A self-drive Etosha safari involves masses of game, chance sightings and glorious long days on the road. But, good planning is required. Here’s our complete guide to Etosha National Park.
An Etosha safari is one of our all-time favourite wildlife experiences. Covering a whopping 20,000 square km, Etosha National Park is home to 4 of the big 5 including the endangered black rhino, 114 species of mammals and 340 species of birds.
In the wet season, huge numbers of game stroll the plains. As the rains end, they congregate around waterholes in this otherwise very dry landscape, creating some of the densest game viewing opportunities in world.
A self-drive Etosha National Park safari can be an exciting challenge with a few things to consider. What do you want to see? What is the best time for viewings? Where should you go? And what is the right Etosha accommodation for you?
Although game viewing always involves some luck, with a bit of planning you can significantly increase your chances.
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WHEN TO VISIT ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK, NAMIBIA?
Etosha has two seasons. The wet season runs from November to May and the dry season from June to October. In the wet season the land is green and lush, vegetation thick and roads muddy. The animals spread out over the wide plains and disappear into the bushy shrub. Some roads are closed and driving becomes trickier.
The dry season forces animals to congregate around waterholes. As zebra, springbok and impala gather to cool off and quench their thirst, opportunistic lions and cheetahs take advantage of knowing where their prey is going to be. This creates the perfect environment for great game viewing. The later in the dry season you plan your self-drive Etosha safari, the better. September and October are optimal.
Unfortunately, peak times also bring their own challenges with many tourists having the same idea. Booking accommodation is more difficult in the dry season – we recommend you start booking your self-drive Etosha safari at least 9 months to a year before you intend to travel.
Costs also rise – by about 20% to 40%. But with game viewing far better in the dry season, and as this is what you want to see, we think it is a price worth paying.
We did our self-drive safari in September. While we had some challenges finding Etosha accommodation, we had some of the best game viewing experiences completely to ourselves.
GETTING TO ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK
Etosha National Park is a 4-hour drive north of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and the gateway for most international flights. The driving is very easy as the road between Windhoek and Etosha is one of the few sealed roads in the country but if you are going to explore more of the country read our driving in Namibia post for tips on whether to hire a 2WD or 4×4..
If you want to break up the drive, Kameldorn Garten in Ojitiwarango is a great place to stop for lunch. They have a nice courtyard garden and a good menu of local specialities at reasonable prices.
Entrance to Etosha National Park is via one of 4 gates, Andersson Gate in the south, Galton Gate in the west, Nehale Gate in the north, or Namutoni Gate in the east. The entrance and camp gates open at sunrise and close at sunset. Foreign visitors to the park are charged N$80 per person per day and N$10 for the car per day, on top of your accommodation.
DRIVING TIPS FOR SELF-DRIVE ETOSHA SAFARI
Like most of the top African Safari destinations, Etosha National Park is well suited for self-drive. Apart from a couple of roads near the entrances, the vast majority of the driving in Etosha is on gravel tracks. Most are relatively straightforward and easy to drive on but some can become rutted, making journeys a bit slower (and a lot bouncier). During the rains, mud can cause road closures.
A 4X4 IS NOT NECESSARY
We recommend a higher clearance vehicle for better viewing and to make driving a bit more comfortable on bouncy gravel roads. Off-road driving is strictly prohibited in Etosha, so a 4WD is not necessary.
However if you intend in including Etosha on a road trip to Namibia then we highly recommend hiring a 4×4. You can find a lot more details and some money-saving advice in our driving in Namibia post.
KEEP A SLOW PACE
The speed limit is 60 km/h and this is achievable on many of the roads. But game viewing is not about flying along and potentially missing incredible things. Take your time and travel at something closer to 40 km/h – and you will find it much easier to spot game.
THE DISTANCES ARE VAST
The park is big and distances are large. It takes 4 hours to drive from Dolomite Camp to Okaukuejo Camp (without stopping to watch game at all).
Another 1 hour, 30 minutes to get to Halali and 1 hour, 30 minutes more to get to Namutoni. Make sure you don’t have to drive too far, there is nothing worse than having to rush past a great viewing opportunity because you have a long way to your camp or exit gate.
KEEP AN EYE ON THE FUEL
Inside the park, fuel is only available at three places: Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halaliand sometimes they run out. So never let your gas tank get too low. We filled up whenever we passed a station and were less than two-thirds full.
KNOW HOW TO CHANGE A TYRE
Namibia’s roads are famed for punctures and we got one on our self-drive Etosha safari. We strongly recommend you check your spare tyre and know how to change it. Also remember, there’s no getting out of the car in Etosha, so if you get a flat you’ll need to make your way to one of the fenced-off rest stops.
BEST TIME OF THE DAY TO GO GAME VIEWING
In almost all safari parks the best time for game viewing is the early morning. The temperatures are cooler and lions and leopards – that have been hunting at night – are still on the prowl or eating their kill. Etosha is no different, so enter the park when it opens at sunrise.
Evening also offers good opportunities as the animals come out from the shade to feed on the open plains or to grab a drink. Early evening is a particularly good time to see rhino at the waterholes.
In the dry season, Etosha National Park has excellent viewing in the heat of the day – a fairly unique phenomenon thanks to the abundance of waterholes. Vast herds of zebra, springbok, impala and oryx are joined by ostriches, giraffe and elephants trying to cool down and quench their thirst. You can simply drive to a waterhole, sit there, and watch the steady parade of animals make their way to and from the pool.
So, unlike many other parks, Etosha National Park is an all-day experience – especially in the dry season.
We headed out at sunrise, stayed out all day with our eyes peeled and returned to our accommodation at sunset (when the park shuts). Additionally, a number of waterholes are lit at nights so the viewing doesn’t stop when the sun goes down.
BEST LOCATIONS TO SEE GAME ON AN ETOSHA SAFARI
Etosha National Park is big and the animals are free to go where they want inside the park. So if you want great game viewing experiences on your Etosha safari, here are some places to head to.
In general, you’re best opportunity to see great wildlife will be at the waterholes. The best waterholes for great views of game in the middle of the day are Ozonjuitji m’Bari, Okaukuejo, Chudob, Groot Okevi, Ombika, Gemsbokvlakte, Charitsaub, Rietfontein and Sonderkop. You will not only see herds of antelope but giraffe, rhino and elephants are regular visitors too.
Lions are fairly widespread throughout the park, but you need to catch them in the early morning, otherwise, they will just sit in the shade of a tree. Head for Groot Okevi, Rietfontein, Okondeka and along the road past Ozonjuitji m’Bari and Sonderkop to Dolomite Camp.
Although they’re very shy, leopards can be found around Halali and Goas, but searching in this area is a high-risk strategy as leopards are notoriously difficult to spot. You may have a great leopard experience (and we did) or you may see nothing except dead shrubs as you traverse rocky rutted roads.
Head to wide open plains which Cheetahs love. They are best found around Charitsaub, Gemsbokvlakte, Leeubron and on the road to Twee Palms. They hunt in the day, but like the cooler weather so morning and evening are ideal.
The three floodlit waterholes at Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni Camps provide great nighttime viewing. By far the best of these is Okaukuejo, where a steady procession of game makes its way to and from the pool well into the wee hours. Black rhino, lions and hyena are not uncommon here and there are regular stand offs as animals scrap for water rights.
ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK SAFARI MAP
It obviously depends on what you want to see but having driven almost every road in the park we have marked a few promising locations on the map below to help you maximise your game viewing on your safari in Etosha.
ETOSHA ACCOMMODATION – WHERE TO STAY
Your choice of Etosha accommodation depends on what you want to get out of your self-drive Etosha safari.
The best game viewing is in the early morning, so it is important to be driving around the park as early as you can. If you sleep in camps inside the park, you can simply drive out as soon as the gates open.
If you stay outside the park, there is sometimes a queue to enter, then you need to head to a Government Camp to pay your park fees. All this can take up to 30 minutes and reduce your prime time viewing.
Additionally, the waterholes at the camps are floodlit at night, when many interesting animals come to drink. In particular, the waterhole at Okaukuejo Camp is excellent for spotting black rhino. If you are outside the park, in a property that is not on a reserve with its own waterhole, you will miss out on some of the best game viewing opportunities.
But there is a downside to having your Etosha accommodation inside the park. The government-run camps are functional and basic. You often feel like part of a process than a guest. (On our entry we had to write our car registration on a form 9 times in the space of 15 minutes.) But for us the decision is clear, we will always take animal viewing over service and luxury – the reason we came to Etosha in the first place.
CAMPS IN ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK
There are 6 camps in Etosha National Park all run by the government-owned Namibian Wildlife Resorts.
The camps of Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali are south of the salt pan and offer similar services and camping and accommodation options. Each have a bar, basic shop, fuel station and a restaurant that serves buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner at set prices. It is all relatively basic, but rooms are clean, beds comfortable and showers hot. Each camp has a waterhole, which is floodlit at night – Okaukuejo by far the best.
Okaukuejo rooms and chalets range from N$960 to N$1,400 per person per night sharing in the wet season and N$1,330 to N$2,000 in the dry season. It also has premium chalets overlooking the waterhole (N$2,000 per person sharing in the wet season and N$3,450 in the dry), but in our opinion they are a waste of money. The balconies are drab and some have their view of the waterhole obscured by trees. By far the best viewing spots are from shaded benches surrounding the waterhole, which anyone can use (even if you’re not staying there). Get a cheaper room, bring a blanket, some beer, and sit down and enjoy.
Halali rooms and chalets range from N$790 to N$1,120 in the wet season and N$970 to N$1,540 in the dry season per person sharing. The waterhole has a good amphitheatre which makes for a great place to sit down with a drink and watch the sun go down. But game numbers are generally much lower than at Okaukuejo, so take a couple of extra beers.
Namutoni rooms and chalets range from N$980 to N$1,190 per person sharing in the wet season to N$1,190 to N$1,430 in the dry season. This waterhole has lots of reeds and is generally very good for bird watching, but less good for large mammals.
Olifantsrus Camp is a camping only location with no cabins. It has no fuel, a very basic shop but the waterhole is excellent. It has a large raised covered viewing platform accessible by a long walkway over reeds. It’s ideal for seeing elephants up close.
Dolomite Camp consists of around 20 chalets set on the edge of a hill with a beautiful small pool overlooking the plains and a bar off a small campfire area where you can take a drink staring up at the stars.
The chalets are beautifully appointed and unlike other camps in Etosha, here you feel like a guest and not part of a process. Bush chalets are N$1,570 per person sharing in the wet season and N$1,970 in the dry season. Deluxe chalets are N$1,940 per person sharing in the wet season and N$2,300 in the dry season.
There is no shop or fuel station at Dolomite and the wi-fi didn’t work on our visit. Also, there are only a couple of roads in the area so if you stay more than 1 night you’ll be retracing your steps.
Onkoshi is an upmarket camp on the edge of the Salt Pan with 15 free-standing chalets in a remote north-eastern section of the park. All the chalets have decks with views of the pan and feature snazzy indoor/outdoor showers. Prices range from N$1820 per person in the wet season and N$2540 per person in the dry season.
SELF-DRIVE ETOSHA ITINERARY
Three to four day is the ideal amount of time to see Etosha National Park. To cover some different areas which to increase game viewing opportunities and to mix the styles of Etosha accommodation, we recommend the following itinerary. Our full two week Namibia itinerary has all the information for incorporating Etosha into a longer Namibian trip.
DAY 1 – DOLOMITE CAMP
Stay 1 night at Dolomite Camp (entering the park via Galton Gate). We recommend a bush chalet (N$1,970 per person per night) for a slightly classier experience to start your self-drive Etosha safari.
DAY 2 – OKAUKUEJO CAMP
Stay the next night at Okaukuejo Camp in basic accommodation (N$1,400 per person per night) for a night surveying the amazing floodlit waterhole.
DAY 3 – NAMUTONI OR HALALI OR MUSHARA
On the 3rd day, stay somewhere that allows you to explore the eastern part of the park. Namutoni (good for bird watching and cheetahs) or Halali (good for leopards) are fine, but because their floodlit waterholes are less good than Okaukuejo, you could spend one night outside the park with better facilities, especially if you are not planning to re-enter the park the next morning.
If however you want a bit more luxury and don’t mind being outside the park then try affordable Mushara Bush Camp (N$4,000 per room in dry season).
BOOKING ETOSHA ACCOMMODATION
More than any other destination we have been to, accommodation in Namibia and in particular Etosha, gets booked up well in advance.
Ideally, start booking a year before you plan to travel. If that’s not possible, book some places with free cancellation, outside the park if necessary, and grab the accommodation in the park as it becomes available.
We found rooms became available throughout the year as tour groups cancelled the spots they booked in advance. Annoyingly, it does mean you have to keep going onto the website to check for availability.
FOOD AND DRINK IN ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK
Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali Camps serve 3 buffet meals a day. Breakfast is included in the room price but can also be purchased for N$150 per person. Lunch is N$210 per person and dinner N$230 per person. The quality is good enough, but I doubt a Michelin star is on the way.
The only other food options in the park are the shops at Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali. Here you’ll find crisps, biscuits, water, beer and soft drinks, but if you want to buy food to make your own lunch, you’re out of luck unless you have the ability and desire to cook a steak. Creating even a basic picnic lunch from these places is not easy. So stop at a supermarket before you enter the park and buy enough food for lunches for a few days.
If a buffet lunch at the camps doesn’t appeal, and you manage to secure your own picnic food, there are fenced off rest sites dotted around Etosha. Alternatively, just pull up to a waterhole, wind down the windows, and watch the steady processions of animals while you munch on a sandwich.
TIPS FOR VISITING ETOSHA
01 – Etosha is hot and sunny so bring a sun-hat, sun-block and sunglasses, but it gets cold at night so bring layers of clothes for a range of temperatures.
02 – Binoculars are handy for spotting game that refuses to approach the car.
03 – Bring a torch to help you get around the camp at night.
04 – We used a 300mm telephoto lens for all the images in this article, which is sufficient in Etosha given the proximity of some of the animals. Make sure you have plenty of memory card space as you could be snapping away for hours. Bring a tripod for night shots by the waterholes.
05 – Etosha is a malaria region, so make sure you have insect repellent and try not to get bitten (long trousers at night). Antimalarials are recommended so go see your doctor before you leave.
06 – Namibia is one of the few places in the world where our universal power adaptors don’t work. It has the same power socket as South Africa, so you need this one.
07 – Download a Custom Map for the area you will travel around on Google Maps. That way you can track yourself and see the road network, even if you don’t have access to data.
08 – There is a charge for using the internet in all the camps in Etosha. However, the username and password you purchase can be used at any camp until it runs out.
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