Namibia’s famous Etosha National Park is named after the vast, shimmering expanse of the Etosha Pan, a salt pan that stretches as far as the eye can see and accounts for over a fifth of the park’s total area. During the wet season, the pan fills with water and is transformed into a rosy sea of pale pink flamingoes; but during the dry season, the water evaporates to be replaced by shape-shifting mirages.
Around the pan’s edges, the rest of the park is equally arid. I visited in September 2016, after three years of failed rains. The drought held the park within its merciless grip, but still life flourished, the animals brought to the waterholes by their need for water.
Self-Drive Safari Adventure
Luxury lodges outside Etosha offer guided safaris of the park, as do several tour companies - but essentially, this is a self-drive destination. On arrival, park officials issue visitors with a map, and well-marked dirt roads make navigation easy. Although touring with a guide often makes it easier to spot more elusive wildlife species, self-drive safaris have many unique benefits. Traveling independently means being able to explore any of the park’s routes that take your fancy; and being able to stop to take photos whenever you want (and for as long as you want). It also increases the thrill of game-viewing, as each new sighting feels like a personal achievement.
Choosing Your Rest Camp
Staying within the park is a great way to make the most of your time there, and there are several camps to choose from. The three most popular camps are Okuakuejo, Halali and Namutoni, all of which are interspersed at regular intervals throughout the park. All three offer chalet and camping accommodation, as well as a range of facilities including a gas station, restaurant, shop and pool. Divide your time between them, taking a whole day to drive from one to the next. Dolomite and Onkoshi camps to the west and east of the park respectively offer luxury accommodation, while Olifantsrus is exclusively for campers, providing an authentic taste of life in the bush.
Famous Floodlit Waterholes
Okuakuejo, Halali and Namutoni all have floodlit waterholes, offering visitors the rare opportunity to spot nocturnal animals. Okuakuejo is the busiest of all Etosha’s camps, which some travellers may find off-putting. However, for those willing to brave the crowds, it is also home to the most impressive (and best lit) waterhole. At dusk, the camp’s residents gather behind a low stone wall to watch as herds of dainty antelope come down to the water to drink, their spindly legs reflected in its mirror-like surface. The calls of bickering guineafowl herald the oncoming dark, and often, larger animals including rhino, elephant and lion are revealed by the warm glow of the floodlights.
Stronghold for Endangered Rhino
Rhino are a highlight of Etosha, both at the floodlit waterholes and throughout the rest of the park. Both the white and black rhino are facing extinction, with their numbers decimated by poaching throughout southern Africa. However, both species continue to thrive in Etosha, and the park is renowned as one of the last strongholds of the black rhino, a species with a global population of just 5,000 individuals. Poaching remains a concern, however, and the exact number of black rhino within the park is kept secret as a protective measure. Seeing these magnificent animals in the wild is a humbling experience, and a reminder of what we stand to lose if conservation efforts fail.
An Incredible Array of Wildlife
Plenty of other rare or endangered animals call Etosha home. Amongst them is the vulnerable black-faced impala, a subspecies of the plentiful common impala. Predators include lion, leopard and cheetah; while scavengers like hyena and jackal are often seen taking advantage of big cat kills. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Etosha game-viewing, however, is the sheer diversity of life. At permanent waterholes like Okondeka and Olifantsbad, great swathes of gemsbok, wildebeest and mountain zebra are often seen vying for space at the water’s edge. Sprinbok are ever-present, and herds of elephant can be both playful and majestic.
Etosha's Plentiful Birdlife
When there are no animals to be seen, Etosha’s birdlife rarely disappoints. 340 species have been recorded within the park’s boundaries, including endemic or near-endemic specials like the Rüppell’s parrot and the Monteiro’s hornbill. Ostrich regularly treat visitors to the spectacle of their elaborate mating dance; while the stately kori bustard deserves a mention as the world’s heaviest flying bird. Raptors are particularly prevalent in Etosha, with frequent sightings including the bateleur eagle, the pale chanting goshawk and flocks of white-backed vulture. Keen birders should keep an eye out for the minute pygmy falcon, which frequents the park’s sociable weaver nests.