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Etosha National Park & Surrounds

"Etosha is the wildlife capital of Namibia. White elephants, pink flamingos, black rhinos, and busy waterholes characterise the safari experience and it promises not to be like any other place you’ve visited before"

Etosha National Park is one of southern Africa’s most stand-out safari destinations because it is so unique. It’s located in the north of Namibia, wrapped around the huge 5 000 square-kilometre Etosha saltpan, and it will not disappoint in terms of game viewing, which all seems to happen at once at the park’s numerous waterholes. It is roughly 300km from key areas in the Damaraland region, like Palmwag and Twyfelfontein, so fits in well with a northern circuit adventure.

It must be said that while Etosha is an unmissable destination, you should expect – especially during peak season – plenty of visitors. This is mainly because the park is accessible for 2x4s and has roads and facilities comparable to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Also like the Kruger, you are not allowed to get out of your vehicles unless you’re at a designated picnic site. Etosha is not as wild as parks in Botswana, but where Chobe and Moremi have unfenced campsites, Etosha has infrastructure and convenience.

There are three main camps in the park – Namutoni in the far east, Okaukuejo in the centre and Halali between the two. These three hubs run along the length of the famous saltpan with about 50 waterholes scattered along the road. If you’ve heard anything about Etosha, you’ll know that these waterholes form the focal point of a safari to this park. The lesser known and far less frequented western region has its own appeal in the form of hilly dolomite protrusions and good numbers of Hartmann’s zebra. It shouldn’t be overlooked, so we’ll cover it here in the hopes that we’ll inspire you to explore Etosha in its entirety!

East

The eastern third of the 22 000 square kilometre national park is the Etosha Pan. Visible from space and considered one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, the pan is 130km long and 50km wide in some places. Nothing can survive out there except for the dust devils that have free reign of the great, flat, white expanse.

The entrance for the eastern region of the park is Von Lindequist Gate, about 400km north of Windhoek, which will take you to Namutoni rest camp. Onkoshi Camp is the private luxury option here with an exceptional view of Etosha Pan. It looks as if you’ve got a view of the ocean if you stay here when the pan is full of water – otherworldly and totally awesome. Make sure you check out the 120-year-old German fort at Namutoni if you’ve got some time to kill, but don’t let it take away from your time at the many excellent waterholes in the eastern part of Etosha.

Klein Namutoni and Chudop waterholes are two very close to the rest camp. The former is just 2-3km away, so ideal for late afternoon lingering before you have to get back to camp at sunset. The latter is slightly further away at 7km, but it’s quite a good spot for lion and hyena and one of the best places for eland. Fischer’s Pan is right next to Namutoni and has a couple of waterholes dotted around it, which makes for awesome opportunities to photograph wildlife with the pan as the backdrop. Onguma Game Reserve is located here too – more on that later.

The eastern section of the park can also be accessed via the King Nehale gate up north, which is convenient if you’re coming from the Zambezi Region. The new Etosha King Nehale Lodge opened on a private concession just outside the gate and has private access to a waterhole inside the park.

Central 

You’ll access central Etosha through Andersson Gate on the southern side of the park, about 430km from Windhoek. This is the primary entrance gate and administrative hub, plus it has the largest (and busiest) campsite at Okaukuejo. There is a variety of accommodation, and all the conveniences you’ll need in terms of food and fuel. Ongava Private Game Reserve hugs border of Etosha here, but we’ll cover this destination in more detail further down.

The big drawcard at Okaukuejo is its floodlit waterhole located right next to the rest camp. It is somewhat of an amphitheatre, surrounded by benches to sit on, so you can really get comfortable with a camera. Plus, you’ll have a chance to see the nocturnal animals come to drink – if you’re really lucky, black rhinos.

Okaukuejo is at the southwestern tip of Etosha Pan and has some of the best waterholes with pan views in close proximity, including the pan lookout point. Okondeka and Kapupuhedi are located right on the edge of the pan and have nice numbers of plains game nicely contrasted to a white background. Set away from the pan in the mopane tree vegetation is Olifantsbad, which we love. It has bathrooms and a picnic spot and the waterhole itself is a good one for black rhino, breeding herds of elephants, lion, and the herd animals like springbok, black-faced impala, and red hartebeest.

Equidistant between Namutoni and Okaukuejo is Halali, the central-eastern host with the most. Halali also has a floodlit waterhole – Moringa – and some regulars to the park rate it higher than Okaukuejo’s and we’d probably say so too, mainly because you won’t be as likely to sit on top of other viewers. One of the park’s best waterholes is located near here – Salvadora. It’s got the best views of the pan. The predators tend to hang around here too. Goas and Rietfontein supposedly have resident leopard and are also known for good lion sightings.

West

Far away from Etosha Pan and all its subsidiaries is the much quieter western region of the national park. Galton Gate is the most westerly entrance and allows access to – some say – the best campsite in the park, Olifantsrus, and the epically located and elevated Dolomite Camp. It is a long 180km drive (at park speed limit) to the central hub of Okaukuejo.

It was only in 2014 that the western section of Etosha became accessible to self-drivers, and most travellers to the park haven’t quite sussed it out. It looks nothing like what you see in the brochures for Etosha and has none of the “flat earth, white elephant” appeal. Instead, it has red soil, rocky Dolomite hills, and different wildlife species that prefer the rocky terrain. Hartmann’s mountain zebra is one of the special ones to tick off in the west.

There’s a special double-story viewing tower overlooking a waterhole at Olifantsrus, but it isn’t a hide. The lower level is still raised above the animals, so don’t expect the iconic eye-level low angle often associated with hides. An interesting, yet sobering attraction at Olifantsrus is the elephant “museum” which is something of a memorial for the hundreds of elephants that were culled in the 1980s.

The west is extremely different to the rest of the park and there are about a dozen waterholes to explore here. It is not full of game, but there are lions and brown hyenas, as well as elephants, zebras, and black-faced impala among others. Probably not as stimulating if you’re travelling with kids, but if you’re looking for a wilder, more remote experience, loop this one in.

Ongava Game Reserve

Ongava is a private game reserve sharing a boundary with Etosha. It lies along its southern border and is just outside the southern/central Andersson Gate, so day trips into the park are easy. The reserve is privately run with conservation at the heart of its activities and operations – in fact, this land was once farmland and has been regenerated and rewilded as an extension of the Etosha protected area.

Staying at Ongava is ideal for those who would like a more exclusive experience and would enjoy the benefit of luxury accommodation, amazing meals, and special activities like tracking rhino on foot.

There are five different lodges, and they are quite something in terms of location and and comfort. Most have private waterhole access, some have photographic hides, and you can choose between smart tented rooms for a bit more of a classic safari feel, or premier suites built into the rocky hills with views over the expansive 30 000-hectare reserve.

Onguma Game Reserve

Onguma is another private game reserve hugging the border of Etosha – this time on the eastern boundary near Namutoni and Fischer’s Pan. It’s a similar size and setup to Ongava, also at around 30 000-hectares with five luxury safari lodges of varying styles, and there are options to take guided game drives into the national park or enjoy the exclusivity of the private reserve.

An added extra from Onguma is that it offers two private campsites, so while it is a destination for luxury seekers, it caters for campers and adventurous travellers too. The campsites are very well equipped with power points and private bathrooms and are serviced daily, so the experience is slightly more personalised than it would be at the public sites in the park.

Importantly, Onguma fulfils its environmental responsibility and puts sustainability and conservation at the fore. We love that it has developed a huge vegetable garden that not only sustains the local Oshivelo but supplies the commercial Namibian market and creates sustainable jobs.

Travel tip:

 If you are after the iconic Lion King-esque waterhole scene, visit Etosha in the dry winter months when these waterholes are sustaining the wildlife of the park. During summer, you’ll have a chance of seeing the famous saltpan covered in a shallow layer of water and hosting thousands of breeding flamingos. Bonus tip: give yourself a good week to get it all in.

When to Go

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Why we like it

  • You can (and should) spend at least a week exploring the different regions of the park.
  • Famous Etosha saltpan is a breeding ground for flamingos in the wet season and a moon-like mirage when it’s dry.
  • Great roads, fuel stations, accommodation options, camping facilities and other places of interest.
  • A series of waterholes which attract plenty of wildlife activity and make Etosha what it is.
  • Home to four of the Big Five (no buffalo), and a special place to see black rhino.

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