In June/July 2015 I had the opportunity to visit Namibia. My parents decided to go on a three-week vacation in the southern African country, and I was fortunate enough that they invited my brother and me to tag along. They had been talked up on Namibia by some of their neighbours who go there regularly, and having previously lived in a different region of Africa and seen some stunning photography from Namibia, I was immediately sold. In this series of articles I will describe our preparations and planning and report our experiences as we travelled through different parts of the country, complete with loads of pictures, of course. This first post will deal with general preparations (booking, medical, immigration etc.), the second article will be all about photographic gear, and from the third post on I will take you along on our journey through what can only be described as a photographer’s paradise.
These are the parts already published:
Route planning, time and booking
After we had decided on the length of our trip (3 weeks) we needed to find a time period. The Namibian dry season lasts roughly from mid-April to late October. Taking this into consideration is vital for the observation of wildlife, as in the wet and early dry season vegetation is so thick that animals are difficult to spot and areas of open water are comparatively plentiful. Only from early June vegetation starts to thin out enough and animals are drawn to the few remaining waterholes, which makes observing and photographing them much easier. The ideal time is early September, but we decided to go from late June to mid-July in order to anticipate the German and South African school holidays which see a marked spiked in tourism and thus crowds.
We decided to take a route that would lead us north from Windhoek to the eastern part of Etosha, then westwards through central and eastern Etosha, south through Damaraland to the coast and Swakopmund, and finally to the Namib desert and Naukluft mountains and back to Windhoek. I certainly would have liked to see Lüderitz with its famous and extremely photogenic ghost town Kolmanskop, the Fish River Canyon or the Caprivi strip, but Namibia is a rather vast country (roughly twice the size of Germany) and travelling is always more enjoyable when you have time to actually explore and properly experience the places you are in instead of just rushing through.
Usually when travelling a longer distance on a student budget I book the first hostel in advance, then just use the cheapest public transport to hop from destination to destination, using other traveller’s suggestions to find accommodation along the way. Try that approach in Namibia and you will fail miserably. Namibia is not a backpacker’s country, there are no cheap hostels abound and food may be more affordable than in most European countries but nothing like South-East Asia or Latin America. The cheapest way to travel the country may be by renting a car with a rooftop tent, but even that will be rather pricey. And with the tourism industry growing, the most popular places are often booked out far in advance. Consequently, we followed a two-pronged approach by doing our own research and producing a rough itinerary with some lodges specified, then relaying this to a trusted travel agency (Nova Reisen, Munich) whose expertise we had enlisted in the past and who have some first hand experience of the country, for route refinement and booking. About two weeks before our departure they sent us a funny little parcel that contained a booklet detailing our itinerary, accommodation vouchers, some crafted key rings and leather baggage tags, biltong (South African dried beef jerky), a bottle of Windhoek Lager and Savannah Cider each, and a couple more goodies.
That one was easy. German passport holders do not require a visa to enter Namibia for tourism. You simply turn up at the border with a valid passport, there, done.
Unlike many other African countries Namibia does not generally require visitors to be vaccinated against Yellow fever, you will only need the vaccination if you are arriving from a country that is considered a risk area. Other than that we just made sure our usual vaccinations were up to date (MMR, polio etc.). Unless you plan to stay for an extended time you will not require special vaccinations such as rabies. Our GP offered us the choice of getting a shot against typhoid, but we decided against it.
For many first time travellers to Africa malaria is a very big deal. The best way to prevent the disease is to not being bitten by mosquitos, so use repellents, wear long clothes where possible, sleep under a proper impregnated net and so on. There are two medical routes (prophylaxis vs. standby) which I will not go into detail here for the simple reason that in the dry season Namibia is virtually free of Malaria except for in the Caprivi strip. All sorts of sources (FCO, German Foreign Office, NHS etc.) have you believe that the entire north of the country is a medium to high risk area, but once you are there lodge owners, government staff etc. will inform you that the issue is blown out of proportion. We took some mosquito repellent along and two packs of Malarone as a standby, but there were no issues whatsoever and we did not get bitten by any mosquitoes even though we hardly used our repellents.
Other than that we packed the usual travel medication and I threw my first-aid kit in the backpack just to be safe. We did not use a single medical item, be it medications or band aids, throughout the entire vacation, but better safe than sorry. Overall Namibia really is ‘Africa light’. You can eat all the food in the better lodges (including fruit and fresh lettuce) without having to fear intestinal problems, in most lodges you can even drink the tap water. The private arm of the medical system is not on the same level as in Europe but certainly much above Ghana, Kenya or similar Safari destinations. You should, however, make sure to have appropriate travel health insurance including repatriation.
The country’s currency is the Namibian Dollar which as of 14th August 2015 stands at 14.29:1 against the Euro, 20:1 against the British Pound and 12.81:1 against the US Dollar. The South African Rand is also widely accepted and pegged against the Namibian Dollar at 1:1. There are several ways of how to handle your monetary issues when abroad (bring everything in cash, try to use credit cards exclusively, use traveller’s cheques etc.) but we have a tried and tested method that we use everywhere around the world. When I set off to live and work in Ghana for a year my father and I together opened a bank account with Deutsche Kreditbank (DKB), a German online bank. The perks of this account are 1) it is free of charge and, more importantly, 2) it allows you to withdraw money at any VISA ATM in the world free of charge. Even if the local bank decides to charge you, you simply collect a receipt, send it in to DKB later and get reimbursed. DKB gives you the official exchange rate, so there really is no catch. This account has been a tremendous help in all my travels since wherever I go, I do not need to worry about money. Iceland, Spain, Ghana, Australia, Malaysia – I get my bucks. I am not payed by DKB, by the way, I just really like this account.
So my father and I shovelled some money from our account onto our two credit cards and were set. To be on the safe side we also ordered some Namibian Dollars from a local bank just in case we would need some money right at the airport and could not find an ATM.
Overall this arrangement worked great throughout our travels. We made sure we always stocked up on cash before we came close to running low, as with a country as sparsely populated as Namibia you cannot expect an ATM in every village corner (and there are no ATMs in or near Etosha!), and also frequently used a different credit card to pay directly. Credit card acceptance in Namibia is intermittent, with a few modern petrol stations accepting them but most not, some upper class restaurant doing so but most not, and so on. Most lodges allow you to settle your bill by credit card too.
That’s about it in terms of preparations. The next post will deal with preparations specific to photography like which gear to take. Naturally I could not cover every single detail, so if you think I left out something important or have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.