Getting around Namibia: Transportation Tips
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While getting around Namibia’s relatively few population centres is possible by bus, and even rail in some cases, in order to reach most of the parks, reserves and other places you are most likely to want to visit, you will need to book yourself on a tour or rent a vehicle. Hitchhiking is now banned on some roads in Namibia and in national parks, but in other, more remote, parts of the country it is almost the only way to get around if you are without your own wheels, but be prepared to pay the equivalent of a bus fare.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Namibians do not own cars, organized transport is rather scarce outside the main population centres. Intercape Mainliner provides the most reliable luxury buses, running daily services from Windhoek to South Africa, stopping off at Rehoboth, Mariental and Keetmanshoop; it also heads north to Oshakati, Ondangwa and the Angolan border at Oshikango, as well as to Livingstone in Zambia via Rundu and Katima Mulilo, and west to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Other private operators also run shuttles to specific destinations: Townhoppers and Welwitschia Shuttle, both Swakopmund-based firms, operate daily air-conditioned shuttle services between the capital and the coast. Details are given in the relevant sections. There is also a twice-weekly inexpensive Orange Bus service – also known as the SWAPO bus – operated by Namib Contract Haulage that runs between Soweto Market, Katutura and various towns in the north, including Oshakati, Outapi and Ruacana. Most people, however, get around on the less comfortable minibuses that don’t have a fixed schedule; they leave when full and can be overloaded, and more prone to accidents, but are faster.
Given the distances involved in Namibia, it’s no surprise that there are internal flights available, patronized mainly by business folk. In addition to the international airport at Walvis Bay, small airports are scattered across the country at Katima Mulilo, Lüderitz, Ondangwa, Oranjemund and Rundu. Air Namibia operates several flights a week on these domestic routes from Hosea Kutako International Airport or from Eros Airport, Windhoek’s domestic airport 5km south of the capital, just off the B1. An up-to-date schedule of all their routes can be downloaded from their website. Additional airstrips serving charter flights are also dotted around; most of the isolated luxury lodges have their own landing strip. There are several good charter flight operators who regularly fly tourists between lodges, but it is best to ask the lodge(s) you’re staying at to advise on flights, since many have agreements with particular charter operators.
Trains have been running in Namibia since 1895, and today, as then, they mainly transport freight, so are exceedingly slow. Most routes on this small network also offer a passenger service (both economy and business), and since most departures entail overnight travel you can save a night’s accommodation, which may be of interest to budget travellers.
The routes of most interest to tourists are: Windhoek–Walvis Bay, via Swakopmund, and Windhoek to Keetmanshoop; the opening of the line from there to Lüderitz has been delayed until the authorities find a solution to the dunes blowing onto the tracks.
Fares are inexpensive – N$153 from Windhoek to Walvis Bay, for example, in high season – though it’s worth paying the extra N$38 for the fully reclining seats available in business class. Even then, however, the level of comfort is unremarkable – remember to take food with you, and a blanket to ward off the desert chill. Prices are slightly higher at the end of the month and during the December/January holidays. The rail network is owned by the parastatal TransNamib, and tickets can be booked at the various train stations in advance or on the day, when you should turn up thirty minutes before departure.
At the other end of the scale is the luxurious Desert Express, a travel experience in its own right rather than a means of getting from A to B.
By far the most convenient way to see the country is by having your own wheels; once you’ve made that decision, the main question is whether to go for a 2WD or 4WD. Many of the main highways are high-quality tarred roads, and the gravel roads necessary for reaching most (though not all) of the main sights are generally navigable in a 2WD outside the rainy season, though the higher the clearance, the more comfortable the ride. On the other hand, fuel consumption will be much more economical in the 2WD. However, if you do a lot of gravel-road driving you need to be prepared for the greater likelihood of punctures.
Most lodges that demand 4WD access have a safe parking area for saloon cars, and will transfer guests in their own 4WD vehicles, usually at no extra cost. They will similarly be able to take you out on game drives in their vehicles. That said, the majority of self-drive visitors rent a 4WD, though they rarely, if ever, actually use the lower gears.
To reach more remote areas, high-clearance 4WD is essential, but this needs to be accompanied by the knowledge of how to drive such a vehicle – for example in sand, across riverbeds and over rocks. What’s more, if you’re going to tackle challenging terrain, off the proverbial beaten track, you will probably need to be in a convoy of at least two vehicles, with all the necessary equipment.
Be Local in Windhoek runs short courses for novice 4WD drivers.
Car rental is not prohibitively expensive in Namibia, but it is not as cheap as in South Africa – you’re likely to get a better deal with an advance online booking. Besides, in peak holiday season 4WD vehicles can be hard to come by. You certainly can’t expect just to turn up and rent a car on the spot. In high season, rates generally start from around £170/week for a small, manual 2WD with air conditioning; thereafter the rate comes down slightly. For a mid-size 2WD, bank on paying over £400/week. 4WD vehicles cost from around £700/week and guzzle fuel, though they offer a more comfortable ride on dirt roads and afford you better views of the countryside; moreover, in some parts of the country, and especially during the rains, a high-clearance 4WD is the only form of transport to reach remote areas, especially in northwest Namibia. Local 4WD rental specialists usually also offer rates that include camping equipment from an extra N$100 per day. Otherwise, there are a couple of companies in Windhoek that provide this service.
Some of the cheapest deals have a mileage limit, though most offer unlimited mileage, which in such a large country is advisable. However, rental rates can vary quite considerably for the same vehicle, depending on how many kilometres it’s clocked up and on the conditions for the collision and theft damage waivers (CDW and TDW); you can often opt to pay a higher daily rental rate in order to reduce the excess payable in case of accident. Damage to tyres, windscreen and headlights (often from gravel on the road) is usually not included in the standard insurance, but you can take out extra cover. Including an additional driver, which is highly recommended given the long hours on the road you’re likely to face, may not necessarily cost extra. Dropping off at a different location can be done, and again charges depend upon the distance from the pick-up point; for example, you’ll pay over N$4000 to leave a car in Katima Mulilo that you have rented in Windhoek, unless the company has an office there. Taking the vehicle across the borders in most of southern Africa, especially South Africa and Botswana, is fairly easy, but advance notice is necessary to give the rental company time to sort out the relevant papers and insurance, for which you’ll be charged extra (around N$500 for a multiple entry permit). In addition, you’ll have to pay vehicle entry fees at the border, generally in the relevant local currency (for example P140 for Botswana).
As for age restrictions, drivers of 2WD cars generally need to be over 21, and in some cases over 23, though younger drivers may be accepted for an additional charge; for 4WD you generally need to be over 25, and have held a licence for several years. Theoretically, an international driving permit (purchased before you leave home) is required for car rental – to be presented alongside your national driving licence – but if your licence is written in English, or at least in Roman script, it is rarely requested. In addition, you should carry your driving licence with you when on the road to show at police checkpoints.
As well as the usual international car rental companies (Avis, Budget, Hertz, etc), there are several good local operators, often specializing in 4WD rental, based in Windhoek, and some of the local tour operators even have their own fleet of vehicles.
Cars are driven on the left in Namibia, as in most of southern Africa. Although the quality of the roads is high, so is the accident rate, especially on gravel roads and for foreign tourists who are unused to the conditions. Losing concentration at the wheel is also a hazard, given the vast distances involved and the monotony of some of the driving, so making regular stops is essential. The speed limit is 120kph on tarred roads out of town, 60kph in urban areas, 80kph on gravel roads, and 60kph in most reserves and parks. Note also that seat belts are compulsory. Along the coast roads during the morning mist, it’s recommended to drive with headlights on; drivers also tend to keep them on when there is a lot of dust around. A substantial number of accidents also occur from vehicles hitting pedestrians, or wildlife, more often at night, which is why you should not drive in the dark if at all possible, especially on gravel roads or in the north of the country, where there are plenty of domesticated animals loose on the roads to add to the hazards.
Whether you opt for a 2WD or 4WD, there are certain basic provisions you should have with you, and precautions you need to take, since getting stranded in the desert is no joke, and can be fatal.
Petrol stations are located in all the main towns – usually 24 hours – and even in some more remote corners of the country (with more restricted hours). Most only take cash (though the fuel stations in Etosha take cards, when the machine is working) and are not self-service, so you should be prepared to tip the very underpaid pump attendant (N$5–10) if they do a good job. On request they will wash your windscreen and check your tyre pressure, which should be done at regular intervals, especially after a long period on gravel roads.
At the time of writing, unleaded petrol and diesel were both around N$11/litre in Windhoek, more in more remote areas. Remember that using 4WD gears and air conditioning will increase your fuel consumption. 4WD vehicles often have reserve fuel-carrying capacity, but it’s worth having spare fuel canisters even in a 2WD so that if you take a wrong turn, which is easily done, you don’t run out in the middle of nowhere. For the same reason, fill up whenever you pass a petrol station.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, or don’t want to spend hours driving, the easiest way to visit places is to go on an organized tour or safari. These can be organized via one of the specialist tour operators in your home country, or through one of the Windhoek- or Swakopmund-based tour operators. These range from a budget three-day camping trip to Sossusvlei for N$5200/person to bespoke tours for as long and as far as you like to suit a range of budgets.
While you’d imagine the hot dusty roads and huge distances between sights would deter most people from pedalling round Namibia, there are a surprising number of cycling holidays on offer from specialist tour operators (such as Mountain Bike Namibia; African Bikers; and Bike Tours), as well as more mainstream companies (such as Exodus, and Trailfinders); the latter will also organize your flights. The fact that many roads are deserted and the scenery can be spectacular makes Namibia, in some respects, ideal for cycling. However, the extreme heat, dust and isolation mean that independent cyclists need to be experienced, fit and totally self-sufficient in case of breakdown, carrying plenty of water and food, with adequate protection for the head and neck from the brutal sun. The BEN network of bike shops offers bike repairs.
Although forbidden in national parks and along some routes, such as the Swakopmund–Windhoek road, hitchhiking is a common way of getting about in less populated areas, though you’d be wise not to do it alone. You should, however, offer to contribute to fuel costs (generally the price of a bus fare), though if you’re lucky your ride may decline to take you up on the offer. On some roads you could be waiting hours for a vehicle to pass, so it’s important to have enough food and especially water to sustain you, as well as protection from the sun. Shared rides are sometimes advertised in the backpacker hostels in Windhoek.
Somewhat of a misnomer, the luxury Namibia Desert Express actually takes 22 hours to cover the 350km from Windhoek to Swakopmund, but that allows you plenty of time to appreciate the train’s opulence and gaze at the desert landscape through vast windows, while reclining in soft leather seats. The en-suite sleeping compartments are supremely comfortable; the three-course dinner and extensive breakfast included in the price are delicious; and there’s video entertainment and a well-stocked bar to keep you occupied, leaving you little time to actually sleep. The tour also includes a stopover at Okapuka Ranch, north of Windhoek, for some game-viewing activity.
Views differ on the optimum tyre pressure for different surfaces; it also depends on various factors such as the type of vehicle, the kind of tyres on it and the load it’s carrying. That said, a rule of thumb for the average 4WD is 2–2.2 bar for tarred roads, 1.8 bar for gravel roads and 1 bar (15psi) for sand. For sand, it’s really important to deflate the tyres to increase the surface area, so that this can improve the vehicle’s traction. Ask your rental agency what they recommend.