Etosha National Park is unique for its huge salt-pan and string of ancient waterholes.
Latest Etosha National Park safari reviewsDisappointing experience
Etosha National ParkTranslated as the ‘Place of Mirages’, ‘Land of Dry Water’ or the ‘Great White Place’, Etosha is an apparently endless pan of silvery-white sand, upon which dust-devils play and mirages blur the horizon. One of Africa's best game reserves, Etosha National Park protects a vast shallow bowl of silvery sand the size of Holland – and its surrounding bush. It excels during the dry season when huge herds of animals can be seen amidst some of the most startling and photogenic safari scenery in Africa. For most of the year, these are ideal places just to sit quietly, observing and photographing game from the comfort of your car. Follow the rhythm of the animals: rise at dawn to watch them feed in the cool morning; relax during the midday heat; and venture out on safari again in the late afternoon.
Safaris to Etosha National ParkEtosha is so special because of the concentration of waterholes that occur around the southern edges of the pan. As the dry season progresses, these increasingly draw the game. In fact, the best way to watch animals in Etosha is often just to sit in your vehicle by a waterhole and wait.
Etosha was really designed for visitors on self-drive safari holidays; that's how most people visit here, helped by the park's good roads and signposts. If you prefer to be guided around by a professional safari guide, then it's usually better to stay in one of the private camps or lodges.
Flora & Fauna of EtoshaThe game and birds found here are typical of the savanna plains of the main safari areas in southern Africa, but include several species endemic to this western side of the continent, adjacent to the Namib Desert.
Big game of Etosha National ParkThe more common herbivores include elephant, giraffe, eland, blue wildebeest, kudu, gemsbok, springbok, impala, steenbok and zebra. The most numerous of these are the springbok which can often be seen in herds numbering thousands, spread out over the most barren of plains. These finely marked antelope have a marvellous habit of pronking, either (it appears) for fun or to avoid predators. It has been suggested that pronking is intended to put predators off in the first place by showing the animal’s strength and stamina; the weakest pronkers are the ones predators are seen to go for.
Elephant are very common, though digging for water below the sand wears down their tusks, so big tuskers are very rare. Often large family groups are seen trooping down to waterholes to drink, wallow and bathe. The park’s population has been under scientific scrutiny for the infrasonic noises (below the range of human hearing) which they make. It is thought that groups communicate over long distances in this way.
Among the rarer species, black rhino continue to thrive here, and the floodlit waterholes at Okaukuejo and Halali provide two of the continent’s best chances to observe this aggressive and secretive species. In recent years, about a dozen white rhino have been introduced. Your best chance of seeing these is in the east of the park, around Aus, Springbokfontein, Batia or Okerfontein, either early or late in the day.
Black-faced impala are restricted to Namibia and southern Angola, occurring here as well as in parts of the Kunene region to the west. With only isolated populations, numbering under a thousand or so, they are one of the rarest animals in the region. The Damara dik-dik is the park’s smallest antelope. Endemic to Namibia, it is common here in areas of dense bush.
Roan antelope and red hartebeest occur all over the subcontinent, though they are common nowhere. This is definitely one of the better parks in which to look for roan, especially in the mopane areas around Aus and Olifantsbad.
Predators in EtoshaAll of the larger felines are found in Etosha, with good numbers of lion, leopard, cheetah and caracal. The lion tend to prey mainly upon zebra and wildebeest, whilst the cheetah rely largely upon springbok. The seldom-seen leopard, take a varied diet, including antelope and small mammals, whilst the equally elusive caracal go for similar but smaller prey.
There have been several attempts to introduce wild dog here, but so far no success. The usual problem has been that the dogs don’t know to avoid lion, which have subsequently killed them for no apparent reason.
Also found in the park are both spotted and brown hyenas, together with silver jackal (or cape fox), and the more common black-backed jackal – many of which can be seen in the late evening, skulking around the camps in search of scraps of food.
Birds of EtoshaSome 340 species of birds have been recorded in Etosha, including many uncommon members of the hawk and vulture families.
Amongst the birds of prey, bateleur, martial, tawny and Wahlberg’s eagles are fairly common, as are black-breasted and brown snake eagles. Pale chanting goshawks are more often seen than the similar Gabar or the smaller little banded goshawk. The list of harriers, falcons and kestrels occurring here is even longer, and worthy of a special mention are the very common rock kestrels, and the unusual red-necked and particularly cute pygmy falcons, which are less readily seen. The impressive peregrine falcon and Montagu’s harrier are two of the rarer summer migrants.
Lappet-faced and white-backed vultures are common here, outnumbering the odd pair of white-headed or hooded vultures. Palmnut vultures are occasionally seen in the east of the park.
The number of large birds stalking around the plains can strike visitors as unusual: invariably during the day you will see groups of ostriches or pairs of secretary birds. Equally, it is easy to drive within metres of many kori bustards and black korhaans, which will just sit by the roadside and watch the vehicles pass. In the wet season, blue cranes, both beautiful and endangered, are common here: Etosha is worth visiting in January and February for them alone. Other specialities of the park include violet wood hoopoe, white-tailed shrike, bare-cheeked and black-faced babblers, short-toed rock thrush, and a pale race of the pink-bellied lark.
History of Etosha National ParkThe early European explorers and traders discovered the Etosha area in the 1850s when Charles Andersson and Francis Galton visited it. Relentless hunting of the area’s game ensued until 1907 when Dr von Lindequist, then the governor of German South West Africa proclaimed three reserves to protect the land and seasonal migrations. These boundaries held until the 1960s when Etosha National Park was shrunk to its present size.
In recent years, there has been persistent and increasing talk of developing a ‘people’s park’ – designed to link Etosha with the Skeleton Coast. If this were to come to fruition, it would cross the concessions currently held by Hobatere, Etendeka and Palmwag, creating a 20km-wide corridor to allow free movement of wildlife between the two national parks.
Landscape around EtoshaThe defining feature of the Etosha National Park is the huge Etosha Pan, which appears to be the remnant of a large inland lake that was fed by rivers from the north and east. One of these was probably the Kunene, which flowed southeast from the Angolan highlands and into the pan. However, some 12 million years ago continental uplift changed the slope of the land and the course of these tributaries. The Kunene now flows west from the Ruacana Falls and into the Atlantic. Thus deprived, the lake slowly vanished in the scorching sun, leaving behind only a salty residue. Few plants can grow on this and so wind erosion is easy, allowing the pan to be gradually hollowed out.
The pan has probably changed little over time. It is roughly 110km from east to west and 60km from north to south, covering an area of 6,133km2 (around a quarter of the park’s surface) with flat, silvery sand and shimmering heat. If the rains to the north and east have been good, then the pan will hold water for a few months at the start of the year, thanks mainly to the Ekuma River and the Omuramba Ovambo. Only very rarely does it fill completely.
In the rest of the national park, beyond the sides of the pan, the terrain is generally flat with a variety of habitats ranging from mopane woodland to wide, open, virtually treeless plains. In the east of the park, around Namutoni, the attractive makalani palms, Hyphaene ventricosa, are found, often in picturesque groups around waterholes. The small, round fruit of these palms, a favourite food of elephants, is sometimes called vegetable ivory because of its hard white kernel. In the west, one of the more unusual areas is the Haunted Forest, Sprokieswoud in Afrikaans, where the contorted forms of strange moringa trees, Moringa ovalifolia, form a weird woodland scene. Further west still, the environment becomes hillier, with mopane woodlands dotting the open savanna: very pretty but with few obvious centres for the game to congregate.