If you are planning your Namibia Road Trip it’s likely you’ll be wondering about the best way to explore the country. From our time travelling across its vast open spaces and seeing what Namibia has to offer, here are our thoughts on the pros and cons of both self drive and small group tour options.
Decision Making for your Road Trip
Making arrangements for your Namibia Road Trip to see this wonderful country will inevitably include the decision on whether to take an escorted group tour or self drive around the country. A self drive road trip is heavily promoted as being suitable for first time visitors to Namibia but is it really the best option?
To help you make your decision, here are our thoughts on the issues to consider. They are based on a combination of the research we did before we travelled and our own experiences when we were there. Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. It’s just down to what option suits you best. Either way, you get to see an amazing country, from Etosha National Park in the North to the Fish River Canyon in the South.
Consider Namibia’s Roads
Namibia is a large country and the second least densely populated in the world. It is generally arid and covered mostly by spectacular deserts and mountains. Namibia’s roads tend to be clearly signposted, although junctions can be very far apart. When travelling, you’ll find if you ask a Namibian how far it is to your destination they will probably give you the driving time rather than the distance. This might seem unusual but based on our experience and the size of the country it is actually quite important.
Whilst the scenery in Namibia is undoubtedly stunning, navigating the expansive terrain can present issues. If like us you want to cover as much of the country as possible in a 2-3 week period then this can require daily distances of 300-400 kms. Not such a problem you might think, however bear in mind that other than a small number of the main arterial roads which are tarmac / hardtopped, the majority are essentially wide dirt tracks. Many of these haven’t been graded or levelled for many years and are now really bumpy and uneven. So if you want to get off the beaten track in particular you will most likely require to lengthen your expected journey time.
Prepare for and Expect Delays
The road condition can make progress slow and punctures to tyres and other damage to vehicles is not uncommon. On our group tour we had 6 flat tyres over the course of 14 days. Sometimes more than one a day. So, if you are on a self drive option, you may need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty if it happens to you.
On occasions when we had to stop to change tyres there was no other vehicle passed for around 30 minutes. As we mentioned earlier, it is the second least populated country in the world. So you are fairly isolated and you need to factor this in to your timings particularly. On the plus side most small settlements have a vehicle workshop that will be able to carry out general repairs. Although, if you are really unlucky it could be 100kms away. Working through any issues is of course all part of the adventure.
Choice of Vehicle
If you think the self drive option is for you then a 4×4 is all but essential. Fortunately, most car hire agencies will recommend this. Just bear in mind that if you are not comfortable with the possibly of having to change wheels then you should think twice about the self drive option. An alternative of course would be to travel with another vehicle allowing you to provide support to each other if needed. Also, be very wary of straying from authorised roads. We witnessed even 4x4s stuck in sand up to the wheel arches and having to be pulled out.
Expect the Unexpected
If you are travelling on a self drive basis, make sure you carry spare fuel and preferably 2 spare wheels. If the unthinkable does happen you could find yourself 100kms from the nearest settlement. Bear in mind that phone signals can be weak or non existant in places and that on dirt roads traffic can be very light. Which is all just part of the fun, right? On the plus side, the car rental firms that we witnessed did spend a decent amount of time with clients talking over dos and donts, route options etc. If you do choose the self drive option, make sure you get good quality maps which include fuel stops etc.
On a small group tour you are obviously not affected as much by these issues. Although you may still need to help and the time lost through breakdown can still result in itinerary changes if the delays are significant. This can be a bit of a pain when you then have to miss an attraction you have been particularly looking forward to.
Provisions on Your Namibia Road Trip
Carrying plenty of water with you is essential regardless of what travel option you choose. Temperatures can be hot during your Namibia Road Trip and the risk of dehydration can be high. It pays to stock up on snacks and drink, particularly water, when you get the opportunity. This applies regardless of whether you are self driving or on a group tour. You may find water is provided for you on a group tour however its worthwhile making sure you avoid being complacent.
Services of a Guide
This speaks for itself. Its one of the major advantages of a small group tour over the self drive option. Internet availability can be few and far between and although travel books are a useful source of information there is really no substitute for the hands on experience a guide brings to your trip. In addition, their local knowledge is invaluable when you need to problem solve on the go.
Accommodation in Namibia
Unless you are self driving with a tent you will inevitably be staying in lodges as you tour. Whilst they provide a degree of luxury they are generally considerably more expensive than camping, an option provided on a number of group tours in Namibia. Whilst campsites dont have the private facilites that lodges do, many have shared toilet and shower blocks. These are sometimes sensitively worked into the natural surroundings and also eco friendly.
If you are looking for a real back to nature experience then you’ll find camping can provide it. We found that most campsites are fenced, either to keep people in or the animals out. As accommodation can be well spaced out it makes sense to have this arranged well in advance.
The self drive option wins here every time. You have the flexibility to go where you want when you want. Or do you? In our experience a number of accommodations required you to be there by sunset when they closed the gates. The reasons for this will range from a risk of wildlife encounter to the increased risk of driving on the Namibian roads at night. That aside when travelling self drive you do have greater flexibility, even when you factor in the risks and distances involved.
Whatever option you think may be best for you, make sure you have a look for hidden or extra costs. For example, are National Park entrance fees included. They may be included with a group tour but could be an extra cost if on a self drive road trip. Also, think about road tolls. The main route running from north to south of the country is a toll road in some places so carrying change if self driving will help.
Time Constraints on your Road Trip
As mentioned under Route Flexibility, Park and campsite opening and closing times need to be considered. These tend to be sunrise to sunset but it would be advisable to check as they are likely to be subject to change. If you are not back by sunset then you can expect to find the gates shut. From our experience it’s not always an easy process to get staff to open them for you.
Staying within the National Parks will tend to give you some priority for accessing attractions early in the morning, before roads are opened up to general traffic. If you think of it as being similar to early opening hours in theme parks for guests staying in the parks accommodation, except on a very uncommercial scale. If you want to get somewhere before sunrise, for example the dunes at Sossusvlei, then this is a must. It is the only way you can cover the required distance in the pre dawn light.
Enjoying Company (or not)
This very much depends on personal preference. If you are solo travelling then a small group tour might be your preferred option. You dont have to make such an effort to find company when you want it. Although the risk, as always, is you find there is a personality clash between individuals and unfortunately you are stuck in a confined space with them for the duration of the trip.
Perhaps our experiences of group touring so far have been lucky. Although some inevitable minor tension does arises from time to time. However, you tend to be with like minded people who are interested in travel so this can help with bonding. You also have the opportunity to get away by yourself for periods of time. This tends to be in the evenings which can make things much more workable. Cleary when on a self drive basis you can pick and choose who to speak to and when.
You need to consider the decisions around feeding yourself and whether to have it made for you as part of a small group tour or fend for yourself on a self drive basis. On a group tour dinner is often cooked over an open fire. It is amazng what the guides can make. You choice here is obviously restricted which is a downside if you are a fussy eater. In our experience we found that that guides were happy to try and accommodate your needs where they could.
Alternatively, if on a self drive basis you have greater choice as you can make or buy your own in lodge or camp restaurants. However, make sure you check in advance what services each accommodation has open. Once again it is very much a pesonal choice that depends on your budget, and preferences.
There are a number of issues that you will need to wrestle with when planning your Namibia Road Trip and there may well be more than we have covered in this post. Ultimately it all comes down to personal preference and hopefully this article will help make your decisions easier. Do you have any other issues you would add to this? If so please let us know.
Looking for More?
If you are looking for some further reading then below you’ll find more of our articles on Namibia. For related reading check out the Tag links as well at the bottom of the page.
More Reading on Namibia
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