Situation: We wanted to visit Africa independently so we could skip the expense, crowds and early morning wake-up calls of group safaris.
Problem: In two popular countries to view wild game, Kenya and Tanzania, travelers are warned against moving about the country on their own due to safety concerns.
Solution: Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa has developed a reputation as a safe spot for self-drive vacations. Etosha National Park offers an abundance of wild animals and spectacular scenery.
Namibia has become a popular destination for self-drive safaris.
We hadn’t originally planned on going to Namibia. But during our journey around the world its name kept coming up from other travelers as a captivating place to visit. The country was under the control of apartheid-era South Africa until its struggle for independence ended peacefully in 1990. Namibia has emerged as a friendly and welcoming place for visitors.
The Alte Fest Museum in the capital city of Windhoek provided us with a primer on Namibia’s recent history. Housed in a barracks dating to the 1890s, the museum chronicles the country’s path to present day independence, including a room dedicated to the memory of the freedom fighters who were imprisoned at Robben Island, the notorious prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was also held.
Lions and zebras in pairs, oh my!
After a few days in Windhoek we drove 250 miles north to Namibia’s main attraction for animal lovers, the massive Etosha National Park. About the size of New Jersey, it surrounds a vast, blinding white saltpan and provides one of the best wildlife viewing areas in all of Africa. On any given day a visitor can spot elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, springbok and, with a bit of luck, the elusive rhinos, leopards and cheetahs.
During the dry season animals emerge from their normal hiding spots to seek water.
The best time to visit is during the dry season from April through October, when animals emerge from their hiding spots to drink at one of the many waterholes scattered around the park. During the wet season, they are more difficult to spot, concealed in the grassy plains and sparse woodlands where seasonal water is plentiful.
Etosha is too big to see in one day. It’s best to spread a visit over several days to see different areas of the park. The first day we started out with a guided game drive to learn some tips on viewing locations and animal spotting, and drove on our own after that.
We jumped aboard an open-air Range Rover with Tomas and Katrin, a German couple, for our safari drive with Ismail. He knew all the hot spots, or in this case, wet spots as he sought out the waterholes where the animals congregate. Within minutes of entering the park gate we were treated to a pair of giraffes ambling alongside us with their signature languorous stride.
Despite years of watching shows on the Discovery Channel, nothing prepared us for seeing these animals up close in their native habitat. As wildlife newbies, we clicked through what would have been several rolls of film in the pre-digital era in about five minutes. Ismail’s gentle smile let us know that “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”
After 20 dusty minutes on a gravel road we reached the Nebrowni waterhole, where hundreds of zebras were eagerly quenching their thirst. Sprinkled among them were springbok, dik-diks and impalas, resembling Edward Hicks’ painting A Peaceable Kingdom.
Der elephant kommen!
We watched the animals for a spell and were just about to leave when Katrin dropped her until now perfect English and excitedly yelled out, “Der elephant kommen! Der elephant kommen!” Off to the right three mammoth leathery gray piles lumbered towards us. The elephants plodded along with a slow-motion gait, looking like the characters in Reservoir Dogs, (in this case, waterhole dogs?) but with big ears flopping back and forth.
As the elephants made their deliberate progress towards the waterhole, the zebras got a bit restless. Thought bubbles over their head seemed to say, “Well there goes the neighborhood.” Most got the memo early and cleared out. But a handful stayed behind as if this time it would be different. It wasn’t.
One holdout zebra hopes for the best.
When elephants show up at a waterhole it’s the equivalent of the chubby kid cannonballing into the pool at a swanky hotel. Everyone else gets soaked and figures out that it’s time to leave the party. It was no different here. The zebras and springbok crept away and meandered aimlessly while waiting for the big boys to have their fun.
The elephants weren’t content to just drink the water like the other animals. They plunged right in, splashing and swinging the water around with their trunks. Elephants like to get muddy; it cools them off and provides a layer of protection against stinging insects. In the process anything within about 50 feet gets muddy too. They played for an hour, as delighted as schoolchildren on the first day of summer.
The lion sleeps tonight, but first . . .
The next few days we drove around the park on our own. Driving down a rutted gravel road through scrub pine for two or three miles, we rounded a bend and watched a herd of thirty elephants cavorting in the mud. At another remote waterhole giraffes crouched into their distinctive splay-legged wide stance so they could reach down into the water with their long necks. Hours slipped away as we enjoyed front-row seats for our very own live-action nature film. Elephants here, zebras there . . . hey, there goes a pack of ostriches. Since Etosha is so vast we often had a waterhole to ourselves, providing several days filled with “pinch me” moments.
This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
One evening as the setting sun was casting a golden glow on the savannah we got a little more than a pinch. Thirty zebras on the left side of the road were all facing towards the right like soldiers in formation, seemingly on high alert. We followed their gaze to witness a memorable event, two lions doing what it is lions do during mating season. The zebras weren’t voyeurs but were keeping an eye out for their natural enemy.
After the lions finished the female lay down in the grass while the male stood there yawning. We backed up our car on the narrow shoulder of the road to take some photos. Suddenly another lion leapt right up to the open window on the driver’s side of our car. Ismail had told us that lions sleep in the shady culverts under the road during the heat of the day. We had unwittingly rolled over a culvert and woken this one up, who seemed none too happy about it.
The lion decided it was too early for dinner and walked away. Either that or she was scared off by Michael’s high-pitched screams.
Michael was torn between taking a close-up photo of the grumpy lion and closing his window. He tried both, discovering that electric windows are agonizingly slow. Fortunately the still groggy lion didn’t seem interested in us, and we lived to tell the tale.
Foreshadowing of what was to come? Note the lion over Michael’s shoulder in what was almost the last known photo of us before we left for our safari.
Namibia visitor information
We flew in on Air Namibia which flies non-stop daily from Frankfurt, Germany to Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek. The 9-hour flight is overnight, but the 1-hour time difference helps reduce jet lag.
Major roads are paved and well-maintained. Secondary roads, including the roads in Etosha National Park, are gravel so you may want to consider renting a 4×4.
Many independent visitors to Namibia make their arrangements through an established tour company such as ATI Africa. The tour companies generally don’t cost more than if you book independently and will give you a cell phone in case of any problems.
We made our own reservations. Lodging options are plentiful and of high quality, available in all price ranges. We stayed in guesthouses, desert lodges and even one “luxury tented camp.” Prices ranged from $80/night for a B&B to $220/night including breakfast & dinner (which is recommended in remote locations.) Most lodges offer guided game drives at an additional cost.
The Namibia Tourism Board publishes a comprehensive 200-page visitor’s guide that reviews sights, suggested itineraries and lodging options. It’s available by contacting Namibia Tourism.
Note: This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
For more posts about nature check out Green Global Travel’s Nature Travel Blog Roundup.