Etosha National park is the best place to go on safari in Africa, in my humble opinion. Let me tell you why.
First, the park occupies a stretch of flat, semi-desert grassland that is is dotted with waterholes that are usually filled with wildlife. The park is criss-crossed by hard-packed, dirt roads and it is possible to drive around in a small, two-wheel drive car and explore on your own. To my knowledge, no other park is like this.
The park is remote and uncrowded. It takes a lot of money to fly, a high tolerance for long bus rides or a willingness to suffer long hours in a mini-bus to get there. We chose option three (something that is worth a post on its own someday.)
We spent eight days in Etosha, saw three lion kills, observed elephants for hours, saw cheetahs and leopards, and saw a herd of about 1000 zebras in addition to hundreds of other memorable sightings. We were not on the schedule of other travelers or a tour guide. For independent people like the us, this was pure bliss.
1. Rent your own car
We rented a Hyundai two-wheel drive car in Tsumeb and drove the 70 kilometers to the park. Our little Hyundai had no issues navigating the flat, hard-packed roads. We made the rental online and picked it up at a German guesthouse in town.
Link for rental car: http://www.europcar.com/car-rental-TSUMEB.html
Note: It is also possible to rent a car in Windhoek and drive about six hours to the park from there.
2. Stay at Halali Camp
There are a number of places to stay just outside the park, and four camps inside the park. We stayed right in the center at Halali Camp, and it was perfect. If you only follow two pieces of advice from me, get your own car and stay at Halali. Thank me later.
We stayed in a chalet for about $140 per night. By our standards, this was expensive. However, the room came with free breakfast, a refrigerator, air-con and a super comfortable bed. Like jackals, we scavenged the breakfast buffet for snacks that we put in our cooler for later out in the park.
The Halali waterhole was the perfect place to spend the evening. Each evening herds of boisterous elephants paraded to the waterhole and began a noisy ritual of bathing and drinking. Each evening right at dusk a couple of rhinos lumbered from the bushes and drank along with the elephants. We saw leopards, hyenas, jackals, kudu, giraffes and owls at the water hole at night.
3. Bring your own groceries
We stocked up in Tsumeb on groceries, getting lunch meat, bread, wine, cheese, beer, nuts, candy bars, and other non-perishable food items that we could eat for lunches and dinner.
4. Go on a night safari
The gates to the camp close from sunset to sunrise, but it is possible to go on a guided night safari in a vehicle operated by the park. This was a great way to see the nocturnal animals and the billions of stars overhead in this remote part of Africa.
On our night drive, we first encountered a dramatic kill as an African wildcat took down a mouse. We encountered a hyena that came right up to the vehicle and came across several elephants, genets, and owls.
Most impressively, we encountered a cheetah and her three timid cubs. I would like to take this time to say that cheetah cubs are the cutest things on the face of the earth. The cubs were afraid of the car at first, but eventually came up and walked down the road right in front of us. Amazing.
5. Spend at least five days in the park
Etosha is a big park. You will need at least one day to explore the east, one day to explore the west, and a couple of days to revisit the waterholes and areas with lots of wildlife. Spending an extended time in the park increases your chances of wildlife sightings.
6. Visit waterholes when the light is perfect.
One of the great advantages of traveling in our own car was the ability to hang out at waterholes. On many occasions, we’d pull up to a water hole, park, roll down the windows and just chill.
Animals would often become accustomed to our parked car and walk right up to it, although once at the Rietfontein waterhole this led to a terrifying moment as we found ourselves surrounded by colossal elephants. On another occasion, about 1000 zebras, wildebeest, kudus and springbok surrounded our car as they paraded down to a waterhole to drink.
The Rietfontein waterhole was perfect a perfect place to be in the afternoon with soft light coming from behind and the Goas waterhole was a great place to see a sunrise. Both were near Halali camp.
8. Bring a swimsuit.
One of the great things about safari is the rhythem the traveler gets into. We’d awake before sunrise to be the first out of the gates, watch animals sometimes until noon, other times until 3pm, but then return to camp for a swim in the pool. Animals are most active at dawn and dusk, yet we saw plenty of activity mid-afternoon. But still, the morning and evening were the best times for wildlife watching due to the heat and photogeneic light.
A day in the life
9. Make your reservations for campsites or rooms through Cardboard Box Travel Shop
One of the biggest frustrations for me was making a reservation for accomodation in the park. The government run Namibian Wildlife Resorts, or NWR.com.na, was incredibly frustrating to deal with. All reservations are made through back and forth emails and due to the time difference, it takes a day to get a response. I wasn’t sure that I had everything worked out until I actaully arrived at the park, and I started on the reservation process months in advance.
The Cardboard Box does not charge a fee to book through them and they are professional and prompt.
10. Public Transport to Etosha
The Intercape Mainliner connects Windhoek to Tsumeb and Tsumeb to Victoria FAlls. We took the Intercape from Tsumeb to Vic Falls, but took a mini-bus from Windhoek to Tsumeb. Unless you are a masochist, take the Intercape.
I hope you find these tips useful. If you have any questions or additions please put them in the comments section.