This requires similar logic to the above, but more money. Most car hire companies offer 4WDs, but because of their expense fleets are often much smaller, and so they must be booked even further in advance.
What kind of 4WD?
In order of increasing cost, the choice normally boils down to a single-cab Toyota Hilux, a double-cab Toyota Hilux, or a Land Rover 110. Occasionally you’ll find Mazdas used instead of Toyotas, but their design and limits are very similar. The only relevant difference is that Toyotas are more common, and hence their spares are easier to obtain.
For two people, the single-cab Toyota Hilux is fine. This has just two seats (sometimes a bench seat) in the front and a fibreglass canopy over the pick-up section at the back. This is good for keeping the rain off your luggage, but it will not deter thefts.
For three or four people, you’ll need the double-cab or the Land Rover. The double-cabs are lighter vehicles, generally more comfortable and faster on tar. However, the Land Rovers are mechanically more simple, and easier to mend in the bush – if you know what you’re doing. Further, your luggage is inside the main cab, and so slightly safer, easier to access, and will remain a little less dusty. Five people will need a Land Rover, or better still the flexibility of two vehicles.
Wherever you hire your vehicle, you must read all the fine print of your hire agreement very carefully. The insurance and the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) clauses are worth studying particularly closely. These spell out the ‘excess’ that you will pay in the event of an accident. These CDW excesses vary widely, and often explain the difference between cheap rental deals and better but more costly options.
In the last decade, Namibia has proved to be a very bad country for accidents. The problem is that the gravel roads are too good. If they had lots of potholes, then people would go slowly. But instead they are smooth, even, and empty – tempting people to speed. This results in an enormous damage and write-off rate amongst the car hire fleets. One large company with 70 cars recently complained to me that clients had written off 10% of its fleet in the last month.
Generally this isn’t due to collisions, but to foreign drivers going too fast on gravel roads and losing control on a bend. There is usually no other reason than carelessness and ignorance. This phenomenon affects 2WDs and 4WDs equally, and under some circumstances the latter can roll more easily because they have a higher centre of gravity.
Because of this, car hire companies have very high excesses (ie: the amounts that you pay if you have a major accident). A maximum 80% CDW is normal – which means that you will always pay 20% of the cost of any damage. The bill for a major accident in a small Group A or B would normally be £1,300/US$2,080.
However, beware: the fine print will often state that you will still pay for all of the damage if you have an accident due to negligence, or where no other vehicles are involved and you are driving on a gravel road.
Some companies will offset some of this risk for you for an additional cost – the extra charge of their Additional Collision Damage Waiver (ACDW). Even after you have paid that, many will still hold you liable for 20% of the cost of any damage which occurs on an untarred road – and all of the cost if the accident is caused by ‘negligence’. In short: the Namibian companies simply can’t get totally comprehensive cover for their rental cars.
The only way around this is the solution found by a UK company that specialises in fly-drive trips to Namibia: Sunvil Africa (London, tel: 0181 232 9777). They offer their travellers a full 100% CDW – with no excesses in the event of a major accident, even if it occurs on a gravel road with no other vehicle involved. They insure their vehicles in the UK, not in Namibia, hence they can get this full cover.
This also gives them the lowest rental rates around, whilst using the best car hire companies in Namibia. Sunvil Africa offer this to UK-based clients who book a whole trip with them: flights, car hire and accommodation. Their trips are flexible, good value, and well worth considering.
Driving over borders
If the car hire companies have offices in Botswana and South Africa, then you can usually take cars into these countries. You will need to advise the company in advance, as they need a few days to apply for the right permits and insurances – which may cost an extra N$150 or so.
If you want to do a one-way hire, this is also possible, but expect a one-way drop-off fee of around N$1,000–1,500. Note that car hire is generally cheaper in South Africa, and about the same price in Botswana. Thus for a long trip a one-way hire from South Africa into Namibia is usually slightly cheaper than vice-versa.
Taking vehicles across Zimbabwe’s borders is trickier, and has only become possible in the last few years. It is generally very expensive to do one-way hires which pick up or drop off in Zimbabwe (though Botswana’s Kasane is very close).
There is a voluntary grouping of the more responsible members of the car hire trade, the Car Rental Association of Namibia (CARAN). This lays down guidelines for standards and, if you use one of CARAN’s members, then they can provide an informal arbitration service if things go wrong. They can be contacted at PO Box 807098, Windhoek.
Driving around Namibia is usually very easy – much easier than driving at home. But because the distances are long, and some areas remote, a little more preparation is wise.
Equipment and preparations
Petrol and diesel are available in all the major towns, and many more rural corners too. For most trips, you just need to remember to fill up when you have the opportunity. In a major emergency, many farms will be able to help you – but you shouldn’t let yourself finish up in need of such charity.
If you are taking a small expedition into the northern Kaokoveld, Bushmanland, or the more obscure corners of the Caprivi, then you will need long-range fuel tanks and/or a large stock of filled jerrycans. It is essential to plan your fuel requirements well in advance, and to carry more than you expect to need. Remember that using the vehicle’s 4WD capability, especially in low ratio gears, will significantly increase your fuel consumption. Similarly, the cool comfort of a vehicle’s air conditioning will burn your fuel reserves swiftly.
It’s worth knowing that if you need to transfer petrol from a jerrycan to the petrol tank, and you haven’t a proper funnel, an alternative is to roll up a piece of paper into a funnel shape – it will work just as well.
Namibia’s garages are generally very good, and most larger towns have a comprehensive stock of spares for most vehicles. (Expect to pay over about £60/US$96 for a new tyre for a small 2WD saloon.) You’ll often find several garages specialising in different makes of vehicle. In the bush you’ll find that farm mechanics can effect the most amazing short-term repairs with remarkably basic tools and raw materials.
See the section on Maps and navigation in Chapter 5, for further comments. The MET’s free map of the country is probably the best for driving, though expeditions may want to think about buying more detailed maps from the Surveyor General’s office. If you are heading off onto the sand tracks of Bushmanland or the wilds of eastern Caprivi, then consider taking a GPS system.
Driving at night
Never drive at night unless you have to. Both wild and domestic animals frequently spend the night by the side of busy roads, and will actually sleep on quieter ones. Tar roads are especially bad as the surface absorbs all the sun’s heat by day, and then radiates it at night – making it a warm bed for passing animals. A high-speed collision with any animal, even a small one like a goat, will not only kill the animal, but will cause very severe damage to a vehicle, and potentially fatal consequences to you.
All of Namibia’s tar roads are excellent, and a programme of tarring is gradually extending these. Currently they extend to linking most of Namibia’s larger towns. Most are single carriageways (one lane in either direction), and it’s an effort to rein back the accelerator to remain within the speed limit of 120kph.
Remember that even on these you will find hazards like animals crossing. They are not as insulated from the surrounding countryside as the motorways, freeways and autobahns back home. So don’t be tempted to speed.
Very occasionally there are roads where the sealed tar surface is only wide enough for one vehicle. This becomes a problem when you meet another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction...on the same stretch of tar. The local practice is to wait until the last possible moment before you steer left, driving with two wheels on the gravel adjacent to the tar, and two on the tar. Usually, the vehicle coming in the opposite direction will do the same, and after passing each other both vehicles veer back on to the tar. If you are unused to this, then slow right down before you steer on to the gravel.
Most roads in Namibia are gravel, and most of these are very good. Virtually all are fine for 2WD vehicles. They don’t normally suffer from potholes, although there may be slight ruts where others have driven before you.
You will occasionally put the car into small skids, and with practice at slower speeds you will learn how to deal with them. Gravel is a less forgiving surface on which to drive than tar. The rules and techniques for driving well are the same for both, but on tar you can get away with sloppy braking and cornering which would prove dangerous on gravel.
The main problem with Namibia’s gravel roads is that they are too good. Drivers are lulled into a false sense of security; they believe that it is safe to go faster, and faster. Don’t fall for this; it isn’t safe at all. See the Insurance, CDWs and gravel roads section, and promise that you’ll never drive faster than 80kph on gravel. That way you’ll return from a self-drive trip still believing how safe and good the roads are! A few hints for gravel driving in a 2WD vehicle may be helpful:
· Slowing down If in any doubt about what lies ahead, always slow down. Road surfaces can vary enormously, so keep a constant lookout for potholes, ruts or patches of soft sand which could put you into an unexpected slide.
· Passing vehicles When passing other vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, always slow down to minimise both the damage that stone chippings will do to your windscreen, and the danger in driving through the other vehicle’s dust cloud. If the dust cloud is thick, don’t return to the centre of the road too fast, as there may be another vehicle behind the first.
· Using your gears In normal driving, a lower gear will give you more control over the car – so keep out of high ‘cruising’ gears. Rather stick with third or fourth, and accept that your revs will be slightly higher than they might normally be.
· Cornering and braking Under ideal conditions, the brakes should only be applied when the car is travelling in a straight line. Braking whilst negotiating a corner is dangerous, so it is vital to slow down before you reach corners. Equally, it is better to slow down gradually, using a combination of gears and brakes, than to use the brakes alone. You are less likely to skid.
If you have a high-clearance 4WD, it can extend your options considerably. However, no vehicle can make up for an inexperienced driver – so ensure that you are confident of your vehicle’s capabilities before you venture into the wilds with it. You really need extensive practice, with an expert on hand to advise you, before you’ll have the first idea how to handle such a vehicle in difficult terrain. Finally, driving in convoy is an essential precaution in the more remote areas, in case one vehicle gets stuck or breaks down. Some of the more relevant techniques include:
Driving in sand
If you start to lose traction in deep sand, then stop on the next piece of solid ground that you come to. Lower your tyre pressure until there is a distinct bulge in the tyre walls (having first made sure that you have the means to re-inflate them when you reach solid roads again). A lower pressure will help your traction greatly, but increase the wear on your tyres. Pump them up again before you drive on a hard surface at speed, or the tyres will be badly damaged.
Where there are clear, deep-rutted tracks in the sand, don't fight the steering wheel – just relax and let your vehicle steer itself. Driving in the cool of the morning is easier than later in the day because when sand is cool it compacts better and is firmer. (When hot, the pockets of air between the sand grains expand and the sand becomes looser.)
If you do get stuck, despite these precautions, don’t panic. Don’t just rev the engine and spin the wheels – you’ll only dig deeper. Instead stop. Relax and assess the situation. Now dig shallow ramps in front of all the wheels, reinforcing them with pieces of wood, vegetation, stones, material or anything else which will give the wheels better traction. Lighten the vehicle load (passengers out) and push. Don’t let the engine revs die as you engage your lowest ratio gear, and use the clutch to ensure that the wheels don’t spin wildly and dig themselves further into the sand.
Sometimes rocking the vehicle backwards and forwards will build up momentum to break you free. This can be done by intermittently applying the clutch and/or by getting helpers who can push and pull the vehicle at the same frequency. Once the vehicle is moving, the golden rule of sand driving is to keep up the momentum: if you pause, you will sink and stop.
Driving in mud
This is difficult, though the theory is the same as for sand: keep going and don’t stop. That said, even the most experienced drivers get stuck. Some areas of Namibia (like the omurambas in Kaudom National Park) have very fine soil known as ‘black-cotton’ soil, which can become totally impassable when wet.
Push-starting when stuck
If you are unlucky enough to need to push-start your vehicle whilst it is stuck in sand or mud, then there is a remedy. Raise up the drive wheels, and take off one of the tyres. Then wrap a length of rope around the hub and treat it like a spinning top: one person (or more) pulls the rope to make the axle spin, whilst the driver lifts the clutch, turns the ignition on, and engages a low gear to turn the engine over. This is a difficult equivalent of a push start, but it may be your only option.
Have your tyre pressure higher than normal and move very slowly. If necessary passengers should get out and guide you along the track to avoid scraping the undercarriage on the ground. This can be a very slow business, and is often the case in the highlands of the northern Kaokoveld.
The first thing to do is to stop and check the river. You must assess its depth, its substrate (type of riverbed) and its current flow; and determine the best route to drive across it. This is best done by wading across the river (whilst watching for hippos and crocodiles, if necessary). Beware of water that’s too deep for your vehicle, or the very real possibility of being swept away by a fast current and a slippery substrate.
If everything is OK then select your lowest gear ratio and drive through the water at a slow but steady rate. Your vehicle’s air intake must be above the level of the water to avoid your engine filling with water. It’s not worth taking risks, so remember that a flooded river will often subside to much safer levels by the next morning.
If the engine has overheated then the only option is to stop and turn the engine off. Don’t open the radiator cap to refill it until the radiator is no longer hot to the touch. Even then, keep the engine running and the water circulating, while you refill the radiator – otherwise you run the risk of cracking the hot metal by suddenly cooling it. Flicking droplets of water on to the outside of a running engine will cool it.
In areas of tall grass keep a close watch on the water temperature gauge. Grass stems and seeds will get caught in the radiator grill and block the flow of air, causing the engine to overheat and the grass to catch fire. You should stop and remove the grass seeds every few kilometres also, depending on the conditions.
Driving near big game
The only animals which are likely to pose a threat to vehicles are elephants – and generally only elephants which are totally familiar with vehicles. So, treat them with the greatest respect and don’t ‘push’ them by trying to move ever closer. Letting them approach you is much safer, and they will feel far less threatened and more relaxed. Then, if the animals are calm, you can safely turn the engine off, sit quietly, and watch as they pass you by.
If you are unlucky, or foolish, enough to unexpectedly drive into the middle of a herd, then don’t panic. Keep your movements, and those of the vehicle, slow and measured. Back off steadily. Don’t be panicked, or overly intimidated, by a mock charge – this is just their way of frightening you away. Professionals will sometimes switch their engines off, but this is not for the faint-hearted.