As part of our November 2011 tour of Southern Africa, we spent a full week exploring Namibia, a fascinating country of deserts, wildlife, and amazing people that far too many tourists overlook.
by ssullivan on October 22, 2012
For our week in Namibia, we rented a car to get around the country. Namibia is a fairly large country, and much of it is undeveloped and remote, making driving a more viable option than flying between destinations. Driving also allows visitors to see the country at their own pace, and to experience parts of the country that they might otherwise miss. Namibia also benefits from a well-developed road system that connects its larger population and industrial centers to the nation's capital, Windhoek. However, this is still Africa, and while many Namibian roads are excellent by African standards, driving in this country is still quite different from travel by car in other parts of the world.The first thing to keep in mind when renting a vehicle in Namibia is that rentals here are rather expensive for anything other than a very small compact car. There is a lot of demand for rentals, and the rental fleet in Windhoek is not exceptionally large. You will find many of the large rental car companies (Avis, Hertz, Europcar, Dollar, Thrifty) have outposts in Windhoek, with some located at the airport, and others downtown. These rental operators show up on all of the major online travel websites, allowing for advance reservations to be easily made before your trip. I suggest reserving your rental as early as possible, as travelers who wait until the last minute may find that the choices are limited and prices are excessive.Where you are driving will help determine the best type of rental vehicle for your trip. While there are good paved highways leading out of Windhoek to destinations like Swakopmund, Etosha National Park, the Skeleton Coast, and Luderitz, most of the highways are not paved. If you are planning to stick just to major paved highway routes or the salt highway along the Skeleton Coast, a smaller car may be adequate. However, if you plan to visit Etosha National Park (roads inside the park are unpaved) or need to drive any routes that involve unpaved roads, at a minimum you will want a large car, and preferably, a crossover, SUV, or truck.The unpaved roads in Namibia vary from wide, well graded, dirt and gravel highways that are well-signed, with speed limits of up to 120 kmh (74 mph) to dirt tracks that are hardly marked and absolutely require a 4×4 SUV to transit. You will want to plan your routes in advance, so that you can choose an adequate rental based on your routes. To complicate this, many maps are inaccurate. The official highway maps issued by the Namibian government are mostly correct when it comes to properly color coding the nation's roadways as primary paved, secondary paved, primary gravel, secondary gravel, or 4×4 required. I say mostly correct because we encountered a glaring error on our map the day we drove from Etosha to Swakopmund. The highway from Khorixas to Uls, and then west to the salt highway on the coast, was all identified as paved secondary roadway on our map. However, it immediately turned to gravel, and remained so for approximately 220 km. The drive was incredible, taking us right through the heart of Damaraland and a very remote region. However, the unpaved highway slowed us down, and we were fortunate we had allowed ample time to be able to travel at a much slower pace and still arrive at the coastline in advance of sundown.Due to the varying road conditions, you should consider insurance on your rental vehicle that you might ordinarily not purchase. We rented from the Thrifty location in downtown Windhoek, and they offered us options of purchasing windscreen and tire insurance, both of which we accepted. This was a fortunate choice, as during our trip through Damaraland we encountered a large, sharp rock sticking out of the roadway as we crested a hill. We both saw the rock, but it was too late to avoid it, and it was directly in line with the right side tires of our car. Both of our right tires hit the rock straight on. We pulled over to stop on the side of the road, hoping we only had one flat and not two, as the only signs of life we had seen for the past 40 km were a few goats and a sole goat herder on the side of the road, and that was many kilometers behind us. Fortunately neither of our tires that hit the rock appeared to be losing air, so we continued on. However, the damage was done, and several hours later in Swakopmund we noticed a slight bulge forming on the rear tire where the tire's internal steel sidewall had been broken. We managed to get the car back to Windhoek and return it at the airport without any major issues, but the tire required replacement, and the insurance we purchased cost less than the cost of the new tire. We also picked up a few minor rock chips on the car's windscreen, so that insurance paid off for us as well. My advice is this — if any portion of your trip takes you off paved roads, even on the best of gravel roads you are likely to get rock chips, and tire damage is a real risk.Other important things to keep in mind before traveling across Namibia by car are that the distances in this country between settlements are often great, and what may appear as a town on a map may be nothing but a place in the desert with a name and a few families that live nearby. Given Namibia's very dry and very hot climate, do not set out without a decent supply of water in your car. It's also a good idea to have some snacks too, just in case. This is not a country where you want to be stranded without adequate water and food to last you for several hours in the heat.Maintaining sufficient fuel is also important. We opted to try and keep our tank at least half full, and stop at the first gas station we encountered when the tank dropped below half. In some areas, this is less of a concern; the heavily traveled highway from Windhoek to Outjo, near the entrance to Etosha National Park, has lots of towns with petrol stations. However, other areas, like the gravel highway from Khorixas to Uls, have no gasoline or diesel available for long distances. Filling the tank in Namibia is a somewhat slow process, as stations are full-service only, and pumps can be slow. The station attendants who pump gas have a habit of overfilling tanks as much as possible, which does mean that you get a really full tank. It also slows down the process. These attendants also typically expect a small tip for their services, and cash payment is the norm for a tank of petrol.You also should closely inspect the spare tire when you pick up the vehicle, and make sure that it, as well as the four tires on the car, are all in good shape, properly inflated, and show no visible signs of damage or excessive wear. We came very, very close to needing to use our spare tire and would have been in a world of hurt had we not had a good spare. Also check to make sure that the tire wrench and jack are in the car. Finally, it's an excellent idea to ensure that you have a cellular phone that works in Namibia, preferably one with a local SIM card. Pre-paid SIM are relatively inexpensive and available at most supermarkets and convenience stores. An adapter to keep your phone charged is also essential.My last tip would be to consider washing your rental car before returning it. The gravel, salt, and sand highways mean that cars get very dirty very quickly, and most of the rental agencies do charge a cleaning fee for dirty cars. After several days of driving around Etosha, and then a multi-hour drive on a gravel highway, followed by a drive on the coastal salt highway, our white Hyundai Sonata was shades of brown and gray when we got up on our last morning in Namibia. Fortunately our friend we were staying with was more than happy to allow us to use his hose and car washing supplies to wash the car in his driveway. Had we not had his driveway available, it would have been beneficial to run the car through an automatic wash in Windhoek, as the cost to do so would have been less than the washing fee charged by the rental agency.Driving in Namibia is a fun experience, and our multi-day road trip across this amazing country is full of memories I will always cherish. However, it is important to go into such an adventure with the right attitude and precautions taken. Doing so will ensure that you have an enjoyable trip.
by ssullivan on October 23, 2012
On our last night in Namibia, our friends in Windhoek insisted that we must experience the country’s number one tourist trap, Joe’s Beerhouse. Unlike many restaurants and bars that claim to be "world famous," Joe’s truly is. Every guidebook on Namibia mentions the place, and it is the theme restaurant to end all theme restaurants. It just so happened that Joe’s was located in our friends’ neighborhood, just down the street from their house. So of course we had to visit this venerable Namibian institution while we were in town.Joe’s is a mostly outdoor restaurant, located under a series of large trees, with a mostly gravel floor and variety of open air huts that provide some shelter over various bars and dining areas. The place is sprawling, and reminded me of what many national chain theme restaurants in the US, like Rainforest Café, strive to be, except that Joe’s was far more organic. Instead of pretending to be someplace exotic, Joe’s really is in a fairly remote and exotic location. And instead of being decorated with fake grass huts, Joe’s has the real thing, providing necessary shade from the oppressive southern African sun during the day. We even saw a small baboon running through the restaurant, as well as many birds that had wondered in. But, given that this is Africa and the restaurant is almost completely outdoors, it was no surprise that we would be sharing our dining room with some wildlife. The sprawling restaurant can seat up to 460 guests.Keeping with the theme of a theme restaurant to end all theme restaurants, Joe’s is decorated with everything imaginable. Much of the memorabilia was collected by the restaurant’s founder, Joe Gross, as he traveled the world. There is even a Mini automobile contained in a glass case, suspended above one of the restaurant’s entrances. Bright colored lights and fiery torches provide illumination and night. And there are enough stuffed animals and skulls scattered around to fill a couple of museums.Once seated, we ordered beers to start our meal, and were presented with menus that listed a large variety of grilled meats. Namibia inherited the German traditions of beer making during its colonial years, and nearly every bar and restaurant in the country serves the primary local brews, Windhoek Lager and Tafel Lager. These are good, flavorful beers, but a bit on the light side; the alcohol content is rather low in both. However, they are made to Germany’s purity standards for beers, so they have a very clean, crisp taste, and the locals swear that the purity of their beer is why Namibian beer is considered hangover proof.Next up were our food orders. The food at Joe’s is very traditional Namibian food with an emphasis on grilled meat and starches. As our friend had warned us before our arrival, "If you tell a Namibian chef you’re a vegetarian, they will cook you a chicken." That had been our experience all week, and our last meal in the country was no different. I ordered the bushman sosatie, a kebab with a selection of ostrich, crocodile, zebra, kudu, and chicken served with mango-chili sauce, corn fritters, and a side salad. The food was rather good, but served in enormous portions; instead of a small portion of each of these meats, I was presented with more meat than I could begin to finish on my own. All of the meat was quite good, but it was a very heavy meal, and after our fabulous lunch earlier that day at N/a’an ku sê, there was no way I could finish everything I had been served at Joe’s.Our hosts in Windhoek were correct in their assessment of Joe’s. The place is rightfully world famous, and it really is the ultimate theme restaurant. And, while the place is a bit of a tourist trap, the reality was that 90% of the people eating at Joe’s that evening were locals. No trip to Windhoek is complete without drinks and a meal at this popular spot, and it was a fitting way to spend our last night in Africa before heading home to Washington, DC the next morning.
On our last full day in Africa, our friends in Windhoek arranged for us to visit the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary. N/a’an ku sê is a non-profit organization that operates a rehabilitation center for rescued African wildlife, as well as a lodge with overnight accommodations and restaurant, and a variety of other conservation and wildlife related activities. Our hosts in Windhoek were friends with several of the managers at N/a’an ku sê, and were able to get us reservations for their popular Sunday brunch buffet, followed by their cheetah encounter – a trip to visit three of their rescued cheetahs. Our Sunday afternoon at N/a’an ku sê ended up being one of the highlights of our very memorable trip to Namibia.Our trip to N/a’an ku sê began with a visit to their lodge for lunch. This building is located near the center of the sprawling wildlife sanctuary. On the drive in we passed a number of enclosures for their animals that were surrounded by very tall fences. However, the wildlife inside those enclosures did not corporate with us, and were nowhere to be seen. Once we reached the lodge, we found an attractive set of buildings that make up N/a’an ku sê’s lodge and conference center complex. The lodge overlooks a nice swimming pool and natural gorge area. Inside we were greeted by insert name, our friendly hostess for the afternoon, and invited to help ourselves to the ample buffet.Lunch at the N/a’an ku sê lodge consisted of a lavish buffet of traditional Namibian food, as well as dishes from around the world. There was a large selection of salads, which we dove into. Namibian food is very heavy on grilled meats and light on fresh vegetables, owing to the country’s arid desert climate, where very little grows. There is ample meat, but very little in the way of fruits and vegetables produced in the country. So, the fresh salads at N/a’an ku sê were a very welcome change after a week of mostly eating grilled meats and starches.In addition to the buffet’s selection of salads, a variety of meats, including springbok capriccio, grilled oryx, and ostrich were available, as well as several hot vegetables. The meal was delicious, and probably the best we had in Namibia. Dessert followed with a selection of sweets, including chocolate mousse, cakes, and pastries.Lunch was only the beginning of our memorable trip to N/a’an ku sê. We were soon joined by several other visitors, and all loaded into an open air safari truck for a trip to one of the sanctuary’s cheetah enclosures. Upon reaching the enclosure, our guides gave us several simple instructions. They would go into the enclosure and call the cheetahs, and bring them to us. Once the cheetahs had arrived, they would open the gate for us to enter the enclosure. We were advised that these three cheetahs, rescued from a farmer’s trap as cubs and saved from being shot by the farmer that had caught them, were 99% tame. However, despite being raised since shortly after birth by humans, they were still wild animals, so some precautions were necessary. We were not to play with their paws or mouths, and should not allow the cheetahs to jump on us, as they have long claws that are not retractable. We were told that the cheetahs were basically like big versions of playful housecats, but because they were much bigger, of course their playfulness could cause far more damage. So, it was best to avoid getting them too wound up.With the dos and don’ts out of the way, one of our guides entered the enclosure, placed her hands to her mouth to amplify her voice, leaned back, and loudly yelled the names of all three cheetahs. I began to think, "There’s no way these cats are going to come that easily," but I was proven wrong. A few seconds later three cheetahs appeared in the brush, walking toward our guide. They settled around a shady tree, and our guide returned to open the gate to allow us in. We were going to go meet these three amazing animals, Aiko, Kiki, and Aisha, up close.As we approached the cheetahs, it was apparent that they, like the lions and leopard we had seen a few days earlier in Etosha, were very much just like the cats we had at home, only bigger. Two of the cheetahs had settled into shady spots on the ground and were lying peacefully and purring so loudly that we could hear them from several feet away. The third was slowly pacing around, and soon sat down so that I could scratch his head and ears, which he seemed to love just as much as my Maine coon back home. We spent the next 45 minutes talking with our guides, taking countless photos and several videos, and enjoying the company of the cheetahs. The animals seemed to be thrilled with all of the human attention they were getting, and soon some of their playful nature came out as they rolled around on the ground, asked for their bellies to be rubbed, and returned the affection with licks to our arms and legs. My partner and I are both cat lovers, and these guys were definitely winning our hearts. If we could have taken one home we would have. It was easy to see how these fantastic cats were regarded as pets by ancient Roman royalty, as they were quite friendly and trusting of all of us.It is important to note that N/a’an ku sê’s primary mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and return to the wild as many of the animals it serves as possible. The organization’s preference is to return animals to safe, natural habitats whenever possible. For those animals where this is not possible, N/a’an ku sê provides a lifelong safe sanctuary. These cheetahs, who were rescued as very young cubs, fall into the latter category, as they were raised from shortly after birth by humans. This made them unlikely candidates for being successfully returned to the wild. Still, these three siblings spend their time in a very large enclosure of many acres of natural Namibian habitat, and are fed a diet as close to their natural one as possible.Eventually our time with the cheetahs came to an end, and we loaded back up in the safari truck. As it was rather hot, a cooler of bottled water and juices was passed around before we started our journey back to the lodge. The cheetahs came to the fence to say goodbye, and appeared as if they did not want us to leave. Our guide explained that they would probably follow along the fence as we drove away, but not run. I would have loved to have seen one of the cheetahs running, but they apparently rarely do so inside of their enclosure. It was explained to us that they do take them out of the enclosure and onto the road, and encourage them to chase a safari truck pulling a slab of meat on a rope for exercise. However, that was not something that we would get to see that day.We returned to the lodge, where we visited with a friendly wart hog that had wondered up on the grounds between the restaurant and pool, and a friendly but very sleepy fluffy cat that lives in the lodge. Afterward, it was time to conclude our visit to N/a’an ku sê, but we vowed to return if we ever made it back to Windhoek. The entire experience had been fantastic, and the perfect end to a very memorable week in Namibia.N/a’an ku sê is located outside of Windhoek. Driving directions, GPS coordinates, and reservation information are available on the organization’s website. Reservations are necessary and schedules vary for many activities at the lodge, so it is best to plan ahead and contact the lodge in advance when planning your trip.
by ssullivan on October 19, 2012
Our stay on the Namibian Coast included two nights in Swakopmund, the country’s primary coastal resort town. Swakopmund is an interesting mix of German colonial architecture with African culture, and a truly unique beach town. There are many small boutique hotels, guesthouses, and inns to choose from in Swakopmund, and for our stay, we chose Villa Margherita – The Charming House. This quaint boutique hotel, located in a house dating from the German colonial period, is located right in the heart of Swakopmund on Daniel Tjongarero Street, within an easy walk from the town’s many shops and restaurants, as well as the waterfront area.As we were staying during the off season, we had no trouble getting reservations approximately two weeks before our arrival. However, during busier times of year, Swakopmund really fills up, and more advance notice is needed. We also benefited from some nice discounts on accommodations since we were traveling off season, making Villa Margherita a great value for us.Our reservation was for Villa Margherita’s honeymoon suite, which is located in a small cottage across the street from the main hotel property. Upon our arrival, our friendly and helpful hostess checked us in at the main property, then walked us across the street to our cottage. This suite benefits from having a private driveway and parking area, separated from the street with a secure gate. This was a nice feature, as we had a rental car, and it was very convenient to be able to park the car right outside our suite and off the street. The suite also has a private outdoor patio with fountain and lush landscaping.Inside, our spacious three room suite was very nicely furnished. The main bedroom area featured a king size bed with canopy and mosquito netting, fans (there is no air conditioning, but it is rarely needed in the cool coastal climate), a HDTV set, and plenty of drawers to store our things in. There was also a small safe to lock up valuables during the day. The bed was extremely comfortable, and we had no trouble sleeping on the plush mattress and soft linens provided.The suite also included a nice sitting room, with sofa, lounge chairs, and a small desk that had a netbook set up for our use. The netbook was connected to the hotel’s Wi-Fi service. However, we found the Wi-Fi service to be very unreliable; it hardly worked while we were there. Instead, we depended on my smartphone’s Wi-Fi tethering capability, which had been set up with a prepaid Namibian SIM card. The sitting room was stocked with a selection of beverages and coffee for our enjoyment, as well as a small refrigerator. The suite’s third room was a nicely furnished bathroom, with heated towel rack and large walk-in shower.Once we were settled in, we were invited to return across the street where our hostess offered us glasses of wine from the hotel bar while we browsed her collection of tour guides and restaurant menus. She offered to book reservations for us for any of the many activities and dining options in the area, and we enjoyed a nice South African pinotage on the back patio while she went back inside to book our bay tour with Laramon Tours for the next morning, and a dinner reservation at a local German restaurant.Villa Margherita has a full service restaurant, specializing in organic fare. Because we were visiting off season, the restaurant was not serving lunch and had limited dinner service only on certain nights. However, our room did include a full breakfast each morning in the restaurant. Service was friendly and prompt, and the menu had a nice selection of breakfast items to choose from. We were presented with a basket of baked goods each morning to munch on with our coffee and juice while we waited for our entrées to be prepared. The food was always very good, hot, and fresh.We found Villa Margherita to be a lovely place to stay in Swakopmund, and a great value for the accommodations, breakfast, and suite we had during their off season. Their rates do increase quite a bit during peak season, though, but for approximately $120 USD per night, we considered it a bargain. The location is great, the suites are very nicely furnished and comfortable, the food was excellent, and the staff really did do their best to provide service that was over the top.
Upon our arrival in Swakopmund, our friendly innkeeper at Villa Margherita immediately offered to assist us with booking any restaurant and tour reservations we desired. She highly recommended taking one of the boat tours into Walvis Bay, and we quickly agreed that spending the next morning on such a tour was a great plan. She then took care of the logistics and made our reservation with Laramon Tours, one of several operators of such bay excursions in Walvis Bay. It was a fantastic choice, as Laramon provided an amazing tour that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Namibia.The morning of the tour, Laramon’s complimentary shuttle service picked us up at our hotel in Swakopmund. After several stops at other hotels in town, we headed down the highway to neighboring Walvis Bay, about a 15-20 minute drive down the coast.Our bus arrived at the dock in Walvis Bay about half an hour before the tour’s departure, leaving us time to browse several craft stalls operated by a group of Himba women, and to grab a cup of coffee at one of the adjacent restaurants. Additional entertainment while we waited was provided by watching the cape fur seals frolic in the water near the boats.Once it was time to board, we were introduced to our hosts for the next several hours, Captain Archie van der Merwe and his First Mate Jackson. They quickly reviewed the safety features of our catamaran, the Libertina, and turned us free on the boat to make ourselves comfortable on the main deck, upstairs on the fly deck, or out on the boat’s bow and trampoline. As we departed the dock, Jackson opened up a cooler of fish, and held one out over the boat’s stern to attract one of the bay’s many seals. Within seconds he had a seal following us, and soon, the seal was on board our boat. This was just the first of several seals that would hitch a ride on our boat, providing great entertainment in exchange for a few fish from Jackson’s cooler. Once Jackson helped the seal back out into the water, he began serving us all glasses of a local port wine. For those passengers who desired something non-alcoholic, coolers of bottled water, juices, and soft drinks were provided, and we were all encouraged to help ourselves to as much as we desired throughout the tour.Next up on the wildlife watching in the bay was a large pelican that Jackson attracted with his bucket of fish. As the pelican flew alongside our boat, which was moving at a pretty fast clip, Jackson would toss a fish into the air, and the pelican would swoop down, catch it, and then glide in for a perfect landing on the water. He repeated this show several times, so that everyone could capture close up photos and video of the very large pelican in flight.As we continued our cruise out into the bay, we encountered many of the bottlenose dolphins that live in Walvis Bay. By this time we were surrounded by 8-10 tour boats, and the dolphins obviously love chasing the boats in their wake. In order to provide each boat’s passengers with multiple opportunities to see the dolphins, boats took turns either running through the bay with dolphins following in their wake, or idling, allowing their passengers to watch the show happening around them.Leaving the dolphins behind, we continued further out into the bay, passing several cargo ships and an oil rig that was slowly moving out to sea. We would later return for a close up tour of the oil rig on our return to shore. Our next stop was the oyster farm in Walvis Bay. Oysters are not native to the bay, but as Archie explained, some years ago, oysters were imported from Asia to see how well they would grow in Namibian’s cold coastal water. It turned out that oysters, like seals and dolphins, found Walvis Bay to be heaven, and they prospered. The Walvis Bay oyster farm is not very big, but it still produces a large number of oysters that are relished for their supreme freshness and flavor. We pulled up to floating oyster farm as workers were lifting each box of oysters out of the water to spray it down with water and remove the bay’s native mussels. The mussels are so prolific in the bay’s water that this exercise of removing from the oyster boxes must be repeated every single day, else the mussels will completely cover the oyster boxes, choking out the fresh water and oxygen that the oysters need to survive.From the oyster farm, we headed back toward the bay’s edge and its famous cape fur seal colony. There are hundreds of thousands of these seals that live along the Namibian coastline. As we approached the seal colony, what appeared to be dark spots on the distant shore came into focus as thousands of seals lying on the beach. Then, suddenly, we slowed down as the catamaran entered seal infested water. Not only was the beach covered in thousands of seals, but our boat was completely surrounded by them in the water. The sight, as well as the smell (seals are smelly creatures) was overwhelming, as seals too numerous to count went about their daily lives, paying little attention to all the human tourists gawking at them from nearly a dozen tour boats. Archie explained that the cold water of the bay is perfect for seals and the fish they eat, and that sharks and whales, their biggest predators, rarely come into the bay, leading to mostly uncontrolled population growth in the colony.We cruised on through the seal colony to view the lighthouse, and then slowly started making our way back toward shore as we reached the tour’s halfway point. As we headed back, Jackson began to shuck several dozen oysters from the bay’s farm we had visited more than an hour earlier. These, along with trays of a large variety of hors d’oeuvres, and champagne, would soon be served after Archie idled the motor. The oysters truly were as decadent as we had been told they were – amazingly fresh, plump, and full of flavor. Archie claimed that Walvis Bay grows the world’s best oysters, and I’m going to agree with him, as they far exceeded any I had ever tasted before. The country exports very few of them, though, as the supply is consumed almost entirely within Namibia. The large variety of other treats included meatballs, shrimp, vegetables, sliced meats, and a variety of sweets. It was a wonderful lunch spread, and certainly nobody returned to shore hungry.We then continued our cruise back to the dock, which was more than an hour away. Along the way we made a close-in circle around the very large oil rig we had passed earlier, cruised past a few shipwrecks, and a fish processing ship that operates in the bay. Before long the massive sand dunes that the Namibian coast is famous for came into view, appearing as yellow and red "mountains" on the horizon. However, the fun wasn’t quite over, as Jackson attracted another seal into our boat. This seal was one that Archie and Jackson knew to be tame enough to allow those of us on the boat to pet him, which he seemed to really enjoy. After he returned to the water, they demonstrated that this seal had been trained by the tour operators in the bay to splash tourists on command, which he did quite well.Soon we were back at the dock, having enjoyed a full morning and early afternoon out on the water. We said our goodbyes to Archie and Jackson, our wonderful hosts, and boarded the complimentary shuttle bus back to Swakopmund.While there are many tour operators in Walvis Bay, and all of them follow essentially the same route and provide the same length of tour, we were very pleased with our experience with Laramon, one of the larger operators. All of their staff was exceptional and wanted to give us a tour that was unforgettable. Their boats also appeared to be some of the newest and best maintained in the fleet of tour boats, and their double-deck catamarans provide a fairly stable ride in the often choppy bay waters, as well as plenty of room to move around and get a variety of points of view. We were completely thrilled by our innkeeper’s recommendation of the Laramon tour, as they really are a class act.
For our trip to Etosha National Park, we opted to overnight at the Halali Rest Camp, located roughly halfway along the park’s main road between Okaukuejo on the west side of the park and Namutoni on the east side. We chose Halali for its central location, allowing us to easily access both sides of the park, and avoid having to make a drive across the entire park in a single day. This location proved to be a wise choice, as on our second day, we were able to spend far more time exploring the eastern side of the park, without having to worry about the long drive all the way back to Okaukuejo.Halali provides a variety of accommodations, from budget double rooms to a semi-luxurious honeymoon suite. Many of the rooms at Halali fall into the bush chalet category, which accommodate either two people or four, and include separate bedroom, living room, and bathroom facilities. There are also a few family chalets, for slightly larger groups, and camping facilities are available within the rest camp as well.We reserved a bush chalet, and were given one designed for four people, even though there were only two of us. The spacious chalet had two bedrooms, each with its own air conditioning unit, and extra long twin beds that had been pushed together to form a "queen" bed. All of Etosha’s rest camps have undergone extensive renovation and modernization in recent years, and our chalet at Halali was no exception. The room was furnished with very new mattresses, soft sheets, and duvets and pillows that were surprisingly luxurious. The rooms have all been painted in modern colors that complement the African setting, providing accommodations that are competitive with the more luxurious private resorts outside of the park, but at a more affordable price, and in a more convenient in-park location. This design philosophy extended to the bathroom in our chalet, which was equipped with a very large walk-in shower, burnished brass fixtures, and mosaic tile on the countertop and in the shower.Also included in the bush chalets is a living room with sofa, counter area with refrigerator and sink, and coffee/tea station. Outside the chalet’s entrance are nicely sized patio areas with braais (barbecue grills), which we did not use. However, had we opted to cook our own dinner, a nice selection of meats and produce was available in the rest camp’s convenience store, along with cooking utensils and packaged grocery items.In addition to the overnight accommodations, Halali offers travelers a variety of amenities. Like the other full service rest camps in Etosha, Halali is equipped with a small grocery store, gift shop, and fuel station. These are all essential within Etosha National Park, where distances can be great, and the closest towns are a minimum of well over an hour away by car. This is the desert, and Etosha experiences hot daytime temperatures, cool nighttime temperatures, and no humidity. Even though most of the time spent visiting the park requires driving around in an enclosed vehicle, it’s still easy to get dehydrated due to the dryness. Having a grocery store available to stock up each morning on water is essential, and the stores at each of the Etosha rest camps do deliver, offering water in all sizes, as well as other beverages, and a good selection of food. A variety of souvenir and gift items are also available.Halali also offers guests a swimming pool, although we did not make use of it. A full service restaurant is also provided, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most of the meals are provided buffet style, and the food ranged from adequate to good; none of it was at all bad, but it was nothing exciting either. Our first evening there, dinner was being served in the large outdoor seating area, adjacent to the swimming pool. An evening barbecue buffet spread was laid out, offering a variety of local specialties, including grilled springbok and impala. All of it was fresh, although the meats were cooked to a degree of doneness that would make "well done" in many American restaurants look like "medium rare" in Namibia. While nothing about the food was gourmet, it was not bad either, and it was certainly adequate for a night or two. Breakfast, which was included with our room rate, was similar, offering a buffet of prepared items, as well as made-to-order omelets and eggs.As with the other Etosha rest camps, nighttime and early morning game drives are available. These allow guests to leave the rest camp’s boundaries during the hours the park is closed to private vehicles. These tours are all conducted by the park on safari vehicles. Unfortunately we were not able to take advantage of one of these drives.Halali’s final amenity is its proximity to the Moringa waterhole, which is lit nightly by floodlights, allowing for evening wildlife viewing. Halali is situated around the base of a large rocky hill near the middle of the park, and the Moringa waterhole viewing area consists of a series of platforms and benches on the side of this hill. This provides for outstanding wildlife viewing and photography, since the viewing platform is nicely elevated above the waterhole. There is a very tall fence separating the viewing area from the waterhole (the fence actually completely surrounds the Halali rest camp), but the elevation of the viewing area keeps the fence out of photographs. This platform faces west, affording for incredible sunset views. At Moringa we saw an incredible amount of wildlife, including a nightly show of a large herd of elephants playing and bathing in the water, several rhinos (we even witnessed a fight between a rhino and an elephant), a large number of birds, several giraffe, and even a leopard and a lion. For nighttime viewing, you will definitely want to bring along flashlights for the walk to and from the waterhole, as the walk down the road from the camping area and bush chalets is pitch black. Additionally, the floodlights on the waterhole attract a lot of bugs, so wearing a strong mosquito repellent is absolutely essential. Etosha does lie within the malarial zone, so mosquito bite prevention is extremely important.Reserving a room at one of the Etosha rest camps can be an exercise in frustration. Reservations are mostly handled through a central phone reservations center, located in Windhoek. Given time zone differences, just getting through to this number when it is staffed can be frustrating for North American travelers. Additionally, space in the Etosha rest camps can fill up quickly, and package tour operators frequently book up much of the space as soon as it is made available by the park management. We were traveling during the off season, in mid-November, and none of the camps were fully booked while we were there. However, after several unsuccessful attempts at reaching the park reservations service by phone, and several requests made through various websites that went unanswered, I was on the verge of just booking us at a private game lodge near the park, and driving into the park each day. Eventually I did try a search on Expedia.com for Etosha National Park, and was presented with options at all of the rest camps, being resold by a US tour operator. This final attempt was successful, and our reservation was confirmed for Halali. It took me several weeks to go from making my first inquiry to actually having a confirmed reservation, which we received only 48 hours before we were due to depart for South Africa. So, my recommendation for booking one of the rest camps in Etosha is to start trying for a reservation as soon as you have dates set for your trip, and to try a variety of methods. What eventually worked for us was a booking made through Expedia, but not everyone finds success that way. So, be patient, and try a variety of sources to make your booking.Overall, I highly recommend staying within Etosha National Park during your visit. Despite the hassle and frustration of making a reservation within the park, the convenience of not having to drive into the park and completely out of the park each evening is worth it. The accommodations are comfortable, and certainly exceeded our expectations. And, while the dining options are merely average, they are certainly adequate. On a return trip I would like to experience staying in one of the other rest camps, but I also would not hesitate to stay at Halali again.
Our original plan for our trip to Southern Africa was to do a safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. However, when our friend who was living in Namibia got wind of that, he advised, "Yeah, Kruger is great, but it’s huge, and not really that unique. You should spend more time in Namibia and go to Etosha instead." So we did, and he was right.In some ways, Etosha is a hidden gem among the big African game parks. Namibia does not get nearly the number of tourists that South Africa does, and Etosha is often overlooked by tourists who are headed to one of the really well known game parks, such as Kruger, Serengeti, Chobe, or Masai Mara. But, for travelers who seek a somewhat less crowded safari experience, set against a landscape like no other, Etosha is an excellent choice. The park’s vast open spaces, including the Etosha Pan, combined with Namibia’s general lack of vegetation, make seeing wildlife very easy, and we felt like we missed nothing by going to Etosha instead of Kruger except the crowds.Etosha is close to a big international airport, so getting there takes a bit more time and work. But, while Windhoek takes a bit more effort to fly to, especially from North America, once you are there, renting a car and driving up to Etosha is really quite easy, with paved, well maintained highways and good signs covering the roughly 400 km between the city and park entrance. When selecting a car rental, keep in mind that while the drive to the park from Windhoek is fully paved and the roads are quite good, once inside the park, the roads are unpaved, and conditions vary from good to rather bumpy. It’s also a very good idea to reserve a car rental in advance, as rental fleets in Windhoek are a bit limited, and there may not be availability for travelers who just show up without a reservation. We ended up with a nicely equipped Hyundai Sonata with automatic transmission, which was perfect for the paved highways, but left something to be desired on the unpaved roads in the park. It was not an awful choice by any means, and did not limit where we went in the park, but it did mean we had to take some rough spots on the gravel park roads very slowly. A SUV, while more expensive, would have provided for easier riding on the worst of the unpaved roads.Etosha is home to a large number of species, including almost all of the large wildlife that most visitors aim to see while on a safari. Approximately 50 waterholes exist in the park. A number of these are naturally occurring springs, while the rest have been constructed by the Namibian park service. Due to the exceptionally dry conditions and lack of rain in the region, animals gravitate toward the waterholes, most of which are designed to be easily accessed by park visitors. In the drier areas of the park, where there is much less vegetation, it is often possible spot animals from some distance as they approach. Each of the park’s overnight rest camps also has a waterhole that is illuminated at night, allowing for comfortable nighttime viewing of the animals all night long, when they are often most active, from only a few feet away. During our trips to various waterholes, we saw dozens of elephants, giraffes, and zebra; more springbok and impala than we could ever begin to count; water buffalo, oryx, wart hogs, lions, rhinoceros, and a leopard. If you enjoy bird watching, the waterholes also attract a very large variety of birds, too.While it is possible to see much of this vast park on a guided tour, and day tours into the park do exist, I highly suggest driving yourself, and staying at least one night in the park. The park’s roads are closed to the general public and private vehicles from dusk until dawn each night. This is for the safety of the park’s visitors, as large animals are frequently roaming the park and more likely to be on the roads in the park during the nighttime hours. However, if you are a registered overnight guest, you can stay in the park inside one of the rest camps. These provide clean, very modern accommodations, a variety of dining options, groceries, and gasoline. Guests of the rest camps can also take advantage of nighttime animal viewing at their rest camp’s illuminated waterhole, as well as register for nighttime game drives that the park operates, allowing visitors to see the big cats as they hunt at night. Unfortunately we did not have the time to do one of these nighttime drives, and I regret that, but we did have some incredible experiences at the waterhole at our rest camp in the evenings.While Etosha is smaller than some parks, such as Kruger, it is still very large. I would recommend spending at least two nights there, with at least one full day to drive the park. That way you can experience most, if not all, of the different landscapes that the park offers, varying from open grasslands to large rock formations to the Etosha Pan, the salt flat that gives the park its name. On the day we drove up to Etosha from Windhoek, we left Windhoek around 9:30 AM, and made a few stops along the drive, enjoying lunch at a German restaurant in Outjo, and finally arriving at the entrance gate and Okaukuejo rest camp in Etosha in the early afternoon. After exploring the rest camp there, and enjoying the wildlife viewing at the camp’s waterhole, we headed toward the rest camp we were staying in, Halali, located approximately halfway along the park’s main road. Along the way we stopped at a variety of waterholes, seeing elephants, zebra, giraffes, ostrich, springbok, oryx, and impala. Once checked into Halali for the evening, we enjoyed wildlife viewing at the Moringa waterhole, including watching a herd of more than a dozen elephants, including several babies, as they bathed and played in the water.Our second day in Etosha was spent with a full day of driving throughout the eastern half of the park. Our route took us east from Halali toward Springbokfontein, along the edge of the Etosha Pan toward Okerfontein, and on to a rest stop at Namutoni. Park visitors are strictly prohibited from exiting their vehicles except in the park’s designated rest camps and at a few restroom facilities off the main road. We made it to Namutoni approximately 3.5 hours after departing Halali, so it felt great to spend an hour walking around the former German fort turned into a wilderness lodge there. After stretching our legs, and obtaining a light lunch, we headed to Tsumcor, before turning back to Twee Palms, and then back toward our base camp at Halali, where we arrived with about half an hour to spare before the gates closed for the evening. After a brief rest and dinner, we returned to the overlook at the Moringa waterhole for the evening show of elephants, rhinos, and even a couple of big cats – a leopard and later, a lioness, who came for a drink.Despite all of the amazing wildlife we had seen, we awoke to our last day at Etosha still not having seen much in the way of cats. Sure, there was the leopard and lioness the previous evening, but it was dark, and they did not photograph well. Our agenda for that day was to head west back to Okaukuejo, leave the park, and make the drive to Swakopmund, on the Namibian coast. However, we opted to stop at several waterholes on our way out of the park. First up was Salvadora, where we spotted a large animal slowly walking toward the waterhole. It was soon apparent that this was a cat; he was still at least a kilometer away, but his catlike gait was unmistakable. A few minutes later, he arrived at the waterhole, where he drank, and then settled in for a nap. We finally had our big cat experience! But, little did we know, it was only the beginning. After continuing on, we elected to pull off the main road at Homob, a large waterhole we had skipped two days earlier on our way in. There we were rewarded with several hundred zebra, and four lions, two male, two female, lounging right on the edge of the parking lot! We spent nearly an hour just taking it all in, watching the lions acting like just bigger versions of house cats, basking in the sunshine and not worrying at all about the tourists in their cars and safari buses just a few feet away. It was a fitting end to our 48 hours in Etosha, and an experience I will never forget.
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