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Namibia: Self-Drive

8 min read
Namibia: Self-Drive

Meet the friendliest country in Africa face to face.

A great country to travel at your own pace, with your own vehicle, and choosing your own unique route.

Traveling to a remote and exciting destination is a big decision and it is not always easy to determine which one is the best option and how to tackle the journey. Luckily for the discerning international traveller looking for that special memorable trip for their hard-earned vacation, Namibia offers all the adventure of a wild African country, the spectacular and diverse scenery of deserts, bush and forests, but also the safety and convenience that makes it a suitable option for the entire family.

Served by direct flights from Europe to its capital city Windhoek, or just a short flight from the nearest international gateway of Johannesburg and Cape Town in neighbouring South Africa, Namibia is a relatively cheap and safe destination that is ideal for self-drive enthusiasts, or those who want to try a self-drive holiday for the first time.

A self-drive holiday is the perfect way to make your holiday special in terms of your own unique preferences and schedule. An organised tour is great if you have only a short period, are not able to drive yourself for some reason, or if you are not keen on going off the regular tourist routes. However, self-drive is the ultimate in adventure to sample that special unique experience only the self-drive tourist ever gets to experience and best of all, in Namibia it is a safe option too.

Background on Namibia

Namibia is a country situated in the south-western corner of Africa, with its neighbouring countries being Angola in the north, Botswana in the east, and South Africa in the south. The Atlantic Ocean laps its shores in the west. Namibia also shares a small portion of its border with Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The country has just over 2 million residents consisting of 13 different tribes, scatted across its 824 269 square kilometres, and its capital is the city of Windhoek. The climate is fairly mild during winter to hot during summer, with primarily summer rainfall, a green African forest in its north-east, savannah grasslands with thorny scrubs and trees in its central areas, a semi-desert in the south, and two deserts namely the Namib Desert along the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Kalahari Desert in the east bordering southern Botswana and South Africa.

The country gained its independence from South Africa in 1991 after a 20-year liberation struggle, and was also a former British and German colony. Of the colonial past, the German impact is most widely visible in the architecture and language, while the South African influence is clear in its economic and cultural links to its neighbour. The official language is English, but many more local languages are spoken by the various tribes, inclusive of Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Afrikaans, Nama, Damara, German, Rukwangali, Khoi San, Setswana, and others.

The people of Namibia are very friendly, earning the country its nickname of “The Smile on the Face of Africa”, and tourists leave with mostly positive memories of each personal interaction.

Namibia’s road infrastructure is well-developed, but some areas require experienced drivers. The country has 5450 km of tarred road, and 37000 km of well-maintained gravel roads.

Some requirements for self-driving

Prior to coming to Namibia, it is important to find out what the requirements are for your country in terms of visas, access, and obtaining an international drivers licence. If you are bringing a foreign registered vehicle, you need to be in possession of proof of ownership of the vehicle, licence and police clearance certificate. The police will check the engine number, chassis number, trailer number and licence details. A cross border fee is payable when entering Namibia for vehicle and trailer, so please enquire from the Namibian Embassy or High Commission in your country, or ask your local travel agent to confirm.

Adequate insurance cover is also important when planning your epic self-drive adventure through Namibia. Make sure you have cover for your vehicle, loss or theft of your belongings, and medical insurance.

Vehicle options for self-drive safaris in Namibia

The country offers fantastic scenery, but also great distances between the highlights, so your choice of vehicle should take into account that you will be spending a lot of time driving. Sedan vehicles are less expensive than 4×4 vehicles, but bear in mind that large distances will be on gravel roads, and the more remote spots may only be accessible with an all-wheel-drive vehicle (4×4).

Your budget and preferred route will obviously also be important factors in choosing a vehicle, but the advantage of an all-wheel-drive vehicle is the access to more remote areas, a smoother and safer ride because of the larger diameter tyres reducing the vibration on corrugated gravel roads and ensuring more stability, the availability of camping gear and more luggage space on the larger vehicles, and the improved tyre safety. During the rainy season, some of the good gravel roads can become impossible to drive with a sedan vehicle. However, bear in mind that these come at a higher price, and the decision on the type of vehicle should therefore take all aspects into consideration. In summer, air conditioning is a must, but most reputable rental companies now offer air conditioning as standard, even on most of the smaller rental vehicles.

Type of vehicles available for rental include sedan car, 2×4 single cab pick-up truck with canopy, and 4×4 single or double cab pick-up truck with canopy, or station wagon.

When renting a vehicle please bear in mind that there are related insurance costs to take into consideration such as the Collision Damage Waiver, Theft Loss Waiver, Excess, etc. Make sure you ask your rental company or travel agent to include everything in the quotation for your rental.

Road safety and rules

Namibia is a left-hand-drive country, so if possible try to include some practice ahead of your trip to get used to driving on another side of the road if you come from a country where you drive on the opposite side of the road. Also, if you bring your own vehicle with left-hand-steering, it will make it even more important to practice.

The speed limit on the open road in Namibia is 120km per hour. In town, the speed limit is 60-80km per hour. Some roads with more challenging conditions will have lower speed limits. Seat belts are compulsory, for all passengers in a vehicle, drivers must be in possession of a valid driving licence at all times, and the use of cellular phones while driving is prohibited. Between sunset and sunrise, headlights of your vehicle must be switched on, but it is also advisable to use headlights on the open road during daytime as it increases visibility and safety.

Many tourists who drive on Namibian roads are unfamiliar with gravel road conditions, and are therefore at greater risk of accidents. It is important to reduce speeds on gravel roads, and rather allow for more time to complete your journey. Be careful for stones that could blow a tyre, passing vehicles throwing stones on your windscreen, and also be prepared for possible flash flooding during the rainy season when crossing rivers. Another danger that many tourists are unaware of is the risk of a vehicle fire when driving in dry grass because of the accumulation of grass around the exhaust system or near the engine.

Be aware of animals – domestic and wild – on the roads, especially at night.

Another important factor to remember is that driving just anywhere off the main roads is not allowed, since you may be in a National Park, and could cause damage to ecologically sensitive areas like for instance the lichen fields in the desert.

If you do plan to go into more remote areas, it is important to let someone know of your planned route and your expected arrival time, and have regular contact along the way where you can. Also ask for extra spare wheels from your rental company, or bring along with your own car, and make sure you have enough emergency supplies in your vehicle in case you do get stuck somewhere. In your supplies, include enough water and food, as well as extra fuel and first aid/medical supplies.

Itinerary ideas

The different areas of Namibia each offer a unique attraction to the self-drive tourist, so your choice of itinerary will depend on your preference and interest. From the wide vistas and unique natural attractions in the south like the majestic Fish River Canyon, the specialised fauna and flora of the Namib Desert and its unforgettable attractions like the Sossusvlei Dunes, to the central highlands with its mountain ranges and camping and hiking opportunities, the barren and remote Skeleton Coast in the north-western corner, to the north-eastern river systems and African forest, Namibia offers so much choice. Of course, wild animals roam freely in so many of these areas, making your Namibian experience even more special.

You can either choose to take just one more special itinerary if you are on a shorter trip, or else combine all the highlights into one magnificent journey if you have more time available. Options for adventure travel, photography tours, or other specialised tours are also available.

In planning your own trip, make use of the abundance of information available online, especially using the national websites for the Namibia Tourism Board, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and the Hotel Association of Namibia. These websites will give you more ideas and show you the top sights that you must see, plus provide accommodation options to suit any budget or preference.

Using a travel agent can help because your itinerary can be streamlined according to your needs, and it can take the guesswork out of car rental, accommodation bookings, and documentary requirements for your trip, but you can also do most of your planning and bookings online too.

Most establishments that offer accommodation in Namibia are open all year round, but the best time to visit is up to the individual. Summers are generally very hot, and early spring and summer rainfall can interfere with the best-laid self-drive plans. The winters are quite mild, although chilly nights are often a reality for self-drivers who like camping.

Whatever season you choose, regardless of the vehicle and itinerary options you prefer, you are guaranteed a holiday that will always be remembered. The land of the wide open spaces – Namibia – is ready to welcome you on your journey. Sitting next to that campfire at night, after an exciting day filled with the most amazing sights and sounds, you will realise that Namibia is a country that will always call you back. And of course, you are welcome to return as many times as you like.

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