Visiting Etosha National Park

The second leg of our wildlife viewing trip to southern Africa last September took us to Namibia’s Etosha National Park. This was toward the end of the southern hemisphere’s winter dry season, and Etosha at that time is very dry. White dust blows everywhere and the already sparse vegetation looks as if it’s dead. It’s a stark landscape.

Namibia’s Etosha National Park

Etosha is not always like this. In the summer rainy season it’s lush and green, and the park website warns you to be careful in case the roads are flooded. Wildlife viewing though is best in the winter, when the arid conditions force the game to visit the park’s widely separated waterholes.

Afternoon near the Andersson gate

What we did. We flew to the capital Windhoek and drove north to the park. It’s about 300 miles to the entrance, all on paved roads, all of which are good. The final stretch north of Outjo is almost deserted. We stayed for four nights at the Etosha Safari Lodge Gondwana, 10km outside the park’s Andersson gate. There are a number of accommodation options in the same general area but there’s nothing in the way of a town – each lodge is self-contained.

Mid-day at Okaukuejo

It’s also possible to stay at rest camps inside the park. We visited Okaukuejo, accessible from the Andersson gate by paved road, which is built next to a large natural waterhole that’s floodlit at night. The wildlife here comes to you! From our base outside we instead spent three days driving into the park when the gates opened (at dawn), twice on guided trips in safari vehicles and once in our decidedly non-safari VW Polo. Unlike in Kruger the wildlife in Etosha is strongly concentrated around the waterholes, and although you’ll certainly see giraffe, zebra and the like from the road the main strategy for game viewing is to wait at the waterholes and see what happens. One of the highlights of our trip was a morning spent at Nebrownii, where four lions had taken up residence for the day. The lions weren’t really doing very much, but their presence on one side of the waterhole led to a stand off with large numbers of springbok, oryx, and the odd giraffe on the other side.

Late morning at Nebrownii waterhole

Later a group of elephants appeared to drink and bathe in the mud.

Early afternoon at Nebrownii, Etosha National Park

The nearest waterhole to the Andersson gate is Ombika, and it’s a good spot to visit immediately after the gate opens in case predators are still around. On our second guided trip two lionesses were just finishing drinking as the sun rose. They left the waterhole and headed past us back into the bush.

Sunrise at Ombika waterhole

A luckier sighting came along the dirt road between Ombika and Gaseb. Driving the road in the early morning a trail of blood pointed to a fresh kudu carcass beneath a small tree. We waited, but of the killer there was no sign. Returning in the afternoon, though, a cheetah lay casually guarding its kill. The environment didn’t make for a great image, but it was wonderful to see.

Cheetah seen along a rough road near the Andersson gate

Thoughts on visiting Etosha. Etosha is Namibia’s best known national park, but it’s nowhere near as famous as South Africa’s Kruger and information on the park is thinner on the ground. I must admit that prior to planning our trip I’d never even heard of it! With that in mind here follows a few random thoughts…

Where to stay. The easiest option would be to stay at one of the rest camps overlooking a waterhole (some of the accommodation units even have views of the action). One could have a relaxing vacation and see quite a lot of wildlife without having to drive anywhere. The accommodation within Etosha books up quite quickly, so if you want to stay in the park it’s essential to plan ahead. Staying outside the park, as we did, has merits too. You probably get slightly better / cheaper accommodation, and we were very happy with the quality of the guides employed by our lodge.

Entering the park. Getting into the park is easy, but you do need your passport. On arrival at the gate the ranger fills in a form, but you don’t pay on the spot. Instead you take the form to the visitors’ center (in our case at Okaukuejo) and pay there, in return for which you get an exit permit that you show on leaving.

Getting around. The only paved road within the park is the short stretch between the Andersson gate and Okaukuejo. From there, we only drove a handful of the main and secondary dirt roads east of Okaukuejo, but the ones we tried were in good condition. We encountered no real problems in our VW Polo, and certainly any vehicle with even a bit more ground clearance would work well. You do, of course, get a better view with the extra height and open sides of the safari vehicles used on guided tours.

Photography. We found Etosha to be easier for photography than Kruger. The environment is more open and distinctive, and the focus on waterholes means you’re not scrambling to capture fleeting scenes seen from the road. Notable wildlife moments in real life are measured out much more sparingly than in nature documentaries, but three days in Etosha was enough for us to have some truly memorable encounters.

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