Okonjima, which makes for a great stop in between Windhoek and Etosha, is home to many animals. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Clients can self-drive Etosha National Park, which features well-marked watering holes where animals congregate. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
I’m generally a calm person, but as I plugged in the locations of my Namibia self-drive itinerary into Google Maps, I started to feel more than a touch anxious.
I frantically emailed my liaison for the trip: “So ... Can I have a guide join me on the drive?”
“No,” he said. “Plus, the distance you’re driving is comparable to the mileage from Los Angeles to San Francisco.”
His attempt at reassurance made me feel even less prepared. I’ve never tackled that California route on my own — despite the fact that it’s in my home state and includes the comforts of Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls and free-flowing cellular data for supporting my bad habit of blindly following Google Maps.
There was also the fact that I had never been to Namibia before — or Africa in general, for that matter. What if an elephant charged at me?
Was I totally insane? My parents, who I strategically told about my plans only a few days before my departure, definitely thought so.
But mainly I was seduced by the promise of Namibia, of the great, open road — one that was “less traveled” than most other places in the world. In fact, Namibia’s population is less than 2.5-million people — a small city’s worth scattered under a bright, open sky. The country’s animals and landscapes — which include salt pans and sand dunes — are among the world’s least exploited, thanks to the country’s highly regarded conservation efforts.
Plus I had just read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” so I was especially motivated to tackle an adventure on my own. Reminding myself of this independent-woman fantasy (and the potential to blast Beyonce while zooming past lions), I headed toward the great unknown.
When I landed in Namibia in November’s dry, 90-degree heat, a Christmas carol in German was playing over the airport’s intercom. While I wouldn’t say the song soothed me, it immediately eliminated all sense of foreboding.
Namibia’s German presence can be felt throughout the country, which was once colonized by Germans and is still home to many German Namibians. That meant many of my favorite things about Germany were present in Namibia, from lagers made under strict purity codes to (forgive me for stereotyping) immaculate organization and planning. Part of this is because the tourist industry is mostly run by German Namibians, but also because Germans are Namibia’s No. 1 tourists after South Africans.
Namibia’s European influence is just one reason the country is a good stepping stone into Africa.
“It’s a great Africa for beginners,” said Garry Roberts, general manager of Onguma Tented Camp. “It’s a safe, stable country; the exchange rate is pretty weak; it’s a good value; and it’s not exploited. Namibia is conservative about growth, but it’s also seeing that tourism is a great market.”
Plus, of course, a self-drive is pretty easy to pull off, so long as one doesn’t speed, follows the signs and avoids driving at night. According to the “Namibia Tourist Exit Survey 2012 - 2013 Survey Report,” 44 percent of American travelers to Namibia rent their own car, and most, like I did, take the perfectly paved B1 road from Windhoek to Etosha National Park, sometimes stopping along the way at Okonjima, home of the AfriCat Foundation.
Though I was following a FIT itinerary without an escort, Carsten von Lüttwitz, marketing manager of Pack Safari, greeted me at the airport. He walked me through the rental process, assisted me in procuring a mobile phone and plugged in the coordinates of my itinerary into a GPS while I got my bearings. It’s important to note that these were all things I specifically asked for — typically the locally-owned tour operator works with German travelers, who are a bit more “hearty,” not to mention accustomed to driving on the left side of the road. (Namibians were often shocked that I was driving solo since many believe Americans are “nervous” travelers.)
Admittedly reflecting the U.S. stereotype, I let von Lüttwitz lead me out of the airport and through the capital of Windhoek which, in passing, looked like a clean German version of Palm Springs, Calif. And then I was on my own — sort of. The paper itinerary that Pack Safari had given me contained essential daily details, such as descriptions on what I would be seeing, the number of miles I would cover, where I was staying, an emergency phone number and the location of gas stations on my route (not to be ignored in this scarcely populated country).
In my huge 4x4, I became overwhelmed with emotion almost immediately. Not because I was scared to be driving solo, but because I could finally take a deep breath. Imagine a child’s crayon drawing of sky, mountains, trees and animals. Then pretend that you could take a magic wand to that illustration, and its perfectly simple and colorful world came to life.
It was just as amazing to immerse myself in land not being used for anything at all — just existing — as it was to observe giraffes and elephants at my leisure in Etosha. The country just makes you a bit sentimental.
“You can drive two hours and not see another soul, building or anything,” Roberts said. “Where in the world can you do that these days? Even when I drive to Windhoek, there’s a certain part of the road where I get tears in my eyes: You almost see the horizon bending — there’s so much open space.”