The black rhino lapping at the damp ground in front of us seemed unperturbed by the unmistakable low growl of a lion behind us. Cue the wow moment. It’s an exciting event to see a rhino or a lion on their own, but here they were, together, at a waterhole. And this was just on day 3 of our Namibia road trip.
Namibia has a way of bringing things together that really shouldn’t normally be. The tallest sand dunes in the world tower over the desert, while a mere 350 miles away, the world’s second largest canyon rips through the earth. A quaint German town with Instagram-worthy architecture sits on the steps of one of the world’s great safari destinations. And I haven’t even mentioned the expansive salt flats. How can all of these things exist in one country the size of Texas?
I still can’t figure out how, over the course of a 10 days road trip, I rode a 4×4 over mighty dunes, saw more rhinos than I could keep track of, stood on an ethereal salt flat, ate the best pizza I’ve had all year (in a historically German town), and frolicked in the Atlantic Ocean – all in Namibia.
Namibia Road Trip Itinerary:
- Day 1: Divundu
- Days 2-3: Etosha National Park
- Day 4: Kamanjab
- Day 5: Windhoek
- Days 6-8: Swakopmund
- Day 9: Sesriem
- Day 10: Fish River Canyon
Dates: November 19-28, 2018
When we crossed into Namibia from Botswana, it was the sixth week of our road trip, and I was exhausted. It was our seventh country on our overland trip from Kenya with Tucan Travel. The heat was getting to me. I missed our previous tour leader from the first half of the journey. I hadn’t been sleeping well. Africa was wearing on me.
We spent our first night of our Namibia road trip in a town called Divundu. It’s located in the thinnest stretch of Namibian soil, called the Caprivi Strip, and wedged between Angola in the north and Botswana in the south. You have to wonder how this random sliver of land became part of Namibia at all.
It all goes back to the German colonial period in the late 1800s, when Germany settled in what is now Namibia. Thinking that the Zambezi River would cut all the way across the continent and into the Indian Ocean on the eastern side of Africa, they settled in this strip of land that ended at the river. The problem with this plan, however, is that the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, interrupts the Zambezi River in a most impassable way. There is no navigating by ship from Namibia to the Indian Ocean, and thus, no useful trade route.
As with many of the random lines colonialists drew on maps across Africa, the Caprivi Strip has been a hotbed of conflict since its creation up until as recently as the 1990s. Things seemed calm and safe while we were there, but it’s easy to see how culturally isolated this strip of land must still be from the rest of Namibia.
Etosha National Park
For us, Divundu only served as a road trip stopover between Botswana and Etosha National Park, the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Namibia. On par with the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, Etosha is a great place to spot any of the so-called Big 5. In particular, Etosha has a relatively high rhino population, as it is very difficult to spot rhinos in almost any other safari location.
We arrived at Etosha National Park in the afternoon the day we left Divundu. Right away, we began looking for the animals of Namibia from our big yellow road trip truck. This was the first time on our trip that we didnt have a smaller safari jeep for our safari drives. I was skeptical at how well it would work out. Psychologically, the truck you spend days on end riding in, hot and bored for hours, just isn’t the place where you want to also have your fun safari time. While it certainly wasn’t as comfortable or intimate as the jeep drives, I was relieved that we had no problems finding wildlife.
On our way to the campsite we spotted two black rhinos, if only for a moment, through thick bushes near the road. We also saw zebras and giraffes, so common throughout Africa, yet always beautiful. Additionally, we spotted our first oryx (also called gembok), springbok, and a male lion. And this was all just on our way to our campsite!
The Namutoni campsite itself was very beautiful and a stark contrast from the campsites we’d stayed at in the Serengeti. In the Serengeti, showers were cold and the possibility of wifi was a joke. In Namibia, we not only had a swimming pool, hot showers, and wifi, but also a literal castle.
When we pulled in, I thought the castle was just a gimmicky replica, similar to the Medieval Times restaurants or the Excalibar Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I was wrong – this white washed fortress dates from 1896 as a German police post. The building we see today, however, is actually from 1906. In 1905, a battle between the Germans and the Ovambo indigenous group destroyed the original fort.
The history gets even more interesting getting into WWI. I haven’t typically thought about Africa when I thought about WWI. However, it’s important here to understand that because of the heavy European colonialism of the 1800s, many African countries were implicated in their colonizers’ wars. During WWI, this fort held English prisoners. When Germany later left Namibia and South Africa took over, the South African military used the fort as a base.
In the 1950s, the fort earned designation as a national monument. And now, people like me can roam the ramparts and camp right next to it.
The next morning we awoke at our campsite to learn that a male lion was strutting around just behind the gate of the campsite. I walked over, with my cereal bowl still in my hands, to check it out. This was one of the most active lions I had seen. He was walking through the tall grasses, stopping to rest every now and then. In a world where we keep animals in cages at zoos, I felt a pleasant irony at my realization that we were in a cage watching him.
I could have stayed and admired the lion all morning, but we had to get back on the truck for a full day of exploring the national park. We passed by countless water holes, each with a congregation of animals having a morning drink. While the impalas, kudus, and zebras sipped with ease, the ever-awkward giraffes had a more complicated strategy to master.
In order to avoid snapping the artery that supplies water to the heart, the giraffe must spread his or her front legs to lower the body close enough to the ground where he or she can then stretch the neck to the water without having to bend it. Dozens of giraffes surrounded one particular water hole, legs spread, all resembling the split legs of a skier who has lost control.
Even though we’d already had amazing safari experiences during our road trip in Kenya and Tanzania, Namibia was already showing off. Nowhere else had we seen waterholes like this where so many species would come together. As we continued our morning drive, I began to understand Etosha’s unique geography.
A 120-km-long dry lakebed covers much of Etosha National Park, forming a salt pan extending as far as the eye can see. In the distance, mirages play tricks on the eyes, while up close, zebras and kudus look like animals out of a fairy tale against the pastel backdrop of colors in the salt. It’s an excessively pretty place.
We stopped for photos at one spot where the salt flat seemed to extend forever in every direction. In all of this barren open space, it was surprising that so much wildlife thrives in the same place.
Over the course of the rest of the day, we saw three white rhinos, two young lions hunting a springbok (they didn’t catch him), and three males and one female lion at a waterhole.
That night we stayed at another campsite on the western portion of the park, called Okaukuejo Camp. Tim and I had heard rave reviews about the night safari in Etosha, so we arranged that right away. Thankfully they still had plenty of spots available (it’s first come, first served at the campsites to sign up), so McKinley, Will, and Jack also signed up.
We had just enough time to set up our tents and grab a snack before it was time to head out on the night drive. Our guide was friendly and energetic, and he did an amazing job of finding wildlife in the dark.
To protect animals’ eyes, he used a red flashlight instead of a normal yellow or white light one. He bounced the red light back and forth on either side of the jeep as he scanned for animals. Soon, we arrived at a small waterhole where a black rhino stood by himself licking the ground. In this moment we heard the roar of a lion behind us. Thinking back on this moment when I realized I was among not just a rare endangered rhino but also a lion, I still get a chill down my spine. Wildlife encounters don’t get much more magical or intimate than this!
Our driver turned our jeep around so we could safely get a look at the lion that was behind us. Sure enough, there he was just a few meters away from us, observing us from beside a rock.
We stayed at this waterhole for about 20 minutes, just watching as the rhino licked the ground (we don’t know why) and the lion slept.
We continued our drive. We came upon an elderly male elephant alone in the grass, and later two more black rhinos. On our way back to camp, with most of us half asleep from the rhythmic vibrations of the jeep, we all jumped awake to the sound of branches breaking and Jack yelling an expletive. Apparently, we had startled a rhino grazing close to the road and he had begun to move towards our jeep through the bush. He wasn’t charging us, but it was a reminder that we are visitors to their territory.
Back at camp, I planned to go straight to bed. Tim and I were both exhausted. I decided first to check out the waterhole at the campsite. I’d heard you can often see many animals drinking there late at night. While I didn’t want to stay up late waiting for something to happen, I figured I would at least go and see if there was anything there before I went to bed.
I am so glad that I did. Zebras, giraffes, and jackals surrounded the little lake, while a family of rhinos (two adults and one baby) bathed. I’ll never forget watching the rhinos scratch themselves against a rock, the baby following her parents’ lead. The scene was like something out of a National Geographic photo. It was a supremely magical way to end our time in Etosha, and a highlight of our Namibia road trip.
From there, we were back on the road the next morning to continue our Namibia trip. We stopped at a campsite in a small place (I think the word “town” is too strong) called Kamanjab. Tucan Travel booked us at the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm, which I was apprehensive about at first. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or how the place treated the cheetahs. Anytime a place proclaims to offer interactions with animals, I am skeptical about how ethical it is. I tried to look up information about the organization online, but I couldn’t find much. The only thing to do was just to go and learn for myself.
After we had set up camp, the owner arrived in a truck to take us on a tour of the grounds. We started at the family home. Before he opened the gate, we could already see three large cheetahs in the yard. He explained that these were their domesticated cheetahs – essentially pets. I’m generally opposed to wild animals being kept as pets, but he explained that each of these three had been orphaned or injured when young. They wouldn’t have survived on their own, and I understood that without another option, this was the only way the cheetahs could live.
Though larger than any house cat, their mannerisms were strikingly similar. They licked their fur to clean themselves, rubbed against their owner’s legs when walking by, and spent most of the time laying on the ground. It was almost easy to forget how powerful these big cats really are. I thought about all the times my childhood cat Ginger would scratch me if I rubbed her belly just one time too many. If these cheetahs ever did the same when these owners (or their toddler!), the attack could be fatal.
After visiting the house, we got back into the bed of the truck for a drive around the 200 hectares farm. This is where the 9 “wild” cheetahs on the property live. All of these cheetahs came to the farm after having been caught in traps on neighboring agricultural farms. The cheetahs in the region damage crops and hunt livestock, and thus farmers at traps for them or shoot them.
Before the Otjitotongwe farm began taking in the cheetahs 25 years ago, farmers would shoot any cheetahs on their property. Now, if a farmer traps a cheetah, he or she can call the Otjitotongwe farm and they will bring the cheetah to their property.
They have room to roam, but unlike cheetahs in the wild, they don’t hunt. Instead, the owner drives through the farm and tosses each cheetah a chunk of zebra meat. This day, we were tagging along for the feeding. Unlike the domesticated cheetahs at the house, these cheetahs had a noticeably wilder look in their eyes. They growled, paced, and had scars on their faces. When the owner tossed the meat to them, they would fight each other to grab it. As soon as one caught it, he would run off across the field to eat in solitude.
We asked if it would be better for the cheetahs to be released into a national park or another habitat where they could live freely in their natural environment. The owner explained that unfortunately, Namibia law prevents this. Thus, in an imperfect system where the only alternative is death at the hands of farmers, these cheetahs live out their lives here on the farm. I felt further reassured when I learned they are a non-profit organization – meaning they don’t just collect cheetahs to attract tourists. I believe they genuinely care about the welfare of the cheetahs.
The next morning we were back on the road again to continue our trip through Namibia, this time to the country’s capital city Windhoek. With no option to upgrade, we spent another night camping. For many of the people who had joined our tour group, it was their last night. We all went out to dinner at a local restaurant called Joe’s Beerhouse, famous for offering various game meats (like springbok and zebra) on the menu. Tim and I split a plate with four types of meat – kudu, zebra, springbok, and oryx. They were each good, but no different from venison or beef in my opinion.
After Windhoek, we got up early to continue our Namibia road trip west, all the way to the coastal colonial town of Swakopmund. This weird little town sandwiched between desert sand dunes and the ocean totally won me and Tim over right away. The charming German architecture and cool temperatures reminded us of our home city of Madison, Wisconsin. We also upgraded into a private room with a comfortable bed. Since we were in Swakopmund for three nights, this meant that after several straight nights of camping we could finally relax!
Right after we checked in, Tim and I ventured out to find lunch. We ended up at this pizza restaurant called Bits ‘n Pizzas. It was delicious. After so many repetitive meals on the entire road trip (not just Namibia), we felt like we were in heaven to be able to sit down and eat good pizza for the first time in a long time. Afterward, we met back up with our tour group for an introductory walk around the city.
The next day, Tim and I went exploring on our own. We found countless historic buildings, walked down the pier over the Atlantic Ocean, and even found a delicious soft-serve ice cream counter that hit the spot. It was the kind of day where we saw so much just by doing nothing in particular. The perfect temperatures, plenty of downtime, and the freedom to be on our own for a day were the medicines we needed.
Quad Biking Tour
We took the rest of the afternoon pretty easy, as the next day was a big one. We started the morning with a guided 4×4 trip into the sand dunes. I didn’t want to drive my own, so I rode on the back of Tim’s. The trip was part adventure, part wildlife quest.
Cruising over the dunes, I was a bit anxious at first. We were going up and down some steep hills, and I just kept thinking about what would happen if we flipped. Tim grew up driving these types of vehicles, though, and I trusted I was in good hands.
Our guides stopped every now and then to scan the sand for signs of wildlife. Over the course of the morning, we spotted so many interesting creatures I’d never seen before. The first was a shovel snouted lizard, which has enlarged feet that allow it to “dance” over the desert sands without sinking. Then we found a Namib sand gecko (also called the web-footed gecko). This stunning little guy has completely translucent skin, and we were able to see his heart beating inside his body. Last, we saw a large spider in a patch of brush.
Hidden in the desert grass, however, was a small sand winder viper. The sand winder is known for the way it navigates across the sand, swinging his body from side to side to essentially glide across the desert. I had to look up what makes a viper different from any other kind of snake. What I learned is that they all are venomous and have long, hinged fangs that enable them to bite deeply into the skin of their victims (usually lizards). Yikes!
Our guides then led us up to the top of a large dune, where we got a stunning view over the surrounding desert. Tim and I hadn’t been in a desert like this since visiting the Sahara in Morocco in 2014.
From there, it was an adventurous ride back to town. The guide could tell Tim was very skilled on the quad bike, so he actually led us on a different path from the rest of the group. We went up tall dunes and then down again. I was still nervous, but it was a lot of fun too. I loved how smooth the ride was. It was as if we were gliding across the sand.
Watch: Quad Biking the Namib Desert
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Back in town, another guy was waiting for us, as well as for Charles (another person in our Namibia road trip tour group), to take us to the airport. We had signed up for a scenic flight across the Skeleton Coast. Known for its many shipwrecks, this coastline along the Atlantic is rough and wild. Roads don’t cover the area thoroughly so the only way to really see it when you’re short on time is by air.
The hour and 15 minute flight was not at all worth what we paid. For the price we paid, we all expected something a little more magical. We saw one shipwreck, which was cool, especially since the desert half-buried it. We were supposed to see a second one, but had to take a different route due to fog.
Looking back at my photos from the flight, I have to admit we saw some beautiful scenes. From the sky, the desert stretched out below us and then dramatically met the ocean. I don’t quite regret doing it, though I wish it hadn’t been so expensive. I definitely would not recommend it to others.
The next morning we left Swakopmund and continued our Namibia road trip further south. The drive was long and bumpy, but we made some quirky and fun stops along the way. We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn right when my car sickness was at its peak. Tim and I took the obligatory photo with the sign, and then I promptly vomited.
Later that morning we reached a small road trip stopover town called Solitaire, Namibia. This strange outpost in the desert has hardcore Americana vibes. 1950s cars sit half-buried in sand and old gas pumps line a hedge of cacti. It looks more like a movie set than a real place.
Eventually we arrived at our campsite in Sesriem. We set up our tents quickly and then made a short visit to the Sesriem Canyon. The canyon is pretty small, but pleasant to walk through. If you’re nearby on your Namibia road up, it’s worth a short stop.
The main draw that brings people to Sesriem during their Namibia road trip is the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Specifically, people come to see its towering sand dunes. We got up well before dawn the next morning to hike up famous Dune 45 for sunrise. Climbing up sand is always challenging, as you literally slide back one step for every two you take. I enjoyed the workout, though, and the reward at the top is breathtaking.
With the light hitting the surrounding dunes, they all cast off different shades of orange, red, and brown as the sun gets higher in the sky. We sat at the top of the dune and admired the surroundings for at least an hour before our group headed back down.
Back at the truck, our driver and guide had prepared a hot breakfast for us. Our next stop in the national park was one of my favorites of our Namibia road trip. We visited the ethereal Sossusvlei and Deadvlei salt and clay pans, which sit beside Big Daddy, one of the tallest sand dunes in the world at 325 meters. The landscape here looks like something you’d find on Mars. The ground is cracked and white, and petrified trees stand bare and dark against the bright orange backdrop of the surrounding dunes. It is one of the great sites of any Namibia road trip.
Taking the time to just appreciate the unique geology behind this place is essential to enjoying it. Thankfully, Tim and I love learning and had done a little research beforehand to help us appreciate the science behind what we were seeing. The entire desert region is about 80 million years old – the oldest in the world. The Tsauchab River created Sossusvlei. Over time, sand dunes blocked off the Tsauchab River. It no longer flowed to what is now Sossusvlei. The ground dried up, leaving behind the cracked clay and salt surface.
Sossusvlei clay and salt pan
Fish River Canyon
After exploring the desert, we were back on the truck and heading way south towards Fish River Canyon for the last stop of our road trip in Namibia. The next morning, we were back on the truck to finish the drive to the canyon itself. Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is the largest, but it really doesn’t matter. When you’re looking at things THAT BIG, you can’t take it all in anyway. You lose your sense of scale, and that’s part of the magic of it. For the record, though, it’s 160 kilometers (100 miles) long, up to 27 kilometers wide, and almost 550 meters deep.
We had the opportunity to take a short walk along the rim of the canyon, stopping for photos along the way. Getting to look into the canyon and see how the view changed was the only way I could get any sense of its size.
From Fish River Canyon, we drove towards the South Africa border on the last leg of our Namibia road trip.
With almost two weeks in Namibia for our road trip, our time there passed in a slow but pleasant way, like watching fog roll in. Leaving Namibia was as surreal as its landscape itself. Crossing the border felt like stepping out of Narnia through the wardrobe and back into the “real” world, to a place where canyons and lions and dunes and beaches don’t exist alongside each other.