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First things first, this is not a trip where you can just wing it and decide where to go and where to stay on the fly. In Namibia, the demand greatly outweighs the offer in terms of accommodation options. Many guide books recommend that you start booking your trip up to a year in advance. We were fortunate in that we were able to book everything approximately 5 months in advance (i.e. we were late in the game). We planned and booked everything ourselves with the help of the Namibia TripAdvisor forum, and the excellent Bradt and Rough Guides Namibia travel guides. Although initially we weren’t able to book anything within the parks for Sesriem and Etosha, we regularly checked the NWR website until openings became available. following cancellations or date releases by booking agencies (patience is a virtue!). In the end, we were able to secure one of two desired nights in Sesriem (camping) and three of four desired nights in a Bush chalet at Okaukuejo.
We chose to travel in late September and early October (early spring Namibia). This is towards the end of the dry season, which is prime for wildlife viewing, as there is less vegetation and the animals gather more frequently at the waterholes. Moreover, the weather is generally pleasant to hot, as the you are travelling before the hot and humid summer months.
Given the size of the country and the large distance between many sites of interest, it is difficult to plan an itinerary where you can stay for an extended period of time in any one place. Consequently, we were often limited to two-night stays in most places, though we chose to add a few extra nights in Swakopmund (activities) and Etosha (wildlife).
We rented a 2wd compact SUV (Toyota Rav4) from Hertz. In general, we were pretty happy with the choice. Although many suggest a 4×4 for Namibia, but it really wasn’t necessary for our trip given the season and the specific locations we visited. However, if you travel during the wetter summer months, a 4×4 may be preferred when having to fjord rivers, particularly in the north of the country.
Please allow for a good 2 hrs after landing in your itinerary planning. It took us nearly an hour to clear customs, and then another to pick up our luggage and then the vehicle. Even though the Hertz office is located in the airport, the queue moved very slowly, with staff spending up to 20-30 min. per customer, even prior to seeing the vehicle. Approximately 3 hrs had passed by the time we reached Windhoek in our rental car.
Those staying inside the National Park (Sesriem camp, Sossus Dune Lodge) can stay an extra 2 hrs in the park (one hour prior to the opening of the park to those on the outside and one hour after). This is why we chose to stay in the Sesriem campground despite not carrying any camping equipment. Although sleeping in the car wasn’t optimal, it allowed to us to be the first car to reach the 2×4 parking in Deadvlei.
Note that the last 5 km to Deadvlei/Sossusvlei are in deep sand. So if you are not driving a 4×4 with experience driving in sand you can use the NWR shuttle service between the 2×4 and 4×4 parking lots.
Points on a map
Don’t always expect a city or a town when you see a location on a map (or Google maps), especially in Southern Namibia. For instance, Sesriem, Solitaire and Helmeringhausen all appear to be towns when looking at a map, but they generally consist of a service station with a small grocery store, and a few scattered campsites/lodges. Do not look for houses and other indications of a village or a human settlement – there is none. Sesriem is by far the busiest of the three with multiple accommodations nearby, but the other two examples are not much more than a rest stop.
Driving is on the left! If you are not used to this, it can be tricky at first, particularly when turning left. The tar roads were in great condition, and the speed limit was 130 km/h in rural areas. The gravel roads varied greatly in their quality, as highlighted above in the itinerary section.
However, most gravel roads are very wide, meaning that there are several “lanes” to choose from. This becomes very relevant when some “lanes” are much bumpier than others, and, in fact, it was often the case (at least during our visit) that the “right lane” offered a smoother ride. Given the scarcity of traffic in some rural areas (one car or less every 20 min.), we often found ourselves on the right side of the gravel roads, and many others were doing the same. However, caution is of course still advised if you choose to adopt this strategy.
Nighttime driving: Driving at night, except within city limits, is strongly discouraged. First, roads in rural areas are not light and generally do not have guard railings. Second, animals often rest near or on roads because they best preserve heat in desert areas. Third, many car rental companies will void the insurance when driving at night.
Know how to change a tyre! Punctures are a common occurrence on the gravel roads. We had a rear tyre blow out on the second day of the trip. Fortunately, that was the only bit of bad luck we experienced. Make sure you have a spare and know how to change it before leaving the rental car agency.
The general rule of thumb is to fill up whenever you can. You’ll often drive 150+ km without crossing a petrol station. There was even a petrol-less stretch of 230 km between Solitaire and Walvis Bay (near Swakopmund).
We travelled early in the Namibian spring (near end of the dry season). The majority of days were bright and sunny, with one or two overcast days. Temperature in the Fish River Canyon and the Namib desert varied between 10 C (early morning) and 32 C (midday). In Etosha NP, the temperature varied between 15 C and 38 C. Note that this is a very dry heat, so you can hide from it in the shade. Finally, on the coast (Swakopmund and Luderitz), temperatures were much milder, ranging between 8 C and 20 C.
We found rental car costs and food to be relatively inexpensive. Petrol costs were on par with what we pay in Canada. Lodging prices were all over the place, ranging from lovely inexpensive guest farms ($40US/night) to highly priced lodges within ($220US/night) Etosha National Park.
Areas not covered in this road trip
Namibia is huge, so you have to choose your itinerary wisely. It’s impossible to cover the entire country with just 2 weeks. Several key regions were eventually omitted from our itinerary during our stay given the vastness of the country. With an extra day or two, we would have loved to visit some areas of Damaraland while travelling between Swakopmund and Etosha. We another day or two, we also would have loved to visit the Kalahari Desert. Although we drove past it on the way south towards the Fish River Canyon, there is much to explore in this area of the country. We initially had some interest in the Skeleton Coast as well, but the majority of the renowned shipwrecks have disintegrated to the point where they are no longer worth the stop. Finally, there is also the Caprivi strip, the lushest area of the country in terms of green vegetation, the gateway to the Victoria Falls. However, visiting this area would have required a minimum of an extra week, if not more, and therefore was never really considered.
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