Park life
If you want to get close to wildlife or marvel at spectacular landscapes, head for one of Namibia’s many impressive National Reserves and Game Parks. Lizzie Williams explains what to expect from each...


Namibia’s national reserves and game parks are owned by the Government and managed on its behalf by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Since independence, the private sector has become increasingly involved in wildlife conservation and there has been an escalation in the number and size of private conservation areas. Most park accommodation is managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts and bookings can be done via their central reservations office. Many private reserves and lodges are situated either bordering, or in close proximity, and offer visits to the parks in their scheduled activities.


1 Mahango Game Reserve
Found on the perennial Okavango river, this park is famous for its riverine forests, flood plain, baobabs, herds of elephants, red lechwe and over 400 bird species. However, visitors must exercise caution as there are crocodiles and hippos in the river.

2 Bwabwata National Park
Formerly the Caprivi Game Park, this is located in the lush and green Caprivi Strip between Angola and Botswana. It extends about 180km from the Okavango River in the west to the Kwando River in the east. The Caprivi Highway (the B8) runs through its entire length. 

The Caprivi Game Park was proclaimed a reserve in 1968, and was under the jurisdiction of the South African Defence as an army base until independence in 1990. Sadly much of the game was hunted out during this period, but numbers have now recovered significantly. In 2007, MET renamed it as the Bwabwata National Park and certain areas have been de-proclaimed and the land given over to the isolated rural communities living along the B8.

The park features swamps, flood plains and riverine woodland, dominated by wild seringa, copalwood, Zambezi teak and wild teak. It is home to game including elephant, roan and kudu antelope, buffalo, while 339 bird species have been recorded. You may see some of these from the highway, particularly elephant, or there are 4WD tracks along the Kwando River for further exploration.

3 Mudumu National Park
Found in Eastern Caprivi, this expanse of dense savannah and mopane woodland has the Kwando river as its western border. Significant to it are small populations of sitatunga and red lechwe, with spotted necked otter, hippo and crocodiles in the waterways.  Other animals found here include elephant, buffalo, roan antelope, kudu, impala and Burchell’s zebra, as well as 430 bird species.

4 Mamili National Park
This park has a large wetland area with reed beds, oxbow lakes, and two large islands in the Kwando/Linyanti River. The same bird and animal species occur as in Mudumu National Park. Be aware that visitors have to be completely self-sufficient in terms of water, food, fuel, etc as no facilities are provided at the campsites.

5 Khaudum Game Park
Bordering on Botswana, this densely wooded wilderness harbours several big game species including elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, hyena, jackal and African wild dogs and about 320 bird species. 4WD vehicles are available to visitors but fuel is available only at Bagani, Divundu, Mukwe and Rundu in the Kavango region.

6 Mangetti Game Reserve

Located in the Kavango Region, this area is used for game breeding by the Ministry. Excess Game is captured and translocated from other reserves like Hardap Game Reserve to Mangetti.

7 Etosha National Park
At over 22,000 sq km Etosha is one of Africa’s great national parks, and the game viewing here is on a par with South Africa’s Kruger, Zimbabwe’s Hwange, Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti.

About 80% of Etsoha’s vegetation is mopane trees, plus dwarf savannah shrub and grasslands, while to the west of Okaukuejo is the well known Sprokieswoud, or phantom or fairy forest, an area of unusual lofty and slender African moringa trees (Moringa ovalifolia), which normally grow in more sub-tropical and hilly climates.

Some 114 mammals and more than 340 different birds are present. The three rest camps – Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali – each feature a floodlit watering hole, offering overnight visitors the chance to see good numbers of game in an unusual environment. There are also 50 or so other waterholes around the park. Switch off the car engine and wait peacefully and silently to see what happens.

The central feature of the park is the Etosha Pan, which is roughly 130km long and 70km wide. It is a huge salt depression that becomes a lake during summers of exceptional rainfall, although even then the water is rarely more than a few centimetres deep. Most of the time it is a blinding expanse of flat, white, cracked and dried mud that shimmers with mirages and is dotted with spiralling dust devils. The name Etosha is usually translated as ‘great white place’ or ‘place of emptiness’ after the pan. Seeing animals pace across this surreal landscape is one of the sights that make Etosha so special. Another unique aspect of Etosha is the fine white dust during the dry seasons – to follow a white elephant is a delightful experience.

As well as elephant you can expect to see large herds of blue wildebeest, gemsbok, Burchell’s zebra, eland, giraffe and springbok, as well as hyena, warthog and the ubiquitous ground squirrel. Another good reason for visiting Etosha is to see black rhino. The resident population of about 700 is reckoned to be one of the largest in Africa. While they are difficult to spot in thick bush, they frequently visit the floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo.

All of the large cats are found in Etosha and there are good numbers of lion, especially around Fischer Pan in the northeast. Cheetah are often seen in the short flat grasslands to the north of the main road along the edges of the pan where they prey on springbok.

About one third of the bird species are migratory, including the European bee-eater and several species of waders and raptors.

8 Skeleton Coast Park
This park covers the long stretch of coast north of Swakopmund and is famous for the colour, changing moods and untouched profile of its landscape as well as the dense coastal fogs and cold sea breeze caused by the cold Benguela Current. Here you will also discover clay castles, the salt pans near the Agate Mountain and the seal colony at Cape Frio. Animals found in the park are gemsbok, springbok, jackal, ostrich and hyena, while desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, lion and giraffe roam up and down the dry river courses.

9 Cape Cross Seal Reserve
On the coast north of Swakopmund lies an area of flat, foggy and featureless beach. Historically, it was here that the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão erected a stone cross in 1486 – the furthest any European had reached down the coast of Africa. But more significantly, Cape Cross is home to a colony of Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus); the largest of the world’s nine fur seals species, which are only found on the coast of southern Africa from southern Angola, down Namibia’s coastline and as far south as Algoa Bay in South Africa. During November and December, the breeding season, as many as 250,000 gather (inexplicably) on the same lump of overcrowded rock. The bulls, which can weigh up to 360 kg, start to arrive in October to claim the land for their cows, after which, some 90% of seal pups are born over a 34-day period. The mother will go into the sea to feed, and when she returns she will bark for her pup who responds by bleating until they find each other again, usually by detecting scent. Remember, this is perhaps one of the smelliest places on earth – think pungent fish – but the sight of tens of thousands of seals basking on the rocks or surfing in the waves is a compelling one.

10 National West Coast Recreation Area
This is the 200km stretch of coastline between the Swakop and Ugab rivers. Lichen fields are found here extensively. They depend on coastal fog for survival, are extremely slow-growing and are destroyed when vehicles drive over them.

Visitors are therefore cautioned that off-road driving is not allowed in the National West Coast Recreation Area. Along the coast at Mile 14, 72, 108 and Jakkalsputz are campsites providing basic amenities for anglers.
11 Waterberg Plateau Park
Known to the Herero-speaking people as Oueverumue, or ‘narrow gate’, the 40,500- hectare Waterberg Plateau is Namibia’s only mountain park. The sharp barrier of the plateau rising up 200 metres above the plain, presents a stark contrast to the monotonous, scrubby, bushveld plain below.

Vegetation changes dramatically, from acacia savannah at the foot to lush green sub-tropical dry woodland with weeping wattle, silver bushwillow and laurel fig trees on the rim, and grassy plains at the top. The mixtures of very sandy soils cause the plateau to act like a sponge, with the water  emerging on the southeast side as springs. It is from these springs that the plateau gets its name. It’s possible to see 25 species of game, including leopard, gemsbok, eland, giraffe, kudu, jackal, hyena, baboon and black and white rhino, plus some 200 species of birds.  There are well-marked one-to-three-hour hiking trails, and more challenging longer four-day trails.

12 Von Bach Game Reserve
This reserve is situated 3.5km south of Okahandja and extends over an area of 43km. It has become a popular venue for aquatic sports e.g. water skiing, yachting, wind surfing and boating. Visitors can explore the surrounding nature reserve on foot, however game viewing opportunities are limited.

13 Daan Viljoen Game Park
Situated in the rolling hills of the Khomas Hochland, this small park (3953ha) is home to a relative large population of game species such as kudu, springbok, gemsbok, eland, red hartebeest, hartmanns mountain zebra, blue wildebeest, baboon, klipspringer, steenbok and rock dassie. Other interesting species to look out for are Ruppell’s parrot Monteiro’s hornbill, Carp’s tit, rockrunner and white-tailed shrike.

14 Hardap Game Park
With the capacity of 323 million m3 and a surface area of 25km, Hardap is Namibia’s largest dam and the Hardap Game Park is divided by the dam into a northern and southern section. The largest game concentration is found in the southern section where you’ll find kudu, gemsbok, springbok, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, red hartebeest and steenbok.

The dam is also home to one of Namibia’s three largest colonies of white pelicans. Pnback pelicans, greater flamingos, white breasted and reed cormorants, darters, African spoonbills, osprey and African fish eagles are also found in this area.

15 Namib-Naukluft Park
Bounded by the cold waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Namib Desert is a narrow strip of land stretching for 2000km north to south, and is never more than 200km from west to east. Part of this area is incorporated into Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft Park, a rugged, mountainous area that hides deep ravines, plunging gorges, crystal-clear rock pools, the famous sand dunes and a variety of game totally at odds with the desolate surrounding desert. This is one of the country’s major tourist destinations and one of the largest wilderness areas in Africa, covering an area more than twice the size of Wales.

Geographically, the park is divided into distinct regions: the gravel plains of the central Namib between the Swakop and Kuiseb rivers, known as the Namib Section; the mountainous knuckle of land stretching inland south of Solitaire to just west of Büllsport; the Naukluft Park; and the best-known section, the towering sand dunes south of the Kuiseb River, Sossusvlei.

Although the common perception of a desert is a hot, dry, barren wilderness, the Namib actually has distinct climatic zones. Much of the desert is moistened each morning by a rolling fog caused by the cool offshore air meeting the hot dry air in the interior. This fog allows a host of life forms, such as lichens, succulents and small bushes, and the insects and animals that feed off them, to exist in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

For most visitors, one of the highlights of Namibia is a trip to the dunes surrounding Sossusvlei. This is one of the world’s most striking, well-preserved and easily accessible desert landscapes.  The huge pan, or vlei, is surrounded by towering red-rust sand dunes, reputed to be the highest in the world. In years of exceptional rains the Tsauchab River breaks through the sand and flows all the way to Sossusvlei, filling the pan with water and presenting the surreal site of ducks and even flamingos wading amid the dunes.

The normal drill at Sossusvlei is to depart from the Sesriem (NWR) campsite (or other lodges in the region) as dawn is breaking, to watch the sun rise over the golden dunes. Alternatively, a sunrise balloon ride is an unforgettable experience.

16 Naute Recreation Resort
Situated 50km southwest of Keetmanshoop, Namibia’s second largest dam is located here, surrounded by flat-topped ridges and large rust-coloured boulders. The area is home to a variety of birds, including aquatic species. It has a peaceful atmosphere that appeals especially to fresh-water anglers and watersports enthusiasts, although as yet there are no facilities here other than rudimentary picnic sites.

17 Fish River Canyon Park
If you have ever wondered what the surface of the moon looks like, then southern Namibia is the place to find out, albeit in blinding sunlight. But, in defiance of the bareness of the arid, rocky landscape, a host of desert plants, cacti, succulents and quiver trees survive. The highlight in this region is the huge gash in the earth, the Fish River Canyon, Africa’s second largest after the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia. The Fish is the longest river in Namibia and plays an important role in both watering and draining southern Namibia. In particular, it feeds Hardap Dam, Namibia’s largest reservoir.

About halfway along the canyon at Hell’s Bend are a series of tortuous curves in the river. Along this stretch, are a number of observation points perched on the edge of the canyon where its awe-inspiring splendour can be fully appreciated. Driving out from NWR’s Hobas Campsite, the first viewpoint you reach is known as Main Viewpoint, which faces westward, so the best time to visit is an early morning trip to watch the sunrise.

If you continue along the track from the car park, you reach Hiker’s Viewpoint, the starting point for the 85km Fish River Canyon hiking trail. Booked through NWR, this usually takes 4-5 days. From the rim, the path descends sharply to the canyon floor, losing 500m in altitude on the way, then follows the river over boulders and soft, loose sand. There are no designated campsites and hikers are free to camp where they wish. The trail finishes at Ai-Ais (a Nama name meaning ‘fire-water’), NWR’s other resort at the bottom of the southern end of the canyon.

Gondwana Cañon Park is a private operation that manages 1120 sq km of land to the east of the canyon, more or less the area between Hobas and Ai-Ais. After being over-grazed for many years by intensive sheep farming, the park was established in 1996 and game such as mountain zebra, giraffe and a number of antelope, reintroduced into the region, can roam freely now that the old farm fences have been removed. There are a number of private lodges in the region. 


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