14-20 US), and supplies were reasonably priced.
And compared to South Africa, and definitely Kenya, the national park entry fees were very reasonable—80 NAD per person and 10 NAD for the car.
Even the campsites, which we thought seemed overpriced, turned out to be decent value because, as I said already, they were nicer and better equipped than the ones we’re used to back home in Canada.
How are the roads really?
The dirt roads are bad. Shamefully bad.
I wish I knew where the incompetent and corrupt people who are in charge of Namibia’s dirt roads lived so I could give them a piece of their own medicine by slashing their tires.
The endless corrugated roads are a desert version of Chinese water torture. We could tolerate them at first, but they slowly ate away at our psyche until we blew a gasket and lost our minds (….if we don’t blow a tire first).
In some places, like around Kamanjab and in the far south, the dirt roads aren’t so bad, but that’s not because of sound management but because nobody uses them.
As a rule of thumb, the closer to top attractions you get, the more disastrous you can expect the roads to be.
On the other hand, the paved roads, which are normally marked with numbers starting with B on the map, were in stellar condition. Whoever manages them can keep their job.
Did you regret renting a Volkswagen Polo instead of a big 4×4 like everyone else?
It would’ve been way out of our budget to rent a big truck for our one-way trip from Cape Town to Windhoek and we and our poor Polo survived the horrible roads, but the extra expense would have been worth it. The roads would still have been miserable, but at least we could have got through them twice as fast.
The shame is that it should be easy to travel Namibia in a sedan. And, according to locals we talked to, it used to be. Not too long ago, the roads were graded on a regular basis.
I sense a conspiracy. The 4×4 rental companies must be bribing the government to let the roads go to shit so tourists are forced to rent from them.
Watch How Namibia Really Is
What’s the likelihood of getting a flat tire?
For us, 300% because we had three of them.
And if anything we were lucky to not have had a big blowout.
But don’t be scared by the fact you’ve never changed a tire before. It’s easy. So easy that we should have done it ourselves the first time instead of getting help from those dumb-dumbs who broke our jack by using it upside down. And as long as it’s not a huge hole you can get it patched for only 100 NAD ($7 US).
- Buy a tire patch kit for about 80 NAD. Like this. They work really well and save you from having to completely reroute if you get a puncture in the middle of nowhere or in Etosha.
- Know your rental car company’s policy on punctured tires. Even though our tires were professionally patched and worked as good as new for the 2,000 km afterward, Thrifty, the company we rented from, told us their policy was that we had to buy brand new tires and penalized us accordingly.
- Know the optimal tire pressure for gravel and paved (or “tarred” as they say in Namibia) roads. Look it up or ask your rental agency. Every gas station has a pump to adjust accordingly.
How can you estimate driving times?
I wish I had a simple answer for you, but I don’t.
As you can see on Namibia maps, the roads have a letter system. B roads and the odd C road are paved. On these, the speed limit is generally 120 km/h and you can go even faster than that (though we wouldn’t recommend it between Etosha and Windhoek because of speed traps).
For the C and D dirt roads, it depends on the car you’re driving and how you drive it. If you’re willing to increase the risk of destroying a tire and flipping your car, you can speed at 80 km/h over even the most corrugated roads. We did not and could not do so in our Polo. Our speed in Km/h was often lower than the outside temperature in Celsius.
On the Road
How do you pronounce the names of some of these places in Namibia?
Here’s my best go at phonetically spelling a few of Namibia’s main places:
- Swakopmund: swok-OP-mooned, or swok-OP for short.
- Sossusvlei: SAUCE-suss-flay
- Deadvlei: DEAD-flay
- Windhoek: VIND-hook
- Okaukuejo: o-ka-KOY-yo
These pronunciations aren’t 100% correct, but they’re infinitely better than our feeble initial attempts. Everyone will understand you.
How much cash should you withdraw?
For us, 3,000 NAD was plenty. Our only mandatorily cash expenses were most national park fees and meals at remote campsites.
We mostly booked and paid for accommodation in advance with our credit card and we could always pay for gas and groceries with a card too.
Was it really as safe as people say?
Or actually, come to think of it, it would be easy to hide a body in the desert….
(Sorry, that’s one of our audiobooks, Something in the Water, talking.)
The only times we felt a bit sketched-out were when leaving our car, which was visibly packed with gear, on public roads around Swakopmund and Windhoek. In those cities, it’s better to park where there are car guards during the day and in secure lots at night.
As for wildlife, there’s nothing to worry about. We saw one friendly tarantula in a campsite bathroom, didn’t see any snakes or scorpions, and big game will leave you alone if you leave them alone.
How accessible are groceries around Namibia?
More than we thought.
We passed a town at least every 150 kilometers or so and they all sold a passable selection of fresh produce, frozen meat, drinks, and canned goods.
Can you drink the tap water?
Though in some places like Kamanjab and Outjo it was unpalatably salty. In those towns, we drank from the 10 liters of water bottles we refilled every time we got to a source of normal-tasting tap water.
Are you going to be disgustingly sandy and sweaty all the time if you camp?
Not to worry. The campsites all have warm showers. A few have pools too.
We also discovered we could take advantage of the pools and showers at the camps in Etosha and Spitzkoppe during the day, even if we weren’t staying at them overnight.
How is cell reception around Namibia?
Worse than we thought it’d be.
The amount of data we bought for your 11 days in Namibia (1.5Gb for Kim, 800 Mb for Chris) turned out to be overkill.
Between the Orange River on Namibia’s southern border and Sossusvlei, we barely even had E.
From Swakopmund up to Etosha and back down to Windhoek, 3G popped up a lot more, but still not enough to be able to rely on it.
Even so, it was a good thing we bought some data. A few of the places we stayed at offered WiFi but it was slow and expensive (usually around 40 NAD per 300 Mb).
Oh, and as we alluded to earlier, remember to download Google Maps to your phone before you set off into the desert.
What other Namibia travel tips should I ask about?
Nothing. I’m tired of giving you Namibia travel tips.
But ask away in the comments and I’ll answer when I’ve recovered.