Some countries are regarded as easy to travel with hardly any preparation in advance being required. Some other countries require some more preparation before you visit. There are quite a few things you need to know before you travel to Namibia, especially for first time visitors and when going on a self-drive trip.
Updated version May 2020
Namibia is an amazing country with some beautiful nature and great things to do and see. I have been lucky to be able to visit Namibia on numerous occasions and every time I get more gripped by how spectacular this country is. I have also learned over the years that Namibia is a travel destination where it is important to be prepared and to know certain things before you go. I love to travel without much preparation and I am in favour of discovering new things and places with hardly any preparation and to take it as it comes. For 1st time visitors to Namibia, do take some time to prepare your trip and to get to know certain things before embarking on that wonderful journey.
13 Things to know before travelling to Namibia
Namibia is a sparsely populated country. In fact, it is the worlds second least populated country after Mongolia, where distances between major towns are large and with quite a lot of remote places.
Be prepared for a lot of dust and sand while driving in Namibia
A large part of Namibia consists of desert. A desert has a lot of sand and dust of course. And there is even more dust in the air when visiting Namibia during the dry season. The dust and the sand will get into just about everything, including into your car and your luggage. If you have expensive equipment with you, best is to keep it in sealed bags or containers to keep the dust out. I do use my DSLR camera, but I keep it covered as much as possible or don’t take it out when there is too much wind. I try to keep my camera in this sling bag all the time to keep it protected. A useful tip for when you are self-driving, in the beginning of your trip, buy some plastic boxes with a sealable lid, so you can keep your food dust free while driving. Here are some more tips on what to pack when going on a safari in Namibia.
Don’t get bothered too much by the sand and dust as there is nothing much you can do about it. In the end, you are visiting a desert, and a beautiful desert for that matter. I always say, you have only truly visited Namibia if you have smelled, felt and tasted the dust.
Expect long driving distances
The land area of Namibia is slightly over 800.000 km2 (twice the size of Germany), making it a fairly large country to travel in. Most of the highlights of Namibia are spread out all over the country and in order to see the main attractions, you will have some pretty long driving distances. Around 80% of the roads in Namibia are either hard gravel roads, sand roads or salt roads, making fast driving not as safe as your normal highway roads in some western countries. The maximum advisable speed on these roads is 80 km/hour.
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give is, fill up with fuel whenever you can, especially when travelling through the more remote areas. Fuel stations are not found on every street corner and you never know when the next one will come on your path. And even then, you never know if the next fuel station will have fuel (it happens that fuel stations run out of fuel due to various circumstances).
Plan your trip to Namibia
I am normally not someone who likes to plan a trip too much in advance. I tend to go with the flow and plan my trip en route. For Namibia, I would give everyone the advice to plan at least the broad lines of your trip when self-driving. Most people will fly into Windhoek (the capital of Namibia) and start a round trip from there, sometimes also including Botswana. In order to be able to see all the major highlights in a decent time, it’s important to define how to start the round trip. What you will visit first will depend on some bookings of accommodations you may have already made. If you are travelling in peak season, you might have to book long in advance, especially in places like Etosha National Park. This information can be found the National Parks website.
For further planning and more tips to prepare your trip, read our Namibia travel guide
Namibia is a large country and consists mainly out of gravel and sand roads with lower average speeds. The driving times will therefore be longer than expected and careful planning is needed.
About time. Up until 2017, Namibia was the only country in Southern Africa that implemented daylight savings. The first Sunday of April the clock was turned 1 hour back to GMT+1 and the first Sunday of September the clock was turned 1 hour forward to GMT+2. As a tour guide, it was important for me to keep track of this when travelling in Namibia. I managed to travel a few days in the country on the wrong time. In itself it would not be too much of a problem, as who needs to keep track of time while travelling on holiday? On the other hand, it is important in that most national parks open and close their gate at a specific time (sunrise and sunset). I once stood with a group of tourists 1 hour before the gates of Sossusvlei would even be open. Luckily there was a 24 hour fuel station in the area who was already serving coffee.
Rent a 4×4 vehicle in Namibia
Since most of the roads that you will use as a tourist are gravel roads, the best is to rent a 4×4 vehicle, or at least a vehicle with high clearance. It is possible to drive around with a normal sedan, but believe me, you will not be comfortable. A sturdy 4×4 car with high profile tyres will have better grip on the dust roads and will be smoother to drive over the heavy corrugations on the gravel. Lowering your tyre pressure will help with comfort and grip. Make sure you have a portable air compressor for if or when you drive on tar again. A second spare tyre is never a bad idea. And last but not least don’t forget to take out your international insurance.
What I would really not recommend is renting a camper van, unless it is a 4×4 camper van. More and more you see normal camper vans (or RV’s) driving around on these gravel roads and that can honestly not be comfortable for the passengers, nor for the camper van itself.
Expect extreme weather conditions in Namibia
Namibia receives very little rainfall, making it one of the driest countries in Southern Africa. Most of the nature and wildlife have adjusted to these dry weather conditions, but for us humans coming from other weather types, we need to take some measures when travelling there.
When travelling in Namibia, you can expect some typical desert weather conditions. It can get very hot in Namibia during the day and it can get very cold at night, especially during winter. During night time the temperatures can drop below zero. During the winter months, Namibia hardly receives any rain. It is really very dry, combined with some strong winds. It will dry out your skin, lips, hair and is not very good when wearing contact lenses.
When planning your activities, make sure you take the weather patterns into account. For example, when visiting the dunes of Sossusvlei during summer, try to visit early morning or late afternoon. It will get extremely hot during the day. I have seen people loosing the soles of their shoes while walking over the desert sand, where the glue just melted off their shoes and soles.
While visiting Namibia, many people underestimate the cold temperatures, especially when sleeping in a tent. Make sure to be prepared and take enough warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. Temperatures can drop to around -5˚C night.
Expect to see wildlife while visiting Namibia
One of the reasons to visit Namibia for many people is to go on an African safari and to see wildlife. Namibia has plenty of wildlife, so there are great chances of seeing the notorious Big Five animals and many more. The best place to see wildlife is of course the amazing Etosha National Park, located in the north of Namibia. What makes Etosha National Park so special to view wildlife are the many waterholes that are present all over the park as well as in each of the official lodges inside the park. The best place to see animals in Etosha are these waterholes, especially during dry season.
But not only inside the national park can wild animals be seen. Damaraland is renowned for its desert elephants who roam free in the area. And in the southern regions there are many places where one can see Zebras, Sprinkboks, Ostriches and Oryx antelopes next to the road. In the region of Aus, you can even see wild Horses.
What about water in the desert?
Most of the water in Namibia is borehole water often pumped from around 100 metres deep. Most of this borehole water is fine for human consumption, although sometimes it does have a special taste to it. In certain areas like Etosha and Swakopmund the water can have a very brackish (salty) taste. If your coffee tastes slightly different than what you are used to, it is due to the water. If you are in doubt as to the drinking quality of the tap water, ask your accommodation if it’s drinkable (which mostly it will be).
If you prefer to buy bottled water, we do recommend to buy the 5 Litres bottles and to poor it into a smaller reusable water bottles. A lot of places are very remote in Namibia and don’t have a garbage truck to pick up the rubbish on a daily nor on a weekly basis, if at all. So I discourage buying smaller bottles of water to avoid excess use of plastic. We use these types of water bottles to fill up with drinkable water. Apart from the one we use, there are many different types of water bottles available to take with you on your Namibia trip, included insulated ones to keep your drinking water nice and cold as well as special colourful bottles for kids.
Both Namibia and South Africa are part of the Common Monetary Area, which means that the Namibian Dollar (NAD) and the South African Rand (ZAR) are valued 1:1. It also means that you can freely use both NAD and ZAR in Namibia, but the NAD cannot be used in South Africa. That is important to know if you are travelling to both countries. Also if you are travelling to Botswana in combination with Namibia, it will be difficult to exchange NAD into Botswana Pula. Keep in mind that if at the end of your visit to Namibia, you still have NAD left, try to change them into ZAR while still in Namibia. This can be done freely in any shop, hotel or restaurant, assuming they have any ZAR. No need to go to a bank for that.
While paying with credit cards is possible in many place in Namibia, it is advisable to carry enough cash with you. It is not always possible to rely on your bank card to pay. Some smaller campsites, fuel stations or restaurants have no credit card facilities, especially in the more remote places. And it also happens that the credit card machine is down or there is no connection. Since often enough you are in the middle of nowhere, you will need to have cash with you. Keep enough with you and normally every town will have an ATM to provide you with the necessary money.
Cell phone and mobile internet network
Maybe surprising, but mobile telephone network coverage in Namibia is actually quite good considering the population density. What I would recommend is to bring a cheap (dumb) cell phone from home and buy a local prepaid SIM card. You can normally buy them in supermarkets, fuel stations or post offices around the country. We buy a prepaid SIM card from the biggest provider MTC, in case of emergency or to phone ahead to our campsite or accommodation. At the time of writing this article, Namibian sim cards do not need to be registered like they need to be in many other countries. You just pop it in and go.
As said, network coverage in Namibia is pretty good with 3G in most towns, but also be prepared for some areas to have very slow if any coverage at all. So if you need to check email, facebook or make that important phone call, do so as soon as you have signal. Most lodges and sometimes campsites will have Wifi available, but don’t expect great speeds. So my advice is, leave the cell phone for emergency calls and don’t think about the internet too much, just sit around the fire and enjoy the stars instead.
Namibia is a family friendly destination
Lots of tourists often ask us; ‘Is Namibia safe to travel?’ Namibia is definitely a family friendly destination. Namibia is a safe and friendly country, with good hygiene standards and is pretty easy to travel, considering some preparation in advance has been done. Also there are not many vaccinations that need to be taken (see your own doctor for medical advise) and there is only malaria in the northern area, mainly during wet season.
We don’t have children ourselves but we do see a lot of families on self drive camping holidays in Namibia. The only drawback for children that I can think of would be the long driving distances with mostly spectacular nature to see. Depending on your own children, you will know if they will like this or not.
How to best behave in Namibia
To know some of the local habits and behaviour before travelling to a new country is important, I think. Namibia is the worlds 2nd least populated country but nevertheless you will come in contact with local people and culture.
Many visitors to poorer areas have the good intention of bringing things from their own country to give to the local people. And also have this temptation of giving sweets to children, because that is what children like. My advice, don’t give anything to people on the street, especially not children. You will see children begging in some places, but rather than just giving hand outs, inform people back home how lovely Namibia is and increase tourism and therefore work.
When visiting a local Himba village, you will often be advised to bring something (which you only give it to the chief of the village). Ask your local guide what to best bring with you and if you will be going on your own, buy some food groceries like maize meal, rice, flower or even candles. Do not bring sweets for the children, they don’t have easy access to dental care, if at all.
Tipping is expected in Namibia in restaurants, bars and guiding services. The general rule for tipping in restaurants is minimum 10%.
In cities, you will see people from local tribes walking around in traditional outfits, like the Himba or Herrero woman. If you would like to take a photo, ask the person if it is ok with them. Often enough they will put out their hand and ask for money. This is a behaviour that has started due to tourism, and personally, I would discourage anyone from handing out money to take a photo. Rather buy something from their souvenir stall (which are hand made products) and ask for a photo afterwards.
Be prepared to take lots of photos
Namibia is a country that can only be described with superlatives like surreal, amazing, spectacular and awe-inspiring. With so much natural beauty, be prepared to take lots and lots of photos. But also take time to inhale the beauty through your own eyes. However, I can guarantee you that it won’t be long before you take out that camera again, and again and again. The best time for photography, as in many occasions is at sunrise or sunset. It brings out multiple hues of orange, red and yellow in the desert.
As already mentioned before, be aware of the dust, sand and wind for your equipment. It’s very fine dust and it will damage your camera and lenses if not carefully protected. I carry around a scarf type Buff so I can at all times cover my camera when holding it in my hand or in the car when trying to capture moments while driving (as a passenger of course). It will not protect completely, but it is handy to take out your camera quickly and if not needed for your camera, use it to protect your head from the sun.
What camera equipment do I use in Namibia? I shoot with a DSLR Canon 650D and use 3 lenses with it, a landscape lens 15-85mm, a zoom lens 70-300mm, and a prime lens 50mm. Namibia is scattered with the most spectacular landscapes, so the wider the lens, the better you will capture these landscapes. For wildlife photography a good zoom lens is essential. I would not take anything less than 300mm for any safari. If you love animal photography, you will be really happy with any zoom lens that will reach 300 mm or more like this one here. One day I will use a 400mm or more, I’m saving for it.
Listen to the sound of silence and watch ‘Bush TV’
One thing that is very difficult to hear in many places in the world is silence. Almost unbelievable but true, you can really hear and enjoy true silence in Namibia. I’m from Belgium and silence is golden there, or rather hardly existing. We think it is quiet, but in fact, you only realise in places like Namibia that there is no such thing as silence in Belgium (and many other countries for that matter).
There are lots of possibilities to make a campfire. It will be dark early, so make that fire and do as the bushman did to spend their evenings, watch the full program on the bush tv. And don’t forget to look up once in a while and count the stars.
Additional travel inspiration for your Namibia trip:
- Photos to inspire you to visit Namibia: Who does not love to see stunning photos of Namibia? Let yourself be inspired by it.
- Best time to visit Namibia:If you are still doubting which time of year is best to visit Namibia, in this guide we explains all the advantages and disadvantages in travelling to Namibia per season.
- Stunning campsites in Namibia: Going camping in Namibia is a great experience. The campsites are just beautiful mostly located in stunning settings. This is a list with our favourite campsites in Namibia.
Do you have any additional travel tips for Namibia?
Please feel free to contact us for any additional questions about travelling to Namibia.
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