Have you ever wondered about doing a safari with kids? For years I had and now we’ve done it! When investigating a self drive safari, Namibia was the country that came up top, time and again.
Namibia is definitely a country on the rising star list. I’ve noticed a big trend in people seeking out more intrepid adventures recently. I think, like me, they’re increasingly disillusioned with visiting places packed with tourists and following well trodden paths. They don’t want to do what everyone else has done. They’re looking for more intimate and personal experiences. Doing a tour in Namibia is totally possible but the big draw of the country has to be the ability to go it alone and do a self-drive safari.
Namibia has some of of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen in my life. Even better, it’s known for being one of the easier countries to do a self-drive or road trip holiday. The roads are, for the most part in good condition relative to other countries on the continent. They’re flat, pretty straight and, for the most part, completely empty.
That being said, driving in any country in Africa isn’t for the faint hearted. Only around 25% of the roads we drove on the most popular route around Namibia were tarred or salt roads. The rest were gravel (mostly) or sand (occasionally).
Driving on gravel is hard work even when the roads are in decent condition. Driving for long distances, for long periods of time, while looking at vast expanses of nothingness is hard work. Driving while trying to take in beautiful scenery is, you guessed it, hard work. Add to that the complexities of driving in the desert, safety issues and possibly camping as your accommodation.. Suddenly you’ve got a lot to think about.
Luckily, I’ve got you covered with my comprehensive 50 tips and tricks for a self-drive in Namibia.
Deciding if a self-drive safari is for you
Starting at the beginning there are some fundamental decisions you have to make about the sort of holiday you want. We’ve often had a driver on other holidays. In some places we’ve preferred not to expose ourselves to the sheer madness that is driving in some destinations (looking at you Sri Lanka and India). In others we decided that leaving the driving to one person isn’t fair or even, really, a holiday.
Driving in Namibia wasn’t like that. We already knew from friends and reading up on the topic, that Namibia isn’t a hard place to drive in. It’s not easy either but compared to the rest of Africa apparently it’s a doddle.
Advantages of a self-drive safari in Namibia
- Flexible – you can go at your own speed, leave when you want, stop when you want and arrive when you want.
- Intimate and private – there’s no worrying about other people and if you (or your kids) are bothering them.
- Bonding – now it’s not like we talked the whole way round Namibia. Quite the opposite – I’ve listened to more Enid Blyton books on Audible than I ever thought humanly possible. But there were also times when the kids would just play together. We even had whole family discussions on a myriad of topics. It definitely brought us even closer together.
- Control – you never know what you’re getting with a driver. We’ve been lucky in the past that everyone we have used has been safe and reliable. Because we weren’t using a driver all the time, the only times we did, we were quite often using representatives from the car hire company or hotel. The only times the Things got motion sick was when we were being driven by someone else.
Disadvantages of a self-drive safari in Namibia
- The main disadvantage of a self-drive safari in Namibia has to be the sheer distance and time to get between places. It’s a lot of work and takes concentration. If you don’t like driving, this might not be the trip for you.
- Knowing the back routes. Drivers tend to be from the country you’re in so they know which are the best roads. They often have a network of other drivers who they communicate with. They tell each other if there’s a new road block or where that herd of elephants has moved to next. As a tourist you have none of that.
- Tour guide – drivers are often so much more than a way to get from A to B. With a number of tours under their belts, they will know things about each place you visit. They’ll have things to say about the demographics of a country or the politics. Travelling with a driver is a way of getting to know someone who really knows the country. YOu’re getting to know a local which is often hard to do as a tourist.
After all that, if you’ve decide to do a self-drive in Namibia then read on…
Choosing a car
Before you even choose a car, make sure you are up to date with the most recent driving requirements for the country. Most car hire companies in Namibia have a minimum age for driving of 23 years old. Some go as high as 25 years. You’ll also need a valid drivers license in English and to have been licensed for more than 12 months. If your license isn’t in English you can get an International Drivers License.
Assuming you can legally drive a hire car, you’ll need to think carefully about the sort of car you want to drive while you’re there. Here are all the things you might want to consider:
4×4 vs. 2×4
The idea of driving a 4 wheel drive might be overwhelming if you’re someone who doesn’t drive or who only drives a small car at home. The reality is that most of the roads are perfectly fine for a 2×4 to handle, particularly if you go for a larger car (see below – size and clearance).
If you can, though, I would always recommend a 4×4 car for a self-drive safari. It’s particularly useful if, like in Namibia, you are going to be covering significant distances. A 4×4 offers more comfort, safety, versatility, and reliability than a 2×4 can in those conditions.
Size and clearance
Most of the larger cars for hire are going to be 4x4s but you can get some bigger cars that are only 2×4. Even if you’ve decided to go with a wheel drive, I’d strongly suggest you consider it’s size from both a comfort and clearance perspective. Many of the gravel roads have significant bumps and potholes in them to navigate. Having a car that is high enough to clear them is imperative.
Of course budget has to come into this but beware of false economies! Make sure you’re considering the total cost of your holiday before making a decision on the budget for your car. Spending more in this area could get you extras like tents, a fridge and an extra spare wheel that you wouldn’t get in a cheaper car. Camping and self-catering will save you money over the course of the trip while having a second spare wheel will save you time in the event of getting 2 punctures between stops. For more advice on what you need to go camping, check out this camping with kids post from Family off Duty.
You might wonder what your accommodation choice in Namibia has to do with your choice of car but trust me, it does. If you’re looking to camp, many car rental companies offer 4x4s with one or 2 tents folded onto frames on the top! Alternatively you can travel with a tent in the back.
If camping isn’t your thing then fear not, there are plenty of lodges, boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts to choose from. This will increase your accommodation budget but potentially save you money on the car and widen your choice.
Something else to consider is that our rental company advised that they do not permit their employees to drive after dusk outside of urban areas. It’s possible that you could find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no assistance arriving until the next day. Whenever this occurred to me I felt glad that we had the tents on the top of the car. It was nice to have a back up plan if we broke down.
Fridge / cool box
If you’re camping, chances are the 4×4 you’ve rented has a fridge in the back. They’re not massive but plenty big enough to hold supplies for 3 or 4 days. You’ll find yourselves stocking up in the major towns as and when you can.
Whether or not you are camping, having a cool box in the back could save you lots of money. More importantly, it can be the home for your lunches on the days when you’re driving for an entire day. We ended up having several days where we drove and drove without seeing much at all. Lunch was an eat at the side of the road affair and some days even just in the car.
Be sure to ask about the battery when you pick up the car, particularly if you have a fridge. Most fridges have their own battery which is attached to the car’s main battery. This should last for 24 hours with the fridge on before it starts draining the car battery.
Our fridge battery stopped holding it’s own charge a couple of days into the trip. We ended up having to move all the food out into mini bar fridges in the lodges where we were staying and taking it to a garage in the next main town. There it had to be attached to the main battery. We were told to leave it on only when the car ignition was running to protect the main battery. There was some confusion as to whether or not we should have left the refrigerator on overnight at the previous lodge (they said we could but we didn’t) and the same for the fridge battery (they said we could and we did). Later we were told we shouldn’t have done either and something similar happened to some friends.
Regardless of what we should or shouldn’t have done, ask for tips on preserving the car and fridge battery. And know what to do if a battery goes flat.
It’s something most cars have these days but best to check the air-conditioning before you drive the car away. In warmer months you really don’t want to be sat for long periods of time in a too hot car. What’s more, if you’re camping and things get too hot during the day, sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned car for a while is a great way for everyone to cool down.
Tinted windows / window shades
It’s a theme, Wanderlusters, but keeping cool is a must in this climate. Having tinted windows or window shades is a great way to keep the sun off the people in the car and to keep the inside temperature down.
Check tyre types and condition
The sort of driving you’re going to be doing is pretty hardcore so you’ll want some good tyres. Inspect the type of tyres on your car and the condition of them before you drive away. Ideally you’ll have off-road tyres that are new or nearly new with tread that is still in good condition.
Not something you want to find out the hard way. Check before you drive away.
Here’s the good news: there’s so much to see and do in Namibia it’s almost overwhelming. From stunning sand dunes to river canyons to living museums to a complete abundance of diverse wildlife… It’s hard to choose where to start, let alone what to see and what to save for another trip. Do your research thoroughly and carefully before deciding what your must see places and things are before planning your route.
For longer trips you may be able to be more flexible and impulsive but for a trip less than 3 weeks it’s important to know what your plan is. We did extensive research before we left to plan the route maximising our time. It turned out to be invaluable on the trip itself as we already had a good idea of where we were going.
Round trip vs one way
Many people travelling to and around Namibia choose to fly in and out of Windhoek. This is by far the easiest and cheapest option for car rental and often for flights too (but not always!). Starting and ending in Windhoek is pretty straightforward as there is a big loop of Namibia that you can drive either way around. It covers most of the big destinations that people want to see and logically follows a circuit of the country.
Cross border considerations
A better way to travel includes crossing the border between Namibia and one of its neighbours: South Africa, Angola and Botswana. Some of these routes are a much more efficient way of touring the country. This lets you cover more sights in Namibia such as Fish River Canyon, the ghost town at Kolmanskop, Epupa Falls and the Caprivi Strip. They also eliminate the need to drive from Etosha in the north to the capital, Windhoek. Plus, of course they also include additional sights in the other countries!
There are additional considerations to include when planning your trip if you are going to cross international borders. You must inform your car rental company before taking their car across a border. Many companies include this as part of the package but some do not. In any case it is wise to ensure that they are aware of your plans.
There are also costs to consider: firstly many hire companies charge a fee for dropping the car off in a different location. This cost can vary greatly so it’s best to check before you book and maybe shop around. Other costs include payments to cross into or out of Namibia. You’ll also need to make sure you have all the right documentation to cross the borders (check by country what you need – the car hire company should be able to help) and you may also need to have pre-arranged visas depending on the country your passport country.
The car rental company will give you a briefing that you absolutely must listen too. This will include advice for driving in Namibia, an introduction to the car, any requirements that they many have and what to do in an emergency.
As with any road trip in a foreign country, it’s important to know what the local driving laws are. Driving is on the left in Namibia. Signs are in English and distances are measured in kilometres. It’s worth knowing how 4 way stop junctions work if they are not common in your country. It is compulsory for all passengers to wear seatbelts and talking on mobile phones while driving is illegal. Most people always drive with their lights on. Someone mentioned that this is the law and while I can’t deny or confirm this, it does mean your car is more visible.
As mentioned above, you must be in possession of a valid driving license in English or an international driving license. You must travel with this as well as the vehicle’s registration and insurance documents.
There are 3 main types of road in Namibia: tarred (coded as B roads on a road map), gravel (C and D roads) and off-road. Speed limits are 120 km/h on tarred roads, 100km/h on gravel roads and 50-60 km/h in urban areas. Breaking the speed limit can be punished harshly.
Your car rental company may have additional requirements (see below) and you will need the appropriate tyres and understand the tyre pressure requirements if you plan on going off-road.
For more information, make sure you are up to date with laws and regulations using websites such as Travel Namibia.
Car rental requirements
While the national speed limits are stated above, your car rental company may have more cautious requirements. Specifically, many will ask that you do not go above 80km/h on gravel roads instead of 100km/h. This is for your safety and also for insurance purposes. You may find, as we did, that there is a black box installed on the car which will track the car as you drive. Breaking the speed limits (including the 80km/h extra requirement) can invalidate your insurance so it’s worth sticking to the rules.
Don’t drive after dusk
Outside of urban areas, you’ll find there are no road markings or lights to help you. Animals are more lively at this time of day so there’s a much higher chance of having an accident. You may also find people walking home at the side of the road.
It may well be that your rental company also requires that you don’t drive outside of towns and cities at night.
While you may not normally be the sort of person who buys trip insurance, Namibia is a destination where you may want to consider it. There is a high chance that you will incur loss or damages as a result of accidents or minor damage to your car (more likely due to the driving conditions), theft and muggings, and medical issues.
You should also check that your car rental fees include the most comprehensive insurance. Ask for options to reduce your excess as well. Remember the points above about actions that could invalidate the whole policy.
It’s tempting to speed particularly if you have a long day of driving or when you are looking at a long stretch of empty road. Speeding, particularly on gravel roads, can backfire. At best you may end up slamming on the brakes when you suddenly hit a patch of bad quality road surface or getting a puncture. At worst you could end up rolling the car on a bend.
Stay away from the sides
The conditions of the road surface on the sides of the roads is considerably worse than in the middles. Stay away from the sides to reduce your chances of getting a puncture.
Watch out for crossings
The gravel is more compacted at railway crossings and farm gates making it more likely to as gravel is more compacted. Slow down to reduce your chances of getting a puncture.
Consider other drivers
One of the most annoying things when driving on gravel roads is being passed by another car or being overtaken. The dust that kicks up behind the car considerably reduces visibility and, in some cases, we had to slow down to a crawl until the dust cleared. It was nice to notice that some drivers slowed down before overtaking us and remained on the other side of the road to reduce kicking up dust and stones.
You’ll often find on gravel roads and in sand that others have gone before you. Following their tracks will make your life easier. On long stretches of gravel roads where there is no-one around you can easily drive on the other side of the road if the surface is better there. But…
Stay on your side of the road…
…on corners and brows of hills where you could have a chance encounter with another car!
The main things to know about for off-roading is about tyres and tyre pressure. If you are planning to drive off-road, ensure that the car you are driving has off-road tyres. These are often thicker than normal tyres to prevent punctures and have a deeper tread to give the car more traction. They may give less traction on normal roads, though, so it’s wise to be cautious. Off-road driving also requires a different level of air pressure in the tyres. Your car rental company will be able to advise you on the air pressure you will require based on the roads you’re planning to travel on and also for the weight in the car (including luggage and passengers).
Off-road driving is the hardest sort of driving to do. Knowing how to drive off road, particularly on sand is really tricky and often counter intuitive. Knowing how to drive off road before you go is imperative.
We were surprised by the lack of animals on the road in everywhere except Etosha National Park. That being said, we did have the occasional baboon run across in front of us. In Etosha we had to be particularly careful of springbok and other animals that might suddenly jump out in to the road. We also saw people by the side of the road from time to time and, of course, had to avoid the inevitable pot holes.
Game reserve safety
It’s a requirement in some areas such as Etosha National Park to stay in your vehicle at all times. This is for your own safety!
There are designated areas with toilets and picnics for lunch, snack and comfort breaks.
On the road
Navigating around Namibia is relatively straightforward but it’s best not to rely on just one method. I’d recommend starting with a current authoritative map and planning your route. Our tour company was kind enough to provide this and they took the liberty of highlighting the driving route that we had discussed with them when booking our trip.
We also used a GPS / sat/nav divide in the car. Our destinations were all pre-programmed into the memory, in order and as a single trip so it was incredibly straightforward to load it up at the beginning of each day. The GPS was helpful but didn’t have every single destination and, as they do in all countries, would sometimes try to take us on a less than efficient route. Having a good understanding of the route helped us know when to follow the GPS and when to override it.
I can’t emphasise enough just how long the distances are between places in Namibia. It’s a sparsely populated country so you can literally drive for an hour or two without seeing another car, person or animal. Known as the land of endless horizons, some of Namibia’s landscape is pretty desolate.
Prepare yourself and plan your journey well. And take solace in the fact that you’ll also spend time driving through some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll see in your life and that the destinations very much reward you for your travel.
Longer drive times
For all that the distances are long, the drive times are even longer. While it can be tempting to speed on some of the better roads (don’t do it – see above!), many times we found ourselves going considerably under the speed limit to navigate bumpy roads, when taking corners, after passing another car (dust kicks up behind cars on gravel roads) and to protect the tyres over potholes. Estimate your drive times assuming that you will be driving at around 20km/h less than the speed limit (so 100 km/h on tarred roads and 60km/h on gravel roads). Remember to allow for fuel stops, stops in towns to stock up and stops for lunch, comfort breaks, etc. On some drives you will also need to go out of your way to explore the local area.
While the roads are supposed to be some of the best in Africa, I still found the driving quite hard going. Navigating bumpy gravel roads, avoiding pot holes and driving through dust is exhausting. Staying awake on a hypnotically straight road with nothing to look at around you is also mind numbingly dull. Do what you need to (and is legal) to stay awake and alert.
Mr Wanderlust does most of the driving when we are on holiday so that we don’t pay for an extra driver. The terms of our rental agreement gave us an extra driver free of charge and I was really grateful for this.
Given all of the above, I can’t imagine asking one person in your party to do all the driving.
Take regular breaks
We found ourselves swapping at regular intervals and much more often than we would have done on an easier trip. This allowed us to take turns entertaining the kids or to nap if we had done a particularly testing bit of driving.
How to pass the time
Driving for such incredibly long periods of time is hard. We listened to countless hours of audio books (check out Audible, particularly if you are an Amazon Prime member). Podcasts are another good thing to have ready. Make sure you download all these onto your device in a location with good WiFi as you won’t be able to do it on the road.
Games such as I-Spy, Would you Rather and I’m Thinking of an Animal were played for yet more countless hours!
Ok so the Things chose not to sleep for a single minute while we were driving but Mr Wanderlust and I took advantage of the time to catch up on some much needed rest.
Nothing makes for a traumatic journey than hungry, bored, bad-tempered kids. We made sure we had a good supply of drinks and snacks for every journey. Some I had brought with us, knowing that the Things would eat them. Others we bought in towns when we stocked up.
Namibia isn’t the sort of place where you can just get in the car and drive. Being prepared on the road is the best way to stay safe.
Cell phone coverage
Cell phone coverage is sproadic, at best, in many areas of Namibia. You may find that your phone carrier does not have roaming agreements with Namibia and so the charges will be extortionate even if you can get coverage. Your best option, by far, is to buy a local SIM card as soon as you land.
Be aware, though, that you still won’t always have coverage (not even a single bar of 3G!) and you need a contingency plan for emergencies on the road.
Most places accept credit and debit cards but you always need a bit of cash as you go around. Tipping at hotels / lodges, petrol pumps and on game drives are all times you might want some.
Occasionally we found somewhere that didn’t – once or twice there was a petrol station and we did some laundry in one location and they wanted cash for that too. Each time we were grateful for the cash. At one point we ran out of cash and didn’t pass a cashpoint / ATM for 2 days! I felt quite vulnerable without the option to pay in cash.
Top up – fuel
Fuel stations can be few and far between. And when I say that, I mean like hundreds of kilometres apart. Make sure you fill up at regular intervals and don’t rely completely on filling up in one particular place.
It’s worth noting that fuel stations in Namibia are not self service. There will be an attendant so wait for them to serve you. It might seem basic, but ensure they put the correct fuel in the car. They may also offer to clean your windscreen while the car is filling up. When you are finished, it is customary to tip the attendant.
Top up – other supplies
We found it hard to plan more than a couple of days in advance. The fridge in the car was roomy but not that roomy. We were only camping every few days but we were lunching on the go most days. We found it easiest to top up food and drink at regular intervals but made sure we had at least something to eat in the car – again, in case it turned out that we couldn’t get food where we were planning to. It’s also worth noting that in some places no alcohol is served on Sundays.
All cars will have at least one spare tyre but with such long distances between destinations and high chances of getting a puncture, it’s far better to travel with 2. Ask your car hire company to supply this ahead of time and make sure you know where the spares are kept.
If you do get a puncture, it’s best to get the tyre repaired or replaced as soon as possible. The best option is to contact your car hire company and head to the nearest garage that they recommend.
Know how to change a tyre
It sounds so obvious but remember you’re driving a car you don’t know. Knowing where the spare tyre is is just the beginning. If you can, ask to practice changing a tyre at the rental company before you set off.
First aid kit
You really need a decent first aid kit when travelling around Namibia. Check out my post on the ultimate safari first aid kit for ideas on what to pack.
Not really on the same level as needing a first aid kit or making sure you don’t run out of fuel but I was warned several times about the dust before we travelled and I was so glad I listened! We put all our cases in big black bin bags before loading them in the car. The amount of dust all over the bags was astonishing and I was horrified to think it could have been all over the bags themselves.
We were super lucky and were given all the emergency numbers that we needed by the travel agent in their briefing. From the number for the emergency services to the numbers of the travel agent and rental company to the numbers of the places we were staying. I really felt like we had it covered.
Make sure someone knows your plan while you’re away. This includes your planned route and all the places you’re staying along the way. You could leave these details with the car rental company, a hotel, a travel agent or even a family member at home.
General road trip safety
You’d think that most of this goes without saying but other tips that we were given in our briefing included:
- Drive with the doors locked and the windows up.
- Stay away from dangerous areas – your hotel or lodge should be able to help you with the local area.
- Park your vehicle in safe areas – many places will offer a secure parking area. Alternatively busy, well-lit streets should be ok.
- Always lock your vehicle.
- Take valuables with you or conceal them well in the car.
- Avoid hitchhikers – it’s not common but there have been reports of car-jackings from people posing as hitchhikers.