In late 2011, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Namibia, Africa. I had heard many wonderful things about this country – the landscape is beautiful, the wildlife is abundant, the people are friendly and it is a very safe place with little crime.
This was to be my fourth trip to Africa and as I found out on previous visits, it pays to make advance preparations, especially if you are a photographer. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask many questions of previous visitors (my photography colleagues and using frequent visits to travel forums online) and I wanted to document as much as I learned in these series of posts. My intent is that if you ever decide to visit this amazing country, you will hopefully have the benefit of the information that I gleaned prior to our visit.
In this post, I will deal with our general preparations for this trip. I wanted to also discuss the camera equipment I took with me, however, there is simply too much information so I will deal with the cameras in my next post.
Also, please note that when I travel, I pay for all services and items I receive. I do not accept anything for free. This is because I briefly review every travel vendor I encounter and I want to present an honest, unbiased opinion here of their services/product. I do not disclose that I am a travel writer (in addition to being a professional photographer), as I do not want special treatment that may result in a biased review. Some vendors will be happy with what I have to write, some will not. Read on.
Prior to leaving on our trip, the doctor at our travel clinic in Canada advised us to get a yellow fever vaccination. There were no issues with contracting this disease in Namibia, but my wife and I had visited Argentina and Zambia in previous years and they were regarded as high-risk areas. Better to be safe than sorry we were advised.
We needed to take malaria medication (Malarone) once we entered Damaraland and Etosha National Park in the northern part of the country. I really hate taking this stuff (it has mild hallucinogenic effects) but hey, who am I to argue with a doctor? With this medication, you need to take it two (2) days before going into the affected areas and for seven (7) days after you leave.
It also pays to take some other preventative measures with respect to malaria. Since mosquitos are a carrier of the disease:
Just taking the malaria medication will not guarantee that you will not get this disease, so be prepared.
A long time ago when I first discovered the joy of traveling, I quickly learned that a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold. Unfortunately with our trip to Namibia, the experience with our travel agent was less than golden.
As most people discover when doing research on the Internet, doing a search for something often yields dozens, if not hundreds of results. It can be overwhelming. Finding a Namibian travel agent to book our car and then book our accommodation was no different.
I am a big fan of Trip Advisor. I appreciate that you can find reviews of hotels, businesses, restaurants, etc., written by ordinary travelers.
One day when visiting the Trip Advisor forums, I asked to receive a recommendation for a Namibian Travel agent. I received a thoughtful response from the owner of Discover Namibia Safaris to my inquiry. I communicated with them directly for a couple of weeks and they were very attentive and prompt in their responses. They seemed quite knowledgeable about where to stay and what would be the most interesting locations to a photographer. I was impressed with their service to date, so I decided to book our car rental and accommodation through them.
For some reason, they were not able to accept credit cards, so I was to “wire” the funds to their bank in Namibia. It took a while for it to get there (seems that Canadian banks have no idea where Namibia is), but they received the payment about ten (10) days later.
Our experience with the travel agent was very pleasant – until they received our full payment. Then it became not so pleasant. I won’t go into the sordid details – even though we did (more or less) receive what we had paid for, it was a painful experience getting there. This was quite disappointing given that we initially had prompt service, booked five star accommodations throughout the trip, rented a high end Toyota 4×4, and paid a substantial sum for it all.
So in the end, I cannot recommend our travel agent. If we do visit Namibia again (which we plan to do), we will use someone else. Other travelers we met on our trip highly recommended the agencies they used such as Cardboard Box and Albatross Travel.
Finally, a very useful guidebook on Namibia is, “Namibia: The Bradt Travel Guide“. It is well written and logically organised. It is one of the best travel books I have ever used – it was updated in May 2011 so all of the information is current. Don’t bother buying other travel guides on Namibia… The Bradt Travel Guide is the best and the one to get.
Getting to Namibia from Canada was no small task. It is a long trip and the airfare is expensive. Most flights that I found online seemed to connect through Johannesburg, South Africa. Air Namibia does offer a direct flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) for those of you wanting a more direct route from Europe or even North America.
We had initially chosen to fly with South African Airways (an excellent airline that is a member of the Star Alliance consortium) and all seemed well until about a week prior to our departure. Unfortunately for us, our national air carrier, Air Canada (which we were using to make it to our South African Airways connection), was about to go on strike again, so we scrambled to find an alternative set of flights. Air Canada seems to like to go on strike every time we want to travel. Bad timing on our part, I suppose.
I liked the Air Namibia option but we were having issues finding an affordable way to get to Frankfurt. In the end, the best option was flying with British Airways (Toronto, London, Johannesburg, Windhoek), which made for a pleasant, but very long journey. (aside: British Airways staff seem to enjoy their jobs and like helping passengers, unlike their Air Canada counterparts).
Windhoek airport is a small and modern facility and getting through it is really easy. The Namibian customs and immigration personnel that greeted us upon our arrival were friendly and welcomed us to their country. Nice. Wish it were like that with all the places we have visited.
Namibia uses the Namibian Dollar ($N) which at the time of writing this post is about $USD 0.1243 (or $N 8.05 to $USD 1.00). You can find the most current exchange rate here. The $N is pegged to the South African Rand (ZAR) and both currencies can be used interchangeably in Namibia. Be aware though that once you take $N out of Namibia, you might have issues exchanging it.
We found that credit cards such as VISA and MasterCard were widely accepted at hotels, shops and restaurants. AMEX, not so much, so use another credit card. ATM’s are plentiful in the cities such as Windhoek and Swakopmund and I had no issues accessing my Canadian bank accounts to get $N.
I was confused a bit by all the information I read online about this. Then a Namibian friend sent a note to me regarding tipping and it was really helpful. I will quote verbatim from her note to me:
“Tipping at restaurants is normally at your own discretion, about 10% of your bill, not more. And definitely only if you received the service for it!
You can sometimes find European power receptacles in hotels.
This turned out to be more complicated than renting a car in other countries. You will soon see why.
We decided to do a “self drive safari” as we wanted flexibility in what to see and did not want to be bound by someone else’s schedule. I was a bit nervous at first about doing this but Namibian roads are in good shape overall and everything is extremely well signed, so it is hard to get lost.
I am going to insist on something:
Unless you only travel on paved/tar roads, you will need a 4×4 vehicle. You will spend most of your time on gravel/dust roads in order to see the best places in Namibia – and even though the roads are mostly in good shape, there are times you will need a 4×4.
We were given the option of renting a Toyota Hilux 4×4 or a Corolla sedan by our travel agent. I can tell you this now – if we had rented the Corolla, we would have been stuck several more times, not arrived at a couple destinations due to bad road conditions and we would have badly damaged the vehicle. I have no idea why a travel agent would even suggest a sedan to anyone, especially if you want to visit the more remote (and most beautiful) areas of the country.
Despite the good roads, once in a while there is heavy rain in Namibia and the gravel roads get washed out completely. When things dry out, the road becomes extremely rough and difficult to travel on. We encountered this a few times and if we were in a regular sedan, there was no way we could make it to our destination. Just rent a 4×4 and be done with it.
You’ll obviously pay more to rent a 4×4, but it is totally worth it and mandatory if you want to see the best Namibia has to offer.
Driving on Namibian roads was interesting in that you can drive for hours and not see anyone. Really. The odd thing though is that Namibia has one of the highest accident rates in Africa. This can be attributed to the fact that Namibian gravel roads are quite good and tourists assume they can travel at very high rates of speed. They unfortunately find out (the hard way) that they are no longer in full control of their vehicle and cannot stop in time (eg. for a wandering animal) or misjudge how sharp a turn is in the road. Can you say, “rollover”?
It was recommended that we drive no faster than 80 km/hr on gravel roads and now I can see why.
We booked the Toyota Hilux 4×4 with zero excess (collision) coverage. Due to the high accident rate (especially with tourists) in Namibia, the car rental insurance rules can get convoluted which means in certain circumstances, you will have no insurance coverage and are responsible for the entire cost of an accident.
Before booking a vehicle, ask the car rental company for a complete set of their insurance rules.
Our Car Rental Experience
Our travel agent booked our Toyota Hilux 4×4 with a company called Advanced Car Hire. I had never heard of them before but was assured they were reputable and had reliable, safe vehicles.
Upon our arrival at Windhoek airport, they greeted us and their driver drove us to their rental facility as they were not located at the airport. As we left the airport in their van, I noticed a sign on the highway saying that the city of Windhoek was 45 km away. I asked the driver if their office was closeby. His response, “Yes, it is close.”
About 45 minutes later we arrived in the south part of the city at their office. I guess they consider 45 km from the airport to their office to be “close”. Strike one.
We were warmly greeted by one of their staff and they gave us our “welcome kit” which our travel agent had sent to them. It consisted of a map of Namibia (with our driving route highlighted), hotel vouchers, a couple books on Namibia (with pretty pictures), insect repellant and a universal power adapter.
We were informed that we were not going to receive the Toyota Hilux 4×4 vehicle that we had originally booked but rather, we were going to be “upgraded” to a much better vehicle, a Nissan NP300 4×4. It had about 60,000 kms on it and appeared to be in good condition on the exterior. Considering I know little about 4×4 vehicles and that I was beyond exhausted from our flights, it all seemed fine to me. Turns out in the end, we would have been much better off with the Toyota Hilux 4×4 we originally booked as it was a superior vehicle. More on that later.
Anyway, we were given the paperwork to sign and a several minute explanation of their insurance rules. After 44 hours of traveling, I must admit it was a bit overwhelming to hear so many rules, some of which seemed odd to me.
Even though we had purchased full (zero excess) coverage, here are the most notable circumstances in which we would have no insurance coverage:
There were many other rules which I honestly cannot remember now. Like I stated earlier, get a complete list of insurance rules before you book your vehicle.
After signing all of our paperwork, we were told that we were going have to return this vehicle to their location in the city at least 90 minutes prior to us needing to check in at the airport for our return flight (normal check in time is 2 hours prior to departure). That meant we had to return the vehicle 3.5 hours prior to departure. They needed this extra time to inspect the vehicle and drive us back to the airport. This came as a rude shock to us as we had a 6 hour drive to Windhoek on our last day – we had an early afternoon flight and we ran the risk of missing it now since we had to return the vehicle to the city, not the airport. Strike two.
After making a big fuss about this, in time they agreed to have us drop off the vehicle at the airport. I am sorry it came to this and I would have never had the travel agent use this company if I knew their policies in advance (and the travel agent never disclosed any of this despite knowing our flight information).
We were given directions to our hotel in Windhoek and an orientation of the vehicle. They showed us where to find the jack, spare tires, jumper cables, tools and first aid kit. When you rent a vehicle in Namibia, make sure the car rental company shows you where all of this stuff is. Also, see if you can get a shovel too – if the sand gets too deep when driving, you might have to dig yourself out. We didn’t have one and it would have come in handy.
One very odd thing – we were not allowed to keep the owner’s manual in the vehicle – they wanted to keep it at their office with no reason offered. Wonder why?
We were also shown how to put the vehicle into 4-wheel drive – and trust me, we were going to need it. The problem was that their instructions were incomplete as we would find out later (i.e. the hard way). Fortunately for us, there are plenty of kind, helpful people in Namibia who were more than happy to help us out.
You will read about some vehicle issues we had during our trip in the next few posts. We had some of them sorted out in Swakopmund (one of our stops) but unfortunately, not to our satisfaction. There was an issue with the gas/petrol tanks, which never got resolved despite an email and additional phone call from us … my request for help went ignored. Strike three.
So in the end, I cannot recommend our car rental company. Use someone else. We spoke to other travelers who used AVIS, Hertz, Budget and Europcar – all located at the airport. They all seemed happy with their vehicles and received what they actually booked/paid for. I am sure all car rental companies have their issues, but unfortunately, we were extremely unhappy with ours.
There is something interesting to note with car rentals – we met many European travelers who recommended that for our next Namibian trip, we use German travel companies to book our vehicle. Namibian insurance rules are quite restrictive as I mentioned, so the German companies provide additional insurance to cover any non-reimbursable incidents or excess costs. I do not know the full details of this, however, it is definitely something I will look into before we book our next trip to Namibia.
Gas (petrol) stations
Here is another rule for driving in Namibia:
In the towns and cities, there was at least one gas station open. Unfortunately, in the more remote areas of the country, you could drive for hundreds of kilometres (in our case, 550 km was the longest distance) and not see a gas station. So, fill up whenever you get the chance.
Credit cards are not accepted at gas stations, so make sure you have cash for your payment. Most gas stations did have an ATM on site you could use if need be.
I do not know if this next issue is common place, but at about half of the gas stations we visited, the attendants often asked for more money than was listed on the pump after filling our tank. They would clear the amount owing (by resetting the pump) and tell you another (higher) amount. In one case, it was as much as $N 200.00 over the actual amount of gas delivered. I caught onto this very early and I would just tell them firmly (and politely) that the pump had displayed another (lower) amount and pay them only that. No one ever challenged me.
Keep at least 1-2 litres per person in your vehicle at all times. It is very hot and dry in Namibia and if you get stranded in the desert (because of car failure), you could wait for several hours before help arrives. We experienced temperatures of 51 C (124 F) one day – yikes. Remember that dehydration is not a good thing. Avoid it.
Dust, dust and more dust
We were traveling in late September and October, which happens to be the dry season. You will get dust onto and into everything – from your car to your clothes and cameras. There is no way to avoid it. It is a very fine dust and hard to remove.
I will deal with dust and digital camera sensors (not a good combination) in my next post, however, if you do the following simple things, you can help minimize the dust issues:
Namibia is a large country (geographically speaking) and they have excellent cell phone coverage, even in very remote areas. Most of the resorts have their own cell phone tower so you can receive full reception. I was impressed by this.
The main cell phone company is MTC – it was recommended once I arrived in Namibia that I go to an MTC office and purchase a prepaid SIM card for $N 7.00 (which includes $N 5.00 of time on it). Airtime is about $N 1.00 per minute to place a local call and nothing to receive one. Awesome. I could get additional time by purchasing phone cards (in various denominations) at MTC offices, gas stations and other retail outlets.
You will need an “unlocked” GSM phone to use the MTC SIM card. We North Americans usually have “locked” phones – that means we cannot use other SIM cards and have pay outrageous roaming charges when overseas (in my case, $N 30.00 per minute).
Some North American phones can be unlocked for a fee (just do a google search on your cell phone make and model), however, I was unfortunate that my Blackberry 8830 could not be unlocked (I would need to get the carrier to do this and they were unwilling to do so).
All hope was not lost … MTC offers a really “cheap” phone with a local SIM card for $N 149.00 ($USD 19.00) that you can purchase. It is a really basic in operation but it works and best of all, I saved myself hundreds of $N by purchasing this phone and $N 40.00 additional cards.
So, either get a local MTC SIM card if your GSM phone is unlocked or purchase the MTC “cheap phone.” You will save a lot of money doing so. BTW, anyone want to buy my Namibian cell phone? Email if you are interested.
The above list of preparations is by no means complete, but I believe it is some of the most important information we needed in planning this trip. As I stated earlier, there is a lot of great information on the Internet and our guidebook, Namibia: The Bradt Travel Guide, was extremely useful.
In my next post, I will discuss the camera equipment I took with me to Namibia – including what worked and what did not.
BTW, if you would like to see more of the images I captured in Namibia, visit my Africa gallery.
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