NAMIBIA can be a bewildering country for the first-timer – it is vast (two-thirds the size of South Africa), sparsely populated (two people a square kilometre, as opposed to nearly 40 in South Africa) and the landscape can be harsh and forbidding.
The Namib Desert, as the hardebaarde say, is not for sissies.
Unless you’re a hard-core off-roader, I would advise against planning too ambitious a trip, or venturing into areas like Damaraland, the Kaokoveld, the Khaudum, and the Nyae Nyae unless you have at least two well-equipped 4x4s.
The Caprivi Strip and the Kavango are true bushveld, with plenty of big game, but all the good routes require 4x4s, and many involve fairly deep water wading.
With two weeks in hand, restrict yourself to Namibia’s “Garden Route”, that wonderful stretch of Namib Desert between the South African border and Swakopmund. With three weeks, add in the Etosha National Park, one of the great game parks of Africa.
My favourite route is to enter Namibia at Noordoewer, and immediately hang a left on to the Rosh Pinah road that snakes its way all along the Orange River, with magnificent vistas into the Richtersveld.
There are several accommodation options across the border, with my favourite being the chalets at Felix Unite’s base camp, overlooking the Orange. If you have time, a three-day canoe trip down the river is fun.
Aus is the real jumping-off point into the true Namib, and the camp sites and chalets at Klein Aus Vista take a lot of beating. This is also the best place from which to take a short detour to see the legendary desert horses of the Namib en route to Lüderitz.
Number one attraction for most visitors to Lüderitz is the eerie mining ghost town of Kolmanskop, which could have come straight out of a Werner Herzog movie, and owes its genesis to the discovery of a diamond here in 1908 by a labourer employed by August Stauch.
It was finally abandoned to the advancing desert in 1950, but not before a weird and unlikely town sprang up, complete with several mansion-like buildings in the Bavarian style, a town hall, bowling alley, lemonade and soda water factory (with an ice block plant) and a casino.
Lüderitz is a fascinating town, but be aware that the wind can really howl here, and it can be bitterly cold, even in midsummer.
A drive out to Dias Point and Grosse Bucht takes you through an incredible desert landscape, with wild seas and great vistas back over the town and harbour.
Next up is the “Garden Route”: from the B4, take the C13 towards Helmeringhausen, and after 54km, turn west on to one of my favourite roads in Africa, the D707, which skirts the Tiras Mountains and the Namibrand Nature Reserve.
Both encompass vast areas of privately owned land under conservation, with a wide range of brilliant accommodation options (my favourite is Wulff and Anke Izko’s sublime Ranch Koiimasis, camping and lodge accommodation).
Then follow the C27 to Sesriem, gateway to the Namib Desert sand sea, and the iconic Sossus Vlei dunes.
There are at least 19 different accommodation options (at last count) within easy driving distance of Sesriem, but if you want to be first at the gates before sunrise, camp at Sesriem itself.
The road to Sossus Vlei is tarred all the way, except for the last 5km, which requires a 4x4, or jump on one of the Namibia Wildlife Resorts shuttles into the main pan and dune field.
If you’re feeling the heat by now, head up the D854 to the Naukluft section of the Namib Naukluft National Park.
From the camp site, hike up the apparently dry river bed, past a massive wild ficus (fig) tree filled with rosy-faced lovebirds, and without warning, you come to a series of deep, crystal-clear swimming pools of spring-fed water.
Look out for kudu and zebra on the way down.
Nearby is another one of my Namibian favourites, Johan and Nicky Steyn’s Tsauchab River Camp, with camping, chalets and a lodge.
By now, the cosmopolitan seaside resort of Swakopmund is calling. En route, stop off for apple pie at Solitaire, and cold beers, or the night, at the quirky Rostock Ritz just before the Kuiseb Pass.
Swakop is a wonderful dorp. Wander around, soaking up the Bavaria-by-the-sea architecture, head off into the dune fields with one of the operators for a brilliant quad bike ride (strictly controlled to limit environmental damage) or take a day drive into the Moon Landscape, the Welwitschia fields, or go with an operator to the birding paradise of Sandwich Harbour, south of Walvis Bay.
Swakop is spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants: try the legendary Kücki’s Pub (sister to the Rostock Ritz), The Tug and The Jetty, while a top item for sightseeing is the extraordinary Kristall Gallerei geological collection.
If you have an extra week head up the Skeleton Coast to Cape Cross, where tens of thousands of Cape Fur seals bask (very noisily and pungently) on the rocks.
Then pick up the D1918 from Henties Bay to the mystical Spitskoppe, one of the most spiritual places to pitch a tent on the African continent.
From Spitskoppe, head into Damarland via Uis, to the rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, camping at Aba Huab. Twyfelfontein is one of the world’s greatest open-air art galleries, a vast area of Stone Age petroglyphs dating back about 6 000 years.
Then it’s Etosha.
My favourite campsite is Okaukuejo, which also has a range of chalets, both mid-range and luxury.
Spend at least two nights, and spend the first day and night hanging out at the water hole.
Game drives are always rewarding – there is no need to fly out of the camp at first light: head out after breakfast when the game is heading towards the water holes.
And then it’s the long road home. Namibia comes with a health warning: it is seriously addictive.
In big sky country
l You want to go there, but have no idea how to start planning a trip? The first thing to remember is that distances are vast, and while the country’s gravel road infrastructure is excellent, don’t bargain on doing more than 300 to 350km a day. And while most of the gravel roads can be negotiated – quite slowly – in an ordinary saloon car, a high clearance vehicle or 4x4 is a big advantage. I wouldn’t take my Kia Picanto.
l Don’t bargain on speeds of over 80km/h if you are in a 4x4, and in a saloon car, speeds of around 60km/h are more realistic. Anything over 80km/h is foolish, and very dangerous – rolled vehicles are a common occurrence. The accepted wisdom if travelling in a four-wheel drive vehicle is to keep high range 4x4 engaged, drop your tyre pressures to around 180, and don’t overload your roof rack.
l Carrying your own camping gear is a big advantage, as Namibia is not cheap. And frankly, there is nothing nicer than being out under the stars in the Namib Desert – this is big sky country, and the camp sites, both private and government, are excellent.
l Carry plenty of water, spare food, a full tool kit, tyre repair kit and a second spare (tyre casing only) if your vehicle has even a slightly exotic tyre size, or has low profile tyres. The Namib stones chew rubber.
l And get a good map, don’t just rely on your GPS: make sure your map has all the road numbers on it. Excellent maps available in South Africa include the Tracks4Africa and Reise Verlag maps. You can also buy the excellent Roads Authority map at any filling station in Namibia.