Crime and personal safety
Namibia is an extremely safe country to travel around, even on your own, though petty crime is on the increase in Windhoek and some of the larger towns. That said, being street-savvy goes a long way towards avoiding problems: not wearing expensive jewellery or watches, not opening your bag or wallet to get cash out in a public place, and always making sure your car is locked, the windows are closed, and your belongings are out of sight when you stop in towns or at petrol stations. If you have to leave your car for a time, and there is no guarded, secure car park available, it pays to park in front of a shop or bank, where there will be a security guard whom you can ask (and tip on your return) to keep an eye on your vehicle. Remember, if you do get robbed, you will need a police report to complete an insurance claim once you get home.
Culture and etiquette
Greetings are key to ensuring good social relations in Namibia, as in many parts of Africa. Before you ask a question or a favour, you should always make sure you greet the person and enquire after their health. If you can manage that in the relevant local language, then so much the better. Handshakes are the most common form of greeting, especially among men, and always with the right hand. Men will often use the three-part African handshake when greeting other men. Women are more likely to greet each other and men with words, though they may shake hands. If in a more traditional rural setting, a small nod, bow or curtsy may be given by the junior to acknowledge seniority.
Modest dress is also important, especially when visiting rural areas, which are generally dominated by Christian conservatism. In the extreme heat it may be tempting to strip off to the bare essentials, but notwithstanding the risk of sunburn, short, skimpy attire is fine for the beach but can give offence in villages. Generally, men wear long trousers and shirts and women wear something that covers their shoulders and knees.
While on the subject of village life, if offered something to drink or eat, you should always accept the offer. When eating with your hands, often the case in rural communities, you should eat with your right hand even if left-handed, as the left hand is considered unclean.
Photography is a thorny area, which has been badly handled by many tourists over a number of years, especially with regards to the Himba, Herero and the San, where taking photos tends to dominate interactions to a worrying extent. The crass behaviour of some tourists who snap away without permission of the individuals concerned and with minimal interaction with them has led to difficult relations between some Namibian communities and tourists. Some Himba and Herero women in particular are now demanding payment for having their photo taken. Always ask permission if you wish to take a photo, and only after you have spent time in meaningful interaction with the person or people concerned.
Electricity is 220 volts in Namibia, and large three-pin round plugs are used, as in South Africa. You’re advised to bring an adaptor with you; for sale in Johannesburg airport and in Windhoek, but hard to come by elsewhere in Namibia.
Full insurance for flights, medical emergencies and personal possessions is highly recommended. Make sure it covers any adventure sports you might want to do. If you intend to rent a car, you might also consider taking out a standalone car rental excess insurance policy, since this can work out cheaper than the additional fees charged by car rental firms to reduce the excess payable in case of accident.
Finding somewhere to access the internet will seldom be a problem in Namibia, even in quite remote areas, though in many parts of the country connections are often slow and the service is unreliable. A few internet cafés exist in Windhoek and Swakopmund and many hotels and hostels across the country have a PC or two available for guest use. However, in most accommodation, as well as in shopping malls and cafés, wi-fi is a more common means of getting online. In lodges, wi-fi is usually confined to the main building, and – understandably – the signal strength is usually fairly weak.
In Windhoek and the larger towns you’ll find launderettes and dry cleaners. In addition, most hotels, lodges and guesthouses offer a laundry service, though this is obviously more expensive.
Sodomy rather than homosexuality is illegal in Namibia, though the Namibian government tends to interpret this as meaning that homosexuality is illegal. Moreover, its attitude towards LBGTI rights is generally one of intolerance. That said, LGBTI travellers can enjoy a hassle-free holiday in Namibia provided they are discreet about their sexuality. What’s more, there are two gay-owned and LBGTI-friendly tour companies in Namibia, as well as lodge owners who are happy to facilitate bookings. Contact New African Frontiers in Windhoek or JJ Tours in Kamanjab for advice.
A range of maps, updated every few years, is widely available in specialist map shops and online in Europe and the US. The bookshops in Windhoek and Swakopmund also stock a selection. The Namibian Tourist Board and most tour operators can supply you with the annually updated Roads Authority Map of Namibia, which also has details of many campgrounds, but is not very useful. Better quality, however, is the Reise Know-How map, which is easy to read, includes almost all lodges, guestfarms and registered campgrounds, community or private, as well as marking petrol stations. This map alone is adequate for most self-drive visitors. If you’re intending to go off the beaten track, on the other hand, then the downloadable Tracks4Africa GPS map – which only works for Garmin GPS – and their new paper map should be high on your shopping list. You can download in advance or purchase the software in Namibia at somewhere like Radio Electronic.
There is generally a high level of press freedom in Namibia, particularly in the print media. The country’s top newspaper, both in quality and circulation, is the mainly English-language (with some content in Oshiwambo) daily The Namibian. The New Era is the state-owned daily paper. Several other dailies exist, including ones in Afrikaans and German, as well as several weekly papers and monthly magazines. There are over twenty private and community-owned radio stations, as well as the ten channels in different languages operated by the government-owned Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Many guesthouses, hotels and lodges pay for the DStv satellite package, which is based in South Africa, and predominantly offers a diet of South African and US channels.
The Namibian dollar (N$), often abbreviated to “Nam dollar” in common parlance, has been the official currency since 1993. Coins are produced for 5, 10 and 50 cents, and for 1, 5 and 10 Namibian dollars. Notes are available in denominations of N$10, 20, 50, 100 and 200. Until 2012, the notes exclusively featured Hendrik Witbooi. Then, in 2012, a series of more fraud-secure notes was introduced, featuring the post-independence president, Sam Nujoma, on the ten- and twenty-dollar bills.
To add to the currency confusion, prior to independence the South African Rand was the official currency, and since the Namibian dollar is still pegged to the Rand (1:1), it is still accepted as legal tender in the country. If you’re withdrawing money near the end of your trip, or travelling on elsewhere, it’s better to ask for South African Rands rather than Namibian dollars, as they’re easier to exchange in other countries.
It is relatively quick and painless to change money at a bank, except at the end of the month, when queues can be substantial. The main banks in Namibia are the South African Nedbank, Standard Bank and First National Bank (FNB), in addition to Namibia’s Bank Windhoek, which has 53 branches countrywide. Banking hours are usually Monday to Friday 8.30am–3.30pm, Saturday 8.30am–noon.
Credit and debit cards are widely used to pay for goods and services in Windhoek and the major towns, especially Visa and MasterCard. American Express is less readily accepted. Credit cards are also generally accepted for mid- and high-end accommodation payments. Nearly all petrol stations, however, only accept cash, though this is beginning to change. Thankfully, petrol stations often have an ATM on the premises.
ATMs, though also widespread in the more remote areas, are sometimes out of order or run out of cash, especially at the end of the month or before public holidays. The daily withdrawal limit is usually N$1500–2000. For larger sums you can withdraw cash against a credit card in a bank on presentation of your passport. In the more rural areas, you will need cash; make sure that you carry some of the smaller denominations. Travellers’ cheques are gradually being phased out, but can still be exchanged for cash at a bank.
Namibian Tourist Protection Unit
Since mobile phones are increasingly more popular than landlines – and indeed the only form of communication in many rural areas – you may want to bring your mobile phone and purchase a Namibian SIM card on arrival. These are available at the international airport and at various locations on Independence Avenue in Windhoek, and you can buy credit with pay-as-you-go cards. Old unlocked mobile phones work best if you just want phone, rather than internet, connectivity. If your phone is locked, you will need to pay a standard charge to have it unlocked, a process that usually takes 24 hours. The mobile provider with the greatest coverage is MTC; check the MTC website for the various packages on offer for smartphones. However, since in many remote areas there is no coverage at all, you might want to rent a satellite phone, which can be done at Be Local, or through your car-rental agency, with advance notice. Skype is also possible, though the slow wi-fi in many places can make it difficult.
To call Namibia from abroad, dial the international access code for the country you’re in, followed by the country code 264. Note that mobile phone numbers in Namibia are ten digits, beginning with 081.
Across the country, there are over 130 post offices, run by Nampost. Their smart, modern exteriors belie a somewhat less than efficient service: while fairly reliable for non-valuable objects, the system is fairly slow. Hours are generally Monday to Friday 8am–4.30pm, Saturday 8am–noon. Both Fedex and DHL have offices in Windhoek, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Lüderitz.
Shopping for most visitors to Namibia revolves around crafts and curios. The main area of production is in the north, so if you are travelling to the Kunene, Kavango and Zambezi regions you might want to wait until then to buy, especially since more of the money is likely to go to the artisan. Note that a number of shops sell crafts imported from South Africa and elsewhere; the ubiquitous Namcrafts, for example, which has several outlets in the capital, has “Namcraft” labels on all its products, though they are not necessarily from Namibia. So if the origin is important to you, make sure you make thorough enquiries before making a purchase.
There is no shortage of places to look for crafts, both in the street, where you can bargain, and in shops, where you can’t. The main craft shops are to be found in Windhoek and Swakopmund and there are two large craft markets in Okahandja. The selections, however, are often quite samey: soapstone figures and wooden carvings, particularly of animals; jewellery made from seeds, beads and shell; and batik cloth and cushion covers, again with animal designs aplenty. Namibia is also renowned for its semi-precious stones and crystals but you’ll not find many bargains. Still, the Kristall Galerie in Swakopmund is a good places to garner information, or, if you want to make sure the money is benefiting the local community, try one of the Spitzkoppe roadside stalls, selling uncut gemstones.
Namibia is normally GMT+2hr, but from the first Sunday in April to the first Sunday in September Namibia is GMT+1, known as Daylight Saving Time (DST).
Tipping is always a tricky issue, and the best advice is to ask locally. There is no culture of automatic tipping in restaurants, although for formal establishments 10 percent of the total bill is the norm if the service is decent. For porters at airports or hotels expect to pay N$5 per bag. Similarly, N$5–10 would suffice for the petrol pump attendant who fills your vehicle if they clean your windows, check oil, tyres etc, and for anyone you ask to watch over your car for a few hours while you’re parked in town.
If staying in a lodge for several days, only tip at the end – seek advice once there about what constitutes a fair tip; it will depend to an extent on whether the camp/lodge is budget or high-end and how many people are attached to one guide. Generally, it should not be more than US$10/day per person in a small group. Enquire also about whether there are communal tip boxes for the behind-the-scenes staff, many of whom get paid far less than the more high-profile guide. Many lodges pay very low wages and presume that tips will make up the shortfall. The only way to exert pressure and change this kind of behaviour is to complain to the management and/or give feedback online. That said, many tourists want to tip their guide if they have been particularly helpful and informative.
Bear in mind also that overtipping is not helpful: it sets a precedent that other travellers may not be able to live up to; it can create professional jealousy among workers; and it can upset the micro-economy, especially in poor, rural communities.
At the time of writing, the Windhoek tourist office was operating out of a portacabin on Independence Avenue, in Windhoek, but was due to relocate to new premises in the new Freedom Plaza. It can provide you with basic information about Windhoek and tourist maps for other parts of the country. The national tourist board also operates a moderately useful website, though it is not the easiest site to navigate. In other towns, tourist information is provided privately, often by tour operators. Many hostels and guesthouses can help with information and make bookings too.
Travellers with disabilities
Travellers with visual, hearing or mobility impairment, including wheelchair users, and “senior travellers”, are well catered for by Endeavour Safaris, a company based in Botswana, offering a range of safaris in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. UK company 2 by 2 Holidays specializes in holidays for wheelchair users and offers a wide variety of safaris to Namibia, ranging from 7 to 16 nights. Independent wheelchair travellers should note that many hotels and lodges, including NWR properties in the national parks, have wheelchair-adapted rooms and bathrooms. A list of wheelchair-accessible accommodation in Namibia’s major towns can be found on the website of Disabled Holidays, which also offers a Namibia holiday package.
Travelling with children
Travelling with children is fairly easy in Namibia provided they are able to cope with many hours of travel between sights. Many lodgings offer discounts for children under 12, usually giving a 50 percent reduction for youngsters aged 6–12, with children under 6 staying free. Some of the smaller, more exclusive lodges that build their reputation on offering peace and tranquillity do not accept children under 12. Restaurants often have kids’ menus. When it comes to activities, there’s plenty to entertain kids, especially on the coast, from kayaking to sand-boarding. Children under a certain age (or height, when it comes to ballooning) are often discouraged from participating in some activities, but with parental consent and supervision this can also be waived.
If you’re travelling with a baby, then it obviously makes sense to carry it around in a papoose, rather than a pushchair, given the lack of pavements, or even paved roads outside the main streets of the principal towns, never mind the countryside. Babycare products, such as bottled baby food and disposable nappies, are available in the main towns, but bear in mind that when you’re camping in the bush, you’ll need to transport the used ones with you until you reach a place where they can be disposed of properly. Breastfeeding in public is socially acceptable in Namibia, though the prevalence of breastfeeding babies in Namibia has decreased in recent years on account of fears of mother-to-child HIV transmission.
Voluntourism is a growing industry, and becoming a preferred way of travelling for those who want to “make a difference”. Be aware that this can be fraught with pitfalls, both for the volunteer and – in the case of social development projects – the people being “helped”. A good place to start is Ethical Volunteering, which has a useful checklist about questions to ask before committing to an organization. Getting feedback from former volunteers is also helpful.
In Namibia, the focus is often on conservation, with volunteer programmes concerning cheetah, desert-adapted elephant or rhino conservation – sometimes involving scientific research – and at animal welfare sanctuaries. There is stiff competition for applicants for high-profile organizations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
Generally, you have to pay for your flight to Namibia, transport to and from the location and board and lodging once there; conversely, if volunteering on a guestfarm or on a private reserve, you might have your board and lodging paid for in return for services. In this case, you need to be assured that you will not be exploited in terms of working hours and time off, nor that you are taking the job a paid local Namibian could be doing if the owner were only willing to spend the money.
Almost invariably, the volunteer gets more out of the experience than the people they are there to help. If you are contemplating becoming involved in community development, consider whether you have the appropriate skills for the job; what Namibia – like other African countries – does not need is unskilled labour constructing buildings or untrained teachers in schools. Also, if you really want to make a difference working with people, then you should think about committing to several months, at least, rather than several weeks, especially if the job involves interacting with vulnerable people, such as young children, for whom a constant relay of changing volunteers can be very disruptive. Several websites list volunteer projects in Namibia, which you should submit to scrutiny. They include: Go Overseas, which lists 25 programmes, some of which have been reviewed by former volunteers; the similarly entitled Go Abroad also provides reviews from former volunteers and advertises over thirty projects; even the Namibian Tourist Board has a webpage dedicated to voluntourism programmes.