It’s hard to imagine a landscape more dramatic than that of the largely uninhabited southern African desert nation Namibia. Dot its picturesque lands with a hefty assortment of big game and wildlife and you’ve got the right conditions for an epic holiday setting.
A network of well-maintained (though often unpaved) roads means a visit to the Namibia’s twee and tidy settlements, broad beaches and welcoming range of bush camps and luxury lodges are all an exceptionally beautiful breeze to access. Internal bush flights bring its even more remote corners within easy reach. If you're attracted to the idea of hitting the road, experiencing true wilderness, seeing lots of game and still being able to take a hot shower (often in your own private outdoor bathing area) every night, Namibia is the place for you – and a road trip is the best way to see it.
I spent nearly two weeks on the road there, travelling between lodges in a hired 2016 Nissan X Trail. Each lodge was located in a wilderness area of a different region, affording me the chance to take in much of the scenery at my own pace and to see an overwhelming number and variety of animals – at lodges with camp guides as well as on my own while driving cross country. As accommodating as each lodge was, driving between them was possibly the highlight of my trip. I cannot recommend a Namibian road trip enough for anyone seeking the exhilaration of freedom that comes from being on the road.
During my journey, Google Maps and Garmin sat nav proved to be reliable directional aids. However I stopped using both early on as a large foldable map turned out to be handiest. Tips from camp guides and staff and other tourists on similar itineraries yielded valuable advice as well. However, guesstimates about driving times between destinations varied greatly (for one drive I was told it would take from just under six hours to more than 12 hours; it took me nine).
Some people I met during and after my trip thought that driving around Namibia with a map printed on dead trees meant I was some kind of orienteering wizard. But the fact of the matter is there simply aren't many roads; and the fewer turns you make, the fewer wrong turns you make. I did not have to backtrack once.
Should you embark upon your own self-drive safari across Namibia, be advised to fill your tank at every opportunity between destinations and to ensure you have more than enough water and food. Keep your mobile fully charged, and give yourself ample time to stretch your legs in the wide-open spaces and to take plenty of photos.
Outlined below are four areas of Namibia where I stayed during my trip.
Setting out from Namibia's capital of Windhoek, the first lodge on my itinerary was Andersson’s Camp, set within Ongava Game Reserve on the border of Etosha National Park. Home of the Etosha Pan, a 120k long dry lakebed, the park contains a plethora of wildlife. It was difficult getting my head round all the animals I saw in just two days, especially the lions (I saw so many lions) and particularly during game drives through Ongava Game Reserve bordering the park. Michael, my Andersson’s Camp guide, was especially adept at tracking animals, getting as close to them as possible without disturbing them, including a white rhino family we approached on foot.
Camp accommodations were certainly rustic, but more than agreeable. My “room” was a kind of canvas tent/stone cabin hybrid with en-suite bathroom featuring flush toilet, basin and open air shower, as well as a wooden deck and covered veranda with an uninterrupted view of the bush. I loved dining near the camp’s watering hole where you never knew who might show up. There was a hide a minute’s stroll from the dining area for up close viewing of any critters dropping by for a drink.
From Etosha, I made west for Damaraland – an arid dreamscape of strange rock formations, vast plains, dry riverbeds, the possibility of catching a glimpse of specially adapted desert species of wildlife, and the chance to stay at Doro Nawas Camp, an otherworldly luxury lodge on the edge of civilisation. The four-hour drive from Andersson’s Camp to Doro Nawas Camp was a delight. Most of the route was clean blacktop, but the last hour or so of the drive was dirt road – perfectly safe while still with the feeling of being off the grid.
My home for the night could be seen for miles. As if hovering above the desert, the camp sat upon the crest of a hill, surrounded by plains with a backdrop of rugged mountains in the near distance. Camp consisted of a series of 16 spacious cabins, clustered around a main lodge that took advantage of its unique setting with amazing views from verandas. Guests were encouraged to roll their beds out onto the verandas to sleep under a blanket of stars and wake up to sweeping views. Before I headed off to bed, my camp guide, Boetie, presented a brief lesson on the constellations of the southern hemisphere, speaking from atop the main lodge’s lofty perch where a flat roof formed the perfect spot for marvelling at the starry multitude.
If Etosha had been all about the lions, Doro Nawas was all about the elephants.
Boetie was not just an expert on what to see in the Namibian sky but also on more terrestrial wonders. My afternoon here was spent cruising the Aba-Huab river valley (mostly using the dry riverbed as our road) with Boetie in search of elusive dessert elephants. Though as elusive as the elephants are reputed to be, it was only an hour into our game drive when we found them: first a solo bull and then a mother with her offspring. They didn’t seem the slightest bit skittish. Indeed, the bull let it be known we were on his turf with a false charge. The rather more relaxed mother sidled up within inches of our vehicle.
Ditching my hired car for a couple of nights, the next stop on my itinerary was Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, accessible by 45-minute bush flight over an expanse of desert where hardly a bush can be seen. As formidably named as it was, the Skeleton Coast was a serene and gentle place to be – at least while in the shade and in the company of competent guides.
The camp was a stylish canvas paradise of haute design set within one of the world’s most desolate and pristine wilderness areas. Less than two years in operation, this fully solar powered joint venture between public and private enterprise is the very model for cutting edge, and sustainable, luxury.
The highlights and memories from this leg of my trip were many. Guides Alpha and Tsjemba were ace at tracking down and identifying wildlife – including elephants, giraffes, and even weeks old lion cubs. Off-roading up, down and across giant sand dunes was an absolute blast. Checking out shipwrecks and colonies of seals at Mowe Bay had me connected with the wonder-seeking little boy I once was.
Last stop on my tour was Sossusvlei. With its giant sand dunes (the world’s highest in fact), Sossusvlei was not just the ultimate destination of my itinerary but also the ultimate choice for any desert break. Although the area didn’t teem with nearly as much big game as other parts of the county, the desert expanses were a landscape photographer’s dream.
I stayed at Little Kulala, an otherworldly and eco-sensitive luxury lodge. During the day Little Kulala looked to be the very definition of a desert outpost. By night, it was a fairyland cluster of twinkling lights melding as much with the sparkling firmament above as with the sandy terra firma below.
My thatched roof kulala (a traditional, if modified for upscale comfort, Namibian house) featured a rooftop skybed for stargazing, a private plunge pool, indoor/outdoor shower and gorgeous unobstructed views of the desert, which seemed to change in colour every other time I looked at it. My guide, Forster, took pride sharing his love and knowledge of the area with me and the other tourists I had tagged along with in his Land Cruiser, pointing out animals – including newborn Cape foxes and a slithery sidewinder – and unique geographic formations.
The long and achingly scenic drive from the north of Namibia along the coast and down to Sossusvlei as well as the relatively short jaunt from Little Kulala to Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek served as memorable chances to whisk through some of the most stunning stretches of countryside I have ever seen.