Our Tips for Stress-free Self-driving in Namibia
We found self-driving in Namibia to be quite straight forward and we’d highly recommend self-driving in Namibia to anyone who is visiting this beautiful country. Having the freedom to go wherever you like, whenever you like is a huge improvement over taking an organised tour or having someone drive you around.
That being said, there are a few tips that we learned along the way and some things that we ignored and regretted later. So here are our tips for stress-free self-driving in Namibia.
What type of car should you get for self-driving in Namibia?
We recommend that you get a proper four-wheel drive car for your Namibian self-drive. Don’t just get an all wheel drive SUV, get a car that has a selectable four-wheel drive mode. You’ll be thankful when driving on gravel, sandy or rocky roads.
We rented a 4WD Renault Duster which we kept in “auto” mode for the whole trip. It would automatically detect when to switch into 4WD mode depending on the terrain and the level of traction on the road.
The Renault Duster is quite popular in Namibia as it is not a big car and many people feel more comfortable driving it.
One thing to remember about most 4WD vehicles is that they generally have a higher center of gravity due to their larger ground clearance. This is very handy when driving over uneven surfaces but it does mean that they are easier to roll if you take a corner at excessive speed.
Driving Essentials to know before self-driving in Namibia
In Namibia, you drive on the left-hand side of the road. Speed and distance indicators are all in kilometers.
The minimum age for renting a car in Namibia is 23 years old and your driving license must be in English. If it isn’t you’ll need an international driving license.
The types of Roads in Namibia
Namibia has four main types of roads, A roads, B roads, C roads and D roads.
We only know of one A road which is a short stretch of dual carriage motorway leading into Windhoek. It is currently being upgraded, presumably to convert more of the single carriageway road into a motorway.
Most of the major arterial roads in Namibia are B roads. They are sealed and single carriageway. They are generally in good condition, although we did find sections that were subsiding a little, where care should be taken. You can generally do the speed limit of 120 km/hr on B roads, although locals seem to do a lot more than that.
Because the B roads are single lane dual carriageway, you should take care when overtaking. There aren’t any overtaking lanes but most of the time this doesn’t matter as there are plenty of long straight stretches of road and not many vehicles on the road outside of Windhoek and other major towns.
If there are double painted lines on the road you shouldn’t overtake. They are usually found coming up to crests of hills or on blind corners.
Be sure to take advantage of the frequent picnic rest stops that you’ll find along the B roads. They usually have covered seating and rubbish bins but you won’t find toilet facilities anywhere. For that, you’ll need to wait for the next town or find a bush (which can sometimes be tricky in the middle of the desert!).
C Roads are usually gravel, except for the C34 salt road along the Skeleton Coast. The quality of the C Roads varies quite a lot depending on how recently they have been graded, propensity for flooding and the type of terrain in the area.
Early on in our trip, we were pleasantly surprised with the gravel roads on the way to Fish River Canyon. They were in very good condition. But this didn’t last long as we encountered some horrible gravel roads on the way to Sossusvlei and Swakopmund.
We don’t recommend driving more than 80 km/hr on gravel roads and often even that is too fast. There were times when we didn’t feel comfortable driving more than 50 km/hr.
Some of the worst gravel roads are full of rock hard corrugations making them very bumpy. If you don’t control your speed you run the risk of losing control, especially on corners.
Some parts of the gravel roads can suddenly become quite sandy. This is usually at the bottom of dips in the road. You’ll normally see signs for these dips indicating that they are prone to flooding. Again it’s a good idea to watch your speed going into these dips.
D Roads are essentially dirt roads. You probably won’t travel long distances on them and you certainly don’t need to use them when traveling in between major towns.
Driving on Salt Roads
When compared to gravel roads, salt roads are quite nice to drive on. However, when they get moist they can be deadly. Even with a little bit of morning condensation, the surface of salts roads can invisibly become slippery, akin to black ice.
The only salt road that we’re aware of is the C34 along the Skeleton Coast. If like us, you want to visit the Cape Cross Seal Sanctuary, you’ll need to take this road from Swakopmund. It is gradually been converted into a tar road but from Henties Bay onwards it is still made of salt.
The best thing to do is to avoid driving on the C34’s salt road sections if there has been recent rain and to also avoid driving on it first thing in the morning. Leave a little bit later once the sun has had a chance to evaporate any moisture.
Finally, pay attention to speed limits and watch your speed. Lowering your tire pressure to what you’d use on a gravel road can also help with traction.
You’ll be driving long distances in Namibia and outside of large towns, petrol stations are few and far between. So always fill up before you get too close to an empty tank. I recommend driving with the petrol range indicator on so that you have an idea of how many kilometers you have left.
You don’t want to risk arriving at a petrol station to find that its pumps aren’t operational and you don’t have enough gas in your tank to reach the next station. We always tried to have a couple of hundred kilometers of range left in the car.
Make sure you bring along a decent map that indicates the location of petrol stations.
None of the petrol stations we visited was self-service. Instead, an attendant will direct you to the pump and fill the tank for you. Petrol station attendants will usually also clean your windscreen. If they do, it’s customary to give them a small tip of 5 to 10 NAD. They will sometimes offer to check your oil levels and tire pressure as well.
Don’t rely on petrol stations taking credit cards. Some do but others are cash only. Make sure you always have enough cash with you to pay.
Most brand name petrol stations in larger towns will have toilet facilities. Some toilets are free of charge but some charge a small fee.
Safe Driving in the Desert
We had the misfortune to break down in the middle of the Namib Desert. Fortunately, we did not have engine issues (instead our clutch pedal broke!) and with some help, we were able to keep driving, albeit slowly. We were also lucky that we broke down next to some friendly locals who helped us out and that we broke down in one of the few sections of the road that had cell phone coverage.
You may not be so lucky if you happen to break down, so here are some tips for staying safe if it happens to you.
Prepare for the Worst
Namibia’s gravel roads are extremely hard on vehicles and it’s not uncommon for them to break down. So you’d be silly not to prepare for such an event.
Make sure you buy a SIM card with phone credit on it before starting your journey. As we found out, you’ll often get some signal, even in the desert.
Buy a large bottle of water (at least five liters) and keep it in the boot of your car. If you do break down in the heat you’ll want to stay hydrated while you wait for help. Also, buy some snacks that you can eat while waiting.
Don’t Leave Your Vehicle
If you do break down in the desert, don’t leave your car. You are safer staying where you are. If you try and walk in the heat without any shelter you will quickly get sunstroke. Although you can certainly go for a while without seeing a car in Namibia, most B and C roads will have enough traffic on them that you will come across another car soon enough.
Conversely, if you see someone broken down on the side of the road, slow down to check that they are ok.
Watch out for Wildlife
Although Namibia has a lot of wildlife, surprisingly (and pleasantly) we did not see a lot of roadkill. This is likely because there are fences along many of the roads and because there are fewer cars on the road.
That being said, we still had Baboons, Ostriches and Warthogs run out in front of us a couple of times so you do need to watch out for animals. We even saw Zebra and Elephant crossing road signs.
Because visibility is pretty good on the long straight roads, you’re most at risk of hitting wildlife if you drive in the dark. We recommend that you don’t drive at night unless it’s absolutely necessary. You will probably not be covered by your rental insurance if you do. If you absolutely must drive at night, slow right down and use your high beams for visibility.
Don’t Pick up Hitchhikers
You’ll frequently see people hitchhiking on the side of the road. We don’t recommend picking up hitchhikers. Although Namibia is quite safe, it also has a high unemployment rate and there is always the risk of being robbed.
Driving directions and times
Always sanity check your route using an official printed map. Don’t rely on your sat-nav system or Google Maps for directions or timing because they are probably not up to date with the latest road changes.
In particular, Google Maps does not have a good idea of how fast you can drive on the gravel roads and it does not have the most up to date road changes.
Adjust Your Tire Pressure to Suit the Road Surface
Something we didn’t do but probably should have was to adjust our tire pressure when driving on gravel and sandy roads. It can help increase traction, ride comfort and prevent tire wear.
Practical Motoring has a good article about adjusting tire pressure.
We also recommend discussing with your rental company what the ideal tire pressure for the vehicle you are hiring should be on different types of roads. We didn’t do this but probably should have before we set off.
Tips for Driving on Sand
The one place where you may need to drive on sand is in the Sossusvlei National Park. To get to the furthest car parks, you’ll need to drive across about 5km of sandy tracks. Here are some tips for safely navigating that track.
- Lower your tire pressure beforehand. This increases your tire traction by increasing the surface area in contact with the sand. You may need to readjust the pressure as the day heats up because the air in your tires will expand.
- Don’t stop moving. If you do you’ll likely get bogged if you’re driving through deep sand. This happened to us because one of the cars in front of us stopped on hard sand, forcing four cars behind them to stop in deep sand and get bogged. Very annoying! To avoid this happening to you, try and look ahead into the distance and change tracks if you see cars that are stopped. However, that’s easier said than done, if like us it’s your first time driving on sand!
- Always go where the most used tire tracks are rather than forging new tracks yourself. I made this mistake and paid the price by getting stuck!
- Drive in a low gear – usually, first or second gear will suffice.
- If you’re not comfortable with driving on sand you can pay for a transfer vehicle to take you that short distance between the car parks and the sealed road.
- Don’t drive over the sand if there is no-one around to help you if you get stuck. Generally, this won’t be a problem unless it’s towards the end of the day.
Let us Know Your Tips
So that’s our tips for self-driving in Namibia, based on our (admittedly brief) experience with it. If you’ve driven in Namibia, we’d love to hear about it and about any other tips you might have. Feel free to comment below.