Sesriem, Namibia. December 2019. PICTURED: The gravel roads of Namibia curving southward past dramatic cliffs just outside of the Namib Desert.
Namibia is sometimes called “Africa for beginners”. The people are largely friendly, most places take credit cards, and there is a much smaller report of crime or molestation of tourists.
It’s also an excellent destination for experiencing the natural beauty of Africa, much of which can be reached and viewed in the seat of your own car, not requiring you to book a tour.
If you have a reasonable number of destinations planned – say you want to visit Etosha National Park, Sossosvlei and the Namib Desert, and Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast for instance, it will likely be far cheaper to rent your own 4X4 than pay for three separate tours
4X4s are often rented to tourists, some of whom are American. Those few Americans who can drive a manual transmission, will have to be shifting with their left hand instead of their right. 4X4s in Namibia are therefore a little easier to find in automatic transmission than sedans.
Here are some things I learned renting a car in Namibia that might really help anyone planning to do the same.
Renting the Car
Actually renting a car in Namibia is straightforward, but there are some things that I wish I had known before beginning the process.
You must have a Namibian cell phone number, or an international number that is reachable via the rental agent’s cell phone. He will try and call your number immediately after receiving it.
Driving in Namibia is not something everyone will be able to do, and so the agent will explain all the extra fees you’ll incur should this or that calamity befall you and their car. First, the agent will ask if you want to add windscreen and tire insurance. These are half-decent options; you’ll find out why later in the article.
As the agent begins to list all of the fees you risk incurring if the car is damaged, keep in mind the exchange rate. The euro, U.S. dollar, and English pound are all very strong into Namibian dollars. Check before you go, and memorize your times-tables. The conversion from U.S. dollars was 1-15 when I went – $10 American was $150 Namibian.
I was informed there were different options for the amount of kilometers you would be permitted to drive the car per day. The options I had at the service I used were 200, 400, or unlimited. The cost of going over was $5.08 Namibian per kilometer, adding up to roughly 1$ U.S. per three kilometers. Use Google Maps to estimate how many KMs you’ll be driving before you rent.
While some online guides suggest that many of Namibia’s scenic wonders are fine behind the wheel of a regular four door sedan or compact, you are taking your trip (and your money,) into your own hands.
It’s not so much that four-wheel drive is what you absolutely need, as I completed hundreds of kilometers of gravel with just 2. The robust tires, suspension, and ground clearance however, are absolutely necessary for driving in Namibia. If you beach on a sandy track, or a rock slams into the fuel line, you could have a problem, and remote areas are sometimes bereft of cell signal!
Here’s why Namibian roads require at least an SUV.
Namibia has only a handful of true tarmacked roads, while the rest are gravel. If you want to get to Sossosvlei, you will have to drive at least a 100 kilometers on gravel. The road going through Etosha Park is gravel and sand. Even Daan Viljoen Game Reserve, 20 minutes from Windhoek city center, would be impossible with a sedan or compact. If you’re planning to visit somewhere and the roads you’re taking are marked C or D, they’re gravel.
These gravel roads are well worn and often used. As such, you should expect to encounter furiously long stretches of washboard gravel or sand. Large rocks occasionally litter the road and can easily cause punctures. Stay alert while driving on gravel and only travel the speed limit (80) if it’s absolutely necessary or if the road has recently been smoothed out, as it can shake your car to death.
Namibia is a place of sand and wind, and people driving in the opposite direction at high speeds can send clouds of debris into your vehicle if you are unfortunate enough to be passing them downwind. A local driver told me these situations, as well as others like driving close behind someone, means that everyone has chips in their windscreen. This is why you consider picking the windscreen insurance.
Namibian roads chew up the tires of reckless drivers. Within 200 kilometers of the rental agency, one of my tires had a puncture, and I wasn’t even driving particularly fast. This is why I suggest picking the tire insurance. However, as I was dashed to discover, the insurance only comes into play if you BUY a tire yourself. Only then you will get fully reimbursed. If you arrive back at the rental agency with the spare on and the puncture in the back, you’ll have already paid the insurance, AND are expected to pay a $500 Namibian damage fee.
One thing to note is that the road in Etosha Park, I’ve heard, is fine with 2 wheels. Try asking some locals, or going online and asking people what they did. It’s a simple drive on paved roads to get to the park, so in theory, a sedan is fine.
Another unknown is whether the windscreen insurance works the same as the tire insurance i.e. it costs you more money if you don’t replace the windscreen yourself. Definitely worth asking.
You shouldn’t think because I’ve enumerated all of the cons of renting in Namibia that the risk is not worth the reward. I’ve really made certain my rental agreement was catastrophe-proof, and it still (ironically) only cost me as much as it did when I replaced the two right tires on my last car in the United States.
Provided you take good care of the rental, you have access to things very valuable to the traveler.
With a car you have privacy that you don’t have in a hostel or public transit. You can play music loud and sing along to it, take your clothes off, talk to yourself, and much more that you’ll find you just don’t get many chances to do while traveling.
The last thing you want to happen when you’re entranced watching wildlife through your binoculars is for the driver of your tour car to move on before you’re finished. Contrastingly, if you’re getting annoyed at those pesky nature enthusiasts asking the driver to wait another five minutes while they stare at an oryx, your own wheels allow you to move at your own pace through game reserves.
There’s a constant stream of thought in the mind of the traveler that sounds something like, “where is my luggage now, is it safe there, where will it be later, will I have to carry it around?” etc. Having a car and being able to lock your luggage up is a massive weight off the traveler’s shoulders literally and figuratively.
How many times have you missed a train, bus or plane in your life? Obviously a car removes what could be a minor or possibly catastrophic disruption of your itinerary.
When I was in Swakopmund, I talked to some locals about the rental car situation and what a Namibian thought about the situation. His name was Nil, and he told me that the international agencies like Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, Europcar, etc. will often give you a 4X4 that is just barely up to snuff.
When I asked him if there were any differences between the major car rentals he told me there wasn’t, but that you should pick whichever one is going to rent you a Renault Duster.
Nil told me that if you don’t plan on going to a local agency OR renting a chunky Land Cruiser, Hilux, or Isuzu truck, go to whichever agency can get you a Duster, because the suspension is superior to all comparable models, and can actually provide you a comfortable ride on the gravel.
The large rental companies you’ve used before will all likely run similar operations to the one I used. While for the foreigner they offer the comfort of familiarity, you may do well to see if you can get a quote from a local rental agency. Africa on Wheels charges a lot more than the agency I used, but rent out Toyota Land Cruisers, Range Rovers, and Toyota Hilluxs – some of the toughest and most durable vehicles you could ask for.
These are the wheels you would need to tackle Khaudum National Park, and some other of the more remote places. Their per-diem rate becomes less the more days you plan to rent, but it’s still a fair bit more than what I paid for my Nissan SUV.
Freedom of movement means freedom to change the plans – and part of having a successful itinerary is a bit of flexibility.
In addition, a car allows you to explore places the bus, tour guide, or train, never planned on stopping at, and it’s often in these special off-the-cuff moments that travel goes from being fun and exciting to being magical and memorable.
Editor’s note: 01-020-2020. Edits have been made to this story – under the sub header Insider Information and all the copy below until the next subheader.
Note: All photos are taken by Andrew Corbley, who retains exclusive rights to all. The unauthorized reprinting of this article or any of the images is strictly prohibited.