27 March 2017
A visit to Namibia will take you from red desert dunes to vibrant green African plains and with such great distances between them, it’s the perfect place for a good old-fashioned roadtrip.
Namibia is a huge country. In fact vast and desolate are two adjectives that perfectly sum up most of the landscapes you’ll encounter. But every few hours trundling along yet another dusty road, toward more sand, rubble and a limitless horizon, you’ll happen upon somewhere that proves why this place is an increasingly popular destination.
In just 11 days we knew we would never be able to fit in everything we wanted to see. But now having ticked off long-held bucket list items with a bang and been stared down by a curious rhino, we think we’ve had a pretty great taste of what this country has to offer.
In this time frame, there are numerous ways to Namibia, whether you choose to prioritise wildlife watching over history or perhaps landscapes above culture – we like to think our Namibia self-drive itinerary covers off a little bit of each, and at the same time takes in some of the country’s most iconic settings.
* Drive times are approximate and based on the recommended speed limit of 80 km/h on gravel roads and up to 120 km/h on tarred surfaces.*
* All prices listed are in Namibian Dollars.*
* This post includes affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will earn us a small commission at no extra cost to you. *
As we were only flying in from Johannesburg, we had neither a long-haul flight nor jetlag to shake off and so hit the road straight away. If you have come from far off or are arriving in the late afternoon we would recommend spending a night in Windhoek to recuperate before beginning the long drive to the desert.
We were collected at the airport by ASCO Car Hire and taken to the office for a full briefing of the 4×4 with camper we would be taking around Namibia.
Eager to catch our first sunrise in the country over Sossusvlei, we hit the road by early afternoon.
A few villages were marked en route where we had planned to collect our food and supplies for the first few days – this was our first mistake. These turned out to be little more than a cluster of tiny huts with no market in sight.
We would highly recommend stocking up in Windhoek before setting off as the food supply along the way and in Sesriem is limited – think baked beans, pasta and basically no fresh produce.
$200 per person
Where To Stay In Sesriem
Sesriem Camp is a shady camping area and one of just two accommodation options inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park which allows you to be inside the gate early enough to reach Sossusvlei’s dunes for sunrise. There is a shop, bar and restaurant on site and each camping area includes a light, tap, power point and nearby ablution block.
Not camping? The beautiful Sossus Dune Lodge is the only property situated inside the national park with individual chalets nestled up against the hills and expansive views over the plains and lower dunes. Guided walks and drives for sunrise and sunset are also offered.
Unsurprisingly, these two accommodation options are highly sought after and fill up well in advance. Outside the park, you’ll still find a number of beautiful options, such as the Desert Quiver Camp or Desert Camp, two well-located lodges with self-contained chalets and a wonderful outlook over the desert.
One of our main reasons for coming to Namibia was to see the sun rising over the ancient dunes of Sossusvlei, some of the tallest on the world. We woke at 5AM in order to drive the 65 kilometres through the park and climb the dune in time for sunrise 2 hours later.
The experience – a bucket-list item for both of us – did not disappoint.
The vibrant reds in the warm dawn light, the harsh shadows marking ridges and peaks and a deafening silence but for the whispers of the wind hinted that this was the first of many amazing moments to be had in Namibia.
We chose to climb the dune adjacent to Deadvlei giving us time to see the sunrise from up high and also to catch the changing light on the dunes behind the iconic dead trees in the pan – a favourite spot for photographers.
Hours were spent walking between those trees and taking far too many photos until the heat of the day started to become a little too overwhelming.
The drive back to camp was spent stopping to watch the graceful oryx walk the dusty plains, a lonely warthog snuffling in the shrubbery and taking in the majesty of the sweeping dunescapes we had missed driving in the pre-dawn darkness.
In the middle of March, temperatures can soar and we were unlucky enough to see the gauge tipping over 40 degrees. It was all too hot and sticky to move and so we spent the better part of the day sipping cold drinks at the bar and generally trying not to overheat.
Had the temperature not been quite so extreme, we would have taken the opportunity to visit Sesriem Canyon, just a short way inside the park.
In the slightly cooler (still over 30 degrees) afternoon we headed back into the park to photograph the perfect arcs of orange sand and climb some more dunes before sunset. As the park opening and closing times are strictly restricted by sunrise and sunset, we had to begin the hour-long journey back to camp before the sun actually went down.
The golden light on the red mounds on the drive back though, marked the end of a pretty excellent, albeit hot, first day in Namibia.
For everything you need to know about how to plan your own trip to Sossusvlei, check out our complete guide here.
$200 per person
With just one more morning to drink in the beauty of these sweeping sandscapes, we rolled out of our tent in the dark once more to capture sunrise from atop the dunes yet again.
While we returned to the Deadvlei area, Big Daddy, the highest dune in Sossusvlei and Dune 45, near the 45 km mark of the road, are also popular options to catch the sunset.
There were a handful of tiny figures climbing the curves of Big Daddy and while the views must be spectacular, it looks like a very challenging hike.
With another stunning sunrise and a simple breakfast under our belts, we set off on the open and very dusty road to Swakopmund.
Landscapes transitioned from red sand desert to white rocky expanses and finally to plains brushed in pale green. We stopped for photo ops at the Tropic of Capricorn sign and watched a pair of zebra galloping across the lowlands.
Eventually the gravel road became tar and we arrived in Walvis Bay along the Atlantic Coast. An industrial port town with offshore oil rigs marking the horizon, this town didn’t hold our attention for long. There is a flamingo colony on the way into town though that is well worth a visit.
We found Swakopmund, just a short drive away, far more friendly and welcoming and by late afternoon we had our tent pitched and were ready to relax after a long day’s drive.
5 – 6 hours
$120 per person
Where To Stay In Swakopmund
Skeleton Beach Backpackers is a cosy budget-friendly hostel with lounge, kitchen and outdoor areas and a secure parking area where we were able to set up camp. Dorms and private rooms are also available for those looking for some extra comfort and a simple breakfast is included. Check prices and availability here.
Sea Wind Self Catering Cottages offer a more private space for those not camping. These charming nautical-themed rooms are just a short walk from the beach and have self-catering facilities available. Check prices and availability here.
Clearly we didn’t spend enough time getting our feet sandy in the dunes of the Namib Desert and the morning was spent traversing the whiter sands between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. For panoramic views of the area we hiked up Dune 7, the highest dune in the area, but unfortunately the thick fog brought in by the cool Atlantic breeze meant we couldn’t see much from the top.
While we were satisfied exploring the dunes on foot, this area is a bit of an adventure hotspot with opportunities for quad biking, sand boarding and skydiving.
If you plan to climb the dunes we found there to be quite a lot of smashed bottles and scattered glass in the sand around the base so be sure to take shoes just in case.
Back at the hostel to catch the tail end of breakfast, we relaxed with a cup of Earl Grey while finalising our route for the day.
Swakopmund is one of the larger towns in Namibia and has well-stocked supermarkets with the best selection of food and fresh produce we found outside of Windhoek. Since we were still living off the meagre supplies we had managed to find at Sesriem, we filled our fridge with everything we would need for the next few days.
The main event for the day though – visiting the seal colony at Cape Cross.
The stretch of road north runs parallel to the ominously titled Skeleton Coast. Named for the whale bones that once littered this bleak stretch of coastline, its shores are now strewn with decaying shipwrecks claimed by rough seas and harsh weather.
We arrived at the reserve in early afternoon to the sounds of crashing waves and playful barks and the pungent smell that comes from hundreds of sea lions clustered together.
The final hours of the afternoon were spent photographing the pups lumbering clumsily to and from the water, the adults gliding between the waves catching fish mid air and thousands of others basking in the sun with expressions of blissful content plastered on their furry faces.
Those looking for a little more personal space had even clambered onto the boarded walkways and made themselves comfortable across the wooden slats. Two other fellows also made themselves comfortable in the wide berth of shade beneath our car and refused to move until we were forced to start the engine.
The Cape Cross Seal Reserve is one of the largest aggregations of Cape fur seals in the world and entry costs $80 (US$6.50) per person plus $10 (US$0.80) for your vehicle. Even though this wasn’t specifically on our route it was definitely worth the detour to see these guys.
$250 per site
Where To Stay In Henties Bay
Henties Bay is not a particularly appealing place to stay but as we had taken a little detour to reach the seal colony we opted to backtrack a little in order to be close to the turnoff for the following day. Buck’s Camping Lodge is perfectly adequate though and each lot had a separate toilet, shower and dishwashing area, as well as a light and power point.
For something a little nicer in Henties Bay, Desert Rendezvous is a beautiful bed & breakfast with spacious rooms, simple self-catering facilities and breakfast included. Check prices and availability here.
Or if you’d prefer to spend the night at Cape Cross, there is a lovely lodge right on the water just outside the reserve that would also be a great spot for the night.
After days of flat plains and rock-strewn desert we saw the looming mounds of granite that marked Spitzkoppe.
Following a few hours of scuttling across the steep granite boulders, photographing the tiny antelope and picnicking in the shady trees to the sound of twittering birds, we were forced to retreat back to the car when storm clouds threatened and a deluge of rain left surrounding boulders streaked with waterfalls that collected on the parched desert floor.
These clouds though made for the most incredible African sunset we saw in Namibia.
A faint glow on the horizon behind the rocky peaks beckoned and we raced through the park to catch the painted sky fade through blazing pink to orange and sink into an inky midnight blue. But with a full moon rising on the other side of the night sky, our time gazing at the African sky wasn’t over.
Illuminated by the moonlight, we climbed a nearby outcrop to see the rocky landscape bathed in a soft nighttime glow and the twinkle of stars on the far horizon.
$150 per person
Where To Stay In Spitzkoppe
The whole Spitzkoppe area is divided into designated campsites with basic facilities – just a drop toilet and rubbish bin. Permits for overnight visits must be purchased at the reception area where there is an ablution block with hot showers and flushable toilets.
Hoping to catch the first rays of golden light against rust-coloured rocks, we left our rooftop tent still assembled and walked to the rock arch just a few minutes away.
Aside from the large mountains of rock that dominate the area, this arch is the other main attraction. We spent a little time photographing the site and waiting for the sun to rise between the rocks before heading down for breakfast and a final exploration of the park.
There are some protected rock paintings in the reserve that can only be visited with a guide organised at the reception area. This is also a hotspot for rock climbers who come to ascend the granite faces.
After contemplating spending another day in Spitzkoppe to climb higher up the rocky outcrops and possibly experience another blistering sunset, we decided we just didn’t have the time and hit the road north.
The flat landscapes gave way to more trees and as we got closer to our destination, rolling hills became the dominant feature.
We set off in search of the elusive desert elephants who frequent the riverbeds, water or not, in this part of the country. After an afternoon of exploring without an elephant in sight, we settled for a pack of baboons climbing the rocky outcrop and watched the sun set on another day in Africa.
$120 per person,
$20 per vehicle
Where To Stay Near Twyfelfontein
Aba-Huab is a basic shaded camping area alongside the river just a short drive from Twyfelfontein. Each site has a light and power point and ablution facilities are open-air. On a budget, this is more or less the only option around but you can certainly find nicer accommodation elsewhere.
One such place is Madisa Camp, a well-designed tented camp that brings nature right to your doorstep. Facilities are rustic but charming and the property features a pool and bar. Check prices and availability here.
Aside from the UNESCO Heritage listed rock engravings at Twyfelfontein there are several other attractions in the area including the organ pipes, burnt mountain and the petrified forest, so we set out early to explore.
However, we found this to be the most underwhelming part of our trip and in hindsight we would have skipped it altogether given we were so short on time. Had we had the opportunity to scour the online commentary we would perhaps have known better.
Unless you are a bit of a geology nut, we’d suggest these sites are not particularly worth the detour (or the newly added entrance fees), though the surrounding scenery is quite beautiful.
After this we headed somewhat reluctantly on to Twyfelfontein where we were met by our guide who took us on a 45-minute walk and introduced us to the rock carvings (this tour is included as part of the entrance fee – $60 per person plus $20 per vehicle). The explanation and the engravings were interesting enough, although we found the most impressive art was actually the paintings near Lion’s Mouth, a protruding rock structure on the hill. This was not covered as part of the tour and we were only able to see them as we asked to get a closer look to which our guide suggested we go on alone.
If you do go to Twyfelfontein, it’s worth the walk up there. If you’re not otherwise in the area, we wouldn’t bother going out of your way.
We had originally planned to stay two nights here, but after a slightly disappointing morning amongst the rocks, we decided to throw in the towel and continue north to see some wildlife.
Onward from the gravel roads of the desert, we finally reached one of Namibia’s few tarred roads and headed towards lush green plains and stunted trees so iconic of the African bush.
A pit stop in Outjo allowed us to stock up at the supermarket and enjoy a tasty lunch and much-needed deviation from our pasta routine at Outjo Bakery.
Reaching the boundary of Etosha National Park a little before sunset, we opted to stay just outside the Okaukuejo gate and enter first thing in the morning.
$120 per person
Where To Stay Near Etosha
With night fast approaching we chose a camping area on a whim as it was the only place we found right near the gates to Etosha and the grassy campsites and indoor facilities seemed perfectly lovely. However, after witnessing a particularly rude exchange by one of the owners toward a member of staff and noticing the large wild cats and other wildlife that are housed in fenced off areas on the property, this is not somewhere we would particularly recommend staying.
You can search for accommodation near Okaukuejo here.
Closing off our memorable trip through Namibia was a few days of wildlife-watching in Etosha National Park, one of southern Africa’s premier game reserves.
We spent three days following the stripes of the zebra, watching giraffe gracefully strutting the gravel roads and capturing the many other antelope and birds that call this place home. We were also lucky enough to spot a total of seven lions and a family of the elusive black rhino, with a little one in tow.
Unfortunately, elephants were one thing we missed out on seeing. With the severe droughts that have ravaged Namibia over the past few years, these magnificent creatures seem to have moved off in search of more reliable water reserves.
The midday hours were rather quiet and the animals retreated to the shade, but the afternoon glow brought them back in full force and the back seat of the car became a flurry of cameras and lenses as we furiously switched back and forth to get our shots.
We spent a night each at three of the main camps, starting at Okaukuejo and ending at Namutoni, exploring as far and wide as we could, although some roads were closed due to flooding.
We spent our final evening at the waterhole, watching the silhouette of the thorn trees darken as the sinking African sun painted the sky orange.
If you’re planning a trip to Etosha, this guide has everything you need to make it a perfect one.
$250 per person,
$150 per vehicle
Where To Stay In Etosha National Park
We stayed at the Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) run camping areas at Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni which have a power point and light at each site and access to ablution blocks. There is also a watering hole near each camp for game and sunset viewing. Entry permits for Etosha ($80 per person per day plus $10 per vehicle) must be organised at the gate of entry and paid for at the camp reception. Safaris can also be reserved at any camp.
Other options within Etosha National Park include Olifantsrus which is a camping only facility, Onkoshi perched beside the salt pan, and Dolomite which is nestled in a previously restricted part of the park.
Curious what gear we used to capture these wildlife shots? Check out this post on what’s in our camera bag.
Our final morning was spent on the open plains outside Namutoni, one of our favourite spots in the park and an exceptional game viewing area, where dozens of zebra made a bee line for the waterhole and giraffe sat on damp grass not yet ready to stretch their legs in the morning light.
We also happened to spot our final two lions on a tip from a safari guide – a perfect way to end our time in Etosha.
The final stretch of our roadtrip lead us back into Windhoek along a tarred road, refreshing after a full week of bumping along corrugated gravel.
We spent our final evening reminiscing over beer and wine. From the magnificent dunes of Sossusvlei to the protective rhino that stared us down, our roadtrip through Namibia would be one to remember.
$160 per person
Where To Stay In Windhoek
Urban Camp is a very well organised camping ground with secluded sites rimmed in trees and equipped with hammocks, a covered seating area and individual bathroom facilities. The onsite bar, restaurant and pool area form a perfect oasis to gear up for or wind down from your Namibian road trip adventure. Check prices and availability here.
For the non-campers, Windhoek Gardens Guesthouse offers spacious brightly coloured rooms with basic self-catering facilities, secure parking and breakfast included. There is also a small garden and restaurant onsite. Check prices and availability here.
Although there are plenty of beautiful lodges near all Namibia’s main attractions, for those on a tighter budget and seeking a bit of adventure, camping is the way to go.
There are well-established campgrounds near all major attractions (as well as in the middle of nowhere) and we have suggested the more budget-friendly options we used during our stay throughout this post, though there are plenty more to choose from.
For the non-campers, we’ve selected the best-rated accommodation for the areas we stayed in that are still relatively budget-friendly.
Considering the vast majority of Namibia’s roads are gravel, a 4×4 felt like the better choice over a small car and enabled us to tackle the sandy sections in the desert.
We had an excellent experience with and can happily recommend ASCO Car Hire who have a fleet of well-maintained 4WD vehicles that come fully equipped with everything you’ll need for your camping experience in Namibia. They offer free transfers to and from the airport and gave a comprehensive briefing of the rooftop tent setup, all the camping equipment and the essentials for driving safely on gravel and sand.
Also, given the road conditions in Namibia, chipped windows and punctured tyres are more common than you might encounter elsewhere. On our second day, a car driving past on the opposite side of the road kicked up a small stone that hit and chipped our windshield. Luckily we had taken out the maximum insurance which covered all damages. If you are renting a car – consider doing the same.
Due to the number of tourist accidents on gravel roads resulting from speeding and loss of control, ASCO Car Hire enforces a strict speed limit of 80km/h on all gravel roads which many locals adhere to as well (even if the legal speed limit is higher).
Potholes and dips on the roads, as well as free-roaming wildlife, mean driving at night is also not recommended.
Any good trip through Namibia is probably going to involve a fair amount of time cruising its bumpy roads. After tiring of our playlists and running out of podcasts quite early on in our trip and without much usable internet to replenish them, we turned to Audible, an app for audiobooks that has quickly become one of our favourites.
Get your first book free with the 30-Day Audible Free Trial – just be sure to sign up and download the book when you have a good connection. It’s also very easy to cancel at any time so once you’ve got your free book, there’s absolutely no obligation to stay if you don’t want to!
Big thanks to ASCO Car Hire who collaborated with The Sandy Feet on our road trip through Namibia. As always, all opinions expressed are our own.