Namibia is an absolute dream to visit and perfect for first-time visitors to Africa! It’s extraordinarily beautiful in its scenery, wildlife and culture, but also completely safe to explore on your own. Having said that, it’s so vast, with so many captivating places to see, that planning a self-organised trip can be slightly overwhelming. To make it easy for you, I’ve put together an optimal 2 week Namibia self drive itinerary with plenty of useful tips and once-in-a-lifetime experiences you definitely shouldn’t skip!
DAY 1: WINDHOEK
First things first – after landing at Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport, exchange your money and pick up your rent-a-car. Make sure you book it months ahead (the sooner the better) and opt for a 4×4 like a Toyota Hilux, otherwise you might end up being in trouble. There’s mostly gravel roads running through the country and the trip involves some off-road driving too! If you’ll be camping rather than staying in hotels, getting camping gear is another thing to keep in mind. You can bring it with you or buy it, of course, but the best way is to rent it through your car company like we did (if that’s an option). P.S. I’ve listed EVERYTHING you need to put in your suitcase or get upon arrival in my What to Pack for Namibia article.
Since you’ll most likely be knackered after your flight and the the long drive ahead will require your full concentration, I would suggest you to spend your first night in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. There isn’t much to see in the city, and roaming around the streets as a tourist isn’t advisable either (especially at night), so just get to your hotel/campsite and have a much needed rest.
If you do want to head out for some food, use a taxi, or better yet, have a restaurant organise your transfer. Also, never let your valuables visible or your car doors unlocked, even mid-driving or when sitting inside the car. Fear not – Namibia is safe to travel around and you won’t have to be on high alert all the time. It’s just big cities that are problematic, like many others around the world. I actually never felt unsafe in Namibia, but thefts do happen and tourists are the prime targets.
DAY 2: SESRIEM
Our second day started with a trip to the supermarket, as we had to buy some food for camping, then continued with a long drive to Sesriem, a starting point for the famous Sossusvlei and Deadvlei in the Namib Desert. The 300 km or so long journey takes over four hours and consists of poor gravel roads that are difficult to drive on, so allow yourself plenty of time. There’s no major sights on the way, but you’ll see the changing landscape and most likely some monkeys jumping around!
Before you hit the road just make sure you have spare tires and know how to change them! You’ll most likely blow at least a few during the trip (this is a normal part of the Namibian adventure) and if you can’t get it sorted yourself, you might be out of luck. The phone signal is often non-existent and the distances between populated places are so vast you sometimes don’t come across a single soul.
Our final destination of the day was Sesriem Campsite, our home for the next 3 days. It’s conveniently located right next to the Sesriem Canyon and the entrance gate to Sossusvlei, within the Namib Naukluft Park. This gives you the advantage of reaching Sossusvlei before sunrise, an hour ahead of everyone else. A major bonus point if you want to avoid the crowds and snap some amazing photos!
If you aren’t keen on camping and would rather stay in a hotel room, The Dead Valley Lodge and Sossusvlei Lodge around the corner also have this advantage. I spent a few afternoons at the latter, as their lovely buffet restaurant and a pool bar with comfy lounge chairs were open to non-guests as well. Not to mention there was very decent wi-fi, haha! In comparison, Sesriem Campsite is obviously more simple, but there’s a bar, a little shop, a restaurant serving a few basic meals and even a pool. Not bad at all, especially when you throw the night view in as well. I’d never seen so many stars in my life! The milky way was unreal!!
P.S. All three of these accommodation options are in high demand, especially during the high season, so make sure to book them well in advance.
DAY 3-4: SOSSUSVLEI & DEADVLEI
My number one advice for visiting the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, the iconic white clay pan with dead camel thorn trees, would be to head over as early in the morning as you can. Not only will you avoid the crowds, but the scorching sun too. It gets incredibly hot in the desert, as you can imagine.
As mentioned, it’s best to stay the night at the camp or hotels located inside the Namib Naukluft Park, as this gets you an exclusive access to Sossusvlei an hour ahead of the sunrise, before the gate opens for the rest of the public. It takes an additional hour (65 km) to then drive off-road all the way to the two biggest attractions. Do note that you are not allowed to drive on the last portion of the “road” unless you have a 4×4. You have to be quite a skilled driver to make it over without getting stuck in thick sand, plus let some air out of your tires beforehand! Alternatively, you can also leave your car at the car park next to the dunes and pay for a shuttle to take you to the final point.
If you want to check out Deadvlei as well as climb Big Daddy, one of the tallest sand dunes in the world, I’d suggest you to do so over two mornings. Both sights take too much time to enjoy them both in one day, as the sand get scorching hot and there’s no shade or water nearby. It would be pure torture trying to reach either at midday.
I have to say – Big Daddy and especially Deadvlei are not the easiest to find. There’s no signs whatsoever, so if you don’t come prepared (or can follow the people who know how to find it), you might get lost or give up in the process. When you arrive to the final car park, Big Daddy can be seen straight on, towards left, while Deadvlei is on the right, besides/behind Big Daddy. It’s not visible from the carpark at all. You actually need to walk a few kilometres on sand to spot the pan! It’s well worth it, though. The place is truly mesmerising.
To reach the top of Big Daddy you’ll need about two hours, however, if you’re not up for the challenge, you can try climbing Dune 45, which is half the height and way easier to reach! It’s located closer to the gate (about 45 km away), and is right next to a small car park.
Again, the climate in the Namib Desert is as extreme as it gets! A pair of sunglasses, a sunhat, a tube of sunscreen, a long-sleeved shirt and at least a few litres of water are essential to have with you at all times while you’re roaming around. I’d also recommend you to wear running shoes. Hiking boots per se are not needed, but don’t wear sandals. Your feet will get BURNED once the sun goes up!
If you follow my itinerary, you’ll probably be heading back to your hotel or camp by about 1 pm. You can always just spend the afternoon chilling by the pool or do another exciting activity – take a scenic helicopter ride! I decided to splurge and I definitely wasn’t sorry. It was beyond incredible seeing the never-ending dunes, the Sesriem Canyon and the fairy circles (one of the unexplained mysteries of the world) from above. I booked my flight at the Sossusvlei Lodge Adventure Centre.
DAY 5: SOLITAIRE, VOGELFEDERBERG, WALVIS BAY, SWAKOPMUND
Time to leave the desert and head towards Swakopmund, Namibia’s biggest coastal town with German architecture and palm trees! The whole journey takes about 4 and a half hours (340 km), but it’s not just driving this time around. There’s quite a few interesting spots to see on the way!
The first one is Solitaire, the tiniest little settlement, which looks straight out of a Western movie. There’s a gas station, a lodge, a cafe with allegedly the best apple pie in the world (good for Namibia, but far from the best in my opinion) and lots of old, abandoned rusty cars scattered around – perfect for photos!
Vogelfederberg, a rock formation in the middle of nowhere, is another place you can stop at, but what lies ahead is way more interesting! Walvis Bay isn’t only a harbour with a lovely promenade, but also a home to pelicans and flamingos! There’s plenty to see on the waterfront, however you can also drive to the Salt Works, which – fun fact – supply over 90% of South Africa’s salt.
To finish off the day, finally head over to Swakopmund, treat yourself to a nice dinner and crash at a hotel. After all those freezing nights in the desert, you’ll appreciate it on a whole another level.
DAY 6: SKELETON COAST, CAPE CROSS, SPITZKOPPE
We left Swakopmund first thing in the morning, so I unfortunately couldn’t take a proper look at the city. I walked down to the pier at sunrise to take some long-exposure shots, then headed towards the mysterious Skeleton Coast. The violent seas full of crosscurrents, thick fogs, strong winds and sand dunes stretching into the ocean made this stretch of the Atlantic coast a treacherous grounds for ships passing by. The Portuguese sailors named it ‘The Gates of Hell’ and the local Bushmen refer to it as ‘The Land God Made in Anger’. It’s easy to understand why! Many ships ran aground over the years and the shipwrecks can still be found scattered all over the Skeleton Coast.
The easiest one to see is ‘Zeila’, which lies 16 km south of Hentiesbaai, less than 45 minutes away from Swakopmund. You can reach it by following the sign off the C34 road. There’s a free car park right by the shipwreck, so it’s worth a quick stop. Just a heads-up – you will be greeted by hawkers trying to sell you gemstones, but they’re not overly pushy. If you strike up a conversation with them, you may even learn a few interesting bits about their culture! We had a guy telling us all about his Khoisan click language, which to me was even more interesting than the shipwreck itself.
Our day continued with a trip to Cape Cross, not more than half an hour north. If you set your GPS to Kreuzap, you’ll reach one of the world’s largest fur seal colonies! There’s literally thousands of seals almost laying on top of each other, running around, swimming… You can walk right up to them, so it’s quite an experience! The smell of the poo and rotting bodies, and the noises they make (think sheep and grumpy old men) also add to it, haha! To enter the reserve you’ll have to pay an entrance fee of 80 NAD (5.40 USD) per person and 10 NAD (0,70 USD) per car. There’s water and toilet facilities available at the entrance.
Our final stop of the day and home for the night was Spitzkoppe, a breath-taking group of rounded granite peaks about 160 km or 2 hours and a half inland. The campsite’s reception isn’t the easiest to find, especially at night, so if you want to use the shower and (flush) toilet facilities, make it easy for you and pick a campground near the reception (the scenic ones are not within walking distance). There’s also a little bar/restaurant next to the reception, while the campgrounds themselves have no water or electricity.
DAY 7: SPITZKOPPE, KAMANJAB
We spent the whole day and another night at Spitzkoppe, however, since there isn’t anything to do apart from checking out the photogenic rock arch and the Bushman cave paintings (unless you’re climbing), I’d suggest you to enjoy the beautiful sunrise, then move on to Kamanjab. The ride will take you over 4 hours, since it’s 300 km up north.
Why Kamanjab? For the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park, where you can get up close and personal with these captivating creatures. Just to be clear, this is not a zoo or some sort of an inhumane animal attraction, but a non-profit establishment. The sad reality is that in Namibia most wild cheetahs get killed by farmers, because they present a threat to their livestock. This 7000 hectare big farm takes in the ones they manage to save (by paying other farmers to hand them over) for conservation reasons.
There’s three cheetahs that the owners have cared for since they were cubs and those actually stay at their house. At 4 pm the owner takes you to the garden, where you can meet them and watch them being fed. It feels terrifying when they walk up to you at first, but they basically behave like domestic cats.You can walk around freely and take photos, but you aren’t allowed to touch them due to the law in place. However, it’s okay if they’re the ones to approach you – they like to lick people!
After meeting the tamed cheetahs, we went to our campground (there’s a campsite as well as a lodge nearby) and then got picked up by the owner and got taken to the wild cheetahs on the back of a pick-up truck at 5 pm. They live in an massive natural enclosure you drive through for about an hour and watch them being fed.They leap for the meat that gets thrown to them, then run away with their “catch”.
DAY 8-9: OPUWO AND STAYING WITH THE TRIBES
This authentic cultural experience may not end up on everyone’s itinerary, but it was such a major highlight of the trip for me I can’t not include it for those of you interested in the details. To give you a bit of a backstory – I’d been fascinated by the Himba tribe ever since I read a travelogue by a known Slovenian adventure traveller as a little girl. It was what first sparked my interest for Namibia and from then on, I’ve been dreaming of meeting and photographing them. 15 years later my dream finally came true!
We met up with a local Himba guide in Opuwo, a melting pot of all Namibian tribes, 260 km north of Kamanjab. The journey took us two hours and a half, and then another few hours to get to the remote Himba villages by the Angolan border. Before leaving Opuwo we also made a trip to a grocery store not only to stock up on food and water for ourselves, but to buy a few items for the tribes (flour, for example, as advised by our guide) as a thank you at the end for (hopefully) letting us stay.
The second half of the journey was interesting to say the least! We were driving off-road, over the biggest bumps and having branches hit us from all different directions. I’m pretty sure the path wasn’t made for cars to drive on. When we finally reached a remote Himba village, right before the sunset, our guide went to ask for our permission to stay over night and we got a yes!
The chief and other adult men weren’t there, as they had to take the cattle up the mountains due to drought (Himbas are semi-nomadic), but the women and the children eventually joined us after we finished setting up our tents. They sang and performed their traditional dance, while we made a massive bowl of pasta for us all!
In the morning it was our turn to visit them. We were invited inside the village to observe their usual routine – milking goats, making porridge for breakfast, applying ochre to their skin and braiding their hair. It was truly rewarding to observe them and learn about their culture first-hand!
After we said our goodbyes, our guide took us to see their traditional cemetery and told us even more interesting facts about their way of life before taking us to another village for the night. This time we were welcomed by the Zemba tribe. They were the most energetic, open people I’ve ever come across! Again, we were invited to their village to find out more about their everyday life and ended up hanging out by the fire all night long. There was singing, dancing, and the most fascinating intercultural dialogue! They were as curious about our way of life as we were about theirs! I’ll cherish this memory forever…
If for some reason or another you can’t have the immersive experience I had, but still want to learn about the Himba culture, there’s a few touristy Himba villages you can stop at for a few hours instead.
10. DAN: KAMANJAB
Since we spent the whole morning with the Zemba tribe and didn’t have enough time to head all the way to our next location (Etosha National Park) before sunset, we drove back to the Otjitotongwe Campsite in Kamanjab for the night.
DAY 11-14: ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK
A safari in Etosha National Park is another bucket list adventure you simply can’t miss! It takes about two hours to reach the park from Kamanjab, and another hour or two to make it to your campsite if you’re staying inside the park (which I thoroughly recommend). We spent 4 days driving around the reserve, enjoying the company of elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras, rhinos and more! Since I have about a million tips on how to have the best possible experience, I actually wrote a separate article all about it – here’s my complete guide to a self drive safari in Etosha National Park. I’ve covered everything from the best time to go, where and how long to stay, tips for driving and more!
DAY 15: WINDHOEK
I wish it wasn’t the case, but every trip must come to an end. We spent our last day driving over 400 km down to Windhoek again, where we returned our car, went out for a meal, spent the night at a hotel and left for the airport the following morning.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who can add a some extra days to your Namibian adventure, also look into:
- Kolmanskop Ghost Town – an abandoned diamond mining town in Lüderitz overtaken by sand dunes;
- Quiver Tree Forest – unique African succulents;
- Epupa Falls – majestic waterfalls on the border between Namibia and Angola;
- Fish River Canyon – an enormous canyon with epic views;
- Victoria Falls – not in Namibia, but close enough to extend your trip.