10 Tips for Surviving Your Namibia Road Trip

Things Go Wrong on the Road Trip

“I think I’ll straddle it.”

Those were the five most memorable words spoken during our 10 day Namibia road trip. Before you start wondering who straddled what, keep in mind that we’re not talking about Panama City Beach during spring break or Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand during a Full Moon party.

We’re talking about Namibia, Africa–home of the oldest desert, largest sand dunes, and second least densely populated nation on Earth.

Moments before Dale spoke those five words, we were bouncing along Namibia’s dusty, washboard roads with Dale in the driver’s seat and Melissa riding shotgun. Rich and I occupy the second row with maps sprawled across our laps. The kids are scattered in rows three and four–awaiting their turns for the coveted fourth row–when Dale spies a larger-than-normal rock in the road ahead.

“I think I’ll straddle it,” Dale declares.

“I don’t think…” Melissa starts to say before she is interrupted by a LOUD CLANG followed by a dragging noise beneath the van.

Dale pulls over to assess the situation. A quick trip around the van reveals nothing unusual, until we peek under the van.

The full size spare tire is gone. Missing. Vanished.

We quickly survey the barren landscape for a black object, but there is no tire in sight. We reverse the van and drive back to the approximate place of impact. After scanning the terrain for baboons or other wild animals, we empty out of the van to search for the missing tire. We soon spot it off in the distance.

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Finding the tire is just the first step. Next, we have to figure out how to secure the tire and the housing back to the van. Fortunately, we have an Eagle Scout in the group. Taylor quickly saves the day when he whips out his paracord bracelet. Ironically, it is the same paracord bracelet that we gave him four years earlier when we hiked the Inca Trail. Now we just need a way to cut it apart. Unfortunately, we have no knife, scissors, or anything else sharp between the eight of us. Now what?

Much to our delight a vehicle soon approaches and a German family pulls over to offer assistance. As luck would have it, one of their teenage sons is also prepared–he is carrying a Swiss army knife.

Who knew teenage boys could be so useful?!

In just a few minutes, Rich temporarily “fixes” our problem and we are soon on our way. We finally make it to our lodge, grateful that our jimmy rigged paracord holds up until we can find the most sought after man in Namibia…

the local mechanic!

Following are 10 tips to ensure your Namibia road trip goes smoothly:

BEFORE YOU GO:

1. Rent a 4×4! 

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Dozens of travelers were stranded when a fuel tanker jack-knifed, but the people in 4×4’s had other options

If you only follow one piece of advice, let this be it. Prior to our trip, I spent hours on travel forums reading differing opinions on whether a 4×4 is really necessary. After spending 30+ miserable hours in a 10 passenger van with 8 people, this is a no-brainer. Only 15% of Namibia’s roads are paved. That’s fine for short distances, like the last mile to my grandparents’ house in rural Tennessee. But for hours and hours of driving across scorched earth, it’s downright exhausting. You will most likely spend 5-8 hours in your vehicle every other day. Because we were two families traveling together, we thought it would be more fun to all be in one vehicle. In hindsight, we all agreed that two 4×4 vehicles would have been a MUCH better decision.

2. Book early.

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Hoodia Desert Lodge-Photo credit: Rich Baum Photography

The allure of Namibia is that it hasn’t been discovered by mass tourism. However, that also means that there isn’t an abundance of moderately priced lodging in the remote areas popular with travelers like Sossusvlei and Damaraland. We started making reservations 10 months in advance, and many of our top choices were already sold out. As two families traveling together, it was especially difficult finding accommodations with four available rooms.

UPON ARRIVAL:

3. Get a local SIM card.

The WIFI went from bad to worse to expensive (in Etosha) as we traveled around the country. However, a $3 SIM card got me all the data I needed for 10 days.

4. Get a spare tire (or two) and know how to change it. 

According to our rental car agency, approximately 50% of self-drive travelers get a flat tire.

5. Make your own road trip survival kit.

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(It took dozens of stranded travelers working together for almost two hours to move the fuel tanker enough so that cars could get by.)

          Be sure to include:

  • At least one gallon of water per person–in case you get stranded in the desert due to a flat tire, accident, or mechanical breakdown
  • Shovel–to assist jack-knifed fuel tankers and other stranded vehicles in the sandy, rugged, desert terrain
  • Duct tape, baling wire, or paracord–for temporarily repairing your vehicle if you straddle something you shouldn’t
  • Swiss army knife or similar tool for unpredictable predicaments
  • Toilet paper–for obvious reasons

Yes, unfortunately, all of the above situations did occur.

ON THE ROAD:

6. Depart early on driving days. 

Due to its desolation and wild animals wandering around, driving after dark in a rental vehicle is prohibited in Namibia. If you visit between June and August, Namibia’s winter, you will only have about 10 hours of daylight. In fact, the gate to Etosha National Park closes at dusk. Even if you have a reservation, if you don’t arrive by dusk, you will be locked out. Plan your driving activities accordingly!

7. NEVER pass a gas station without filling up.

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It is not uncommon to drive five hours without seeing a gas station.

8. Leave your modesty at home.

No gas stations = no restrooms. The desert is your toilet. At the beginning of our trip, we attempted to find a bush or something to provide a little privacy. However, after 10 days, not an ounce of modesty or pride remained.

9. Take extra food and buy rocks from the women in Damaraland. 

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On the road between Damaraland and Swakopmund, you will pass stalls of women and children selling rocks and minerals which are mined from the surrounding mountains. Rather than money, the women were far more interested in trading the rocks for any food that we had. We bought the rocks and gave them what little food we had. If we had known in advance, we would have brought extra food to give to them. It is humbling to witness the harsh conditions in which they live.

10. Visit the mechanic in Damaraland. 

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If you, too, straddle something that you shouldn’t, or have other vehicle maintenance issues, visit the mechanic in Damaraland. He will repair your vehicle for a very reasonable cost, saving you from the ridiculous fees you’ll otherwise pay when you return your vehicle. He is located by the airstrip near the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge .

CONCLUSION:

While road tripping through Namibia may not be the most comfortable travel experience, your efforts will be handsomely rewarded with some of the most spectacular sights on the planet.

10 thoughts

  1. Loved this account of your adventures!
    And I learned a new word. No, not straddling, already knew that one. Paracord!
    Africa is and has always been #1 on my bucket list. Now if I can just convince my spouse……..

    1. Thanks Scott. The majority of the pics are mine, but our travel buddy, Rich, is a professional photographer. Unless there is a photo credit to Rich, then it was mine.

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