This post was updated on 10 September 2019.
With a small population, a large amount of space and a good infrastructure, Namibia is ideal for road-tripping. Travelling through the vast, exciting and intriguing country can be a journey of a lifetime.
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Off the main tar arteries, gravel roads radiate into the hinterland, offering many opportunities for exploration and adventure. It is not unusual to be the only vehicle on the road for hours on end.
This means that caution is needed if branching off the beaten track, and that you need to be prepared and self-sufficient. The savvy traveller also needs to be aware not only of distances and fuel stops but of travelling responsibly, keeping in mind the sensitive desert environment and respecting the local people.
1. Leave enough time
Many travellers make the mistake of trying to cover too much distance in a day, not taking into account the vast size of the country and the slow-going on the gravel roads. Take it slowly and allocate enough time. The recommended speed for driving on gravel is 80km/hour. (This speed will also prevent skidding and overturning on loose stones, one of the most common types of vehicle incidents in Namibia.)
2. Carry enough water
Namibia is a desert country and temperatures soar into the 40s in the summer months. Ensure that you have sufficient water.
3. Check your spare
Having a flat tyre – or two – is a common occurrence when travelling on gravel roads. Before you head off, check that your spare tyre is in good condition (carry an extra one, if possible) and that you have the correct wheel spanner and jack – and know how to use them.
4. Tread lightly
Although the land appears harsh, it is extremely fragile. When driving off the main tar roads, only drive on demarcated roads or tracks. Tyre tracks can remain on the desert floor for decades and colonies of desert plants like lichens may never recover. Use resources – water and wood – sparingly.
5. Tune into African time
As in the rest of Africa, time is slower and the various ethnic groups have their own way of doing things. As a visitor, it is important to respect the local residents and their customs. Remember that in Africa, it is polite to begin conversations with greetings. Request permission from the headman if you would like to stay in a traditional village or draw water from a communal well. Always call from the entrance of a homestead before entering. When driving, slow down if you near a donkey cart (the most common form of transport in the rural areas), so as not to startle the hard-working donkeys and envelop its occupants in dust. Always ask before taking photographs.
And, this is an important one: Refrain from giving out sweets and pens to children. Rather than helping them, you may create the opposite effect by creating a dependence or expectation. If you would like to assist, then it is best to visit a local clinic or school, find out what the community needs and donate anonymously.
6. Give right of way
One of the remarkable things about Namibia is its free-roaming wildlife. Keep an eye open for animals along the roadside – on the tar as well as on the gravel – and avoid driving at night! If approaching wild animals, like an elephant, keep your distance and give them right of way, rather than entering their comfort zone, which will cause them to react. Keep eyes open for domestic animals, like cows and goats, in the northern and north-eastern sections of the country.
7. Switch on your lights
If travelling through a popular area like Sesriem, ensure that you switch on your headlights so that you are visible in the dust clouds. Reduce speed and keep to the left-hand side of the road.
8. Gauge water levels
In the rainy season, Namibia’s ephemeral rivers often come down in flood. When crossing rivers, it’s always best to climb out of your vehicle and check the water level. Flooding rivers usually subside after an hour or two, and it’s advisable to wait them out.
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9. Be safe
Avoid camping in dry river beds. They are often animal highways and during the summer months they may suddenly come down in flood, even if there is not a cloud in the sky.
Mooi ry! (Happy travelling!) Enjoy the extraordinary country of Namibia.
- Namibia Police Emergency: +264 (61) 10111
- Aeromed: +264 (61) 249 777 / 230 505
- MedRescue: + 264 (61) 230 505/6/7
- Medi-Clinic Windhoek: +264 (61) 222 687
- Windhoek Central Hospital: +264 (61) 203 9111
- Roman Catholic Hospital: +264 (61) 0237 237
- Rhino Park Private Hospital: +264 9610 225 434 (please be advised that this is a day hospital only and accepts no casualties)
For car problems
- Breakdown Services: + 264 (61) 230 823 / 240 733
- Town Tow-in Services: + 264 (61) 210 779
- Road Guard Emergency: + 264 (61) 210 780
Words and Photography Ron Swilling