Source: Getaway Magazine, November 2010
There’s something about its vast ochre plains, baked earth, sun-drenched mirages and other-worldly, a massive salt pan that imprints on your mind and stays with you long after you leave. And that’s just the scenery. If you visit Etosha during the dry season (April to September) you’re practically guaranteed some of the best game viewings in Africa.
In winter, when surface water is depleted, Etosha becomes a giant zoo with thousands of water-seeking animals congregating around its 30 waterholes. Driving into Etosha and catching your first glimpse of the massive salt pan in the heat of the midday winter sun makes you feel as if you’re exploring a massive wilderness on the edge of the Earth.
The pan’s size is mind-boggling- it’s 4590 square kilometers or a quarter of Kruger. Up close, it’s baked into thick, craggy, salt-encrusted plates and from a distance, it shimmers deceptively with horizon-skimming mirages. Occasionally, there’ll be a giraffe or wildebeest crossing along the horizon line (making for a great wide-angle photo), but otherwise, its barrenness is interrupted only by swirling dust-devils.
The salt pan is Etosha’s iconic image, but there’s much more diversity to the park’s landscape than you’d expect, from green and gold mopane forest, waterholes shaded by makalani palms and the Haunted Forest ( Sprokies-woud) of contorted African moringa trees to flat, golden plains traversed by slow-moving herds of zebra and wildebeest on the northeastern edge of the park. These striking landscapes provide photogenic backgrounds for the real stars of wintertime Etosha – the thirsty animals: rare and endemic black-faced impala, hundreds of elephants, herds of zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, lions, leopards, black rhinos, roan antelopes and red hartebeest which are among more than 100 mammal species of birds. One of the great things about Etosha is that there’s very little work involved in spotting game – pull up to a waterhole with your camera binocs, drinks and snacks and just wait for something to arrive (if it isn’t already there).
In our five days in Etosha, we stumbled upon a ride of lions languishing in the heat at Kalk-heuwel Waterhole while two lionesses lazily stalked a herd of impala, watched a sleepy leopard wandering through the grass to find a shady tree and came face-to-face with a black rhino as he nonchalantly ambled to within a metre of our car on a stroll to the Goas Waterhole for a late afternoon drink.
However, the most memorable moments of the trip were spent at the busy waterhole at Halali and Okaukuejo camps, watching what our guide Gabriel Nantanga from Onkoshi called ‘the best African television show’. After an eventful late afternoon game drive, we returned to Halali as the gates closed. Thinking our game viewing for the days was done, we decided to check out the waterhole on our way back to camp.
In the setting dusk we came upon hundreds of enraptured people looking at an elephant herd, complete with clumsy babies, having a bath. As night fell and the waterhole floodlights flicked on, a baby rhino and its mother sidled to the waterhole, producing a stark silhouette on the water, as if posing for a photograph.
When we arrived at Okaukuejo in the early afternoon the following day, the camp’s waterhole was teeming with herds of zebra, springbok, impala, and kudu. The smell of animals and the sound of hundreds of zebra were overpowering. The experience of sitting meters away from a sea of snorting, fighting, eating and drinking wildlife was incredible.
We sat with beers watching all the action and, golden and the herds departed, 20 elephants kicked up dust on their way to the water. They bathed, drank and sprayed dust, then moved off before being replaced by another group of elephants. In the space of around an hour, 100 elephants came and went, drinking their fill, playing, bathing, even trying to mate, completely oblivious to hundreds of onlookers shooting photos and videos. Just as the night before in Halali, we were lucky to be treated to another rhino sighting as darkness fell. A rhino tried to share the large waterhole with a group of elephants, only to be shooed away by an annoyed matriarch.
After sitting at the waterhole for ages, our stomachs started grumbling and we headed back to camp. As we cooked dinner over the fire, we could grunts and snorts of rhino and elephants and cry of a lone jackal from the waterhole. It was a magical end to a trip through this menagerie. Even when you can’t see the animals in Etosha, you feel like you’re right next to them.