If I were an animal, I’d probably be a house cat. Nevermind that I’m very allergic to cats, we have a lot in common. I like to sleep a lot, I’m not a huge fan of being in water, I prefer attention on my terms, and I like the warmth of the sun — but only if I’m inside.
Which is why if you told me a year ago I’d spend 18 days camping in the hot desert of Namibia during their summer, I’d laugh, and maybe hiss at you.
But here I am. I did it. And it wasn’t all easy — there mayyyyy have been a few real grumpy patches — but it was amazing. Partly because spending that much time outdoors must have a positive neurological effect on your brain, but mostly because Namibia is made for camping — thanks to natural and manmade intervention.
On a natural level, holy cow. We saw dunes, we saw salt flats, we saw mountains, we saw deserts, we saw the ocean, we saw grasslands, we saw boulders…and what we didn’t see — we just didn’t have time to get to. In the 50ish hours we spent driving around Namibia, we were surprised by the countless landscapes, each time gawking, “soooo beautiful”, only to be more impressed by the next. And of course, the animals. I can’t think of many places where you’ll find elephants casually crossing the road, but from our first Oryx, to the last herd of giraffe, I’m not sure I’ve said “amazing!” so many times.
And while you can see a lot of this staying in the comfort of enclosed accommodations, you will miss so, so much by not sleeping in a tent for days (and days and days and days) on end. Yes, there are countless bugs (I’m writing this with a ridiculous fly net over my head*). And yes it is hot. So. Fucking. Hot. And dirty, too. But eventually the dust settles in, the lizards become kinda cute, and you create a lock-tight system to ensure your tent is mosquito-free so you can be dazzled endlessly by the sunrises and sunsets, and fall asleep to the sounds of the wind and cicadas.
The other reason it is so very easy to camp your way across Namibia is that this country is set-up for camping in a way I’m not sure any other country is. In fact, in many areas, typical hotels aren’t even an option. You’re either sleeping in a luxury tent set up by a lodge (these look amazing, albeit very pricey), or sleeping in a tent on the top of a truck you’ve rented from one the countless companies that offer the option. The truck rental company gives you everything you need — from a fridge, to a table and chairs, to sleeping bags — to go enjoy the unbelievably well-designed and equipped campsites scattered around the country.
And seriously, these campsites are unreal. Perhaps I’m just used to America’s dirt + fire ring set-up with (if you’re lucky) communal shitty bathrooms, but I could barely believe what a lot of the places offer here. They basically give you a little outdoor house complete with private shower, toilet, kitchen area with BBQ (braai) and wash-up sinks, and a canopy for constant shade, all for about 150 Namibian Rand per person (in 2016, this is ~$10). Like, what!? Who knew that was even an option?
The nicest campsites by far are the privately owned ones (as opposed to the official campsites that are associated with the NWR — Namibia’s national parks reservation system, some of which are necessary if you want to see certain things), and to help paint a picture for you, I’ve created a little map of our route, with helpful info on each campsite. The stars are the areas we stayed in. The numbers indicate the campsites, listed below.
#1 – Windhoek. This is the country’s capital, and our pick-up and drop off point with the truck, so we actually stayed in a REAL lodge. The Etambi Lodge was simple, but with free breakfast, wifi, and cable, we were very happy. I was so excited to sleep in a real bed after 18 days that I started making up songs to the tune “Oh Tannenbaum.” “Etambi Logde, Etambi Lodge….”
#2 – Solitaire. This is a very tiny “village” route to Sesriem/Sossusvlei (where the dunes are), but the Solitaire Guest Farm was one of our favorite campsites (I put village in quotes because while it gets a place on the map thanks to its gas station, the whole thing is about 3 buildings). We ended up staying here twice — once on the way to the dunes, and once on the way out. Private showers/toilet/sinks/etc. with a really nice pool, free wifi, and dining options. Also, you can go a sunset cheetah safari 10 minutes down the road!
#3 – Sossuvlei. Sossusvlei is the amazing cluster of dunes you MUST visit in Namibia, and Sesriem is the “town” (again with the “town”) that administers permits to see the dunes. In order to see the dunes during sunset and sunrise, you have to stay at the Sesriem campsite, which is nothing special (shared bathrooms and kitchen), but it gives you early and late access to the internal gate leading to the dunes. If you check in around 4pm, you could do a sunset session, sleep at the campsite, and wake up verrrrry early to do a sunrise, but I would recommend 2 nights here, since the dunes are so, so, so special.
#4 – Swakopmund. Swakopmund is the only place that resembles a city outside of Windhoek (which barely resembles a city itself) so it’s a great place to restock on supplies, etc. They also have a bunch of activities like sand boarding, etc., but we opted out of all that and spent a few quiet days at The Gecko Ridge Guest House, which is a nice little lodge with campsites a bit outside the city, keeping it more private and quiet. Shared bathrooms/kitchen, but very nice pool and free wifi with the option to dine. It looked like they were in the midst of major improvements, so I’d imagine this place will get even nicer over time.
#5 – Damaraland, part 1. The Madisa Camp has sites set against the giant bouldered landscape of Southern Damaraland, which is really gorgeous. You get private everything, and apparently the elephants tend to stroll through their dry riverbed. We didn’t see them, but I can only imagine how rad that would be. They also have a pool and nice grounds, but no specific activities or dining options.
#6 – Damaraland, part 2/Sesfontein – The Khowarib Lodge offers a a few campsites in the Sesfontein/Northern Damaraland area, which is a better alternative to the campsite down the road, because you’ll have access to their nice pool and boma (basically a fancy shade structure) which is crucial in the hot months. Shared bathrooms, but you have a private sink and BBQ/Braai area. They have dining options, braai packs (you can buy meet to cook at your campsite), and have a bunch of activities, from Himba tours to elephant tracking.
#7 – Damaraland, part 3 – The Hoada campsite is really something special. They’ve built each very private site WITHIN the natural boulders, making your little outdoor abode feel totally unique. You’ll find amazing sunsets, a nice pool area and friendly staff. You can also go on rhino and elephant tracking tours through their partner logdge — the Grootberg. We stopped at the Grootberg on the way to the site, and THAT place is really something special if you want to spring for the luxury option — views for days at the top of a valley, very Grand Canyon-like.
#8 – Etosha. We stayed at three of Etosha’s four campsites (they also have lodges) — Olifanstrus, Okaukuejo, and Namutoni. Oflistranstrus was the most beautiful site, but Okaukuejo and Namutoni have pools and stores/restaurants. As far as animals, I’m not really sure which is best. During the hot/wet season (which is November to March, I believe), the animals are scattered (during the dry months, the congregate at the designated water holes), which makes it hard to predict. We had the best luck north of Namutoni, but who knows if that’s always good. Searching for animals can get kind of boring when they’re so scattered, so while 5 days was nice, I’d say 3 days is plenty. NOTE: Etosha is pretty poorly-run in an almost hilarious way. The park itself is fine, but getting reservations, figuring things out in the park, and trying to get information was comically difficult. You can try their online system, but failing that, NWR (again, Namibian’s national park reservation system) has booking offices in Windhoek and Swakopmund where you can deal with everything in person — much easier than handling via email and phone.
And to finish, some general tips to get you ready for extended camping.
Pack about 3 outfits and one warm sleeping get-up. The days are very hot, but not too hot that you can’t just rotate the same clothing over and over (it’s a dry heat, so less sweating!), and if needed, hand-washing takes no time since that sun is a great natural dryer. It also makes things way more simple since you don’t really have the option to unpack day after day.
Keep you stuff well-zipped-up. The dust will get everywhere. Ever.y.where.
Get a local SIM card. Even international coverage on U.S. providers doesn’t cover Namibia, so you’ll need an unlocked phone and a local SIM card to make sure you have service/data. You can get your SIM right at the airport — look for the MTC sign — they have the best coverage in the country.
Get a hat. Putting on sunscreen everyday will get old — especially on your face. The hat solves this, plus the extra face shade is just nice. Also, a bug net?* My mom snuck this in my stocking at Christmas to which I said no, no, no, no, and she said, yes, yes, just bring it. I was VERY happy to have it in Damaraland, as I will ALWAYS put function before fashion. Thanks mom.
Buy lots of canned veggies in Windhoek (or Cape Town if you leave from there). I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that fresh veggies are scarce in Namibia, but man, the situation is dire. You’ll be able to stock up in some places, but make sure you get some good backups in the big city before you leave.
Get some long-form audio for the road. You’ll be spending A LOT of time in the car, so make sure you bring some entertainment. Our personal fave? The podcast, You made it weird with Pete Holmes. And specifically, listen to the Jenny Slate episode. It’s The Best. If music is you’re thing, make sure your playlists are downloaded/offline — service is spotty at best.
Bring an extra USB adapter for the car. You know the kind that fits in the lighter jack? Bring that.
Get some exercise in the early mornings. It’s the only time it’s both light AND cool out, so go for a short walk/run/whatever before the heat sets in. You’ll be spending A LOT of time sitting in the car, so your body will thank you for this.
Rent your truck from a good company. Kev’s got all the deets here.
And if you are really planning a trip to Namibia, let us know. We’ll talk your ear off.
*Okay, you made it this far, so you can see the bug net. I know. But I don’t care.