Cara’s 8-day road trip in Namibia
With its prolific wildlife and diverse landscapes, including wild coasts, deserts, canyons and mountains, Namibia is thrilling to explore. At nearly, 825,500sq km, the country is vast, but on my recent eight-day journey there, I enjoyed a fantastic overview of some of the wonders that are on offer.
Bleak but beautiful would be one way to describe Sossusvlei, known for its giant orange sand dunes, and nearby Deadvlei, a white-clay pan specked with dead camelthorn trees. These iconic places are the Namibia of your imagination – and in my opinion, they are an essential part of any itinerary.
It is a four- to six-hour drive from Windhoek to Sossusvlei, depending on where you are staying. We encourage our clients to stay as close to the Sesriem Gate as possible, as even once you are inside the park, it is a good 45 minutes to the main dunes. If you are not an experienced 4WD driver, we suggest leaving your car behind and jumping on one of the shuttles, as the sand is very thick. On my visit, we stopped to help three vehicles that were stuck.
We parked next to Big Daddy, which, at 325m high, is the tallest dune in this famously photogenic area and curves around Deadvlei. Having fuelled up on our packed breakfast, we embarked on an ascent of this sand massif. I would love to say we made it to the top but, alas, we did not. It is tough work and, even though it was only 8am, the temperature had already hit the the late 20s. My guide told us that to conquer this summit is the equivalent of doing 45 minutes on a step machine in the gym without stopping. Most people take three hours up and down. After an exhausting 45 minutes, we had made it to the halfway point and decided to head back down. Exhilarated, we ran down the edge into Deadvlei, with its striking, centuries-old dead trees. The saltpan is breathtakingly beautiful.
From here, we drove to Sesriem Canyon. This natural gorge was carved millions of years ago by the Tsauchab River, which starts in the Naukluft and Tsaris Mountains and trickles through the canyon and beyond.
To break the journey from Sossusvlei to Damaraland, it is wise to spend a night in Swakopmund, which is nestled between the desert and the sea further north. It boasts a charming combination of German colonial architecture blended with good hotels, shops, restaurants, museums, craft centres, galleries and cafés.
From Swakopmund, I took a scenic flight to Sossusvlei, which I cannot recommend highly enough. From the air, you really get a sense of the immensity of the desert.
A must-go is Damaraland, about three hours’ drive north. The topography here is completely different – a wild and rugged landscape, characterised by magnificent table-topped mountains, rock formations and bizarre vegetation. We spent a morning tracking the rare desert-adapted elephant. Their ability to survive in such an untamed environment still astounds me.
Twyfelfontein (or /Ui-//aes), a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007, is another incredible place to visit. Here, I saw a remarkable gallery of engravings featuring rhino, elephants, giraffe, oryx and zebra, carved into the massive rock faces of freestanding boulders. The rock art is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old.
From Damaraland, we drove to Etosha National Park, Namibia’s prime wildlife destination, for a couple of nights’ safari. The park contains large concentrations of game, especially in the harsh aridity of winter. Etosha’s main hub is the Etosha Pan, which originated 12 million years ago from a shallow lake fed by the Kunene River, which later changed course and began to flow to the Atlantic Ocean instead. Today, the pan classifies as a saline desert in its own right.
As with many national parks, there are strict rules and regulations in place to protect the wildlife, such as keeping to the Tarmac roads, and it can also be busy with self-drivers. However, the scenery is spectacular. Lodges in the game-rich private reserves outside the park, such as Ongava Tented Camp, offer a much more exclusive experience. They also give guests the best of both worlds: day trips to Etosha’s pans as well as game drives in a quieter private reserve and additional activities, such as walking safaris and night drives.
Our last night in Namibia was at Okonjima Nature Reserve, a three-hour drive south of Etosha. Staying here means the distance to Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport the following day is only a further three hours.
Okonjima’s Luxury Bush Camp is run by The AfriCat Foundation, a non-profit organisation that seeks to find solutions to the conflict between predators and farmers in Namibia. It achieves this through farmer assistance, youth education and animal welfare projects. The property has been wonderfully renovated over the last few years and is a lovely spot to break up the journey.
All guests here have the opportunity to track the elusive leopard in its natural habitat. On one afternoon there, we discovered a mother with her young cub, which was amazing. You can also enjoy close encounters with cheetah that are too old or habituated to be reintroduced into the wild. We were able to walk alongside two brothers, and it was unbelievable to observe these beautiful cats up-close. Okonjima was a brilliant ending to such a wonderful trip.
On the road
There are advantages and disadvantages of travelling by road and air in Namibia but here are five good reasons to drive rather than fly:
1. It’s a real adventure
Namibia is one of the few African countries where self-drive is a viable option, so it is the perfect place for those who are looking for a safe road trip on this amazing continent. The country is sparsely populated and has an impressive and well-maintained network of big, wide roads. Minimal traffic and sturdy 4WD vehicles also contribute to making Namibia an excellent self-drive destination. Navigating maps and changing tyres when you get a puncture is all part of the fun.
2. You see much more from the ground
While flying between camps is more time efficient, driving from A to B allows you to see much more of the country. The topography is always changing. In one journey, you may go from a flat, barren desert, where loan oryx and giraffe can be spotted, to magnificent table-topped mountains, rock formations and bizarre vegetation. You would not notice this detail from the sky.
3. There are better photography opportunities
On a Namibian road trip, you are in charge of your own time and itinerary, so you can stop wherever and whenever you wish. This means that you can take as long as you like to capture the epic scenery and sights on camera.
4. The lunch stops are incredible
Whether it is a picnic overlooking the dramatic, rolling landscape or a delectable apple tart from Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery, you’ll be surprised by the superb spots for a bite along the way.
5. It’s easy to switch off from the modern world
The distances are long – on average, around four to five hours between each camp – and often you will not pass another vehicle. There is no 3G and rarely any phone signal, which gives you plenty of time to talk or stare out pf the window as the majestic Namibian landscape flashes past.