Etosha National Park - Namibia Weekend Adventures, Part 1
After a week settling into a Windhoek routine, we headed out to Etosha National Park for our first weekend adventure.
Our Hilux “Home” and an Etosha Overview
For our first two Namibian jaunts, we’d travel from Wednesday to Sunday. Our final one - to the south - would be longer, from Wednesday to the following Tuesday. So, that first Wednesday, a shuttle from Advanced Car Hire picked us up bright and early.
Before taking off, we needed to sign all the rental paperwork for the three separate trips. Then, for each subsequent weekend, we only needed to show up and grab the keys. But, in addition to the paperwork, we needed this first morning to learn how all the Hilux’s camping gear worked: roof tent, built-in refrigerator, and all the other assorted equipment. It’d be our home for the next few days - better know how everything works.
As we’d learn shortly, a demonstration is one thing; actually setting up a roof tent yourselves is quite another! Regardless, after an hour-ish check-out process, we were ready to go.
Well, almost ready. A couple blocks into our drive north, Chipp realized he’d have to learn some new muscle memory. Our time in South Africa had familiarized us with driving on the left side, but this was the first time the blinker was on the “wrong” side. Used to the American layout of blinker on the left, wipers on the right, Chipp was quite surprised to find himself regularly spraying windshield wiper fluid when he meant to turn!
At least we were on the road, though. For the next four or so hours, we drove pretty much due north towards Etosha National Park, an absolute Namibian gem. Surrounding a massive salt pan (which allegedly can be seen from space), Etosha is home to an abundance of wildlife and stunning landscapes. For wildlife lovers - and just visitors to Namibia, in general - it’s a must-see.
Stop 1: Okaukuejo and Figuring Out How to Camp
Over 8,500 square miles, Etosha is enormous, so there are multiple park entrances. We opted for the southern entrance, as it took us straight to Okaukuejo, where we’d camp the first couple nights.
Similar to the US campsites and lodges run by the National Park Service, Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) manages all the state-run campsites throughout the country. Okaukuejo Camp would be our first experience with NWR - awesome.
Like the ones in the United States, NWR-run spots follow a pretty standard pattern - plenty of campsites with electrical hook-ups and water pumps, communal “ablution stations” (i.e. bathrooms and showers), a little market and restaurant, and, at some, a swimming pool.
After paying the park entrance fee and checking in at Okaukuejo, we cruised around looking for a good place to set up camp. You want to be close to bathrooms but not too close, and it’s nice having a little shade if you can find it.
Comfortable with a spot, we backed the Hilux in, making sure we’d be close enough to the electrical outlet to plug in the fridge (charges while driving but requires a plug-in when the truck’s off). Shade? Check. Realizing our pop-up roof tent wouldn’t clear said shade? Also check.
Lesson learned: when you’re finding a campsite, make sure you have enough top clearance to set up the tent!
So yeah, our first Namibian camping adventure was also a nice little learning experience. We moved the truck forward a bit and got down to set-up-camp chores: pop the tent, load the sleeping bags and pillows, pull the camp chairs and table out of the bed, and get the braai fire going. First go took us a solid hour. But, by the time we wrapped up in Namibia, we had these initial steps down to a quick 15 minutes!
Like South Africa, the braai culture of grilling over an open fire is strong in Namibia. This’d be the first time we tried the braai thing while camping. Welp, turns out three-ish hours of letting the fire settle to proper coals and slow-cooking the sliced potatoes, onions, mushrooms, and copious amounts of meat is a lot of time to sip whiskey from a tin camp cup.
By the time Chipp finally declared the food fit to eat, he’d knocked down far more Jameson than anticipated. Jenna’s related response to her first bite? It’s a little salty… At least she had plenty of wine to help wash it down!
Oversalting and long cook times aside, what an experience. It’s incredible A) sitting by an open fire watching the sun slowly set over the Namibian landscape, B) eating right off the flame in the cool, fresh air, and C) falling asleep under an unfathomable amount of stars in the sky - with lions roaring in the distance (true story!).
Self-Guided Game Drives and Exploring Etosha
On our Tanzanian safari, we opted for a guide - definitely a smart decision. But, having that experience under our belts, we were more comfortable doing the self-guided thing in Namibia (there are plenty of guide companies in the country, though, if you prefer that option).
And, Etosha makes it really easy to do a self-guided trip. Our first day at Okaukuejo, we bought a map of the park. In addition to clearly marked roads and water holes (great for game viewing), the folding map has drawings of all the local birds and animals - lot of fun identifying the tons of game we spotted.
In particular, Chipp fell in love with the oryx, Namibia’s national animal and a beautiful - would even go so far as to say majestic - species of antelope. Known for their resilience, we first spotted an oryx at one of Etosha’s numerous water holes.
For a full five minutes, the oryx stood by the water - not drinking - looking around for potential predators. Only after fully satisfying himself that no lions or leopards were lurking in the surrounding tall grass did he lean over to take a drink. Incredible.
Stop 2: Halali Camp and the Beauty of “Watering” Holes
After two nights in Okaukuejo - and a full day of game drives around the western portion of Etosha - we continued east. For the third night, we’d camp at another NWR location - Halali Camp.
As discussed, water holes serve as the best places to see game. In the often arid Namibian plains, water can be extremely scarce, so animals will travel for miles to get a drink.
Halali combined this reality with another one of Chipp’s favorite activities - spending time at watering holes… Yep, with a water hole and covered viewing area 100 yards away from the campsite, Halali offers visitors the best of both worlds. You can watch animals stroll by for a sunset drink - while you have a drink yourself!
Wine (Jenna) and whiskey (Chipp) in hand, we walked over to the Halali water hole just before sunset. When we got there, dozens of impala were already having their evening drink when a solo elephant lumbered out of the bush, scattering the impala and planting himself at the edge of the water for a long drink.
Not a bad sunset!
Stop 3: Onguma Reserve - A Post-Camping “Treat Yo Self”
After three nights of camping, we were ready to do the slightly more luxurious thing for our final night. And, this’d be the pattern for our remaining trips. Camp a couple nights, then spend a night or two in the comfort of a lodge, or, in the immortal words of Parks and Rec, “treat yo self!”
Onguma Private Game Reserve sits just outside Etosha’s eastern gate. As the name suggests, Onguma’s sprawling grounds are home to an abundance of local game. But, rather than drive ourselves here, we continued the theme of luxury.
In a nice little quirk, we received an upgrade to Onguma’s high-end Tented Camp, a beguiling mixture of sophistication and relaxation, of elegance and the earth. Ridiculous marketing language? Sure. Still accurate? Absolutely!
Checking in, we were welcomed with gin and tonics before being led to our private “tent” - word just doesn’t do the lodging justice after three nights in an actual tent on top of a pick-up truck.
That evening, before a gourmet dinner overlooking the Tented Camp’s private water hole, we signed up for Onguma’s sunset game drive. For a couple hours, drinks in hand, we relaxed in the back of an open-air Land Rover, with an amazing guide driving us all over the grounds looking for game.
When he learned of Jenna’s love (obsession?) for cats, he made it his mission to help us spot a cheetah - notoriously difficult to see in the open. Just as the sun was setting, we finally spotted one perched atop a high mound and scanning the area for prey.
In a is-this-real?-type experience, the three of us watched as the cheetah seemed to lock onto something in the distance. Then, it absolutely launched across an open patch of ground, and we saw it - a lone impala on the far side.
In seeming slow motion, we watched the cheetah close on its prey. But, at the last minute, the impala pulled a SportsCenter-Top-10-worthy juke, just barely evading the cheetah and darting into the high grass. He’d live another day, and the cheetah would continue the hunt in the dark.
As we drove back to the Tented Camp, thrilled at what we’d just witnessed, we asked our guide if he’d worked with many other Americans.
Guide: “Have you guys heard of Will Smith?”
Chipp and Jenna: “Ummm, yes, we’ve heard of him.”
Apparently, the Fresh Prince himself had spent some time at Onguma while shooting a movie in South Africa. Don’t think that two “alternatively employed” backpackers will provide the same cachet to future visitors…