I completed a wonderful trip to Namibia in June 2022 with my wife and a small group of friends. While planning this trip, I read other Namibia photography blogs and watched several YouTube videos in an effort to get ahead of the game. Now that I’ve completed the trip, I realize that much of the advice found on the Internet was either wrong, incomplete, or misleading. My intent here is to share what I learned during my trip for future travelers.
- Introduction. Namibia is the second least populated country in the world, second only to Mongolia. Yet, geographically it’s huge, so driving from one place of interest to another typically takes 5-6 hours every time you want to reposition to a new location. You may drive for hours without seeing another car. This means you have to plan the geography of you trip very carefully. If your idea is merely to “kick around,” it’s likely you will miss many of the best features of the country. Hence, detailed planning is a must.
- Priority: Before you go, make sure you understand what your priorities are for the trip. Are you going for the rhinos and other wildlife? Are you going for the epic, unique scenery? Are you going to photograph iconic Deadvlei?
Frankly, this is the one bit of planning that, in retrospect, I could have done better.
I had been anticipating this Namibia trip for about seven years— specifically to get that long-sought photo at Deadvlei. My trip was delayed a couple of years for work, then delayed another 2.5 years because of COVID. What I should have done is to plan the trip to hit Deadvlei first on my itinerary, to make sure I had that shot “in the can” before proceeding with the rest of my trip. And I should have scheduled three days in Deadvlei to make sure I got it.
Unfortunately, the Sossus Dune Lodge (really the best and only choice for lodging near Deadvlei) was fully booked up at the start of my trip, and rather than changing my travel dates around to ensure I hit Deadvlei first, I simply moved Deadvlei to the end of my itinerary when Sossus Dune Lodge would be available. That turned out to be a mistake.
As it happened, Sossus experienced the first overcast skies and rain in over a year during the only two days we were there, cutting my visit to Deadvlei short. Except for brief moments where clouds parted, I was left with gray and lifeless skies, which means I had to make exceptional use of the few seconds of fleeting light before the skies became fully overcast again. Eventually, a downpour forced us to flee. Further, the temperature was unusually cold, hovering just above freezing (and the Sossus Dune Lodge is not heated). More on that later.
The outcome is that I got everything else I wanted to get from this trip except for the gold ring—that iconic photo of Deadvlei. The only upside is that the unusual rains on the dunes did present us with some rare desert rainbows which were easily photographed. It’s easy to say, “well then, you obviously have to come back.” But I’m not sure I will be able to, and the time and expense needed to do so could have been avoided if I did the planning a little bit better.
(Deadvlei at Night)
- Guides: When I was just starting out in photography, I would sometimes try to self-guide on location using handbooks, internet articles, and the like. I would often spend hours trying to find a shoot location that the locals could have taken me to in minutes. My “hit rate” in those days wasn’t good—I would often run out of time before I got what I came to get. Having learned this lesson the hard way, I now always use a local guide who is familiar with the locations I want to shoot. Doing so maximizes the time and dollar investment of my trip.
Self-driving tours of Namibia seem to be all the rage, but spending a bunch of money to travel to Africa then skimping on a guide is unwise. I can’t count the number of times during this trip that our guide spotted something amazing, allowing us to stop and capitalize on the discovery, while the oblivious self-drivers zoomed on by. A good guide who specializes in Namibia is money well spent.
On this trip, I used Alexander Rostocil of http://www.photo-safari-africa.com/ who was superb. Put simply, any time I return to Africa, it will be with Alex as a guide.
- When to go. We scheduled our trip for June for two reasons: (a) since Namibia is below the equator, June is the beginning of winter so temperatures are moderate, and (b) June also the beginning of the dry season. In the dry season, wildlife gathers at the waterholes, so it’s far easier to find and photograph them.
(Namibia is south of the Equator. Way south.)
- Weather. Based on climate reports and other travelers’ advice, I advised my friends to pack clothing in layers, planning for a temperature range from the low 40s F (4C) to about 80F (27C). It turns out that during our trip Sossusvlei was unusually cold, with the temperature in the low 30s F (1C) for the two days we were there. That means that people who followed my advice were chilly for those two days, since we didn’t pack for temps in the 30s.
Amusingly, some in my group decided “Africa is hot” and didn’t follow my advice at all. They ended up being very cold and miserable. So what I learned is that for a winter trip to Namibia, you should pack clothing with the expectation that temperatures will range anywhere between freezing and 80F (27C).
As for cloud cover, we didn’t see a single cloud throughout our trip until we arrived at Sossusvlei, where it became overcast and rainy. Seven years of planning down the drain. But hey—This is Africa (see below).
(Close encounter with White Rhino)
- The Wildlife: During this trip we saw much of the same game you would see in East Africa, but we also saw things you are unlikely to see in other places, to include black and white rhino and desert elephants.
Of course, we also saw a great number of springbok, kuku, oryx, dik-dik, many giraffe, antelope, many herds of zebra, wildebeest, leopards, a couple of lions, and a few cheetah. In short, we saw significantly more and more varied game than I expected.
- Getting there: Windhoek (pronounced “vind-hook”) is the nation’s capital, yet its airport is very small, smaller even than a minor US airport. Getting through passport control and customs is very quick. From the US, it’s quickest to fly into Johannesburg (JNB) South Africa, then catch a short hop from JNB to Windhoek (WDH). For the JNB-WND leg, we used the South African carrier AirLink, which was terrific. In my case, after the long-haul from the US to JNB, we spent a night at the Protea Hotel near the JNB airport before continuing on to WDH. We also stayed overnight in JHB before boarding our return flight to the US, but in retrospect it would have been fine to skip that hotel stay and simply connect to our US flight on the way home.
- COVID: As of this writing, neither South Africa nor Namibia require COVID testing for entry. While we were in Namibia, the US suspended its testing requirement as well. All of those nations require proof of COVID vaccine for entry. South Africa elected to require proof of vaccine by means of a Digital QR code rather than US CDC shot card, because the CDC card is too easily forged. Some pharmacies provide a method by which a QR code can be generated as proof of vaccination, but in my case, I am a member of the Clear security program (https://clearme.com) and their app provides a method by which you can produce a QR code to verify vaccine status.
- Visas: are not required for American citizens staying in Namibia for less than 90 days.
- Cellular circuits, WiFi, and mobile data: Quite an adventure here. In most areas of Namibia there is no cell signal at all, so before I left the US I rented a satellite phone for emergencies, and happily never had to use it.
In areas where there is a cell signal, it’s often the 20-year-old Edge data protocol, which means you won’t be able to download internet data and may not even be able to send/receive text messages.
In some populated areas you may find a 3G network signal, and only in very small areas of the cities (Windhoek and Swakopmund) will you find a LTE network.
Many of the lodges will have free WiFi or will sell you a WiFi card, but it’s generally too slow to be useful. The only thing you will probably be able to do with it is send and receive texts and emails.
When arriving at Windhoek airport, I purchased a phone SIM card using the Namibian MTS network. My US cellular service is with AT&T, which charges about $10/day for their international plan. In contrast, using an MTS SIM card costs about $16 for 2 weeks of unlimited data, which seemed attractive. However, using the MTS SIM card is sporty. You will have to repeatedly type in long (16 digit) numbers to activate it, then periodically reload the minutes using a special ATM where you will have to reenter long codes into your phone.
Then, after about 7 days of using this MTS SIM card, my iPhone 12 refused to connect to the MTS network. Despite reloading and attempting to troubleshoot, the SIM card became useless for anything except phone calls. So I decided to abandon the MTS SIM card and revert back to AT&T’s international plan for data, to no avail. I spent a great deal of time on the phone with AT&T trying to resolve this so I could get weather & flight updates, etc, but nothing worked. So except when we were at lodges that had wifi, I had no mobile data at all for the rest of my trip.
When we flew out of Namibia at the end of our trip and landed in South Africa, magically everything worked again. So the problem seems to have been the Namibian cell network. Again, this is Africa. (See below.)
There is an old Navy saying: “Two is one and one is none,” meaning a critical item will always break, so if you started with two of something, expect to get by with one, and if you start out with one, you will end up with none.
Your vehicle is one such critical item. If you are traveling with more than one couple, it’s best to take two vehicles rather than piling into one, so you can self-rescue if necessary when one of those vehicles breaks down, which it invariably will.
Sure enough, during our trip we rescued two separate groups of “self-drivers,” both of which had their vehicles break down in areas without cell coverage. (One of these travelers was the ambassador to Namibia from Brazil.) None had satellite phones. I don’t know what any of them would have done had we not chanced by them, since, as I indicated above, you can go for hours without seeing another car. For these rescues, all we could really do is bring them to areas where they could call for help. Each of them lost two days or more from their trip due to these mishaps.
- Self-driving tours. Renting or hiring a car in Namibia and driving yourself around the country is an appealing and popular way to get around because it’s cheap. Hence, the Namibia self-driving crowd is a bit like a swarm of mosquitoes— there are a lot of them, and they often act like pervasive pests.
(Two is one, and one is none.)
Since they don’t know what they are doing, or often where they are going, they ruin scenes, scare away wildlife, forget to shut off engines when not moving, and fail to train themselves on proper bush etiquette prior to traveling. I don’t recommend self-driving for the following reasons:
– First, you can expect to break down. If you do, there goes your vacation and likely any money you thought you would save by driving yourself.
– Second, you don’t really know what you are looking for. I hired a guide, and there were countless times that guide knew where to go and what to do to see the game we were looking for. We usually saw the oblivious self-driving folks zoom right on by, missing the entire experience. But hey— money saved, right?
– Third, most self-drivers don’t bother to teach themselves the proper protocol for field observation of animals. When they do encounter animals at water holes and such, they behave in ways that scare the animals off, or sit there idling their engines, ruining the experience for those who do follow protocols.
– Fourth, Namibia has the highest percentage of fatal motor vehicle accidents per capita in the world, perhaps because the country is filled with self-drivers who don’t really know how to drive on the left side of the road doing things they shouldn’t be doing, driving long distances too fast on poorly constructed dirt roads with animals running across the road, etc.—a recipe for disaster.
– Fifth, the washboard dirt and sand roads are too much for the average leased vehicle to handle, and the self-drivers often get in over their heads and get stuck doing things that really require a proper off-road vehicle with reasonable body clearance to get over obstacles.
Bottom line: it’s best to hire a professional guide who knows what he is doing and who utilizes a vehicle built for Namibian roads.
- Currency: 1 Namibian dollar is equivalent 1 South African Rand, and both currencies are accepted in Namibia. As of our stay, the exchange rate was about $13 Namibian Dollars (NAD) per $1 USD. Since the South African Rand is much easier to exchange for USD, it’s best to withdraw and use Rand rather than NAD while in country, so if you have any Rand left over after your trip, you have a reasonable chance of exchanging them for USD when you leave the country.
- Clothing: I recommend packing three sets of drip-dry clothes. Many lodges do same-day cleaning (and where available it’s very cheap), yet we were surprised when one lodge suspended laundry services because of the drought, so we had to hand wash clothing there. Jeans and other cotton clothing are bad for a host of reasons, not the least of which is it will not keep you warm and, once wet (or if you have to wash it), they take days to dry. And as indicated above, the temperatures in Namibia were colder than expected, getting down to 35F in some areas, and up to 90F in others, so layering is vitally important. I brought shorts but only used them a couple of times. I brought a swimsuit, but the pools were not heated and the water very cold, so it was never used.
- Shoes: Despite what you might have heard, hiking boots are generally not needed in Namibia, even if you intend to climb the dunes of Sossusvlei. I packed two sets of walking shoes, but in retrospect only needed one.
- Power converters and car inverter. I brought a power inverter for the car thinking I’d need to charge camera and phone batteries enroute between stops. As it turned out, as described below, I never needed to do this. Hence, I could have left the car inverter at home.
As far as power voltages and plugs, Namibia is still trying to find its way. Although power is consistently 240 volts 50 Hz, the kind of plug adapters needed to connect to the grid varied from lodge to lodge, some having the European Type E plug type:
others the Type D plug type:
still others the Type M plug type:
You will need all three. In retrospect the only thing I didn’t bring enough of was the plug adapters—if I had lost my Type M adapter I would have been out of luck for much of my trip. I brought this and it worked well.
- Lodging: There are two general classes of lodges in Namibia: private lodges and those run by the Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) governmental organization. Some of the NWR lodges are quite nice (Dolomite), but others leave much to be desired, such that staying in a Motel 6 would have been a substantial upgrade. Okauakuejo is in the latter category, but the waterhole located there is perhaps the only place where you can see black rhino up close, so people put up with the somewhat smelly lodges for that opportunity. The two best camps we stayed at were both private: Onguma “The Fort,” and Camp Kipwe, both of which are 5-star quality.
- Vehicles: 4-wheel drive is a must. There were enough people in my group that we elected to hire (rent) two vehicles. Remember that old Navy saying that “two is one and one is none.” In a crisis we could have piled everyone into one of the vehicles to get out of trouble. Plan on getting at least one (and perhaps more) flat tires during your trip. The purpose-built Toyota Landcruisers come equipped with 2 spares for that reason.
- Roads: Most of the roads in Namibia are dirt, both because they are economical and because the conservationists don’t like what asphalt does to wilderness areas. Some of the roads are like riding on a washboard and will rattle your fillings loose, while others are very good. Further, many of the dirt roads are sand-covered, meaning that unless you have 4-wheel drive you are likely to get stuck. And since there is very little traffic and huge areas with no cell signal, you may find yourself there for a long time.
- Packing: since we didn’t take any small planes and weren’t significantly weight restricted for our luggage, I elected to pack my camera gear in a Pelican Air hard case with TSA locks. My fear was that if I used a large camera backpack to carry my photo gear, the airline might reject it as being too large to carry aboard the flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek and force me to gate-check it. Knowing how gate-checked bags get thrown around by airline handlers, I would only be willing to gate check a locked Pelican case.
As it turned out, a large camera backpack would probably have been OK as a carry-on for the JHB-WDH flight. Nevertheless, I used the Pelican case, and then carried a small camera backpack (empty when my camera gear was in the Pelican case). When we arrived in-country, I simply transferred the camera gear I would use that day from the pelican case to the small backpack. This worked well.
I brought my laptop in a briefcase, along with other must-haves for travel.
My tripod, monopod, tools, and clothing were in a rolling duffel which I checked.
- Tripods and camera mounts: Because I intended to shoot both wildlife and landscape, I brought both a monopod for game drives and a medium-weight tripod for landscapes. I used both heavily. I also brought a beanbag for game drive vehicles but that was never used. The monopod was especially useful in game drive vehicles for long lenses. Looking back, rather than bringing a beanbag or the monopod, I could have gotten away with a length of split pipe insulation to fit over lowered glass windows of our vehicle. It’s lighter and less bulky than a beanbag and allows you to rest your lens on the vehicle’s window, saving you from packing either a beanbag or a monopod. Also, if landscapes weren’t my primary objective of this trip, I could have gotten away with a smaller travel tripod. But landscapes were my primary objective so I didn’t mind hauling around my medium Really Right Stuff tripod and Arca Swiss head.
- Cameras. I did not skimp, knowing that I might never again get back to Namibia. Hence, I packed my full standard kit:
- Nikon Z9 as primary body
- Nikon Z7 ii as secondary body
- Nikon 14-24 f/2.8S (Z-mount)
- Nikon 24-70 f/2.8S (Z-mount)
- Nikon 70-200 f/2.8S (Z-mount)
- Nikon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6S (Z-mount)
- Nikon 1.4S (Z-mount) Teleconverter
The teleconverter was used on the 100-400 in many places and would also have served to double the range of the 70-200 should my 100-400 have failed.
The Z9 performed nearly flawlessly. Its animal autofocus detect was nearly perfect, once I learned the best techniques to use it. The only surprised was that the Z9 sensor exhibits substantially more color noise at higher ISOs than the Z7 ii, but that was easily corrected in post. With the Z7 ii I almost never have to correct for color noise, and with the Z9, I almost always had to.
I tried to bring Nikon’s new 400mm f/2.8S for the trip, but it was released too late for me to rent one, hence I had to go with the 100-400, which performed shockingly well, much better than expected.
I used a Cotton Carrier dual harness to carry the cameras.
For wildlife, I had the 100-400 with the 1.4TC mounted on the Z9 most of the time, and the 70-200 mounted on the Z7 ii. That way if I needed a faster lens than the 100-400, I had the 70-200 ready to go. For landscapes, I put away the 100-400 and used the 24-70 mounted on the Z9, with the 70-200 remaining on the Z7 ii. This way I never had to swap lenses in the field—important since Namibia is so dusty. I only used the 14-24 a few times for stars, and although it’s brilliant for that purpose (better even than Nikon’s legacy 14-24 f/2.8G), I probably could have left it home.
- Camera batteries. I brought a spare battery for my Z9 thinking would burn through two batteries in a day. In fact, the Z9 battery never got below a 30% charge in any given day. My normal routine would be to charge the used battery at night and rotate to the spare for the next day. I did burn through a single Z7 ii battery one day. I packed four Z7 spare batteries but in retrospect only needed to bring one.
- Memory Cards. I brought four 325 GB CFExpress cards for my Z9, two loaded in camera and two for spares. I left the primary in-camera card for photos and the secondary card for videos. I took a total of 3614 photos during the 14-day trip, which did not fill up the primary card. I took very few videos and did not come close to filling up the secondary card. Hence, I never needed to use any of the spare cards.
For the Z7 ii, my secondary body, I had a single 128 GB CFExpress card in camera, and had many spare SD cards. I did not come close to filling up the 128GB card, and never used any of the SD cards.
For frame rate, I almost always kept the Z9 in 10 fps, and the Z7 ii in high speed frame rate.
- Storage workflow. I always retained 3 copies of my images. After a day’s shoot I would use Adobe Lightroom to copy images onto my MacBook Pro, simultaneously copying each image to a 2 TB external Thunderbolt SSD. I did not ever need to delete images from the CFExpress cards or reformat them. Hence, I always had a copy of the images on my CFExpress card, a second copy on the MacBook Pro, and a third copy on the external SSD. While traveling, the CFExpress cards remained in camera in my Pelican case, my MacBook remained in my briefcase, and the external SSD went into my checked bag so if one of those bags got lost, I did not lose the images I came all this way to get.
- Photographing people. In African culture, it’s rude to photograph people without their permission. Always ask before you shoot.
The local tribes we saw in-country were the Himba and Damara. Unlike East Africa where some tribes like the Maasai still retain their traditional lifestyle (to include living in huts made from cow dung), in Namibia all of the 15+ local tribes, although retaining their native languages, have effectively assimilated into Namibian society.
This means that rather than visiting an actual tribal village like you can do with the Maasai in Kenya or Tanzania, you will have the opportunity to visit a tribal “living museum” where tribal members, like Civil War reenactors, pretend to be living in traditional ways (during the day) in huts purpose-built for tourists.
While I’m not knocking this practice, I certainly believe people should live any way they wish, this practice does present a bit of a touristy, Disney-esque feel to it that you don’t get when visiting other tribes like the Maasai.
Many Namibian tribes have women traditionally topless. Paradoxically, some tribal women continue to do so when standing alongside roads holding signs to lure tourists into their living museum camps, despite the fact they’ve abandoned their other traditions. I’m not a prude—far from it—but the willingness to abandon many of their traditional practices while retaining something straight out of an old-time National Geographic magazine does seem a bit off-putting. Then again, I have no right to judge.
- This is Africa (TIA). There is a saying among experienced African hands, “This is Africa,” or TIA for short. What this means is that although you may make perfect plans, you can be assured that things will not go as planned.
(Learning how to Ignate my Hooter)
People will give you incorrect advice, people and things may not show up where they are supposed to (even in 5-star lodges), roads may be blocked for maintenance (without warning), if something bad happens (lost passport, etc), folks will react like it’s never happened before and not know what to do. Hence, it’s always best to have (a) contingency plans and (b) a good attitude. Resiliency and flexibility are required traits to survive and succeed in Africa.
- Itinerary. Our itinerary basically ran a circular route from Windhoek around Etosha to the coast, down south to Sossus, then back to Windhoek. Etosha is the largest national park in all of Africa and dwarfs every Eastern African park— it would take eleven hours to drive from one end to the other. And it delivered— we saw herds of zebra that rivaled those of the Serengeti, along with mini-migrations of wildebeest, elephants, and other large and small game.
I promised my wife that she would not have to rough it during this trip—we tried to keep it on the luxury end of the spectrum. And although we did a pretty good job of this, at some stops it didn’t quite work out the way I hoped.
- A few specific notes:
- After leaving Windhoek, we traveled to the Africat Foundation and spent a night at Okonjima Plains Camp, which was quite nice. The Africat Foundation is a non-governmental research organization aimed at the protection and rehabilitation of Namibia’s big cats and was a wonderful place to view leopard and cheetah. Highly recommended.
- We then traveled to the eastern edge of the Etosha National Park and spent three wonderful nights at Onguma’s The Fort, a private lodge. This is a 5-star caliber resort, a bucket-list item, perhaps the most magnificent lodge I’ve ever stayed at, complete with its own a waterhole hide from which to photograph game. It must be experienced to be understood. Pricey, but very highly recommended.
- We then traveled to the middle of Etosha and spent two nights at Okuakuejo— an NPR lodge that was the lowlight of the trip. This was the opposite of luxury. Stinky lodges, a so-so restaurant, and limited services. The waterhole however, was magnificent— the only place where we came close to the elusive black rhino.
(The Okuakueajo Water Hole)
Enroute to Okuakuejo we encountered a white rhino in open terrain alongside our road—it was very curious and walked up to our vehicles (within perhaps 5 feet of us), yielding superb photos. Recommended only because of the water hole, but prepare yourself in advance for the below-average lodge experience.
- We then traveled to the western edge of Etosha for a night at the Dolomite camp. Dolomite is on a hill, with lodges situated up and down the hill such that you normally must be carried to your lodge on a motorized trolley. Although an NWR lodge, it’s on the higher end of the spectrum. While the scenery was beautiful, there wasn’t much to do or see there, but was a necessary stop in our migration towards our next stop. For that reason, recommended.
- Next, two glorious days at the private Camp Kipwe where we were in search of the elusive desert elephants and ancient petroglyphs. This lodge simply has to be viewed to be believed. The way the designer incorporated the lodges into the unusual granite landscape was wondrous and world-class. And the service was superb as well—my travel companions were torn on whether they preferred this private lodge to The Fort, they are both magnificent. Very highly recommended.
- Then one night in the lovely little town of Swakopmund, to break up our journey to Sossus, where we stayed at the beachside Strand Hotel. This was a 4-star hotel that was a terrific example of “TIA.” It was undergoing renovation, and the staff was challenged to explain how to get to our room, which demanded quite a roundabout journey. Swakopmund is a quaint village with German-influenced architecture, but I spent most of the time there cleaning lenses and prepping gear for our last leg of the trip.
- Lastly, two nights in the NWR property Sossus Dune Lodge, the only lodge that’s actually inside the perimeters of Sossus Park. This is the best place from which to get a jump start on photographing Deadvlei because the park’s gate doesn’t open until sunrise, giving you an hour’s jump on those who are staying outside the park. But it’s expensive and books up over a year in advance, so it’s very difficult to get in. Sadly, we experienced mostly overcast and rain during our two days there, limiting my ability to get “that shot” at Deadvlei. And the temperature was very cold, mainly in the low 30s F (1-2 C).
- Now a word on Deadvlei. The morning I visited, a busload of Selfie Swarm people from Poland rushed in, standing next to and taking luxurious selfies in front of every iconic Camelthorn tree in the area.
(The Selfie Swarm approaching my trees)
Of course, they could not capture any one of those iconic trees by holding a camera at arm’s length. What that means is, (a) those folks did not get the selfie they were hoping to get, but since they were swarming around the trees, (b) serious photographers could not photograph the Deadvlei trees either. This was made worse by the ever-elusive light on that overcast day, which meant we had mere moments to capture the little warm morning light before it was obscured again by clouds. Invariably, someone would be taking a selfie in front of my camera during those rare moments.
(A break in the clouds at Deadvlei)
Other members of the swarm wandered aimlessly and obliviously around the trees, interjecting themselves into every composition. Or they placed themselves in front of my tripod-mounted camera as if they believed they should be the subject of my shoot. It was the best I could do to retain my composure and not scream at these people. By the time they left, so had the little good light we had that morning. Again, I should have planned for more days in Deadvlei. If you try this, assume another Selfie Swarm will impede on your ability to make your perfect shot, and plan for additional days so you aren’t stuck with the same elusive light that I was.
- After Deadvlei, we returned for one night in Windhoek before flying back to JHB for the return trip to the US.
- Conclusion. This was the trip of a lifetime, marred by bad weather on our final two days in country. If Namibia is on your bucket list, I hope these lessons are useful to you.