Namibia may not be the most well-known destination for a wildlife safari adventure, but there are some amazing opportunities to see big game and wild animals on safari in Namibia, including the epic Etosha National Park, Okonjima Nature Reserve and the Namibrand Nature Reserve.
I planned my Namibia self-drive road trip based on the spectacular Namib Desert landscape – and when I discovered it was possible to see lots of wildlife, that was a massive bonus, so I made sure I planned a way to go on safari in Namibia. It was absolutely thrilling to see elephants, rhinos, lions and so many other magnificent animals in the wild – it’s a real privilege and one I’m very grateful for.
Many animals still roam wild in Namibia and it is common to see road signs warning of the presence of elephants or big cats! However, like many other places in the world, animals’ natural habitat is under threat from farming, so the protection of lands within national parks and conservancies is essential – and often these places are the best to see wildlife.
What animals can you see in Namibia?
The Big Five: Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Leopard and Cape Buffalo
I hate the name ‘the Big Five’ because it originated in hunting. These animals were the most prized trophies for hunters: elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and Cape buffalo. But the name has stuck around amongst those who love seeing animals rather than killing them, and these are still some of the most thrilling animals to see – and they are all in Namibia!
African elephants are fairly widespread in the north of Namibia and many are desert-adapted, meaning they’ve adapted to life in the dry terrain – they can go days without drinking water. These huge, intelligent and endangered animals are awe-inspiring to see in the wild. Due to the conservation efforts in Etosha National Park over decades, there are now 2500 living there.
Namibia holds almost a third of Africa’s critically endangered black rhino population, and there are also white rhinos, which are under even greater threat from poaching, which is heart-breaking. You can track them in the wild in the Damaraland area, and if you’re lucky you might see one in Etosha National Park.
There are lions in Namibia – some that live in savannah and grassland, and it is possible to see them in Etosha. Some have adapted to desert life and these are under the greatest threat; there are believed to be less than 100 left, sadly.
It is hard to see them because they’re so solitary and discrete, but leopards do live throughout Namibia, and you might just be lucky enough to spot one (though I was not, sadly).
And fearsome Cape buffalo live in the wet area of the Caprivi Strip in northeast Namibia.
Big cats, including cheetahs
Namibia has the largest population of wild cheetahs, and there is a good chance of seeing these super-fast hunters, especially in the Okonjima reserve.
You can distinguish cheetahs from leopards by the size of the body and head and their marking: cheetah has solid spots, while leopard spots are more like rosettes. Cheetahs also have those distinct black ‘tear lines’ between their eyes and their mouth – it is thought they help them see their prey because the link lines absorb sunlight to stop them from getting glare in their eyes.
There are also smaller cats including servals and caracals, though I didn’t spot any of these when I was there.
Large herbivores: Giraffes, Zebra, Ostrich & Hippopotamus
Most giraffes in Namibia are Angolan Giraffes and it is possible to see giraffes in both Etosha and Okonjima.
I’d be surprised if you leave Namibia without seeing zebras because they are abundant in the wild and in the parks. It is also fairly easy to see ostriches in Etosha and the NamibRand. There are Hippos in the wetlands of the Caprivi Strip.
There is an abundance of antelope in Namibia – and it is unlikely you will leave without seeing the fierce-looking oryxes (also known as gemsbok), which roam everywhere, including the sand dunes of the Namib Desert.
You have a good chance of seeing the gorgeously graceful impala and springbok, especially in the Namibrand Nature Reserve and Etosha.
There are also bigger antelope, including wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and kudu, which we saw in Etosha. And if you’re lucky you might see some of the tiny cute ones, including dik-dik, which are only about 30-40cm tall. We caught a glimpse of one in Okonjima, but I didn’t get a photo.
We saw jackals pretty much everywhere we went in Namibia and we saw hyenas in Etosha. These aren’t my favourite animals, especially hyenas, whose cold eyes and steely jaws give me the creeps – but doubtless, they are impressive.
Baboons were the first animal I saw in Namibia. Some jumped out on the road as we set off on our road trip from Windhoek, and taught us a lesson to be on the lookout for wild animals on the road at all times.
Coastal wildlife: seals, flamingos, pelicans
Namibia has plenty of coastal wildlife. Seals can be found all along the coast and there’s a huge colony at Cape Cross on the Skeleton Coast. South of that, you can find pink flamingos in the shallows near Walvis Bay. And pelicans are common around Sandwich Harbour
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Where can you go on Safari in Namibia
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park is the biggest and main wildlife park – and the best destination for safari in Namibia. It is a huge area of conservation, covering nearly 23,000 square km in northern Namibia. Much of the land is a huge salt pan, which helps explain its name, which can be translated as ‘Great White Place’.
The park is run with a certain amount of bureaucracy. You can get a permit to the park at one of the four park gates, but then you’ll need to queue in the office at one of the four camps located inside the park to pay and to get access to accommodation. The process can take a while. I managed to mess up my paperwork and had to queue twice!
What kinds of safari are available at Etosha National Park?
There are three main kinds of safari available in Etosha
- Self-drive safari. Etosha was designed for people to drive themselves around, so it is the perfect destination for a Namibia self-drive safari. It has a network of gravel roads, mainly in the south of the park. If you do drive, it is really important that you follow all the guidelines provided by the park, that you respect the animals, don’t get too close to them (you don’t want to be trampled by an angry elephant!), and that you never get out of the car! You must also make sure you’re back by the time the camp gate closes, which is normally 6 pm.
- Guided safari drives. I paid for one of these on the first day I was in Etosha and I saw so much more wildlife on that drive – probably more than all 3-4 of my self-drives combined! I think this is because the professional guides know where to look, and they probably also keep tabs on certain herds and groups of animals, communicating with other guides.
- Observing wildlife from the camp itself. Two of the camps, most famously Okaukuejo, overlook watering holes, which draw animals right up to the boundary of the camps. In Okaukuejo, there is seating surrounding the waterhole and floodlights so you can observe even the nocturnal activity. I’ll never forget the first time I saw elephants there. We’d just arrived at Etosha and gone through the slow, painful process of signing in and finding our place to stay. It was late afternoon, so we dumped our stuff and headed over to the water hole to see what we could see. Turning the corner towards the viewing area, we caught our breath because suddenly we saw these giant elephants, right in front of us. I’d not expected them to be there right then, so close, so huge. We went back to that water hole often and every day we saw herds of elephants and I never got bored of those beautiful, intelligent and funny beasts.
What wildlife is Etosha National Park known for?
Etosha is known for herds of elephants, black and white rhinos, giraffes, lions, zebra and a huge variety of antelope.
I didn’t see any elephants while I was out on game drives, but I saw them at least once a day at the waterhole. It was amazing to spot them on the horizon and watch them file in one after the other, steadily descending on the water. They dominate everywhere they go – but they do it with quiet, steady grace. Every animal gives way to the elephants: when they arrive at the waterhole, every other creature hangs back and keeps their distance – even rhinos!
The herds are very protective of their babies, shielding them from opportunistic predators and human view. So glimpses of the cute little ones were extra special.
I saw giraffes every day also. The first time I saw giraffes, they surprised us by the side of the road after driving a few minutes past the main Etosha gate. It felt like that moment in Jurassic Park when they first see live dinosaurs towering above them. Truly awesome. The way they move is so graceful – I was amazed by these gentle giants!
They approach the water hole so cautiously. We’d see their unmistakable silhouette appear on the horizon and they’d come closer very slowly stopping often to listen out. I don’t know if it was elephants or lions they were wary of – or perhaps its people? Eventually, they’d reach the water’s edge and, after more hesitation, prepare to drink. As long as their neck is, they can’t reach the water without also adjusting their legs, which they do in this splayed-out pose. I love how awkward and graceful it is at the same time.
I saw white rhinos at night only, so I didn’t get brilliant images of them. One of my favourite memories was of a rhino with her baby one night. It was just them a solitary bull elephant who was huge! The mother rhino was keeping a respectful distance from the elephant. But the baby ventured over to him. As he got closer, the bull did a move where he kicked his foot in the direction of the baby. It was just a warning – but it was enough to send the baby rhino running back to its mother’s side pretty quickly!
I saw several groups of lions when out with a guide. On our first safari drive, we came across a pride who were having a post-meal nap (at first we could only see their ears above the grass). This lioness got up briefly, then something attracted her attention. I don’t know what it was that caught her eye, but it didn’t last long before she lost interest and lay down again to rest. Even mundane moments like this are thrilling to observe in the wild.
We also found this beauty mating with his lady friend, which was a bit awkward for all of us. This photo captures his post-coital chillout before she summoned him again.
We saw dazzles of zebra, lots of oryx, ostrich, springbok and wildebeest. The zebras always line up in neat rows at the water’s edge, as if aware of the visual effect their collective stripiness has. I was quick on the draw to catch this guy breaking formation.
What’s the accommodation like at Etosha National Park?
There’s a big range of accommodation in Etosha, from luxury tents in the exclusive Onkoshi camp to comfortable chalets and campsites.
I chose an entry-level ‘Bush Chalet’ in Okaukuejo. It had a bedroom, with a kitchen & bathroom and an outdoor BBQ area. It was basic but perfectly fine. You can pay for buffet-style meals available in the central canteen, or you can cook your own food (many people barbeque).
However, the camp shop has pretty limited provisions. Also, you must pay for everything in the camp with cash, so make sure you have enough with you, or you’ll be doing the hour-long round trip to a cashpoint in Outjo (which is what my husband and I had to do!).
For more information, check out the Namibia Wildlife Resort website.
Okonjima Nature Reserve – Home of the Africat Foundation
Okonjima is a Nature Reserve in central Namibia, which specialises in the conservation of Cheetahs and Leopards.
It nestles at the foot of the Omboroko Mountains and encompasses 200 square km of grassy plains, punctuated by two iconic features of the African landscape: termite hills and Acacia trees.
Okonjima is home to various predator research programmes, and some of the cheetah and leopards in the park are collared and trackable with radar. The reserve has a relationship with the Africat Foundation, where it raises money for the charity’s conservation efforts.
What kinds of safari are available at Okonjima Nature Reserve?
The reserve offers guided game drives and guided bush walks throughout the day. Cheetahs can often be found during the day, but your best chances of seeing a leopard are during a night drive, or early in the morning.
No self-driving is allowed.
What wildlife is Okonjima Nature Reserve known for?
It is known for cheetahs and leopards. I didn’t see any leopards, but I was lucky enough to see cheetahs.
We met this beautiful boy after driving and round and walking through the bush. Although he’s wild, he has a collar, as several of the big cats do to help with the research and preservation, so we had a helping hand tracking him down. He was lazing around in the grass with his brother, having not long ago eaten. He was very relaxed and we were able to get within a few meters of him, which was thrilling.
I also saw giraffes, warthogs and antelope there. I read they also have pangolins, but I didn’t see any on my trip.
What’s the accommodation like at Okonjima Nature Reserve?
Really nice! There are a couple of different lodges, and a small amount of camping available.
I stayed in the Plains Camp, which is very spacious and luxurious, with huge windows looking out over the savannah. I loved watching little warthogs trot by, reminding me of Pumba from the Lion King.
The central building where they do meals is also very nice and comfortable. There’s interesting information displayed on the wildlife, a waterhole out front where the warthogs congregated and the buffet breakfast was the best we had anywhere in Namibia.
Between the opportunity to see big cats and the top-notch accommodation, I highly recommend Onkonjima for safari in Namibia!
Namibrand Nature Reserve
The NamibRand Nature Reserve isn’t a destination for big game and it’s unlikely you’ll see elephants, rhinos, giraffes or lions here (they do have leopards, but the chances of seeing them are as slimmer than at Okonjima) – so it isn’t top of the list for going on safari in Namibia.
But I’ve included it because you can see a lot of other wildlife, and the scenery is wonderful. The reserve includes sand dunes, mountains and plains, and great pains have been taken to minimise the impact on the environment by offering low impact eco-tourism. It also has more comfortable accommodation, so worth checking out if you’re in the market for a luxury safari in Namibia.
What kinds of safari are available at Namibrand Nature Reserve?
You can take game drives, but you can only do it with a guide. In fact, you can’t drive your car into the reserve at all: you must leave it at one of the reception buildings.
What wildlife is Namibrand Nature Reserve known for?
When I was there, we saw lots of oryxes, zebras, ostriches, antelopes and baboons.
What’s the accommodation like at Namibrand Nature Reserve?
Accommodation is in tents or lodges and it is high end ‘glamping’. It is expensive to stay here, but you will have very comfortable lodges and excellent service throughout your stay.
I stayed in the Boulder Safari Camp, which is located deep within the reserve – and I suspect it is the most remote place I’ve ever slept. There are only five tented cabins available. Mine was separated from the rest, just out of sight in its own little nook between the boulders. It really did feel like we were far from civilisation. There were also baboons living amongst the rocks & boulders behind our cabin!
Other wildlife safaris in Namibia
Although I didn’t try these myself, so I can’t advise on them, there are also options to track elephants and rhinos from some of the lodges in the Damaraland region, for example, the Desert Rhino Camp.
In addition, if you want to see hippopotamus or Cape buffalo, you would need to go to the Caprivi strip in Eastern Namibia. I didn’t go to this area myself, but it does sound really interesting and different from the rest of Namibia.
When is the best time to go on safari in Namibia?
Between July and late October is the best time to see the big game because this is the dry season – and the scarcity of water means that wildlife congregates at watering holes, making it easy to see them.
I went in September and we saw so many animals, especially in Etosha – every day, a herd of elephants came to the water hole. It was absolutely wonderful.
What should you wear on safari in Namibia?
- Light, breathable fabric will help keep you cool on hot days on safari
- Sunglasses, a sunhat and loose long sleeves will help protect you from the rays of the sun
- Neutral colours are recommended so that you can blend into the surroundings when you’re on foot. Avoid anything bright which will draw attention to you.
- Sturdy boots if you’re tracking wildlife on foot with a guide
I gave some specific packing tips in a previous post on exploring the Namib Desert, so do check that out also.
What about you?
Have you ever been on a wildlife safari? Tell me about the wild animals you’ve seen around the world!
And if you want more ideas for a trip to Namibia, check out my Namibia road trip itinerary.