Andrew St Pierre White tells us why Namibia is such a brilliant place for a road trip, regardless of your past experience — and how you can make the most of it
t’s Etosha National Park in December. A summer storm darkens the sky and against the blinding-white pan, billowing nimbus clouds are building. Springbok and zebra walk away, with purpose, into the mopane scrub. And then the rains begin, with splashes the size of dinner plates. There is an intoxicating odour of grass, wild sage and shrubs. With each sense enlivened, you absorb every part of this unforgettable spectacle, one of the richest experiences in Africa. Rather than being rushed back to the lodge for tea, you stop and stare at the marvel before you — for it is experiences such as these that, in my opinion, make self-drive in a 4WD the best way to explore Namibia.
You are driving your rental Land Cruiser between Kamanjab and Opuwo in Damaraland. The gravel road is smooth and gently curves around the acacia woodlands. You have engaged 4WD because you know that it’s safer if you do. The sun is setting and you are close to your campsite. An alarmed kudu bull charges into the road in front of you. You react instinctively and swerve. The beast runs off and you catch your breath, although because you were doing 80km per hour and had the 4WD switched on, you were never in danger. Had you been doing 100km per hour without 4WD, the alternative scenario is upside down in the bushes, injured and far from help. This isn’t hype. This is the difference between having a risky road trip and one that is as harmless as any other adventure holiday. Namibia is a very safe country in which to travel except for excess speed on the gravel roads. So, don’t drive too fast.
The self-drive safari is often regarded as a cheap option and once had a stigma attached to it of old vehicles, tatty camping gear and high levels of disorganisation and risk — but this is no longer the case. Reviews on travel forums mean that sub-standard companies have gone bust and the best products receive five-star ratings for excellent vehicles, high-quality kit and good service delivery.
In my opinion, self-drive safaris are more exciting, more adventurous, less expensive and altogether more fun than traditional, fly-in lodge holidays. They have two distinct, unmatched advantages over air travel: you see the country, rather than just the airports and lodges. And freedom — your itinerary is up to you and not the travel agent. This is the right choice for those who dislike rigid schedules, game drives with strangers, queues and endless buffet dinners under thatch.
A road trip means that you swap the three-, four- and five-star lodges for the billion-star Milky Way.
It is true that self-drive is generally a cheaper way to explore Namibia. But there is more to it than that. There are many options where the routes are laid out for you, with itineraries combining lavish lodges with wild camping. These can be daring enough to boast about how brave you are; but, in truth, Africa often sounds a lot more adventurous than it is. The companies de-risk the journey, and everything imaginable is organised. Nothing is left to chance. They are specialist travel agents with self-drive as their preferred modus operandi. They have favourite routes but each and every trail is tailored specifically for each client. This is the most costly choice.
But prices vary significantly and there is a great range of vehicles, equipment and services on offer to suit every character and pocket. If you have little to spend, then pick up a 4WD with a tent and some gear at the airport, and go. Your bookings and planning are up to you. Note, it is a very good idea to get some training and understand the risks, and a major drawback is that you won’t have the local knowledge to make good decisions. But with plenty of research, reading and planning, such a trip can be every bit as rewarding as any other.
To some, a 4WD vehicle means it has ‘off-road’ capability. However, driving cross-country without due care is a serious offence in Namibia, as it is in many African states. And this is because it can be extremely harmful to the environment. What 4WD does mean, though, is that when the roads get bad to the point where a sedan would fall to pieces, the adventure just intensifies. Namibia has an excellent network of tarred roads, and when it comes to minor gravel roads, it’s probably the best cared-for system on the continent, so much so that for a regular holiday to the country’s top camps, regions and attractions, a 4WD isn’t essential. It’s only in the far north that a robust, self-reliant vehicle is the only viable option, giving you the freedom to cross rivers and thick sand tracks. The stronger tyres also allow you to carry more supplies than a sedan, so the advantages are clear.
If you are happy with a 2WD camper and sticking to tarmac roads, regular camper-vans are available. But when it comes to 4WD, things get more interesting. Because they are smaller, camping is a little bit more labour intensive, but not much. One option is a Land Cruiser Troop Carrier, a smallish van built for carrying people and offered by companies such as Bushlore. Pitching the tent takes 30 seconds and it comes with the full range of gear.
Light 4WD pick-ups such as Ford Rangers and Hiluxes are common, rented by companies such as Bushtrackers and many others. These are fine for all but the most ambitious expeditions. Then there is the heavier Land Cruiser, with even more space. These are included as part of an all-inclusive, self-drive package from companies such as Safari Drive.
Avis has a specialist section in southern Africa that rents out Land Cruisers and Ford Rangers, but offers little additional support other than the vehicle and gear. You are usually given a choice of roof or ground tent. Most rental companies still offer old-fashioned fold-out rooftop tents that can be a mission to erect and pack away. It’s my view that the companies providing these should move into the 21st century. There are better options, such as enclosed clam-shell tents, but only a few organisations offer them. Their advantages are many; the most important being that a single person can pack them up in under a minute, whereas the best fold-out roof tents require two people, one of whom must climb into the rack to close it up — and 10 minutes is average. And then there is the ground tent, which is the best option by far. They are much roomier, easier to manage and can be left erected when the vehicle is taken out for a game drive. The best outfits supply good mattresses and sleeping gear, cooking equipment and just about everything that’s needed. Only the very finest will also throw in a satellite phone and half a day’s training. UK-based Safari Drive is one of the oldest and best at offering high-end, self-drive experiences.
But the best vehicles are Toyotas, which may be a let-down for British explorers who feel that without a Land Rover, things are just not the same. And you would be right: gone are the ridiculous back seats, where one has to stoop to see out, the inability to hear anyone talk because of the noise; not to mention the dust being sucked in through the boot and an unreasonable chance of breaking down. The Defender is very good off-road, I will give it that, but because 99 per cent of any trip is on-road, this is not a priority. The trouble is, every Land Rover fleet in southern Africa is long in the tooth, and breakdowns are not uncommon. Most 4WD rental companies are now upgrading their fleets to the Land Cruiser 70 Series, so it won’t be too long before there are no Land Rovers available.
Here is a startling statistic — and there is no way to sugar-coat this. One in four rental cars, pick-up vans and 4WDs in Namibia overturn on a gravel road during their service life. In more than 90 per cent of these accidents, there is no other vehicle involved and speed is the cause. But there is a solution: don’t drive fast. Even though the roads are generally well maintained, they are treacherous. Do not exceed 80km per hour, and when the gravel turns into stones, reduce your speed to 60km per hour. Do this and you are no longer part of this statistic.
Advance bookings for campsites and accommodation are advisable when travelling between May and October, and essential in popular areas such as Sossusvlei and the Etosha Pan. Accommodation inside the Skeleton Coast National Park must be pre-booked at all times in order to enter the reserve. Conversely, in the north, I would not advise pre-booking as the thrill of Kaokoland is its remoteness and it is very difficult to estimate travelling times accurately. Be prepared to wild camp at times. Namibia’s people are among the friendliest in Africa — and I don’t mean the concierge. And yet companies that over-plan and buffer their guests against any challenges often deprive tourists of the most meaningful experiences. But the only real way to truly experience any country and its culture is not to have it neatly packaged. And that is the wonder of self-drive.
Andrew St Pierre White is one of Africa’s most prolific adventure travel filmmakers, and routinely travels to the world’s most remote places in 4WD vehicles to make his television shows. You can find out more and watch his travel videos by visiting 4xoverland.com.
• Getting there KLM, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Air Namibia, Qatar Airways, British Airways and TAAG Angola Airlines all fly to Windhoek in Namibia.
• Where to stay If you get fed up of the tent on your roof, other accommodation options include private campsites, national park-run hotels and some of the best lodges in Africa.
• When to go The most popular months to travel in Namibia are when it’s dry and cool between April and September. In October, it can get very hot until the rains fall, which usually happens some time in November. Hot but rain-cleansed, the months of December to March are the most spectacular visually, but not necessarily the most comfortable. Overall, the best single month is probably April. June and July can get very busy in all the national parks.
• Health Namibia is a low-risk country, especially in winter. However, always check with your local travel clinic which vaccinations are recommended and whether you need antimalarials.
• Maps and further reading For navigation, nothing beats Tracks4Africa, whose maps and GPS software are excellent but avoid its iPad app; I wouldn’t recommend it. InfoMap publishes very good planning maps of Namibia and Kaokoland. For plenty of practical information about travelling in this country, read The Bradt Guide to Namibia (4th edition) by Chris McIntyre.
On the road
Here’s our pick of four fantastic journeys from Windhoek
Route 1 If you are looking for remote beauty beyond compare, then drive north into Kaokoland. But be prepared to be self-sufficient — while there are a few lodges, you should expect to feel very isolated indeed.
Route 2 It you would like to experience wild camping, lodges and animal encounters, drive to Etosha National Park and on to the Caprivi Strip and Mamili National Park.
Route 3 If you wish to go fishing, hit the Skeleton Coast and drive from Walvis Bay to Terrace Bay. It’s excellent, but far-flung, wild and lonely. There are few lodges, and be warned, camping is always in an incessant Atlantic gale.
Route 4 If you’re after spectacular landscapes and photographic opportunities, head west to the Namib-Naukluft National Park and then south to NamibRand Nature Reserve. If these don’t satisfy you, few places on Earth will.
Travel Africa tip
Instead of buying artworks at the airport, take home an ostrich bead necklace, or similar, made in a tiny, remote village. You will be supporting local businesses and real people, rather than the retail arm of a big corporation. Some of your money will end up where it’s really needed and the reward is the genuine article, with your memories attached.