How does one see Namibia? Full of wildlife, massive sand dunes, and vast distances, there’s really only one way to see it all: renting a car and driving yourself. Just be prepared to drive on the lefthand side of the roads, and be ready for very little pavement!
But then, where does one stay in this developing country? You might find some resort-style lodges near the larger towns, but if you’re on a budget like we are, the best option is a campground. Even in the winter, desert temperatures are mild, and precipitation is nonexistent in such an arid climate.
As adventure types, we don’t shy away from camping when we travel, but that activity requires quite a bit of specialty equipment – extra gear we didn’t exactly want to lug all the way around the world with us. Fortunately, there’s a popular solution in Namibia to the needs of both transportation and accommodation.
Hop aboard and see what life was like spending three weeks in our 4×4 camping truck!
About the truck
First things first, let’s talk about the truck that sustained us for 20 days in the Namibian desert.
Our vehicle was like any other truck: four doors, manual transmission, diesel engine, two spare tires, two batteries, two gas tanks, and – of course – four-wheel drive. Aaron was our brave driver for the entire duration. By this point, he was quite practiced at driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and he wasn’t as preoccupied as I was with photography. I spent most of my time in the passenger seat up front… unless I was scouting for wildlife, in which case I sat like the awkward third wheel in movies: dead center in the back (seriously, no one chooses that seat – especially if they’re the only one back there!).
All our gear could be safely stowed in the bed of the truck, secured by a hard canopy with convenient locking access panels on each side. Aside from the occasional need to fill up and restock on food and water, we had all the necessary basics.
About the roads
Driving from the airport into Windhoek, proper, is misleading. The entire route is tarred roads and highways, and the city appears to be quite developed. Even driving several hours north to Etosha, we never left pavement. But once you get into the park and venture elsewhere in the country, you’ll find nothing but dirt and gravel.
We quickly learned that the letters in the road names denoted (more or less) the quality of that road. B roads are generally tarred highways; we really like these roads. C roads are usually fairly well-graded gravel roads. After enough D roads, we learned to look forward to these C roads.
And D roads? Those are the ones we dreaded… small, bumpy, and less-frequently maintained. They often traverse regular river and creek beds. Though these were all dry when we were there (July), I could see these being rather treacherous in the wet season. These are also best described as washboard roads (this is an interesting simulation on how they form), and some got so bad, we had to take breaks to combat motion sickness. We groaned whenever Google routed us to a D road.
Now, some C roads are also washboarded – particularly the more frequented ones and those with faster traffic like the route into Sossusvlei – and some D roads are better than C roads. And yes, there are E and F roads (these are usually barely paths across the desert).
Is a 4×4 necessary?
When deciding on a vehicle for Namibia, we debated back and forth on whether to get a 4×4 truck or an everyday (and far less expensive) car (or some combination of the two). Most roads are dirt that a car could handle (albeit less comfortably), and we weren’t intending to do much off-roading. In fact, we only used four-wheel drive once the entire time we were there. So was the extra expense worth it?
Yes. For a few reasons.
First, it was comforting to have the peace of mind should we get stuck anywhere. We didn’t plan to do anything so extreme as to suspect we’d run into trouble, but in a place as unpredictable as Namibia, we felt better prepared.
Next, while roads could mostly be navigated via car, they’re almost all rough gravel (see above). Four-wheel drive isn’t always necessary, but high clearance certainly came in handy on more than one occasion!
Third, we liked having the option of 4×4 for the one situation where we *really* needed it. The road to Sossusvlei was deep sand and absolutely required four-wheel drive. Being able to drive it ourselves meant we could skip the expensive and time-restrictive shuttle provided by the park.
And finally, it served not only as our transportation for our duration in Namibia; it was also our lodging. While we theoretically could have slept in a car, the tent that came with our truck was far more comfortable.
What comes with the truck?
Every company will be different, of course, but ours came fully equipped with everything we needed to live out in the bush: pots, pans, kettle, dishes, can opener (for our favorite Koo Chakalaka), propane, chairs, table, lighter, spare water, a powered refrigerator/cooler, and even a braai (grill).
We were also given essentials like an air compressor, tire gauge, axe, spade, and extension cord.
But what about the tent and sleeping bags?
These come on top of the truck! Yep! No fears of a wayward hyena coming to sniff at tasty human burritos just laying on the ground for the taking in the middle of the night. Sleep in comfort atop your truck!
The tent was surprisingly comfortable. As it’s permanently installed on the roof rack, it can afford the luxury of a real foam pad as insulation. Paired with military-grade canvas above, the inside is quite cozy.
Our truck came with two cool-weather sleeping bags, two full-sized pillows, and a couple of spare blankets should we get cold (we did a few times). This all just stayed in the tent, waiting for us for when we next stopped for the night.
How do you set up the tent?
The setup was a breeze! Far simpler than any other tent I’ve worked with. Come nightfall, we just had to remove the cover, release the tie-down straps, extend the ladder, unfold the tent, and insert the support poles. Boom!
Teardown was similarly easy, effectively doing the same in reverse (and adding some fabric tucking action as you fold the tent).
It was all quite convenient!
- The poles could be a bit tricky at times. I sometimes found it easier to insert the bottom of the pole into the frame and then bend the pole to hook the other end onto the canvas (while we mostly saw everyone doing the opposite).
- Climbing the ladder to insert the poles on the ladder side makes it far easier to do so.
- Be careful that the ladder doesn’t come apart. If the tabs that lock it into place get stuck in the up/open position, you might find you get half the ladder in your hands when trying to extend it (we did this a couple of times).
- Mind the ladder that you don’t accidentally scrape the vehicle while setting up the tent.
- Don’t try to drive the truck while the tent is deployed 🙂
- Secure the cover inside the truck or somewhere out of the elements at night. The wind often picks up a bit in the middle of the night, and having that thing slap against your tent in the pitch darkness is one of the most terrifying ways to wake up… trust us.
Renting one of these trucks is much like renting any other vehicle. However, since roads are particularly rough, you should definitely have full insurance (either already covered by your policy at home or as an add-on with the rental). And due to the strenuous conditions on the vehicle, you’ll have more paperwork to sign, promising you won’t speed (seriously, please don’t; it’s quite dangerous to do so) or go recklessly off-road.
It is customary for companies to charge a deposit on the truck. This covers incidentals like any scrapes you might acquire while driving through bushes (which you really shouldn’t do because you should stick to the roads) and a gas top-off. You could also be held liable for any accidents, flat tires, or cracked windshields (depending on your insurance coverage).
Some companies (including the one we went with) will even offer an airport pickup/drop-off service. We had an extra day on either side, so we didn’t take advantage of this, but it is useful to not need an extra rental or taxi into Windhoek (where you’re most likely to pick one of these up).
We rented our truck from Travel Namibia in Windhoek. This is a small company, owned by a husband and wife team who are incredibly nice people. They were in the process of relocating their office, so we picked up our vehicle from their residence.
When we arrived, Kato welcomed us into her home and offered us tea while we filled out the paperwork (standard liability agreements, fees for additional damage, etc.). We talked about our travels thus far, and she was fascinated with our journey. In fact, she ended up following our very sporadic social media posts of Etosha pictures while we were about and had a lot of compliments for the pictures upon our return.
She and her husband gave us some pointers on where to go within Etosha, and they insisted we call them straight away if we had any issues setting up the tent, if we broke down, or if we otherwise needed help or advice with any aspect of our excursion. We even scraped a bush one of our first days in Etosha, and I was certain they’d use that as an excuse to charge the polishing fee (any other mainstream company would have). But they looked at the paint and deemed the light scrape superficial. I felt like we were borrowing a truck from a good friend rather than renting from a business.
The truck itself really did become our home during those three weeks. It ran well and never let us down, despite the rough conditions we subjected it to. And against all odds, we didn’t get a single flat (Kato said we were the first!).
The tent was remarkably comfortable, and we looked forward to crashing each night in its cozy interior. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to live for those weeks.
We loved renting from Travel Namibia, and we happily recommend them. You can find their booking details here.
A day in the life
06:27 – wake up to the birds beginning to stir, along with some of our early-riser neighbors
06:36 – finally drag ourselves out from under the warmth of our comfy sleeping bags, apply some deodorant, throw on some extra layers, and don a hat or a buff
06:42 – Aaron pulls out the propane tank, a pot, and a couple of bowls to start heating up some breakfast: the usual chakalaka or beans poured over rice and spruced up with our all-purpose seasoning, paired with rooibos tea with honey. Meanwhile, I pack up as much of the tent as I can without his assistance
06:45 – Aaron helps pack in the excess fabric of the tent while I slowly fold it up, and we get it all strapped down and covered. Breakfast heats on the stove
06:51 – we scoop up breakfast and pack up everything else into the truck
06:54 – we take our bowls and tea cups up to the watering hole to hopefully catch some early wildlife while we eat; nothing comes
07:26 – we drive out to the camp gate to await the new day
07:28 – the gates are already open, so we’re off!
07:49 – we pull over to take some pictures of an early morning jackel
07:55 – we reach our first watering hole, where we spy a few hyenas
08:37 – we stop to photograph some wandering wildebeasts, ostriches, and the ever-present springbok
09:23 – we spot our very first lions! thanks to the help of some other stopped vehicles
09:37 – we stop to hang out with a giraffe for a little while
10:08 – we see a lone elephant off across the field
11:50 – we arrive at another watering hole and park for a bit
11:52 – a huge herd of zebras come into the watering hole, and we take loads of pictures
12:12 – another watering hole; this time, springbok and oryx
12:18 – we notice a hornbill in the trees!
12:51 – wildebeasts and zebras on the side of the road
13:10 – a new watering hole with lots of black-faced impala chasing each other around
13:21 – elephants race into the area, scattering the impala and taking over the scene
13:43 – giraffes finally have a go at the water as the elephants disperse
14:08 – we finally leave the watering hole
15:26 – we stop in at one of the campgrounds to break for lunch: some leftover rice and chakalaka
16:02 – we start to head back in the direction of our campground
16:26 – we spot another lone elephant in the distance
16:38 – we come across a single rhino nearby!
17:03 – we arrive early back at our campground, well before the gates will close at sunset at 18:30 and set up the tent
17:13 – we take a fast shower (only if it’s warm enough, as most showers are open-air)
17:39 – we heat up some quick dinner: mixing it up with some potatoes and beans with our special seasoning
17:58 – we walk over to the watering hole inside our campground for the evening show and see a herd of elephants are already there!
18:14 – a rhino also shows up on the scene
18:31 – the rhino gets a bit too close, sparking a confrontation with one of the larger elephant bulls
18:41 – a small feral cat skitters across the area surrounding the watering hole
18:48 – the elephants finally depart, leaving the rhino alone at the water
19:17 – a flock of birds invades the watering hole, raising a boisterous chorus where it was silent only moments before – a nightly occurrence
19:41 – we call it a night and return to our campsite to get ready for bed, the early sunset training us to tire much earlier in the evening
20:01 – we wind down the evening with a quick episode of anime on our iPad, at the perfect height when draped over one of the bungee supports inside the tent
20:42 – after what actually ended up being two episodes of anime, we finally turn off our solar-powered puff lantern (also conveniently hung from another bungee support) and snuggle into our sleeping bags to crash and get up early the next morning to do it all over again!
General truck tips
Stay alert while driving. Distances in Namibia are quite long, and it’s easy to zone out. Take regular breaks to take in the scenery and rest your mind for the next long haul. This could also save you from making costly mistakes that could lead to rolling the vehicle or hitting something in the road.
Watch for wildlife. There aren’t many fences to protect the roads, and you’re likely to encounter anything from springbok and warthogs to cows and goats. They can appear suddenly, so always be on the lookout.
Don’t drive at night. The abundance of wildlife is the primary reason. There are no street lights, and animals are more active at night. Besides, it isn’t much fun to drive at night (or have to set up the tent after dark). It’s much more enjoyable to spend this time stargazing, instead.
Keep your windows closed while driving through cities. Sadly, petty crime is quite common, particularly in the populated areas. Open windows are an invitation for quick grab-and-run. Even in smaller towns, many poorer citizens will take every opportunity to convince tourists to purchase their wares (usually handmade bracelets and other trinkets). It’s easier to say no with closed windows (and only open them if you’d like to actually buy something from them).
Be mindful of areas where you can get out of your vehicle. This is particularly true in Etosha National Park. With the abundance of dangerous wildlife, you should stay inside your truck at all times. Only exit in designated areas.
Resist the urge to speed. With the road conditions in Namibia, this should be a no-brainer. Washboard roads already aren’t pleasant at high speeds, and speed on gravel is a recipe for an accident (or a punctured tire). Besides, the views are worth taking in – not passing by.
If someone passes you, slow to let their dust clear. Don’t be that person who insists on being the fastest on the road (see the point above). If someone wants to pass, just let them.. and then let their dust clear. Hanging out in someone’s dust cloud reduces visibility and could increase your risk of a rock in your windshield. We seldom even encountered other drivers on the road (usually other travelers), so it wasn’t an issue to just slow down when we did.
Carry your passport. You should do this anyway. But it’s particularly important in Namibia, as you might encounter periodic checkpoints on the roads. Officers (sometimes pretty imposingly armed) might ask for your destination, identification, and if you’re transporting any produce. Some larger vehicles were even stopped and inspected, though we weren’t really subjected to this.
Know the names of the places you’ve left and where you’re going next. We were asked this everywhere we went: every new campground, park, attraction, and checkpoint. Should you go missing, there is a paper-trail log of where you’ve been and where you intended to go next – much like a through-hiking registry.
Memorize your license plate number. This goes with the above. Every campsite we checked in at asked for this, and we were caught, on more than one occasion, needing to dash quickly outside to remember the elusive digits on our license plate. It wasn’t until one of our last days that we realized our helpful rental agency were kind enough to jot this down right on the keychain.. doh!
When driving on dirt, open the canopy vent. Thats right: open the vent on the back of the truck. This sounded entirely counterintuitive to us; wouldn’t opening it let more dust in? But no! This actually breaks an otherwise vacuum situation, which would suck in dust kicked up from the rear tires. We made the mistake of forgetting to open this only once, and our things were simply covered in dust. There’s honestly no preventing dust, but this reduces the intensity.
Use four-wheel drive only when you need to. This should be very rare. We only used it once; two-wheel drive was sufficient for almost all conditions. I could see our needing this more during the wet season, but we were fine during the winter. And even if you do need it, familiarize yourself with how to engage it and which situations require which gears.
First, only switch the drive mode while the vehicle is at a complete stop. Use four-wheel low when driving very slowly (generally over very uneven and solid, boulder-road situations), and use the high gear if you’ll require more speed (like the soft-ground situations we had going to Deadvlei). Don’t push the engine too much while in these gears, or you might wear out the clutch.
Fill up as soon as you see the gauge beginning to drop below the F(ull) indicator. Our truck had two gas tanks. This meant we could fill up less frequently, but with gas stations being sparse on the desert roads, you really want to take advantage of them. Our truck burned the spare tank first, so the indicator only moved once we started using the fuel in the second/primary tank. We filled up every time we noticed the needle falling below F, which ensured we never ran out of gas.
Regularly check your tire pressure. This is important to monitor for any impending flats. If you notice the pressure declining, get it checked out (many gas stations offer tire repair service) before it becomes a more costly repair. And as desert temperatures fluctuate drastically, maintaining your tire pressure within the optimal range could protect your tires from punctures.
How much does it cost?
Fair warning: renting one of these trucks is expensive. All in, our truck cost us about N$1586 ($110 USD) per day (for two people). They’re very popular, and you will see countless others on your journey through Namibia. But it’s clear to see why. The places this truck took us, and the fact that it served as both our transportation and lodging (not including campsite fees) for the three weeks, it was well worth the cost.
Have you ever stayed in one of these trucks? Tell us all about your experience in the comments below!
We were not offered any discounts or free services by Travel Namibia in exchange for a positive review. While we later agreed to provide them some promotional materials and a mention on our blog – for which we are being compensated – we do this because we genuinely enjoyed our experience with them and would wholeheartedly recommend their services to our friends and family.
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