These pros and cons of visiting Namibia will set your expectations properly and set you up for a great trip. Compliment this post with our Namibia travel tips, in-depth Namibia travel blog and itinerary, and Cape Town to Namibia road trip guide.
We hate to rain on Namibia's parade, but Namibia could really use some rain, so let's do it.
The country needs a wake-up call. It's got a lot going for it, but in some ways it's letting itself go. It risks losing the "desert adventure fantasyland" title that tourism agencies and other bloggers have given it.
We don't want to spoil your Namibia trip before it starts, though. We just want to set your expectations appropriately. That way, you'll be best prepared when you visit Namibia and, if anything, it will exceed your expectations.
Pros and Cons of Visiting Namibia
There's a lot to see in Namibia…
When it comes to gazing, Namibia's amazing.
Every day in Namibia starts with a stunning sunrise (except at the foggy coast near Swakopmund), is filled with ever-different desert landscape displays and animal sightings, closes with a spectacular sunset, then puts you to sleep with endless stars.
And, as our landlord in Cape Town joked to us, Namibia's endless horizons look like a zebra because you can see the days and nights coming one after the other in black and white stripes.
It's a non-stop gaze-fest.
…there's not a lot to do, though.
We could only gaze for so long.
Eventually, our eyes got tired and the rest of our bodies got restless but we had problem finding things to do.
Too often we felt like a frustrated lonely guy at a strip club: We could look but we couldn't don't touch.
The lack of hiking in Namibia particularly disappointed us. Climbing on Spitzkoppe's boulders and Sossusvlei's dunes was tons of fun, but the heat kept us from doing it all day and we found few other decent hiking opportunities.
Namibia's not for the spontaneous…
We found Namibia to be just as hostile to spontaneity as its deserts are to thirst.
(Maybe this lack of spontaneity is partly due to it having been a German colony until 1915…)
It's a big, wild, and empty country where true highlights are few and far between and every other traveler knows about them and wants to visit them. This makes it imperative to book certain camps weeks or months in advance and made us feel like we were following a guided tour instead of discovering the country on our own.
It's not easy to plan, either.
I'm not exaggerating when I say we've never had to spend more time planning than we did for Namibia, especially since most camps' websites haven't been updated since the invention of the internet and they're hard to reach by phone or email.
But we're glad we put in the time because if we'd tried the spontaneous approach, our trip would have combusted.
…unless you're super well-equipped.
We stuck to known roads because we're soft city slickers who rented a sedan and had never changed a tire before in our lives before this trip.
If you have off-road expertise and the right equipment, you can be significantly more spontaneous.
It'll be expensive and you'll need at least two trucks for safety's sake, but then you'll be able to explore Namibia's northwest and southeast. Friends and people we met in Namibia who've done so say that's where you find the real action and adventure.
Namibia's paved roads are in great shape…
We could fly along the paved B highways that web out from Namibia's capital, Windhoek, to Etosha, Swakopmund, and Keetmanshoop. They're in pristine shape, straight, empty, and have 120 Km/h speed limits that most drivers easily exceed because the only speed control we saw was on the highway between Etosha and Windhoek.
The problem, as per our previous point on spontaneity, is that if you stick to paved roads you won't see anything interesting.
…but the dirt roads are more miserable than ever.
Namibia's dirt roads are shameful and only getting worse.
According to all the frustrated locals we talked to, the incompetent government is no longer grading the roads every two weeks like they used to. This means that the more popular the road, the worse its condition.
It marred our experiences in Etosha, where we had to keep our eyes on the road instead of on the animals, and on our way to and from Sossusvlei, where the corrugations are so bad they're becoming sand dunes in their own right.
If you have a big truck with big wheels, you can speed along these "roads" faster than we did in our sedan, but it's still going to be an uncomfortable and dangerous drive.
Our Namibian hosts were welcoming and open…
Instead of the superficial friendliness we sometimes experience when traveling, in Namibia we felt it was possible to have real honest and conversations with our hosts.
René, the matriarch of the family that recently bought Goanikontes Oasis, the Swiss duo of Renee and Heidi at Camp Gecko, Elodie and M.D. from Kamanjab Rest Camp, and even introverted Ecki from Camp Mara once he warmed up, were all super welcoming.
Probably because we were alone in the middle of nowhere and they had no other choice. We appreciated it, anyway.
…but we didn't feel super welcome otherwise.
Namibians weren't rude or anything but we rarely received the same easy smiles and feeling of welcome that we do elsewhere.
Part of it may stem from racial tension.
It felt worse than even in South Africa. The non-whites seemed less optimistic and more resentful of their situation and the whites were openly frustrated by their government's inability to support them and by the challenges of finding reliable local staff.
And everyone felt understandably depressed by the droughts.
Tourism is obviously one of the biggest sources of optimism for Namibians, but locals' appreciation of it, and us visitors, seems to have faded.
Namibia really is empty…
You don't have to try very hard to get way, way away from all evidence of humanity in Namibia. And this abundant absence of human influence, sound, light pollution, and cell phone reception soothes your soul.
We even had Deadvlei, one of Namibia's top three tourist attractions, 100% to ourselves. I can't think of many other countries where that would ever be possible.
…but culture was lacking too.
Even adjusting for its desolation, we found little of cultural interest in Namibia. What little traces of Namibian culture existed, like people in Himba attire or kitschy desert pitstops like Solitaire, seem to exist solely to bring in tourism dollars.
Maybe rather than expect a cultural experience, like we do when we visit other countries, we should have framed our time in Namibia as one big camping trip in an enormous national park. Then our expectations would have been better met.
Some of Namibia's highlights lived up to expectations…
…but other attractions disappointed.
Other than those highlights, Namibia's scenery wasn't particularly scenic.
The endless emptiness lost its luster pretty quickly and left us relying on our audiobooks to keep us from either dozing off or losing our minds out of frustration at the bad roads.
Some top attractions weren't worth going out of our way for either. These included the Orange River (on the South Africa-Namibia border), the Fish River Canyon (debatably—a debate you'd lose—the second biggest canyon in the world), Vingerklip (a finger-like rock formation) and especially Swakopmund (Namibia's seaside holiday resort town).
We found a few surprises…
Here are three of our favorite unexpected discoveries:
- The Lithops "sanctuary" at Alte Kalköfen Lodge (which also surprisingly had the best apple cake of our trip) between Keetmanshoop and Aus. Lithops are beautiful and unusual little desert plants native to Namibia and South Africa. This description didn't interest us much either when the owner of Naute Kristall distillery recommended we visit the nursery, but we're glad we did. You have to see them to understand.
- The moon landscape. This area half an hour outside Swakopmund is especially striking towards the end of the day when shadows are long. We were happy we risked staying in the middle of it, at Goanikantes Oasis, instead of in town.
- Spreetshoogte Pass. A beautiful drive and view in the late evening that would've been even better at sunrise for a breakfast picnic.
…which is a lot less than we normally find.
Normally surprises like these make up the majority of our trips, not just a few exceptional exceptions.
And we looked.
But we but found pretty much nothing beyond empty flatlands the well-traveled highlights that people in trucks and tour vans sped to one after the other as if in a grown-up scavenger hunt.
The food was better than we'd feared…
Heading into our Namibia road trip, I mentally prepared to put my long-term fasting abilities to good use. I highly doubted the prospects for food and was certain what little was available would be exorbitantly priced.
Those doubts turned out to be completely unfounded.
We enjoyed unanimously tasty multi-course meals at the camps we stayed at (Gecko, Kamanjab, Goanikantes, and Mara, in order of our preference) for 250 NAD ($17.50 US) or less, the quality and variety of the game meats we tried impressed us (oryx, especially), and even our own [Ed. note: Kim's own] campfire cooking turned out deliciously.
Also, the restaurants that everyone goes to (because there aren't many choices) like Cañon Roadhouse by Fish River Canyon, Tiger Reef and Tug in Swakopmund, and Joe's Beerhouse in Windhoek all delivered excellent value.
….but the options were limited.
You better like the food options because you have no alternatives.
For instance, at Sesriem we didn't want to splurge on the buffet dinner at Sossusvlei Lodge but couldn't braai our own food either because of heavy winds, so we had to settle on making crappy sandwiches from gas station-bought ingredients.
And if you're vegetarian prepare to eat a lot of canned beans and carrots. A couple of vegetarian German ladies we shared dinner with at Camp Mara said they'd gotten by so far, but they looked hungry.
The wildlife in Etosha was spectacular…
A big reason why was the water holes.
The animals had to go to them to drink, so if we went there too, we were certain to see a variety of species up close. It was especially spectacular to sit by the waterholes at sunset and watch Noah's Ark approach at a stone's throw distance.
…though somewhat zoo-like.
The water holes, especially the man-made ones, felt kind of like cheating. It's not exactly an unexpected encounter, which is the real thrill of a safari, if you know the animals have no other choice.
This felt especially true at the NWR camps, where auditorium-like viewing areas enable visitors to plonk down their tripods, crack open bottles of wine, and wait for the wildlife to come to them.
It was awesome, no doubt, and we HIGHLY recommend it, but seeing rhinos that way didn't feel as authentically thrilling as stumbling upon one on a game drive.
Accommodation is expensive…
While planning our Namibia trip we couldn't believe how expensive some of the accommodation was, especially the campsites.
How can someone charge 200 NAD (14 US) per person per night for a small patch of land in a deserted country that's basically one gigantic empty campsite?
The NWR camps inside the national parks, which are 350 NAD per night per person, were worse, and NamibRand Family Hideout (320 NAD plus 192 NAD park fees each) seemed ludicrous.
…but the prices are justified.
We got what we paid for everywhere, even at Etosha's cramped and dirty NWR camps. There, the premium price was worth it for their location beside water holes. It's just too bad the ineffective government squanders the money.
Namibian campsites weren't like the Canadian ones we're used to.
Elsewhere, the camps we stayed at were all extremely comfortable and clean, and many had private bathroom and kitchen areas that're bigger than some hotel rooms. And they often have cherry-picked the most scenic locations (NamibRand and Camp Gecko especially.)
The same can be said for the lodges we stayed at like Camp Mara's impeccably designed rooms, Goanikontes' moonscape A-frames, and Felix Unite's riverside clifftop huts.
Final Verdict on Our Namibia Visit
Namibia didn't earn a spot on our list of favorite countries…
Maybe it's because our expectations were too high after having been consistently blown away (sometimes literally) by our prior six months in South Africa and expecting the same in Namibia.
Maybe it's because we don't like driving and made matters much worse by renting a sedan instead of a truck.
Or maybe it's because we'd seen equally impressive (though different) desert scenery with nicer food, more to do, better roads, and more interesting culture in Jordan.
Whatever it was, we enjoyed Namibia and are grateful and glad to have had the opportunity to explore it, but we definitely don't consider it among our favorite destinations.
…but that doesn't mean you won't love it.
We could be exceptions.
Most everyone else we met on our trip seemed to feel Namibia's scenery was worth the discomfort of the roads.
Either way, hopefully our honest perspective helps you decide if Namibia is worth visiting, plan better than we did, and set your expectations at an exceedable level.