Of kings and palacesAugust 18, 2016
Thick-billed Weaver nestingAugust 22, 2016
Text by Sharri Whiting | Photos by Paul van Schalkwyk
| This article was first published in the Flamingo November 2008 issue.
Do you dare to go to Namibia on your own? Absolutely!
R ent a car, load it with a few worn khakis and a couple of pairs of shoes, your camera, your cell phone, a map, and some water and take off… alone into the Heart of Africa. No guide, no bus. No private pilot with a little plane to drop you off at the very isolated five-star luxury chalet with white-tablecloth dining. You’re going to sleep in their cushy beds, but you’ll be arriving there on your own. (If you prefer, there’s always camping – this is DIY, where you get to choose.)
On our eighth independent safari in Namibia, we drove three nearly 5000 kilometers, just the two of us. Navigating the empty roads with horizons clinging to the edge of nowhere, sharing space with ostriches and giraffes, gave us a high like nothing else. The population density of two people per square kilometer translates into a lot of vacant space, punctuated by dusty little towns, which we pass through, stopping for a beer in a cuca bar with a name like Beverly Hills. When we see a wizened Herero man and his queenly Owambo wife standing by the side of the road, or a young Himba couple with a big-eyed baby, we give them a ride to wherever they are going, be it just down the road or across oceans of desert.
Namibia is probably the safest country in Africa, in addition to being the place of extremes – unique animals like the desert-adapted elephants and rhinos, the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs, the world’s oldest desert and the highest sand dunes on earth. The amazing oysters can make the French cry in shame. Did I mention shopping for diamonds, gemstones, exotic skins, and San/Bushman ostrich eggshell jewellery?
This country is bigger than Texas and Louisiana put together, so distances between stops can seem daunting – you’ll need at least two full weeks on the ground. Mark the places you want to see on the map and find the routes that connect the dots. In total there are more than 24 thousand kilometers of paved highways and scraped dirt roads, which are very good if you don’t speed.
Most people who go to Namibia for the first time are itchy to see the animals right away; once that’s accomplished, they are ready for extraordinary scenery. Here’s a good first-time DIY itinerary:
Day One: Arrive in Namibia and go into Windhoek, the capital city. Check out the Namibia Craft Centre. Eat dinner on the terrace at Gathemann Restaurant, where there will be Swakopmund or Lüderitz oysters, rock lobsters, game meat, good wine. Get a good night’s sleep – we like small hotels such as the Olive Grove or Belvedere Boutique Hotel.
Day Two, Three: Bush Camp at Okonjima is where we go to track leopards, and feed cheetahs in the bush. Stop at the outdoor craft markets in Okahandja along the way.
Day Four, Five: Go waterhole cruising in the Etosha National Park (about the size of Switzerland) and stay at the posh Onguma Game Reserve just outside the park the first night or in the historic Fort Namutoni inside the park; drive across Etosha, arriving at Okaukuejo to stay in a premier waterhole chalet overlooking the big spotlit waterhole. There can be so many lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, antelopes and other species that you may not be able to tear yourself away to go to bed.
Day Six, Seven: Drive west to Mowani Mountain Camp, stopping at the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein to see the rock paintings. We have now moved into landscape-appreciation time, though elephant tracking from Mowani can be great fun.
Day Eight, Nine: Start early and drive across the desert to the Atlantic Coast, which will take five or six hours – Mowani will pack a huge lunch for you to take. If you want splendid isolation on the beach, stay at the Cape Cross Lodge near the seal colony; if you prefer to wander through a quirky German town, stay at the The Secret Garden Guesthouse in Swakopmund. That the seafood is good here is an understatement.
Day Ten, Eleven: It’s imperative to see (and possibly climb) the massive red dunes at Sossusvlei, so cut across the desert south-east to Sossus Dune Lodge (which may have the only heated swimming pool in Namibia, the land of notoriously cold pools); naturalamente, you’ll stop for gas at Solitaire and eat thick sandwiches of homemade brown bread, followed by gigantic portions of apple crumble.
Day Twelve, Thirteen: Drive back to Windhoek, about five hours. This gives you a day and a half to see the market at Katutura, and shop in Independence Avenue and the adjacent streets for ostrich hide belts or bags, tourmalines or diamonds, Nakara (Persian lamb) jackets.
GENERAL PRECAUTIONS. A DIY safari is not to be taken lightly and, at least the first time, should be between recognised tourist areas. It is essential to have plenty of water and gas, two spare tires, cellphones charged and topped off, camera batteries charged, space blanket and first-aid kit, hats, sunblock, long-sleeved shirts, maps, guidebooks and telephone numbers. At least two people should be in the car. Fill the gas tank and check the water whenever you see a gas station. Do not leave the car in case of accident or car trouble – Namibians are invariably good Samaritans and will stop to help you. Safe driving tips provided by rental car companies should be followed scrupulously. If you’re going into the Zambezi Region, you may need malaria preventative medication; otherwise, Namibia is generally malaria free. Pharmacies in the country comply with the US FDA standards and medical care in the cities is excellent, though less available in remote areas.
AIR TRAVEL. Air Namibia is a very good airline. It connects with flights coming into London Gatwick or Frankfurt and flies overnight to Windhoek. South African Airways and British Airways connect to Windhoek via Johannesburg.
CAR RENTAL. Renting a car in Namibia can be costly, especially as most rental companies have a very high deductible and charge the customer for lost hubcaps and scratches, which are common on non-paved roads. For a list of reliable car rental agencies go to the Travel News Namibia “Drive” page: www.travelnewsnamibia.com/plan-your-trip/drive/. It is safer to rent a vehicle you are familiar with, particularly in the case of an SUV (safe utility vehicle) or similar car. It’s a good idea to rent a small refrigerator for the car and keep it stocked with water and at least one meal’s worth of provisions.