Namibia is an ideal road trip destination. The scenery is gorgeous and unique unto itself, wildlife sightings are spectacular and the roads are empty, allowing visitors to see the country on their own time.
The country is sparsely populated, with few paved roads and fewer airports, so a car is a must in order to explore the country. I’ve never road tripped abroad before, but my husband Carl has driven through Australia and Italy and felt confident in his ability to navigate remote areas and drive on the opposite side of the road.
We entered the country half-way through our around-the-world honeymoon. With a lot of planning to do I wanted to opt-out of the logistics of car rentals and road research, which led me to book a 10-day self drive tour through Namibia Tours & Safaris — All we had to do was say where we wanted to go, for how long, and give a rough price point and they handled the rest, including renting the car and booking some amazing tented camps (read, glamping).
Know Before You Begin:
- If you spot a petrol station, stop. Even if your tank is ½ full you’ll want to top it up. Stations are frequently 100’s of miles apart from one another and with few cars on the road and little to no reception, it’s better to be overprepared.
- Load up on water. I recommend stocking up on two gallons of water before the journey begins and refilling in accommodations throughout the journey. Staying hydrated on the road is hard enough and when the air is dry and the temperatures are this high you’ll go through water faster than you may expect.
- Bring a printed map and highlight your journey on it. Phones are only so reliable and many Namibian side roads aren’t on Google Maps. Having a map in hand will ease your mind when your phone battery runs low, and while a handheld map may not be perfect for side roads it can be a life saver. Our Tour group hooked the car up with a small GPS that had all of our lodging plugged into it which may seem old school, but proved a handy friend.
- Should the need arise to pass another car, pass on the right and remain on the right for a good 30 seconds or so before going back into the left lane. We were on the receiving end of a too-quick-back-to-the-left passing vehicle and the dust was blinding. Kicked up stones hit the windshield once or twice during our trip and it’s easy to imagine car damage caused by an unknowing or uncaring driver.
- Roads are labeled based on their drivability — B roads are paved. C roads are gravel (but still accessible to most vehicles). D roads are difficult. D roads are single lane, moderately maintained and rocky. Not recommended unless in a 4-by-4 vehicle and even then they’re no cakewalk. Expect to go no more than 15mph on them. This brings me to…
- Rent a 4×4. Our big ole’ 4×4 nearly got caught in the sand in Sossusvlei and flooded in the Skeleton Coast. If you’re going to road trip in Namibia, do it right. If you don’t intend to leave Windhoek a small vehicle may suffice, but let’s face it, you’re coming into the country for the parks and there’s no point in renting anything other than a 4×4.
- Avoid driving at night. Not only will it be damn hard to catch the small gravel road you need to turn onto to locate your lodging, but wildlife is everywhere. No one wants to hit a kudu at midnight on a deserted highway.
- Expect to tip car attendants in metropolitan areas. Parking lots and busy streets throughout Namibia and South Africa will frequently have an individual guarding cars and it’s best practice to leave a tip for their eyes. Ten Namibian dollars (roughly 70 US cents) is good for a short stop but if spaces are limited and you’ll be a while I’d say it’s courtesy to pay more. We watched one man assist drivers in parallel parking on a busy Cape Town street on Friday night and I was awed by the amount of grace and pride he put into his work – it was like watching a symphony conductor.
- Drive (roughly) the speed limit. It may be tempting when there are no cars on the road to really gun it on an eight-hour-plus driving day, but with most of the roads throughout Namibia being gravel, blowing a tire when blowing past the speed limit is not hard.
- Pay attention to hours of operation for parks. This one may seem obvious, but unlike US National Parks where visitors can come and go at odd hours, in Namibia, when a park says it closes at 8pm that’s not a request. That means the gate is locked at 8pm and if you’re left in the park, that’s where you’ll be sleeping. While given a run-through of best practices by our Tours & Safaris rep she informed us that they had a previous patron who found themselves overnighting in their car in Etosha National Park where elephants, lions and rhinos wander freely. Not an ideal camping spot.
Windhoek to Sossusvlei
Our first day on the road was jaw dropping. We witnessed storms rolling over the African plain, baboons crossing the road, ostrich farms and herds of gemsbok, springbok and wildebeest running along the roadside.
An hour outside of Windhoek, the capital city that over half of Namibia’s residents call home, it became apparent that our road trip would be an empty one. In over five hours of driving we passed maybe seven cars. This is not the country to rely on the kindness of strangers in when things go wrong on the road, because strangers you will not find.
We did have a moment of self doubt turning onto the tiniest of dirt pathways to find our lodge. We drove several miles wandering all the while if we were actually on a road, but luck prevailed and we arrived in time for sunset views over the desert.
Sossusvlei to Swakopmund
The drive from the red desert of Sossusvlei into the beach town of Swakopmund can be roughly four hours if you’re sticking to main roads, but Carl and I were intrigued by an area dubbed “Moon Landscape” outside of Swakopmund, known for its moonlike terrain, resulting in a six hour drive.
The morning began with a fill-up in Solitaire, the only gas station available before Swakopmund. Solitaire’s station also features a lodge, restaurant, bakery and car graveyard where rusted out vehicles are laid to rest in the sand.
Half way through the drive we pulled off at a picnic area and ate lunch next to a flock of wild ostriches. Carl spent the majority of the meal shooing a ground squirrel away from his cheese and crackers while I inspected the gemsbok skulls decorating the tree we ate under. I will admit it was a bit eerie munching away in a skull-ridden desolate area and my feelings of anxiety exacerbated when I went to pee behind a bush. Not knowing the temperament of ostriches I felt like the flock could turn at any minute.
We took a D road to the Moon Landscape and I spent the better part of an hour holding the glove compartment shut as we hurtled over an incredibly rocky road. If I let go for more than a minute a bump would jolt the compartment open with such force I was concerned we’d return the vehicle with a gaping hole in the passengers side.
The Moon Landscape is thus named because of its lunar-esque terrain. The area features some outstanding viewpoints, but the highlight for me was watching my husband, a plant lover, light up when he saw his first welwitschia. Welwitschias are odd looking things. They look like deflated yuccas, crumpled and shriveled in a heap on the ground. Each plant has but two leaves, which are split and frayed. The weird doesn’t end with their exterior. They’re dioecious, meaning each plant is distinctly male or female.
Leaving the landscape we took the short drive to the oceanside town of Swakopmund. We spent only one evening in Swakopmund, but it’s intriguing. It manages to be both an oceanside and desert town simultaneously, resulting in some palm trees, little grass, and a remarkably warm ocean that if given the opportunity, everyone should dip into.
Swakopmund to Damaraland (by way of the Skeleton Coast)
The road north from Swakopmund is a real treat for roadtrippers. A smooth and luxurious salt road, it beats the hell out of D roads (just don’t try driving a salt road in the rain as it’ll become slip-city). Forty five minutes onto the road we pass innumerable street-side tables hocking chunks of sea salt the size of my fist. Everything is sold on the honor-system and while I very badly want to make a purchase, I doubt that a salt rock is the best item to have sloshing around in my backpack for a month with my limited selection of clothing.
Our first stop for the day is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve — Home to over two hundred thousand seals and one of the largest seal reserves in the world. I’d definitely describe the reserve as worthy of a stop, but not necessarily “cute”. Visitors will need to contend with mounds of molted fur, breathe a pungent air thick with seal sweat (many say to hold a hanky over your nose and mouth when visiting, but I say to go bare faced for the full experience), witness bloody seal fights and listen to endless grunts and farts. I’d choose to visit 10/10 times, but for anyone believing a seal colony to be kawaii levels of cute, it ain’t.
An hour north of Cape Cross we hit the Ugab Gate for Skeleton Coast National Park. The gate, fittingly, is bedecked with skulls and crossbones, as if to say ye be warned all who enter. Immediately past the gate we need to contend with a large pool of standing water — A road tripping nemesis. The pool doesn’t look very deep, but when handing over the car keys one of the ground rules the tour company laid out was to prevent water from hitting above the running boards.
We cautiously venture forth and about a third of the way into the water the windshield is splattered in mud and Carl asks me to quickly open the door and check how we’re faring, nervous that we’ll need to abandon course and the Skeleton Coast drive entirely. Relief. The boards are untouched with water hitting a few inches beneath them. We drive on.
Inside the park there’s ocean and there’s sand and historically, all that was in between was death. The coastline has claimed over 500 ships due to the dense fog and heavy wind off its shores. A century ago, anyone unlucky enough to survive a wreck found themselves marooned in a harsh environment devoid of food and fresh water and would soon perish. Portuguese sailors described the Skeleton Coast as “The Gates of Hell” while Namibian bushmen referred to it as “The Land God Made in Anger”.
I go into more detail on driving the Skeleton Coast, but I will say that any road isolation you may have felt earlier on in the trip will be dwarfed here. In our two hours driving along the coast we passed a single vehicle. This isn’t out of the ordinary in Namibia, but at least flora and fauna were outside the windows previously. Here, even the ocean feels lonesome with nothing decorating its shores other than bones and rusted ship remains.
A short drive out of the park towards Damaraland and the earth transforms into a bouldery landscape of red rocks. The area is dotted with low trees, inhabited by kudu and elephants and glows a brilliant sienna in the setting sun.
Damaraland to Etosha National Park
Leaving Damaraland pit stops were made at the Damara Living Museum where Carl and I were given a walk through of the bush by a local family. As the mother spoke of plants used for food and medicine her daughter held my hand and the two of us made designs in the sand, each trying to outdo the other.
Next we stopped at Twyfelfontein to see one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs on the continent for a close-up tour of ancient engravings before driving onward to our destination for the evening, Etosha National Park — Home to four of the big five in Africa: lion, leopard, elephant and rhino (missing the cape buffalo).
Along the route we passed through the 6,000 person town Khorixas and stopped off in one of its two gas stations for fuel and an ATM stop. It was 1pm on a Friday and it was a PARTY. The parking lot must’ve had 200 people in it. Boom boxes blasted. Children played tag. Women wore jewelry. Some danced. Others drank beer. Carl went inside for cash and while I was in the car a group of children came to my window asking if I was from New York. When Carl returned he announced that he couldn’t withdraw money because the ATM was out of cash. He had asked the clerk if today was a holiday and was told it was payday. Hence the party atmosphere and cash being unavailable.
We ran into a thunderstorm just outside of Etosha and had to pull the car to the side of the road it was raining so hard. Our windshield wipers strained under the downpour and when I saw lightning hit the asphalt highway less than a mile ahead of us I burrowed my face into Carl’s shoulder until the rain eased to a steady but manageable thrum on the window.
When thinking of the African savannah I’d always imagined a dry sunbathed landscape, but I now realize the images in my head were dry season inspired. During Namibia’s wet season Etosha’s bush is transformed into a lush land filled with migrating birds where predators hide in the tall grass looking for prey.
Wildlife is easily spotted in Etosha National Park, but outside its borders I spotted wildebeest, giraffes, zebras and more kudo than I could count. We opted to stay in Onguma Tented Camp outside the park and were told over breakfast that a pride of lions slept beside the parking area the evening before. Both exhilarating and terrifying given that the car was my next stop after finishing the cup of coffee I held in my hands.
Etosha to Windhoek
Our last morning on the roads of Namibia would take us from Etosha to the Windhoek airport. The drive would not be a leisurely one filled with viewpoints and picnics, it would be point A to point B. The route wasn’t particularly stunning and we split it alongside tractor trailers. Regardless, I would (and do) miss driving in this now muddied car, underneath Namibia’s skys which oscillate from the most brilliant cobalt I’ve ever seen to the most splendid golden of sunsets.
The road never lacked for surprise — I spotted signage warning of potential gemsbok and giraffe crossings (and actually had to stop the car allowing a family of baboons to cross the road), watched a sheepherder navigate his flock safely alongside the highway, received directions from a blue-eyed, hotdog-eating man named Yurgen, herd thunder roil across the savannah and yes, listened to Toto’s Africa at least a dozen times on the car stereo. Because when in Namibia, really revel in it. Some drives really are once-in-a-lifetime.