While getting around Namibia’s relatively few population centres is possible by bus, and even rail in some cases, in order to reach most of the parks, reserves and other places you are most likely to want to visit, you will need to book yourself on a tour or rent a car. Hitchhiking is now banned on some roads in Namibia and in national parks, but in other, more remote parts of the country it is almost the only way to get around if you are without your own wheels.
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Despite the fact that the vast majority of Namibians do not own cars, organized transport is rather scarce outside the main population centres. Intercape Mainliner (w intercape.co.za) provides luxury buses, running daily services from Windhoek to South Africa stopping off at Reheboth, Mariental and Keetmanshoop; it also heads north to Oshakati and Ondangwa, to Livingstone in Zambia via Rundu and Katima Mulilo, and west to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Other private operators also run shuttles to specific destinations: Townhoppers (w namibiashuttle.com), and Welwitschia Shuttle (w welwitschiashuttle.com), both Swakopmund-based firms, operate daily air-conditioned shuttle services between the capital and the coast for around N$270. Ekonolux (w ekonolux6.wix.com) operates a less regular bus service to Katima Mulilo from Windhoek. Details are given in the relevant sections. There is also a twice-weekly (Tues & Fri) Orange Bus service operated by Namib Contract Haulage (w kalahariholdings.com) that runs between Katutura and various towns in the north, including Oshakati and Ondangwa (N$200). Most people, however, get around on the cheaper, less comfortable minibuses that don’t have a fixed schedule; they leave when full and can be overloaded, and more prone to accidents but are faster. The 1200km journey between Windhoek and Katima Mulilo costs just under N$300.
Given the distances involved in Namibia, it’s no surprise that there are internal flights available, patronized mainly by business folk. In addition to the international airport at Walvis Bay, small airports are scattered across the country at Katima Mulilo, Lüderitz, Oranjemund and Rundu. Air Namibia (w airnamibia.com) operates four flights a week on these domestic routes (two of which are direct) from Hosea Kutako International Airport. It also operates daily flights to Ondangwa, which leave from Eros Airport, Windhoek’s domestic airport 5km south of the capital, just off the B1. An up-to-date schedule of all their routes can be downloaded from their website. Domestic fares range from around N$1700 for Windhoek–Walvis Bay to around N$2500 to fly up to Katima Mulilo, at the eastern tip of the Zambezi Region, over 1200km from the capital by road. Additional airstrips serving charter flights are also dotted around the country.
Trains have been running in Namibia since 1895 and today, as then, they mainly transport freight, so are exceedingly slow. Most routes on this small network also offer a passenger service (both economy and business), and since most departures entail overnight travel you can save a night’s accommodation, which may be of interest to budget travellers.
The routes of most interest to tourists are: Windhoek–Walvis Bay, via Swakopmund (see also, By train), and Windhoek to Keetmanshoop, with a connection from there to Lüderitz due for completion in early 2015. The far more luxurious and glamorous Desert Express train is currently off the rails for refurbishment, but due back in service in 2016.
Fares are inexpensive – N$139 from Windhoek to Walvis Bay for example – though it’s worth paying the extra N$30 for the fully reclinable seats available in business class. Even then, however, the level of comfort is unremarkable – remember to take food with you, and a blanket to ward off the desert chill. Prices are slightly higher at the end of the month and during the December/January holidays. The rail network is owned by the parastatal TransNamib (t 061 2982624, w transnamib.com.na), and tickets can be booked at the various train stations in advance or on the day, when you should turn up thirty minutes before departure.
By far the most convenient way to see the country is by having your own wheels; once you’ve made that decision, the main question is whether to go for a 2WD or 4WD. Many of the main highways are high-quality tarred roads and the gravel roads necessary for reaching most (though not all) the sights in this guide are generally navigable in a 2WD outside the rainy season, though the higher the clearance the more comfortable the ride. To reach more remote areas, high-clearance 4WD is essential, but this needs to be accompanied by the knowledge of how to drive such a vehicle – for example in sand, across riverbeds and over rocks. A couple of companies, such as Be Local in Windhoek (t 061 305795, w be-local.com), run short courses for novice 4WD drivers. What’s more, if you’re going to tackle challenging terrain, off the proverbial beaten track, you will probably need to be in a convoy of at least two vehicles, with all the necessary equipment (chains, shovels, air pumps, etc). Ensuring you have a decent map is also a must; a GPS can also prove useful, alongside the relevant Tracks4Africa GPS map (w tracks4africa.co.za). Cell coverage is non-existent in some remote areas, especially in northwest Namibia, so you might consider renting a satellite phone.
Driving tips and regulations
Cars are driven on the left in Namibia, as in most of southern Africa. Although the quality of the roads is high, so is the accident rate, especially on gravel roads among foreign tourists who are unused to the conditions. Losing concentration at the wheel is also a hazard given the vast distances involved and the monotony of some of the driving, so making regular stops is essential. The speed limit is 120kph on tarred roads out of town, 60kph in urban areas, 80kph on gravel roads, and 40kph in reserves and parks. Note also that seat belts are compulsory. Along the coast roads during the morning mist it’s recommended to drive with headlights on; drivers also tend to keep them on when there is a lot of dust around. A substantial number of accidents also occur from vehicles hitting pedestrians, or wildlife, more often at night, which is why driving in the dark is not advisable if it can be avoided.
Whether you opt for a 2WD or 4WD, there are certain basic provisions you should have with you, and precautions you should take, since getting stranded in the desert is no joke, and can be fatal. Check the car has a jack and one, or preferably two, spare wheels in good condition before you start out, as well as a first-aid kit, and a shovel to dig yourself out of sand or mud. Check the tyre pressure at regular intervals – especially after a long period on gravel roads. 4WD vehicles often have reserve fuel carrying capacity but it’s worth having spare fuel canisters even in a 2WD so that if you take a wrong turn, which is easily done, you don’t run out in the middle of nowhere. For the same reason, fill up whenever you pass a petrol station, make sure you always travel with plenty of water and snacks, in case of a long wait for the cavalry to arrive should your vehicle break down.
Petrol stations are located in all the main towns – usually 24 hours – and even in some more remote corners of the country. Most only take cash (though the fuel stations in Etosha take cards) and are not self-service, so you should be prepared to tip the very underpaid pump attendant (around N$5–10) if they do a good job; they will wash your windscreen and check your tyre pressure if requested. At the time of writing, petrol was around N$11.50/litre in Windhoek, more in more remote areas; diesel was slightly more expensive at just under N$12/litre. Remember that using 4WD gears and air conditioning will increase your fuel consumption.
Car rental is not prohibitively expensive in Namibia, but it is not as cheap as in South Africa – you’re likely to get a better deal with an advance online booking. Besides, in peak holiday season 4WD vehicles can be hard to come by. You certainly can’t expect to just turn up and rent a car on the spot. In high season, rates generally start from around N$550/day for a small, manual 2WD with air conditioning for up to two weeks; thereafter the rate comes down slightly. For a mid-size 2WD bank on paying upwards of N$650/day for a similar period of time. 4WD vehicles cost around double (N$1000–1400/day) and guzzle fuel, though they offer a more comfortable ride on dirt roads and afford you better views of the countryside; moreover in some parts of the country, and especially during the rains, a high-clearance 4WD is the only form of transport to reach remote areas, especially in northwest Namibia. 4WD rental specialists usually also offer rates that include camping equipment from an extra N$100 per day.
Unlimited mileage is standard, though rental rates can vary quite considerably for the same vehicle, depending on how many kilometres it’s clocked up and on the conditions for the collision and theft damage waivers (CDW and TDW); you can often opt to pay a higher daily rental rate in order to reduce the excess payable in case of accident. Damage to tyres, windscreen and headlights (often from gravel on the road) is usually not included in the insurance. Including an additional driver, which is highly recommended given the long hours on the road you’re likely to face, may not necessarily cost extra. Dropping off at a different location can be done, and again charges depend upon the distance from the pick-up point; for example, you’ll pay over N$4000 to leave a car in Katima Mulilo that you have rented in Windhoek. Taking the vehicle across the borders in most of Southern Africa is fairly easy, but advance notice is necessary to give the rental company time to sort out the relevant papers and insurance, for which you’ll be charged extra (around N$500 for a multiple entry permit). In addition, you’ll have to pay vehicle entry fees at the border, generally in the relevant local currency (for example P120 for Botswana).
As for age restrictions, drivers of 2WD cars generally need to be over 21, and in some cases 23, though younger drivers may be accepted for an additional charge; for 4WD you generally need to be over 25, and have held a licence for several years. Theoretically, an international driving permit (purchased before you leave home) is required for car rental – to be presented alongside your national driving licence – but if your licence is written in English, or at least in Roman script, it is rarely requested. In addition, you should carry your driving licence with you when on the road to show at police road blocks.
As well as the usual international car hire companies (Avis, Budget, Hertz, etc), there are several good local operators, often specializing in 4WD rental, based in Windhoek.
Car rental agencies
Aloe Car Hire (w aloecarhire-namibia.com). Friendly, efficient, family-run outfit with competitive prices, especially in low season (Jan–June).
Asco Car Hire (w ascocarhire.com). Professional outfit specializing in 4WD, with a wide range of vehicles in good condition; also rents out satellite phones and GPS gear.
Namibia Car Rentals (w namibiacarrentals.com). Broker for the big agencies, with offices across Namibia and good rates, especially for 2WD.
Savanna Car Hire (w savannacarhire.com.na). Small, family-run business specializing in Toyota 4WD.
By organized tour
If you don’t have your own vehicle, or don’t want to spend hours driving, the easiest way to visit places is to go on an organized tour, best arranged through one of the Windhoek- or Swakopmund-based tour operators. These range from a budget overnight camping trip to Sossusvlei for under N$3000/person to bespoke tours for as long and as far as you like to suit a range of budgets.
While you’d imagine the hot dusty roads and huge distances between sights would deter most people from pedalling round Namibia, there are a surprising number of cycling holidays on offer from specialist tour operators (such as Mountain Bike Namibia, w mountainbikenamibia.com; African Bikers, w africanbikers.com; and Bike Tours, w biketours.com), as well as more mainstream companies (such as Exodus, w exodus.co.uk). The fact that many roads are deserted and the scenery can be spectacular makes Namibia, in some respects, ideal for cycling. However, the extreme heat, dust and isolation mean that independent cyclists need to be experienced, fit and totally self-sufficient in case of breakdown, carrying plenty of water and food, with adequate protection for the head and neck from the brutal sun. The BEN network of bike shops offers bike repairs.
Although forbidden in national parks and along some routes, such as the Swakopmund–Windhoek road, hitchhiking is a common way of getting about in less populated areas, though you’d be wise not to do it alone. You should, however, offer to contribute to fuel costs (generally the price of a bus fare), though if you’re lucky your ride may decline to take you up on the offer. On some roads you could be waiting hours for a vehicle to pass, so it’s important to have enough food and especially water to sustain you, as well as protection from the sun. Shared rides are sometimes advertised in the backpacker hostels in Windhoek.