On the road
Almost all of Namibia's major highways are tarred. They are usually wide and well-signposted, and the small amount of traffic on them makes journeys easy. Less important roads are often gravel, but even these tend to be well maintained and easily passable. Most of the sights, with the exception of Sandwich Harbour, are accessible with an ordinary saloon car (referred to as 2WD in this book). Only those going off the beaten track – into Khaudum, Bushmanland or the Kaokoveld – really need to join an organised group.
The only safe alternative to such a group trip is a convoy of two 4WDs with at least as many experienced bush drivers. Don't be fooled into thinking that a 4WD will get you everywhere, and solve all your problems. Without extensive
experience of using one on rough terrain
, it will simply get you into dangerous situations which you have neither the skill nor the experience to cope with.
Consider getting yourself an International Driving Permit before you arrive in Namibia, as some sources advise that one is required if you wish to drive here. (That said, driving on a normal overseas driving licence with the requisite passport generally seems to be fine.) With a British licence, an international permit can be obtained in the UK from the RAC, or in the USA from Triple A. Driving is on the left.
Equipment and preparations
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.
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. Unleaded petrol costs around N$3.80 per litre. 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.
The free map of the country issued by the tourist board 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 on to 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.
Driving near big game
The only animals which are likely to pose a threat to vehicles are elephants. 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.
Driving near elephants: avoiding problems
Elephants are the only animals that pose a real danger to vehicles. Everything else will get out of your way, or at least not actively go after you, but if you treat elephants wrongly there's a chance that you might have problems.
To put this in perspective, most drivers who are new to Africa will naturally (and wisely) treat elephants with enormous respect, keeping their distance – simply out of fear. Also, in the more popular areas of Etosha, where the elephants are habituated to vehicles, you'd have to really annoy an already grumpy elephant for it to give you trouble.
To give specific advice is difficult, as every elephant is different. Each is an individual, with real moods and feelings – and there's no substitute for years of experience to tell you what mood they're in. However, a few basics are worth noting.
Firstly, keep your eyes open and don't drive too fast. Surprising an elephant on the road is utterly terrifying, and dangerous for both you and the elephant. Always drive slowly in the bush.
Secondly, think of each animal as having an invisible 'comfort zone' around it. (Some experts talk of three concentric zones: the fright, flight, and fight zone – each with a smaller radius, and each more dangerous.) If you actively approach then you breach that zone, and will upset it. So don't approach too closely: keep your distance. How close depends entirely on the elephants and the area. More relaxed elephants having a good day will allow you to get within 25m of them, bad-tempered ones that aren't used to cars may charge at 250m! You can often approach more closely in open areas than in thick bush. That said, if your vehicle is stationary and a relaxed, peaceful elephant approaches you, then you should not have problems if you simply stay still.
Thirdly, never beep your horn or flash your lights at an elephant (you shouldn't be driving yourself at night anyhow!). Either is guaranteed to annoy it. If there's an elephant in your way, just sit back, relax and wait; elephants always have right of way in Africa! The more sound and fury – like wheel spins and engine revving – the more likely that the elephant will assume that you are attacking it, and this is especially the case with a breeding herd.
Finally, look carefully at the elephant(s):
Are there any small calves
around in the herd? If so expect the older females to be easily annoyed and very protective – keep your distance.
Are there any males in 'musth'
around? These are fairly easy to spot because of a heavy secretion from penis and temporal glands and a very musty smell. Generally these will be on their own, unless they are with a cow on heat. Such males will be excitable; you must spot them and give them a wide berth.
Are there any elephants with a lot of seepage from their temporal glands
, on the sides of their heads? If so, expect them to be stressed and easily irritable – beware. This is likely to have a long-term cause – perhaps lack of good water, predator pressure or something as random as toothache – but whatever the cause that animal is under stress, and so should be given an extra-wide berth.