Etosha National Park
Some of the finest wildlife viewing in Africa
Etosha is a truly epic National Park, offering some of the world’s finest wildlife viewing. Tucked away in the north of Namibia and stretching across 22,000 square kilometres of unrivalled remote landscape, it’s a top-notch choice for a totally secluded and surreal safari.
The Park rings the huge white Etosha Salt Pan that covers a whopping 20% of the entire Park. This Pan is the stomping ground to a breathtaking amount of animal life, with vast herds of zebra, giraffe and elephant roaming across its cracked white surface and surrounding savannah. Scattered with odd ‘upside down’ trees and shallow, salt-heavy lakes, Etosha feels as though it’s popped straight out of the pages of a Dr Seuss book, making it a seriously special place for a safari.
Etosha is home to 114 different species of mammal, including four of the famous Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and rhino (both black and white). It also boasts over 400 species of bird and 110 species of reptile. You’ll also find 3 rare antelope species amongst its hills and valleys - the lovely black-faced impala, the graceful roan antelope and the dinky Damara dik-dik, Southern Africa’s tiniest antelope, which stands only 40cm tall to the shoulder as a fully grown adult.
The Etosha Pan, a massive swathe of salt pan covering 5,000 square kilometres is Etosha’s strange but beautiful centrepiece. Measuring an amazing 130 km long and 72 km wide, it’s something quite incredible to see with your own eyes. Unsurprisingly, Etosha means ‘huge white area’ or ‘place of dry water’ in Owambo, and this explains how the Park got it’s name.
Over 12 million years ago, the pan was a shallow lake fed by the trickles of the Kunene River, but shifting tectonic movement in the earth’s crust has since changed the course of the river, drying up the Pan. Now, it’s totally unique safari terrain that is difficult to describe in words.
San legend holds that the pan was formed by a young woman whose only child was murdered by savage hunters. The woman literally cried a river and her tears gathered into a great lake. When the sun shone upon the land, it dried up the water but left the ground sprinkled with salt.
It’s true that the pan has a extraordinarily high alkaline content, which serves to attract a whole host of wildlife needing salt for nutrition. If there is exceptionally heavy rainfall, the Pan transforms into salty sludge lake and becomes the feeding ground literally thousands of wading birds and huge flocks of bright pink flamingos.
Vegetation in Etosha
The vegetation in Etosha varies mostly between bushland, long grass and sun-scorched savannah. It’s also dotted with completely mad-looking Moringa trees, which look as if they have been planted upside down with their roots where their leaves should be and viva versa.
Legend has it that these striking trees were caused by the Creator, who became angry with the animals and furiously flung a tree down to Earth. Luckily, the tree missed the animals, but it landed topsy-turvy, where it stayed as a warning for the wildlife not to enrage the Creator again. Nowadays, the quirky Moringa trees are befitting to the bizarre landscape of Etosha and, indeed, Namibia at large.
Exploring Etosha on a Self-Drive Safari
Many visitors to Etosha set off on self-drive safaris through the Park. From behind your own wheel, you’ll happen across vast herds, pass the dazzling white pan, scour the savannah for wildlife and soak up the truly surreal scenery. This is self-drive at its most epic, and it will show you a very unusual and completely captivating side to the idea of an African safari.
There are 4 main gates that lead into the Park - the Andersson Gate to the south, the Von Lindequist Gate to the east, the Galton Gate to the south-west, and the King Nehale Lya Mpingana Gate in the north. These gates are open from sunrise to sunset and upon arrival every visitor pays an entrance fee which contributes to the upkeep and the conservation efforts of Etosha. When you visit Etosha, you can either opt to stay in one of the comfortable lodges just outside the gates and drive in each day or rest your head at one of the rustic rest camps within the boundaries of the Park run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts.
The main roads leading from the main gates are tarred, but after that you’re in gravel territory where the condition of the roads ranges from surprisingly smooth to bone-shakingly pot-holed. This means that driving here is an experience all of its own before you even throw the jaw-dropping wildlife into the mix! The speed limit through the Park is 60 km and it’s really important to observe this at all times. Only the southern rim of the Etosha Pan is open to visitors and there are no roads traversing the Pan itself, keeping the landscape pristine and serene.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need a 4WD to explore Etosha. However, a high clearance vehicle with sturdy suspension is a very sensible idea, as it improves visibility (for looking over the bushes and through the long grass) and ground clearance (for puddles and potholes!). All of the roads within Etosha are accessible by 2WD saloon car, but if you take one of these vehicles you need to be extra vigilant in wet weather. If you drive through too much deep water, you’ll risk soaking the spark plugs and the engine, and you really don’t want to breakdown before a pride of lions - trust us!
If you are unlucky enough to break down or puncture a tyre, stay inside your car until help arrives. Do not get out. This kind of incident is highly unlikely, but make sure you have a mobile phone and plenty of water handy - just in case!
When to Visit Etosha
The best time to visit Etosha for a superb safari experience is from June through to October. These months start warm and get progressively hotter as you go through the year, and the vegetation dries out, making it easier to spot the wildlife. Because these are the dry months in terms of rainfall, the game is concentrated more around water holes as other water sources dry up.
The summer rains begin in November, and the dried out bush begins to take on a lovely green hue, but the water levels are just enhanced and if anything the excellence of the game viewing intensifies over November and December.
Come January and February, however, which are the wettest months, the wildlife is able to disperse across the Park more, as water is more abundant. Over these months, however, the Pan fills with water, attracting migratory birdlife and hundreds of flamingos.
Staying in a Private Reserve
We recommend staying in Etosha for a minimum of 3 nights. It’s a pretty epic journey to reach the Park, so it would be a shame to cut your visit short after the effort of getting there and there’s so much to see that even 3 nights is only barely enough. The ideal scenario is to stay near one gate for a couple of nights and then self-drive through Etosha to the other gate for a further night or 2. This will give you a good look at both sides of the salt pan without doubling back on yourself and provide a sensational safari at the very same time.
Self-driving isn’t for everyone, so if you’re not excited by the prospect of exploring Etosha on your own four wheels, there is another excellent way to take a safari across its savannah and namesake salt pan. Staying at one of the concessions or private lodges just outside the Park boundaries, you’ll be treated to a series of show-stopping safaris in a game-viewing vehicle led by an experienced guide. The game drives will cover either the private concession or venture into Etosha itself - so this kind of safari really is the best of both worlds.
Ongava is the largest of the private concessions, and indeed, one of the largest private game reserves in Namibia as a whole. It’s one of very few reserves that can count both black and white rhino amongst its inhabitants, and you’ll be given the opportunity to track rhino on foot during your stay - something that is bound to become a highlight of your Namibia adventure.
The vast expanse of Ongava is home to only 3 exclusive lodges, so whichever one you choose, you’ll be treated to uninterrupted panoramic vistas and complete peace. Ongava Lodge is an enchanting assortment of rock and thatch chalets, while the smaller Ongava Tented Camp will bring you romantic starry nights under a canvas canopy. Little Ongava, nestled on the crest of a hill with far-reaching views onto the plains and valleys below, is somewhere magically serene and a perfect place for getting a new perspective.