After five years of drought that crippled this already dry country, we arrived in Namibia to find the rains had indeed come down in Africa.
Though for us this meant about half of Etosha National Park was off limits due to flooding and many detours ended in a dead end, it also brought the park to life.
The open plains of Namutoni were a vibrant shade of green, a lush stomping ground for newborn zebra foals still wobbling tentatively on their spindly legs. At sunset, a daily procession of wildlife would emerge from the dense foliage and make a beeline to the waterhole silhouetted perfectly against the fiery sun.
It was the Lion King brought to life and those opening lyrics never failed to come roaring into our minds and sometimes, out of our mouths… “Naaaaaa…” (you know how it goes, and if not you need to watch this).
The glistening Etosha pan, the namesake of the park, remained bone dry though, the vast expanse of white broken only by the hazy shapes of lone antelope kicking up dust in the distance.
From a wasteland of white dust, the deluge of water had transformed the park into low-lying forests of thorns and thick foliage and flourishing grasslands that danced in the dry wind.
After passing up a safari in Kruger National Park while road tripping along South Africa’s Panorama Route in favour of Etosha, we had high hopes for what we would encounter.
And we weren’t disappointed. Not in the slightest.
Thinking of paying a visit to Etosha National Park? Here’s everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip.
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Give yourself a few days. If Etosha will be your only stop for wildlife watching, making it count. Chances are you won’t see everything in one day so allow yourself time to see what you came for.
Be out when the animals are active. The hours after sunrise and before sunset are when the animals are most active and being out then will give you the best chance of seeing them. Around midday tends to be on the quiet side.
Spotting animals can be hard work. We both have fond memories of wildlife watching as children. Several pairs of eyes staring intently out the window searching for any abnormality or flicker of movement and the abrupt calls of ‘stop, stop, stop!!’ that would result. It turns out having just two of us to keep a lookout, one of whom was meant to be driving, made the animal spotting part of the equation a little tricky. And spending hours staring intently out the window, actively searching for something is, quite frankly, exhausting. Take breaks. Stretch your legs. Bring entertainment for the drive.
Drive slow. The speed limit within the park is 60 km/h but we found driving at around 30km/h to be the best for actually covering some ground and seeing anything.
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Don’t ignore the little things. You’ve most likely come to Etosha in the hopes of seeing the ‘big five’, but unless you’re really lucky, chances are you probably won’t see it all. Don’t neglect to appreciate the smaller things as well – the graceful springbok butting horns, the family of squirrels poking from their nest or the brightly coloured birds flitting from tree to tree.
Take the detours. Unfortunately, many of the detours were flooded during our visit, but the ones we took led us to some amazing spots, including the barren Etosha pan. Don’t just stick to the main roads to get where you’re going.
Ask at reception. The ladies at reception know it all! They get the excited recount from every guest about the lion by the waterhole and they get the morning safari report from the guides. If you want to increase your chances of seeing something, they know what’s up!
Go telephoto. When it comes to photography we generally believe it’s not the gear you use but how you use it that matters. When it comes to shooting wildlife though, the longer the focal length of the lens the better. To find out what gear we used to capture these shots you can check out this post.
Don’t underestimate the distance. On the map of Etosha, everything looks close by, but when you’re driving at a top speed of around 40km/h, it can take ages to get anywhere. Leave yourself plenty of time to get around and especially to get back to your camp at night.
Inside Etosha National Park there are six established camps offering everything from spacious campsites to luxury bush chalets.
We stayed at the Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) at Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni which are each secured at night and are nestled alongside a waterhole for prime game and sunset viewing. The camping grounds are equipped with a power point and light at each site and access to ablution blocks. Beautiful chalets are also available at each of these camps, some with a perfect location overlooking the waterholes for animal spotting right from your window. Other facilities include a restaurant, small shop and fuel pump. Game viewing drives can also be organised as well.
Other options within Etosha National Park include Olifantsrus which is a camping only facility, Onkoshi perched beside the salt pan, and Dolomite which is nestled in a previously restricted part of the park.
All camps within the park have strict sunset closing times. Do not be late or you may be fined!
Though all the camps had plenty of room during our stay, they do fill up during the peak months so we’d recommend booking in advance.
If you don’t plan to stay inside the park, there are also a selection of camps located just outside the gates of Etosha National Park.
Near Anderson’s Gate on the way to Okaukuejo, there are a number of beautiful lodges on offer. Search for rates and availability here.
Outside the Von Lindequist Gate near Namutoni there far fewer properties available – search availability here. A better option is to stay in Tsumeb which is around 1.5 hours drive from the gate. Search rates and availability for Tsumeb here.
If you’re flying in or out of Windhoek, you’ll most likely need to spend a night or two in the city.
Urban Camp is a very well organised camping ground with secluded sites rimmed in trees and equipped with hammocks, a covered seating area and individual bathroom facilities. The onsite bar, restaurant and pool area form a perfect oasis to gear up for or wind down from your Namibian road trip adventure. Check prices and availability here.
For the non-campers, Windhoek Gardens Guesthouse offers spacious brightly coloured rooms with basic self-catering facilities, secure parking and breakfast included. There is also a small garden and restaurant on site. Check prices and availability here.
When to visit. The best time to visit Etosha National Park is a hotly debated topic. During winter the park becomes a dry, dusty wasteland and while this does create a somewhat subdued colour palette, it makes spotting wildlife far easier as they tend to congregate around the waterholes. The climate is also cooler but there are more crowds. The rainy summer months transform the plains into a vibrant patchwork of greens and yellows giving the wildlife plenty of places to hide. As such winter (May to October) is generally the recommended time of year, but we loved watching the animals saunter across the coloured landscapes during the summer (November to April) without too many other people around.
Where to eat. Aside from Olifantsrus, all the camps have restaurants attached. As we were camping though, we cooked all our own meals. Most camps have a shop on site, though they tend to have very basic supplies so we would recommend buying what you’ll need in advance. There are also restrictions on bringing meat and eggs into the park and you may need to declare them on entry.
Getting there. The main access roads are through the Anderson Gate near Okaukuejo and the Von Lindequist Gate near Namutoni. If you’re arriving from Windhoek or the Skeleton Coast you will most likely pass through either of these two. Opening times can be found here.
Permits. Permits are collected at the gate of entry and paid for at a camp reception. Foreign adults cost $80 (US$6.20) per day while vehicles are $10 (US$1.50).