This 8 night, 1251 mile road trip came about with just an 8 word brief to Mark Bratt “Take us to the edge of the earth”. He came back to us with the plan of a self-drive around Namibia and the rest, as they say, is history.
Day 1 saw us fly to Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport, one of the prettiest international airports I have ever seen, set in the stunning rolling hills some 30 miles outside of the city on South African airlines from Heathrow via Johannesburg. South African’s entertainment system is not the most modern but does the trick, even on a 12 hour flight, but the service and food were really quite excellent. An upgrade to the business class lounge in Johannesburg made the 4 hour transfer much more bearable.
After picking up our rental car (which we named Anita) we drove on the smooth and empty tarmac and found our first surprise: our first night’s accommodation.
This was the picture perfect Violet Lodge in the sleepy suburbs of Windhoek and was charming beyond belief. Whilst the accommodation was not what we were expecting it is very typical of Namibia, with the vast majority of Namibia’s tourist accommodation being made up of these highly characterised privately run lodges.
After having a quick tour of the B&B by the owner Heidi, we walked to what is perhaps Namibia’s most famous drinking establishment, Joe’s Beer House. Whilst I have to recommend that like on any holiday you adhere to the usual safety procedures, at no point did we feel threatened on our 10/15 minute walk to Joe’s with the only locals we encountered simply saying “good evening” as we passed.
Joe’s Beer House has to be seen to be experienced. Quirky and fantastically decorated we enjoyed a huge plate of succulent meat and free flowing beers in front of a roaring fire pit below the endless starry Southern African sky. (The venue even set up a big screen for us so we could watch the massively disappointing England Euro 2016 match.) What is more, after finding room for two of the biggest desserts we have ever seen the bill came in at under £40 for both of us (and I for one had more than my fair share of thirst quenching German-esque beer). If you can fit in time to go to Joe’s do so, and go at night when the place really comes alive, and don’t drive there, the beer is too good and too well priced not to be enjoyed!
After a hearty Namibian-take on a continental breakfast we had a whistle stop tour of the main sights of Windhoek. Whilst it is fair to say it is not a global city, the skyline is shooting up and the main sights centred around the German church are well worth a stop and nosey round. Again, bar the odd street salesman, we were not mithered and everyone was polite and friendly to us and the numerous other tourists walking round. If we had more time we would have indulged in a trip to the Independence Museum. A tip here is that in cities the car parks may be “patrolled” by a local who will look after your car. Whether it needs looking after or not remains to be seen, but for a few pounds you can be safe in the knowledge someone is keeping an eye out without it breaking the bank.
We then set off to the coastal resort of Swakopmund on the slower, but far prettier, back route of the C28 which touches the edges of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We were driving along happily when some 20 miles outside of Windhoek (and just past the now sprawling townships on its fringes) the paved road just stopped! For the next 6 days the vast majority of our driving was done on unpaved roads such as this. Whilst a 4×4 would have had some advantages it is certainly not needed to get around and our sturdy SUV Anita more than coped. I would recommend not doing the route in the entry level Polo’s, however.
The scenery was breath-taking and ever changing. Baboons ran across the road and game was dotted here and there. We saw just 8 cars on a day that we covered 215miles over the course of 8 hours. This brings me to my next top tip; we hired (for a massive sum of £3.50pd) a gps system for the car. Whilst it was accurate in showing us where we were up to on the map it did not provide accurate journey times. Thankfully we phoned ahead to inform our next B&B that we would be late (the owners often leave quite early [perhaps 5.00-6.00pm] and wish for people to be checked in prior to that). So, if you do intend to be late let them know in advance, they are all very accommodating as long as they know.
As the sun started to set the mountains gave way to our first glimpse of the open grassland, complete with herds of zebra and ostriches and one of the most stunning sunsets we have ever seen. We wanted an adventure and driving on an unpaved road at night certainly delivered that, but it would not be for everyone and is certainly not recommended by locals. So do plan your routes carefully – it took us over 8 hours to travel the 215 miles from Windhoek, partly because of the quality, or lack of, the roads, but also because every 2 minutes you will have to stop for a photo, whether that be of wildlife or stunning scenery!
Another stunningly maintained B&B awaited us and after a quick freshen up we walked the brief distance into town to consume yet more well-priced beer and a huge t-bone steak, all of which came in under £10pp.
We took a break from the car and continued our adventure in the dunes of the Namib Desert on quad bike. We booked our trip fairly early in the morning and were the only people on our tour. Certainly the numbers per tour increased as the morning went on so if you want an added layer of exclusivity then a prompt start will probably aid you in that quest.
We booked the 2-hour extended tour and definitely got to delve that little deeper into the Namib Desert, which, not only is one of the oldest and driest on earth but surely one of the most visually spectacular as the huge dunes sweep right down to the rough Southern Atlantic Ocean. We then had a go at “sand-surfing” and I guarantee you cannot have more fun on a piece of MDF anywhere in the world! But beware, the long walk back up the huge dunes in the soft sand will take its toll on your legs!
After a morning of fun we took advantage of the newly paved highway linking Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, the industrial heart of Namibia and final place that was handed back following South African rule. Here, right next to the huge commercial cranes of the bustling port, you will find 1000s upon 1000s of flamingos and pelicans. It’s quite the juxtaposition and worth the easy 20 minute drive down the coast.
We drove northwards along Namibia’s breath-taking, and appropriately named, Skeleton coast. Here, where the Namib Desert dunes sweep down to the sea, life is clearly clinging on. A solitary salt road (yes SALT) hugs the coast which is dotted with whale skeletons, shipwrecks and a huge colony of Southern Fur Seals, which in particular is not to be missed. Some of the shipwrecks are only accessible by 4×4, but such restricted access is clearly noted and there are plenty of others than can be accessed by standard cars. The condemned oil rig left to slowly rust looks like something out of a Mad Max movie and is worth a stop and walk around.
The entrance gates to the Skeleton Coast National Park have to be as impressive as any, anywhere in the world, and certainly help add to the occasion of entering one of the harshest environments on earth.
Upon leaving the park, which seems to carry on endlessly under a cloudless sky, we turned inland and slowly climbed as we entered Damaraland to reach our next destination, the community run, Grootberg Lodge. Greeted at the gates by a local called Adolf, we were advised to stay in our car as lions had been spotted nearby. So, we waited as the lodges 4×4 made the journey down the steep approach road to take us and our luggage to our room.
Grootberg Lodge is a truly unique venue. Each lodge sits on top of a plateau looking out over an unspoilt valley below. No plugs can be found in the room, instead all modern gadgets have to be charged at the main reception. Thankfully they are well prepared for the amount of iphones, ipads, cameras and other gadgets each tourist now brings.
A well-presented meal and an excellent bottle of South African red wine (which cost under £4) were consumed before the evening finished with the staff walking you to your room using their torches as the grounds of the lodge are not lit. The solar-powered rooms have their power cut off at midnight, so a good night sleep is guaranteed!
A choice of trips was available direct from Grootberg and we opted for the Elephant Trekking excursion and, bar the fabulously named Ryno (who was the lodge’s chef), we were the only guests on the excursion. The guides quickly left the main road network into the bush, which is dotted with 4×4 tracks and local farmsteads. It is quite amazing to think that what at first glance appears to be complete wilderness is in fact home to large numbers of well-hidden family communities all eking out a living in the dry scrub land.
After an hour or so or following the elephant trails we found ourselves face to face with a family of bush elephants, complete with baby. Being a huge wildlife fan myself I can say that nothing compares to seeing animals in their natural habitat and it was truly magical experience as we slowly followed them for the next 40 minutes or so.
Lunch deep in the bush followed (where we sat on the edge of an Aadvark den) before we got to meet some of the families that our tourist money was benefiting. Having a first-hand opportunity to see how the locals live and ask them about their life and aspirations really allows you to put your own life into perspective. Despite struggling with 6 years of failed rains they remain happy and upbeat with some of the largest, most genuine smiles I have ever encountered.
Once back at the lodge, a quick dip in what could just be the best-placed yet coldest infinity pool on earth was followed by another stunning meal and red wine before it was lights out once more.
Our time in Damaraland was at an end and we headed north on yet more unpaved roads to get to what is perhaps Namibia’s most famous tourist attraction, Etosha National Park.
Having been spoilt with a brief return to delightfully smooth tarmac on our approach to the park we were thrust back into off-road mode with some of the roughest, most potholed roads yet within the park itself. At times everything was shaking long after the road has smoothed out.
However, you won’t notice any of that owing to the abundance and richness of the wildlife. In our first day in the park we had close encounters with all the main species of antelope as well as warthogs (with babies), ostriches, giraffes, rhino and even some elephants in the distance.
You have to be out of the park by sunset, and despite entering through the western gate at noon we only just made it out of Andersson’s Gate to the south in time; the park is really that big (some 8,600 sq miles)! So, a top tip here is again to ensure you have plenty of time to make the most of your day in the park.
Our home for the next two nights was Andersson’s Camp in Ongava private game reserve just metres from the main gates to Etosha. This was perhaps the most memorable accommodation of them all, with a lit watering hole within sight of the main communal area and unlockable rooms (although a safe was provided that could be locked) which were tents on stilts. Your room was made up for you each night by the attentive lodge staff. The hot water bottles were a great touch to fend off the chilly Namibian nights and were still hot come morning! This leads us to another top tip: the Namibian evenings and mornings can be rather cold. Make sure you pack a jumper and hat to keep the coldness at bay so you can enjoy the fresh air and amazing African night skies.
Day 7 started in the best possible way as we awoke to the news that lions were within site of the lodge. An impromptu trip with a lodge guide (all free of charge) got us up close and personal to a group of teenage lions and cub. It was an encounter better than we had dreamed of having and kick-started our final full day in spectacular fashion.
We then ventured back into Etosha, and after driving up to largest salt pan in Africa, we turned Anita back around and headed away from the main trunk road (no pun intended) through the park and into the bush. It was here that Etosha revealed its greatest wonder to us. There, at a waterhole were several herds of elephants all together, baby playing with baby and adult greeting adult. We watched in complete awe as the elephants interacted right in front of our eyes. And then, just metres from the car, a young leopard appeared and slowly walked down to drink. This 30 minutes provided us memories that will never leave us and that were beyond what we ever thought we might be lucky enough to see in what was a relatively short visit. So a top tip here is to always keep your eyes open and have faith! You never know what a place like Etosha might throw at you.
For our final evening we booked to go and try and find the animal that Ongava is most famous for: the rhino. Driving deep into the private reserve we got up close and personal to two magnificent white rhino before having a small buffet in the middle of the park at sunset. A fitting final evening for a trip such as this.
However, our adventure had one more thing to throw our way. Deep into the evening of chatting with the other guests and enjoying Namibian beer for one final night the lions we had seen in the morning came down to the waterhole to drink. We quickly entered the low hide right next to the watering hole and what happened next amazed even the lodges experienced staff; the lions hunted us.
Ok, so we were safely in a hide behind bars, but still we were definitely on the menu! For 20 minutes the lions circled the hide, bellowing and never losing eye contact with us. One even swiped his paw through the open bars. We later asked the staff how often the lions react in such a way, their blunt response was “they never have before”. Whilst we were not in any real danger, it certainly was a dramatic end to what had been a sensational trip.
Our final day was a 225 mile road trip back south to Windhoek’s international airport and thankfully was on paved roads the whole way. But even this final journey was not without its interest as baboons, warthogs and hornbills lined the road and we stopped to take in the bustle of the non-tourist town Otjiwarongo on route.
As we approached the airport we relived our favourite memories and could not quite believe what Namibia had revealed to us in just over a week.
Our 1251 mile road trip had seen us cover desert, savannah, rugged mountains, salt pans and bush land, mostly on unpaved roads. And through all of that we saw one cloud and about 100 cars.
The wildlife was diverse and spectacular, from hungry lions (who had us on the menu) to majestic herds of elephants 30-strong, to a surprise leopard sighting and a huge colony of cape fur seals.
Namibia truly is a wonder, not yet (and hopefully never to be) spoilt by over commercialisation. It’s a true land of contrast, populated, albeit sparsely, with some of the proudest, friendliest, most beautiful people we have ever met.
We have to thank our plucky SUV Anita for getting us round, to Mark Bratt for putting on a trip that met our brief so well (he really did take us on an adventure to the edge of the earth) and to Namibia itself. It really was sensational.