We were originally supposed to go to Thailand last November.
During an evening in 2017 while we were on safari in Tanzania, I asked Jim to write down his list of the 5 places he most wanted to visit and I’d write down mine. We’d use the results to inform where we would go in 2018.
We both wrote down Turkey and Thailand. Turkey we’re going to wait on until we would feel comfortable independently traveling through all the places in the country we want to visit (which is really annoying as I so very much want to be exploring Turkey RIGHT NOW). So that left Thailand. November is our preferred month to take a long trip because you can fold the Thanksgiving holiday into your days off thus stretching your days off (sorry cranberry sauce, you can’t compete) and November isn’t a bad time to visit Thailand. We talked about pairing a short (5 days or so) liveaboard in the Andaman Sea with some time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and a beach somewhere. It sounded like a plan. Until the moment I tried to start planning.
After a couple of abortive attempts to open discussions, Jim confessed he just wasn’t into it for whatever reason. I flippantly responded, “what do YOU want to do, drive around Namibia in a truck?” Jim’s eyes lit up and he said, simply, “yes.”
Cool by me! It does not take any arm twisting to get me back on safari.
Namibia had always been the next destination in Southern Africa primarily due to the company from whom we rented our truck in Tanzania, Safari Drive. They originally launched their services in Namibia and touted the incredible ease and enjoyment of self-driving there. Sadly, when we went to book with them, we discovered that their itinerary far far exceeded our budget – we always knew Tanzania was going to be expensive because the park fees are ridiculous and there is very little in the way of non-luxury lodging; Namibia, on the other hand was supposed to be easily doable by your basic yahoo eager for a little gravel road driving. Unlike Tanzania, I discovered that I could easily handle the logistics of planning a trip to Namibia, so the services of Safari Drive, while excellent, weren’t a necessity – we’ll definitely be using them again, though – we loved them.
I found myself very easily able to reserve every campsite and lodge I wanted through the magic of the internet – something absolutely unthinkable in independent-traveler-unfriendly Tanzania (don’t get me wrong, Tanzania was amazing and I will definitely be talking about it at length eventually, but it was not easy, and would have been nearly impossible without Safari Drive handling our logistics – Tanzania does not want you traveling outside the confines of an ultra-luxe outfitter, and it is set up to dissuade you at every turn from trying to). More than two months out, I had everything buttoned up, in most cases paid for, and vouchers in hand (or inbox). We had 10 camping nights and 6 lodging nights (this changed while we were out into 8 and 8 for reasons I will explain in a future post). We had a rental truck, equipped with a tent on top, a fridge in the back, and all the things we’d need for 2+ weeks on the road. It was so easy, I kept expecting to show up and have everything go wrong.
Our Namibia itinerary started us in Windhoek, the capital, and took us first south to Sossuvlei (the dunes), up the coast to Henties Bay (the seals), across to Spitzkoppe and Damaraland before heading north to Etosha National Park and from there across the Caprivi Strip, ending in Livingstone, Zambia. Ambitious, but fairly doable…if you’re a little bit crazy.
So now cost. The truck was the most expensive part of the trip, but remember that the truck was lodging as well as transportation. The cost of renting a camping-equipped 4×4 truck in Namibia is, on average, $140/day. The cost of renting a non-camping-equipped 4×4 truck in both New York and Phoenix is $80/day. If you don’t plan on camping and don’t need a camping-equipped truck, the cost of renting one in Namibia is $60/day. When we went to Kruger National Park, we tooled around in the equivalent of a Hyundai Santa Fe; for Namibia you definitely want 4-wheel drive and a high clearance. Other things to consider: Namibia drives on the left side of the road like in England and the prices above are for manual transmission trucks – you will pay a premium for automatic.
Camping was ridiculously inexpensive. Especially given how amazing the campsites were. It didn’t even really feel like camping. Everywhere had hot water showers; most places had electricity so you could plug in, for example, your fridge, and everywhere had clean flush toilets. They also had commissaries where you could buy firewood, cold drinks, and hot coffee in the morning. The average cost for a campsite was about $25. The most amazing one was at Spitzkoppe and one of the two things I would have done differently if I planned this same trip again was to spend another night there.
We stayed in 3 “hotels.” Our first night in Windhoek we stayed at a the Hilton. Something we discovered when we went to Malaysia was that after 24+ hours of travel, checking into a Western-chain hotel was a terrific luxury. You’re dirty, exhausted, tired of carrying all your crap, and really interested in a comfortable bed and an easy experience. The Hilton in Windhoek was a little over $100 – money extremely well spent. In Swakopmund, we stayed at a lovely motel – the kind you might find at any seaside community (you know, with shells as decor). We had finished two hard days of driving and wanted the security of a roof in case we had to resupply, repack the truck, re-anything. We were also about to go on a 4-night stretch of camping. I think the place cost $60. Our final night, we were in Livingstone, Zambia. Again, we needed a place where we could throw everything we weren’t taking home out, safely clean the truck, and not worry about anything – the swimming pool was also a nice touch. The hotel we stayed in was basic-plus and cost $80.
Now here’s the part you really want to pay attention to. In Etosha National Park, much like Kruger National Park in South Africa (as well as most of the other large national parks in SA) there are park lodges. These are not the 5-star affairs you see on travel shows, but they are clean, full of all the showering you could want, and insanely inexpensive compared with the fancy lodges. Also, you get to stay IN THE PARK. There are a number of lodges that cater to Etosha, but unless you’re staying in one of the park lodges, you are not staying in the park. There are two luxury options that we did not choose because, well, we’re not all that luxurious. Namibia was a little more expensive than Kruger. I made the small mistake of booking something that claimed a waterhole view, but was merely waterhole adjacent – I paid about $50 more for that and would not do so again. The regular double room for two people would have cost us $175. We did stay in the basic room the following night, which was entirely adequate, and it cost us $135. Again, being in the park is a huge bonus because you don’t have to drive to the park in the morning. You can get on the road and start game watching the second the gates open.
Finally, we stayed in 2 upscale lodges. One we intended to stay in and the other we called an audible on. Not because we didn’t like the camping, but because we were worried that our frugality was compromising our ability to experience all the things on offer. It was worth it. Both lodges, which included breakfast and dinner, cost us less than $300/night. Our average per night spend on accommodation was $100.
We cooked our own meals for the nights we camped. This is not everyone’s cuppa, I get that. We also brown-bagged our breakfasts and lunches every day we didn’t stay in one of the upscale lodges. So food costs were extremely low. Had we opted to have someone else cook dinner for us in every location where that was an option, I think it would have cost between $20 and $25 a person. The meal we ate out in Windhoek was about that. Every town, no matter how small, had a place you could get something to eat. We got a lot of fresh meat pies – I think they cost $3. Every town also either had a well-stocked supermarket or a ridiculously well-stocked gas station – I mean you could buy meat and fresh bread and produce at the gas stations.
Comparing ourselves to the other travelers we met, I would say we fell smack dab in the middle of how people were doing this kind of trip. (And remember, we only really met other people who were driving themselves, so we didn’t encounter many people who were doing this in an upmarket fashion). We could have done this far more cheaply by camping every night and changing our itinerary so we started and ended in Windhoek – we paid a hefty premium for the one-way rental. All in all, though, we spent on 17 days and 16 nights exactly what 1 week at the Sandals Nassau would cost.
We saw all kinds of people doing the same kind of trip we were: younger people, older people, people with kids. You can rent a truck that has two tents on top if you’re traveling in larger groups. This is a doable trip. An eminently doable one. And it’s not the only place you can get to on your own if you want a safari experience that doesn’t cost the same as a house down-payment. Email me, DM me, whatever me if you’re interested in taking an independent safari and don’t know where to start.