Located in the northern part of Namibia, Etosha is one of Africa’s premier game viewing parks. When it was proclaimed a national game reserve in 1907, Namibia was still under German rule and known as German South West Africa. Currently the national park covers an area of around 22.000 sq. kilometres and is home to a large diversity of animal species.

smiling woman standing at a waterhole in a national park observing elephants drinking
Etosha National Park

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The centrepiece of the park is a big white salt pan stretching out over 6.500 sq. kilometres and covering nearly one quarter of the whole park. It is one of the largest salt pans on the continent. This exceptional feature once used to be a lake formed by the Kunene river, but dried up fast after a continental shift diverted the flow of river, some thousands of years ago, leaving behind a white bleached dusty soil.

The Etosha Pan

In the local Ovambo language, Etosha means “big white place”, derived from this white dust covering nearly the whole park, mainly during dry season.

A Waterhole Safari

The Etosha pan is not always dry and dusty, as during the rainy season, the pan converts into a shallow lake, attracting a vast amount of wading birds, including flamingoes. Yet, once the rains stop, this water evaporates fast in the hot and dry air, turning the pan back into a flat dustbowl and making the waterholes the only source of drinking water for the animals in the park.

lions drinking at a waterhole in a national park in namibia
Three lazy lions on a siesta with a giraffe watching intently in the background

I have had the chance to visit Etosha many times over the last years and it became one of my favourite game parks in Southern Africa. The rest camps are nice, the good roads make it very good for self driving safaris and it is never really over crowded. But what makes Etosha so special for me and probably as well for many other tourists is the abundance of waterholes.

Spread throughout the park, they are either natural springs in which some water can be found throughout the year while others are artificially created. A great diversity of animals congregate around these waterholes, some in large amounts, more so during the dry season. I guess that Etosha became one of the parks where during the heat of the day, one can still find a high concentration of different wildlife surrounding these waterholes and where the presence of waterholes is invaluable for good game viewing during dry season.

large herd of zebra drinking while standing in a waterhole
Zebra drinking and cooling down

It is not uncommon to see 10 or more different species together by these waterholes. Mostly you will find Oryx (Namibia’s national animal), springbok, ostrich, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, jackals and even elephants. 

More information about the African elephant

On a certain occasion I even saw 2 male lions relaxing at one side of the water and all the other animals standing together at the other side keeping a weary eye on these 2 predators. One of the lions then decided to get up and go for a drink but not after he produced a massive roar making the other animals flee in all directions, after which he just stretched his lazy muscles and sipped from the hot and muddy water.

hungry looking lion standing at a waterhole watching oryx on the other side
Lion viewing the lunch menu

Most of the times you can just drive from one waterhole to the other and get the best wildlife viewing. What is nicer than just sitting relaxed in your vehicle while the animals pass in front of your window, observing their behaviour and taking stunning photos, during the heat of the day.

Floodlit waterholes at the rest camps

Three rest camps are located in the eastern side of the park. The western part only recently opened for the general public, so it will not be covered here. Although not everyone is keen on staying overnight in Etosha itself it is definitely worthwhile. Admittedly, some rest camps or accommodations outside the park may provide better quality and service for less money and may be easier to book during peak season, however, the floodlit waterholes do make it worth staying overnight in the park. These floodlit waterholes have definitely always for me been a highlight of every visit to Etosha. This said, it counts mainly for the dry season. During the rainy season, animals are not so much attracted by the larger waterholes, since water is freely available all over the park and it is not necessary for all to congregate in the same area.

3 elephants standing at a waterhole about to drink
Elephants by the waterhole at Okaukujo in Etosha

Okaukujo camp is the most visited campsite of the three. It is located close to the main access (Anderson Gate) and is also the administrative centre of the park.

The waterhole is located right next to the campground. It offers a very wide view of the surrounding area and animals approaching can be spotted from far. The seating area is large, and reasonably comfortable.

A great diversity of animals is very often seen during the day as well as during the night. Sighting of the rare black rhino is not uncommon in the evenings. Due to the floodlights, the visibility is very good, even for night photography (bring a tripod). The animals are not disturbed by the light and will come for a drink or to cool down.

2 windhoek beers on a stone wall with 2 elephants in the background at a floodlit waterhole at night
Sipping a beer with a view

As it is a floodlit waterhole, one can stay for as long as you like observing animals (24hrs). Sometimes during peak season it can get rather busy and crowded and unfortunately noisy at times. Either way it is always pleasant to spend the evening there, bring a good camera and don’t forget some beers or wine, but do keep the noise down especially if your alcohol level goes up.

Surrounding the public seating area are some of the top accommodations of Okaukujo which overlook the waterhole. Game viewing can be done while laying in your bed or sitting on your own private terrace.

Halali camp has a smaller waterhole but none the less visited by the same animals. However, in the area are some resident leopards so chances of seeing them here are slightly higher. The waterhole is situated a bit further from the campsite and the path is somewhat rocky. When going there after dark, be sure to take a flashlight with you.

girl sitting under a shade shelter looking down at a waterhole with semi desert in the background
Waterhole at Halali rest camp in Etosha

Namutoni camp is located at the eastern gate of the park. It used to be a fort and still has its tower. It’s a nice place to enjoy the sunset over the grassy plains.

Due to the presence of various other waterholes in the area, wildlife viewing can be less fruitful compared to the other 2 rest camps. Furthermore, part of the water is covered in reed, taking away good visibility.

Etosha transforms during rainy season

When visiting Etosha during the rainy season, a big transformation occurs. The white dust gets washed away making space for lush green grass. Animals can be harder to find as water is now available throughout the park and not just at the waterholes. The cooler air makes the animals more active and vivid and baby’s roam freely with their mothers. A whole different world but no less beautiful and fascinating.

Wildlife viewing from waterhole to waterhole gives a different dimension to a safari, making Etosha a wildlife reserve that stands out in its own way. It is something you’ll have to experience when visiting Etosha, its wildlife and its nature.

Have you ever been to Etosha? What was your experience with wildlife viewing by the waterholes?

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