Two people, two weeks, 3,000km, eight lodges and one incredible country: Namibia. This African destination has flown under the radar for many in comparison to its neighbours South Africa and Botswana. The last year however has seen it plant itself firmly on the map as a must-visit, and in a heart-beat it was easy to see why.
Namibia is an ancient landscape, with something new to see around seemingly every bend. With deserts stretching for miles in shades of dusky browns, ashy greys and fiery orange, it was alien and captivating all at once. Our route took us clockwise around the country, from the dunes of the Namib Desert, along the fog-bound coast, through the bouldered landscape of Damaraland, to the wildlife haven that is Etosha National Park and finally to see conservation in action at Okonjima. Along the way we encountered wonderful people, incredible wildlife and created more magnificent memories than we could hope for. Thanks to its link with the South African Rand, it also remains an affordable place to safari in comparison to much of Africa.
The second least densely populated country in the world, Namibia is home to only just more than 2 million people, meaning at times it felt like you had the world all to yourself. We would travel for miles before the dust cloud of another car on the gravel roads would appear on the far horizon. Our ‘Beast’ for the two weeks was a Ford Ranger, which blended in beautifully in a country where white Rangers and Toyota Hilux seem to be the models of choice. Driving was a breeze with a certain level of care and the ability to change a tyre or two! Roads are clearly sign-posted and while the distances seem daunting on paper, in reality the time whizzed by as you became absorbed in the ever changing landscape surrounding you.
Here is a quick guide to each of our destinations:
Windhoek: the capital of Namibia is welcoming and easy to navigate. Stop by Joe’s Beerhouse for a game steak and cold beer to celebrate the start or finale of your trip.
Solitaire: not a destination as such, however certainly one not to miss. This pit-stop in the middle of the desert is a convenient place to refuel both the car and yourself. Don’t miss the famed apple pie at Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery, so good that we visited twice. It’s also the perfect place to send a post-card home (note – it took a month for our postcards to make it back).
Sossusvlei: if you’ve watched Planet Earth II, then the dramatic red dunes of Sossusvlei will be instantly familiar. Oryx make their way across the endless sands, while the famed Deadvlei trees emerge from the scorched earth. Head out early to climb Big Daddy in the world’s oldest desert before the heat sets in (check what time the gates open and plan ahead). If you have available funds, then our hot air balloon ride with Namib Sky was a highlight of our trip, soaring over the dramatic landscapes below as the sun rose. Stay: Desert Homestead Lodge, for a private bungalow with fantastic desert views.
Swakopmund: this coastal town sits under a blanket of morning fog for six months of the year, yet is incredibly popular with Namibians and visitors alike. With buildings and signs appearing to be as if a German settlement was lifted and dropped thousands of miles away – a clue to the country’s heritage as a former German colony – the 20˚c temperature drop from inland is refreshing. Try Turnstone Tours for an amazing off-road trip through the surrounding dunes that meet the coast, before a sunset dinner overlooking the sea at The Tug.
Damaraland: driving through this rocky landscape offers incredible views, gorgeous sunsets and great desert wildlife. It is home to one of only two desert-adapted elephant populations in the world, the unique geographical formations of the Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes. Visit the ancient rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, created by the native Bushmen up to 6,000 years ago. Stay: Mowani Mountain Camp, built in between the rocky outcrops, is one of the most fantastic places we’ve stayed.
Etosha National Park: Namibia’s leading national park and home to the huge Etosha salt pan, this is a wildlife paradise – if a dry one. Accessible for self-drives and guided tours from lodges, the dry landscape means that wildlife is easier to spot as it tends to congregate around the watering holes. We witnessed lions, leopard, cheetah, black and white rhino, elephants, black backed jackal, cape fox, black-faced impala and oryx amongst others. Driving the width of the park offers the best sightings: we travelled from West (Galton Gate recently opened to the public) to East, staying at Dolomite Camp, Ongava Private Game Reserve and The Mushara Outpost, our favourite of the three.
Okonjima: home to the renowned Africat Foundation, make Okonjima at least a two-night stop in any itinerary to understand the fantastic hands-on conservation work undertaken. This reserve is home to an array of rehabilitated big cats, allowing great encounters including tracking cheetah on foot. The knowledgeable team of staff and rangers make for a brilliant visit, while the Bush Camp is a luxurious lodge where guinea fowl and warthog wander past your windows.
Our two-week self-drive safari was organised by Natural World Safaris, whose expertise, advice and organisation I couldn’t recommend enough. Namibia itself felt like the perfect starting point to Africa, wrapping up all of the parts I have grown to love into one neat package. From the people to the wildlife, landscapes to the culture, it was accessible, welcoming and jaw-dropping all at once. If you aren’t considering Namibia yet, then you should be.
Top Tips for Namibia:
- Take South African Rand: it’s accepted just as commonly as the Namibian dollar, and you can arrange it in advance of your arrival. Credit cards were also accepted at each of the lodges we stayed.
- Know how to change a tyre: all along the road you will see the remnants of old tyres. The gravel roads can catch you out as we discovered, so make sure you are happy putting on your spare.
- Pick up a Namibian SIM card: during the two weeks the only place I could pick up a signal was Windhoek. Having an extra phone with a local SIM meant we could call our hotels and emergency contacts if needed.
- Bring binoculars: the vast landscapes, particularly in Etosha National Park, make these exceptionally useful when wildlife spotting.