Although accommodation can seem expensive compared to many parts of Africa, standards are usually high and the value for money often excellent, especially if you’re coming from a country with favourable exchange rates. Moreover, there’s a lot of variety to suit a range of budgets, from basic campgrounds to all-inclusive luxury lodges and tented camps, or moderately priced B&Bs and guestfarms on private reserves. Backpacker hostels outside Windhoek are fairly thin on the ground, but staying at community campgrounds is another budget alternative, which helps provide the community with much-needed income. Self-catering options are also widespread. Note that almost all lodges and guesthouses require you to check out by 10am and check in after 3pm.
Hotels are generally confined to the major urban centres, and by law hotel rooms must all be en suite (with a bath or shower and toilet) and have windows. More common – even in Windhoek – however, are family-run guesthouses and smaller B&Bs, both of which are also sprinkled around the smaller towns in Namibia. They are usually owner-managed, offer more personalized hospitality and on average charge between N$900 and N$1700 for a double room, including breakfast. Some of the guesthouses also provide evening meals and/or packed lunches on request.
Many lodgings still follow the German tradition of preferring twin beds, rather than doubles, though the two beds will often be arranged side by side. If having a double bed is important to you, make sure you ascertain the bed configurations before booking.
Namibia’s lodge scene has grown substantially over the last fifteen years, particularly at the luxury end of the market, where you can pay over N$10,000 per person sharing per night for an all-inclusive package. Although lodges inside the national parks are almost exclusively run by the parastatal Namibia Wildlife Resorts, there are many on private concessions that border the parks, catering to a range of budgets. In addition to them is a handful of remote, luxury wilderness camps – often reached by a charter flight – whose isolation and spectacular desert scenery are generally the main attraction. Several tour operators manage a portfolio of lodgings within Namibia. The Gondwana Collection, for example, owns twenty diverse and distinctive properties and campgrounds right across the country, characterized by efficient, friendly service; a strong emphasis on sustainability; excellent buffet food; and good-quality but affordable accommodation, including upmarket campgrounds. South Africa-based Wilderness Safaris, which has ecotourism operations in several African countries, owns a dozen exclusive camps (from 6 to 23 units) in Namibia, predominantly in the northwest, including the pioneering Damaraland Camp, which is jointly owned, and largely managed, by the local community conservancy.
Guestfarms are generally run by Namibians of German or white South African heritage; they are large working farms that look to supplement their income to a greater or lesser extent through tourism. They often combine the family-style hospitality of a guesthouse, which includes communal dining with the hosts, with the advantage of being surrounded by nature. A number of guestfarms offer hiking trails round their property, and some include reserves stocked with large mammals, offering good opportunities for wildlife viewing; they may also be involved in conservation work; others (though none listed in this Guide) are hunting farms. Other activities provided by guestfarms include farm tours, 4WD trails, stargazing, sundowner excursions and horse riding.
The country’s few backpacker hostels are concentrated in Windhoek and in the coastal resorts of Swakopmund and Lüderitz, with a couple also in Tsumeb, charging around N$170–200 for a bed in a dorm, and N$500–650 for a double or twin with shared or private bathroom. Camping is another option for budget travellers, especially at the cheaper community-run campgrounds. Restcamps, which by law have to offer at least four types of accommodation, also tend to be good value, usually providing inexpensive self-catering units and camping pitches among other no-frills options.
Camping is by far the best way to experience Namibia’s wilderness scenery, the sounds of the bush and the country’s magical sunsets. What’s more, it doesn’t have to be the unforgiving endurance activity of guide or scout camps. On the contrary, camping can be pretty luxurious in Namibia, and at very little cost. Bank on paying N$110–250 per person per night, though some campgrounds also charge for the vehicle and/or have an additional site charge. Increasingly, campgrounds are offering private ablution blocks and even private food preparation areas and sinks, particularly in the case of lodges that also cater for campers. Hot-water showers are the norm, though in some cases, the water may be heated by a donkey (wood-fired water heater), and you may need to buy the wood and build the fire yourself. Electricity is usually available, except in community or wilderness campsites, as are power points to charge electrical equipment. You’ll almost certainly have a private braai stand or pit, but not necessarily a grill, which you can rent. Larger places, such as the NWR camps, will have communal ablution blocks and a camp shop that sells basic provisions, including “braai packs”, which usually comprise a couple of steaks, pork chops or kebabs and a piece of boerwors with which to kick-start your BBQ. These are also often available on guestfarms, where the meat comes straight from their own livestock.
Several places also rent out tents that are already set up and equipped with beds (or mattresses), bedding and electricity for little more than a campground fee.
Wild camping should not be undertaken unless there’s no other option – such as a breakdown somewhere; usually there’s a community campground, however rudimentary, within reach, in even the remotest areas.
Community-based tourism (CBT) in Namibia, especially through the country’s progressive conservancy system, has rightly been championed across the world. Though it’s not without its share of challenges, it offers the traveller a way of engaging with rural populations while helping to support communities without threatening their lifestyles, which more conventional tourism does not. That said, it takes various forms: most notably there are a number of excellent community-run campgrounds across the country, usually comprising only a handful of pitches, which sometimes lack electricity. The outstanding success story in CBT is the international award-winning Conservancy Safaris Namibia, which is almost completely owned by Himba and Herero communities. In existence in the Kunene Region for a number of years, it is starting to expand its operations into the Zambezi Region. Increasingly, conservancies are entering into joint ventures with more experienced lodge operators; there are now over thirty such ventures.
Another way some communities are benefiting from tourism, which is not without its critics, is through the “living museum” experience.
In urban areas, “township tourism” is also taking off; run by local black operators in the former townships of Windhoek, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, it’s an area where they can outdo the leading (almost exclusively white-owned) tour operators in Namibia. A couple of the more successful companies have now succeeded in branching out into offering more mainstream activities to tourists.
At its best, township tours give tourists insights into the various changing cultures, challenges and everyday lives of people in these areas, and a chance for some intercultural interaction. At its worst, it can be very voyeuristic – hence why it is often referred to as “slum” or “poverty” tourism.
It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and much depends on the attitudes and actions of the people doing the tour as well as the way the tour is managed and the interactions that take place. Ambivalence exists among township residents too; recent research in Katutura showed that, while some residents felt happy that visitors valued their lives and what they were doing, others thought they were just coming to gawp at their poverty. The research also showed that the money from the tours did not spread very widely into the community since tours tend to visit the same places and people each time (such as Penduka in Windhoek). If you want to ensure that your tourist dollars are spread more widely, make enquiries beforehand and see where you might go that is off the beaten track.
There are six “living museums” across northern Namibia, which aim to preserve and transfer aspects of traditional culture, educating fellow Namibians and foreign tourists, providing opportunities for intercultural exchange and, importantly, creating sources of income for rural communities.
Five different ethnic groups are represented in the living museums (the Ju |’Hoansi-San, Mafwe, Damara, Mbunza and Himba) and are supported by the non-profit organization, The Living Culture Foundation of Namibia. By visiting one of these sites you can choose from a menu of interactive programmes, ranging from a couple of hours to a whole day, or even an overnight stay (which will afford you far greater insight), as you learn about and practise traditional skills, herbal remedies or dances, before sampling traditional food. Provided you manage to avoid arriving when the village is being stage-managed to entertain large tour groups, it is possible to engage in genuine interaction with community members, not only about traditional life, but also about the ways in which the communities are adapting to modern life.