My recent trip and some travel advice for Etosha

My recent Etosha trip

A couple weeks ago I had the great pleasure of taking two astronomers up to Etosha. The goal was for them to record (photograph) an occultation of Pluto. We spent four nights there and had the chance to do a few morning game drives in Etosha.

The first morning we managed to see a couple Elephant bulls along with lots of plains game. No lions of the first day. Due to the huge rains that Namibia had had this year, there was a lot of water in the pans and so wildlife was really spread out. It really is my favorite time to go to Etosha, because you never know what you will find where, and the birding gets good. But to take people on their first Safari at a time like that is difficult. The truth of tour guiding is that no matter what your guests say, there is this unwritten (or is it written??) rule that says you MUST FIND LIONS.

The trip wasn't about Etosha at all, and we only did morning drives. The afternoons they would sleep, and then most of the night was spent with the telescope, preparing for the night when the occultation of Pluto would occur.

We has some nice drives and saw nice birds, including a couple sightings of Blue Cranes and an African Spoonbill. It was fun.

On our last day the worry was far more about weather. The whole thing (the occultation) boils down to a couple of minutes of critical, when the star passes behind Pluto. If clouds got in the way then, it would be all for nothing.

We did a last game drive on our final morning. It was rather quiet. It's always a tricky one. We had spent all our time on the same side of the park, and so you run out of new places to try. The guests were enjoying it a lot, so I wasn't to stressed. On our way out we decided to revisit one waterhole, and finally got a few lions lying near the road under some bushes. There was a man and female that probably had just finished a spree of mating as well as a couple males lying a little way off from the pair.

It was a nice ending to our game drives, but we still had weather to worry about. They had traveled half way around the world just to see this event, and these types of events don't happen that often. So there was a lot of pressure and not much we could do about it.

The afternoon rolled around and the weather looked fine. No problem. I was relaxing. The astronomers probably less so. But the sky was clear.

Then as the evening started coming in, a little cloud was lifting in the north. As the evening carried on, the cloud built and built. It was going to be a race. Marc, one of the astronomers had his camera taking short time laps photographs of the sky at short intervals, giving an interesting account of the night's weather.

It was getting stressful. I left to go to bed as I had the drive to Windhoek the next day. I slept a while, then woke up worried about the weather. I went out again and just waited until the actual event started. They were in luck, just a little window of clear sky showed in the region of Pluto and the occultation!

I didn't realize how close it had been until we watched Marc's pictures of the evenings sky the next day. It was amazing. This cloud just closed right in, just leaving that spot open. Just after the event they wanted one last go at taking some data, and when they tried, they got nothing...the clouds had closed in. It was amazing, the really just squeezed it in!

It was a wonderful trip and the type of thing that I would love to do in the future again. It was especially nice to have done it at Etosha, a place that has been special to me for years.

Advice for travelers to Etosha

I was asked (by Mary Winstone) for some travel advice for Etosha, which is something I have wanted to do for some time. So here goes.
General Information
Etosha is Namibia's premier wildlife or Safari destination. The park is just a little over a hundred years old. Etosha is managed by Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the restcamps in the park are run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, and organization tied to the parks.

At a little over 22 000 square kilometers, Etosha is a big place! The park is rather diverse, with a huge salt pan taking up a good part of the park, a variety of Broadleaved, Mopani, and Acacia woodland, grassy and dwarf shrub plains and saline pans. The park is mostly flat. Very flat. A few places, like Halali, have isolated hills around them. The park only really gets hilly on the far western side.

Despite it's size, Etosha has only a relatively small area open to the public. Don't let that worry you to much, as it's still a really big area, and you can spend many days in Etosha and still not see it all. It also means that the long drive from the east to west (or visa versa) should be taken as a whole day...more on that later.

Where should you stay? That really is a question of budget, but I will try to give you some idea of what there is. Let me break it into three sections: In the park, at the Anderson's Gate and at the Von Lindquist Gate.
  • In the Park
    In the only option is to stay at one of the Namibian Wildlife Resort's Etosha Resorts. There are three main ones, and all of them are large places with different types of accommodation in them. You can camp, or stay in the rather nice bungalows. Meals are provided at restaurants in buffet style. There have been recent efforts to upgrade the rooms and it is rather nice.
    The three main rest camps include Okaukuejo on the western side of the tourist area, Halali half way, and Namutoni on the eastern side of the park.
    Advantages...You are in the park, you can do night drives, each camp has a waterhole that can be viewed at night and at both Halali and Okaukuejo the waterholes can be very interesting, with Black Rhino, Elephants and lions making frequent appearances. I even saw a leopard at Halali last year.
    The parks rest camps (or resorts) are cheaper than the fancy lodges, but with the upgrades over the last few years, they are far from cheep. Camping is the cheapest way to do Etosha now.
    The resorts are the only place that you can do night drives in the park. I can't comment to much on the quality of the night drives as I haven't done them and I have only had a couple of guests on my trips do them, with mixed reports as to how good the trips were.
    NWR isn't exactly government, but it is a little bit like government, and as such the resorts management isn't top class. But they are okay and I always enjoy staying in the resorts. If you stay at Halali, ask the watchmen to show you the Scops and White-faced Owls roosting in the trees. I usually give them a couple bucks for it.

    There is also a new development (Onkoshi) in the park on the eastern side.
  • Central/South area, Anderson's GateThe best lodge in this area is the Ongava Lodge, run by Wilderness Safaris. They have their own private game reserve right next to Etosha and have plenty to see there. They have a good population of White Rhino, an animal infrequently seen in Etosha itself. At Ongava there is the tented camp, which was my favorite place to stay. I was last there in 2003, but I believe its still good. What I loved about the tented camp was the close proximity one has with wildlife there. On the flip side, there is also the very luxury rooms at Ongava, that are perhaps the nicest accommodation around the park. There are a number of other options on this side, but I would recommend either Ongava or Okaukuejo.
  • East Von Lindquist GateThere are a number of options on this side. Right at the Gate is Mokuti Lodge, run by Kempinski, which I stayed at in the trip mentioned above. It is a large, hotel like lodge. I found the rooms a little crowded. I feel like they need to throw in so much 'stuff' to make it a five star lodge that they loose a bit of practicality. That said, however, I feel it's a great place, conveniently located, and we found the staff friendly and willing to help us with all sorts of unusual requests. There is a snake park at the lodge. I don't think it's that great, mainly focusing on all the big stuff, and not interesting in terms of small snakes and lizards, and with very little info. But I guess not everyone is as interested in reptiles as I am.

    On the other side of the road is the Onguma Lodge, which is really a couple lodges together. I have never stayed there and it's all rather new. From what I hear, it is a great place. I would certainly say that it's the place I am most interested in visiting around Etosha.

    Another wonderful lodge outside Etosha's eastern side is Mushara.

    A few years back I did a number of tours through there and always enjoyed staying there. I feel like the management can be a little cold and 'hotelier' like, but if you like it fancy, they are good with that. They have some good wine and a nice setting. It is a little far from the gate, but not so much that it's a big problem.
For any other options outside the park, one starts to get quiet far from the gates. If you are looking at doing it cheaply, being in the park is certainly the best option...though still rather pricey.

There are lodges on the western side of the park, but the access through there is restricted to tour operators only and only really worth it if you are also traveling to the far north-west of Namibia. For game viewing the main area is perfectly fine.

For more information and bookings visit the Cardboard Box website. They are an excellent resource for traveling to Namibia, not just for information but for bookings, tours and even advice on things like insurance and safety.
DIY gamedrives in Etosha
You can go with a tour company, but Etosha is fine to do on your own. You can still do game drives with the lodges or resorts and probably if you are doing it on your own, I would suggest mixing it up a bit. Namibia can be a LOT of driving. Trust me, it's probably more than you think. And the distances in the park are deceiving, because you never drive fast in the park and so it can be tiring.

That said, the other side of it is that doing a game drive on your own is magic. It's special. I love doing game drives with my family not so much for what we see, but just for being out there. Of course, if you haven't done game drives that much, what you see in important, but the experience itself is still magic.

In Etosha it's all about water. It can be a little bit boring in a way, though, to just cruse waterhole to waterhole. But in the dry season, most of the animals move to waterholes. In the rainy season this changes and you really don't know what you will see where. If you plan to visit Etosha in the rainy season (especially January to April) it is best to focus as much on birds and behavior as trying to find the high profile animals. Late dry season is the best for finding animals at the waterholes (September/October or even early November if the rains haven't broken.)

Look everywhere. Often people miss a rhino that is just in the bush a little from the road. Make sure you look into the bush.

Use the EARLY mornings. Your first hour is the best time to see Rhinos or Lions at the waterholes. Later, as the day warms up, you may see streams of wildlife at waterholes with up to five or six species of larger mammals present at the same time. Elephants basically drink any time. Giraffes often like to drink in the late afternoon, and it is really cool to watch that.

Always make sure you plan your time well in Etosha. Try to look in the sightings books to find out where interesting animals have been seen. Figure out your time to drive between places and add plenty of buffer. Don't speed in the park. It's bad for wildlife, and it's bad for those who planned better.
More Information
If you are coming to Namibia there are many tour companies and travel agents that you can work through. The Cardboard Box (mentioned above) provides really good assistance for travelling to Namibia.

Google Earth is always interesting to look at, both before and after your visit to Namibia.

Bring a good camera. Small compact cameras are nice to carry, but make sure that you have a decent zoom. Anything less than a 300 makes taking wildlife photos hard.

Binoculars really make the experience so much better and if you can afford it, I recommenced a really good pair. I use Swarovski 10 x 42 binoculars (At AmazonSwarovski EL Binocular 10x42)
and love them, but any of the good brands produce amazing binoculars, including Carl Zeiss, Leica, Nikon and of course Swarovski. Of course top range optics may be out of the question for you. I would still emphasizes getting a good pair. Don't get the compacts for Etosha. You want binoculars that you can see in poor light, especially if you are spending time at the waterholes at night.

It's nice to have a good field guide for mammals while you do game drives. I use "The Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa" by Chris and Tilde Stuart, published by Struik

If you are into birds, then Sasols birds of southern Africa is good.

You will find these books in most book stores. In Etosha you can by the parks map with a lot of the wildlife and birds on it.

Well, I think that's enough to get one started. Any questions, please shout. I know that a couple of the blog's regular readers know a bit about Etosha and I may have missed stuff. Please feel free to add or even make corrections in the comments.
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