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.