Namibia’s one of those countries that, despite bordering a relatively popular destination like South Africa, doesn’t get much love from tourists. In fact, when I mentioned we were heading there for a couple of weeks, most of my friends didn’t really know where it was, and certainly couldn’t name any of its attractions.
The country is one of the most sparsely inhabited on earth, hot and arid for most of the year. It’s an ancient land, home to the world’s oldest desert, and rock paintings and carvings dating back many thousands of years. Enormous dunes crowd all the way to the ocean, while the sand slowly reclaims an abandoned mining town, reminding us just how precarious human civilization can be.
It’s not just about desolate landscapes, however. Vast herds of wildlife dot Etosha’s large salt pan, there’s incredible seafood to be found along the coast, and thrill-seekers can go quad biking, sandboarding, ballooning and more.
We had a little under two weeks in the country, and crammed in as much as we possibly could. Thousands of miles later, we returned to the airport, dusty, tired and exhilarated. It had easily been one of the best trips we’d ever taken, blowing away every single expectation we’d had.
I’ve tried to cover everything I can think of to help you plan your own trip to Namibia, so this post is long and detailed, and I’ve split it into several sections. Still, if there’s anything else you’d like to know, just leave it in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.
With little useful online information about travelling in Namibia, we did something we’ve hardly ever done in recent years: bought a guidebook. Since Lonely Planet doesn’t have a dedicated guide (and its combination Botswana/Namibia book is getting outdated), we turned instead to the highly-rated Bradt guide.
That turned out to be a good decision. As well as detailed information about everywhere in the country we considered going, there were very useful planning and driving sections, helpful maps (especially for Etosha), and around 20 pages dedicated to wildlife identification, which were well-thumbed by the end of the trip.
As mentioned below, finding affordable accommodation was a challenge in Namibia, particularly given long driving distances and remote locations. As well as directly contacting a few of the places listed in the guide, we used a combination of HotelsCombined, Airbnb, and Google Maps to work out what was available, how much it cost, and where it made sense to stop. It took a while.
We booked all our accommodation in advance – on a tight schedule, with so few options available, there seemed little point leaving things to chance even in low season. In high season, that’d be a brave choice if you didn’t also have camping gear with you.
Finally, I picked up travel insurance from World Nomads, the same company I’ve been using for many years. I opted for the Explorer plan, which had greater medical and rental car coverage, among other things. Thankfully, I didn’t need to use it.
Unlike many countries in this part of the world, dealing with visas isn’t difficult. If you hold a passport from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, neighbouring African countries, or most of the EU, you don’t need to get a visa in advance for either personal or business travel of up to three months.
For tourists from the above countries, you’ll be issued with a visa when you enter the country, free of charge. While it can be for up to three months, the actual expiry depends on when you plan to leave Namibia. I didn’t need to show proof of an onward flight, but was asked how long I’d be in the country for, and the date written on my visa was only a few days longer (ie, about three weeks total). That’s something to bear in mind if you don’t know when you’ll leave, or think you might want to extend your stay.
If you’re not from one of the roughly 40 visa-exempt countries, you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance from an embassy or consulate, and pay the appropriate fee.
Namibia has two international airports, although with Walvis Bay only servicing a couple of South African cities, it’s likely you’ll land at Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako airport if you’re flying into the country.
Booking through Momondo, we picked up some very cheap flights from Lisbon (around $325 return), with TAAG, Angola’s national airline. Both were overnight, with a few hours transiting in Luanda, a small, cramped airport that’s pretty hard to get excited about.
The planes themselves, though, were fine… even if the best option on the in-flight entertainment was “There’s Something About Mary.”
You can also enter Namibia overland via South Africa, Botswana, Angola, or Zambia, or come in by sea, if you’re so inclined.
Namibia operates on the Namibian dollar, a colourful currency that’s pegged to the South African rand. You can use coins and notes from either country interchangeably, and I often got change in a mixture of both.
ATMs were common in towns of any size, although not all had the same withdrawal limits. I didn’t have any trouble with my debit cards – they worked in every ATM I tried. Security guards were often stationed outside the machines, especially those on the street in towns and cities.
Paying by debit or credit card was relatively common for most accommodation, tourist restaurants, and tours, but wasn’t available everywhere. Keep a good amount of cash on you for smaller restaurants and hotels, gas stations, snacks, etc, and you’ll be fine.
Arriving at Windhoek airport was, to be honest, more enjoyable than expected. The immigration process only took a few minutes, requiring filling in a landing card, answering a couple of questions, and receiving a stamp in my passport.
It’s a small, clean airport, with several money exchange kiosks, mobile phone stores, rental car companies and the like, and a surprisingly good cafe/restaurant in the arrivals area. Despite having staff sitting behind the desks, all the money exchange places were closed until 2pm. Not helpful, since we landed at 1:15pm.
Instead, I took money out of the ATM, bought a bottle of water from the cafe to get some smaller notes, and went to buy a Namibian SIM card. Once that was done, it was a matter of getting the keys to the rental car, signing a few documents and checking for damage, then heading for the exit.
The entire process took a little under an hour, helped by travelling with just carry-on luggage to avoid the lines at the baggage belt. Yay.
English is the official language of Namibia, so you’ll see it everywhere from road signs to menus, advertising, and more. Almost everyone you meet will be able to speak at least some English, as it’s taught from primary school level.
Other languages are very common – in fact, English is the first language of less than one percent of the population. Afrikaans and German are widely spoken by the white population of Namibia, along with Portuguese, mainly by the Angolan community. You’ll hear people speaking Oshiwambo, Khoekhoe, Kwangali and many other regional languages all over the country.
I had no problems talking to anybody I met, from hotel and restaurant staff to gas station attendants, ATM security guards, the guy running a car wash in Luderitz, or the ‘helpers’ that showed up in five seconds when I got out to check my tires in a random town.
Over the course of 12 days, we covered nearly 4000 kilometres in a sweeping loop around much of the country, and it’s fair to say being behind the wheel in Namibia was unlike any other driving I’ve done.
As long as your license from home is written in English, and covers you for the type of vehicle you’re driving, you can legally drive in Namibia as a tourist. If it’s not in English, you’ll also need an international driving permit with the English translation.
Online information about this was sparse when I researched it, but I got to test out the theory at a police checkpoint within a few minutes of leaving the airport. My license was handed back to me without comment.
Deciding on a rental vehicle was harder than usual. If you read through the endless TripAdvisor threads on the subject, there’s a fairly even split between people who insist you need a four wheel drive vehicle to go pretty much anywhere, at any time of year, and those who insist you can drive a two wheel drive sedan around the entire country, in all but the wettest conditions.
We were visiting at the end of rainy season, and were torn about what to do. In the end, the choice came down to cost as much as anything else. 4WDs cost at least twice as much to rent per day, and are less fuel-efficient as well.
The weather reports suggested there hadn’t been much rain recently, and with long-range forecasts also looking dry, we took the risk and went for a basic 2WD Toyota Corolla. We rented through Avis, but did it via Rentalcars.com, a useful comparison site.
The roads in Namibia are variable, to say the least. If you somehow managed to choose a route that never left the ‘B’ roads, you’d wonder what all the fuss was about. These are the main highways, smooth and well-paved, with a 120km/h speed limit and barely a pothole to be found.
The chances of taking such a route, however? Not high. The B1 runs the length of the country from the South African to Angolan borders, the B8 and B2 do the same from Botswana to Swakopmund on the coast, and there are a few other stretches of beautiful tarmac between major centres.
After that, all bets are off. While some of the ‘C’ roads are paved, others aren’t – and if you’re relying on Google Maps for your navigation like we were, you’ll soon discover it doesn’t differentiate between the two.
Once you hit the ‘D’ roads, you can guarantee you’ll be on dirt, gravel, sand, or a combination of all three. I spent a lot of time on D roads. Roads with any other letters looked more like goat tracks, and we luckily never needed to take them.
Even the gravel roads, though, varied a lot. Some had been graded recently, so were relatively smooth and flat, and it was safe to do 80 or 90km/h on them. Others? Well, 50km/h was as good as it got, with huge, sudden dips, heavy ruts, and large rocks that rattled the underside of the car like a snare drum. Once you’re off the tarmac, don’t believe a word your GPS has to say about estimated driving times. It will take longer – sometimes, much longer – than you expect to get anywhere.
I grew up in New Zealand, so driving on gravel wasn’t anything unusual – but doing it for up to eight hours a day, many days in a row, definitely was. Exhausting doesn’t even cover it. I ended up anticipating tarmac like a heroin addict looks forward to their next fix. By the end, I was literally cheering every time we bumped off the dirt onto a paved road, and cursing whenever we left it.
You drive on the left in Namibia, but I spent as much time in the middle of the road, or weaving from side to side desperately searching for a smoother patch of dirt, as I did anywhere else. Fortunately, in such a huge, sparsely-populated country, anything except the highways had virtually no traffic. It wasn’t unusual to drive for an hour without seeing another vehicle, and the cloud of dust behind them gave me several minutes warning to get back on my side of the road.
So, in hindsight, was a 2WD car the right choice for Namibian roads? Based on my experience, I’d say yes – but one with higher ground clearance would have made for a more comfortable, less nerve-wracking ride on the endless gravel. Most rental companies offer something like a Toyota RAV 4 or Nissan X-Trail, which would have fitted the bill perfectly, albeit at a higher price.
Note you’ll want to have full insurance, rather than the basic collision damage waiver (CDW) offered by default. The CDW doesn’t cover you for single vehicle accidents, or damage to mirrors, undercarriage, windscreen, and the like. Given the state of the roads, those are by far the two most likely problems you’ll have.
I added the extra insurance (via Rentalcars.com) a few days after the original booking, after realising my travel insurance didn’t provide it like I’d hoped it might.
When it comes to accommodation in Namibia, you’ve basically got two choices: camping, or expensive. Some of the high-end 4WD safari-type rental vehicles are fitted out for camping, with a roof-mounted tent, cooking facilities etc, or you can bring your own camping gear with you. Either way, you’ll be able to find a place to pitch a tent, with at least basic facilities, almost anywhere.
Since we were renting a standard car, didn’t have any existing camping equipment, and were only in the country for a couple of weeks, we opted for hotels, lodges, and an Airbnb apartment instead. Had we been staying longer in Namibia, we’d have bought camping gear to save money.
You’ll find the less-expensive accommodation in the towns and cities, and typically pay more at remote lodges. The cheapest place we stayed was $60 USD, but that was a rarity – most others were around $100-$120 USD, with rooms at lodges and in Etosha being more like $150-$200/night. That was in the lowest of low season – prices only go up from there, which makes camping even more budget-friendly if you’re travelling at other times of year.
Long story short? Namibia isn’t a cheap destination, especially if you’re travelling solo. Hostels and guesthouses are rare, and often aren’t in the places you’ll most want to visit. On the upside, you’ll usually get a nice room for the money you’re paying – so accommodation is expensive, rather than bad value. That will at least be some slight comfort when you notice the large hole in your bank balance.
If you’re happy eating meat and fish, it’s not hard to eat well in Namibia. Vegetarians, though? You’ll be eating a lot of Greek salad.
We found the best meals to be on the coast. Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and Luderitz all had excellent seafood available, at several different restaurants. The calamari I ordered at Anchors, beside the pier on Walvis Bay, was easily… easily… the best I’ve ever had. I’m still dreaming about it now.
Inland, seafood gave way to game meat. Several of the lodges and camps had buffet dinners, which, while not my first choice of meal options, did mean we could try a wide range of unusual options. Kudu, oryx, impala, zebra, warthog (my personal favourite), and several other unusual options, cooked to order on the barbecue. Delicious.
While there were many dining choices in the larger centres, burgers, pasta and the like dominate in smaller towns and villages. When you’re staying somewhere remote, you’ll be at the mercy of your accommodation when it comes to price, quality and choices. While we never had a truly terrible meal, we kept a supply of snacks, fruit, etc in the car, so there was always an alternative. Nothing says classy like a packet of potato chips for lunch at a watering hole in Etosha, right?
Tap water is drinkable, albeit often with a strong chlorinated taste, throughout most of the country. I also kept several litres of bottled water in the car, in case of a breakdown or other problems.
If you’re a beer drinker, you’ll find Windhoek Lager absolutely everywhere, with Tafel Lager and Hansa Pilsner common as well. There’s a small craft beer scene, but you’ll probably have to seek it out rather than stumbling across it at a random bar or restaurant. Still, the regular stuff is tasty enough, especially ice-cold after a long day of driving.
Namibia also makes a little of its own wine, but you’re far more likely to be drinking South African whites and reds.
It’s a tired travel writing cliché to talk about how friendly and welcoming people are in a particular country, but I’m going to do it anyway.
Anyone I asked about attractions had helpful suggestions, not only for their particular town or area, but often for completely different parts of the country. Staff welcomed us into every bar, cafe, or restaurant we walked in to, and were happy to recommend whatever was good on the menu that day.
When I asked a mechanic if he’d have time to check out something that had come loose underneath the car, he stopped what he was doing, fixed the problem in a couple of minutes, and waved us on our way while refusing to take anything for his effort.
When I checked with a gas station attendant if there was somewhere in town we could get the car washed, he gave me directions several times until I could repeat them word for word, then offered to jump in the car and guide us the few hundred metres instead.
I genuinely didn’t have a single negative interaction during my entire time in Namibia. What more could I possibly ask for?
Likewise, we had no problems with personal safety or security. Windhoek has a bit of a reputation for petty crime (car break-ins, especially), but we spent so little time there, it was hard to tell.
A guy in a high-vis vest offered to watch the car while we picked up supplies at the supermarket – whether he made any difference to the outcome is debatable, but regardless, the car was how we left it, and my new friend was happy with a few coins for his efforts. You’ll find similarly-attired ‘security guards’ in most towns.
Elsewhere in the country, the greatest risks were from wild animals or bad roads, not humans. Driving too fast on gravel is the most common cause of accidents, as is falling asleep at the wheel. While locals seemed happy to drive at 100km/h regardless of the road conditions, they had the experience and vehicles to do it. Off the tarmac, I kept my speeds under 80km/h most of the time, and other than the occasional controlled slide, had no concerns.
There were signs everywhere throughout Etosha advising visitors not to lean from their windows, or get out of their vehicles. A few people still did, and I was tempted to thank them for deflecting the attention of the lions and leopards away from the rest of us. Darwinism at work.
You don’t need a yellow fever certificate to enter Namibia, but malaria is present in the north of the country (including Etosha), so you’ll want to take appropriate precautions. We took generic malarone tablets for two days before arriving in Etosha, and a week afterwards, and used a DEET-based bug spray to keep the few mosquitoes we saw at bay.
The sun is harsh, especially in the middle of the day, and you’ll often be spending several hours in it. Wear a sun hat, apply plenty of high-SPF sunscreen, carry and drink copious amounts of water, and try to stay in the shade during the hottest times if you can. Sunscreen and heatstroke ain’t fun.
If the roads were anything to go by, I didn’t really expect much from the rest of the country’s infrastructure. As it turned out, power and Internet were both fine, but neither were without issues.
There were no problems with the electricity supply anywhere else in the country, but Swakopmund seemed to be having problems, with three lengthy power cuts in as many days. While eating dinner by candlelight at a local steak restaurant lent a nice ambiance, sitting around in the dark at our accommodation wasn’t quite so exciting.
Wi-fi speeds were generally ok in most places – fast enough for emails and web browsing, at least. Several restaurants and bars offered it for free, as did some hotels and lodges. Others (especially in Etosha) charged for a certain number of megabytes, while the most remote ones often didn’t have it at all.
As mentioned, I bought a local SIM card when we arrived in Namibia. You can read all about it here, but in brief, while calls, texts and data were very cheap, it’s rare to find anything faster than a 2G/EDGE connection away from major towns and highways. Call and text coverage was more widespread, but even then, there were long stretches without any signal.
In short, while you’ll be able to get online most days during your time in Namibia, don’t expect it to be fast, or always available. If you’re using Google Maps for navigation, plan ahead, and make sure you save all of the areas you’re likely to go – you simply can’t rely on having a data connection when you need one.
Namibia is a very dry country – that’s the reason it has a population of just two million people, despite being a similar size to Pakistan (population: 200 million). Most of the year, it’s dry and hot, mixing things up for a few months with dry and very hot.
We visited in February, though, which is the end of the rainy season, That could have meant anything from no rain at all, to heavy afternoon downpours. Fortunately for us, it was much closer to ‘nothing’ than ‘monsoon’, although we did have a bit of rain the day we entered Etosha national park. That wasn’t good for seeing wildlife – more water means less need to gather around waterholes – but didn’t cause any other problems.
The rest of the time, it was relatively cool at night (especially in the desert), with temperatures rising quickly after 10am. Most days saw highs in the low to mid-30’s Celsius (85-95 F), with barely a cloud in the sky.
With less than two weeks in Namibia, I knew there’d be a lot of driving to try to fit in everything we wanted to see… and there was. It was an ambitious itinerary, especially once we committed to visiting Luderitz and Kolmanskop, but in hindsight, we’d still have made the same decision.
With another few days, we’d have included Fish River Canyon in the south of the country. With even more time, we’d have headed up to the Caprivi Strip, and spent extra days in a few of the other places we visited.
Still, we saw and did a hell of a lot in 12 days, on a roughly anti-clockwise loop around the country. Here’s how it panned out.
Knowing I can’t sleep on planes and would be exhausted after an overnight flight, plus having limited daylight left by the time we got out of the airport, we split the drive to Etosha in two. Stopping only for supplies at a supermarket in Windhoek, the highway portion of the drive to our accommodation was uneventful. The final 40km, though, was a little more exciting. Who knew a Toyota Corolla could handle sand so well?
It was all worth it. Our room at Ovita Wildlife Lodge was large and immaculate, and since it was low season, we had the lookout over the lake to ourselves. After what felt like an endless travel day, there could have been no better introduction to Namibia than a cold beer, a glorious sunset, and the grunting of nearby hippos. We paid 1150 NAD (around $85 USD), including tax and breakfast for two people. Dinner was extra, and delicious. Yay for warthog pasta!
We headed off the next morning to Etosha, for three nights in the national park. Due to accommodation availability, we spent two nights at Halali camp in the centre of the park, and one at Okaukejo, further west. Staying inside the park tends to be a bit more expensive, but we got lucky – the Halali rooms were roughly half price, since it was super low season.
Halali is smaller than the other camps, and it’s been longer since it was last refurbished. As a result, the room wasn’t particularly modern, but it was still clean and spacious, with a barbeque and spider-filled hot tub outside. Food was buffet-style for both breakfast and dinner, and was a bit of a disappointment for the money.
The highlight of the camp was the floodlit waterhole a few hundred metres from the accommodation. We spent time there each afternoon and night, and got to see a black rhino stomping around and terrorising the nearby bird life for 20 minutes one evening.
Okaukejo is a much bigger camp, which came with pros and cons. On the upside, the buffet dinner was much higher quality, as was the room. On the downside, we were paying twice as much, it was noisy around the waterhole, and there were many more tour groups, all of whom seemed to only be able to converse at a shout. We saw nothing at the camp waterhole that afternoon or night.
So, to the wildlife. We drove all over the park during our three days there, ranging as far as Fischer’s Pan in the east, and Adamax in the west, visiting almost every marked waterhole between the two… and didn’t see a single animal at any of them. This came as a bit of surprise, given the photos you often see of hundreds of animals gathering for a drink. Rainy season is definitely not the best time to visit Etosha!
Still, not seeing anything at waterholes didn’t mean we saw nothing at all. Somehow, we managed to see six rhinos (most of them the rare black rhino), and got up close and personal with several giraffe, ostrich, and large herds of zebra, oryx, wildebeest and other antelope, many with babies.
As for lions, leopards, cheetah, and the highlight of Etosha, elephants? Between the long grass and abundant water, there wasn’t a single one to be found. That was a bit of a disappointment, although not entirely unexpected. It’s a good excuse to go back during dry season!
Staying in the park had the advantage of being able to see what wildlife there was as soon as we drove out of the camp gates at sunrise. The best times for game viewing are early morning and late afternoon, when the temperatures are cooler and animals are on the move.
The camps book up early at other times of year, though. If you do find yourself needing to stay outside the park, start by looking in Namutoni village – it’s only just outside the eastern park boundary, meaning you don’t need to drive an extra hour or two each day.
Rugged Damaraland is often mentioned as a highlight of Namibia, yet it’s left off most itineraries. We didn’t have time to explore it properly, but wanted to at least get a taste while we were in the area.
Leaving Etosha after a morning game drive (highlight: a lumbering roadside rhino), we headed for Vingerklip Lodge, where we’d splurged on a night’s accommodation to be close to the famous rock of the same name. Rising something like 35m in the air, we could see “finger rock” long before we got to the gates of the lodge. There was plenty of time to appreciate it, given our slow progress along the bumpy road.
This was the most expensive accommodation of our trip, but it was definitely the fanciest. The lodge sprawled across several levels on a rocky outcrop, and with only a few other people staying there, we had our entire section to ourselves. I also may or may not have spent the entire afternoon beside – or in – the pool, reading my Kindle.
Lazy people can have dinner in the main restaurant at the lodge, but if you’re happy to walk the ten minutes up the side of the mountain, Eagle’s Nest restaurant is the way to go. The sunset views alone made it totally worth the mild slog to get there, and spotting giraffe down below at a waterhole was an added bonus.
The next day’s 400km drive was the longest and hardest, from Vingerklip to Swakupmund via a lengthy (and frankly, unnecessary) detour to Brandberg Mountain. Much of it was on especially bad gravel roads – the C35 between the C39 turnoff and Uis now holds a special place in my heart. Special, but not good.
Still, despite the driving challenges, the scenery was incredible, and changed dramatically throughout the journey. Rugged cliffs and rocky gorges slowly gave way to endless sandy plains, dunes eventually appearing as we drew closer to the coast. Burned-out cars dotted the roadside, a sobering reminder of how little I wanted to have an accident in this isolated part of the country.
With more time, we’d have gone further north, on the hunt for desert elephants, petroglyphs and the petrified forest, but even so, southern Damaraland was worth the detour… although it took a couple of cold beers on the balcony in Swakopmund before I thought so at the time.
An added bonus of coming in from the north, rather than the more common (and paved!) eastern route, was driving a little of the Skeleton Coast, the infamous stretch of coastline responsible for hundreds of shipwrecks. One of them lay on our route, lying just a few metres off a scenic, rugged beach. Seeing it just sitting there, slowly being reclaimed by the waves, was an odd, powerful experience.
Swakopmund is one of the country’s most popular tourist spots, and we decided to spend three nights there. Initially that seemed too many – it’s a small town, and there’s not that much to do in the area – but it turned out to be about right, a good way to break up the trip at the halfway mark, and deal with boring things like finding a laundromat.
We had a little Airbnb credit to use up, so stayed in an apartment to keep costs down. Swakopmund is one of the few towns in Namibia with any real Airbnb presence, although there still weren’t that many options, especially with any reviews.
It was a nice place, but there was no air-conditioning or fan, which meant we sweated through the hot spell that coincided with our time there. There was a much wider range of good hotels and guesthouses, and we’d probably stay in one of those next time instead.
Another perk of Swakopmund being a tourist hotspot was the variety of food on offer, including a great breakfast spot, a good steak and pizza restaurant, and decent Indian food you won’t find otherwise find outside the capital.
Many people try dune boarding while they’re in town, but since we’d both previously done it elsewhere, we opted for a morning seal-watching tour from nearby Walvis Bay instead.
It had been recommended by friends and a hotel owner elsewhere in the country, and with something like 100,000 seals calling it home throughout the year, the trip was worth the 700 NAD (~$55) we paid. Highlights: the oysters and free-flowing champagne towards the end of the trip, and the smart seals who’d learned they get fed if they jump on the back of the boat and hang out with tourists for a while.
It wasn’t the right time of year to see whales, and we didn’t spot any dolphins either, but other than seals and pelicans, we were lucky enough to also see a large sunfish flailing around in the water. Seriously, they’re such a strange fish.
If you’re considering a seal tour, I’d recommend booking in advance – we waited until we arrived in Swakopmund, and couldn’t get a space on our first choice of boat. We were happy with the company we ended up with, Laramon Tours – the staff, food, and experience were all good, the catamaran was just smaller and older than others.
No matter which company you go with, save some room in your stomach for the calamari I mentioned earlier, at Anchors on the waterfront. I mean, you don’t have to get calamari — there are a bunch of other things you could order – but you’ll then have to live with the knowledge you’ve made a terrible life decision.
With another long drive on bad roads ahead of us (shocking, I know), we left straight after breakfast on our final morning in Swakopmund. I revelled in the short-lived tarmac, knowing there’d be precious little of it for the next thousand kilometres.
First stop: a sign. Not just any sign, though – it was one telling us we were crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. We saw another beside the main B1 highway on the way back to Windhoek, but this one was much more impressive, with desolate nothingness in every direction.
A million photos later, we headed for Solitaire. Little more than a restaurant, bakery and gas station, Solitaire is famous for two things: apple pie, and wrecked hotrods. It’s an interesting mix, but I can confirm the apple pie was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be, and the old cars and trucks leant a weird steampunk vibe to what could otherwise be a very unexciting blip on the map.
We finally bumped our way into Sesriem mid-afternoon, and with only two or three wistful looks at the cold beer on offer beside the national park office, paid our fees and headed into Sossusvlei.
If you’ve ever seen a photo from Namibia, chances are it involved a sand dune… and chances are that sand dune was in Sossusvlei. With bright white salt pans and some of the highest dunes in the world, sprawled out for dozens of miles in every direction, it’s rightly famous – and with only a single night there, we had to make the most of our time.
Since everyone goes to Sossusvlei for sunrise, being there in the afternoon meant we had the place to ourselves. It takes about an hour to drive straight from the park entrance to the last area you can get to in a two wheel drive vehicle, but we took far longer, stopping at several dunes (and also to take photos of a random warthog.)
The wind picks up strongly in the afternoon, and combined with the heat, makes climbing any of the dunes dramatically more difficult. On the upside, you get a free skin peeling treatment. We soon abandoned that idea, deciding to save it for the following morning. With the sun lower in the sky on the way back, the dunes turned a much deeper shade of orange, and shadows made for more interesting photos… so we filled up our memory cards once more.
Affordable accommodation anywhere near Sossusvlei is hard to find at any time of year. Those on a tight budget often end up staying further away, as far afield as Maltahohe in some cases, but that means driving in the dark for up to two hours to have any chance of climbing the dunes before the heat becomes oppressive.
That didn’t appeal at all, so instead, we stayed at Desert Camp, a tented camp a few kilometres from Sesriem. It was the least-expensive of the nearby options, and we liked it a lot. Despite being a tent, the room was clean and comfortable, with its own toilet, hot shower, fridge and stove. Drinks beside the pool were very welcome, and listening to wildlife calling in the distance was a great way to fall asleep at night.
The next day, we were up at sunrise to join the line of cars waiting at the park gate. Many cars, and all of the tour buses, stopped at the famous Dune 42, but since we’d spent an hour photographing it from every angle the day before, we kept going to the end of the road. We had bigger, sweatier things on our mind.
Ditching the car, we travelled the last few kilometres in the overpriced (150 NAD) 4WD shuttle provided by the national park service, then hiked across the sand to our starting point. Nothing was signposted, so we followed the largest group of people, and starting climbing up what we thought was ‘Big Daddy’, the largest dune in the area.
Passing people all the way to the top, we remarked how surprisingly easy it had been – a minute before realising we’d actually climbed ‘Big Mama’, a much smaller dune. Oops. It took at least another hour to cut along the ridgeline and climb to our real destination… which was definitely a lot steeper.
The views were, of course, spectacular, and absolutely worth the extra effort. Plus, once you’ve spent the better part of two hours sweating your way to the top of Big Daddy, you get to run screaming like a madman down the steep slopes to Deadvlei, a salt pan full of dead thorn trees. I nearly tripped a few times, but made it to the bottom without incident. Lauren… did not. It’s ok, she loves the taste of sand really.
Deadvlei itself was starkly beautiful, although we arrived a little late in the morning to take the best photos. By around 10am, the morning chill was long gone, and the sand on the way back to the pickup point was hot enough to burn my feet. Repeatedly.
Overall, Sossusvlei was at least as impressive as we might have hoped. Our separate trips into the park gave two very different experiences, and we left feeling we’d made the most of our time there.
Leaving around midday, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get all the way to Luderitz, so had booked a night at Betta Camp. Despite being the cheapest accommodation of the trip, and in the middle of nowhere, it was lovely, and the perfect place to break the journey.
Dinner was delicious, the camp store was well stocked with essentials (beer for me, souvenirs for Lauren), the room was clean and stylish, and we even got to make friends with the owner’s enormous dog. Winning.
On the advice of the owner at Betta Camp, we took the scenic D707 route towards Luderitz the next day. Full of the rugged beauty that Namibia seems to specialise in, the driving was even more interesting than usual, with deep gravel and bone-shaking ruts giving way to multi-mile sand drifts a couple of times. The mighty Corolla, as usual, handled it with style and grace. Well, it handled it, at least.
Bumping back onto tarmac near Aus, we celebrated with lunch at the Bahnhoff Hotel – it was good enough (and there were few enough alternatives) that we did it again on the way back the next day.
The reason we’d taken this 1500km detour was to visit the ghost town of Kolmanskop, but since it’s, well, a ghost town, the nearest place to eat and stay was on the coast at Luderitz. It’s an interesting little place, with a historic church perched on a rocky outcrop, a few pubs and restaurants, and a nearby marshy bay with resident flamingo colony. There’s also wind. A lot of wind, especially along the little peninsula we were staying on.
We took a room at Kairos Cottage, one of the newer B&B’s in town. That newness showed – it was spic and span, raised off the street with a lovely outlook over the ocean. There may or may not have been a chair on the walkway outside, where I may or may not have had a post-dinner drink while listening to the crashing waves.
There are only a handful of rooms, though, so if it’s full when you’re planning to visit, Luderitz has a few other decent accommodation options.
When visiting Kolmanskop, you’ve got two choices: a standard pass, which gets you in between 8am and 1pm, and a pricier (230 NAD) photographer pass, which lets you visit from sunrise to sunset. With limited time, and knowing the best photos were likely to be just after sunrise, we opted for the more expensive option, and set our alarm far too early once again.
Because we arrived in Luderitz on a Saturday afternoon and the office was closed, we weren’t able to pick up a permit ahead of time. Fortunately you can now buy them at the Kolmanskop gate as well, although if you’re going for sunrise, I’d suggest getting them ahead of time if you can.
The guard hadn’t arrived by the time we got there, so rather than missing the best photos, we started to look around, and figured we’d just buy the pass later. When he showed up half an hour later, he was less than thrilled with our approach. Oops.
Regardless, Kolmanskop was incredible, and the highlight of a trip that had been full of such moments. The town had a thriving diamond mining trade a century ago, but declined after World War One. The final resident moved away in 1954, and since then, the desert has been slowly reclaiming the buildings. There’s now sand as high as the ceiling in some rooms, spilling out of doors and windows in vast, sculpted drifts.
Kolmanskop was bigger and far more impressive than expected, and we wandered round taking photos for over three hours. Those shots tell some of the story, but seeing it in person left far more of any impression than any picture. It was an amazing, eerie experience, and despite being a hassle to get to, I’d highly recommend making the time to visit while you’re in Namibia. Get the photographer pass, insert a new memory card, and say goodbye to your morning.
We took two days to drive the 700+ kilometres back to the airport, stopping for the night at the Maltahohe Hotel. It had an affordable (by Nambian standards), large, basic room, out the back of a local pub with decent food, and a nice beer garden to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Well, until the tour bus filled with 36 elderly Germans showed up. There wasn’t so much peace and quiet after that.
The final day was all on tarmac, and it felt downright strange to be able to drive at 100+ km/h all day. Apparently our left rear tire felt the same way, blowing a huge hole in the sidewall barely an hour from the end of our journey. Thousands of miles of gravel? Totally fine. A few hours of well-paved highway? Hell no.
And that was the end of that. We handed back the keys, checked in, and enjoyed a final Windhoek lager before the overnight flight back to Lisbon. Ok, two final Windhoek lagers.
Namibia was incredible, and I genuinely don’t know why it doesn’t have a higher profile with tourists. After many years on the road, I was certain I’d lost my enthusiasm for travel — yet in under two weeks, this country bought it flooding straight back.
It was one of those places that just seemed to keep getting better every day. Half a dozen of the world’s rarest rhinos, the best calamari of my life, hanging out with friendly seals, climbing enormous sand dunes, shipwrecks, sunsets, and finally an incredible ghost town easily worth the thousand mile detour to get there.
If you’re already planning a trip to this wonderful country, I hope this guide has been useful for you. If you weren’t planning to visit before you started reading this, I really hope you are now. It’s absolutely — absolutely — worth the time, money, and effort. You’ll have a blast.