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When we were searching for a name for our Vancouver B&B, Michael’s vote was for “Rambles”, based on our love for travel. Not fancy 5 Star hotel kind of travel, but rambling around the world and meeting real people in remote unspoiled places. Of course, we love the name that we settled on – the Bee & Thistle Guest House, but in honor of Michael I thought “Rambles” would be a great tag for a little series of blogs I want to do on some of our travels. I suspect that our dream of opening a B&B in Vancouver was inspired by our love of travel but, little did we know, running a B&B has very little to do with travel. In fact, running a business that requires our presence 24/7 makes it very difficult to get away for even a few days. However, we are blessed with a wonderful daughter and several lovely young women who work with us, all of whom are very good at stepping into our shoes when we save enough pennies to wander off to another place on our bucket list.
One wonderful aspect of running a B&B in a world class travel destination like Vancouver is that most of our guests are avid travelers themselves, so we do get a lot of travel information from them and learn a lot about destinations that we may have not even considered. Namibia & Botswana were not on our radar at all until several of our guests mentioned it to us as one of their most amazing travel experiences. We had often talked about a trip to Africa, but it’s a huge continent and we had no idea how to narrow a trip down to one or two countries. We were intrigued with a number of the comments we heard about Namibia & Botswana, particularly that these countries are relatively safe and possible to travel on your own without the expense of an organized safari (though they are certainly available); the weather is usually good at the time of year when is most possible for us to travel (late Fall); they offer a variety of things to see and do – everything from game parks and amazing scenery to villages where time has stood still; they have a wide range of accommodation (camping to luxury lodges); and are readily accessible on reputable airlines operating via South Africa.
What began as an tantalizing idea soon morphed into a definite booking, flying Emirates Air from Seattle, via Dubai and South Africa, in October and November, 2012. We ended up traveling with my brother and sister in law, and the four of us all agree that it was one of the most amazing trips of our lives! I came home with more than 4,000 photos and a jumble of memories of the numerous places that we visited, so it’s not possible to write a brief blog that would adequately describe the whole trip. When we were planning our trip, we found that there was so much conflicting information that it was almost overwhelming, even using the usual guide books which are invariably out of date, and laboriously searching the internet. We discovered that something as simple as what to expect for weather seemed to be impossible to figure out – some information suggested that it is the rainy season in October/November and that we could expect nothing but monsoon rain, whereas other sources that said it would be relatively hot and dry. We would have very much appreciated one book, blog or article that would give us a clear picture of how to plan a trip to this part of the world. So it’s my hope to write a series of blog posts, starting with this one, that would be helpful to others who have experienced a similar difficulty.
First of all, the planning. In order to avoid our usual mistake of trying to see too much in too short a time, we decided that we needed to focus primarily on Namibia, but with the hope of spending up to a week in Botswana including a possible day trip into Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls (mostly just so we could “tick it off of our list”). We definitely recommend that anyone planning a trip here would allow at least this much time. Three weeks in Namibia was barely enough, and it would be easy to spend more than that in Botswana, so it’s necessary to choose one as a main destination. We debated whether to schedule Botswana for the beginning or the end of our trip, but finally decided to leave it for last and not make any firm bookings (except for the air) so we could change our mind if we decided we didn’t have time. We knew we had to go in and out of South Africa, since there were no direct flights into Namibia or Botswana from North America (but keep watching, as they are definitely emerging destinations). The main arrival city in Namibia is Windhoek, so the flight overview was: Vancouver via Seattle to Dubai, Dubai to South Africa (Cape Town, but Johannesburg would work too), Cape Town to Windhoek, Windhoek to Botswana (we didn’t book this leg of the trip in order to allow for flexibility). We did also book Kasane to Johannesburg, choosing to leave Botswana from Kasane because it’s near Zimbabwe, in case we have time for that quick trip to see Victoria Falls, then back to Vancouver via Dubai and Seattle. There are several European airlines that offer flights from Vancouver to South Africa through their European hubs, but our initial research quickly discovered that Emirates Airline had recently added flights from Seattle, Washington (1/2 hour flight or 3 hours driving from Vancouver) to South Africa, with an option for a free stop over in Dubai. While Dubai has never been high on our list of “must see” destinations, we like to start vacations with time to recover from a very busy season at our B&B, so Dubai seemed like an ideal stop over place for a few days of R&R before our adventure of traveling in Africa. Fortunately, we have a credit card points plan that allows us to book any airline within a certain price range, so we were able to book on points with Emirates all the way from Vancouver to Namibia, (code sharing for some parts of the trip, of course). More or less free airfare was a bonus, since we knew that the rest of the trip would be pricey! We could have similarly used our points for a flight on another airline through Europe, but Emirates Air had some appeal – it was new to us so always fun to check out a different airline, but also the ratings were good and it offered the shortest overall flight time from Vancouver to South Africa. The free stop over in Dubai was also a nice perk. We were happy with the airline, though not all the ground staff in Dubai were helpful (we finally found one woman who was excellent – the problem we encountered is grist for another blog post).
One would think that in booking the flight for a major trip the biggest part of the planning would be over, but that was far from the case for us on this one. One of the problems is that we have very little time during our busy season to even think about other things, so we had difficulty finding time to read the guide books and search the internet. Finally we decided to divide up the tasks. I volunteered to find out as much as possible about accommodation in each destination & to look into short flights between each country (I follow many discount travel sites, so I was the obvious choice for this task), Michael would look into tours and safaris (in case they should turn out to be more economical than finding our own way, or in case there were areas where we couldn’t find our own way), my sister in law explored the mysteries of car/truck rentals, and my brother was to research the most important sights in each area and create a rough itinerary.
Lynn’s Challenge: Accommodation & Inter-Country Air Travel: I mentioned that we found a lot of conflicting information and one of the first challenges we encountered was trying to figure out if we had to book all of our accommodation, etc. in advance (as some information suggested) or if we could keep our itinerary a bit more open to allow for inspiration. We finally decided to create a framework by booking our flights from Cape Town to Windhoek, and from Kasane (in Botswana) to Johannesburg, as mentioned above, but not book travel from Namibia to Botswana until we knew if we had time to spend a few days in Botswana. As for hotels, we elected to pre-book in Cape Town, Windhoek and Johannesburg, but leave the rest open. We always feel that it’s important to arrange hotels in advance for the first night or two in any strange country in order to not have to scramble to find accommodation when you’re exhausted from a long trip. I confess, though that we made this decision with a fair amount of trepidation for Namibia since there are several travel sites that suggest you will be sleeping on the street (or in the bush) if you don’t book your hotels well in advance. Our experience – it was not generally a problem, though bear in mind that we were there in “shoulder” season. Using TripAdvisor & word of mouth mostly, we found excellent accommodation everywhere and sometimes (not always) for a better price than we would have obtained by pre-booking. The one exception is Etosha Park, which only has 3 lodge/camp sites, so we did pre-book 2 nights in Okaukaujo Camp and one night in Halali Camp (we wish we had stayed all 3 nights in Okaukaujo, but that’s a story for a future post). While we did hear of people getting last minute space in the park, it would be a risk and you would definitely not have first choice of chalets, may not get a camp spot, or may not get anything at all! During the busy season, we would be surprised if there would be any space at all in the park if it’s not pre-booked. Our recommendations: pre-book first (or all) night(s) stay in each major destination (Cape Town, Jo Burg, Windhoek, Etosha Park). Then book each of the other lodge/campsite stops a day or so ahead of arrival once you know when you will be there. Internal flights seemed to be pretty open at that time of year and we had no difficulty finding a flight from Windhoek, Namibia to Maun, Botswana once we figured out the date we wanted to travel (only booked it a few days ahead). One further thought about accommodation – the choice is between nice lodges (usually around $200 per night) and camping (around $40 per night per vehicle). There is very little in the way of mid range accommodation between these two options except in the bigger cities (Windhoek & Swakopmund in Namibia; Kasane & Maun in Botswana), so go prepared to pay well for accommodation if you are not excited about camping.
Teresa’s Challenge : Vehicle Rental. The other thing we pre-booked was a rental truck and we would definitely recommend doing that. Things to think about when considering a rental vehicle: price of course (they vary greatly), quality of vehicle (we discovered there are classifications that help), type of vehicle(you will read a lot of recommendations that say you absolutely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle in Namibia), reputable rental company (we read of people arriving to find there was no vehicle), and whether you could rent the vehicle in one country (eg. Namibia) and drop it off in the other (eg. Botswana) – usually you can for a drop off fee, plus there is a fee for crossing the border. Insurance coverage is a serious issue because many of the rental agreements have some terrifying exclusions in the insurance clauses! Before booking anything, we definitely recommend getting a copy of the rental & insurance agreement and have an insurance broker review it!). My sister in law did a fantastic job of sorting through all this confusion. We ended up renting a 4 x 4 Toyota truck with 2 tents on the top from Advanced Car Hire, and were very happy with our choice. http://www.advancedcarhire.com/ They were very patient with us as we questioned every detail of their agreements & insurance clauses! The rental company was professional and efficient, the vehicle was in good repair and less than 3 years old, tents were clean and in good order and camping gear provided was pretty much all we needed. We did find that the truck canopy was not sealed well and we spent a lot of time beating dust off of our luggage! Our recommendations: definitely pre-book a vehicle; review contract & insurance; check reviews for the rental company; we liked having the vehicle with tents on top (they look very romantic too!) but we didn’t feel that 4 wheel drive was necessary for any of the main areas.However, a higher vehicle is nice for better viewing of wildlife and also for clearance when travelling to places like Epupa Falls, not because the roads are especially bad but some of the little gulleys have quite sharp dips at the bottom (and narrow bridges!), and on the Skeleton Coast. Coming from rural Canada, we are comfortable with gravel roads and did not find them especially challenging. This might change if there was a lot of rain, but we did not experience any rain in Namibia in October (Botswana a whole different story, however. Anyone planning to drive around Botswana would definitely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle and experience driving in loose sand, etc.). We calculated that camping only 5 or 6 times would offset the cost difference between a vehicle with or without camping gear, but the flexibility to choose between camping or lodges when we wanted to save some money and/or should we run into a problem finding lodge accommodation (which we didn’t, but nice to have a backup plan) seemed worth the difference in cost. We met a few travelers with self contained camper vehicles in Namibia and were a bit envious, but our truck was perfect for us (we only used 4 wheel drive time, and that was driving the last bit on the way to the dunes in Sossusvlei, but there is an option to take a shuttle instead of your own vehicle so not really a problem if you don’t have 4×4). We met people who were car camping with a tent, and were quite happy with that option. One question that came up during our planning was whether to rent a satellite phone with the vehicle. We didn’t need one at all. We simply brought along an unlocked phone and purchased a Namibia sim card (available everywhere, we got ours at the backpackers in Windhoek). It worked fine all over Namibia, though you do need to buy a different one for Botswana.
Michael’s Challenge: to take a tour or not to take a tour. Michael spent quite a bit of time reviewing tour company websites, suggested itineraries & prices, contacting various agencies for quotes, etc. The itineraries were quite useful, however, in trying to figure out what points of interest were most important to see, what accommodation was used by the tour companies, etc. The Cardboard Box website is very helpful: http://www.namibian.org/. We did notice that the very popular Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek organizes tours (hopefully pretty well priced, though we didn’t compare them). Many of the tours we reviewed looked excellent and were quite well priced but, in the end, we decided that we could do our own self guided tour for less money, and have more flexibility to choose what we wanted to do and how long we wanted to spend in each place.We did meet other travelers who were on various tours, and many of them were thrilled with their choice. There is everything available, from hiring a private vehicle with guide, to group tours of various sizes. One couple were even on a tour that provided a flight between each destination rather than spending time travelling by ground – they loved it. There is very little public transit available within rural Namibia/Botswana, so a tour would certainly be recommended for anyone traveling alone. There are buses and mini buses that travel between the major centers, such as Windhoek and Kasane, but we didn’t really price these out and heard that they are not particularly comfortable, but definitely a consideration for the more adventurous traveler. We did book a safari in Botswana due to lack of time, but we would recommend doing so even if you have lots of time – ours was one of the most amazing parts of our trip! We were lucky in that we found a fantastic guide on short notice, but another time would definitely pre-book it. Many of our guests who raved to us about going to Namibia/Botswana had done a fly-in safari to very remote lodges in Botswana. These were quite a bit above our budget at often $1,000 a night or more, but sound amazing!
Keith’s Challenge: to figure out where to go and roughly how much time to allot to each place. Whew! In reading the guide books, it seemed at first to be mind boggling. Namibia is not Canada, but is still a relatively large country and all of the points of interest are scattered about the country. There is basically something important to see in every corner and many places in between. Keith & Teresa had initially hoped to drive from Cape Town to Windhoek, which would have allowed us to start our exploration of Namibia at the bottom corner, working our way up to Windhoek without any backtracking but, in looking closer at the distances and our time allowed, we soon realized that it was important to save that travel time and spend it in Namibia. We all agreed we wanted to see Etosha Park (arguably the MOST important destination in Namibia), but also Opuwo, Damaraland/Twyfelfontein, the Skeleton Coast, Swakopmund (not so much to see it, as because we needed a stop along the way), and Sossusvlei. We had a lot of discussion about whether we could manage to include Waterberg, Epupa Falls, Kalahari Desert and Fish River Canyon/Luderitz into our whirlwind itinerary, and initially did not plan to go to these places. However, once we were in Namibia, we heard such great things about Epupa Falls that we did decide to squeeze it in. We all agreed to skip Fish River Canyon due to the long distances required to drive there and back, and because we have all been to the Grand Canyon so we felt of all the things we really must see, this one could perhaps be eliminated (regretfully, as we never like to miss anything!). We did make the right choice, though, as we barely managed to stop for one or two nights in each place anyway, so adding in the extra driving distance to/from Fish River Canyon would have made our trip exhausting. Our final itinerary, including adjustments as we went along, was: Windhoek, Etosha Park, Opuwo, Epupa Falls, Opuwo again (just a layover), Kamanjab layover near Khoraxis, Twyfelfontein, Cape Cross via the Skeleton Coast road, Swakopmund, Solitaire stop over, Sossusvlei, Mariental stop over, then back to Windhoek (total 3 weeks in Namibia). We then flew to Maun, stayed two nights in order to do a Mokoro boat trip, then travelled with our “safari” (just us) from Maun through Moremi Park, Savuti, and then through Chobe Park to Kasane (we were supposed to do one more night in Chobe Park before arriving in Kasane, but the weather turned to a steady downpour so camping looked much less attractive!). We did a day trip into the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls, then flew to Johannesburg and started our journey back home. An amazing trip, but they all have to end….sad to leave Africa!