The best time to visit Etosha is between May and December for game viewing, while the rainy months from January to March are amazing in their own way. The wildlife are always there, it’s just easier to spot them when it’s dry.
With eight months of peak game viewing, Etosha National Park, like the rest of Namibia, is almost a year-round destination. The Kruger Park in South Africa has a much shorter safari season from June to September and with heavy thundershowers, thick bush and major rivers, game viewing during the summer months in the Kruger is almost impossible.
Etosha, by contrast, even in the short wet season offers great game viewing opportunities all year long as there are no rivers, the bush is not as dense as the Kruger and wildlife concentrations, in general, are higher in Etosha. Rain falls in short powerful storms allowing plenty of game viewing and photographic activities before and afterwards. It being summer, the rains also bring a welcome cool to the air; and there's nothing quite like a summer thunderstorm.
Having said all that, there are certain times of the year that are better for specific sightings, needs and options.
For example, March and April are best for seeing game on the plains and observing wildlife activity. Whereas August and September is when one can see large herds and numerous species at the waterholes. It all depends on your personal wishes: are you only interested in seeing Africa's wildlife? Are you visiting for photography? Do you want to see elephants, lions, rhinos or any other specific species? Are you a birder? Are you just looking to see the African bush and spend some time in the wilderness having been there and done that with the ellies and lions?
Let me try and break it up into "dry and wet seasons". Bear in mind, that there are not vast differences in seasons as you would find in Europe, North America, and areas further away from the tropics. However, we do have our hot and cool seasons, wet and dry periods, and open skies and cloudy times.
For general wildlife viewing and photography, the drier times would be the best. This would be from about May to December every year. The reason this is the better time for game viewing is because there is little to no water available in the "veld" and the animals have to trek every day to water holes.
Often you can see up to seven different species of animal at any one waterhole, and in their numbers: 200-300 zebra, 300-400 springbok, large herds of elephants and whole prides of lion. Paradoxically, Etosha is probably the one place in Africa where the best time to view game would be during the hotter parts of the day when the animals come to drink. That means you don't have to arise at the crack of a freezing dawn, you can amble out for a leisurely game drive mid-morning instead.
The reason for this unique behaviour is a matter of survival: it is too hot for predators to hunt during the day and, water sources being so central in the dry season, predator and prey alike must drink from the same places so the plains herds come to the waterholes when the predators are least likely to hunt them.
The large herds then spend the cooler times feeding away from the waterholes where it is safer. Of course, in nature there is no such thing as hard and fast rule and the wildlife also meet at waterholes any time of the day or night.
Predators, like lions, are easier to see during the dry season as hunting is easier for them by staying close to waterholes. In addition, there are a few floodlit waterholes offering 24-hour drive-through game viewing, Africa-style.
Photography would be best early morning and late afternoon but some photographers do get very good shots during the middle of the day with creative use of the dry, dusty haze.
The "rainy season" would be roughly from December to the end of March. As there is water scattered all over Etosha, the animals do not need to trek to the various watering holes. So, one would not find the large herds of wildlife congregating at water holes but rather spread out in the open plains and bush. Predators also need to search more for food and are then not that easy to be seen.
However, during this period is when many of the plains game like springbok, zebra and wildebeest give birth. They "plan" birth to be at such a time that when the young are weaned, that there will be enough food available. This is also the time of rutting and the males vying for females setting up their territories and harems. So lots of activity to be seen with young wildlife, rutting males and great birding.
As Etosha is generally a dry and dusty area, the air can often be quite grey, especially by mid-day. However, during the rainy season and especially just after a storm, the light is clear and crisp and, with huge cumulonimbus cloud formations as a backdrop to the endless plains, Etosha in the summer is a truly beautiful place to be.
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