Acing a Self-Drive Safari in Etosha National Park

Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links. For more information, see our privacy policy.

lioness on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

The sun rose over our campsite in Onguma for a second and final time. Today was the day that we were leaving Onguma, situated just outside the eastern border to Etosha. Fortunately, we had managed to shift our plans and instead of staying all the way in Damaraland that night, we were hopefully going to be staying just outside the southern Etosha gate, meaning we had the entire day to explore Etosha! The campsite we were looking at staying at seemed to like to keep me on my toes and although they confirmed over the phone that they had a spare campsite, they wanted to confirm it over email. I fired off an email before we left and was then without internet for the rest of the day.

We were in time for breakfast that morning which was fantastic as the risk of exploding as a result of our gas stove was something which startled me. Yep, yesterday our gas stove burst into flames and we had to put our hands through the flames to turn it off.

After a yummy, filling breakfast, we left the campsite and drove to the Etosha gate. I was nervous. I'd read online that self-drives are the worst way to visit National Parks as the likelihood of seeing animals is a lot less. That's because the guides know the best spots for viewing animals and they also have an intercom system so if one vehicle spots something, they'll let the other vehicles know so they can flock to the spot.

Guided drives are expensive and involve you being up at crazy times so we skipped that for the much needed extra time in bed.

Etosha National Park, Namutoni Gate, Namibia, Africa

Getting into Etosha was a lot trickier than I ever imagined. We pulled up at the gates and the guard asked, "Do you have a drone?"

"Yes, but we won't fly it in Etosha." I responded.

There may have been a language barrier as I had to repeat myself close to 5 times. Each time I spoke, the guard seemed to get more agitated. I knew it was illegal to fly drones in Etosha and so I didn't plan on flying mine. However, they seemed to strongly dislike the fact that I had one on me at all.

He asked me to get out the car and show him the drone whilst my partner had to apply for our permits. I had to get the drone out its case and all its batteries, sit them down and allow the guard to take a photo. They also had to fill out a form including my drone's serial number. Finally, when the drone was back in the bag, they had to tie the bag shut and lock it so I had no way of getting into it.

"They'll open it for you at the other side of the national park." He told me.

It took a good 10 minutes of standing around in the midday heat (yep, I was really entering the park at midday, against all advice that it was poor for animal viewing) before we were allowed to head into the national park. I had never expected such a fuss over the drone as I have brought my drone into national parks before but just not flown them. Perhaps illegal drone flying in Etosha is a big issue.

zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

After finally getting into Etosha, we actually had to pay further in the park, a 10 minute drive from the gates. I'm not entirely sure why you can't just pay at the gates as it was a little bit of a hassle and we were already feeling flustered after the drone saga. Finally, after paying and filling up with petrol we were ready to go!

Almost as soon as we set off, I noticed a few cars just off at the side of the road. I took a look at my map and saw they were at the first waterhole. Curious to see what was there, I drove up to the waterhole. It was such a beautiful sight! A massive flock of birds was dancing around the crystal clear waters whilst a herd of springbok stood drinking at the water's edge. In the distance, a striped figure began to make its way down to the water, followed by several more. The zebras waited patiently until the springbok had drank their fill before indulging in the water themselves.

I noticed that only a handful of animals ever drank at one time whilst others looked on. Perhaps they were being watched by their friends to ensure no predators snuck up on them.

We waited at the waterhole for a while and witnessed some kudu and wildebeest also come down for a drink.

springbok on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
springbok and kudu on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
springbok and zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

I was delighted after seeing so many animals at such an apparently rubbish time of the day for viewing animals. Now I needed to decide where to head next. Looking at the map, there are so many waterholes! Most are no where near as easily accessible as the first one we visited and involved driving down a small dirt track for many many kilometres. As a result, you were taking a gamble whenever you came to one.

After driving past a few turns for waterholes, we decided to try another. The road was long, windy and incredibly bumpy. Roots and potholes dotted the sandy track but it was all worth it. At the end of the track was an artificial waterhole that was teaming with life. More zebras than I had ever seen in my life were surrounding the waterhole. Black-faced impalas stood in between the zebras so there was a wonderful array of brown, black and white.

When you google pictures of Etosha, you see photos of thousands of game animals surrounding water. We were witnessing exactly that!

zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
zebra and impala on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
zebra on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

Etosha National Park is the main national park in Namibia. The park is located towards the very north of Namibia. Majority of the park is a great salt pan called the Etosha Pan. You can actually see this giant salt pan from space - well from Google Earth when it's zoomed out anyway. The pan covers an area of roughly 5,000 square kilometres. The word 'Etosha' means 'great white space' which is very fitting for this area.

Unlike many National Parks in Africa, such as Kruger National Park, Etosha is actually relatively quiet with few cars travelling through the park at one time. Being my first actual safari experience, I didn't have anything to compare it too. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how few cars we passed, adding to an authentic safari experience.

You may be wondering why there are some artificial waterholes in Etosha. Well, Etosha used to take up most of Namibia but sadly the park has shrunk in size and been fenced in. The fencing disrupted the migration patterns of many of Etosha's animals and so artificial waterholes were made to keep the animals satisfied in the dry season, when they would have otherwise moved to other land.

Etosha salt pan Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

The Etosha pan! Don't be fooled by the mirage - there's certainly no water there

I was starting to need the toilet. Can you believe we were already a couple of hours into the drive? We'd barely moved - or so it felt that way! There are only certain designated picnic spots that you are allowed to use to go to the toilet in Etosha. It's a safety precaution as lions, leopards and hyenas run wild in the national park. Fortunately, there was a spot coming up. It didn't look too far away although I was starting to discover that things were a lot further away than the map made out.

As is the case with me, I started to feel like we were lost. We turned down the next right turn after making our way back to the main road. The next turn was meant to take us to the toilets but we seemed to be travelling down the track for ages. Anyway, eventually we did reach some toilets.

The area was fenced and had a rickety gate that you had to open manually. I guess I was going to be at risk of being eaten for a moment whilst I opened it. In the fenced area were 2 little huts - the ladies' and mens' toilets. After swinging open the gate for the car to come in, I ran to the toilet. I screwed my face up as I entered the hut. The toilet itself was filthy and appeared to be connected to nothing but a hole into the earth. Not quite what I was used to but I was prepared to make-do. I began to close the door and nearly leapt out of my skin. I kid you not, the wall was covered head to toe in geckos. I couldn't even see the wall. I am not even exaggerating! I was so shocked and terrified that I didn't even take a photo. I just left immediately and decided to squat into the bushes instead. There were even geckos surrounding me outside!

We made a hasty retreat out of the 'picnic area' which only seemed to have 1 deteriorating bench. Not my most luxurious toilet experience ever but it was certainly memorable.

ostrich on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
Ella in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
Ella in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

We left the creepy toilets and tried to find our way back to the main road. The side track we were on was meant to loop round to we continued down it. I came to a junction and became puzzled. I was even more perplexed because at the junction there was a sign for the toilets which was pointing in a different direction to where we'd come from. So we hadn't been at the main toilets? Not sure what we had stopped at. I made a gamble and decide to drive away from where it claimed the toilets were.

It's crazy how all those decisions to turn down a road or not really determine what animals you see. I guess you could make loads of more choices and see nothing or in contrast you could somehow be very lucky and see everything. I was fairly content with our animal sightings so far. I was seeing springbok and zebras everywhere! We even saw a few ostriches. My main goal for the day however was to see a lion. I had never seen a wild lion before but it was something I've wanted to do since I was a small child. This is why I initially wanted to go on a guided safari as it dramatically increases the chances of seeing the animals you want.

As we rounded a corner, I put my foot on the brakes. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Not a lion but still incredible. A large giraffe was stood right by the side of the road, nibbling at the top of a very spiky tree. It was so close to us and the best part was, we had the sight all to ourselves! I hadn't passed another car for around an hour (since we left the main track).

We spent some time photographing the majestic giraffe before moving on, only to pass 3 more!

giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
Ella photographing a giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
Ella photographing a giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
Ella photographing a giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

By the time we had reached the main road, it was nearly 3pm. We had spent nearly 4 hours (arrived at 11am) in Etosha so far and according to the map had barely moved. This is the point were I concluded that to get out of Etosha before it closed (6pm), I had to say no to any detours even if it was to a waterhole. We had to get a serious move on which saddened me as I could spend days exploring the detours looking for animals.

So far I was thrilled with our self-drive safari. Even if we didn't see anymore animals, I would still be incredibly chuffed with our luck. Animals are unpredictable and you can't guarantee seeing anything when on safari. Already we'd seen so much!

As our drive continued, we saw millions of zebras and springbok. We also saw plenty of wildebeest, ostriches and some kudu. The landscape was constantly changing around us. At parts we'd be driving through reasonably dense tree-areas whilst at other times there weren't any trees in sight. We crossed part of the pan at one point. Then at times we were surrounded by lush green grass. One of the highlights was witnessing 2 fighting zebras. They were biting and kicking each other which was pretty incredible to watch. But the best was yet to come.

We were just a couple of miles away from the Anderson Gate (the southern gate) and were travelling along the main road. I saw a safari vehicle turn around and take-off in a hurry. Has he received a call? I wondered. Has he been told to come to something exciting? Fortunately, he was heading in the direction we were going in anyway so it didn't look like I saw stalking him. Then he pulled over and stopped by a tree which was beside the road. Another safari vehicle was also there. I had absolutely no idea what they were looking at. I couldn't see anything! But I assumed it must be pretty good so turned our car in for a look. I could have sworn they were just fascinated by a tree.

"What is it?" I whispered across to one of the guides.

"A lion!" He hissed excitedly.

Oh. My. God. A lion?! This is the moment I had been dreaming of for years. I was so lucky they got there before I did otherwise I'd have driven straight past it as still, I couldn't see the lion.

"Lying down in the trees." The guide explained.

More cars were pulling up but they also seemed oblivious. People were leaning out the windows of their cars with binoculars but screwing their faces up with disappointment. The guy in the car next to us kept shrugging at me in confusion.

"There's a lion." I muttered.

His face rapidly turned to one of confusion to one of excitement and he scanned the thickets with determination. I was still struggling myself, even when I opened my door and leaned out the car. I sat back down and looked hard at the bushes. Then I saw it.

lioness on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

A beautiful lioness was resting beneath the tree, perfectly camouflaged to the point where she was barely visible. I could hardly contain my excitement. Then the safari vehicle next to us began to move.

"Move to where we were. There's a lovely view here." The guide whispered before they drove off.

Quick as a flash, I manoeuvred the car so we were in prime position. Then, it got even better! The lioness briefly stood up, took a couple of steps forward and then lay down again. She gave us a beautiful view.

I could have stayed there for hours but I was starting to feel sorry for the 10 other cars around us, all struggling to get a view. We'd had our wonderful moment and got some fantastic shots so it was time to move on and let someone else take some fantastic photos.

lioness on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
lioness on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

I was buzzing so much from my first ever wild lion sighting that almost nothing could dampen my spirits. Almost. I was less than impressed when we finally turned up at the gates to the campsite I'd spoken to earlier, only to find that someone arrived in the meantime and took the last campsite. Then it was a case of knocking-on at nearby campsites to see if any had availability. Fortunately, the border to Etosha seemed like the only place in Namibia so far that had campsites relatively close together so we had at least 2 more options. Fortunately, the next campsite I stopped at did have space and so we had accommodation for the night! All in all it was the perfect ending to an almost perfect day in Namibia. I went to sleep smiling that night.

Ella McKendrick on Black Rock Viewpoint, Kenmore Scotland

Subscribe to my newsletter!

Be the first to know about my new Youtube videos and blogs.

26 thoughts on “Acing a Self-Drive Safari in Etosha National Park”

  1. Lovely pictures. Your experience was really fascinating. The photos of you look like you have through a rugged adventure.

  2. I’ve never heard of Etosha before ’til I read this article. It’s such a beautiful place and you’re lucky to witness and experience the wild. And I must say your photos are awesome and captivating.

    1. It’s one of the lesser-known national parks in Africa which meant it wasn’t over-run with tourists which was perfect ???? Glad you like my images!

    1. Thank you! The lion was the icing on the cake for me. Seeing a wild lion has been on my bucket-list for years! Next up is a wild leopard of cheetah ????

  3. Whoa, gorgeous pictures! You’ve absolutely lit a fire for a safari adventure in me. NO!!! Can I ask what camera you use? And how much does a self tour cost? Thanks!

    1. Thank you! I use a Panasonic GH5. Would definitely recommend it ????

      A self-drive safari costs only around £6 per person for the national park entrance fee.

      Then of course you have to add the cost of the rental car on to that but to visit Namibia it’s a must that you rent a car anyway so there’s not really any extra costs for the safari except for the entrance fee.

      To put that in perspective, a guided safari was the entrance fee (£6 per person) plus the cost of the tour which was £70 per person. PLUS you’ll have your rental car fee as well.

  4. wow amazing pics! And very interesting facts (like you can see this salt area from space!), Africa definitely is in my bucket list, I think there is too much to see!

    1. Glad you like my images and facts 😉 Africa is my favourite place in the world to visit ❤️ I’m already considering where to go next in Africa. Maybe Botswana!

  5. We recently went to East Africa and took the expensive guide option. Even then you need to be lucky to see what you hope to see. We were very lucky, but our driver said that is not always the case.

    Interesting how much drama your drone caused. We found different countries in Africa have different rules. Some are much more strict than others.

    Sounds like you made the most of the self-drive option.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and keep blogging. Adventure is better when shared with friends!

    1. Safaris really are a game of luck! I bet some people have had safaris where they’ve seen virtually nothing 🙁 I’m glad to hear you had an amazing safari as well!

      That was my first experience with a drone in Africa. I will see how other African countries compare. Interestingly, other national parks in Namibia were more lax like Sossusvlei. They didn’t ask about a drone. Perhaps it’s just more of an issue in Etosha.

      Thank you! I love sharing my experiences so it’s lovely to know you like to read about them ☺️

  6. Oh wow! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your interesting story! Such stories make life more thrilling. Kee writing such good stuff. Beautiful pictures and you are stunning ????????

    1. Thank you! Really glad to hear that you enjoyed reading my blog post and my pictures ☺️❤️

  7. Hi Ella! I loved reading your post – I don’t know much about Namibia but seeing your AMAZING pictures really wanted me to go. Such a shame Etosha is not as big as it used to be (it really looked like water in that picture!). Greetings from one traveler to another!

    1. Glad I could add another country to your list! 😀 I love discovering new places to visit. My bucket-list is constantly growing. It really is sad about the park shrinking as it looks like it’s caused disruption to all the animals 🙁 Although smaller than it used to be, it’s still a pretty large area!

    1. Yes! I totally agree. I’m so thrilled that we decided to cancel our guided safari and opted for self-drive instead. So much cheaper and we had complete freedom to do as we pleased.

  8. That is so awesome that you saw the Lion on your way out of the park! This looks like the perfect way to really explore the Safari Park of Etosha (on your own!) Dont get me wrong, a tour may be nice but why not save the money and just follow them if you see them driving about.
    That was a lot of zebra…makes you wonder if people used to come to the states to witness the wild horses of Wyoming like we would the zebra of Africa.
    I think my favorite woudl be seeing that Giraffe!

    1. Exactly! A tour was £70 per person!!! Even with a tour, there’s no guarantee of seeing any animals plus I relished the freedom we had. I explored the park at my own pace and it was fun to decide which routes to take.

      I bet people did travel to see the wild horses. I’d love to travel round America at some point and see all the wildlife there like bears, coyotes and wolves!

      The giraffe was one of the highlights of the safari. I felt really proud that we ran into it on our own and were the only ones there. The giraffe was off the beaten track, on a side-road which I was lost on ???? Not a bad place to get lost, right?

  9. Wow this looks like such an awesome adventure. I’d try it some day but I am a terrible driver – guess I’ll need a travel buddy who is good behind the wheel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.