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Safari in Etosha: everything you need to know

Everything you need to know about going on safari to Etosha National Park, Namibia

Alistair

Alistair

Africa Specialist
Published on

10 Mar 2021

Updated on

27 Feb 2024

Complete Guide To Safari In Etosha

Namibia is one of those countries that truly does have it all. With the vast expanses of desert and incredible vistas of the Namib-Nauklft National Park, endless sand dunes of the Skeleton Coast, lush green bush of the Caprivi Strip or the game rich waterholes of the Etosha National Park, a Namibia holiday offers exceptional variation for all.

No trip to this diverse destination is complete without spending some time in Etosha National Park and this is often where travellers get their wildlife fix on a trip that often centres around breath taking scenery and remoteness which is difficult to match. Etosha spans over 20,000 square km and has accommodation to suit everyone, although like many other popular destinations in Africa availability can be tricky to find, and I would say that in Etosha’s this is very much the case.

Why visit Etosha?

Eland Sunset
elands and sunsets in etosha national park

Etosha is home to 114 species of mammal, over 340 species of bird, and has four out of the big five. If you keep your eyes peeled and spend some time exploring, you can have a very productive game-viewing experience.

Etosha translates to “Place of Mirages, “Great White Place” or “Land of Dry Water”, referring to the 130km long and 50km wide salt pan which can be found cover almost a quarter or 4,800 square km of Etosha National Park. Surrounding this vast expanse of nothing are numerous waterholes that can be found along the Southern edges of the pan. These waterholes famously entice plenty of wildlife and sometime a large diversity of species can be seen drinking at the same time.

Etosha is also considerably more affordable than many other safari destinations with a number of large properties inside the park catering for self-drives and guided safaris This this combined with its abundance of game and the opportunities to explore beyond the park make Etosha one of Southern Africa’s most popular wildlife experiences. Although it is remote it is surprisingly accessible with a good network of well signposted roads up from Windhoek and other parts of Namibia.

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Five Etosha Highlights

Black Rhino Night Etosha Waterhole
A black rhino at night

1. Catch the evening show at Okaukuejo Water Hole

During the dry season between May and October the waterholes on the southern edge of Etosha are a hotspot for wildlife. One of the best is at Okaukuejo Camp just inside the park entrance. For the best experience come at dusk when the waterhole is floodlit and watch a spectacular wildlife show whilst sipping on a cool beer. Giraffes slurp warily, rhinos jostle for space and elephants are even drinking companions with lions. Black rhinos (photo, below) are seen here almost every day, and if you’re lucky you may even spot a leopard.

Dust Devil Etosha
Dust devil Etosha

2. Watch the dust devils dance

Etosha is famous for its dust devils, towering columns of dust powering past in whirlwinds up to 5m wide. They’re rather like tornados but prefer warm and sunny weather, and the vast plains and open skies of Etosha are the ideal location for them to come out to play. The dust devils can travel up to 70km per hour but are usually fairly harmless. Just make sure you roll up your windows if you see one! If you fancy yourself as a bit of a storm chaser, the best place to see the dance of the dust devils is near the Ozonjuitji m’Bari water hole over on the western edge of Etosha.

Lion Chase Etosha Namibia
Lion chase at Etosha

3. Grazers.... followed closely by Big Cats

Wildlife in Namibia is prolific, and nowhere more so than on the grasslands in the south of Etosha National Park. You’ll be tripping over the plains grazers because there are so many of them, with everything from red hartebeest and blue wildebeest to Burchell’s zebra and the endemic black-faced impala. Kudu and giraffe chomp away at the edge of the woodlands and watch out for the enormous elands, the size of which you can’t quite appreciate until you see them in person. All this tasty game means the big cats are never far behind, and it’s a great place to watch lions, leopards and even cheetahs doing their thing. If that isn’t enough excitement, then there are also white and black rhino to be found, as well as hundred-strong herds of elephants roaming the park.

Dust Cloud In Etosha National Park - Yathin Krishnappa
Crossing the Etosha Pan

4. Witness the crossing of the giant white pan

The name ‘Etosha’ means ‘great white place’ which is rather fitting for this vast salty expanse. Animals are attracted to the saline earth here as they can’t find sodium very easily elsewhere, and to see both predator and prey trundling together across the pan in search of water makes for some rather unusual and memorable wildlife viewing.

Etosha Secretary Bird
Secretary bird

5. Get your binoculars ready - birdwatching

There are over 340 species of bird in Etosha, from secretary birds and ostriches out on the plains to the crimson-breasted shrike flitting around clusters of small trees. If you like raptors then you’re in luck too as there are over 35 different types in the park, including the pygmy falcon and steppe eagle. Whilst game viewing is more difficult during the wet season, this is an ideal time to come bird watching, particularly to witness the flamingos flocking around the salt pan which thanks to the rains becomes a shallow alkaline lake. Quite a spectacle.

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Best trip

One of our favorite itineraries is our Classic Namibia Self Drive. Self-drive trips are the ultimate way to see Namibia, allowing you the freedom to stop as you please along the way to marvel at the incredible sights that unfold wherever you look.

Starting off with a night in the quaint colonial capital city of Windhoek before heading to the renowned Okonjima Nature Reserve, home of the Africat Foundation famed for its cheetah conservation.

Next up is the iconic Etosha National Park, a shimming salt pan surrounded by game-rich plains where you will see all manner of wildlife big and small. From Etosha head to dry Damaraland which is home to desert-adapted rhino and elephant.

Next it is the adventure capital Swakopmund, a charming coastal town, before you head to the towering red sand dunes of Sossusvlei which are a highlight for many, before returning back to Windhoek to head home.

Price from: £3,3455pp

Duration: 14 days

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4X4 Self Drive Namibia
4x4 self-drive in namibia
Dsc 5776
stunning deserts of sossusvlei
001Safarihoek Lodge 3408T2
game drive in etosha

When to go

Simply put the best time to visit Etosha is the dry season from June through to October. Much like many other parts of Southern Africa, Namibia has two seasons The wet season or “Green season” runs from November through to May and the dry season, as previously mentioned runs from June through October, although give or take a few weeks either side in case the rains are early or late.

I have been lucky enough to travel to Namibia at all times of the year and there is no real reason why you can’t travel at a time that suits you. During the green (wet) season the grasses are tall and lush and much of the vegetation is thick and bushy sometimes making the wildlife a little bit harder to spot, they are still there, just a little more hidden. If you are on a self-drive then the roads are muddy which can make for slow going. There is plenty of surface water, and puddles and full waterholes around the game tend to be spread out.

In comparison, the dry season makes the game a lot denser as they congregate around the few remaining waterholes. With higher temperatures from August through to October the wildlife does not stray far as they keep the waterholes close, this can result in some incredible sightings if you don’t mind sitting and waiting. It’s common place to see impala, springbok, zebra, ostrich giraffe and rhino all drinking at the same time and if you are luck enough a cheetah or pride of lions may be watching and waiting for the right opportunity to hunt.

Etosha wildlife

Epacha Rhino
black rhino in etosha national park

A visit to Etosha will provide you with the opportunity to see many of the iconic African species amongst a few which are endemic to this area. The park is home to four of the big five, with only buffalo notably absent.

The nutrient rich grasses surrounding the salt pans supports a large number of herbivores such as elephant, wildebeest, springbok, impala, zebra, giraffe, eland, kudu and the iconic gemsbok. Each species is adapted to this harsh and unforgiving environment in their own way, usually surviving long periods with little water during intense periods of high temperatures with little rain. Where there is prey, you of course find predators too and lion, leopard and cheetah live in the park too.

One of the main draws to Etosha is its healthy population of black rhino. They have been thriving here for a long time now and their numbers are still increasing. Even as a boy I remember spending the evenings sitting by the floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo watching them come into drink and chasing off anything else which came into close including lions, living up to their reputation for being the more aggressive of the rhino species. As well as black rhino, white rhino have recently been reintroduced to the park adding to Etosha’s conservation importance, especially with it being Africa’s black rhino strong hold already.

If you are lucky enough to see a black rhino, be careful about posting the image on social media as poachers can use this to find the location of these endangered animals.

One of the rarest animals in the Etosha and one of a few endemic species is the Damara dik-dik, difficult to spot in the thick bush this is the smallest antelope in Etosha. With roughly a 1,000 left it’s a great species to try and tick off.

Ev Lions2
lions in etosha national park
Madoqua Kirkii  Female Namutoni Yathin S Krishnappa
the adorable daramland dik-dik

Watering holes in Etosha

Mokuti Etosha Lodge
elephants at a waterhole - etosha national park

Watering holes offer one of the best opportunities to see wildlife as it congregates around these, especially during the dry winter months, when more animals are drawn out of hiding to drink at the water’s edge.

Seeing wildlife at watering holes is a combination of patience and luck. It is well worth finding a spot you are happy in, turning off your engine and sitting and waiting to see what comes, patience is the name of the game here. The visitors also change from season to season so it is worth asking guides and your camp for tips.

Although there are over 40 watering holes in Etosha, here are our favourites.

Okaukuejo

This water whole is located right next to Okaukuejo rest camp and has the advantage of being floodlit, which means it is one of the best spots in the park and perhaps all of Namibia, to see black rhino who often visit here at night, as well as numerous elephant (especially between June and December).

Okondeka

Okondeka is among the best for lion sightings who can often be found with kill here. This waterhole is a natural fountain and is situated right on the edge of the west side of the salt pan.

Halali and Goas

Goas has a natural spring which makes it a favourite place to spot birds who come here to drink and bathe, as well as black-faced impalas and elephants. Although never a guarantee, Halali and Goas which are located close to each other are some of the best watering holes to spot the elusive leopard.

Sueda, Salvadora and Rietfontein

Two of the most scenic waterholes, Sueda and Salvadora have stunning views over the pan which make them a great spot for cheetah sightings. The nearby Rietfontein is a popular hang-out spot for lions.

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Bufalo At The Hide S Waterhole
buffalos at a waterhole - etosha national park
The Hide Wildlife Cheetah
cheetahs visit a waterhole - etosha national park

Self-drive vs guided safari

Namibia Self Drive
self drive safari in namibia

The beauty of a Namibia safari is that its suited for everyone, whether you are a family on a tight budget or splashing out on your Namibian honeymoon, there are camps and itineraries which suit your style and needs. Having done both self-drives and guided trips a number of times both are special in their own way.

Self-drive give you that sense of adventure, and if you’re someone who likes to be a little more involved in the planning of your trip then this works really well. You do not have to have been to Africa before or done a self-drive to be able to book a trip like this. The roads in Namibia are relatively good and well sign posted, however, many are gravel so stick to the speed limits and drive carefully. Often the later in the dry season the better for a self-drive as the roads and tracks have had time to dry out, but really its possible to self drive all year round with a bit of care.

Advantages of a self-drive

  • Go at your own pace and spend as long or little time at a sighting as you want
  • Gives you a sense of adventure and exploration
  • Not sharing your vehicle with another family
  • Typically a more affordable option

I have listed a few of my top tips for any self drive below but for more tips, take a look at our self-drive in Namibia page.

  • Make sure your vehicle is a four-wheel drive rather than two wheel drive, these often give you a better view over the taller grasses.
  • The best time for game viewing is in the early morning when it is cooler so the animals are more active so try to arrive for when the gates open
  • Early evening can also be a brilliant game viewing time and chance to see rhino at the waterholes
  • Give the animals plenty of space and always wait for them to pass in their own time – especially elephants!
  • Be patient
  • Don’t get out your vehicle

There are a number of private camps and lodges dotted in and around Etosha, these are often preferred if travellers do not have the time or the confidence for a self-drive. The guides themselves are based at the lodges and will often stay with your during your stay at that property. Private guides, camps and lodges definitely come with the advantages, however they are often pricier.

Advantages of a guide

Game Drive At The Hide
game drives in etosha national park
  • Inside track of where the animals are and can share their expertise with you
  • You are free to focus purely on the wildlife viewing rather than the road ahead
  • Learn about the area, history, culture and wildlife firsthand
  • If in a conservancy, it offers a more private wildlife viewing experience
  • Some visitors find it more relaxing

The private areas are also a little more isolated giving a more exclusive feel to your trip as you get away from the busier areas of the park. My top tip for planning any privately guided trip of fly-in safari would be to contact a reputable Africa specialist such as ourselves. Having stayed at the majority of camps and lodges and having great connections on the ground counts for a lot. We can make sure you are staying at the right camp for you at the right time of year and your journey is seamless.

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Where to stay

Onguma The Fort Views
Onguma The Fort

Visitors to Etosha stay principally on the fringes of the park, with the southern and eastern sections containing by far the biggest choice of accommodation, although the western and northern sections do have a tiny handful of lodges for more adventurous travellers to explore.

Staying inside Etosha National Park has the advantage that you are right there where the action happens, and you have a head start to set off in the early morning or late afternoons when game is at its most active. However, the quality of accommodation can be better and greater value for money outside of the park, so you need to weigh these up when making a decision.

Both the southern and eastern sections of the park are also home to a small number of private concessions, which share open boundaries with the main park, offering more well-heeled visitors the chance to enjoy Etosha’s incredible game viewing, whilst avoiding the crowds associated with any African National Park.

Wherever you choose to stay when visiting Etosha, you can gain access to the park simply by paying the per person (and vehicle) entrance fee at the gate, before driving yourselves along the extensive network of tarred roads to access the prime game viewing areas.

Southern Sector

Little Ongava Deck With Chairs And Cocktails View Min
view from little ongava decking area
Ongava Lodge Sunset Balcony
sunset views from ongava lodge
Etosha Safari Camp
etosha safari camp

Best accessed from the Anderson Gate, it is a 20km game drive to the main rest camp at Okaukuejo where you will find accommodation, shops, cafes and a petrol station. Leading away from Okaukuejo, there is an excellent network of roads, with access to prime game viewing spots including a number of watering holes which are favorite haunts of rhino and elephant in particular.

Private concessions here include Ongava Private Game Reserve which sits adjacent to the park and has four excellent lodges. Rhino tracking on foot with their trained guides is a signature experience – they also offer guided walks, photographic hides, and of course game drives (in open vehicles).

Where to stay:

Upmarket: Little Ongava & Etosha Mountain Lodge

Mid: Taleni Etosha Village & Ongava Lodge

Simple: Etosha Safari Camp & Okaukuejo Camp

Eastern Sector

The Etosha Pan stretches from the parks center across to its eastern boundary. The areas along its fringes, combined with many permanent water holes makes for exceptionally productive wildlife viewing. Along the Pan’s southern edge are the popular Halali and Namutoni Restcamps and an extensive network of game drive routes. First timers to Etosha are likely to spend their time exploring this part of the park, and it also forms the natural route through the park for those travelers heading further east to the Caprivi Strip.

For an upmarket experience in the area, the Mushara Collection (four lodges) and Onguma Nature Reserve (five lodges), both private concessions on the parks eastern boundary, are well worth considering.

**WHERE TO STAY**

Upmarket: Onguma The Fort & The Mushara Outpost

Mid: Mushara Lodge & Onguma Bush Camp

Simple: Mokuti Lodge & Emanya Etosha Game Lodge

Onguma The Fort Entrance
Onguma - the fort
Mushara Lodge Hero
mushara lodge - etosha national park
Mokuti Etosha Lodge Pool
pool at mokuti lodge

Northern sector

A region that for much of the park’s existence been ignored by the majority of visitors from overseas due to its remote location and challenges of access. Wildlife numbers here aren’t as high as southern and eastern Etosha, and the animals can be a little skittish owing to their relative lack of exposure to vehicles – nevertheless it is still a beautiful area that will reward the more adventurous with incredible scenery, an unspoilt experience and that increasingly sought after thing on crowded planet earth; solitude.

Accommodation options are limited to Onkoshi Camp on the north east fringes of the Etosha Pan and Etosha King Nehale a new opening from a well-established regional hotel group.

Western Sector

Until early 2015, access to the western part of Etosha was limited to guests with a reservation in the government rest camps there. That rule has now been relaxed and, whilst this part of the park is opening up with more accommodation options and a widening network of game driving road, it is still noticeably quieter.

Accessed through the Galton Gate, its terrain and wildlife viewing is very similar to southern Etosha, however it is notable for being the only part of the park where visitors can see black-faced impala and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Rare and shy species such as black rhino is well established in this quieter part of the park. The main accommodation options here are upmarket Dolomite Camp and Olifantsrus – the first accommodation option in the park to offer a camping only experience.

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Safari House
Oevans 17621

Etosha Gates

There are four Etosha gates. The gate opening and closing times varies throughout the year but will typically be within half an hour of sunrise and sunset. There can be queues for the gate, so it is always advisable to arrive early.

  • Anderson Gate – Southern Gate – This is the main entrance into Etosha and there are a number of safari camps near the entrance for those not looking to stay in the park.
  • Von Lindequest Gate – Eastern Gate – This is the second-largest gate to Etosha connected by a main road (the B1).
  • Galton Gate – Western Gate -This is the most remote entrance to the park and is great for those traveling from Damaraland or the Skeleton Coast.
  • King Nehale Lya Mpingana Gate – Northern Gate – Not far from the main town of Ondangwa.

Booking Etosha Accommodation

More than any other destination we have been to, accommodation in Namibia and in particular Etosha, gets booked up well in advance. Ideally you want to book your Namibia safari at least a year in advance.

How to get there

The best way to reach Etosha is from Windhoek. From here you can fly by scheduled charter from Eros which takes about an hour. If you are not self driving and staying in one of the private lodges then this is your only route North. If you are visiting Etosha as part of a self-drive trip, then again, Windhoek is you nearest start point and this drive will take you about 6 hours. There is plenty to see and do along the way so be sure to leave plenty of time and break the journey up along the way. Etosha is also easily reached from Swakopmond by car.

With all trips which are logistically more complicated like a Namibia self-drive I would always suggest using the services of a good, knowledgeable Africa specialist to help with the planning. Not only for advise and recommendations on where to stay but also to help arrange the accommodation, permits and vehicle rental. The access to live availability is key when booking the accommodation and finding alternative along your desired route.

Please call 01768 603 715 to chat with one of our Namibia specialist about your trip.

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