In a continent defined by vast, open spaces, Namibia is as grandiose as any country I've ever been. The Namib Desert is the oldest on earth and is home to the world's tallest sand dune, 700-year-old trees that still stand and, somehow, plenty of game (get used to seeing oryx).
Namibia is not for the faint-hearted, however. Distances are long and conditions can be unrelenting. We hadn't heard or read much about Namibia, so naturally decided a three-week drive through the country would suffice. It didn't disappoint.
Any trip to Namibia will likely start and end in Windhoek, the capital of the country and home to some 300,000+ Namibians. South African Airways flys from Johannesburg to Windhoek, meaning United miles can get you from New York JFK to Windhoek with one layover.
We considered Windhoek to be a "buffer" of sorts - two nights at the beginning to adjust from our transatlantic flight, one "middle" night to break up our drive, and two more before flying up to Germany.
I ended up enjoying our time in the capital, thanks largely to the Hilton Windhoek, where we used points for all five nights. It was a well-run hotel in a place I hadn't expected it, with above average food, strong WiFi and a good rooftop pool bar. The Hilton seemed to be the premier local hangout, with a couple casinos within walking distance. If you stay, you won't regret it.
There were a handful of "must-sees" for us, most of which turned out to be spectacular. First and foremost, Sossusvlei - for the natural desert beauty - and Deadvlei for the unique and picturesque atmosphere. Both of these turned as highlights for us and I recommend making these sights (even over other parts of the country). For reference, we stayed at the andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge - andBeyond has a fantastic and well-deserved reputation in Africa - and it was excellent.
Another gem is Swakopmund, which felt like a perfect mix between Germany and Africa. There were German restaurants, good beer and a European quality to the place that I have seldom seen in other parts of the continent.
Here we stayed at the Desert Breeze Lodge and had a hard time leaving the cosy, detached room complete with a fireplace and view of the sand dunes. This was one of the most memorable stays I've had to date - just make sure to book well in advance, as space runs out.
Etosha National Park was also a high priority for us and probably the most popular Namibian destination out there. This is because you are virtually guaranteed to see four of the big five - lions, leopards, rhinos and elephants - along with a wide array of other animals.
The experience felt much more "controlled" than somewhere like Botswana, for example, as a large number of vehicles could detract from the experience at any moment. We watched a pride of lions stalk two dozen zebras though, which is a win any way you put it.
One destination we did not make it to was Spitzkoppe, the eerie rock formations in between Windhoek and Etosha. We were driving through Botswana as well (more to come on that), so this was more of a timing decision than anything else.
If you plan on doing the self-drive route, be very careful with which company you work with. My advice is to stick with the "known" rental companies and steer clear of driving through national parks. As someone that followed neither of those two pieces of advice, I can't emphasis this enough.
With that said, we drove from Windhoek to Sossusvlei to Swakopmund to Etosha and had a fantastic time. Windhoek to Sossusvlei was the only non-concrete roads we experienced (gravel) in Namibia, meaning any vehicle could get to and from Etosha and Swakopmund. 4X4 is needed to Sossusvlei and (again) I'd highly recommend including this. I saw a group of motorcycles taking on the gravel roads, which is another option for those inclined.
As my readers know, I am absolutely in love with Africa and believe it offers more unique travel experiences than any other continent on earth (save for Antarctica, which I haven't seen yet). Namibia proved far different than what I had seen in a handful of other African countries, and that is always a good thing to this global wanderer.