Namibia – the desert country surprises!

Why travel to Namibia ?

Do you want to experience Africa without being scared of criminality, huge masses of people, but with an amazing landscape where springbok cross the road just in front of your car and a herd of giraffes standing calm and majestic along the road looking curiously at you when you take a break? A country where you can drive for hours without meeting another car? A country where elephants are adjusted to desert climate and where you can play in the sand dunes by the Atlantic Coast? Doesn`t this sound just fantastic? In Namibia you can experience all this and much more!

On the road between Twyfelfontain and Opuwo
On the road between Twyfelfontain and Opuwo, Namibia.

In the Tourist Information in Swakopmunde they warned us about the gravel roads north to Opuwo. But they were in surprisingly good shape. We did not experience flooding – thats a risk during the rain season! We travelled in the beginning of the rain season and was lucky, made our way through all the time.

One of the largest sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia
One of the largest sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia

Location:

Southwest in Africa, with a border to South Africa in south, lays the desert country of Namibia. It is bordered by Botswana and Zimbabwe on the east and Angola on the north. The long coastline with the Namib Desert is a fascinating landscape and the northern part called Skeleton Coast is considered one of the world’s most remote areas.

We stayed 3 weeks in this amazing country during Christmas 2012/13. The trip was planned for almost 1 year and we had travelled the route on Google Earth many times before we sat on the plane in the middle of December. We landed in the capitol Windhoek early in the morning and had time to see the city before we were leaving for our trip in a rented car across the country the day after.

We drove south towards the small city Mariental in the Kalahari Desert. First stop was Anib Lodge Kalahari were we spent the night. We had ordered all our accommodation on the net long ago. If you are camping and thats absolutely possible and common, you do not need to order in advance. But if you want a good bed and other kind of comfort, ordering in advance is essential. No one wants to risk to be stranded in the desert without a roof over your head!

A ship wreck at Sceleton Coast
A ship wreck at Sceleton Coast north of Swakopmunde, Namibia

Highlights:

Namibia is different from any other country I have visited in Africa partly because there are not many people living there. On an area of 825418 km2 live only a little more than 2 million people. That means an extremely low population density, only 2,4 per km2. This is the second less populated country in the world, only beaten by Mongolia.

Desert elephants near Twyfelfontain
Desert elephants near Twyfelfontain, Namibia
Quiver trees
Quiver trees in Namibia

Namibia can offer a unique and grand landscape that is worth the whole trip by itself.  Here you find the oldest desert in the world. Namib Desert stretches for more than 2000 km along the Atlantic Coast. The central plateau is made up of mountains, rocky outcrops and plains and valleys. In these mountain areas you can find stone paintings and stone engravings, all on Unesco`s World heritage List. In the South you will find the worlds second largest canyon Fish River Canyon. Driving down to the bottom of the canyon and swimming in one of Fish Rivers many beautiful ponds was one of many highlights on our trip across Namibia. I took a swim with catfishes in the pond and felt like being in the Garden of Eden, in spite of the barren landscape.

The northern part of the country is greener with lush plains and forest. In the small town of Opuwo you meet a lot of representatives of ethnic groups that still live traditional lives. The city is a colorful meeting place. Nowhere in Africa have I seen such a diversity of clothing, jewelry and hairstyles. The meeting with the Himba people was absolutely the highlight of this the trip.

Sossusvlei with its dead trees
Sossusvlei with its dead trees
View from our lodge at Desert Homestead
View from our lodge at Desert Homestead, Namibia

Regions and cities worth visiting:

We planned a round trip across the country and got to see the main attractions. The capitol Windhoek is a city with a population of about 350 000 and was the starting point of our trip. We had a day enjoying the city before we started the trip and after, before leaving for Europe. The city is easy to navigate in and have many nice cafes and restaurants. If you have an interest in African art, there are many good shops with a mixture of souvenirs and African antiques.

Palmweg - den siste utpost
Palmweg – the last out post!

We drove a little more than 3000 km in 17 days and it was unproblematic and not at least stressing. I have to add – we both love the travel itself. To move from place to place and enjoy the landscape floating by is relaxing. The south part with Fish River Canyon is a must! Sossusvlei as well. We stayed at Desert Homestead near Sossusvlei and they offered a Champaign breakfast in the dunes, just fantastic! Damaraland with the desert elephants and a lot of other wild animals will most of you appreciate. The north part with the city Opuwo is may bee a bit out of the common road, but absolutely worth a visit.

Himba girl in town
Himba girl in town, Opuwo Namibia

Swakopmunde has a population of about 42000 and is located on the Atlantic Coast. Because of this the climate is comfortable. It is a typical holiday city witch offers a lot of extreme activities for the young and bold. You can go hang gliding over the desert and driving in the sand dunes just outside the city. We spent three days here, mostly because it was Christmas and nice to stay in one place and celebrate. Many places were closed due to the holidays. The city is dominated by its white inhabitance. It has a lot of nice cafes and restaurants and you can eat good fish here. But the place is not very African and could be like some city anywhere else!

Lion in Etosha park
Lion in Etosha park, Namibia
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park, Namibia

Etosha National Park is exiting for those with out too much experience with safari and game drives. But if wild life is not an important issue, you can skip this.

But if you can manage to take a visit to the Skeleton Coast – do it! We visited only the southern part north of Swakopmunde, but my biggest wish was to stay 3 days in the part of the Skeleton Coast that has a lot of restrictions for visitors. You can only get permission if you stay at the luxury lodge in the area and to get there you will have to hire a private plane. An extremely expensive project! So may be another time. It is cheaper alternatives further south. You can stay in Terrace Bay with cheaper accommodation and of course not as nice.

Namibia also has a long narrow strip of land called Caprivi all along to Victoria Falls. We had not enough time to visit this region, but everyone says it is a great area worth visiting. A visit to Botswana can be done together with a trip here.

Food and drinks:

We had the best hamburger ever in a small fast food café in Keetmanshop, a small city on the way south to Fish River Canyon. It was a big mess eating it, but it tasted like heaven! Actually all hamburgers in Namibia tasted very well. We ate a lot of game meet that means meet from animals like springbok, Oryx and kudu. Excellent food. This is not threatened species, but animals that are kept in fenced areas on private reserves used for hunting. Many of the lodges in Namibia own a large part of land. In national parks hunting is forbidden. Food and drinks are cheap and have most often of good quality. A dinner with wine will seldom be more than 90 dollar for 2 persons and that full dinner with 3 dishes.

Best places to stay:

We have reached the age where we don’t see primitive camping as an alternative. Namibia is very well adapted for camping and many tourists choose to do this. Most camping sites are well equipped and are located in the most attractive areas. But we choosed lodges and hotels. For only one night overstay we choosed a cheaper hotel and for more days we choosed a better place to stay. Namibia has a good variety of upmarket lodges. Even though Swakopmunde was not the most exciting city it was there we stayed at the best and most interesting place, The Stiltz. At the Stiltz the bungalows are build on poles. We stayed there for three nights and were upgraded to a big bungalow with beautiful interior and a lot of African art. The place is near the city center and 3 minutes from the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the river. The big bungalow is perfect if you are 2 or 3 couples travelling together or a group of friends. Having the whole place for our self was the ultimate luxury!

Fish River Lodge
Fish River Lodge, Namibia

Fish River Lodge was also superb – very modern architecture and great view over the Fish River Canyon. The place is situated just a few meters from the canyon rim. The location has only one drawback. In the afternoons warm airflows up from the canyon and meet with colder air up on the plains. This leads to a very strong wind and nothing stays in place!  The roof construction makes a lot of noise when the wind flows over the rim and the bungalows. The wind keep on till after midnight and guests are offered earplugs. Per found out it was just like sleeping in a night train, so he had no problems with the noise. The second night I used the same method and slept all through the night.

Kempinski Mokuti Lodge just outside the gates of Etosha National Park can also be recommended. We celebrated New Year there together with many other guests. It’s a very beautiful place with a big garden and a pool and a perfect base for game drives in Etosha Park.

Shopping:

You will find many local markets looking just like markets all over Africa. Some are only intended for the locals and the goods are mostly used clothes and other utilities. Others are more tourist orientated and have a mixture of souvenirs, local craft and African art from all over Africa. Be ware that most of the things are new, but they look very old! My philosophy is that if I find something I really like and appreciate the craftsmanship, it does not matter if it is new or old. You can find great copies of old masks and sculptures and some of them are so well made that they are worth buying, but do not believe you are buying real old stuff!

The biggest and greatest market for African art and craft is located in Okahanja, a city north of Windhoek. It’s no problem to go there for a day trip. We found many nice masks, beautifully carved in wood and we bought three, that’s what we had room for in the suitcases.

We have a small collection of calabashes, bowls and bottles made from pumpkins or fruit from the calabash tree. They are among many things used for storing milk. In Namibia we found some in the Himba village, which we brought back home to Norway.

Many lodges have small shops selling craft made by local women linked to aid projects. A lot of this stuff is properly made and you support a good cause when buying it.

Endless plains and a mountain far away
Endless plains and a mountain far away, Namibia

Windhoek national Museum for Modern Art has a very nice museum shop. The prizes where even lower than on the local market. Our suitcases where already filled up and Per nearly cried when he found some big baskets and also found he just could not take them with him – they did not cost anything!

In Bushman Art Gallery in Windhoek they have a splendid collection of antique African art in a variety of prize classes. If you have an interest in African art, this place is absolutely worth a visit. We came back three times and at last we bought a small mask, an old dancing mask from Zambia.

How to get around?

If you are not joining an organized trip, the best alternative is to rent a car. Choose type of car considering the areas you are visiting. If you are going to drive on gravel roads you need a car with high clearance. We ordered a 4×4, but when we arrived the rental company could not give us the car we had ordered. Instead we got a Nissan XTrial without 4×4 but it worked out OK. We also had two extra tires and we recommend having that and be shore to order extra tires in advance.

You can take the train on some distances. The train between Windhoek and Swakopmunde goes through the desert and are said to be a very beautiful trip. There are of course local busses everywhere.

In the cities taxi work fine and Namibian cities are not big so most of the time walking works well.  In Windhoek we walked all the time, even in the evenings.

Climate:

Most of Namibia is very hot, now wonder – it is a desert country! But the coastal line can be pleasant even in the summer with a nice breeze from The Atlantic. Many Namibians spend their Christmas Holliday in Swakopmunde because of the nice and not so hot temperatures. We travelled in December/January and that’s in the middle of summer and very hot many places. And hot means about 45 degrees C in the middle of the day. Summer is offseason except for Swakopmunde. In Swakopmunde I needed long trousers and a sweater and I felt cold in the evenings.

Winter from June to August can be cold and dry and temperatures can drop below freezing in some desert areas. It’s a good time to see animals, as they will tend to visit the waterholes more frequently. Rain season starts in December and continuous to Mars. Some days will be humid and followed by rain and it may be thunderstorms in the afternoon. Flooding can be a problem at this time of year. The result can be that you will have problems on some of the gravel roads. If you are going up north at that time of the year, be careful and ask locals about the road conditions.

Children in the village Bimbili near Etosha Park
Children in the village Bimbili near Etosha Park

Security:

Being one of the least densely populated countries in the world Namibia is a safe country to travel in. Unlike other countries in Africa you can drive for hours without seeing another human being and without meeting any other cars. Driving on your own is no problem.

But there are other challenges. Always bring a lot of water with you in the car. Getting a flat tire is not unusual and most often it happens when it is as most inconvenient. In many regions it is long distances, very long distances between gas stations or any other type of shops. You may risk that the only gas station for miles are out of gas and that new supplies want be there before the next day or so. If you see a gas station, fill up the tank! I looked up gas stations in Namibia on the map and made sure all the distances was possible to drive on one gas tank. Here you can get some good advise for driving in Namibia.

Car accidents happen all the time and tourists are involved with many accidents on the gravel roads. We read a lot about driving in Namibia before we went and coming from Norway we are used to drive on snow not very unlike the loose sand and gravel on some roads. Always have this in mind and adjust the speed according to this.

Practical information:

We flew from Frankfurt and directly to Windhoek with Namib Air.

The car was rented from economycarrentals and their local partner was Thrifty in Klein Windhoek. I will not recommend this company. We had a lot of problems getting the car we had ordered and had to except another one. A very chaotic place, everything took sooo long time and even when we returned the car it took ages to manage to deliver it! Remember Namibia drives on the left side of the road.

Its recommended to take malaria tablets if you are visiting the north part of the country. We brought malaria tablets but ended up not taking them. We never spotted a mosquito! I have also experienced that I stomach trouble taking malaria tablets.

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