Text Jackie Marie | Photos Paul van Schalkwyk
Text Jackie Marie | Photos Paul van Schalkwyk
M ost tourists visiting Namibia use our roads. Those who fly into Namibia mostly rent cars for self-drive trips, or go with tour operators who take them around in a bus or van. When on guest farms, national parks and protected areas, you will encounter other tourists in game-viewing vehicles. Travelling on the roads is how most tourists will spend a significant portion of their holiday experience in Namibia.
Namibia is a large country – the fifteenth largest in Africa – with a coastline of over 1 500 kilometres and a land mass of over 825 000 square kilometres. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. While we do have Air Namibia as a travel option, we mostly move around by road. Our road network is Namibia’s lifeline. This is good news! Each part of your vacation is filled with something interesting to see while driving from one iconic destination to another.
When driving around the country, I regularly laugh when I see a warthog mother running on the side of the road with five fat baby warthogs following directly behind her in a straight line, their tails sticking up like antennas into the air! And you see scads of guinea fowl, which are quite ugly up close, having faces only a mother could love. But their feathers are beautiful! Running like prim little old ladies as your car passes by, they too will bring a smile to your face. Meerkats standing up on their hind legs, twitching their little noses and staring at each passing car are yet another a fun sight!
The larger animals are fantastic to see by the side of the road, but they are a safety concern. Your car might scare them, and strangely they tend to jump towards the car rather than away from it. So slow down or even stop when you see kudu, giraffe, gemsbok or springbok near the road. Where there is one animal that you can see, there is usually another close by that you can’t. Baboons move across and around roads, eating seeds in huge troops of as many as 40 animals! Watch out for the young ones who aren’t yet used to cars.
Local folks live scattered throughout Namibia in small pockets. You might well be taken by surprise by a donkey cart transporting any number of people appearing suddenly as you crest a rise in a road. Cattle, sheep and goats can be anywhere and everywhere as you come around the bend in a road. Slow down, wave at the folks in the donkey cart and continue carefully on your way. A honk of the horn usually induces a stubborn cow to move off the road. Proceed slowly though.
Driving in Namibia – as when driving anywhere else in the world – requires staying alert, wearing a seat-belt, stopping regularly to stretch, keeping within the speed limit and never drink-driving.
Most of Namibia’s roads are gravel. The Government spends considerable amounts of money ‘grading’ to make the road surfaces as even as possible. But having to maintain such a large road network, grading may not always have been done recently. The speed limit on gravel roads in Namibia is only 80 km an hour. Check your tyres before you set out; worn tyres are not safe on gravel roads.
Some gravel roads are sandy on the shoulders; others become stony after a heavy rainfall. When there are sharp turns and dips in the road, you might want to drive even more slowly. On all counts it will be just more advantageous for you to slow down and see the sights around you rather than zooming through and taking unnecessary risks.
During the rainy season many of Namibia’s ephemeral rivers suddenly come down in periodic flash floods and have stretches of water in them. This is Mother Nature at her best, bringing life-giving seasonal water to the plants and animals that grace our semi-arid areas. Water can be misleading though. A seemingly ‘little’ stream flowing across the road can be deeper than you think. Huge potholes can be concealed by water, and could damage the undercarriage of your vehicle. Visiting remote areas by road during the rainy season must be meticulously pre-planned.
Make sure you have the right vehicle for the specific conditions. You wouldn’t drive with your convertible top down during a snowstorm, now would you? Likewise, in Namibia you must not take a small city car into Namibia’s vast, remote 4×4 areas. Renting a cheaper vehicle for such a venture must not be an option; be sure to rent an appropriate vehicle for your itinerary.
Before you leave the urban areas on your holiday adventure, make sure you have a satellite or mobile phone at hand, a recent map, your itinerary with contact names and telephone numbers of people available on a 24-hour basis, a blanket, ample water, spare tyres and appropriate repair equipment. You should monitor your fuel usage and plan carefully. I recommend that you top your tank wherever you can. Even if you know that you need only a quarter of a tank to make it to your next stop, fill ‘er up anyway.
Chill when you’re behind the wheel. Keep to the sign-posted speeds. Be aware of animals on or at the side of roads as soon as the sun sets. Only roads in towns have street lights, so if you are travelling for long stretches you may be travelling in complete darkness.
You may find that your car is the only one on a long stretch of road. Keep the music up. Definitely pack your iPod or MP4 Player when you come on holiday to Namibia. Sing your favourite songs, chat interactively with your companions and your tour guide, play ‘car games’ that involve answers to silly questions, and stop frequently (in safe, designated roadside stopover areas) to take photos of what you see along the way.
Enjoy! That’s why you came to Namibia in the first place.
This article was first published in the Flamingo August 2012 issue.