How I Planned an Amazing Safari in Namibia
I wanted to start off my case studies with one of my more recent and epic adventures, a two-week self-drive safari in Namibia. Here in Part 1, I will talk about how I decided on this particular adventure and how I started turning a vague notion into a day by day (sometimes hour by hour) travel plan. Don’t worry it’s not as daunting as it sounds! Later, I’ll also tell you how I scouted for the best deals and how I weighed the decisions I made.
So! Let’s start from the beginning. How and why did I, a random software developer living in the middle of the US, decide to go to Namibia? You know just a quick 8,000 miles or so away from home!
For me, I’m always looking to see and experience new things. I like to push my comfort zone (and indeed, I think it’s very important to do so). I’m also a huge nature and animal lover. I’ve traveled the US somewhat extensively and have also experienced a small part of what Europe has to offer (look for more posts about some of these locales soon!). I was itching to see something completely new.
I wanted epic sand dunes and elephants in their natural habitat! My dreams were to see landscapes and animals that simply didn’t exist here in the US. Not least of all, I wanted to stretch myself and challenge my personal growth by going outside my comfort zone. This was the first vague stage of a dream I mentioned earlier. Sounds great and all but this the part where my parents or friends would go “uh-huh… yeah, sure Lauren”. Side note: my parents and friends are more than supportive but I do tend to come up with some crazy ideas and
I’m not shy when it comes to talking about them! For this trip, I would be traveling with someone close in my life, Zandt. I knew I’d have to present him with a pretty detailed plan to convince him to drive off into a desert with dangerous wild animals for two weeks. So I got down to business!
Step 1: Define the Destination and Time Frame
My first step was to narrow down my list of possible destinations. From my dreaming, I knew that I wanted to go somewhere in Africa. Great! Just a whole continent to choose from! I literally knew nothing at this point.
Pro-tip: Be honest with yourself when it comes to familiarity with a destination. You need to do the right research and prep. Weather, culture, wildlife, economy – these and more are all important things you need to consider. It’s okay not to know (and to want to learn) – everyone has to start somewhere.
I started by considering our time frame. To have the vacation time we needed from our jobs, I knew I was looking at something around September. Note, this was probably about July when I started planning. I started googling really basic stuff like “temperatures in South Africa for September” and “where to safari in September”. You see, I am not a fan of extreme heat or cold (diva, I know). I also wanted to make sure to visit a destination where wildlife viewing would be good at that time of year.
I also started reviewing travel advisories. The US government maintains a list of countries and their calculated safety levels for travelers. The US government lists can be found here. It is up to you to ask yourself what level of safety makes you comfortable. As neither Zandt nor I had been to Africa before and did not have friends or family there, we were looking for somewhere with a reputation for being safe, welcoming, and politically stable. It was important to me to not let my own comfort zone govern my decisions entirely. I spent quite a while googling different safari areas, reading blogs and watching videos from other travelers, and pursing sites like the government travel advisories site to make sure I made a well-informed decision.
My final consideration was around the activities and type of trip I wanted to design. I’ve mentioned how wildlife viewing was important to me. Another thing that was important was having control of our trip. This meant we decided where to go, what to do, and when to do it. A lot of people who travel abroad enjoy traveling with a group, travel agent, or some other form of tour. They follow a set schedule and let someone else handle the logistics. That’s totally fine! But from experience (see my post about Iceland) Zandt and I knew we really enjoyed self-driving vacations.
Self-driving means we would not go to just one city or area but visit multiple. We would be in charge of our own transportation, accommodation, and daily schedule. For us, this enhances the true “be there, experience it” type attitude, and allows for maximum flexibility. If we wanted to camp one night or changed our mind about what we wanted to see one day – no problem! This preference let me narrow my googling (see a pattern here?) down a little to: “best self-drive safari experiences”
After a lot of research on all the above, it came down to a few destinations. Namibia checked all our boxes. There were some really compelling blogs and vlogs out there showing Namibia’s wild beauty, its welcoming culture, and amazing animal adventures. Safety was not an issue and it was off the grid. Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries which helped with our desire to immerse ourselves in nature. I excitedly announced to everyone Namibia it was!
Step 2: Define a Loose Itinerary
I hate the word itinerary – I can never ever spell it on the first try! But nevertheless, the idea it represents is important and a key part of how I plan any trip, especially one like a safari. As I’ve mentioned, I generally like to have a few stops built into any trip I take. Unless you’re independently wealthy (we can all dream right) your time at a destination is limited. Knowing this, I try to find a sweet spot between visiting a few unique places so I can experience as much of a place as possible and visiting too many, making myself feel stretched thin and not really getting to take anything in before moving along.
Knowing this I asked myself what I wanted to experience in Namibia. Obviously, wildlife viewing was top on my list. I also knew Zandt and I both wanted to experience the massive sand dunes in the more mid to southern regions. So, I returned back to some of the blogs and vlogs I had found in my earlier research. I noticed a few destinations were really popular when Namibia came up. These included Windhoek (the capital), Etosha National Park, the Skeleton Coast (come on, tell me that name isn’t epic), Sossusvlei, and Fish River Canyon. It seemed that many travelers who had the time would drive a circuit of these major destinations. I was excited to see this – it was perfect for the type of adventure I wanted!
Pro-tip: Learn from those who have gone before you. In this digital age, you can find vlogs and blogs about almost destination. These show like-minded people doing things you are interested in doing. Use research to help you shape your own itinerary.
I started sketching out our trip under these guidelines. I knew we would have about two weeks. We’d be flying into Windhoek which put us in the center of the country and near the center of the popular driving route. I started researching driving times between these major destinations and thinking about how long we might want to spend at each. Etosha is to the north of Windhoek and at the top of this popular circuit. Etosha was our best chance at wildlife viewing, being a large national park, and very popular for safaris. I decided that since wildlife was my very very top priority and because Etosha was extensive – I wanted to spend a whole week there. This was a big decision. That was half our time and only one of a handful of popular destinations. However, it was what was most important to us.
After deciding on Etosha from Windhoek, I started tracing the rest of the circuit popular among travelers to Namibia. I was disappointed to find we didn’t have enough time! Many of these destinations were 6 to 8 hours apart on rough roads and driving at night was discouraged. Using google maps and other travelers’ stories I knew the time just didn’t add up. We were going to have to cut out a few things to make sure we spent quality time at the ones we could get to. I spent some time googling each destination in its own right. The Skeleton Coast where the ocean meets the desert sand, Sossusvlei where dead trees reach up against stark red sand and blue sky (you’d probably recognize this region from photos) and so on. Something had to go 🙁
After a lot of consideration, I decided we would have to miss out on Fish River Canyon this trip. A lot of this decision was based on practicalities. We had decided to move counter-clockwise around the circuit so that Etosha was our first stop. I couldn’t be bothered to wait a second longer than necessary to see elephants, giraffes, and lions! This made Fish River Canyon the last and most southern stop before returning to Windhoek to fly home.
To get from Etosha to Sossusvlei where we could experience the massive dunes (which was a priority for us) we would have to travel North to South down the coast anyway. It just made sense to experience the Skeleton Coast and the popular city of Swakopmund on the way. When I added up all the time on that circuit – Windhoek, Etosha, Swakopmund by way of the Skeleton Coast, and on to Sossusvlei we just didn’t have time for another stop at the end. It was hard to cut Fish River Canyon out. In the end, however, I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks or be unreasonable with our time.
Pro-tip: Don’t overestimate your time. If you really want to experience a place allow yourself a realistic time to be there. If you are driving or partaking in activities build in some allowance – you never know when you might get lost, distracted by another must see pit stop, or something else. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you run out of time and miss a tour, a flight, or a meal!
At this point, I had solved some of the questions that stood between myself and making my safari dreams a reality. I had picked a destination, Namibia. I had come up with a realistic, albeit loose, schedule. Next, I needed to iron out some logistics – how would we even get to Namibia, where would we stay, what would we drive, were there any particular activities we wanted to do in each destination?
Not every traveler likes to plan the minutia and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are spontaneous and go with the flow types! I personally find comfort in details and some things can’t be left unaccounted for (like flights to your destination). In my next blog post, (out now! read here) I’ll outline how I addressed these questions for my Namibia adventure!