Namibia Part 1: A Self Drive Safari

Preparing for our Namibia self-drive safari

A Namibian self-drive safari had been a long time coming – something I’d always dreamt of doing, but it was just a dream – until Qantas came up with airfares I couldn’t resist. So just like that on a muggy Tuesday evening in February, I secured two tickets from Melbourne to Windhoek via Johannesburg in Namibia’s peak travel season – August. I proceeded then to book a kitted up 4WD with a rooftop tent and built in kitchen along with a combination of safari lodges, campsites and AirBnB properties just so I wouldn’t have to go more than three days without a proper shower.

Because of the length and complexity of the trip, I’ve decided to write about the trip in sections.

This is what I packed for the whole trip:

    • A 0-degree sleeping bag
    • A tent and pegs
    • Thongs
    • Hiking boots
    • Lots of moisture wicking socks
    • Khaki coloured tee shirts
    • Light jacket
    • 2 pairs of Kathmandu pants that zip-off into shorts
    • Bathers
    • Camera
  • Zoom lens
  • Binoculars
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Buff
  • Polarised sunnies
  • Comprehensive first aid kit including tweezers and painkillers
  • Washbag
  • Microfibre towel
  • Water bottle
  • Day pack
  • Washing line
  • Powerboard and adaptor
  • Two big soft sided bags for all our gear
  • Cardboard box filled with food we knew how to prepare from home such as spices, coffee sticks and curry paste

A couple of our friends decided to join us as well on our three week safari so at the last minute I booked a second 4WD vehicle (non equipped for camping). We also brought a tent because we weren’t prepared to sleep four in the camping vehicle. As it turned out, the tent and extra car worked out perfectly.

Pro tip #1: Even if travelling with very close friends, it’s worth getting larger accommodations and two vehicles just so you’ve got space for luggage, room to breathe and the flexibility to do your own thing. Little things that annoy you about your mates turn into huge bugbears in small, confined spaces.

The other thing I discovered about Namibia is that the country is booming as a tourist destination. I started booking things in February for travel in August (peak season) and spent hours begging operators on the phone and email for cars and accommodation. Staff at car companies actually laughed at me, saying “you’re crazy to think you can get car in August at this late date!”. Save yourself the pain and book early. Like a year early.

Melbourne to Windhoek

Flying to Windhoek is arduous if coming from anywhere in Australia due to the lack of direct connections. From Melbourne, you have to get into Sydney early. Then you get onto the 1055 to Joburg, layover for about three hours before boarding a SAA plane to Windhoek. It’s over 20 hours of travel, so make sure you’ve got a comfy place to rest your head when you arrive into Namibia’s capital. You’ll also get in late and be jetlagged as the time difference (8/9 hours depending on whether it’s daylight savings time at home) does you no favours.

Pro Tip #2: Bring South African Rands from home or Joburg as the money changer isn’t open at Windhoek at night. This is especially if you need a taxi. ZAR is perfectly acceptable in Namibia at a 1:1 conversion rate. At the time of my trip, the exchange rate was roughly 10NAD or ZAR to 1AUD. Also, bring or buy the right adaptor for Namibian power points, which look most commonly like the socket on the right pictured here:

Having an adaptor with a two pin prong would work on the outlet shown on the left. I got one like this one pretty cheaply off Amazon. It was twice the price at the airport! Click here or on the image to purchase.

What struck me most about Namibia is how honest, polite and kind most Namibians are. Our taxi driver was a lovely, soft spoken man who approached us as we exited the terminal. We first thought he was a tout but there were so few people about, he was just about our only ticket into town. Like so many Namibians we would meet on our journey, he was perfectly genuine!

Pro tip #3: A private taxi costs NAD350 into Windhoek, a journey of around 40 mins. By all means tip your driver if he goes above and beyond-they work long hours and make so little it’s criminal.

So as per usual, I booked a two bedroom, very modern Airbnb apartment in Eros, an upmarket suburb north of the city centre. Our host withheld the name of the apartment complex (for security maybe?) so we had a little trouble finding it. Our taxi driver kindly let us use his mobile data to contact our host for specific directions. He also waited with us until we got in, which was really nice as it was dark.

Our unit was in the big, white Monte Piana complex accessible through a secure garage door. Fully self contained, the place was chic, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Haven’t used AirBnB before? Sign up with this link for up to AUD50 off your first booking:

Pro tip #4: Wi-Fi is patchy as hell throughout Namibia even with a MTC local SIM but you can get one to make local calls and texts (remember those??) cheaply. MTC has the best overall coverage and we used the Aweh Gig plan (1GB for a week), which costs a paltry 32NAR.

Windhoek to Waterberg

The next morning, a driver came from the rental car company to pick us up from the tranquil Lemon Tree restaurant, where we had brekkie, just down the road from our unit. Eating out in Namibia is incredibly cheap for the quality you get. Expect to pay 15NAD for a cuppa or coffee, maybe 40-50NAD for a cheese and tomato toastie.

Pro tip #5: Beware of potholes in the road…there are virtually no footpaths. I fell into one in my first 5mins outside our apartment and had to visit a pharmacy to stock up on big plasters for my knee – there’s a great one next to the legendary Joe’s Beerhouse.

Once we had our cars, we headed to the supermarket to stock up. We parked in Shop Rite in downtown Windhoek, a really authentic local supermarket where many women in traditional Herero garb shopped. This is where we got our mobile SIM card, a proper adaptor that fit the most common socket plus plenty of drinking water (10 litres each to supplement our 80L camping car tank).

We stocked up on dry goods: rice, pasta, peanut butter, potatoes, tinned chickpeas and mushrooms. Our shopping list also included tomato paste, fresh veg, apples and chocolate in the form of flavoured rusks. The camping car had a fridge so in went cheese and garlic butter (the latter is the bomb and comes in a sausage-like plastic case. You’ll find it amongst the cheeses and butters at the supermarket).

Pro tip #6: there is plenty of variety in Windhoek’s supermarkets but by all means bring staples such as coffee and chocolate from home if you can’t live without them! There’s not as big a selection as Oz but plenty of interesting local flavours and foods to try. Food from home and from Namibian supermarkets are easily traded with locals in remote locales who understandably prefer goods to cash!

With the pantry stocked, it was time to hit the road to Waterberg. This relatively small reserve sits northeast of Windhoek and had white rhino. Two nights here at the Waterberg Wilderness Plateau Campsite would provide us a gentle introduction to the Namibian bush plus time to get over jetlag.

I’d arranged a private campsite, which I learnt soon enough to mean that I had an exclusive site, with it’s own toilet/shower block, own braai (barbecue) and tap for washing up/drinking.

Every one I’d booked on this trip turned out to also offer access to a pool, to the lodge restaurant and to activities on the reserve/concession owned by the campsite operators. This made for a fantastic experience,even for a non-camper like me! I’ve reviewed Waterberg Plateau Campsite in full here.

Pro tip #7: Only in one place – Uis – did we come across non-potable tap water. Everywhere else, tap water was safe to drink although taste varied greatly. As a general rule, places with a natural spring such as Palmwag and Waterberg had great tasting water. Etosha and Hoada had quite salty water, whilst Uis offered something akin to seawater!

Something else to learn before you set off on a self drive safari round the country: road categorisations. “B” roads such as the B1 from Windhoek to Etosha are the best – sealed, dual carriage – while “C” roads can be corrugated. “D” roads are downright horrible and dusty such as the one past Twyfwlfontein. I can’t even conceive what an “F” road would be like…effing awful, I imagine.

Our non-camping vehicle, a Nissan dual cab ute-came with unlimited kms and an unlimited repair guarantee, meaning we would only have to pay an admin fee should we need repairs along the way. Just as well, because I drove miles on a flat without realising such was the poor quality of the road. You just had to pay for repairs, collect receipts and claim the costs on return.

Pro tip #8: always carry a spare tyre and have all you need to change a flat tyre/do basic repairs. Mechanics are few and far between, road quality generally poor and as we learnt in Twyfelfontein, sometimes workshops lack equipment so don’t even offer simple things such as tyre patching.

Driving map from Windhoek to Waterberg Plateau Campsite

While the distance was only 300km, due to B1 roadworks and a long C road we had to take into Waterberg, the journey took 4.5 hours. We got in with enough light to check in, pitch our tent and start cooking dinner before dark.

Firewood was supplied so getting the campfire going was easy. In other places, you had to purchase this – expect to pay about 30-40NAD for a bundle. So if you’re “luxury camping” like we did, don’t worry about bringing your own wood.

Hot water at Waterberg was plentiful and shower pressure simply divine. Just be aware that it’s almost always solar powered so best to shower in the evening and be mindful that if you use up all the hot water at night, you’ll have none in the morning!

Pro tip #9: Jetlag will inevitably take hold so you’ll probably be in bed by 8pm and up between 3-4am. This works to your advantage if you need to be up at daybreak for game activities but in the hours before sunrise, I’d suggest having a reading light and book or e-reader handy.

Our first activity at Waterberg actually only started at 8am which left a lot of time for a leisurely breakfast and birdwatching. Rhino tracking was on the cards, and as two of Waterberg’s four white rhinos comprised of mother and calf, we could only track the other two.

Our guide Franz was a bit taciturn, but with some prodding, eventually opened up. Our walk took us past plenty of birdlife, and a handsome oryx in the distance which was all very exciting. However, two hours in and with the hot sun beating down on us, we were no closer to rhino. It took us three hours and twenty kilometres, with some traipsing through skin-shredding thorny brush, before we came upon the pair browsing in a clearing.

White rhino are the tamer of the two rhino species, but nevertheless they don’t like being approached too closely. These two harrumphed at us, but Franz waved his stick and they settled down, eventually getting used to our presence and lying down contentedly.

As a wildlife lover, I’m not keen on activities that encourage animals to interact with humans. However, Waterberg are doing a great job reviving an area where native wildlife were previously eradicated so I was quite happy to contribute towards the reintroduction of rhino to a relatively lush Eden amid arid scrublands so close to Windhoek.

Pro tip #10: Always have a hat, sunscreen, sleeves and long pants on any walking safari. The Namibian sun is fierce even in winter and the thorns even more ferocious.

You might have noticed from my photo above that I was carrying a book. It’s another thing I never go on safari without. The National Audubon Field Guide to African Wildlife is my safari bible. It’s a bloody awesome reference book for African mammals and birds and I can’t recommend it enough. Click here or on the image below to purchase it off Amazon.

As we were so far from our campsite, Franz radioed for a vehicle and we rode home with the breeze on our faces in the back of a ute. Something we no longer can do at home, which is a shame!

Given we’d covered so much ground that day, the next morning we took what we thought was a short stroll along the “Dassie Trail”. Marked as 2.5km return, this walk is actually around 5km long and quite challenging, being mostly uphill at the beginning. At the top, there’s an amazing view of the Waterberg plateau, the savanna below and plenty of cute, furry dassie or rock hyraxes who pop their heads up to look at you over the boulders. Worth it but also important to start early so i isn’t too hot on your way down. By the time we got back to camp, it was hot enough for a dip in the freezing pool and a cold drink (but not both at the same time!).

Pro tip #11: Namibian alcoholic drinks are cheap so don’t cart your own sundowners around. Just buy them from the bar. Beers and ciders are about 30-40NAD with GnTs around 50.

For helpful tips on driving in Namibia, read this post:

Ten Things to Know When Driving in Namibia

We reviewed Waterberg Plateau Campsite here:

Waterberg Plateau Campsite Review

To read about our trip, the entire three week self-drive safari is chronicled on these pages:

Part 1:

Namibia Part 1: A Self Drive Safari

Part 2:

Namibia Part 2: Exploring Etosha National Park

Part 3:

Namibia Part 3: Palmwag

Part 4:

Namibia Part 4: Uis

Part 5:

Namibia Part 5: Swakopmund

Part 6:

Namibia Part 6: Sossusvlei

Part 7:

Namibia Part 7: Wolwedans

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