Imagine a landscape so unearthly it was used as a set in classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A place where bone-white elephants shiver into view through mirages cast by heat and light. Here, giraffe tower over bleached grasslands that hide lion and cheetah; great herds of springbok and gnu stir up dust like mist. In the dry season, the vast salt pan that takes up almost 25% of this 22,935 km2 national park is an empty expanse of cracked white mud, visible from space.
Water is the centre of this universe, and Etosha revolves around its galaxy of waterholes. This is a place where, rather than driving in search of game, one can pull up at a quiet pan and watch as creatures great and small come to share a drink. Clouds of red-billed quelea swirl overhead like omens and there is the sense that anything, anything at all, could happen.
Unlike the rest of our beleaguered planet, there are more large mammals in this part of Namibia than there are people (Namibia squeaks into the top five least-populated regions on earth). A considerable number stroll around the startling expanses of Etosha, including the densest population of endangered black rhinoceros in the world. This is justifiably a top safari destination all year round, despite the fact that it is fenced and massively popular and an experience rather different to the great wildernesses of Botswana and Kenya. In dry season Etosha is a stark, shimmering vision of a place. Over 80 waterholes and pans (natural and man-made) are punched into the dry surroundings and the park’s road network leads from one to another like beads on a string. Most are to the south of massive Etosha Pan, and stretch from the busier East and Central section to the dolomite hills and mopane woodlands of the West, only opened to the public in 2011.
In summer, the rains come and Etosha undergoes a spectacular transformation. If heavy enough, water fills the pan with a shallow layer of precious liquid that attracts masses of waterbirds, including Barbie-pink flamingos. Vegetation springs to life and the plains fill with spindly-legged baby antelope and wildebeest calves. This annual makeover adds to the changeable nature of the park, which draws repeat visitors for its reliable animal sightings.
Etosha was proclaimed over 110 years ago, and the original park accommodations and road network were designed for self-driving visitors. That said, there are other ways to explore: either by staying outside its boundaries and driving in, or with guided safaris. There are three “classic” camps that generations of visitors have visited with chalets and camping sites; in a way these are like busy mini-villages, complete with fuel stations and shops. These have been bolstered with two more contemporary and semi-exclusive “eco-camps”, and one site that caters to campers only. All (bar Okoshi) have a waterhole besides them, floodlit for guests to observe nocturnal activity. For those averse to crowds and unwilling to deal with the park staff (it has a reputation for being somewhat indifferent), there is a selection of accommodations scattered outside the park boundaries. These range from rustic enclaves to luxurious suites in choice locations on private reserves.
Etosha at a glance: