Expert Reviews – Etosha NP

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Where the wild things are
Overall rating

Set against a backdrop of harsh, foreboding scrubland and covering more than 20,000 square kilometres, Etosha offers exceptional wildlife viewing. Unlike other safari destinations in Africa, wildlife sightings here are virtually guaranteed. Centred on a huge, flat shimmering salt pan, the park is dotted with more than 30 waterholes, both natural and man-made, which attract a daily array of animals and birds. Having entered the park from the western Von Lindequist Gate, we found Chudop the most consistent and prolific. The best time for wildlife viewing is of course early morning and late afternoon, but during the dry months from June to November you’ll find more activity around the waterholes throughout the day. My best advice is to find a good spot by the water and be prepared to wait as the animals at first slowly and then in numbers drift in from the desert plains. You’ll find no shortage of zebra, giraffe, springbok and gemsbok – we also easily spied elephant, lion and hyena. In fact, our animal wish list was getting ticked off quickly, but it was the black rhino which proved most elusive. That was, until the very last day when a determined rhino barrelled out of the thick bush behind us almost colliding with our vehicle as we were driving out of the park and disappeared just as quickly into the bush on the other side of the road. Oh well, perhaps on our next visit!

The big white pan
Overall rating

Etosha is Namibia’s jewel in the crown and should be on everyone’s itinerary when visiting this alluring country. Etosha means “great white place” and the vast calcrete pan dominates the reserve. Etosha is a photographer’s dream with the shimmering pan, golden grass and lilac-hued skies. In the dry season, there is lots of game with many elephant, zebra, gemsbok, lion and perhaps most special of all, black rhino. The dry season is particularly rewarding when a non-stop procession of animals visit the water holes, and you can spend hours just sitting in one place. The water holes in the public rest camps are illuminated at night, and it is magical sitting there waiting to see what will step out of the shadows onto the flood-lit stage.

I’ve also visited in the wet season, and although I only saw a single elephant, the pan was flooded and covered with pink flamingos. I will never forget watching the flamingos “dance”, strutting in formation to the left and right, like American line-dancers.

Big game galore at Namibia’s flagship park
Overall rating

Etosha National Park is an undisputed big game heavyweight that stands in the same league as South Africa’s Kruger and Tanzania’s Serengeti. At nearly 23,000 sq km, it’s in fact bigger than both those contemporaries, but the density of game is just as astonishing.

With the exception of buffalo, the Big 5 are all here. There’s probably nowhere better in Africa to see black rhinos. I’ve seen more lions here than anywhere else except the Serengeti. And to my mind the elephants are the biggest I’ve ever seen.

For the big game, Etosha is best visited in the cooler and bone dry winter months (roughly between May and October), when the waterholes become a bustling oasis in the otherwise parched landscape. The floodlit waterhole at the centrally-located Okaukuejo Camp is a special feature, though the camp itself, like various others in the park, is in need of a facelift.

Personally, I prefer the greener, hillier and less-visited western section of the park, which is a very good bet for black rhino sightings and the rare black-faced impala.

Life in the Heat Haze
Overall rating

Etosha National Park centres on a vast, normally bone-dry, lake bed. Around this stretch miles of burnt grasslands and dry woodlands. It’s not the most promising sounding of safari destinations and most people would assume that the best time to visit, if at all, would be in the wet season when the shallow lake fills with water but yet, despite this relative abundance of water, the wet season isn’t the best time to experience Etosha as the easier access to water means the animals can spread out over a wider area.

Come in the dry season though and things are very different. Huge numbers of animals of all shapes and sizes congregate around water holes: elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions and endless zebra, oryx, kudu and springbok mean that the wildlife viewing is simply superb. To add to this other huge plus points for Etosha are the ease of access, the decent road system and, compared to East Africa or Botswana, very affordable accommodation. All of this makes a self-drive budget safari to Etosha an easy and enjoyable prospect. In fact, this is arguably one of the best parks in Africa for a first – or tenth – safari.

Poking around a Pan
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Etosha is centred on a pan – a white, featureless, dry salt-bed that shimmers into distant horizons. The real beauty of this unique park lies in the ease of its wildlife viewing – sighting here are virtually guaranteed. Animals congregate around waterholes and it's a case of putting your feet up and letting the wildlife come to you. I saw an intriguing collection of herd animals around the hole that I staked out, including the elegant gemsbok, wildebeest, springbok, and elephants. Also in the park are giraffe often seen as silhouettes travelling across the flat plains here in search of food. But Etosha's biggest delight is the black rhino. One of Africa's rarest mammals, I saw two at night at a waterhole close to an official camp. I was alone when I saw a large female emerge from the bush - she was joined a short time later by another and they had play fights around the water. It was one of my great wildlife highlights of Africa.

Keeping Watch at the Waterhole
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Etosha – “the Great White Place” – is the ghost of a lake that died 12 million years ago; a shallow depression 81 miles long and 45 miles wide, covered with salt crystals so bright they hurt they eye. For most of the years it is as dead as Mars, but the rains bring Etosha back to life. For a few brief weeks it becomes a lake again, its shores thronged with pelicans and candyfloss clouds of flamingos. Yet even at the height of the dry season the surrounding plains and woodlands conceal springs and waterholes whose presence pulls in constant processions of thirsty animals. Here with luck you can see four of the Big Five (no buffalo) as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra, gemsbok, kudu and other plains game including the rare black-faced impala.

One of the most rewarding areas for birding is Fischer’s Pan, near the romantic old Beau Geste fort of Namutoni. Since 1958 Namutoni has been a rest camp like Halali and Okaukuejo on the southern fringes of Etosha Pan. Two other places you might wish to consider staying at are Onkoshi, a new camp with stunning views across the Pan that opened in 2008, and Dolomite Camp (new this year) in the “restricted access” area of western Etosha.
My personal favourite is Ongava Tented Camp, set in a 300-sq. km wildlife reserve on the southern edge of the park. Maybe it’s because I saw an aardvark here in broad daylight!

Black rhinos, white pans and wildlife at waterholes in Namibia’s premier park
Overall rating

Etosha is a “must-see” on any trip to Namibia. Covering nearly 23,000 sq km, almost a quarter of which is the silvery Etosha Pan, it’s home to over a hundred species of animals including most of the Big Five (except for buffalo) and is one of the best places to see the endangered black rhino. One magical evening at Okakuejo Rest Camp, sipping a glass of wine, we watched a black rhino and a white rhino drinking at the floodlit waterhole, both with tiny calves. Ten minutes later, two lionesses arrived followed by five playful cubs.

Etosha is the perfect destination for first time self-drivers. We spent three days there using the Park’s excellent maps, routes were clearly marked and we would park by waterholes waiting for wildlife to come to us. If this is to be your first self-drive, take a good field guide with you - although self-driving allows a lot of independence, you might miss the expert knowledge of driver/guides. It is possible to book guided game drives at the rest camps, so you could have the best of both worlds.

A photographer’s favourite
Overall rating

The centrepiece of this immense park is Etosha Pan, a 5,000 sq km flat dustbowl, denuded of vegetation, than transforms into a vast shallow lake during the rainy season. The park is at its best, however, in the dry season, when the pan dries up and a series of fringing waterhole form the only source of drinking water for miles around, attracting prolific herds of wildlife, and providing easy snapping for keen wildlife photographers. A feature of Etosha that appealed to me is that the combination of affordable rest camps and good roads means it is one of the few great African parks easily explored on a self-drive basis. The wildlife is also very impressive and I had great sightings of black rhino, lion and elephant, despite visiting in the wet season, when animals tend to disperse outside the park’s boundaries. It was also exciting to see the black-faced impala, a distinctive subspecies endemic to the Namibia/Angola border area, and whose global population is estimated at around 1,000.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.2/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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