For photography, Namibia is a stunning country in any month. Even with the simplest of camera equipment you can get truly spectacular results. My favourite time for photography is April to June. Then the dust has been washed out of the air by the rains, the vegetation is still green, and yet the sky is clear blue with only a few wispy white clouds.
Namibia is never crowded. Compared with the hordes of tourists that go to South Africa or Kenya, Namibia always seems deserted. That said, it becomes busier around Easter and from late July to early September. Then advanced bookings are essential. Many of the lodges and restcamps in and around Etosha, and in the Namib-Naukluft area, are fully booked for August as early as the end of April.
Avoid coming during the Namibian school holidays if possible. These are generally around April 25–May 25, August 15–September 5 and December 5–January 15. Then many places will be busy with local visitors, especially the less expensive restcamps and the national parks.
The main season when overseas visitors come is from around mid-July to late October. Outside of this, you’ll often find the lodges delightfully quiet and have some of the attractions to yourself.
The latter parts of the dry season are certainly the best time to see big game. Then, as the small bush pools dry up and the green vegetation shrivels, the animals move closer to the springs or the water-holes and rivers. So the months between July and late October are ideal for game.
During and after the rains, you won't see much game, partly because the lush vegetation hides the animals, and partly because most of them will have moved away from the water-holes (where they are most easily located) and gone deeper into the bush. However, many of the animals you see will have young, as food (animal or vegetable) is at its most plentiful then.
The last few months of the year witness the arrival of the summer migrant birds from the north, anticipating the coming of the rains. Further, if the rains are good the natural pans in Etosha and Bushmanland will fill with aquatic species, including huge numbers of flamingos. This is an amazing spectacle. However, bear in mind that Namibia’s ordinary feathered residents can be seen more easily during the dry season, when there is less vegetation to hide them.
Daytime temperatures occasionally top 40ºC in October and November, and heavy rainstorms are likely during the first two or three months of the year. Hence walkers should try to come between about May and September, when the temperatures are at their coolest, and the chances of rain are minimised. Note that most of the long trails in the national parks are closed between November and March.
Driving usually presents few problems at any time of year. However, visitors in January and February, and occasionally even March or exceptionally April, may find that flooding rivers will block their roads. These usually subside within a matter of hours, and certainly within a day or so, but do provide an extra hazard. A 4WD is occasionally useful here, although taking another route is usually a cheaper alternative!
Those mounting 4WD expeditions to the more remote corners of the country should certainly avoid these months. Large tracts of Bushmanland, for example, become totally impassable in any vehicle.
HOW TO TRAVEL
Obviously your style of travel around Namibia depends on your budget, though more expensive doesn’t always guarantee a better trip.
Simply backpacking around Namibia is very limiting. You need private transport to see most of the national parks, and will be missing out on a lot if you don’t have it. However, if you can splash out on a few days’ car hire here, and a couple of guided trips from a lodge there, you might get by on £20/US$32 per day for the rest of your time.
The best way to see the country is certainly to have your own vehicle. Whether you opt to use camps, lodges and restcamps, or bring your own camping kit, is then merely a matter of style. Discuss these options with the experts at Sunvil Africa — and see Chapter 7 for more details.
If you have a tight budget, a much better bet than backpacking would be to find four people to share the car, and camp everywhere. Then you could keep costs to around £40/US$64 per person per day.
For a less basic self-drive trip, with two people sharing the car and staying in a variety of small lodges and restcamps, expect a cost of about £80/US$128 each. If you choose more expensive lodges, with guided activities included, then this might rise to about £120/US$190 per day each – but should guarantee a first-class trip.
Another option is to take a guided group tour around the country. These suit single travellers as they provide ready-made companions, and also the elderly, who may not feel confident driving. In either case, provided that you are happy to spend your whole holiday with the same group of people, such a trip might be ideal. Guided trips are generally more expensive than self-drive trips which follow the same itinerary.
Generally, the smaller the vehicle that is used, the better and the more expensive the trip becomes. Expect a trip of one to two weeks, using small minibuses, to cost around £120/US$190 per person sharing, including all meals and activities. Several of the better operators run small group trips in Land Rovers, with professional guides rather than simply drivers. These can be excellent, but will cost more than a self-drive trip around the same itinerary. Expect to pay upwards of £150/US$240 per person per night.
Finally if your budget is very flexible (and especially if your time is very limited), then consider a fly-in safari. Small private charter flights can be arranged to many of the smaller lodges and guest farms; it’s a very easy way to travel. It is also the only way to get to some of the more inaccessible corners, like the northern section of the Skeleton Coast. Expect to pay upwards of about £250/US$400 per person per night.
WHAT TO TAKE
This is difficult advice to give, as it depends upon how you travel and your own personality. If you intend to do a lot of hitching or backpacking, then you should plan carefully what you take in an attempt to keep things as light as possible. If you have a vehicle for your whole trip, then weight and bulk will not be such an issue.
Most of your days you will want light, loose-fitting clothing. Cotton (or a cotton-rich mix) is cooler and more absorbent than synthetic fibres. For men, shorts (long ones) are usually fine, but long trousers are more socially acceptable in towns and especially in rural settlements and villages. For women knee-length skirts or culottes are best. Namibia has a generally conservative dress code. Revealing or scruffy clothing isn't respected or appreciated by most Namibians.
For the evenings, especially for chilling rides in the back of safari vehicles, you will need something warm. Night-time temperatures in the winter months can be very low, especially in desert areas. If possible, dress in layers, taking along a light sweater (polar-fleeces are ideal) and a long-sleeved jacket, or a tracksuit, and a light but waterproof anorak. Note that some excellent cotton safari-wear is produced and sold locally. Try the department stores in Windhoek.
Finally, don’t forget a squashable sun-hat. Cotton is perfect. Bring one for safety’s sake, even if you hate hats, as it will greatly reduce the chance of your getting sunstroke when out walking.
Other useful items
See Camping and walking in the bush for discussion on what type of camping equipment to take. In addition, here are a few of my own favourites and essentials, just to jog your memory.
· Sunblock and lipsalve for vital protection from the sun
· Sunglasses – essential – ideally dark with a high U-V absorption.
· Insect repellent, especially if travelling to the north or during the rains
· A ‘Leatherman’ multi-purpose tool. Never go into the bush without one of these amazing assistants
· Electrical insulating tape – remarkably useful for general repairs
· Binoculars – essential for watching game and birds
· Camera, film and long lenses (see Photography section)
Few, if any, of Namibia's attractions are intrinsically expensive. Many are protected in national parks, which are very reasonably priced. Only a handful of private lodges, and operators who run trips to the remote areas of the northern Skeleton Coast, the Kaokoveld and Bushmanland, are expensive.
In all these cases you are paying for some combination of high levels of luxury, the skills of first-class guides, and the logistics of finding comfort in such remote places. By African standards, the prices of Namibia’s private lodges and safari operations remain very low; much better value than equivalent operations in any other southern African country. This is partially because the economy is tied to the low-value South African rand, partially because Namibia hasn’t yet a culture of charging sky-high prices.
Namibia is relatively cheap by UK or US standards, and costs can be kept to reasonable levels. To work out even a rough budget, decide first how you will travel: backpacking, self-drive, guided overland, or fly-in. See the How to travel section.
If you eat in restaurants, lunch will cost around £4/US$5.60. Dinner, with perhaps a few beers or half a bottle of South African wine, will be nearer £8/US$12.80. National park fees are now largely included in the accommodation and camping prices. The main additional expense is petrol if you are driving, for which assume about 30p/48c per litre (half the price of petrol in the UK). The roads are usually open and easy, so expect to cruise at very economic speeds.
Namibian dollars are essential for buying petrol and small items, whilst most hotels, restaurants and larger shops accept credit cards.
Many travellers take most of their money as travellers’ cheques (sterling or US dollars). Banks in the cities will cash any travellers’ cheques, but American Express and Barclays Visa are well recognised, and prompt replacements are issued if cheques are stolen. (By carrying AMEX cheques you are eligible to use their customer mail-drop facilities in Windhoek.)
The major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club) are widely accepted, and often transactions in Namibia take time to appear on your statement. Drawing money at a bank via credit cards is easy, but it will take a few minutes longer than changing travellers’ cheques.
The best system is always to have some cash Namibian dollars (or Rand – remember they are interchangeable) with you, whilst conserving these by using credit cards where you can. You can gradually withdraw more money from your credit cards, or by cashing travellers’ cheques, as your trip progresses. However, do always make sure that your Namibian dollars will last out until you can get to a bank.
Changing money at any of the commercial banks is as easy and as quick as it is in Europe. Normal banking hours are 08.30–1530 weekdays and sometimes 0830–1100 Saturdays, depending upon the town. Banks will cash travellers’ cheques or give cash advances on credit cards, though the clearance required for a cash advance may take 30 minutes or so.
BOB tills (Auto-teller machines) work with VISA and MasterCard cards, though whether you are using a direct-debit card or a credit card, you should enter ‘credit card account’ and not ‘bank account’ when prompted about where you want your money to come from.
Away from the banks, Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards are usually accepted by lodges, hotels, restaurants, and shops, but travellers’ cheques which are not in Namibian Dollars or South African Rand can be difficult to use. In the remoter areas cash is essential. Wherever you are, petrol stations always require cash. Note that at the end of the month, when many government employees are paid, the queue at the bank can be several hours long.
Maps and navigation
A reasonable selection of maps is available in Europe and the USA from specialised outlets. The Michelin map of East and Southern Africa (sheet 995) sets the standard for the whole subcontinent, but is not really detailed enough for Namibia. The Freytag & Berndt map of Namibia looks good, though adds little to the free map issued by the MET.
Imported maps are obtainable in Europe from Stanfords, London (tel: 0171 836 1321) or Geocenter, Stuttgart, Germany (tel: 711 788 9340). In the USA try Map Link, Santa Barbara, California (tel: 805 965 4402).
Namibia has an excellent range of detailed ‘Ordnance Survey’ type maps available cheaply in Windhoek, from the Surveyor General’s office on Robert Mugabe Avenue. If you are planning a 4WD expedition, then you may need to buy some of these before you head out into the bush. Expeditions to Kaokoland should also pick up a copy of the Shell map of Kaokoland. It’s better than anything else to that area, and does have good general information about the area in the back.
However, for most normal visitors on self-drive or guided trips, all the Ordnance Survey maps are far too detailed and unwieldy to use. Much better is the free MET map, which is perfect for self-drive trips using Namibia’s roads. It really is the best map available, and has a useful distance table, and street maps of Windhoek and Swakopmund, on the back. It is available free at most tourist centres and information offices in Namibia. Overseas, most Namibian tourist offices will supply them, as will Sunvil Africa in the UK.
If you are heading into the more remote parts in your own vehicle, then consider investing in a small GPS: a Global Positioning System. Under an open, unobstructed sky, these can fix your latitude, longitude and elevation to within about 100m, using 24 American military satellites which constantly pass in the skies overhead. They will work anywhere in the world.
Commercial units now cost from around £100/US$160 in Europe or the USA, although their prices are falling (and features improving) as the technology matures. Even the less expensive models will store ‘waypoints’, enabling you to build up an electronic picture of an area, as well as working out basic latitude, longitude and elevation. So, for example, you can store the position of your camp, and the nearest road, enabling you to leave with confidence and be reasonably sure of navigating back. This is invaluable in remote areas where there are few landmarks.
Beware though: a GPS isn’t a substitute for good map-work and navigation. Do not come to rely on it, or you will be unable to cope if it fails. Used correctly, a GPS will help you to recognise minor errors before they are amplified into major problems. Finally, note that all these units use lots of battery power, so bring spares with you.
35mm SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses offer you the greatest flexibility. For general photography, a mid-range zoom lens (eg: 28–70mm) is recommended – it is more flexible than the ‘standard’ (50mm) lens. For wildlife photography, you will need at least a 200mm lens to allow you to see the animal close in. Alternatively (or in addition), compact cameras take up little space and are excellent to have handy for quick shots of people or scenes – though they are of no use for animals.
Film is expensive in Namibia, but print films are readily available in main towns, as are the more common slide films. Anything out of the ordinary can be impossible to find.
Bring a range of film speeds depending on what type of photography you are most interested in. For most landscape shots, where you will have plenty of light, a ‘slow’ film (100asa or less) will give the best results. Most of the photographs in this book have been taken on Fuji Velvia, 50asa. For wildlife photography, you will need a ‘faster’ film (200–400asa) to enable you to use your telephoto lens without fear of camera-shake.
Films, especially when exposed, can deteriorate very quickly in the heat. Keep all films (and therefore your loaded camera) away from direct sunlight. Buying one polystyrene cool box just for films is a great investment.
Pictures taken at dusk or dawn will have the richest, deepest colours, whilst those taken during the middle of the day are usually pale and washed-out. Beware of the very deep shadows and high contrast in strong light during the middle of the day. Film cannot capture the huge range that your eye can. By restricting your photography to mornings and evenings, you will encounter fewer problems.
A polarising filter can be remarkably successful in extending the periods during which you can shoot and get good results.
Other camera equipment
A tripod, or a monopod, is invaluable. If you are shooting from a vehicle, then make sure you have a rest – bring a beanbag or fill a small bag with dry sand, to sit between your camera and the windowsill.
If you want to take pictures of people (or any showing full shadow details) in very bright conditions, then it's worth investing some time learning how to deal with these situations. Fill-in flash photography can capture black faces well, but usually needs practice.
Camera equipment should be carefully protected from dust, using plastic bags if necessary. Bring some lens tissues and a blower brush to clean the dust from your lenses. Also brush any dust from the back pressure-plate of your camera each time you change a film, as anything caught here causes long straight scratches along the length of your film.
Most travel insurance policies are poor at covering valuables, including cameras. If you are taking a valuable camera abroad, then include it in your house insurance policy, or cover it separately with a specialist.
In the UK, AUA Insurance Managers (De Vere House, 90 St Faiths Lane, Norwich, NR1 1NL; tel: 01603 628034; fax: 01603 761384) offer standard and gold-cover policies. Their gold covers you for up to 90 days abroad, including loss from an unattended vehicle (if the camera is out of sight) for up to £1,500. Their gold cover costs £39 for £1,000 of equipment, £58 for £1,500 and £98 for £2,500.
ORGANISING YOUR TRIP
Most visitors who come to Namibia for a holiday use the country’s guest farms, lodges and restcamps – often combining them together into a self-drive tour around the country.
Such trips are quite complex, as you will be using numerous hotels, camps and lodges in your own particular sequence. Many of these places are small (and so easily filled), and organise their own logistics with military precision. Finding space at short notice is often difficult.
To arrange everything, it’s best to use a reliable, independent tour operator based in your own country. Although many operators sell trips to Namibia, few really know the country well. Insist on dealing directly with someone who does. Namibia changes so fast that detailed local knowledge is vital in putting together a trip that runs smoothly and suits you. Make sure that whoever you book with is fully bonded, so that your money is protected if they go broke; and, ideally, pay with a credit card. Never book a trip from someone who doesn’t know Namibia personally: you are asking for problems.
Trips around Namibia are not cheap, though they are currently cheaper (and also better value in many cases) than in any other country in southern Africa. Expect to pay around the same to an operator as you would have to pay directly: about £550–900/US$880–1,440 per person per week, plus airfares. At this price you can expect a good level of service whilst you are considering the options and booking the trip. If you don’t get it, go elsewhere.
Booking directly with Namibian safari operators or agencies is possible, but communication is more difficult and you will have no recourse if anything goes wrong. European/US operators usually work on commission for the trips that they sell, which is deducted from the basic cost that the visitor pays. Thus you should end up paying about the same whether you book through an overseas operator or talk directly to someone in Namibia, but the former is a lot easier.
Until the last few years, most tour operators overseas have overlooked Namibia. Few have featured it. Now that it is better known, many are hastily putting together programmes without knowing what they’re doing. Often they are just selling tours that someone in Namibia has designed and marketed. Few have spent much time in the country themselves, and fewer still can give detailed first-hand guidance on all of the country, let alone a wide range of guest farms, camps and lodges.
Don’t be talked into thinking that there are only a handful of places to visit and a few camps to stay in. There are many, all individual and different. Ask about ones mentioned in these chapters; a good operator will know the vast majority of them and be able to describe them to you.
Here I must, as the author, admit a personal interest in the tour operating business: I organise and run the southern African operations of the UK operator Sunvil Africa (tel: 0181 232 9777; email: email@example.com).
In Namibia our flexible fly-drives start at about £1,600/US$2,560 per person for two weeks, including flights from London, car hire, all accommodation and some meals. I believe that Sunvil Africa have the best and most interesting programme to Namibia – and will happily send you a detailed map of Namibia and our brochure, to demonstrate this. Just call us.