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I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a safari person. I know there are people who always dream of traveling to Africa for a safari. That was not me. In fact, doing a safari in Namibia was not on my radar at all when I started planning my trip (I was far more interested in the dunes of Sossusvlei and desert of Spitzkoppe). But since we were traveling all the way to Namibia, it made sense to include a five night stay in Etosha. And I am so happy that we did. Our time in Etosha was truly magical, made even more so by the ability to self-drive in Etosha. This article will dive into everything you need to know about planning a self drive in Etosha.
Things to know before visiting Etosha
- You are not allowed to exit your car while in Etosha, unless you are in one of the designated fenced off rest areas. This is for your safety, and should be taken very seriously.
- The park is huge! It takes hours to drive from one side to the other. There are four separate park entrances.
- Although you are allowed to bring meat into the park, you are not allowed to bring any meat out of the park. If you have a fridge in your truck it will be searched each time you exit the park. This is to prevent the spread of diseases.
- You are only allowed to drive in Etosha when the sun is up. The gates open at sunrise and close at sunset.
- There is accommodation both inside the park and just outside of it.
- The official Etosha website is a great resource throughout your trip.
- There is malaria in the park region. This is typically not an issue in the winter months as there is too little water for mosquitoes to breed, but it is important to consult a doctor before the trip.
Before you dive into the article, I’ve highlighted a few of the most popular tours in Namibia. However, many campsites and lodges offer their own tours that you can book as needed. And as this post will discuss, a self-drive in Etosha is a great way to explore the park!
Popular tours in Namibia
How much does it cost to visit Etosha National Park?
You will need to purchase a permit to enter the park. The permit is valid for 24 hours from when it is purchased. If you plan to visit multiple days in a row, then I would buy the pass for multiple days. Once you have your permit you can enter and exit the park as many times as you’d like during that time window.
As of July 2023, the cost of the daily permit was 150 NAD per person, and 50 NAD per car.
While credit cards are accepted, I highly recommend also carrying cash. The credit card machines were down during our visit, a common occurrence in Namibia.
Do I need a guide to visit Etosha?
One of the things that I love most about Etosha is that you don’t need a guide to visit the park, and instead you can self-drive in Etosha (aka drive your own car or car rental). It is such a cool experience to be able to drive yourself around, casually spotting wildlife in every direction. We did not do any guided tours within Etosha, and instead self-drove every day. We did book one guided tour on the Onguma Reserve, in a (successful) attempt to see lions on our final night in the area.
Planning your self-drive in Etosha
Etosha is one of the easiest places to plan a self-drive safari, with hours of roads with optimal wildlife viewings. However, it is important to understand a few basic things that will keep you safe and happy throughout your trip.
Stay in your car
You are not allowed to exit your car while in Etosha, unless you are in one of the designated fenced off rest areas. This is for your safety, and should be taken very seriously. Because of this, if you are self-driving then you should plan on spending a lot of time inside of your car. Some rest areas are over an hour apart, so you’ll want to make sure that you have access to water, snacks, phone chargers, and anything else that you may want throughout the drive.
Know how to change a tire
Not being allowed to leave your car also means that if you get a flat tire while driving in Etosha, which is unfortunately quite common, you will need to drive on your flat until you can reach a rest area. This could mean driving an hour on a flat. It is also important for any trip to Etosha that you make sure that you know how to change a flat tire.
Make sure you have enough gas
There are only three gas stations throughout Etosha park. Considering how vast the park is, this means that the gas stations are over an hour apart. For this reason, it is super important that you never let your fuel level drop too low. I recommend keeping it above half a tank at all times throughout your self-drive in Etosha
Stick to the speed limit
The speed limit throughout all of Etosha National Park is 60 km/hr. The majority of roads are gravel roads so you should plan to be driving closer to 40 km/hr. A self-drive in Etosha is way more about the journey than the destination. We saw the majority of big game while driving between waterholes, rather than at them!
When to visit Etosha
Etosha has two distinct seasons, the wet season and the dry season.. The wet season is from November to May and the dry season is from June to October. Game viewings are typically the easiest during the dry season. This is because all of the animals congregate around the park’s watering holes, their only source of water during the hot days.
During the wet season the trees are fuller and the animals are more spread out, making it more difficult to spot the different animals.
Typically the best wildlife viewings are in September and October, which is also a less busy time to visit Namibia. However, we had an amazing (and animal filled) experience visiting in early July.
It is obviously more expensive to visit during the peak season, however you are likely to have a better game viewing experience. If you are booking for the peak season, however, be sure to book at least 6-9 months in advance. Campsites were already booked out when we looked 4 months before our trip.
How to get to Etosha
Etosha National Park is located in northern Namibia, close to the Angolan border. Etosha is located 3-5 hours from Namibia’s capital city Windhoek, depending on which park entrance you are trying to reach. The road from Windhoek to Etosha is actually a paved road, unlike the popular long gravel roads in Namibia. The easiest way to get to Etosha is by self-driving in a a rental car, which is also the best way to experience Namibia in my opinion. Otherwise you can book a tour!
As I mentioned above, the park itself is huge so you will need to decide which part or parts of the park you want to stay in, as this could impact your drive time by a few hours.
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Best time to see wildlife in Etosha
Typically the best time for wildlife spotting is in the early morning (as soon as the park gates open) and in the late afternoon, right before sunset. If you visit during the dry season, you will likely also have a lot of luck during the middle of day when the sun is strong and the animals congregate at the many water holes throughout the park.
I was truly shocked by the amount of wildlife we were able to see self-driving around Etosha. On our first day we saw rhinos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, springbok, ostriches, hyenas and more! There are hundreds of thousands of animals living within the park grounds. There are currently a recorded 114 mammal species, 340 bird species, 110 reptile species, 16 amphibian species. In fact, there are over 20,000 zebras living in Etosha National Park alone. I laugh now because when I saw wild zebras for the first time on this trip near Sossusvlei I almost cried of joy. And then by the end of my time in Etosha I must have seen over 1,000!
Entering the park
The first thing to understand is that you cannot drive in the park at all times. The park is only open between just after sunrise to just after sunset. The exact time that the park opens and closes changes from day to day. The most reliable source of information for this is the Etosha App, which I recommend downloading in the app store before your arrival. We asked both of our lodges for opening gate times and received the wrong information both times.
If it is your first day entering the park, then you will receive a piece of paper with the park rules to fill out and sign. This process can take a bit as each car that doesn’t have a paper already will need to fill it out before they are let through. Once you pass through the gate, you’ll need to head directly to the tourist office to pay for your permit. There are offices on both sides of the park, located about fifteen minutes from the gate at Okaukuejo and Namutoni.
Personally, I don’t think there is much of a benefit of lining up to wait to enter. If anything it will save you 5-10 minutes, but you’ll need to wait for 30 minutes or so before the park enters. We accidentally arrived 45 minutes early, after receiving some wrong information, and were the first in line. Despite this, we still entered the park at the same time as the days we arrived right at opening.
The next thing to understand is that there are four separate entrances into Etosha – Andersson Gate (south), Galton Gate (west), Nehale Gate (north), and Namutoni Gate (east).
Best areas to spot wildlife in Etosha
Typically your best bet for spotting wildlife is at one of the many water holes scattered throughout Etosha. It can all be a bit random and luck-based, but if you’re doing a self-drive, its best to make a bit of a plan. Typically the best wildlife viewings, especially for lions are in the early morning and late afternoon when they are up and wandering around.
Ironically, we actually had most of of our sightings with animals crossing the road or moving towards waterholes, rather than at the holes themselves. We were lucky enough to see tons of giraffes, zebras, elephants, rhinos, and even a few lions. And then of course tons of wildebeests, ostriches, springbok and more!
Located right by the Andersson Gate entrance, we had luck at this waterhole at all times of day. During the the early morning and midday we saw tons and tons of zebras here. Around sunset we also had an amazing rhino spotting here.
Located by one of the camps, this waterhole has flood lights so it is great for late night viewings. It is known to have frequent black rhinos once the sun sets. You will need to either be staying at this camp or book a guided tour. We didn’t have much luck here otherwise during the middle of the day.
A great spot to visit first thing in the morning and in the late afternoon for lion sightings. We were lucky enough to see a full lion family here. We also saw hyenas, ostriches, giraffes, and more.
We visited this waterhole a few times during midday and it was always bustling with tons of animals. We never saw any of the big five here, but it is a great opportunity to see big herds of animals. We saw a pack of at least 50 wildebeest here.
Goas and Halali
Both of these are known for leopard sightings. We personally didn’t have any luck here, but have heard of some amazing animal sightings here. If you’re staying at the Halali camp, you’ll be able to reach these easily in the early morning. Halali also has floodlights.
We didn’t explore the east waterholes as much, but this one in particular is a good one close to the east side entrance. It is known to have a lot of lion sightings, so a great place to come in the early morning.
Where to stay when visiting Etosha
Etosha is huge! When I first started planning my road trip in Namibia, I underestimated the vast size of this park. It takes four to five hours to drive from one end to the other, and this is assuming you’re not stopping every five minutes for animals, which you will be.
If you’re planning a trip to Etosha, then you have a few decisions you need to make first, which I will cover in more detail below:
- Do you want to stay inside or outside of the park?
- Do you want to stay in a lodge or at a campsite?
- Do you want to be based on the east or west side of the park?
Staying inside vs outside of Etosha National Park
Let’s start with the first question, staying inside or outside of the park. In my opinion there are perks to both. By staying in the park you can eliminate the time needed to enter and exit the park. While this shouldn’t take too long, you will need to wait in line each time as permits are checked to enter, and as forms are filled out when exiting. You will also need to have an official check your fridge each time you exit the park to make sure you are not exiting with any meat products.
Another benefit to staying inside the park is that you will have earlier access. Rather than waiting for the outside gates to open, you can already be inside the park when the sun starts to rise. You’ll find watering holes at all of the major campsites and lodging areas, so you even have the opportunity for night time viewings. Okaukuejo for example has floodlights, which provides the unique experience of being able to see the endangered black rhino species visit the waterhole in the night. If you are staying outside of the park, the only way that you can enter after dark is with a guided tour.
One benefit of staying outside of the park, however, is nicer and more affordable places to stay. We stayed outside of the park for all five nights that we visited Etosha and still had an amazing time (with lots and lots of animal sightings). If I were to do it again, however, I would attempt to book a few nights at a campsite within the park, which fills up very far in advance.
Do you want to stay in a lodge or at a campsite?
Like anywhere you visit in Etosha, you have the opportunity to choose between staying at a lodge or at a campsite. Staying at a campsite is obviously the more affordable option, plus you’ll be able to cook your own meals. Just make sure that you have ample groceries as the grocery options in and around the park are super limited. If you do plan to stay at a campsite within the park, make sure to book well in advance. There are currently five camps within the park.
One of the benefits of the lodges in and near Etosha is that many have their own waterholes. This is a unique opportunity to see wildlife from the comfort of a deck, ideally with a drink in hand. A few of the lodges also sit on their own reserves.
Do you want to be based on the east or west side of the park?
As I mentioned earlier, Etosha is huge. For this reason you’ll need to decide which side of the park to base yourself on. The west side is known to be a bit more rugged, with some more forests. The east is dominated primarily by the salt pans. Ultimately, I think it really comes down to which lodge or campsite you would like to stay at, seeing as we had great wildlife experiences on both sides.
We had a total of five nights in Etosha, and chose to split that up with three nights on the west side by Andersson Gate and two nights on the east side by Lindquist Gate. We stayed at the Gondwana Etosha Safari Lodge for the first few nights, and then the Onguma Forest Camp for the last few. While the first was pleasant, we found the property overall to be a bit uninviting. It is a huge hotel so it simply isn’t a very personal experience. However, it was reasonably priced, for Etosha, and located only a quick drive from the park entrance.
We absolutely loved our stay at Onguma Forest Camp, where we spent our final two nights in Etosha. The lodge is actually located just outside the park on its own reserve, which is home to a large population of lions and cheetahs, along with other big animals such as elephants, giraffes, and zebras. The staff at Onguma went above and beyond, and it was a super personable experience. Breakfast and dinner are both included, and the food is truly excellent, some of the best that we had while in Namibia. We took their sundowner tour, which is a 2-3 hour sunset safari drive on the reserve with snacks and drinks (priced at 550 NAD in July 2023). Our guide was great and we were able to see five lions on our drive.
Camps in Etosha National Park
There are three main camps in Etosha National Park where tourists can stay, Okaukuejo Camp, Halali Camp, and Namutoni Camp. All three of these camps offer both private chalets and campsites. Okaukuejo Camp is located in the southwest, by Andersson Gate. Halali is located in the center, almost exactly halfway between Okaukuejo and Namutoni. And Namutoni Camp is located in the east. Both Okaukuejo and Halali have floodlights on the water holes at night, prime for black rhino sightings.
There are also a few other less popular camps: Dolomite Camp, Olifantsrus Camp and Onkoshi Camp.
Campsites at each of these camps are 390 NAD (~$20 USD). Chalets range from 1570 NAD to 3270 NAD per person in the low season and from 1960 NAD to 4600 NAD per person in the high season.
Since the park is do huge, if you are planning a self-drive in Etosha, I recommend not staying in one camp the entire time. Ideally you should split your time in the east and west parts of the park.
I would recommend submitting an inquiry directly on the park website, this is also where you will get the most updated information. Make sure to inquire as far in advance as possible. We were out of luck booking for the high season 4 months in advance for campsites.
Where to eat in Etosha
Food options are quite limited in, and just outside of, Etosha National Park. You will find a dining hall at each of the main rest stops within the park (Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali Camps), where you can purchase a lunch buffet. We never dined here, but have heard that the food is Otherwise, plan on packing lunch. This is what we did each day. We were even able to “heat up” our meals by leaving them on the dashboard for an hour or two in the hot Namibian sun.
If you are planning on packing your own lunches, whether you’re camping or staying at a lodge, I recommend doing your grocery shopping before you reach Etosha. We stopped at the Trading Post just outside of the park and the options were very limited. Pasta and tomato sauce was the best meal that we could throw together. They do have hot sandwiches that you can order for a few dollars though, but I recommend pre-ordering the day before.
What to pack for a visit to for a self-drive in Etosha
- Safari clothes – I put so much time into thinking about my safari outfits, like any content girl, only to realize that you quite literally don’t get out of your own car all day. You can literally wear anything as no one will be seeing you all day. If you’re doing a tour in an open jeep, wear muted colors and bundle up!
- Water and snacks – the dining options in and around Etosha are a bit limited. As budget travelers we found it easier to cook our own meals to eat in the car for lunch. However, even finding basic food to cook was hard. I highly recommend shopping in Windhoek or Swakopmund before you reach the Etosha area.
- Warm layers – as hot as it gets during the midday sun, the nights get just as cold. The early morning sunrises can be quite cold before the sun properly rises, so layers are super important. This includes a jacket (I used my Patagonia NanoAir) and a beanie.
- Binoculars – Other than a ton of oryx, there wasn’t a lot of wildlife in the park when we visited. However, on the road just up the road we saw desert zebras, baboons, ostrich, wildebeests, and so much more!
- A camera (with a zoom lens) – we invested in a 200-400mm lens for our camera before this trip and it was so so worth it. It allowed us to get clear shots of all of the wildlife. If it’s in your budget, many travelers in Namibia carry a lens up to 600mm, but that is much bulkier. If you don’t already have a lens, or don’t want to travel with one, you can rent one in Windhoek.
- Sun protection – Namibia is hot year round and the sun is super strong. Make sure to pack adequate sunscreen and wear a hat during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest.
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Planning a trip to Namibia? Here are some other articles to check out:
- Camping in Spitzkoppe
- Planning a trip to Sossusvlei
- 35+ Things to know before visiting Namibia
- Visiting Deadvlei