Tips and Information for travelling around Namibia
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Advice as well as articles on 'Things To Know before travelling to Namibia' abound on the internet. We do not want to rehash the subject, since others have done a great job elsewhere of covering it, and so the below is not meant as a comprehensive list of things to be aware of. We will simply add a few comments.
Some things bear repeating though, when it comes to travelling around the world's second least densely populated country (pipped to the post only by Mongolia). So here are the things we think need considering when travelling around this stunning and distinctive country!
Take plenty of water, as well as snacks, before setting out for the day. You will be covering long distances, with often very few other road users, and mobile phone network is sparse. We never left with less than 6 litres of water for the 2 of us. The tap water in Namibia is drinkable, so fill up your containers each evening.
Much of Namibia is a desert, with the sun baking down and the temperatures to match. Take sunscreen, hats and protective clothing. Insect repellent will also come in handy.
Fill up with petrol where possible. Petrol stations can be infrequent, and not always available.
Make sure you know how to find your next destination. As we found out when searching for our Desert Grace Lodge accommodation, things are not always exactly where they appear on a map. Add to that the fact that sign boards are rare, and cell phone coverage intermittent, and you get the picture.
Book accommodation in advance, especially for out-of-the-way places like Sossusvlei. At certain times of the year these attractions are very popular, and there is not a huge amount of local accommodation options available.
You can pay with South African Rand (ZAR) as well as Namibian Dollar (NAD) currency in Namibia.
Be respectful. Most tourists are only passing through, and some seem to pay scant heed to the fact that the beauty of the surroundings needs to be preserved for future visitors, as well as for the local communities. Despite the fact that it is prohibited, and well signposted, we spotted a few tourists at Deadvlei leaning against or even sitting on the desiccated camel thorns. Be considerate. Don't touch the trees.
What is the quality of Namibia's roads like, and do I need a 4x4 car?
This is a question found on endless forums across the internet, and one we ourselves also wanted the answer to in advance of our road trip to Namibia in September 2019.
Let's start with the former: What are the road conditions like in Namibia?
In short: extremely variable. Of course the few tarred B roads in the country are world-class, and you should have no concerns there.
But when it comes to the gravel roads, we found that whether a road was a C road or a D road gave very little indication of whether the driving conditions would be any good.
At the best of times, on a recently graded well-maintained gravel road, we were comfortably doing 80 km/h. At other times, we were managing barely 40 km/h as the road conditions deteriorated.
Whichever speed you are doing, make sure to stay vigilant. The shape of the road can change rapidly, and we saw evidence of many blown-out tyres next to the route. Drive as slow as is necessary to stay in control of your vehicle, pay attention, and make the most of the time to take in the stunning landscapes on display in Namibia.
To offer some examples, here are the road conditions we found on our trip for some of the gravel roads we used, though obviously these will change depending on the weather, how recently a road has been graded, and the number of road users:
Windhoek to Spreetshoogte pass (C26 / D1265 / D1261): generally good conditions, we had no problem making good time. The Spreetshoogte pass itself is a laid brick road and while steep it is easy to navigate, though at a low speed.
Spreetshoogte pass to Solitaire / Sesriem: conditions started deteriorating as we followed the D1275. And the C14 and C19 around Solitaire and Sesriem were some of the worst quality surfaces of our entire trip. The roads were very corrugated, and plenty of loose stones and sand lying in furrows on the road surface made the driving extremely bumpy and slow going. In addition, the other road users in this more popular part of the route will kick up dust clouds as they pass by, making driving in this area more challenging.
C14 through the Gaub pass: The gravel road here can be sandy and slippery. Combined with the sometimes tight corners, sharp drops beside the road down to the gorge below, and other road users in the area, this is a part of the route where care and slow speeds are key.
C14 coming into Walvis Bay and C34 north of Swakopmund: These salt roads are very smooth and very comfortable driving, and you will make good time. However, they can become quite slippery, so attention is warranted.
D1918, Hentiesbaai to Spitzkoppe: This little-used road was one of the best quality gravel roads of our entire trip - we averaged 80 km/h and barely saw another vehicle! This all changes though at the turnoff for Spitzkoppe, for the last stretch to the B2 motorway - this part of the D1918 is heavily frequented and was quite corrugated.
C33 / C36 between the B2 motorway and Omaruru: generally good quality gravel roads, we made reasonable time
Driving times - how long will it take?
Longer than what Google Maps indicates! Google's estimates of driving times were almost without fail less than what it ended up taking us.
Make sure to set off early enough in the day so as to leave enough time to get to your destination in daylight hours. It is oft said but well worth repeating: you do not want to be on the provincial roads of Namibia after dark.
Here are some examples of our driving times for the route we took, to help plan a trip. Bear in mind that we drove safely and took no chances - for confident drivers these times may be underestimates. Also, for clarity, these are driving times only, and do not include the additional time we took en route to stop for photos etc:
Windhoek Country Club to Sesriem: 6 hours
Sesriem to Walvis Bay: close to 5 hours
Hentiesbaai to Omaruru, via D1918 and Karibib: 3 hours 15 minutes
Now, back to the original question - do I need a 4WD car?
Unless you plan to do off-road driving in Namibia, the answer is 'not really'. We did have a 4x4 ourselves, and while we used the 4 wheel drive functionality very little during the trip, it was nice to have for those parts of the trip where road conditions worsened.
What we do think is pretty essential though, is having an SUV vehicle with additional clearance.
To be fair, there are plenty of dissenting opinions available online, and plenty of people who successfully do a trip around Namibia in a normal sedan car.
But having experienced first hand the jolting when the road surface becomes very corrugated, and this in a large high vehicle, we can't imagine just how uncomfortable it must be in a car with low clearance. If your budget allows, do yourself a favour and get an SUV.
We wish you the best on what is sure to be the trip of a lifetime!