At first glance Namibia seems like a challenge to the budget backpacker; its cities, coastal havens, burning dunes and wildlife parks are interspersed throughout a vast desert landscape, with little in the way of transport to connect them.
Couple that with the country’s remote location and a penchant for catering to the luxury safari market and it’s easy to see why a backpacker on a budget might feel discouraged. But first impressions are not always right, and if you’re prepared to think outside the box, be flexible and trust the adventure, you will find that Namibia is the wonderland of wanderlust every backpacker dreams of.
Not Everything in Namibia Can Be Found Online
In our world of instant information and endless resources we are used to researching, reading reviews, planning and pre-booking. But Namibia still has the charm of a place not yet overrun by tourists and their tourism industry has not yet catalogued, uploaded and marketed all that they offer.
An independent tour operator working seven days a week doesn’t have the time to build their Instagram following. An environmental expert in a remote desert region may not have internet access required to maintain a website.
There is more to Namibia than meets the eye of the internet, so step one is to stay open and be flexible.
Arriving into Windhoek
Your first port-of-call in Namibia will be Windhoek (pronounced “vin-took”). Overland tours coming from Botswana or South Africa will stop there, as do buses from Cape Town, and it is home to the country’s major international airport. With Namibia being a former German colony, connections between the two mean you can find flight deals with Lufthansa or Air Namibia from or via Frankfurt. Qatar have also opened the route with competitive prices. One-way tickets from major European cities start at $360 USD.
While Windhoek is Namibia’s biggest city it is predominantly a business and political district with only a handful of monuments and markets worth visiting. If you do plan a day of sightseeing in Windhoek then most things are in a small walkable area of downtown including The Zoo Park, Alte Feste (old German fort) and National Art Gallery.
Exploring the city doesn’t take more than a day. Windhoek serves more as a logistics hub from which to explore Namibia’s key attractions.
Getting Around Namibia
The best way of travelling Namibia independently and on a budget is car hire. Namibia’s cities, bays and major attractions are isolated and separated by vast arid regions. Tours will run to most attractions but will heighten the cost.
If driving is not an option Namibia does have a public transport system. You can get door-to-door bus services between the country’s two major activity hubs, Windhoek and Swakopmund, for as little as $20 USD. These buses will only go through major town hubs. Some attractions and towns that lie up to an hour outside of these hubs can often be accessed by local taxi or by joining a car pool; these are vans that wait at a central area and once full will head off to the agreed upon destination. These are less reliable and run to no time schedule.
Hostels – Your Best Resource
It’s no secret that hostels are one of the greatest resources for the budget backpacker, and this holds true for Namibia, as hostels retain all that information you weren’t able to find online. Most of Namibia’s hostels are concentrated in Windhoek and Swakopmund and most of the local tour operators, transfer drivers, car hire depots and activity companies do the bulk of their advertising through the hostel circuit. Reception staff are armed with advice, pamphlets, contacts and phone numbers of a multitude of local operators and will make the booking for you.
You can find a room in a hostel for normally under US$15 a night for one person. If you’re prepared to splash out then a decent hotel room can usually be found for around US$25.
Find hotel deals at Trivago.
The other benefit to staying in hostels is that you have the chance to meet like-minded travellers. Car hire is even cheaper when costs are shared between travellers, and this is a great way to find people willing to drive if you are unable to.
Acquiring travel friends also has the benefit of companionship and safety in numbers. Namibian roads can be rough, sometimes barely existent in the dusty desert terrain; accidents, mechanical mishaps, flat tyres and wrong turns are not uncommon. Sharing the journey with fellow travellers means any potential burdens are shared, and you have someone to laugh about it with.
Where Your Budget Can Take You
There is a lot to see and do in Namibia. It is a land made up of desert, mountains, coasts and lush parks, home to a vast array of animal species, and rich in culture and history. It hosts unique ecosystems not seen anywhere else and is one of only a handful of places in the world where the desert meets the sea.
To simplify this smorgasboard of adventure to a list seems a disservice to all that is available, so this is not one of those lists. It is however a place to start if you want to know some unique attractions that can be accessed on a budget; by car, public transport, or even a low-cost tour.
Etosha National Park
The most popular national park in Namibia hosts a vast array of animals, including four of the big five and endangered animals, such as the black rhinoceros. The good news for the budget traveller here is that it can be accessed with a regular car.
Sossusvlei is home to the iconic red sand dunes, some of the largest in the world. Being in the remote desert Sossusvlei can only be accessed by car or tour. A handful of agencies in Windhoek will run two or three-day tours that won’t impact the budget too much.
Swakopmund is the major coastal hub of Namibia and bears traces of the country’s link to Germany through its architecture and cuisine. It is considered the adventure capital of Namibia, offering everything from quad biking through the desert dunes to skydiving. Skydiving here boasts breath-taking views of desert dunes plunging into the ocean, a rare sight.
Swakopmund is a four-hour drive from Windhoek, either by car or public transport.
It is unclear whether the Skeleton Coast gets its name from the hostility of the desert coastline or the skeletal shipwrecks scattered along it, but regardless this coastline balances a unique ecosystem that breathes more life into the region than first seems. An almost ever-present fog sits out at sea and occasionally makes its way inland, enshrouding the shipwrecks in an eerie mist and bringing moisture enough to sustain plant and animal life unusual to deserts. It is also home to a seal colony at Cape Cross, hosting tens of thousands of seals.
The coast here is easily accessed by car, or local day tours run from Swakopmund.
Local operators from Swakopmund or Walvis Bay (an hour south of Swakopmund) offer 4WD tours through the mountainous desert dunes, taking you up to the peaks where you can stand and take in the rare and surreal coastline of the dunes meeting the sea.
Sandwich Harbour is situated in the Namib Nauklift National Park. To drive through it you need a permit, however driving is not recommended. To access the harbour one must drive along the beach sands as the tide is going out, and the dunes themselves are extremely high. This is best left to an expert.
A ghost town that has been lost to sands of time. Literally. This abandoned town lies half buried by sand dunes and makes for an eerie atmosphere. This is a remote town and can only be accessed by car.
Plug Yourself into the Local Network
There is more to see and do in Namibia and as always, the locals know best. The Namibian tourism industry is still small and most working within it know each other. They are ready to help you with ideas, tell you about destinations and experiences that aren’t well known, and all of them almost always ‘know a guy’.
If you find yourself stuck, want to try something different or are looking for some cost-effective ways to do things, chances are the local guides know someone you can hitch a ride with or can give you the number of a relevant contact. Before you know it your WhatsApp is full of new local friends and an endless resource of information.
If you don’t know where to start meeting local tourism experts simply book a small tour or activity. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one. The tours and activities that run out of Windhoek and Swakopmund can start as little as $40 USD and are usually small in numbers, which gives you the advantage of getting to know the guide.
Backpacking Namibia on a budget can be done. It is not easy to plan, not easy to pre-book, and is not for the faint-of-heart. It will require you to be flexible, to put yourself out there and to be open to unanticipated turns. More often than not you will need to blindly trust the adventure. And while this can be unnerving it is also a drawcard, because pushing our boundaries, meeting new people and wandering uncharted frontiers was why you and I got into backpacking, wasn’t it?
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