But there is a high price to be paid.
But there's a cheaper way: you can rent a car and do a self-drive tour through a place famous for its abundance of African wildlife: Etosha National Park in Namibia. You'll have control over everything, when you eat, where you go, how long you want to stay taking pictures of giraffes, and where you'll stay the night, all for a fraction of the cost.
4x4 Vehicle Rental (with rooftop tent): ~$100-$120 per day
Entrance to Etosha Park: $5.50 per person, per day
Camping within the park: $23 per person
Camping outside of the park: ~$15 per person
Much better than the thousands of dollars that you'll pay elsewhere.
Step 1: Rent a Car in Windhoek
Windhoek is the capital city of Namibia, and is more or less in the middle of the country. That makes it fairly close to everything, and only a five-hour drive away from Etosha. So if you wanted to fly in, see the elephants for a couple days, and fly out, this could even be done in four days.
We rented our car for nine days, and this was enough time to see pretty much everything we wanted to see in the whole country, including the stunning red dunes of Sossuvlei, some beautiful mountain passes, fur seals on the skeleton coast, a visit to a Himba village, and three days in Etosha. Click here to see our itinerary.
But in the end, what you see on a safari is about luck. And if you don't see anything but giraffes and springbok on the first two days, then you might want to dish out the money for a game drive on the last. This will increase your chances of seeing wildlife because the drivers are in constant communication with each other throughout the park as to where the local lion prides are, for example. So it's pretty much a guarantee to see elephants and lions.
Most 4x4 rentals in Namibia will give you the option of having a rooftop tent. If you like to camp, this is definitely the cheapest (and in my opinion, most fun) way to go. Just make sure you zip up all of the netting since Etosha is in the malaria zone. Don't risk trading a cool breeze for a disease that may mess you up for a lot longer than an uncomfortably hot night.
Step 2: Head to Etosha
The National Park opens from sunrise to sunset, and the only way to stay longer is to stay within the park at one of their campgrounds or lodges. Though it's more expensive than staying outside, this is recommended because they have floodlit waterholes there which certain more nocturnal animals frequent, such as rhinos and leopards.
From Windhoek, you will most likely enter Etosha at Anderson Gate leading to Okaukuejo, which is right in the middle of the park on its southern edge. At the gate you'll fill out some paperwork, then pay once you get to Okaukuejo camp, which is 15 minutes up a paved road (one of the only paved roads). I suggest you stock up on food and snacks from outside the park, because even though there are restaurants and stores within, they are expensive and sorely lacking.
Having a map of the park is important, along with downloading offline Google maps of the area since many of the concrete “signs" in the park are worn away. And don't forget to pull over and talk to other safari-goers while at the watering holes. You might get some inside scoops on where the lions have been keeping their cubs, and where the elephant herds were last headed.
Alternatively, if you've been having bad luck, use your last day to join a game drive and let the experts take you to where they know the animals to be.
Step 3: Follow the Rules
- Do not get out of your car - This is for obvious reasons. You can have your windows down, but no sitting on top of your car or sticking your arms out, even if you think you don't see any animals around. There are fenced-in rest areas scattered throughout the park where you can get out. If you get a flat, call the park's offices or wave someone down who can call for assistance.
- Be quiet - When you pull up to an area with wildlife, it's common courtesy to shut off your engine. This will also shut off your air-conditioning, yes, I realize that's a problem, but it's better for the animals. Best thing is to roll down your windows and be a part of your surroundings.
- Leave room for others - Everyone wants to get that perfect picture of the baby elephant, so if you find yourself in that prime location, once you're done taking pictures, make sure you pull away to let someone else share in the view.
Step 4: Enjoy the Wildlife!
What you will see are antelope, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, ostriches, warthogs, plus four of the “big five": elephants, lions, leopards, and rhino (no water buffalo).
To get a better idea of what you're looking at, here's a list starting at the bottom of the food chain:
But you have a pretty good chance of seeing lions. We stayed three days, and after the first, we lost count of how many lions we'd seen. And once you figure out where they are on the first day, you can return to those same spots on the second and third day. Plus, the lions at Etosha are pretty used to big vehicles always around them, and they'll often just be hanging out right on the side of the road. It's very scary and surreal to be face to face with one staring right at you just meters away.
The Circle of Life
But then when I saw the lions with their adorable fuzzy cubs, I couldn't help but want to root for them also to get enough food to feed their young. It was like living inside a BBC David Attenborough nature documentary, and it was a real learning experience for me, showing me that within nature, good and evil are only a matter of perspective.
Safaris are perfect for all ages (except maybe babies). But if you have children, then what better way to spend your vacation time with them? Come to Namibia, and I promise your kids' eyes will widen with wonder and delight (and your eyes will too).
Next, Tim and I get back on our bike and head to Botswana! So stay tuned!