Driving in Etosha

African savannah of Etosha

Grab life by the horns and drive across Etosha National Park in Namibia. Despite it only being about 160 km from the Anderson Gate to the Von Lindequist Gate, it will take you all day. I was driving across Etosha and I was very conscious of not making the common rookie error. I wanted to make sure I did not spend too much time in the western section and not leave myself enough time to explore the eastern side.

About Etosha National Park – Driving in Etosha

Etosha pan was originally a lake that dried up millions of years ago  The actual Park covers an area of 22,270 km housing 114 mammal species, 380 birds and 110 reptiles.  Surprisingly there are also 16 amphibians and even one fish species to discover. It is one of Namibia’s oldest national parks and was proclaimed in 1907, now being over 100 years old.

My self-drive day across the park from west to east started with an early breakfast. My advice is to start early. You have to have a permit for Etosha, this is paid at one of the three rest camps. There are brilliant detailed maps of Etosha that you can buy at the rest camps. The maps have waterholes marked, showing whether they are borehole (meaning that they have water in them all year round) or whether they are natural. The wonderful thing about self driving is you can simply get excited by planning your route. Expect this to change with the incredible wildlife sightings that you see. Fellow travellers may stop to tell you about their sightings, wanting to share the experience. I was trying to maximise my chances of seeing everything!

My route across Etosha

That day I had made the decision to avoid the main camp of Okaukuejo and wind my way directly to the first borehole supplied waterhole on my route, Gemsbokvlakte. And what a great decision this was. I think I was the second car to stop on the gravel road beside a pride of 11 lions, what a treat that was. It was away from the water hole and not many people had driven by, so the Bush Telegraph was not working very well. I had the pride to myself for half an hour.

The beauty of driving yourself across Etosha is that you can stop and look at things for as long as you want to and you don’t get swept up with other people trying to bag as many animals as possible.  I love taking Africa at a slow pace and allowing the surroundings to speak for themselves.  I watched a Kori Bustard walk past me, it took 10 minutes because he was busy surveying his territory, it was delightful.

A kori bustard surveying its territory

Nearly all  the roads are dirt and there is a general speed limit of 60 km/h. However it is advisable to go slower as you never know what you might miss. I find that there seems to be an urgent rush to get from one waterhole to the next. My advice is to take it easy, there are so many other opportunities to see different wildlife between waterholes. I nearly drove past a black rhino and it was only 20m off the road in the bush, if I had been driving any faster I may well have missed it. Admittedly it is a little bit harder to spot things when it is just yourself…

Etosha Salt Pan – Driving in Etosha

After seeing numerous elephants at waterholes, vast herds of gemsbok and a very regal male lion I decided to move. My next stop was the Etosha Look-out.  The roads to the Look-out simply go straight onto the Etosha pan, it is mind blowing.

The road on the Etosha salt pan

The scenery is extraordinary, it is like being on the moon.  Nothing but white for miles and miles and miles. The contrast with the bright blue sky and the little market posts to mark the road was stark.

Although your Etosha permits says that you need to stay in the vehicle at all times, apart from at the designated toilets, most people get out of their cars here. Enjoy this vast expanse of nothingness. You can see for miles and miles and miles. So I suppose you would be able to see a lion if it was approaching you…

Lunch in Etosha

It was now around lunchtime. I had stopped at yet another waterhole, keeping my eyes peeled to see if anything interesting would turn up. I munched on my copious supplies of snacks. When driving in Namibia, anywhere in Africa really, it is best to have lots of water on board. Take an assortment of drinks with you, think of what you would normally drink and then quadruple it. And of course plenty of yummy snacks. I had slightly overdone it on the munchies front, I think I had half a cow’s worth of biltong.

The lovely thing about driving in Etosha is that you never really know what you will see. I was lucky that day, I’d seen black rhino, elephant, lion and as I was driving along the roads that clung to the actual pan a flick of a tail caught my eye. There in a shade of an acacia tree, lay three cheetah.  They were quite a long way away but I had these fantastic predators to myself. I could watch them at my leisure, as I chowed through more biltong.

Before I left the park, I decided to visit one more water hole, Chudob.  There were a few vehicles around the waterhole but generally fellow travellers are really good in allowing you to see the waterhole. The design of the park allows for quite a few vehicles to simply park up and watch the wildlife extravaganzas unfold. As I approached the waterhole I could see a number of  giraffes drinking and as I sat there I got some great photos of them. I was so busy looking at the giraffes and getting excellent film footage of them, that neglected to look around the rest of the hole.

Admittedly they had been very still, statue like, but no excuse, I had missed seeing three hyena lounging by the water’s edge.

A hyena swimming at the water's edge

I’d recently read an article about some very clever hyena that had adapted to ‘fish’ in one of the waterholes and my luck was in. Motionless, crouching in the pan with its snout inches away from the water, sat a hyena waiting for its lunch. It was remarkable, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I really wished I had a better lens on my camera. I settled back and watched to see how successful he would be, with more biltong.

What a day that was, all nine hours of it.  Yes, it had taken me nine hours to drive 160 km. I had been very lucky in my sightings that day. But even if I hadn’t seen lion or hyena, the scenery in itself is extraordinary. You are practically guaranteed massive herds of zebra and gemsbok, experience a mini adventure on your own self-drive in Etosha.

Sitting in my office I really wish I could spend the whole day in a car in Etosha, biltong mandatory!

Jenny Bowen

Author: Jenny Bowen

I live for travel, whether it is at home or abroad. It is a joy to explore new places, meet new people and to have an adventure. There are so many wonderful places to visit and such fascinating wildlife to see, you never know what is around the corner! Live life to the full and restore your soul.