New Zealand’s South Island is the ultimate playground for nature lovers. With so many natural wonders around, it’s hard to choose the best one, but Milford Sound might just be the one to take the crown. Despite its remote location, almost one million visitors come see this iconic fiord every year, and it’s easy to see why. Its majestic waterfalls running down the dramatic cliffs covered in lush green rainforest make for a breathtaking sight! Do you want to experience this 8th wonder of the world yourself? Just follow my Milford Sound itinerary for the perfect day trip! I’ve road tripped to Milford Sound from Te Anau, then on the way back, continued my way to Queenstown.
How to Get to Milford Sound
Milford Sound can be reached either from Queenstown or a smaller lakeside town called Te Anau, which is located halfway between the two. The journey from Queenstown takes about four hours each way, which is A LOT for only a day trip, so if you can, I would suggest you to at least start or end the journey in Te Anau instead. You’ll be less tired and have the opportunity to spend more time exploring the sights along the way, which definitely shouldn’t be skipped!
Starting from Te Anau, we gave ourselves two hours for the drive and about three additional hours for the stops along the way. This gave us enough time to explore, take photos and make it to Milford Sound with some time to spare before the boat tour we had booked.
Milford Sound offers more than enough parking spots, just give yourself plenty of time to park (an hour during the peak season), as there’s a lot of cars coming in at the same time. Luckily, there are parking attendants helping you out and telling you where to go during the summer months. In the main area parking costs 10 NZD per hour, however, if all the carparks are full, you are asked to park on the side of the road further out for free – like us. From there, a complimentary bus then takes you to the visitor terminal.
If you aren’t renting a car but would still like to visit Milford Sound from Queenstown, there’s plenty of bus tour operators that will take you there. Most also include quick stops at the main viewpoints along the way.
The Best Te Anau to Milford Sound Scenic Stops
No Milford Sound itinerary is complete withoutthe scenicstops waiting for you alongside the road. It would be a crime not to see at least a few of over a dozen!
Eglinton Valley is one of the first you’ll come across when entering the Fiordland National Park. A lot of people stop here because it’s one of the Lord of the Rings filming locations, but it’s an interesting sight whether you’re a fan or not. The endless flat valley is surrounded by steep mountains covered in the native beech forest, and if you’re there on a rainy day, you’ll be able to see some fantastic waterfalls too.
Mirror Lakes is another quick stop to make. There you will find small lakes with a mountainous backdrop reflecting in the water. You don’t need more than 10 minutes for a stroll to the viewing platforms and back. The weather was a little bit windy when I was there and the ducks were having a party too, so I didn’t get to see the picture-perfect reflection myself, but it was nice to stretch my legs for a second regardless.
If you have your Milford Sound boat tour booked later in the afternoon, you can also squeeze in one of the hikes, or just save them for later. The shortest and easiest one (great even for children) is the nature walk to Lake Gunn. The 45-minute flat loop takes you through the red beech forest, home to a number New Zealand’s native bird, and awards you with a fantastic view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
For more advanced hikers, Lake Marian Track is also supposed to be a good option. To get to this alpine lake, you’ll need about an hour and a half one way and hike up quite a steep, sometimes muddy track. However, you can cut the trip short and only walk up to the waterfalls, which are just 10 minutes away from the carpark. An even more demanding option is a hike up to the Key Summit. Just like with Lake Marian Track, you need about 3 hours for the return journey. Apparently, it’s quite a climb to reach the top, so you do have to be in a good physical condition, but the panoramic views on a clear day are promisingly amazing.
The Homer Tunnel, which you have to drive through to get to Milford Sound and is quite an experience in itself, can’t be labeled a scenic nature spot per se, but the waterfalls on the side of the road leading up to the entrance are magnificent! We had to wait for about 15 minutes before we could enter the tunnel, but with those views, I would quite happily to be stuck in a queue for even longer.
The Chasm is another popular stop, one of the last stops before arriving to Milford Sound. The 20-minute return walk will lead you to two footbridges with the waterfall, which isn’t your typical tall one, but extremely powerful, disappearing through the eroded rocks and reappearing downstream.
Exploring Milford Sound
Doing a Milford Sound boat tour is the best way to experience this UNESCO World Heritage Area. With so many tour companies and itinerary variations to choose from, I found picking what I though would be the best one slightly overwhelming, but I ended up booking the 2-hour Milford Sound Nature Cruise with Southern Discoveries (95 NZD per person) and was really happy with it!
The boat’s upper outdoor deck with 360º views had plenty of space, which is great news for photographers. I stayed out for the entire journey, but if you’d like to observe the fiord from inside instead, there’s also a two-floor lounge with big windows and plenty of seats – handy for when it’s raining!
With a running commentary in the background, the nature cruise took us along the fiord to the Tasman Sea, with lush mountains and waterfalls on each side. The surroundings made me feel like I was in the latest sequel of Jurassic Park! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any dolphin, penguins or wales, but there was plenty of seals chilling on the rocks. A definite highlight for me along with Bowen and Stirling Falls. Speaking of which – prepare to get wet (or hide inside). At the end of the cruise, the boat takes right below Stirling Falls!
A cruise is not the only activity you can do in the area. You can also visit the Underwater Observatory to see Milford Sound’s underwater wildlife, go kayaking and do the Milford Sound Foreshore Walk, which starts right across the visitor centre, at the main parking lot. It’s a nice 30-minute path along the water’s edge with visitor panels and some of the best views of the photogenic Mitre Peak.
To Know Before You Go
There’s no gas stations or cellphone coverage on the way, so fill up your tank before you head out of Te Anau. But don’t worry about getting lost – there’s only one road (State Highway 94) leading up to Milford Sound.
Bring insect repellent! There’s swarms of sand flies, which eat you up in a second. If you’ve never experienced their bite – it’s way more itchy than mosquito’s and hangs around for about a month.
If you’re going on a cruise, non-slip shoes and a warm, waterproof jacket are also advisable. Milford Sound the wettest place in New Zealand, plus the temperature can drop down to 10ºC even during the summertime.
Book your boat cruise beforehand online! It’s a popular place, so the tickets sell out.
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What is your idea of paradise? To me it’s always been Polynesia. Tropical lush green vegetation surrounded by crystal clear turquoise lagoons, fresh seafood on the plate, relaxing sounds of ukulele, mesmerising dance moves, flowers everywhere… Not only did my Cook Islands vacation tick every box imaginable, but was also fairly inexpensive compared to the other South Pacific islands and not yet overtaken by tourism. Triple win! Do you want to experience this slice of heaven yourself? Check out my complete Rarotonga holiday guide below.
HOW TO GET TO THE COOK ISLANDS
Located in the middle of the Pacific, halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, the Cook Islands are not within easy reach for most of us. However, the reward is well worth the journey. There are direct international flights to Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands, from four different locations – Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles and Tahiti.
Air Tahiti takes you to and from Papeete; Virgin Australia connects Rarotonga with Auckland and Sydney; Jetstar also has flights from Auckland; while Air New Zealand flies from Auckland, Sydney, as well as Los Angeles.
I spent three weeks exploring New Zealand before flying out to Rarotonga, so my starting (and end) point was Auckland. Unfortunately, I had the worst airline/flight experience of my life with Jetstar on my way back (and heard many unpleasant stories from others afterwards too), so between the two, I would definitely suggest you to book your flights with Air New Zealand. It’s miles better, from comfort to customer service.
THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR TO GO TO THE COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands have a tropical climate year-round, so you’ll be able to enjoy everything Rarotonga has to offer whenever you visit. The warmer season, with temperatures from 26°C to 30°C, runs from November to April, while you can expect just slightly milder temperatures ranging from 22°C to 27 °C between May and October.
The warmer season (November-April) comes with more humidity, daily rainfall and a possible cyclone (not a regular occurrence), but don’t fret about it. I was there in mid-January and while we had some strong winds during the night and a quick, warm downpour every afternoon, there was still plenty of sunshine to enjoy.
If you’re “on a budget”, keep in mind that July and August are normally the busiest months. Many Australians and New Zealanders come over to the islands for their winter break, so it get busier and accommodation prices increase. The flight prices increase also over Christmas, as many Cook Islanders who live in New Zealand come home over the holidays.
VISA FOR THE COOK ISLANDS
You don’t need to obtain a visa to visit the Cook Islands if you’re just a tourist. The only thing you need is a passport valid for a minimum of 6 months and a return ticket – this allows you to stay up to 31 days (or 90 days if you’re a citizen of New Zealand).
THINGS TO DO IN RAROTONGA
1)MURI LAGOON ACTIVITIES
Muri Lagoon is the most beautiful and popular spot on the island, with plenty of hotels, resorts and restaurants nearby. I was lucky enough to stay right on Muri Beach, so the gorgeous turquoise lagoon with all its activities was practically on my doorstep. The lagoon is very calm and therefore perfect for swimming, paddleboarding or kayaking – I’ve done it all!
There’s a few places along the coast you can hire a SUP, a kayak or snorkel gear from, but most resorts provide it to you for free. You can easily make your way to one of the little islands in the middle of the lagoon (you can even reach one of them on foot when the tide is low), and guess what? You might even get a passenger. The local dogs who roam around love to hop on a paddle board or a kayak and come along for a free ride – it’s absolutely hilarious!
Just when I thought my vacation couldn’t get any better, these funny fluffy companions made an appearance. I just LOVE dogs! Even though most of them don’t have a single owner (the collars indicate they’ve been fixed and vaccinated), they are well taken care of by the community and an absolute joy to be around. I loved watching them attempting to catch fish – hours of entertainment provided, I’m telling you.
P.S. I do recommend you to put some reef shoes on before going into water, as there’s corals around you can cut your foot with due to the proximity of the reef.
2) MURI LAGOON CRUISE AND SNORKELLING
Another activity you can do in the lagoon is snorkelling! Book a glass-bottomed cruise that takes you around the islands, with ukulele playing in the background, all the way to the coral reef, where you can put on some flippers and a snorkel and dive right in. There’s tons of colourful tropical fish down there, some way bigger than I expected!
We stayed at the reef for over an hour, then headed back. The cruise I booked was with Pacific Resort Rarotonga (20 NZD), the resort I was staying at, but there’s plenty of other almost identical options. Some operators also stop at one of the islands (the one you can walk to) for a barbecue.
3)MURI NIGHT MARKET
Muri Night Market is an outdoor street food market that you definitely shouldn’t miss! Locals and tourists alike stop over for dinner, as you have a range of tasty dishes to choose from. You can find everything from their special chicken curry and local seafood specialties to pizza and fluffy pancakes. I went for a Raro-style hot dog! Not an official name, but the best way I can describe it. It was basically chicken slices with coconut cream in a bun – so delicious!
While this is a street food market, there are a couple of stalls selling souvenirs and the like as well. I spotted a vendor selling black pearls harvested in the Cook Islands, so I got an unpolished one that I’ll be taking to my jeweller to get a pendant made.
The market is open every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 5 pm until 9 pm, but you should get there as early as possible – many stalls run out of food quickly and close up early.
4)PUNANGA NUI MARKET
Punanga Nui is another market worth checking out. It’s held every Saturday morning in Avarua, the capital of Rarotonga, and gets very busy. It seems like everyone on the island swings by! You won’t only find street food there, but also fresh produce and every souvenir imaginable – clothing, art, handmade ukuleles…
I enjoyed a delicious tropical fruit smoothie, grabbed some souvenirs for friends, and treated myself to a flower crown that I watched being made right there and then. I felt like Moana and wore it all day, until the fresh flowers started looking worse for wear from the heat. I really wish I could wear flowers in my hair every day…
At about 10 am there’s also cultural performances (live music and dance) happening on the market’s the main stage, so it’s worth planning your visit around that time.
5)TE VARA NUI VILLAGE AND DANCE SHOW
For a truly immersive cultural experience, I can’t recommend Te Vara Nui Village enough. It’s proper touristy, so I had my doubts, but in the few hours I spent there, I learned the whole history of Polynesia, got an A to Z insight into the Cook Island Maori culture, and got to experience the most spectacular dance show – I still get goosebumps just thinking about it!
You can choose between their cultural village tour (49 NZD), the over water night show with buffet dinner (115 NZD), or opt for both (135 NZD), which is what I did and clearly don’t regret a tiny bit!
Without revealing too much, the 2-hour long village tour started at 5 pm and was informative and entertaining at the same time. The guides taught us about their traditional medicines (and even gave us some beauty tips), fishing, navigational techniques, legends, costumes, beliefs, the past and the present way of life, and even how to open a coconut.
After the village tour, we were sat down for the incredible over water night dance show. The atmosphere was electric! Through music and dance, the performers showcased The Legend of Tongaiti on floating stages, all of which was followed by buffet dinner of their traditional dishes, laid out on a never-ending table. Everything I put in my mouth tasted amazing, especially banana poke, the Cook Islands’ traditional dessert. It doesn’t look particularly appetising at first glance, but the flavour is addicting! I’m dying to recreate it back home. I just need to find some arrowroot/tapioca starch.
6)CROSS-ISLAND HIKE TO THE RUA MANGA (THE NEEDLE)
If you’re ultra adventurous and in great shape, you might want to do a four-hour cross-island hike through the rainforest up the Te Rua Manga (The Needle), offering great views across the island. I haven’t done it myself, so I can’t give you any first-hand tips, but I’ve heard it’s rather challenging in certain parts, as you have to use chains and ropes to get to the top, and not well marked, so having a guide (as well as proper hiking shoes) is recommended. Most people start from Avarua and finish at Wigmore’s Waterfall.
7)A DAY TRIP TO AITUTAKI
Aitutaki is another island, only a 45-minute flight away from Rarotonga. It’s considered to have the most beautiful lagoon in the world (its name literally means ‘a little paradise’) and well worth a visit if you have the time and the money. You can stay over for several days or just do a quick day trip from Rarotonga, which will cost you about 450 NZD for the flights and the lagoon cruise. I unfortunately couldn’t hop over this time, but if I’m ever lucky enough to make it back to the Cook Islands, Aitutaki will be on my priority list.
GETTING AROUND THE ISLAND
You can rent a car or a scooter to get around Rarotonga, but since the island is small and there isn’t many places you would need a car to get to, you can just use the local bus. One route goes clockwise and the other anti-clockwise, so you really can’t get it wrong. I took the bus to the Punanga Nui Market and it was an experience in itself! Not a negative one, just to be clear. There is a timetable you can refer to, but don’t take it very literally. Let’s just say they run on ‘island time’. Whenever the bus shows up, it shows up. A single ticket costs 3.40 NZD, and the bus needs about an hour to get around the entire island.
WHERE TO STAY IN RAROTONGA
Rarotonga offers accommodation options for all budgets. You can choose between hotels, Airbnbs, family villas, resorts and even hostels from only 14 NZD a night! Yes, backpacking Rarotonga is totally doable.
I stayed in a beachfront suit with a million dollar view at a 4-star Pacific Resort Rarotonga. It’s on Muri Beach, surrounded by tropical gardens, and is a good all-rounder. Excellent location, beyond friendly staff, top-notch food and suitable for families and couples alike.
I’m still dreaming of all the dinners I was served there. The pacific sizzler (local fish with sauteed vegetables sizzled with coconut lime sauce), ika mata (Cook Islands raw fish salad), seafood chowder, and prawn and pesto linguine were my favourite! I would honestly go back just for the food, it was THAT good. What made the experience even more special was that they served dinner right on the beach when the weather allowed it. Absolutely dreamy… Just FIY – the portions are to die for. The starters are as big as the mains, so make sure to wear some stretchy pants, haha.
WI-FI AND MOBILE DATA IN RAROTONGA
In short, free wi-fi is pretty much impossible to find. I eventually ended up getting a visitor SIM card from Bluesky with 3 GB of data for 49 NZD, but to be honest, it wasn’t worth it. The speed was so slow I couldn’t even use social media. Offline is clearly the way to go in the Cook Islands! With all the beauty around, it’s probably for the best.
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My mom is obsessed with alpacas. Ever since one of our hosts in New Zealand introduced us to his fluffy duo, they’ve been on her mind 24/7. If you thought my profile on Instagram was her favourite, I regret to disappoint you – it’s Alfie the alpaca’s. So when her birthday rolled around, my sister and I just knew we have to come up with some sort of an alpaca-themed surprise. Luckily for my bank account, we didn’t have to fly her all the way to Peru. We managed to find the perfect alpaca experience at Alpacas Hill (The Novak Farm) in Strojna, the highest village in Slovenia, not far away from the town called Ravne na Koroškem.
After being introduced to the adorable Madeira, Tenerifa, Odoma and Logi (now also joined by Pančo and Wolke), we gave them some treats and took them for a short walk to the nearby hill with Tajda, a lovely young owner, who showered us with interesting alpaca facts. Speaking of which – did you know they have to get their teeth trimmed?! This has really taken me by surprise…
At the top of the hill, you are greeted with a generous charcuterie board full of delicious local produce (and a birthday cake in our case). All laid out perfectly on the table under a pavilion, with spectacular views of the surrounding rolling hills to top it all off! Then and there, you are left to your own devices to enjoy the food and interact with the alpacas, while they usually munch on the grass behind.
Yes, the alpacas stay and you’re in charge of brining them back to the farm! I was a bit worried about getting their leash back on, but fear not, they’re super chill and easily bribed with the dry food you’re left with. And they don’t spit like their llama cousins either. Phew!
The whole Alpacas Hill experience lasts for a few hours and is PERFECT for families with kids, birthday celebrations or even a low-key bachelorette party! You can reserve your visit and slot via their phone (+38641289692) or e-mail (email@example.com). The price is 15€ for an adult and 8€ for a child between the ages of 3 and 15. Younger children can join free of charge, and all the food is included in the price too!
Raise your hand if the quarantine turned you into a bread-making, dessert-baking master chef wannabe too! I might as well make this travel blog of mine a temporary food blog at this point. I’ve never spent so much time in the kitchen before or ate as much sugar! Not proud of that second part, but what else is going to get us through these insane times, right?! If you’re looking for a dose of happiness, these seriously delicious brownies are super easy and quick to make. Special thanks to my sister’s friend for the recipe – I’ll send you a bill for my personal trainer after all this is over, haha.
250 g butter
250 g chocolate
250 g sugar
1 vanilla sugar
180 g all-purpose flour
50 g cocoa powder
Mix all ingredients together, pour the mixture into a buttered baking dish and bake on 180ºC for 20 minutes. Yes, it’s THAT easy.
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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.
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Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa may be the most popular African safari locations for first-timers, but a Namibia self drive safari in Etosha National Park isn’t anything less magnificent! Namibia alone is a destination you HAVE to put on your radar. Breathtaking red sand dunes of the Namib Desert in Sossusvlei, dramatic landscapes of Spitzkoppe and Fish River Canyon, as well as the rich culture of the semi-nomadic Himba people are reasons enough to visit, but when you throw safari into the mix as well, you get yourself a trip of a lifetime! I certainly had one.
The best place to see The Lion King’s cast in real life is the famous Etosha national park, a wildlife reserve spread over 22,270 square kilometres, with a massive salt pan in the middle. This unique backdrop and the ability to explore the place independently make it especially perfect for wildlife photography. In the four days I spent there I managed to see (and snap) everything from giraffes, zebras, warthogs and elephants to lions, hyenas, endangered black rhinos and even a leopard! Not to mention the blue wildebeest, springbok, oryx, kudu… They were everywhere and so close to the road you could almost touch them! For all the details you need to know to plan your own Namibia self drive safari in Etosha, check out my ultimate guide below.
THE BEST TIME TO GO ON SAFARI IN NAMIBIA
Namibia has a wet season during its summer, between November and May, and a dry season during the winter, from June to October. Technically speaking, an optimal visit for a safari is at the end of the dry season, in September and October. This is when the animals are forced to gather around Etosha’s waterholes due to the lack of water elsewhere, so it’s the easiest to spot them. Almost every waterhole in Etosha has a designated viewing point big enough for several cars to stop and observe the wildlife, making the conditions absolutely perfect! You just have to sit back in your vehicle and await their arrival with a camera in your hands, of course.
The lack of bushy, lush vegetation in the dry season also makes it easier to spot the wildlife out and about, however, that doesn’t mean you’ll be completely out of luck if you’re heading over some other time. I went in the off season, so to speak, at the beginning of May, and the land was completely dry. Probably due to severe droughts Namibia has been facing over the last few years. While they aren’t great for the population or the nature by any means, I guess they do extend the “safari season”…
While muddy roads are a massive drawback of the wet season safari, the rainy months do come with some rewards too. You have thousands of flamingos and white pelicans making an appearance on the Etosha Pan, plus there’s fewer crowds, which makes finding accommodation much easier. If you’re planning a trip during peak times (dry season), beware the costs are higher and last-minute accommodation is extremely difficult to find. It’s recommended to make reservations about a year ahead! Yes, a year.
GETTING TO ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK
Etosha National Park is just a 4-hour drive away from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia with an international airport you’ll most likely be flying into. The road leading up is one of the best in the country (a.k.a. one of the few paved), so the drive’s pretty straightforward, but there’s one thing to note if you’re coming from another direction – vet check points.
They’re basically car inspections set up to prevent the foot-and-mouth disease, which can affect the local cattle. Raw meat and animal products are prohibited to be taken in and out of certain areas, so make sure to plan your pre-safari shopping accordingly and have your car fridge ready for inspection. Check out THIS, THIS and THIS website for detailed information.
You can enter Etosha National Park via four different gates, the most popular being the Anderson’s Gate in the south of the park – ideal if you’re coming from Windhoek, Swakopmund or Damaraland and heading to camp Okaukuejo or Halali. If you’re coming in from the east and heading to Namutoni Camp, Von Lindequist Gate is a better option. Nehale Iya Mpingana Gate is a bit further up north, while the Galton Gate on the west is open for the Dolomite Camp residents only, I believe.
Upon entering you’ll also have to pay your entrance to the park (it’s not included in accommodation, which you pay for separately). There’s a fee of 80 NAD (5.60 USD) per person per day, and a fee of 10 NAD (0.70 USD) per vehicle with 10 seats or less per day. Also, note you can only enter and exit the park between sunrise and sunset, and there’s some waiting time before you get let through, depending on the queue.
WHERE TO STAY IN ETOSHA?
For the best safari experience, definitely choose accommodation located inside the park. Mornings and evenings are when the animals are way more active, so you’ll want to start driving around as early as possible, which you won’t be able to do unless you’re staying in one of the camps inside. There’s 6 to choose from. The Dolomite Camp and the Onkoshi Camp are more exclusive, with luxury tents/chalets, but far away from the public self-drive routes for game viewing, so if you want to drive around yourself, they’re the two to avoid.
The three best options are Okaukuejo Camp in the west, Namutoni Camp in the east, and Halali Camp, which is located halfway between the two. They all offer a wide range of accommodation (camping sites, chalets and double rooms), and have all the facilities you may need – a petrol station, a restaurant, a pool with a bar nearby, and a shop with souvenirs, drinks, snacks and (mainly canned) food. If you’re camping and want to prepare your own meals rather than eat at a restaurant, you can, but make sure to head to a supermarket in a city nearby before you enter the park.
One of the best features all three camps have in common as well is a floodlit waterhole with a sit-down viewing area. It’s the perfect way to observe the wildlife without even having to leave the camp. I stayed at Halali and swang by its waterhole every night after the camp’s closing time. The elephants threw a show for us every single evening!
Speaking of Halali Camp, I camped there all four days and truly believe it’s the best option. It’s next to some of the most popular waterholes, smack in the middle of the park, making it easy to explore the east and the west without having to drive 3 hours one way. Not to mention the Halali restaurant had the best buffet food in my opinion, plus has the cheapest accommodation options out of the three! One night in a room or a chalet will cost you:
999-1998 NAD (70-140 USD) per person in Halali; 1332-1943 NAD (93-136 USD) per person in Namutoni; 1332-4163 NAD (93-292 USD) per person in Okaukuejo.
The newest addition to the park is Olifantsrus Camp, which offers a camping-only experience for 389 NAD (27 USD) per person per night. It’s located west of Okaukuejo and has more basic amenities such as a kiosk selling drinks and light meals, a communal kitchen and ablutions blocks. No petrol station in this one, unfortunately!
Throughout the day all camps (apart from the Dolomite and the Onkoshi camps) are open to the visitors of the national park, so you can stop for a toilet break or a warm lunch mid-safari. Oh, and the camp waterholes are accessible too!
P.S. Okaukuejo Camp is the administrative centre of Etosha, so you’ll might have to stop there on your way in/out.
HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU NEED FOR ETOSHA SAFARI?
Different people have different needs, but I’d say three to four days for a safari in Etosha National Park is perfect. It gives you enough time to check out all the busiest waterholes, some even twice, three times. Of course, you can stay longer, but by the end of day four, the people I travelled with and I were all absolutely exhausted. Driving around and stopping to observe the wildlife doesn’t sound hard on paper, but when you’re doing it all day long, day after day after day, while trying to stay concentrated to spot harder to find animals at all times, you eventually need a break.
TIPS FOR DRIVING IN ETOSHA
Etosha has bumpy, gravel roads you need to stick to at all time (no off-road driving is allowed), and while a 4×4 like a double cab Toyota Hilux isn’t officially required, I would certainly recommend it for your self drive safari. Especially for the rainy season! Not only will it prevent you from getting stuck in a ditch, but you’ll also need it for the rest of your Namibia adventures regardless. Plus, sitting up higher is a huge bonus for the safari!
Speaking of gravel roads, you’ll probably have to deal with a flat tyre sooner or later. Make sure you always have a spare one with you and get the damaged one fixed as soon as possible at your nearest petrol station. If you don’t know how to change a tyre yet, you should definitely learn before you go to Namibia.
You aren’t allowed to exit the car at any point on a safari in Etosha, so if – or should I say when – you get a flat tyre, make your way to the closest campsite or at least a designated fenced-off picnic/toilet spot to change it. Well, unless it’s impossible like in our case. One of our tyres literally exploded in the middle of nowhere, so we had to crawl out of the car and change it then and there. With a leopard nearby and lions around the corner. Fun times!
The speed limit throughout the park is 60 km/h, though you’ll want to drive even slower to be able to spot the animals. Also, keep in mind the distances are vast. When you throw all the spontaneous stops into the mix, you can quickly lose track of time and find yourself further away from where you’d like to be. Once the sunset starts approaching, make sure you don’t drive too far away from your camp, as you HAVE to be back before the gates close at sunset. Otherwise you’ll get fined (and possibly eaten by wild animals, haha). Speed limits, directions and mileages between the camps and the waterholes are indicated on painted cement blocks along the roads.
As far as the fuel goes, I’ve already mentioned there’s petrol stations in all three main camps. As are toilets, restaurants and basic convenience stores.
OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND FOR NAMIBIA SELF DRIVE SAFARI
Since you’ll be spending a lot of time in your car without a shop nearby, keep plenty of water and some snacks in the front seats of your car.
Don’t feed or disturb the wildlife. When you reach a waterhole or stop in the middle of the road to observe the animals (that’s allowed), turn the engine off and keep quiet.
Don’t pick any plants.
Flying a drone is not allowed.
No littering is allowed – obviously.
You can’t drive around at night, but you can join an organised night safari tour. Ask about it in the camp you’re staying at. Camps also do morning and evening safari tours in case you don’t want to drive around yourself. but I didn’t join any of them, so I sadly can’t report whether they’re worth it or not.
Etosha National Park is completely malaria free during the dry season, however most international health organisations do advise taking prophylaxis if you’re coming over in wetter months. There’s a very slim chance you’ll catch malaria, though. I decided not to take any and had zero health problems.
Don’t forget to bring a telephoto lens for your camera. The 18-300mm one I had was great! I never needed a larger zoom, as the animals were always close by.
Your safari kit should also include plenty of memory cards, camera batteries and possibly a set of binoculars. Check out my packing list for Namibia over HERE to see what else to pack for your Namibian adventure.
Wi-fi is available for purchase in camps, but I haven’t had much luck with it. The speed was so slow it wouldn’t even load social media.
Patience is key. Don’t drive away if a waterhole you approach is empty. Wait for a bit, and you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised quick enough.
For the best lion sightings, head over to the Okondeka waterhole. You’re welcome. 😉
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They don’t call Queenstown the adventure capital of the world for no reason. The birthplace of bungee jumping and the home of the most famous swing in the world is THE place to be for all thrill-seekers. Whether you want to take a leap of faith, brave the river rapids or scream your heart out on the Nevis Swing, you’re in for a treat. But what if you’re one of those people (like me) who break out in cold sweat just reading this? Should you skip Queenstown altogether? Definitely not. There’s so much more the city has to offer! Here’s the Sandra-approved list of things to do in Queenstown if you’re NOT an adrenaline junkie.
TAKE THE SKYLINE GONDOLA
Seeing Queenstown from Bob’s Peak is an absolute must. The view of the city and Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables in the background will take your breath away – I promise! If you feel like hiking up the hill and saving a little bit of money in the process, you totally can. It shouldn’t take you more than two hours to reach the top, but you can also simply take the Skyline Gondola. The return ticket costs 44 NZD for adults and 26 NZD for children.
Once at the top, make sure to enjoy the spectacular 220-degree panorama from the viewing platform and have a drink, buffet lunch or dinner with the best view in town at Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar. If you’re in for a thrill, you can also take a ride or two on the Luge. Don’t worry, it’s a kid-approved activity!
TRY THE BEST BURGER IN THE WORLD
Allegedly. Fergburger is an attraction in itself these days. There’s a mile-long queue winding down the road from this iconic gourmet burger joint AT ALL TIMES, so you really can’t miss it. I wasn’t planning on participating in the craze, but after the locals AND my foreign friends who had visited before told me it’s worth the wait, I gave in.
So, was it worth the wait? Hell yeah. While it wasn’t the absolute best burger I’ve ever had (Five Guys is still a winner in my eyes), it was a close second. Big, fresh and juicy. There’s about 20 burgers to choose from, ranging from those prepared with beef, lamb and cod to falafel, pork and venison. The long menu made the 20-minute wait quite convenient for this miss indecisive over here to be completely honest…
The only real downside for me is that you have to be truly lucky to be able to sit down and enjoy the meal. Unexpectedly, Fergburger is still a very small burger joint with ultra limited seating available, so your best bet is to just walk down to the nearby lake and have a picnic-style lunch/dinner.
P.S. If you have a New Zealand SIM card in your phone, you can totally avoid the infamous queue. Just call and pre-order, then skip past the queue to collect your order straight away!
BRAVE THE SHOTOVER JET
I know I said this was an adrenaline-free guide to Queenstown, but I can’t not mention Shotover Jet, a thrilling jet boat ride that takes you along the Shotover River, deep into the spectacular Shotover Canyon. Even though you think you’re going to crash into the rocks any second while you’re speeding at 90 km per hour, over water as shallow as 10 cm (while making 360° spins to top it all off), it’s so much fun! Even for the faint-hearted. I would do it over and over and over again, and that’s coming from a person who screams on the kiddie ‘roller coasters’. Ask my friends.
Shotover Jet is a great entry-level adventure combined with pristine natural beauty and a quick dive (not literal, don’t worry) into the history. Every ride is about half an hour long, during which you stop a few times to wait for the other boat to pass, and learn a bit about the place as well as the boat itself. If I’m ever coming back to Queenstown, I’m definitely going for another spin. Watch this video to see if this is something for you too – I filmed it all!
EXPLORE BOB’S COVE
Secluded Bob’s Cove is only a 15-minute drive from the centre, but feels like a world away from the lively streets of Queenstown. It’s the place where the locals go to relax, take a swim in crystal clear turquoise water, do water sports, or hike up the hill above the stunning lake beaches for a scenic lookout over Lake Wakatipu and the lush green native forest. There are several walks you can take there, the most popular being the longer Twelve Mile Delta and the shorter Bob’s Cove Track, which is the one I went for. You can read all about Bob’s Cove Track in this article.
GO BACK IN TIME IN ARROWTOWN
Arrowtown is a quaint little town 20 km out of Queenstown. With its preserved colonial buildings it almost looks like an Old Western movie set, but it’s a living historical gold mining settlement from the 19th century Otago gold rush. The main street (Buckingham Street) is now boasting with sophisticated boutiques and cafes, while across the road you can find picturesque miners’ cottages and the remains of the Chinese miners’ village a bit further down, by the gold-bearing Arrow river.
SEE THE WORLD-FAMOUS WANAKA TREE
Another place you might want to add to your list is Wanaka, a popular resort town an hour away from Queenstown. It’s the perfect getaway to Mount Aspiring National Park and its Blue Pools Track, but what made the place even more famous in the recent years is the #ThatWanakaTree, an Instagram-famous lone tree growing out of Lake Wanaka.
You might think I’m completely bonkers for driving an hour to see a tree and you might not want to do it yourself, but it’s a unique sight and if you’re a photographer yourself, I’m sure you’ll understand why it landed on my bucket-list. I just wish I caught it in better lighting, without a horde of tourists trying to do the same thing as me – I underestimated just how popular the spot really is.
The Wanaka Tree is located on the left side of the southern end of the lake, with a car parking nearby, so it’s very convenient to get to even if you’re only passing by.
Watch more of my Queenstown adventures below and click HERE to subscribe to my YouTube channel for more travel videos!
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