For as long as I can remember, going on a safari in Africa has been on my bucket list. I think it is probably a result of growing up in the “Lion King” generation. I’ve been to plenty of zoos, some were great, lots were just depressing but the thought of seeing these animals – lions, elephants, giraffes – in the wild, in Africa, was such a dream. Luckily, a few years ago I had the chance to visit southern Africa for a few weeks and the first thing I did was to start researching safaris.
If you want an easy, safe safari with plenty of options, southern Africa is definitely the place to go. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that a safari is far from a budget travel option. When I started looking at my options in southern Africa, the safaris in South Africa were consistently rated as some of the best. They were also way out of my price range though. A safari can easily cost a few hundred dollars a day and up which on an already stretched backpackers budget was making my dream safari seem like less and less of an option.
Thankfully, I wasn’t ready to give up and with a bit more research, I came across the answer – Namibia. This young, often overlooked country is the second least densely populated country in the world, only having a few more people than Mongolia. Until the early 1990s it was part of South Africa but since earning its independence, it has gone on to become one of the most stable and politically secure countries in Africa. Add to that an incredible national movement to protect the country’s wildlife, a good safari tourism infrastructure, and much more affordable prices, and Namibia suddenly made this girl’s safari dream a reality.
Namibia covers a large section of southwest Africa and is home to multiple national parks and plenty of private game reserves. The most popular safari destination though would be Etosha National Park in the north. Since the country is so sparsely populated, organizing a safari most often involves working with one of the companies in the capital, Windhoek, or the luxury lodges located around the park entrances. You can also opt to do a self-drive tour of Etosha, even in a standard car, thanks to the great road maintenance in the park. The last option is probably not realistic for anyone not from Namibia or a neighboring country though.
For me, the easiest option, and the one that perfectly balanced price and quality, was to work with a company based in Namibia’s capital. This involved a very long drive to and from the park but the tour organizers were great and used this as a way to show us even more of Namibia and the local culture by stopping off in interesting little towns along the way.
I haven’t even gotten to the best part though – the safari itself! Etosha National Park is a nice sized space, small enough to make it a great 2-3 day safari option but still large enough to be home to many of Africa’s most iconic wildlife. Right in the middle of Etosha sits its namesake the Etosha pan – an ancient lake that has dried up, leaving only a huge salt flat behind. Safaris through the park usually run west to east, or east to west, along the southern edge of the old lake. All the safari tours stop at the pan, which makes for some fun photos, but unless it is rainy season, the salt flat is usually empty of any wildlife.
Speaking of rainy season, the best time to visit the park is definitely during dry season – May to November or so – when the wildlife spends more time around the park’s watering holes. This makes it super easy to spot everything from herds of elephants to the rare and endangered black rhino, just by parking and waiting at any watering hole. Since the park is not as spread out as some, most days involve a few hours of driving, past herds of zebra, kudu, and antelope with most of the day spent watching the watering hole action.
On my safari, within an hour of getting into the park, we stumbled upon a huge herd of elephants just hanging out around a small watering hole. There were both huge old females slowly drinking their fill and small, little babies playing in the mud. It was incredible watching them, sitting close enough that we could hear the sound of the water being sucked up into their trunks.
Some of the best wildlife sightings of the safari, oddly enough, happened at night back at camp. Etosha has five camps but the three main ones, where we stopped, are Okaukuejo, Halali, and Namutoni. The camps have both hotel type accommodations and camping spots where you can pitch a tent. It is mandatory that all visitors to the park arrive and stay at one of the camps before sunset each night. Rather than calling it a day though, most of the camps offer incredible floodlit waterholes, within a short walk of your tent, where you can sit late into the night, watching and waiting for a chance to see the park’s even more reclusive wildlife.
Our first night in the park will always be the most magical memory I have of Africa. Halali’s watering hole sits just in front of a small rocky hill, where seats and benches have been carved into the hillside, for a perfect elevated view. The only thing between you and the animals is a thin, short metal fence and a slight drop to the ground below. As we sat, quietly watching the watering hole late into the night we saw everything from a shy little fox to a whole herd of elephants. Watching the elephants’ interactions at the watering hole, you could really tell how intelligent these animals are. The highlight of the night though had to be the black rhinos, a mother and young calf. The black rhino is listed as critically endangered and there are thought to only be around 5,000 left in the wild. This waterhole is also known for being a great place to catch sight of the park’s few reclusive leopards.
The amount of wildlife in Etosha is shocking and I was continuously amazed by how many animals called this small section of Africa home. By the end of our trip, zebras, antelopes, and even giraffes were considered old news, with most not even deserving a stop of the jeep. And yet, every time we spotted a new creature, a lone warthog, a group of spotted hyena, a pride of lions relaxing in the shade, it was like discovering the wonder of Africa all over again. I wouldn’t trade my safari in Africa for anything and I’m so grateful to the kind people of Namibia, both for protecting their incredible wildlife and for sharing it with me. A safari doesn’t have to be just an overpriced dream; in Namibia is can be a reality.