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“Safari” means “long journey” in Kiswahili, but in modern parlance it has come to signify an often expensive, pre-arranged trip involving 4WDs, tour guides and lavish Out of Africa-style lodges. While there is nothing wrong with this type of trip, it often rules out some of Africa’s finest experiences for the more budget-conscious traveller.

In Namibia, however, the incredible desert landscape is unusually easy to traverse on your own. The arrow-straight tarmac and unsealed, gravel roads are navigable with a regular 2WD sedans, and car-hire charges are reasonable. So put together your own, more affordable safari with this two-week itinerary.

Windhoek
Start in Windhoek, a modern African capital of high-rises and shopping malls that carry imported South African brands. Organise a well-priced car hire through the Cardboard Box Travel Shop, and hit the road for a 280km drive north to the Waterberg Plateau Park.

Waterberg Plateau
Barren and stony, 200m high and 50km long, the red sandstone Waterberg Plateau rises out of the flat landscape, visible from miles around. It is largely inaccessible -- except on foot – so it is home to a variety of endangered species, such as roan and sable antelopes, as well as rare flora such as the magnificent karee and the weeping wattle trees.  Pick-up self-guided trails and arrange guided hikes at Waterberg Camp, situated at the base of the plateau . The world-renowned Cheetah Conservation Fund is also nearby in Otjozondjupa.

Etosha National Park
Namibia’s premiere wildlife sanctuary lies 300km north of Waterberg and is home to 114 species of animal, including the largest population of black rhino in the world. Unlike many African parks, which are dense with vegetation, Etosha, meaning “place of dry water”, is a huge, 5,000sqkm calcrete pan. During the drier months, between June and November, the scarce watering holes attract large herds of animals, and you are virtually guaranteed to see game. You can easily spend several days between the park’s three camps: Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo (where the spot-lit waterhole at Okaukuejo Camp is famous for prime viewing). You can get around the park in a 2WD as the gravel roads are easy to drive, and a speed limit of 60km per hour is strictly enforced.

Damaraland
Leave Etosha via the main Anderson gate near Okaukuejo Camp and head westwards into Damaraland, a region of rumpled escarpments, dry river valleys and ancient volcanic peaks that descend from the Hoanib River in the region’s northeast to the seaside town of Swakopmund. Although the area is not a designated park, it is zoned into private game reserves that support most of Namibia’s large game species, including the elusive desert-adapted lion and elephant. The area is also rich in the rock engravings and artwork of the indigenous San people, most notable of which are the “White Lady” at Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, and the 2,500 petroglyphs at the Twyfelfontein valley which are 2,000 years old. The open-sided thatched chalets of the Doro Nawas Camp in the dry river valley of the Aba-Huab River offer spectacular views.

Swakopmund
After a week on dusty roads, arriving at The Alternative Space bed and breakfast in seaside Swakopmund is a welcome relief. Considered by many to be the adventure capital of Namibia, Swakopmund is a good base for striking out on some fun day trips: north to the raucous seal colony at Cape Cross (70km), south to see the flamingos in Walvis Bay (35km) or simply sign-up at one of the adventure sports outlets in town for local quad-biking, dune-boarding, paragliding and canoeing.

Sossusvlei
South from Swakopmund across the gravel plains of the Namib Desert lies the dramatic Namib Naukluft Park. Sleep outside the park at either Sossusvlei Lodge or the self-catering Desert Camp, and rise early to catch the vivid orange dunefields at sunrise the next morning. Enter the park at the Sesriem gate, where you will find the eponymous canyon, and drive all the way into the park. This is possible in a 2WD vehicle, as long as you do not go off-road. The road terminates at a car park, from where you can either walk the remaining four kilometres or take a shuttle to Sossusvlei. Along with the nearby clay pan, Deadvlei, the Sossusvlei pan is the stuff of National Geographic pictures: a flat, cracked ephemeral pan, surrounded on three sides by some of the highest (300m), oldest, pink-tinged dunes in the world; while at Deadvlei, the charred remains of the camel-thorn acacia trees, burnt black by the sun, are carbon dated between 500 and 600 years old.

From Sossusvlei, the 300km drive back to Windhoek takes four and a half hours.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘A do-it-yourself Namibian safari’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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