Off the Beaten Track in Namibia: Two Week Self-Drive

It was probably when we were handed the maps, the GPS and the keys to the white truck, shown where to find the spade and the axe, and shown how to change a spare tire that it hit home we were about to drive 2500 kilometres around Namibia.

Ahead lay two weeks of exploring this south-western corner of Africa, with incredible game-drives, unique experiences, remote corners of coastline and vast, empty deserts all awaiting us.

We’d flown into Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and been picked up directly from the airport before being shown to our trusty truck, pretty much our lifeline for the next fortnight.

After a stop at the supermarket to load up on provisions, we set off into the wilderness.

Incredible Wildlife and Vast Spaces

Elephant in Namibia

We began driving south, through a fairly green and lush landscape, with visibility stretching for miles in all directions. After hours of driving, seeing barely another living soul on the way, we arrived at our first stop organised by Rannveig, our partner who had set up each stop, each activity, and every incredible bit accommodation we were lucky enough to rest at.

Otjiwa Lodge, near the town of Otjiwarongo, was our first stop, and it made the perfect base for our first game drives.

Not much beats the feeling of cruising through the dust and empty spaces of an African plain, spotting white rhinos, vultures and gazelle with the help of our local guide. With the horizon as wide as it was and the enormous blue skies that seemed to stretch on forever, it really felt as if we’d truly got lost from civilisation.

And that feeling only intensified when we stopped the truck in a secluded little spot with a view of the magical sunset, and enjoyed a bush picnic in the wilderness.

safari picnic in namibia

We stayed at Otjiwa Lodge for two nights, getting great Namibian food each night whilst drinking in the landscape of endless views and distant hills. We visited a wild cat sanctuary near Otjiwarongo, where we got a close up view of a family of cheetahs, our first of many big cat encounters.

Eventually, however, it was time to leave Otjiwa, and head for Namibia’s wildlife capital – Etosha.

Traversing Etosha National Park

male lion in namibia

The next two days were spent driving from the east entrance of Etosha National Park to the southern, following maps provided to us by Rannveig.

Etosha is the biggest game reserve in Namibia, and one of the biggest in Africa. And it certainly feels like it.

Endless swathes of green, shrubby savannah, punctuated by trees silhouetted against the huge blue sky, and driving across the entire length of the park, you really get a sense of just how huge it is.

We spent our first night in the Mushara Lodge, near the eastern gate of Etosha, before heading into the park itself and crossing via the winding dirt roads. It’s a surreal experience to cross such a natural landscape, with no signs of human development anywhere, passing lions snoozing in the shade.

We followed our map – that handily also showed us where the watering holes were – until we reached the incredible Okakuejo Lodge, a government-provided lodge actually within the confines of Etosha.

This spot allowed us one of the most ‘up close and personal’ experiences with wildlife on the entire trip, as the nearby watering hole attracted elephants to the area. Sat watching them by the pool, they started wandering over to eat from branches above our heads – a truly unique experience and as they wandered away, the sun set over the national park leaving one of the most lasting images from the entire adventure – as the purple-orange sky bled into the perfectly still pool.

sunset at watering hole near a lodge

We continued to drive through Etosha, encountering zebra, oryx, more lions, vast salt pans and beautiful sunrises, until we reached the southern entrance to Etosha and our last stop on our drive round the area.

Pretty weary at this point, Rannveig had set us up in a beautiful lodge near the southern entrance of Etosha National Park, where we could rest up, lie by the pool, and read in front of the stunning views.

This was the point we really appreciated how well the trip had been planned for us. After miles and miles of driving, early mornings for sunrise game drives and hours carefully navigating the dirt roads, we were more than ready for a place to recharge and prepare to go again for the second half of our time in Namibia.

Knowing we had a comfortable place to stay, a place to aim for and collapse in at the end of a strenuous day was hugely satisfying, and spending a while in Epacha Lodge, lounging by the pool, drinking in the panoramic views from the outdoor shower, and enjoying some great food and a few beers was the perfect way to prepare us for what was to come next.

sunset over a view from a lodge in namibia

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Into The Namib Desert

tree and hills in namibia

Of course, it wouldn’t be a real travelling experience if everything ran perfectly smoothly. We woke up on the morning of our departure to Damaraland, a drier, more desolate and even emptier part of Namibia, to our trusty truck refusing to start.

Engine trouble wasn’t exactly ideal with a schedule to stick to, but after some time fiddling with the car battery we got the beast back to life, and set off on what of the most incredible drives we’d ever been on.

Each bend in the road seemed to throw up a view of distant hills, mountains and stretches of desert, each one more spectacular than the last. As we neared the Namib Desert, we stopped in Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, where we spent the day trekking to steep-sided sand dunes and discovering ancient rock art.

lion at sunrise in namibia

We were up early the next morning for our final game drive, on which we spotted lions, their faces pink with an early morning kill and the soft dawn light, as well as desert-adapted elephants which look like, well, elephants.

We were then taken to see examples of 5000 year-old rock art, which depicted animal tracks next to images of their respective animals, as a way of passing on knowledge to the next generation.

After a couple of nights in stunning Damaraland, the views of rusty orange mountains and wide-open spaces not getting any older, it was time to head for Swakopmund and the infamous Skeleton Coast.

Along the Skeleton Coast

shipwreck off the coast of the namibia

The next leg of our journey was to be some of the most eerie and empty yet. The Skeleton Coast entrance was, appropriately, a gate marked by two skull and crossbones, and beyond was what felt like absolutely nothing at all.

Miles and miles of emptiness, it truly felt as if we had dropped off the edge of the map and into a blank space, although that being said there were a few abandoned iron mines that were dutifully climbed on, as any abandoned structure should be (safely).

A weather front from Antarctica had turned the weather from 28 degrees into a chilly 17, adding to the sense of desolation as we drove across the landscape.

We eventually arrived in Swakopmund, the adventure capital of Namibia, and took the opportunity to take some quad bikes out on the incredible sand dunes, hitting speeds of 70kmph as we zipped through the desert.

This was followed up by some downtime, some more great food and a few beers by the beach, and we were even treated to a partial eclipse. Sitting where the desert meets the sea, an otherworldly landscape at the best of times, as the moon crept part of the way in front of the son was an unforgettable moment, and hammered home just how far off the beaten track we were.

On our next day we met up with Ben, a Namibia local who wrestles alligators for fun (that’s not a joke) couldn’t have been more at home in the wild environment. He took us ‘dune driving’, which might sound fairly gentle, but falling towards the windscreen whilst plunging down a 33% incline, I can assure you, isn’t.

Ben showed us the best of the dunes, from stopping to show us where he could find snakes at moments that were a little less than comfortable, to setting up a picnic on top of one of the massive dunes, where we could drink in the bizarre landscape of endless sandy desert colliding with the sea.

picnic on the dunes of skeleton coast

Whilst in Swakopmund, after a day of exploring the dunes, we decided to take advantage of Namibia’s low Covid cases and lack of lockdown by heading to a bar that is known to be ‘more German than Germany’.

So, strangely enough, one of the only times we saw live music that year was in a German bar in a far-flung corner of Namibia. This was just another of those unique, unexpected experiences that only come from travel, and as we were coming to the end of our time in Namibia, it was the perfect opportunity to reflect as we basked in the buzzy little atmosphere of the bar with a few beers.

Last Stop Sossuvlei

sand dunes and desert in namibia

By this point, we had driven something like 2000 kilometres plus at this point, and felt as if we were just about immune to the sight of more distant desert hills and mountains rising into the distance, but we were wrong.

Sossuvlei was our final stop, and potentially the most spectacular, with 400m dunes rising into the clear desert air and insanely good views stretching to the horizon.

Climbing the dune known as Big Daddy is, apparently, the box you have to tick off in Sossuvlei. Accompanied by our local guide, who was able to find white dancing spiders digging with his bare hands after spotting its air hole on the surface, we set off up the ridiculously perfect-looking line of sand stretching into the blindingly blue sky.

From the top, the views stretched for miles, a rippling wave of burnt orange dunes and ridges spreading in all directions. We headed down Big Daddy and stopped at Deadvlei, just another otherworldly landscape on an adventure full of them.

walking on a sand dune in namibia

This lime salt pan, nestled in a valley, is complete with petrified trees that have been standing, long dead, for over 3000 years. Protected from termites by the lime surrounding them, and barely ever rained on in their millennia-long existence, it was a humbling sight to see them still standing and to be able to get so close to something so ancient.

After a night in one of the most spectacular lodges yet, the Desert Hills Lodge where each little hut opened up into magical views of, you guessed it, desert and hills, it was finally time to set off on our final drive to Windhoek.

Mercifully, Rannveig had organised it so that we had a night to rest, recuperate and even visit a wild cat sanctuary whilst in Windhoek. Once again, our host had taken into account exactly how tired we’d be, exactly how much time we would need to recover, she had laid on accommodation and things to do to while we were there.

The entire trip felt like a real adventure, like we were truly getting off the beaten track in Namibia, but the sense of security in the backs of our minds, that we’d have a beautiful lodge prepared at the end of each long day, as well as great food and friendly hosts, made it so easy to focus on enjoying each and every moment.

We felt truly lucky to time this expedition so perfectly. Never before has a true, off the beaten track adventure felt like such a privilege to go on, and hopefully, as we get closer and closer to travel coming back it won’t be long until you are also experiencing one of our incredible long itineraries, or stunning guided adventures around countries like Costa Rica, Vietnam, India, and much more…

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