Olifanten in Etosha.
Elephants in Etosha. Routard05

Etosha National Park gained fame through nature documentaries on channels such as National Geographic. They show how hard life can be through the different seasons in a year. The dry time is an annual challenge. On top of that, wealthy westerners have shot nearly all its wildlife.

Etosha isn’t like other nature parks. In the dry season all the trees, shrubs and grass are dried out, it’s extremely dusty and the ‘survival of the fittest’ is a reality. All life happens around the different waterholes in the area. But in the wet season, al is green, there’s a wealth of food and many animals have their young. Two seasons: two extremes.

Etosha means ‘great white place’. Almost a quarter of the area is made up of salt pans, surrounded by dry bushland, shrubs with very long thorns. They are mostly mopane (colophospermum mopane) and red bushwillow (combretum apiculatum).
The documentaries give an accurate impression: all animals that live here depend on the availability of water. In the dry season they hanker for rain, just as the shrubs and plants.

Etosha National Park is one of the oldest parks in Africa. It was founded in 1907, after the war between the Germans and the Herero people. The area became protected to ensure that the rich natural area wasn’t entirely robbed of its wildlife by western hunters. When the park was founded, there were barely any animals left. Slowly, the number of animal is increasing. As do the western visitors, thankfully the only shooting they do these days is with a camera.

The park is currently around 22.270 km2 in size, though it was originally around 100.000km2. Back in 1945, Namibia was a province of South Africa. And when the Apartheid finished, large parts of land were returned to the original peoples who inhabited them, such as the Herrero and Damara.

Each animal in Etosha NP has its own survival strategies. Herbivores such as zebras and wildebeest won’t go for a drink in the middle of the night, simply because they can’t see very well and predators are likely to strike. So they drink during the day.

Lion in Etosha.
A male lion in Etosha. Corno van den Berg

Predators, on the other hand, use the cloak of darkness to hunt. They are likely to sleep during the day, though the can be spotted at a waterhole as well. It can get quite busy at the waterholes. There is a certain hierarchy here, often decided by numbers.

What’s special about Etosha is the number of animals you can spot here: zebras, wildebeest, and different kinds of antelopes. Manmade waterholes help them survive the dry season.

You won’t find the famous Big Five of safari animals at Etosha NP, though people often expect to find them here. The African buffalo doesn’t live here, because they need too much water to survive. But you can find the lion, African elephant, leopard and the white (and black) rhinos. With an exception to the rhinos, these animals are spotted here quite regularly.

There are three tourist camps in the park: Okaukuejo (in the south), Namutoni (in the east) and Halali (in the middle). Each camp has a shop, a restaurant, accommodation (usually a lodge) and several campsites. In the wet season it’s not that hard to find a place to stay, but in the high season (northern hemisphere summer) it can be very tricky, even at the campsites.

Originally, the San people lived in the Etosha salt pan, but they were driven out many years ago, the last of them in 1954.

Must Do! Tips:
Go on safari in a rental car
You can take a safari in a rented four-wheel-drive in the Namib desert, and Etosha National Park. It gives you a lot of freedom to do as you please: choose your own route, head out at the crack of dawn, and stop where you want to. But you won’t have the trained eye of the guides, drivers and spotters who can point out the wildlife. Luckily, you’ll often be alerted there’s something to see when you see a few cars stopped along the road. The gates of the park open at sunrise, so you can get there very early, especially if you’re staying at one of the lodges or campsites in the park.

Waterholes are of vital importance in Etosha.
Waterholes are of vital importance in Etosha. Frank Vassen

Linger at a waterhole
Especially in the dry season the waterholes play an important role in the park. The animals come here for a drink and stay in the area. Until a predator shows up, of course. When you visit Etosha there are roughly two ways to go about your adventure: drive from waterhole to waterhole, or stay at a waterhole for a long time and see who comes for a drink. The best things if you’ve got the time is to do both, of course. There are many waterholes, large and small, throughout the entire park.

Camp in a four-wheel-drive with a roof tent
If you’d like absolute freedom when you’re traveling around Namibia, you should hire a all-terrain car with a roof tent. You can open the tent and spend the night in one of the campsites in Etosha National Park. The campsites are fenced in so you’re safe from the wildlife, but you’ll still hear them nearby. This kind of camping allows you to head out early in the morning.

Experience the ruthless dry season
If you go in July, August or early September, you’ll see Etosha at its most extreme. It’s incredibly dry and many animals will be roaming around looking for water. This makes them quite easy to spot and you’re likely to see many. Head out early and spend time watching how the different animals alternate their time at the waterhole. And how they stay guarded, looking around to see if there are predators around. Sometimes it gets so busy at a waterhole that you won’t even see the water anymore!

Stay in a lodge near a waterhole
The lodges at Etosha often have special rooms near a waterhole. One of those is the popular Okaukuejo, where some rooms have a view of a drinking spot that the animals like to frequent. If you’d like to see the animals drinking in the evening, it’s worth asking which rooms have these views when you book. These rooms are more expensive and very popular, but definitely worth it.

Hear the native language of the Damara people
The Damara people have lived in this area for centuries, though many were displaced when the park was founded in 1907. These days, many staff members and guides at the park are of Damara descent. They all speak English and South African, but when they speak with each other, you can hear their native language that includes ‘clicks’, which give words extra emphasis. Their language is known as Khoekhoe language or Khoekhoegowab. If you hear them speak it, ask them about it, they are proud to share their language and culture with you.

Experience a night safari
You can’t go on night safari in Etosha, partially to ensure the animals get their ‘human free time’, but the neighbouring Ongava Game Reserve has night safaris. This is because they restrict the number of daytime visitors. So if you’re interested in knowing what kind of animal is out and about at night, you should definitely give it a try. You have book accommodation in a room or tent to do so, which is quite expensive, but it does include all meals and daytime safaris as well.

Walk on a salt pan to the Etosha Lookout
The Etosha Lookout is in the middle of the salt pan of Etosha. This is the only place where you can actually be on a salt pan, and you have to walk along it for several hundred metres to get to the viewing area. It’s a bizarre view that’s hard to describe. It’s white all around because of the salt, and that’s why there are very few animals and therefore safe to leave your car.

See the famous Ghost Elephants of Etosha
These elephants are by far the most famous animals of the park. Biologists say they are the largest elephants in Africa, though it’s not clear why they are so large. The African elephant is the largest land creature on earth, and it’s an impressive sight to see a herd of them. Especially in comparison to other animals at waterhole. They have to drink very regularly, so it’s likely you’ll see them. Because the white dust settles on them, they are known as white elephants or ghost elephants. But if you’re lucky you might see them take a bath to wash the dust off their backs.

A lion close-up.
A lion close-up. Corno van den Berg

Keep an eye out for the Predator Five
Etosha might not have the ‘usual’ Big Five, but it does have a Predator Big Five: Lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena and the black-backed jackal. The lion and the jackals are the most spotted out of all of them. The other ones are not seen as often, but if you’re there for several days you have a chance to see them.

Discover the Fairy Tale Forest
The Fairy Tale Forest near Okaukuejo is a special place in Etosha. Here are a few hundred moringa trees (moringa oleifera), which normally only grow on mountain slopes and hills, but Etosha is the only place where they grow on plains. Normally they have quite straight trunks, but here they have quite awkward shapes thanks to the elephants and giraffes who like to eat them. It’s a quiet place, and great for taking unique photos.

Spot flamingos and other birds
In the wet season, many migrating birds come to Etosha to refuel. For example the lesser flamingo (which also breed here, for example near the Etosha Lookout) and the pink-backed pelican. There are also many different kinds of bee-eaters and many other birds. The birds also frequent the waterholes, so those are good places to look for them.

More information: etoshanationalpark.co.za

Best time:
The best time to visit Etosha National Park is in the months of July, August and early September. This is the end of the dry season. Many animals stay close to the many waterholes and are easy to spot.

In the months after that the rain starts to fall and the landscape turns into a oasis of green. You’re likely to experience showers. You’re less likely to spot animals quickly, as they can find water more easily and the vegetation is denser.

From February to late June it can get so wet that even four-wheel-drives get stuck in the mud. The roads in the national park are often closed to avoid this happening.