Etosha National Park

Photo Safari Tips

Etosha is a very special place to go on safari; whether you have 2 days or a week it is a must see when visiting Namibia and a photographer's dream for catching unique wildlife photos.

Etosha Background

 

Etosha National Park is located in the North Central part of Namibia and covers an area of approximately 4,731 km2 (1,826 mi2).  Etosha NP was first established in 1907 and the name derived from the word “etosha” translates to “Great White Place” named for the famous Etosha Pan which the park is built around.  The Pan or salt pan is a prehistoric lake that has been dry for centuries.  The salt deposits left from prehistoric waterways give the appearance of a white dry late bed.  The pan occasionally fills with a small amount of water during the rains, but dries quickly again returning to a stark white backdrop of the park.  If you look at the map below you can see the Etosha Pan quite easily.  The Pan is the large white spot which the park is centered with the majority of the game viewing roads following the souther rim of the pan.

Elevation at the park is approximately 1000m around the pan and moving away from the elevation slowly rises to 1300m.  The only accessible hills in the park are around the Halali Camp otherwise the park is an expanse of flat ground with a typical big African sky.  Vegetation around the Pan is minimal at best. Grasses and the occasional tree dot the stark landscape.

My wife Stephanie, sister Sarah acting silly at a lookout point in the pan

As you move away from the pan the vegetation transitions slowly to include more and more trees and is wooded is some areas.   As is much of Namibia, most the woodlands consists of acacia tree species that grow more like bushes which are thorny and dormant during the Winter and Spring months contributing to the stark visual theme of the park.

Dusty Elephant near some "wooded" area

When to go

Namibia’s climate is very predicable.  Around Etosha and central Namibia the rainy season is typically from late November/early December until late March or early April.  That said, in 2013 there was almost no rain at all at the beginning of the year and in 2015 we didn’t really have rains until March until early May.  Because Etosha is very much semi-arid desert the quantity of rain and beginning of rains can sometime be unpredictable.  The only predictable part is that once the rain stops in Fall months of April/May it is guaranteed to stay dry until the end of the year.  Sometimes once the rain stops the sky also clears up for months on end with clouds only returning at the end of Winter in August or September.

With the rains comes lush green vegetation and lots of baby animals.  Also, the rains spread out the animals to all sorts of natural waterholes filled with fresh rain water.  Etosha’s strength as apart for animal sightings relies on animals aggregating at the few man made and natural waterholes along the driving routes.  When there is rain water the animals spread out and the sightings go down.  Therefore, it’s best to avoid the rainy season if possible.

The best time of the year to visit is in the very dry months when it’s also not too hot yet.  July and August are still winter and therefore pretty cold at night, but ate very nice times to visit.  September, October and beginning of November begin to get very hot as the months wear on but are also very dry.  As the months crawl on towards rainy December water becomes extremely scarce and waterholes become mecca for all thirsty animals in the park.  Lions will like to rest near the waterholes. Elephants will congregate and socialize near the waterholes.  And everything form sand grouses and Ostriches to Hyaenas and Rhinos will come by to get a much needed drink.

I’d also like to point out there is no really good or bad time to visit just better times than others.  If you’re on a budget the rainy season is considered the down or off-season for tourism in Namibia so you can generally find some better rates with tour operators and lodging.  In early May of 2015 my wife and I took a weekend trip to Etosha and were treated to sightings of a large pride of lions, honey badgers, spotted hyenas and a couple lone male lions among a long list of herbivores.  It had just finished raining earlier in the month so we didn’t expect to see much, but with only two full days in the park we managed to have a perfectly nice list of sightings so don’t let the best/worst seasons influence you too much if your schedule is limited to certain times of year.  There is still much to see and appreciate any time of the year. 

What to Photograph and when

As is with most safaris the absolute best times to photograph animals is early in the morning and late in the afternoon.  The nocturnal animals will be grabbing a drink before retiring to a place to rest during the day and animals who survived the night will be grabbing a morning drink en route to feeding.  Although you can stay outside the park the best place to stay is at one of the camps inside the park so you can be in your car and ready to head out to a waterhole as soon as the gates open at sunrise.  It is possible to stay at a camp outside the park and then enter the park when the main gates also open at sunrise, but, typically the best waterholes will be a longer drive for you.

Sunrise and sunset are typically best for photographing animals typically because both more interesting animals including predators are more likely to visit a watercourse when it’s still cool outside and also because the sun is low in the sky providing soft golden light.

Most safari goers (myself included) tend to get going early (5-6am) and return to camp by 10-11am writing off the hot afternoon to rest until going out again later in the afternoon.  However, the unique stark features of the park lend to some creative opportunities.  Specifically, I would recommend spending a few hours around the pan looking for animals standing against alien background.  It’s certainly a game of patience and depending on your personal style there are some really interesting compositions that could be had.  Load up your vehicle with cool drinks and snacks and prepare to stay out in the park all day and you will certainly be rewarded.

The photo of the Giraffe below was taken around 1pm in early July.  The sun was beating down without a single cloud in the sky.  The pan was on the horizon and I overexposed the shot by several stops to wash out everything else in the photo.  As a style of wildlife photography I like this photo very much although it has been very challenging to replicate the style so far outside the unique landscape of Etosha.

Giraffe standing at midday against the stark white background of the Etosha Pan

 

Camp Waterholes

Each camp inside the park has a waterhole adjacent to the camp with a viewing area inside the camp.  It could be tempting to write off the waterhole as a tourist trap for the less adventurous, but keep in mind that the waterholes in Etosha are few and far between.  Some of the best sightings I’ve had in Etosha have been at the Okakuejo Camp Waterhole for example including a Brown Hyena and a mom and sub adult Rhino walking through the water.  The advantage to the camp waterholes is that they are flood lit and “open” 24/7.  Even if you spend the whole day driving around the park be prepared to grab a beer after dinner and walk over to the waterhole with your camera and tripod and spend a few hours watching game come and go. 

A glimpse of a secretive brown hyena at the Okakuejo waterhole inside Etosha National Park

Waterholes at night

For photographing animals at the camp waterholes at night be sure to bring a tripod or monopod.  The floodlights illuminate the waterhole, but the lights are pretty far from the water and they are sodium vapors which are not great for photographs.  In this situation I typically shoot at as high an ISO as I can get away with (ISO 8000 or so) and set white balance to 2800K or so.  The camera doesn’t really know what to do with the yellow sodium vapors so shoot in RAW if possible to correct later.

Milky Way over the waterhole at Halali camp inside Etosha National Park

How long to stay

It’s best to stay at any of the camps for a minimum of three nights.  Any less than three nights and you don’t really get a lay of the land or animal locations until you are moving on.  Etosha is a large park and unlike similar parks such as the Kruger NP in South Africa the animal densities are considered to be much lower.  However, all the same big mammals can be seen in Etosha except for the Cape Buffalo and Hippo.  Despite the lower densities of animals the sightings are no less impressive as you have the amazingly unique backdrop of the Etosha Pan.  The stark whiteness of the barren landscape is almost alien or prehistoric compared to other similarly sized game reserves and national parks.

How to get there

Etosha is located in the north central of Namibia.  If you look at the map below you can see the Etosha Pan quite easily.  The Pan is the large white spot which the park is centered on.  The park has two main entrances with lodges built just inside the park near each entrance.  Each of these two common entrances is located about 3.5-4 hours from Windhoek.  There are two other entrances to the park: Gate near Dolomite and Gate at Northeast of park.  However, almost all tours and self drivers migrate to the two main entrances.

No matter what entrance you go to the way to get to Etosha from Windhoek is via the B1 North to Otjiwarongo.  The B1 is a nice tar road although is only two lanes and because it is the only highway linking north and south Namibia it very busy with cars, farm trucks and 26 wheel long haulers.  Drivers in Namibia tend to also be pretty reckless with passing at high speeds, especially, private taxis and shared taxi busses.  Always be alert on the highway and pass with caution as there is generally no shoulders either.

Once you reach Otjiwarongo you can continues North to Otavi and Tsumeb to reach Galton Gate and Namutoni Camp.  To reach Okakuejo camp turn west in Otjiwarongo towards Outjo to reach Andersson Gate.  Be sure to fuel up in either Tsumeb or Outjo before continuing on to the park.  The camps in Etosha do have petrol/diesel pumps, but it’s not unheard of them being dry so better to have a full tank of fuel at the outset just in case.  A spare jerry can of fuel and two spare tires is also recommended if you will be driving around the park for many days.

Self driving vs Tour Operator

This is a personal decision on how to tour Namibia and I can only provide recommendations based on my personal preferences and experiences as a photographer and traveler.  Generally speaking, I almost always prefer researching, planning and exploring on my own. The idea of being cooped up in a bus with 20 other people being driven around and cooked for is not my idea of travel.  However, I know that for many this is the preferred way of travel especially if they are on a fixed schedule due to work, family or other circumstance.  In any case, Namibia can be explored very easily on your own or you can join one of the many very high quality bus or overland tours based out of Windhoek.  Because Namibia is so large expect to do a lot of driving one way or the other.

As a photographer I also prefer the self driving option because I have the freedom to shoot when I want and where I want.  Typically on a bus safari in Etosha you will get plenty of opportunities to photograph amazing animals.  However, if you’ve been on safari before you may not be interested in shooting the pride of lions you found one morning only once.  As a self driver you can find amazing sightings and then plan to return to the same spot later in the day when the light better or the next morning hoping to get better light on a background object to really pop the lions out of the landscape.  Either way, the main advantage to self driving is the flexibility of conducting your own personalized safari as you see fit.  Tours are fine, but generally photographers are an independent bunch and prefer to scout out their shots and get to know their subject before getting the shot they truly want.

If you are interested in looking into tour operators I recommend checking out these links as a starting point (although there are many many others).

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