Spotlight on Etosha – what you need to know
The name means Great White Place and when you stand on the edge of Etosha Pan, you’ll see why. Stretching beyond the horizon, Etosha’s enormous flat salt pan is baked white by the sun – silent and seemingly lifeless. But wait – is that an ostrich? And an antelope on the pan? Turn around with the great white plain to your back and a very different landscape now lies in front of you: grassy savannah, studded with waterholes and woodland, and home to some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa.
Etosha National Park is the flagship reserve in Namibia and features highly when planning a safari to Namibia. But it’s big – almost the size of Belize in Central America – and is set in the far north of the country. There are different regions to Etosha National Park – its famous pan is only a quarter of its area – and these regions each have a character. You’ll need to decide about your accommodation: there are private lodges and state-run safari camps as well as camping facilities. Oh, and there’s a rainy season too.
Let’s throw the spotlight on Etosha National Park and see why, where and when to go. Then we’ll look at how to actually experience Etosha: guided tour or self-drive? Drive or fly? But first …
WHY GO TO ETOSHA?
It might not be as wild as Botswana or as packed with the Big Five like the Sabi Sands but Etosha National Park delivers a mighty big safari experience. Perhaps the best place in Africa to see the highly endangered black rhino, this is a reserve also famous for its predators – lion and cheetah especially – as well as its large elephant population. And since Etosha marks the boundary between savannah and desert, the wildlife is highly diverse and includes many unusual desert species like the rapier-horned gemsbok antelope.
Where Etosha scores highly is that all this wildlife is relatively easy to see. The landscape is often flat and open, and the region is bone-dry for most of the year which concentrates animals at permanent waterholes, conveniently located on game drive routes as well as at lodges. Some Etosha accommodation provides floodlit waterhole viewing at night which can prove very exciting for the patient viewer. Bottom line – you’ll see good wildlife in Etosha, especially if this is your first time to Namibia or even on safari.
WHERE TO GO IN ETOSHA
Etosha National Park is a long rectangular shape. Large areas – such as the pan itself – have restricted access or are just plain-old inaccessible but much of the park is open for exploring.
Western Etosha is the least developed area. It’s a different landscape to the rest of the park: here you’ll see rocky hills and woodland with plenty of animals but without the density of wildlife compared to the rest of the park. The smaller road network and the fact that there’s only a single lodge here means that Western Etosha has far fewer visitors than other areas of the park – good to know in the busy season.
Western Etosha is also where you’ll find several private reserves that offer the Etosha experience but in a more luxurious and exclusive environment, mixing safari drives on the private reserve with visits to the national park.
Most of the park’s north is the trackless Etosha Pan but south and central Etosha is where you’ll find the great herds of animals – antelope, wildebeest, zebra and giraffe – and their predators: lions, leopards, hyenas and cheetah. It’s an open grassy landscape here and easy to see and watch animals – families with children take note.
There are two well-established safari camps in the south/central region catering mostly for budget and self-drive visitors – and a third camp in Eastern Etosha, right on the edge of the pan. These three camps are state-run and lie in the most productive parts of the reserve and have the greatest network of roads and waterholes around them. There’s a private lodge on the park’s eastern boundary too, accessing its own reserve as well as wildlife-rich eastern Etosha.
WHEN TO GO TO ETOSHA
It’s a simple choice really: rain or not? Etosha National Park has a fairly binary climate: it rains occasionally – sometimes heavily – from the end of October to the end of April with the most rain falling January through March. And then, barring an odd cloudburst or two, it’s basically blue sky and sunshine for the rest of the year – May through October.
Now you need to balance experience with expectation. Rainy season safaris to Etosha National Park can be very rewarding; it’s when many animals give birth – excellent for both photographers and predators – and it’s when migrant birds arrive. In fact, you may have much of the park to yourself: there won’t be a huge number of other people, and so if you shop around there will be accommodation deals.
But it may rain – and although the roads in the park are generally good, they are not sealed and – if you are self-driving – you may now have wet gravel roads to deal with. Rain also means that the animals won’t be concentrated at waterholes like they are in the drier parts of the year, plus they’ll be harder to spot in the denser vegetation.
Travel to Etosha in the May – October dry season and you’ll avoid the rain and can look forward to easy wildlife watching. But of course it’s when most people want to visit, especially during mild and dry peak season: June, July and August. Accommodation prices are highest now and you’ll need to book further ahead to get the lodge you want. However, you’ll find bookings easier during the shoulder seasons – May or October and November – and the safari experience much the same.
HOW TO DO ETOSHA
There are three ways to experience Etosha National Park as part of a Namibian tour: a fly-in safari, a self-drive safari or a guided overland safari.
A fly-in safari is what it says it is: you’ll arrive at Namibia’s Windhoek International Airport and have a series of domestic flights from destination to destination, lodge to lodge. And thanks to the recent arrival of an independent local airline – Fly Namibia – the price of a fly-in safari has become more competitive. This is the easiest and most comfortable way to experience Etosha – your accommodation will be at private lodges and your trip fully-inclusive – ideal for luxury travel and honeymooners.
A self-drive safari is even easier to describe. You arrive at the airport, grab the keys of your hire car and go. It’s easier than you may think (and I speak from personal experience). Namibia’s national roads are sealed and in good condition and the way to Etosha plainly signed. People are friendly and there’s no hassle with authorities. You follow a pre-planned route, and make your way from lodge to lodge, where you can choose to join in activities offered by the lodge such as night drives and bush walks. Great for families and couples.
And then there’s the old-fashioned way: guided overland. The most budget-friendly option, an overland safari to Etosha gives you the advantage of an experienced guide who takes care of the driving and all the catering and logisitics. Now you enjoy a running commentary on the landscape, interesting interactions with fellow travellers and someone to deal with problems if they occur – not a bad idea in the rainy season. You’ll need more time for this trip – they run for up to three weeks.
Either way, you’ll enjoy Etosha – the Great White Place.