When we first checked in at the Andersson Gate at the south end of Etosha National Park, the guard thought he misheard when we told him we were planning to camp in the park for six nights. While much longer than their average visitors (who tend to only spend 3-4 days in the park), we had the luxury of time on our hands. With that time, we were fortunate enough to discover all the best places in the park to spot the wide variety of wildlife.
And now, we can share that knowledge with you. Which animals do you most want to find in the park?
Note that commonality indicators are based solely on our personal experience and how often we saw each animal while in Etosha.
Who doesn’t love a beautifully wrinkled pachyderm? These amazing creatures have graced covers of National Geographic and delighted children and adults alike for decades. They’re incredibly intelligent, and they are a wonder to observe in the wild.
The good news: we didn’t go a single day in Etosha National Park without seeing at least a dozen or more elephants (most days way more). With over 2500 individuals in the park, that shouldn’t be too surprising.
While it was rare to see individuals roaming the tall grasses along the side of the road, we frequently saw large herds at the watering holes. Sometimes they would already be there by the time we pulled up; other times, they crashed the scene, scattering lesser herds of springbok or impala. Either way, park yourself at a nearby watering hole, especially in the afternoon, and wait for a bit. You’ll know they’re on their way when you see the growing dust cloud.
Our favorite viewing spot: Tsumcor watering hole. The water is quite close to the parking area, so you can get a great view of anything that comes up to it. It was here that we had our most memorable elephant experience: at least 20 elephants – including several babies – drinking, splashing, rolling around, and everything else in between.
Like elephants, we were excited to see real zebras in the wild. Zoos might offer a few individuals, but it’s really only Africa that will treat you to large herds (also called “zeals” or “dazzles”) of zebras in one place. And it wasn’t until we saw these larger groups that we truly understood how their stark black-and-white pelts serve as camouflage. It really is quite dazzling! Bonus: apparently these stripes also ward off mosquitoes and biting flies! It’s thought that the temperature differences between light and dark surfaces confuse them, providing a natural protection.
We also saw zebras daily at almost every watering hole throughout our seven days in the park. Like elephants, they sometimes arrived at the scene after we settled in watching other animals (but with far less gusto). Oftentimes, they would even walk right in front of our truck! We had no issues capturing some great close-ups of these cute mohawk-sporting faces.
Our favorite viewing spot: Rietfontein watering hole. While parking is not quite as close as it is at Tsumcor, it still affords excellent views of the water, and we rarely passed by this waterhole without seeing some zebras. We saw them here both mornings and afternoons.
We also saw lots of zebras simply hanging out on the east end of the park, just inside the King Nehale Gate. Apparently, when they aren’t thirsty, this is where they hang out!
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We saw giraffes every day in the park. Though they don’t show up in the same droves as elephants or zebras, we had no problem spotting them (see what I did there?). However, unlike other animals, we seldom saw these skyscrapers at watering holes. Instead, these were mostly happenstance encounters. We even saw two giraffes almost immediately upon entering the park on our first day!
The tip for these guys is to look for the likewise taller vegetation (of which there is plenty). We saw them mostly in the mornings and in the later afternoons, occasionally midday. Drive around, especially off the main road, and you should encounter them.
Our favorite viewing spot: We didn’t really have one for giraffes, as they were almost all as we were driving past. However, we were also fortunate enough to see them one afternoon at Rietfontein, bending their long necks down for a drink. And we did see a baby early morning on our way to Klein Okevi.
Considered one of the “Ugly 5,” anyone who is familiar with The Lion King would recognize these herd animals. They are also technically a type of antelope, and though some consider them unsightly, I found them to be quite photogenic.
No, we didn’t see a stampede, but we did see some very large herds!
Our favorite viewing spot: The east plain just south of King Nehale Gate. We came across several individuals throughout our many drives in the park – usually in the afternoon – and we saw a few small herds at a watering hole here and there. But the real cream of the crop were out on this east plain.. and we didn’t even discover its existence until we were on our way out of the park!
The largest bird in the world and casual taxi for young Simba. These flightless birds are much larger than they seem! Perhaps it’s because I’ve only seen them on television or from afar in zoos, I just didn’t expect them to be that big. Average male heights start at almost 7 feet tall (over 2m). We also didn’t get to see them running at full speed, but what little we did see assured us this isn’t a bird to mess with!
Most of the time, they were pretty good at keeping their small heads sheltered within the shadows of their much larger bodies. This made photography a bit difficult, but they sure looked kind of silly in that position.
Our favorite viewing spot: Groot Okevi waterhole. When we were there, there was hardly any water, so all of the clustered animals were each vying for a spot. Several ostriches had gathered and began bickering with each other, wings spread. It was actually rather entertaining to watch.
Impalas look very similar to the much more common springbok, and we often confused the two. However, impalas in the park have a dark face while springboks’ are white, and the horns are larger. We didn’t see as many during our time in Etosha, but we saw enough to get some good pictures of them.
Our favorite viewing spot: Tsumcor. Not just great for elephants, this watering hole attracted an entire herd of impala. They were chasing each other around the water, fluffy tails in the air, while grey loeries watched from the tree overhead. We sporadically saw them off the side of the road all throughout the day, but we saw the highest concentrations during the afternoon.
We had no idea what these beautiful creatures were when we first saw them. With their black faces and their striking straight horns, they were an imposing sight. We grew more accustomed to them, especially since they seemed to become more frequent during our stay.
Later during our trip, we saw oryx in the Namib Desert, and we even had an oryx steak at Okonjima (it tasted very much like beef, without any of the layers of fat).
Our favorite viewing spot: Nebrownii waterhole. This tiny watering hole is out in the middle of a flat span of dirt, just outside of Okaukuejo camp. It doesn’t look like it really belongs there, and I’m pretty sure it’s manmade. But it still attracted the local wildlife! With a backdrop of sleeping ostriches, several oryx visited, giving us a wonderful view of their proud visage, reflected in the pool.
After the drive up from Windhoek, you might not be so keen on seeking out warthogs, as they are everywhere along the highway. Watch for the wildlife signs, and be cautious driving with these little critters on the side of the road. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to miss them.
But if you want to photograph them, suddenly pulling off the B road (especially outside a designated rest area) could be difficult. Fortunately, they are within Etosha National Park as well.
Many locals call this member of the Ugly 5 “pumbaa,” likely influenced by The Lion King. The Swahili word actually means “acting foolish,” which was appropriate for the character, but maybe not the entire species. In any case, the name stuck.
Our favorite viewing spot: We actually didn’t see any for almost the entire time we were in the park… until our last day. We finally found them on the east side of the park – just south of the King Nehale Gate – in with the zebras and wildebeests.
Another member of the “Ugly 5,” hyenas are actually really interesting to watch. We didn’t see many while we were in Etosha, and when we did, it was usually at night. After all, they are nocturnal, like many other predators.
Therefore, the best times to catch them are just after sunrise or just before sunset. Given we wanted to make sure we were back at our camp well before we got locked out, we weren’t pushing things at the sunset end of the day. Instead, we busted the gates at dawn, and we were somewhat reliably able to spot a few hyenas in the daytime.
Our favorite viewing spot: Goas watering hole. This double pool was great for attracting wildlife, and we saw hyenas here a few times. We also read this was a good spot to view other predators, but we struck out on that count.
Everyone wants to see rhinos when visiting Africa, right? Right up there with elephants, they command a sense of majestic beauty few other animals can emulate. Sadly, these gorgeous creatures are still critically endangered.
Poaching counts have been very slowly decreasing, but 50-60 are still illegally killed every year. And ironically, poachers hunt them for their horns, something that 1) is a renewable resource (a rhino’s horn will continue to grow much like claws or fur); and 2) doesn’t actually have the magical medicinal powers they’re believed to have (their makeup is much like hair or fingernails).
Etosha National Park is home to around 1700 black rhinos, about a third of all that remain in the world. While that number might sound promising as far as spotting them, they tend to be more solitary and nocturnal than elephants, making them less commonly seen. We were fortunate enough to see a few of them during our time there.
Did you know the “black” and “white” rhino distinctions are actually a misnomer? The Afrikaans word “weid” actually means “wide,” referring to the duck-like wide mouth of the grazing rhino. This was obviously confused to mean “white.” “Black” was then a natural alternative to describe the browsing beak-mouthed bush-eating rhino variety.
Our favorite viewing spot: While we certainly have one for rhinos, for their protection, I am not going to advertise where we most commonly found them. With any luck, conservation efforts will be successful enough to not need this precaution in the future. If rhinos are high on your list, and you haven’t had any luck spotting them on your own, your best bet might be to join one of the organized evening game drives when they are most active.
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We went to Africa specifically to see cats. Unfortunately, these magnificent felines eluded our every attempt to spot them. We did see one small pride, waaaay in the distance, and that was only because other cars were stopped already. It was kind of disappointing, photographically.
We did learn, however, that to increase your chances of seeing them, you have to be out right as the gates open. They also tend to prefer more open, rocky dips in the ground, closer to the pan. We heard some spotted them at the Goas watering hole, but we personally didn’t have any luck.
We also didn’t see any cheetahs, much to our disappointment. They are most commonly seen in the most open areas on the west end of the park, and we saw evidence of carcasses to support the idea that this was predator territory. Cheetahs are even diurnal, and the highest populations of cheetah are in Namibia, so we should have had a good chance at seeing them. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, which is why we later backtracked to Okonjima, where we did.
Just like the cheetahs, we sadly missed the leopards in Etosha National Park. We very much wanted to see them (any of the cats, really), but leopards are nocturnal, which makes them even more difficult to encounter.
We ponied up for a game drive in the Okonjima Nature Reserve. While they have a healthy population of leopards there, seeing them isn’t guaranteed, as they are experts at hiding. The time and money were totally worth it, though, as we got to meet beautiful Amali!
If you’re set on seeing either leopards or cheetahs, we recommend checking out Okonjima (though book early if you want to camp and save quite a bit over staying at the resort).
What about buffalo?
The last of the Big 5 is the cape buffalo. Known to be very aggressive and unpredictable, this magnificent beast actually does not make its home in Namibia. If you want to round out the last of the Big 5 on your punchcard, you’ll likely have better luck at one of the parks or on a game drive in Tanzania or South Africa.
Best time of year to visit Etosha National Park
If you want to maximize your viewing experience in Etosha, the best time of year to visit is during the southern hemisphere’s winter: July through October. These months are the driest, and with increased water scarcities, animals are forced to congregate at dwindling watering holes. This means larger concentrations of everything from elephants and zebras to lions and oryx.
The drier winter months also mean fewer mosquitoes. Ordinarily, Etosha National Park falls within the recognized malaria zone in Namibia. But during the winter, it falls to a “low risk” status due to the lack of stagnant water and cooler temperatures. Be sure to verify with your local travel clinic, and carry anti-malaria pills if advised. We didn’t bother, and we didn’t encounter any mosquitoes.
We visited in July, and it was perfect. The days still got rather hot, so hats and sunscreen are a good idea for time spent outside your vehicle. And the nights were cool. We were plenty comfortable camping atop our 4×4, but we had sufficient padding underneath and blankets on top. If you stay in one of the many rooms available in the camps, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Recommended photo gear
Now, it’s no surprise that I’m a photographer. Therefore, I care a lot about making sure I have the right gear for the job. I wanted the experience first, of course, but secondarily, I wanted to preserve that experience for future viewing and reminiscing.
If you’re traveling long-term like we are, then size and weight matter to you. I had to be very selective in the gear I brought. I went with a Sony a7R III with a Canon 70-200mm and a 1.4x extender. This combination allowed me to bring the minimal gear and get the maximum reach.
The 70-200 is a flexible range, good for wildlife far and somewhat close. The extender obviously lets me get closer, with the option to remove it if something came closer to our vehicle. I ended up just leaving it on the entire time. This combination is both cheaper and lighter weight than a 400mm or 600mm lens, and it is more versatile for the rest of our trip when I’m not shooting wildlife.
The Sony is a full-frame, which gives me much better quality, and with the higher megapixel count, I can crop photos of distant animals fairly small and still have a useable photo.
If size, weight, and versatility are of no issue to you, I would recommend the longest lens you can afford, paired with a shorter lens (possibly on a second camera) for when a herd of zebras cross in front of your truck.
And if you’re into video like Aaron, that same setup should work well, though I might add a monopod or some means of stabilization. Aaron filmed using mostly a compact Sony a6500 paired with a Sony Zeiss 16-70mm lens. He borrowed some of my tighter footage taken with my longer lens.
Note that drones are strictly prohibited within the park. If you have one amongst your gear (as we did), you must declare it upon entering. Park officials will “lock” your drone with a cable, and they’ll unlock it upon your departure. Please don’t be that idiot terrorizing the wildlife with your drone.
Is a 4×4 required?
Most of the roads in Etosha National Park are fairly well-maintained, though they are all dirt/gravel. There were a few rough side roads that were a bit unpleasant, but I don’t think it’s anything an ordinary car couldn’t handle.
However, our 4×4 also came with a tent on top, which was our sole lodging for almost our entire time in Namibia. It also came equipped with all of our necessary cooking essentials, so we could adequately live out of this truck. To get the scoop on everything you could possibly want to know about renting and living in one of these trucks, feel free to check out our article on renting a 4×4 in Namibia.
If you want to save some money on your visit to Etosha, you might consider camping with one of these vehicles instead of staying in one of the camp lodges.
Where to stay
There are three primary camps within the border of Etosha National Park (with a few additional lesser camps). While you could theoretically stay outside the park, we would highly recommend you stay at one of these camps for the best experience. Staying in the park allows you to get to the watering holes earlier, as you’ll have less distance to drive. And each camp includes its own fenced waterhole, floodlight-lit for nighttime wildlife watching.
Each camp is fenced from the surrounding wildlife, so you needn’t worry about midnight lions creeping past your tent. However, because they are enclosed, the gates to each are kept closed between sunset and sunrise. We’re not entirely sure what would happen if we missed the sunset curfew (we never wanted to stay out long enough to find out), but we suspect some hefty fines. If you are staying outside of the park, you will not be allowed to leave should you miss the closing time of the main gate. Instead, you’ll be forced to stay in one of the three camps inside the park.
Each camp has a variety of accommodations, from barebones campsites (which is what we had) to family chalets. The campsites each have water, lights, power outlets, and access to communal bathrooms and showers. We had everything we needed.
The major camps also have on-site restaurants, outdoor pools, small grocery shops (more like convenience stores), and gas stations. Rest assured you won’t need to leave the park during your stay. Most of these facilities also take credit cards, which we found very handy.
If you don’t have the means or desire to drive the park yourself, you can book morning, afternoon, and evening game drives from any of the three camps. This is also a good option if you want to have a better chance at seeing one of the more elusive nocturnal animals.
Our recommendation, if you have a few days to spend in Etosha National Park, is to spread them across the different camps. Etosha is quite vast, and this allows you time to access all corners of the park as soon as the gates open at sunrise. With the western end being better for cheetah spottings and the eastern better for herds, you’ll increase your chances of seeing everything.
How much does it cost to visit Etosha National Park?
There are several expenses when it comes to visiting Etosha National Park, and many will simply depend on how long you stay and how much you drive.
Just to get into the park, you must pay a daily permit fee. This differs depending on if you’re a local or foreigner or if you’re a resident of one of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations.
For a non-African adult, it is N$80 per day, plus a N$10 per day car fee as of this writing. For us, this was about N$170 ($12 USD) per day. You can find the latest rates on the Etosha website here.
On top of the park access, there are nightly fees to stay at one of the camps. We went with one of the cheapest options: a simple campsite. Prices vary depending on the type of accommodation and the time of year. July happened to be peak season, so our campsite was N$389 ($28 USD) per night.
If you opt for a room or chalet, prices vary depending on the camps. Halali (the camp in the middle of the park) is the cheapest, starting at N$1332 ($96 USD) per night. Okaukuejo (the west camp) and Namutoni (the east camp) start at N$1665 ($120 USD) per night.
You can find the most up-to-date accommodation prices for all of the camps here.
Note that the fee to stay at one of the camps does not include the daily park entrance fee.
Of course, if you’re staying multiple days, you gotta eat. We didn’t eat at any of the restaurants. We stuck with simple rice dishes paired with some sort of canned soup, curry, or beans, and that kept us fed quite nicely.
All told, we spent about N$263 ($19 USD) per day on food for the two of us. This included water (a necessary regular purchase in Namibia – note most grocery stores in the towns can refill 5L jugs) and a couple bottles of wine (which is super cheap in Africa – only about N$80 ($6 USD) per bottle).
This is another essential, and it entirely depends on how much driving you do each day. We were there for the wildlife, so we were out at sunrise and driving all day to cover as much ground and see as many animals as possible. This expense also greatly depends on the fuel efficiency of your vehicle. We were driving a 4×4 truck, so it probably wasn’t the most efficient, but it was the perfect vehicle for our needs.
With such intense driving, we averaged about N$388 ($28 USD) in gas each day.
Unless you’re visiting Etosha National Park with a tour or driving your own vehicle from a neighboring city, you’ll need to rent a car. This, of course, also incurs a daily fee. For us, our rental was both our transportation and our lodging, so it was worth the premium. For an all-inclusive 4×4 vehicle, we paid about N$1586 ($110 USD) per day. Your cost here will obviously depend on the company from which you rent and the type of vehicle you hire.
Etosha National Park is the perfect place for a multi-day self-drive safari. This is precisely what we did. However, if you feel like you’re missing out on something, or you just want someone else to take the wheel for a bit and show you the best of what Etosha has to offer, you could opt for a game drive.
Each camp organizes their own game drives, and prices range from N$650-750 ($47-54 USD) per person, depending on season and time of day. You can find the prices for game drives listed with the accommodation prices for each camp.
For us, we spent about N$2796 ($201 USD) per day to visit Etosha National Park. For the seven days (including travel days on either end), that brought us to a grand total of about N$19,013 ($1367 USD) for the two of us.
You could probably cut this cost down a bit by renting a non-4×4 and driving less (but that’s what we went to Etosha to do!).
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Other animal “experiences”
When looking for opportunities to see wildlife, you’ll no doubt come across numerous farms, reserves, and special animal “experiences.” However, we implore you to do your research with these, as many are not in the wildlife’s best interests.
As a general rule of thumb, you should steer clear of any advertisements that boast direct interaction with humans. This includes elephant rides, petting cheetahs, and any other promises to hold or touch wildlife. While this might sound like an amazing opportunity, animals in these programs have been tamed for tourism. Often times, they are forcibly removed from their natural habitat to sustain a gimmick for human entertainment. Some are physically abused to subdue them into servitude.
Also be on the lookout while on game drives in private reserves. If big cats and other predators seem excited about an approaching vehicle, or if they look up at its occupants expectantly, chances are high they’ve been trained to expect food. These creatures no longer have any motivation to hunt for themselves, and they are also tamed. That bodes ill for that business, as it indicates they might not be protecting the wildlife so much as imprisoning it. Animals taught to be fed can’t be released into the wild (they wouldn’t survive).
Instead, we advocate for the support of programs like AfriCat at Okonjima. They do have cheetahs in captivity, but these are rescues from hostile environments where they would have otherwise been killed by farmers, or they were brought in as cubs from someone who foolishly thought it would make for a great pet. They have already been deemed unreleasable, so they use the opportunity to instead study their behavior and educate locals on their preservation.
Their main draw is actually their leopard reserve, where the cats have large territories and hunt naturally. Though she’s become desensitized to safari trucks, Amali never looked up at us expecting a meal. She could theoretically be released back into the wild if there was a safe place for her to go.
Trust us, wildlife is so much more rewarding observed in the wild.
General tips for visiting Etosha National Park
- Don’t leave your car, except in designated rest areas. You don’t want to become lion mincemeat.
- By that same token, don’t deliberately drive too close to the animals. Particularly larger animals like elephants and rhinos could do a number on your rental, and no one wants to pay for those repairs.
- Get out from your camp as early as you can each morning; that’s really when the best wildlife can be observed.
- Don’t be late returning to your camp. Gate open and close times are posted at each entrance. This might be slightly different than the official sunrise/sunset times. The posted times are when the gates will open and close, regardless of when the sun is actually up. We always gave ourselves a half hour buffer.
- Have patience. Sometimes, the best animal sightings are after you’ve arrived at a waterhole. Drive to your favorite, and then park it there for a while. You never know when something awesome might show up!
- If you still can’t find a specific animal you’re seeking, check the books at each camp. Near the front desk, visitors jot down recent animal sightings in a log book, along with time and location. This could help you pinpoint where a given animal is most likely to return. If you see something less common, help others by writing in your own sightings!
- If your vehicle has the room (and you aren’t driving), sit in the center back seat. I found this to be the perfect spot for photography. Whenever we stopped, I could quickly slide either direction to shoot the wildlife (and never had to lean over Aaron in the driver seat).
- Don’t forget to check out the watering holes in your own camp. Sure, get out of the camp as early as possible, but the watering hole in your camp could also have some morning wildlife. The evenings are also a great time to check them out; you have to be back within the gates anyway. We often cooked up some simple grub and brought it with us to the waterhole where we enjoyed our “evening television.”
- Always be on the lookout for wildlife. Springbok especially love to jump out in front of cars, so stay vigilant! Besides, some can blend in quite well. Wildlife is everywhere; don’t miss it!
Come check out our latest video on Etosha National Park.
Which is your favorite African animal? What would you want to see most on a safari?
Psst… do you love reading about wildlife? You might also enjoy these:
- Okonjima Nature Reserve – The African Cat Experience
- 5-Day Backpacking Trip – Brown Bears in Alaska
- A Glimpse of Phoenix Park – Deer in the City!
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