Spanning 8,600 square miles, and dominated by the Etosha Salt Pan, Etosha National Park in the north of Nambia is an animal-lovers paradise. The park hosts big cats, the endangered black rhino and is a breeding ground for flamingoes on the salt pan in January and February. National Wildlife Resorts (NWR) manages a number of accommodation options in the park meaning that you can spend your entire stay within its boundaries; and for true exclusivity you can always stay in Dolomite Camp which allows you access to the West of the reserve where only guests of Dolomite are allowed to visit.
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Wildlife – 4*
The lack of buffalo from the big 5, in addition to the absence of wild dogs (despite being found elsewhere in Namibia) and white rhino means that I can’t give Etosha the full 5 stars. In addition, the lack of water around the salt pan means that Etosha doesn’t have hippo and crocodile. As with most parks the wet season does make wildlife spotting more difficult, but otherwise the abundance of a broad variety of fauna makes Etosha one of my tops parks in Africa in the dry season (May-October). If you’re staying in a Namibia Wildlife Resort (NWR, publically owned) hotel or camp within the park gates then you also have a great opportunity for unique night viewing at the camps floodlit water holes. If you’re after elephant and giraffe then Etosha is superb and vast herds can often be seen roaming the plains (or stopping all traffic on the park roads). Herbivores in numbers aplenty can most often be found around the parks many waterholes and the possibility of what my wife calls ‘nat-geo moments’ (animals rutting, fresh kills or chases) are high given the views you are afforded by the wide open plains and exposed waterholes. Given the heat, dawn and dusk are your best bets for big cats, hyenas and black rhinos.
Scenery – 3*
While the open plains and salt pan mean that Etosha is excellent for game spotting it does mean that the park lacks some of the ‘African bush’ experience that many go on safari to experience. Some of the waterholes are man-made and therefore, for me, lack the natural beauty that I enjoy when in an open game viewing vehicle. As is often the case across Africa, the sunrises and sunsets can be spectacular but the park gate opening and closing times mean that you can rarely experience them in the park itself unless you are staying at an NWR resort. All of that said, the pure vastness of the plains and the glimmering salt on the pan make for an other-worldly experience that can be truly spectacular; especially when the flamingos are on the pan for breeding season.
Accommodation – 4*
Around the park gates, and inside the park itself, there is a fantastic variety of accommodation options across all budget ranges. The park itself is host to a small handful of NWR-run hotels and camps at varying price-points which means they can cater to all budgets. Staying in the park brings a couple of notable benefits: firstly it means you get the benefit of being able to game view after dark at the camp waterholes; secondly it means you can set off in the morning without having to line up at the main gates – and believe me that can be a big deal as the gate attendants aren’t exactly desperate to get you through the gates at lightning speed! If you‘re staying outside the park in one of the many budget or luxury lodges then the drive to the gates can be 15-20 minutes or more on the main roads in an open safari vehicle. In the Winter it is COLD in the mornings. So if you’re driving in in an open game vehicle layer up. Wear a coat. Wear two pairs of socks. Wear a wool hat. Wear a fleece. Wear gloves. Hell, take a hot water bottle!
Access – 4*
Etosha is one of the easiest, if not the easiest, National Park to access and traverse. It can also be driven in personal vehicles (which has its positives and negatives). The drive from the main international airport is about 5 hours on first rate tarred road and once inside the park and through the gates (where you are required to obtain permits) the road switches to gravel. On the gravel roads you should try and keep as much distance between you and car in front as possible or risk not seeing a single animal until it’s on the hood of the car (due to the dust).
Just a quick note on self-driving in Etosha. Some of the roads are one-way which in general is fine. However, on one trip to Etosha it caused us a pretty big problem. There we were happily cruising along in our hire car when up pops a rhino in the middle of the road. Let’s just say the rhino wasn’t as pleased to see us as we were him. Long story short – the rhino charged; we reversed rather quickly; the rhino continued to charge; we reversed into a tree; the rhino walked away; we looked like idiots with a large bill for damage. Summary, self-driving is fun unless you meet a rhino. I’m not really sure how helpful that little anecdote is, but I had fun reliving the moment (not the cost-outlay however).
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3*
One the benefits of Etosha is that you can self-drive and I loved nothing more than being able to drive and stop as we pleased. However, that’s also a curse. There’s something special about being on a safari where you don’t see other cars and only the odd game-viewing vehicle. The result is that there feels like a slight ‘disneyfication’ of Etosha when the cars are twinned with the lack of off-road rights (even for safari vehicles) and man-made waterholes. Don’t get me wrong, Etosha is a fantastic National Park for game viewing, but if you’re looking for a Southern-Africa experience that makes you feel isolated and adventurous then you might be better trying Zambia or Botswana.
NWR seem to have slightly over-complicated the park fee payment process. When you arrive at the gates you’ll need to provide ID for everyone in the car (so make sure you have it with you) and they’ll provide a receipt and the rules and regulations of the park. You then have to drive in to the park and pay the fee in one of the park offices at the main NWR accommodations. Why they don’t let you pay the gate I’ll never understand. Perhaps by the time you read this they’ll have changed that process to make it easier. Either way, the drive from the gates to the offices was actually very fruitful for us; we managed to see elephant, rhino, leopard, giraffe and multitudes of herbivores on our drives back and forth.
Park Maps and Wildlife Guides
Maps and guides can be purchased at the main NWR camps once you’re inside the gates. Alternatively, if you want to plan your visit before you arrive then you can also download park maps from the Etosha website at http://www.etoshanationalpark.org/.