When to visit
To decide when to visit, think about the weather, consider the number of other visitors around, and work out if your main reason for coming is to see the animals or the birds.
Etosha's weather is typical of Namibia, so see Chapter 3's section on Weather for a general overview. At the beginning of the year, it's hot and fairly damp with average temperatures around 27°C and cloud cover for some of the time. If the rains have been good, then the pan will have some standing water in it.
The clouds gradually disperse as the rains cease, around March–April. Many of Etosha's plants are bright green during this time, but with some cloud cover the park's stark beauty isn't at its most photogenic.
From April to July the park dries out, and nights become cooler. Nights in August are normally above freezing, and by the end of September they are warm again. October is hot, and it gets hotter as the month progresses, but the humidity remains very low.
Even the game seems to await the coming of the rains in late November, or perhaps December. When these do arrive, the tropical downpours last only for a few hours each afternoon, but they clear the air, revive the vegetation, and give everything a new lease of life.
From a photographic point of view, Etosha can be stunning in any month. A personal favourite is late-April to June: when the vegetation is green, yet the skies are clear blue and there's little dust in the rain-washed air.
Etosha is never crowded. Compared with the hordes of tourists that fill Kruger or the game parks of East Africa. Etosha always seems deserted, even when its lodges and restcamps are full. It becomes busier around Easter and from late-July to September. Then advanced bookings are essential; you may not even get a camping site without a prior reservation. The accommodation inside the park during August can be full as early as the end of April.
The dates of the South African school holidays seem to be less relevant than they used to be, as Namibia is no longer the only foreign country where South African passport holders are welcomed. However, ideally try to avoid Namibian school holidays. February to mid-April, late-May to July and November are probably the quietest months.
Etosha's dry season is certainly the best time to see big game. Then, as the small bush pools dry up and the green vegetation shrivels, the animals move closer to the springs on the pan's edge. Before the game fences were erected (these now surround the park completely) many of the larger animals would have migrated between Etosha and the Kaokoveld – returning here during the dry season to the region's best permanent waterholes. Now most are forced to stay within the park and only bull elephants commonly break out of their confines to cause problems for the surrounding farmers.
Hence the months between July and late October are ideal for game. Though the idea of sitting in a car at 40°C may seem unpleasant, October is the best month for game and the heat is very dry. Park under a shady tree and be grateful that the humidity is so low.
During and after the rains, you won't see much game, partly because the lush vegetation hides the animals, and partly because most of them will have moved away from the waterholes (where most of the roads are) and gone deeper into the bush. However, often the animals you will see will have young, as food (animal or vegetable) is at its most plentiful then.
The start of the rainy season witnesses the arrival of the summer migrants and, if the rains have been good, the aquatic species that come for the water in the pan itself. In exceptional years thousands of flamingos will come to breed, building their nests on the eastern side of the main Etosha Pan, or in Fischer's Pan. However, bear in mind that Etosha's ordinary feathered residents can be seen more easily during the dry season, when there is less vegetation to hide them.