Our party of three middle-aged women travelled through Namibia in May 2011 on a self-drive, custom trip arranged by ATI Holiday Tours, Windhoek, Namibia (http://www.infotour-africa.com). We were lucky to have a dear friend living in Windhoek who recommended ATI Tours to us. What a huge difference it made to have someone in-country guide us in our choices and make all the arrangements. Our trip, six months in the planning, surpassed our every expectation and provided an exceptional introduction to African travel. We loved the beauty and variety of Namibia. We found detailed trip reports on Lonely Planet and other websites very helpful, so are trying to reciprocate. I’ll describe practical details about driving around Namibia, favorite experiences, and our tour planning experience (our first experience with a custom tour). We arrived in Windhoek the last weekend in April 2011, visited with our friends and toured Windhoek. The day before our road trip, David (David Cartwright, Managing Director of ATI Tours) met with us to review our tour plan, give us our book of vouchers, review the rental car and contract, give us really helpful how-to tips about driving around Namibia, and answer our last-minute questions. We highly recommend the Namibia Craft Centre (non-profit Omba Arts Trust, http://www.omba.org.na/ncc.php) in downtown Windhoek. Be sure to go upstairs, down all hallways, to the inner courtyard. We enjoyed talking to artisans about their crafts (check-out the unique process used by the Kalahari Wild Silk Manufacturers). Weather. Fortunately, the rainy season ended the weekend we arrived, and we had gorgeous fall weather — sunny, 70-85 F during the day, and 45 to 60 F at night. Generally, we were fine in shirt-sleeves and light jackets during the day, but sitting in open touring vehicles for hours often become chilly. We layered with windbreakers, sweaters, and jackets for afternoon/evening game drives and for Nhoma Camp plus winter caps and gloves for 5 am and late pm activities in the Namib Desert.
While we did not see multiple large herds of animals often seen in dryer seasons, we loved the cool weather and desert in bloom. Driving around Namibia. Namibia has an excellent travel infrastructure, and wherever we went people were friendly and helpful. We drove around Namibia for 12 days, then flew to the Namib Desert for 3 days (Scenic Air — unbelievable views of the Namib) before returning to the U.S. We rented a Toyota Hillux 4WD from Europcar; it felt like a huge, very stable, and secure truck. ATI Tours handled rental details, including getting the best insurance to make it worry-free, as we’d requested. Only one of us drives a standard transmission and 4WD regularly — and none of us had ever shifted on the left while sitting on the right and driving on the left side of the road. And we also wanted to be prepared if the truck got a flat tire. David suggested a driving preparation lesson and arranged for two of us to have lesson in Windhoek with a fantastic teacher, a delightful start to our adventure. We’d read on Trip Advisor and elsewhere that others have had trouble with Europcar rentals in Namibia, but we had a good experience. Our driving instructor did notice that 2 tire valve caps were missing. He explained that driving with missing caps in the desert could result in sand particles lodging in the valve, causing tire deflation. So, we picked up 4 caps at a gas station. He also gave us tips for deciding whether and where to traverse water over a road or in a stream bed; he said some tourists damage cars in and just after rainy season by driving through water not knowing what they’re doing. We drove from Windhoek to Okonjima (Africat Foundation), then to northeastern Namibia (Nhoma Camp in the Kalahari, about 100 km. west of Botswana). We then headed west to Etosha National Park (staying at Onkoshi Lodge), next to Ongava Reserve just south of Etosha, before heading to Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast, where we dropped the car off and flew to Namib Desert before returning to Windhoek. Speed limits are 120 kmh on the B roads (good tar roads) and 100 kmh on the C roads (hardpacked gravel/sand mix, also good roads generally). Namibian drivers often cruise along at 130 or 140. We knew to expect some road damage because for some areas 2011 was the worst rainy season in decades. So for a 6 hour day trip, we assumed it would take 8 so we wouldn’t be trapped driving at night in remote areas. For example, on the C road between Grootfontein and Nhoma Camp we traveled at 60-90 kmh instead of 100 kmh, due to very rutted roads in spots. (We saw road graders out doing repairs everywhere we drove.) The B roads were excellent. The D3303 that heads to Nhoma Camp was not difficult to drive except in a couple of spots with loose sand. I loved driving in the Kalahari – serene and “empty,” with beautiful scrub/sand vistas, with an occasional small settlement. There were a number of travel stretches where there were very few, if any, other vehicles on the road. We loved our driving adventure in part because we felt prepared: we’d rented a satellite phone in the U.S. in case we were ever stranded, particularly in the more remote areas of the Kalahari. (We also carried water and food in case that happened.) In addition, ATI Tours provided a cell phone with all the telephone numbers we might need programmed into the directory – ATI Tour numbers, lodge numbers, emergency phone numbers, etc. It was easy to get cards to add minutes during the trip.
We never had problems except one flat tire at Nhoma Camp after the bumpy drive from Grootfontein. Jacques, son of Arno and Estelle, Camp owners, changed it for us! Many tourists fly to Nhoma Camp, which has an airstrip. Don’t attempt to drive the last 100 yards up the sand dune unless you have experience in 4WD and loose sand. Our experienced driver did it and it was a wild ride. Arno can arrange to meet you at the bottom and get your car up the dune to the Camp. Highlights of our adventure included: At Nhoma Camp, fascinating walks through the northeastern bushveldt with a truly remarkable guide Bertus and Ju/’hoansi hunters (one of the San peoples of the Kalahari) plus visits to their nearby village to see their way of life, dancing and singing together, playing with the kids; wildlife drives in Etosha National Park, Okonjiwa and Ongava; seeing different towns and people as we drove through various regions; walking along the Atlantic ocean in Swakopmund after 9 days in the bush; and a spectacular 3 days in the magical Namib Desert. On several wildlife drives, we enjoyed spending 30, 45, 60 minutes watching animals at a single location — a leopard stalking then leaping on a bird (Okonjima); a bull elephant in musk charging a white rhino near a water hole (Etosha); a dozen rhino moms and their calves and a pride of five lions (Ongava). We spent 6 to 9 hours with our guides each day (2 drives a day of varying lengths, depending on what you encounter and how long you or the group want(s) to sit quietly and watch. Our guides were personable, intelligent, extremely accommodating, unfailingly polite, and very careful: Rohan at Okonjima, Bertus at Nhoma, Isaiah at Onkoshi/Etosha, Abram at Ongava, and Alex at Mountain Homestead Lodge, Namib Desert. We felt safe even on the couple of occasions when the animals were close to the safari truck. For us, it was an extra treat that our guides hailed from a range of Namibian cultures – Ju/’hoansi, Ovambo, Afrikaner, and Hai//om. We learned about Namibia by asking them lots of questions and hearing their stories. Our trip was a good mix of walking at Nhoma, Swakopmund, and Namib Desert and wildlife drives at Okonjima, Etosha, Ongava — which require sitting plus bouncing when you hit ruts.
We had not thought about this beforehand, but in areas where predators live, you can’t head out for a jog or hike away from the lodge, much less leave your “bush Ferrari” mid-drive for a stroll into the bush. (Some lodges offer hiking in fenced areas.) We were in constant wonder at the stunning sights of the Namib, not just touring the iconic orange-red dunes of Sossusvlei, but also viewing the mountains, plains, and dunes from the 5-seater bush plane flight into the Namib, from Mountain Homestead Lodge rooms, a hot air balloon (Namib Sky Balloon Safaris), and by horseback. Mountain Homestead Lodge provided transport to and from Desert Homestead Lodge for a sundowner trip through a mountain valley – I was the only novice rider in a party of 5, and guide Karen accommodated all skill levels adeptly. Tour planning experience. As travelers who enjoy reading about our destination ahead of time and thinking about and planning our own trips abroad, ATI was the perfect partner for us. Our cost comparisons, based on website prices, suggested that costs through ATI were comparable and would save us money in some areas. We spent 2 nights at Okonjima (Africat Foundation), 3 nights at Nhoma Camp, and then 2 nights at Onkoshi Lodge in Etosha National park. After driving through the park, we exited through Anderson Gate to the south, and spent 2 nights at Ongava Lodge. From there we drove to Swakopmund, and stayed 2 nights at Sandfields Inn, returned the car and flew to the Namib Desert, staying 3 nights at Mountain Homestead Lodge. Booking through ATI tours was very convenient. We only had to send ATI a booking form and two payments (a deposit when bookings were first made in November 2010 and final payment in March 2011, six weeks before our trip). Each place was unique. We were thrilled with our excellent lodging, food, and top-notch staff. (Lodging reviews are on lodge pages.)
We recommend ATI Tours for the following reasons (in addition to really enjoying David’s wry sense of British humor): –Outstanding attention to every detail of the trip, including excellent, well organized trip materials, a voucher packet, and a road map with routes marked to assist with our driving. –Arrangements for our Toyota Hillux to be delivered and picked-up at our convenience. –Excellent relationships with lodges and other types of tour operators (boat tours, etc.), making the inevitable snafus such as late arrivals and missed connections much easier to deal with. –24/7 accessibility to ATI staff. ATI responded quickly and completely to our emails. ATI even called us once while we were traveling to alert us to a potential problem with a road we were heading toward due to weather conditions. –ATI is committed to responsible tourism and the company assists local non-profit organizations as part of their business objectives, and we were pleased to participate in this effort. We also learned that ATI can plan tours throughout several countries in Southern Africa, and we’re planning to design a Namibia-Botswana tour with David as soon as we can save for our next adventure.
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