Most people first think of game drives to see the Big Five in Kenya or South Africa, close encounters with gorillas in Uganda or trekking up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but Namibia offers a lot of the same opportunities but with more flexibility.
A Family Road Trip in Namibia
by Emma Morrell
Africa with kids in tow
We were anxious about travelling in Africa with kids. The last time we visited Africa we were on our honeymoon, and and kids were far from our minds. Now we had a seven-year-old and four-year-old in tow to worry about. We had to get extra vaccinations and find kid-friendly anti-malarial medication. I was also worried about their picky eating leaving us with hangry kids for two weeks, but luckily camping gave us much more control over this. The driving is long and can be boring at times so we had to think ahead and download many, many audio books for the journey.
We wanted to ensure a stress-free adventure so we did extensive research. We discovered that Namibia is a relatively safe country, easy to get around and kid-friendly. Driving around the country you can see it is the second least densely populated country in the world: much of the country is made up of a harsh and unforgiving landscape. You can drive for hours without seeing another car, person, animal or even plant. Yet it’s the extraordinary and extensive wildlife that attracts most people to Namibia. The tourist-friendly network of national parks and reserves makes it easy to see cheetahs, lions, rhinos, elephants, ostriches, giraffes and more.
There is much more to Namibia than just animals. One of the great benefits of driving yourself through the country is discovering all areas the roads connect. Among other things, Namibia is home to the ancient Kalahari Desert, the dramatic Skeleton Coast, the lush Caprivi Strip connecting to the famous Okavango Delta and the iconic Deadvlei and Sossusvlei.
Getting ready for a road trip
Hiring a 4×4 and doing all the driving personally is an excellent way to see the country. Many rentals have tents on the roof which provide accommodation.
Otherwise, you can pitch your own tents or stay in one of the many lodges on offer. If you want the comfort of a proper bed once in a while, elect for a combination of the two. Driving is time-consuming and much of it is on gravel roads. However, driving is neither frightening nor overwhelming. It’s also an excellent way to save money. Planning out your trip in advance will avoid wasted time debating where to go in the moment and you can plan in rest and food stops (food shopping is a rare occurrence). As with any kind of road trip, leaving early or arriving late allows for maximising time in a given location.
What to see and do
Most people will fly into or out of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. It is a great place to get orientated and to do the initial stock-up of food and supplies. We found the other supermarkets along the way weren’t nearly as well stocked. If you have time, there’s a German church, a craft centre, a craft market and some botanic gardens to explore.
Technically not a desert, the Kalahari stretches across 900,000 square kilometres and there’s quite a bit to Trip in Namibia do and see. In the small corner that we were able to explore, most of the land was divided up into different game reserves and fenced off. This is where we got our first glimpses of African wildlife. Our main reason for going—although we were thwarted by rain clouds—was to do some stargazing which is supposed to be some of the most spectacular in the world.
Namib-Naukluft Park (Namib Desert)
The oldest desert in the world treated us to some truly spectacular scenery just on the drive in. The main attractions are the enormous Dune 45 and Big Daddy dunes, the famous Sossusvlei salt pan and, in my opinion, the more spectacular but lesser-known Deadvlei. The best place to stay is in tiny Sesriem. It is right by the gate and lets you get into the park as soon as it opens. You can stay just inside or just outside the gate and it is well worth an early start to catch the sunrise or sunset and avoid the midday heat.
Swakopmund and Walvis Bay
Situated on the southern end of the Skeleton Coast, the small town of Swakopmund is a great place to base yourself for a few days after lots of camping. There are lots of day trips to take from Swakop River including dolphin cruises, Sandwich Harbour excursions, dune quad biking, sand boarding and sea kayaking. With young kids we opted to explore Sandwich Harbour where the sand dunes dramatically fall right into the sea. It is an incredible trip but was a lot of driving for our only “off” day in the area.
Twyfelfontein is best known for its ancient rock carvings and engravings. It is one of the largest concentrations of rock art in Africa and there is loads to see. Also in the area are a petrified forest, a ‘burnt’ mountain and a 100-metre stretch of towering dolerite rocks called the Organ Pipes. One of our favourite activities of the trip was a visit to one of Namibia’s Living Museums where we were educated about the ancient customs of the Damara tribes.
Once littered with wildlife, Palmwag is in the middle of a long drought and many of the animals have left the area in search of water. That said, the campsite we stayed at had some spectacular scenery and we were able to go on a long game drive to the very depths of the park in search of awesome wildlife.
Etosha National Park
The main attraction in Namibia has to be Etosha National Park in the north of the country. It is a veritable sanctuary right on top of an enormous salt pan. It is actually a game reserve so the perimeter is fenced and many of the watering holes are man-made to encourage the wildlife to stay inside the park. The abundance of wildlife is mind-blowing but you still have to look for it. The parkrun game drives are brilliant but long for short attention spans and there are minimum age requirements to consider. Hanging out at the many watering holes is another great way to see all kinds of animals and birds.
Other places to visit
There was so much more that we really wanted to do. The Caprivi Strip in the far northwest is supposed to be absolutely incredible while the eerie abandoned town of Kolmanskop and nearby Luderitz were reluctantly removed from our itinerary. We were also desperate to stay at the Cheetah Conservation Fund and Okonjima Nature Reserve but unfortunately they were booked up when we were there.
Where to stay
Camping is the most cost-effective option by far. There is a wide variety of campsites available and many offer private sites with BBQ areas, running water and shared shower blocks. For those not suited to camping or wanting a break from life under canvas, there are boutique lodges and high-end custom-built hotels and lodges for families wanting to splurge. Okaukuejo campsite had to be the most spectacular we stayed at thanks to its watering hole in the middle of the site which attracted animals at all hours of the day and night. The luxury lodges in Etosha like Mokuti Lodge are also incredible.
What to eat
There’s the full range of dining options on a self-drive safari: from cooking over an open fire at a campsite to traditional fare in Windhoek to a foodie paradise in Swakopmund. It is definitely one of the easier places to travel with picky eaters. Our favourite restaurants were The Tug in Swakopmund (incredible food and so kid friendly) and Joes Beerhaus in Windhoek (full of amazing things to look at while you wait for your food).
Getting there and around
- Qatar Airways offers daily flights to Windhoek. You can fly into one country and fly out of another if you plan on doing a cross-country trip, e.g. fly to Botswana and out of Namibia.
- Air Namibia offers daily flights to popular domestic destinations. Many resorts and hotels also offer transfers to their properties which have tiny remote airstrips on-site or nearby.
- Many companies offer tours either on buses as part of a group or with a driver. Depending on the package (and if it is a group or private tour), prices can vary.
Plan before you go
These sites offer great ideas for where to visit and valuable insight into traveling through Namibia.
- Namibia Tourism: www.namibiatourism.com.na
The official Namibia Tourism website
- Info Namibia: www.info-namibia.com
An online Namibia travel guide
- Namibia Wildlife Resorts: www.nwr.com.na
This organisation runs the national parks and reserves. They offer public game drives (with age limits for children) and campsites and lodges within their parks
- The Living Museum: www.lcfn.info
The Living Culture Foundation supports indigenous cultures throughout Namibia. Visitors can learn about individual Namibian cultures while contributing to their preservation