Personal Safety, Responsible Travel, and Cultural Sensitivity

Where is Namibia and what’s it like?

Namibia is a country located in southwestern Africa, lying along the Atlantic coast.  It is about twice the size of California, and three times the size of the UK.  The country is flanked by two deserts – the Namib (the oldest desert in the world) in the west, and the great Kalahari (technically a semi-desert scrubland) in the east.  It is home to over 12 ethnic groups speaking 20 different languages, including the largest population of Khosian, or click language, speakers.  Since gaining independence in 1990, Namibia has enjoyed a stable government and economy, and has one of the highest literacy rates and Human Development Index scores in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sustainability and conservation are built into the Namibian mindset, as one of the few countries that addresses ecosystem maintenance and biodiversity protection in its Constitution.  Namibia helped pioneer the community-based conservation model in the mid-1990s, which ties wildlife conservation to poverty alleviation and instils lasting value for wildlife by putting local communities in charge of owning and managing conservancy areas.  In return, all the economic benefits (largely through tourism) from job creation, revenues, and global awareness, stay within these local communities.

As a result, Namibia remains one of the greatest success stories for wildlife conservation.  42% of its total land area is under some form of protection, split evenly between community conservancies and National Parks and reserves, with a few private reserves and community forests as well. Namibia’s elephant population has more than doubled since the inception of community conservancies, and the country has the world’s only expanding populations of free-roaming lions and giraffes, and the largest populations of cheetahs and free-roaming black rhinos.  The efforts have economic benefits as well – in 2009 alone, the community conservancies earned about US$5.3 million in direct income and US$40 million for the Namibian economy at large.  Conservation has done a lot to empower women in particular, who fill more than half of the jobs generated by conservancy businesses.

What is there to do in Namibia?

Namibia has a little bit of everything, meaning that whether your travel style is adventure, luxury, active, cultural, or a mix of all four, there are plenty of things to do!  In Namibia you can,

  • Sandboard, hike, or drive an ATV on some of the highest and oldest sand dunes in the world in the Namib Desert
  • Trek through the Fish River Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world
  • Raft down the Kunene River
  • Take a game-viewing drive through Etosha National Park
  • Explore the diverse wildlife of the lush floodplains in the Caprivi Strip
  • Kayak or sail among dolphins and seals on the Skeleton Coast
  • Learn about the rich cultural life of Namibia’s many ethnic groups

Namibia is home to 644 bird species and 240 species of mammals, including elephant, white and black rhino, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, hippo, wildebeest, cape buffalo, zebra, African wild dog,  baboon, meerkat, 20 different species of antelope, whales, dolphins, and the largest colony of Cape fur seals in the world.

Namibia is unique in that it is one of only a couple places in the world to see desert-adapted populations of elephant, rhino, and lion.  These animals have different body and behavioural adaptations from their savannah cousins to help them survive the harsh conditions of the Namib Desert.

Because of the arid conditions in many wildlife hotspots such as Etosha National Park, animals tend to congregate in dense numbers when limited water is available, ensuring great wildlife-viewing opportunities.

From Namibia as a base, it’s also easy to get to other great places in Southern Africa, like Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta, or Cape Town.

How do you get around in Namibia?

Because Namibia’s population is small and the best places to see are often remote, public transportation is not well-developed and is not a great option.  Domestic flights are also limited, unless you charter a plane yourself.

This means that the best option is to drive.  You can do this by either paying for a guided tour around the country, or save a lot more money by driving yourself!  Check out our guide on self-driving in Namibia by clicking here.

If your budget is larger and your time more limited, you might also want to look into getting a seat rate on a chartered flight – many chartered flights on light aircraft offer individual seats at relatively cheap rates, which allow you to cover a lot more ground in a shorter amount of time.  Combining flights and self-drive could be a good way to balance a moderate budget with seeing a lot of the country or region.

What are the visa and passport requirements for travelling to Namibia?

At the time of going to press, visitors from the following countries do not to apply for a visa beforehand, and can get a visa on arrival for up to 3 months.

BrazilBelarusAzerbaijanNew ZealandBotswana
CubaDenmarkHong KongLesotho
IcelandMacauSouth Africa

HOWEVER, please note that this list may be subject to change, particularly for countries from the former USSR.  We recommend you check with the Namibian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website here and/or with your closest Namibian embassy well before your trip.  Additionally, all countries in southern Africa have different visa requirements, so if you’re also travelling to another country (e.g. Botswana) you may need a visa there even if you don’t for Namibia.

For ALL visitors, you must have a return ticket and your passport must be signed, have a photo and at least 2 blank pages, and be valid for at least 6 months AFTER YOUR RETURN.  Check the visa you receive on arrival to make sure it’s valid for the duration of your trip as mistakes are sometimes made at immigration.

What vaccinations should I get before I leave?

It’s not required for entry to Namibia, but doctor’s usually recommend that you make sure your vaccinations for tetanus, meningococcal meningitis, and hepatitis A are up to date before you come.  Yellow Fever is not endemic in Namibia or any other southern African country besides Angola.  But all southern African countries require you to be vaccinated for Yellow Fever at least 10 days prior to entry if you’re coming from or through a country where it is endemic (see list here) – for travel to South Africa, this may also include “low risk” countries, such as Zambia and Tanzania.

Malaria is located only in the northernmost part of Namibia.  To protect yourself against malaria, it’s important to use preventative measures (long clothing at dawn and dusk, sleeping under a mosquito net or tent, using mosquito repellent) in addition to taking prophylaxis.  You must choose the medication that is right for you, but we don’t recommend Larium/mefloquine.  Find out more about malaria, its prevention, and country-specific information here.

We highly recommend talking to a travel doctor before your trip to discuss your specific health needs and options while travelling.

What’s the weather like, and what should I pack?

Because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, seasons in Namibia are opposite from those in North America and Europe.  Summer lasts from around October through March, when temperatures can reach around 95°F (35°C).  Summer is also when the rainy season comes, though it never rains significantly in Namibia.  The winter dry season lasts from April through August, when days are still fairly warm but nights can get below freezing (and many buildings are unheated).  At any time of year, northern Namibia tends to be warmer, northeastern Namibia wetter, and coastal Namibia colder and windier than the rest of the country.  Check current weather in Namibia here.

We recommend packing a few different layers of clothes (including a warmer one in winter and a waterproof one in summer), comfortable walking shoes and sandals, a bathing suit, sunglasses, a good camera and/or binoculars, a hat, and a torch. A basic first aid kit might also be a good idea, but most essentials (e.g. soap, shampoo, sunscreen, mosquito repellent) can be bought here.  Lip balm and moisturiser are recommended since Namibia is fairly dry year-round, they can also be bought here.

What is the currency of Namibia?

The currency of Namibia is the Namibian dollar (N$, NA N$, or NAD), which is tied 1 to 1 with the South African rand. Be sure to check current rates before you go, which can be found for all currencies by clicking here.

How can I pay for things in Namibia and elsewhere in southern Africa?

Visa and MasterCard are accepted in most banks, stores, lodges, and restaurants in Namibia and South Africa. We recommend cash for Botswana although most lodges do accept credit cards, and cash (preferably US$) in Zimbabwe and Zambia.  In all countries, petrol/diesel and National Park entry fees usually have to be paid in cash.

 You can generally get better exchange rates in-country than in your home country, and it’s not a bad idea to bring around 1,000 Namibian dollars equivalent to start out with.

What’s the best way to see wildlife?

If you’re driving yourself around a wildlife hotspot (like Etosha National Park), it’s usually better to stay in one place for a long time than try to rush around to many different spots.  It could take a few hours for animals to feel comfortable with your presence, and more often than not your patience will be rewarded!  Make sure you bring enough snacks and water to stay satisfied while you’re waiting.

How should I handle myself around wildlife?

In Etosha and other game reserves, you’re not allowed to get out of your car (except to use the designated bathroom facilities).  If you’re parked and animals approach the car, stay put with the engine off, and keep calm until they pass.  Don’t try to drive closer to them as it will only scare them off.

Outside of National Parks and reserves, keep in mind that you’re still in a wild habitat and there is always a chance of coming across animals.  If you do come across wildlife while walking, keep your distance, stand still, and never approach them, as many animals (including and especially herbivores) can be dangerous when they feel threatened.  Never feed wildlife. Overall, remember that one of the reasons why you’re here is to observe wildlife, and you’ll have a much better experience if you relax, take your time, and enjoy the moment!

Read more about the conservation movement in Namibia in this section.

Are Namibia and southern Africa safe?

Namibia and the rest of the region are very safe for travellers, and people are generally friendly and welcoming toward foreigners since tourism forms a large part of the economy here.  Most crime usually occurs in cities and towns.  As in any urban centre anywhere in the world, it’s better to avoid flashing your valuables and be mindful of your bags and luggage.  Crime in Namibia is hardly ever violent, but be especially wary after dark – generally we don’t recommend walking around cities or towns at night.

Read more about driving-specific safety tips at our driving guide here.

How can I travel in an environmentally responsible way?

Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.  We encourage you to feel comfortable throughout your vacation, but to be mindful of this and minimise the amount of water you use.  For laundry especially, staff may have to bring in water from far away to do even one load, so please re-use your towels and bed linen wherever possible.

Here are some other tips to help you “go green” while enjoying the region’s natural beauty and wildlife:

  • Comply with other environmental policies at your lodge, try to re-use your towels, and turn off lights, electronics, and air conditioning when not in use.
  • Biodegradable soaps and shampoos can be hard to find here, so bring some from home if you wish.
  • Try to get rid of as much packaging as you can before you arrive, as recycling and waste collection services are not as well-regulated and harder to organise here.  Bring as much recyclable and/or specialised waste (e.g. batteries) back home with you as you can.
  • Driving off-road, whether by yourself or a guide, can cause serious and lasting ecological damage, destroying unique micro- and macro-ecosystems, so stick to the road unless it’s an emergency.
  • Be very areful with smoking and campfires in rural areas – bush fires are easy to start and can be devastating.
  • Don’t buy souvenirs made from endangered hardwoods or animal products.

What is the cultural etiquette, and how do I engage with and help local communities?

  • Be informed!  Read up beforehand on the destination, customs and cultures, history, appropriate dress, etc.
  • Knowing even just a few words or greetings in the local language(s) will go a long way not just to help you get around, but to get people to open up to you and make new friends.  Most people in Namibia are native speakers of Oshivambo dialects, but English, German and Afrikaans are also widely understood, especially in the cities and towns.
  • Have an open mind and a sense of humour.  Africa operates at a different pace of life than western countries.
  • Be local!  Try local food from cafes and restaurants, drink local beer and wine, and make sure the souvenirs you buy are actually made locally and your purchase will support the artist.
  • Don’t give money to beggars or children.  Even though it might be heartbreaking, encouraging a begging culture actually harms local economies and livelihoods more than it helps.  Donate your money instead to local charities or pay street vendors for their goods and services, like newspapers, food, or guarding your car.  Giving money to children encourages them to skip school, and even if you give begging children “gifts” like pens, candy, or milk, they may only sell it on.  Instead, donate school supplies, money, or food to local schools or orphanages.
  • If you have some space, it might be a good idea to bring a few gifts.  Postcards or photos from your home country/city, clothes, shoes, toys, spare books, and school supplies all make great gifts, but as discussed above, make sure you know who they are going to and that they will actually use it.
  • Ask people about their families, and bring a few photos of your own family and friends to spark conversation!
  • Children in rural areas may be interested in your camera, as many have never seen photos of themselves.  You may want to sit with them, show them how it works, and show off your photos and videos of them and your trip.
  • Bartering is not common in southern Africa as in other parts of the world, except for local crafts.
  • Tipping varies throughout the region, but is generally seen as something offered for good service and not necessarily expected.  We recommend N$50-60 per person per day for guides on a guided trip, or per room per day for a general staff tip at a lodge.  Most lodges have tip boxes that are split between the whole staff (excluding guides).  A tip of 10-15% is common in restaurants,  and around N$5 for petrol station attendants and car guards.
  • Make sure you have permission before you take anyone’s photograph, and ask your guide or tour operator if you’re not sure what may be considered disrespectful, especially in rural villages.