Bow Down to the Animal Kingdom in This Safari National Park
One of Africa’s biggest national parks is full of big game and a big salt pan you can see from space.
It was still about an hour’s drive from Etosha National Park’s Anderson Gate when the local cellular network started to cut out.
By now though, after several days and more than a few hundred kilometers self-driving through Namibia’s vast and sparsely populated landscapes, we knew the drill. With some of the first earth-soaking rains of the season on the horizon, we’d have to rely on the blue dot of the Google Maps route for the next 250 or so kilometers.
Thankfully, for a country 1.2 times the size of Texas with less than one tenth the population, Namibia’s roads and highways are generally well-marked (whether they’re paved or not is another question). On this particular day, we also had one natural landmark nearly always in sight to guide us: the Etosha Pan, an ancient, dried lake bed that’s now a salt pan so vast, it can be seen from space. At times you can’t discern where the horizon ends and the sky begins.
The salt pan appears like a mesmerizing, shifting mirage of gray-greens and chalky whites against various hues of blue sky. Bone dry much of the year, the Etosha Pan has a cracked, crusted topsoil so salty that nothing grows on or lives within it. (Although plenty of nimble wildlife—including wildebeest, cheetah mothers with cubs, and all sorts of antelope—head out onto the pan to take refuge from predators, such as lions and hyena, we quickly learned.)
No sooner had we paid our park fees, purchased an official map and visitor’s guide ($4 US), and gotten back on track with our blue dot route than a zeal of zebras traversed the road mere yards in front of us. With nary another vehicle in sight, it was almost as if they were here to say, “Welcome to Etosha.”
The zebra were the first of dozens of species we’d encounter casually crossing the park’s roads in the next few days, including towers of giraffes and even a herd of elephants, who had a raucous good time splashing about in a roadside mud pit refreshed from the recent rains. Even that is just a sampling of the enormous amounts of wildlife that run amok in one of the largest national parks in Africa.
Here’s how to start plotting your safari through Etosha National Park, where the herds of animals await.
Marvel at the enormous amount of wildlife
Naturally, the primary draw to visiting this national park is wildlife viewing. Whether you stretch your dollars via self-driving and camping or splurge on luxury lodges, a safari in Etosha is significantly more affordable than some of Africa’s other well-known national parks—such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Masai Mara in Kenya, and Kruger in South Africa. And yet, Etosha is larger than all three.
At 8,598 square miles, it’s one of the biggest national parks in Africa. To give a sense of it, the park is around two-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone, and includes varied terrain, including grasslands, forests, tree and shrub savannahs, and abundant watering holes sprinkled about for the wildlife. On top of that size—and perhaps because of it—Etosha has one of the largest populations of big game animals in the world.
The park is home to some 114 large and small mammal species. This includes elephants, giraffes, black and white rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, and wildebeest. You’ll also find many varieties of antelope, including the southern oryx, the rare black-faced impala, and the world’s smallest antelope, the shy dik-diks. Plus the park has more than 340 bird species and reptiles both ready to strike (snakes and scorpions) and strikingly beautiful (the leopard tortoise).
Keep an eye on the dry season—or really any time of year
The winter season in the southern hemisphere—May through October—is the peak season to visit Etosha, as weather conditions are generally warm, but also dry and mild. The hotter, rainier summer season goes from November through April.
That being said, there are perks to visiting Etosha any time of year. November and December are some of the most prolific months for newborns to arrive, which coincides with the return of summer rain that, in turn, brings fresh, green life to all of the park’s vegetation. Even when temps climb into the 90s on the hottest summer days, evenings cool off to the 60s, which makes for comfortable sleeping.
DIY in a rooftop camper
Unless you fly into a regional airport or private airstrip near the park and arrange for a ground transfer to one of the more luxe camps and lodges, visiting Etosha requires renting a vehicle (preferably with four-wheel drive) upon arriving at the main international airport outside Windhoek or elsewhere in the country.
So why not make the car hire part of the adventure? One of the most popular—and immersive—ways to explore Etosha National Park over three to seven days is to rent a 4x4 vehicle outfitted with a pop-up rooftop camper tent, along the lines of offerings from AfriCamper or Namiba2Go.
These vehicles come equipped with a large cooler box, a folding table with chairs, and some cooking essentials. Always triple-check exactly what’s included with the rental before confirming the booking—a stop at SafariDen, Namibia’s version of REI, will fill in the blanks with whatever else you might realize you need or forgot to pack.
Etosha has six primary camps within park borders, each of which have campsites that come with barbecues and fire pits and have dedicated bathroom/shower facilities. Campsites can be reserved online via the national park directly, although familiarize yourself with a map of Etosha before submitting a booking request—there’s a huge distance between Dolomite and Olifantsrus camps in the west and Namutoni and Onkoshi camps in the east. (Park-managed bush chalets and modest double rooms can be booked directly through the reservation portal, as well.)
One drawback to roughing it is there’s little respite from the midday sun and the elements generally—plus the fact that camping requires more day-to-day tasks, from cooking meals and hand-washing dishes to packing up the site each day before heading off on your next self-drive safari adventure. That being said, this style of pop-up camping is a nature and wildlife lover’s dream holiday for a lot of visitors. It’s also quite common to couple a few days camping with a few days at a luxury tent camp or lodge, as they’re completely different—and worthwhile—experiences.
Check in at luxurious lodges
For anyone craving a few more comforts while on holiday, the tented camps and lodges around Etosha are the way to go. These typically include private ensuite bathrooms, perhaps an outdoor shower, comfy beds draped with mosquito netting, fans and air-conditioning, chilled drinking water, a chance to hop on wifi, daily housekeeping, and chef-prepared meals. Plus, you can directly book game drives in open-air safari vehicles, led by professional guides who often have tips on where certain species have recently been spotted.
Tented camps are largely clustered near the Anderson Gate (the southern entrance) and the Von Lindequist Gate (the eastern entrance). You could opt for the family-friendly Mushara Bush Camp or the chic sister property Mushara Outpost.
If you want classic safari-style, go with Onguma Tented Camp, where just seven tented rooms encircle an active watering hole in the Onguma Nature Reserve. Onguma also has a family-friendly Bush Camp, a couple of camping sites, and two splurge-worthy lodges.
Adjacent to the Anderson Gate, Ongava Game Reserve features a family-friendly camp, a luxe tented camp, an all-suite option, and Ongava Lodge. This lodge is one of the most iconic in Etosha, which has its own watering hole and a hide from which to view the action up close.
Generally speaking, nightly rates for tented camps and lodges vary quite a bit, depending on the style of the camp/lodge, the time of year, as well as which package you go with. You could book the DBB rate (dinner, bed, and breakfast) or the all-inclusive rate, which typically includes twice-daily game drives, as well as all meals and beverages, including beer, wine, and spirits.