Etosha National Park   Leave a comment

Etosha is a very large park in northern Namibia that is dominated by one of the biggest dry lake beds (called pans in this part of the world) you will ever come across.  With only a few days before my flight home, this was literally squeezed in at the end of my recent 3-month trip to southern Africa.  The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my cheetah sighting.  I had not seen this cat in my travels, and along with wild dog was the only major African animal species I had not seen yet.

Two cheetah cubs in Etosha National Park, Namibia, appear to be taking turns keeping watch.

Most people enter Etosha from the south (Anderson Gate) or east (von Lindenquist Gate).  The far western (Galton) gate is  nearly forgotten, largely because this region of the park was closed to the public for years.  A couple of years ago it was opened, and only recently has the only lodge in western Etosha been accepting guests.  Since I always try to do things with a twist of difference, I made a detour after visiting the Himba people (previous post), driving up through gorgeous, unpopulated hill country to the Galton Gate.

A curious young springbok with stubs for horns and huge eyelashes in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I arrived too late to enter the park, but the friendly (and lonely) ranger set me up in a campsite.  I was very comfortable, and I heard lions calling in the night, but from outside the park.  His wife showed up next morning, wearing bright African dress, and she was delighted to allow me to photograph her.  I later sent her some photos.  This should go without saying, but if you are traveling, make sure to never promise to send photos to someone unless you are certain you will do it.

Entering the park, I immediately headed to Dolomite Camp, which is only an hour or so from the entrance.  Dolomite is perched on a long ridge of (what else?) dolomite.  This craggy outcrop rises dramatically from the surrounding wildlife-rich plain.  Beautiful chalets are perched along the ridge, with decks that have stunning views of classic African savanna.  What a place!  A bit spendy, $100/nt with no activities or meals included, but well worth it.  It was near the end of my trip & I was treating myself.

Checking into my airy chalet, I took a cool shower and parked myself on the deck, cold drink in hand.  I spotted some zebra, antelope and even giraffe through my binoculars.  Later I enjoyed the ultra-refreshing pool and chatted up the young Namibians tending bar.  I chilled out for the whole afternoon in fact, a hot one that “forced” me to take numerous dips in the pool.  Then toward evening, I got into my little rental car and did a game drive through western Etosha, which was empty of other tourists.  I drove the dirt roads (passable in 2WD as long as you drive carefully) and saw the rare black-faced impala, the strangely intense kori bustard, and also the red hartebeest (a funny-looking critter).  No predators though.

When I returned to camp, the moon was rising over the savanna, and the evening breeze had kicked up – very beautiful.  By the way, Africa newbies might be confused when they hear the word “camp” applied to what are actually lodges. Camp is often used when the lodge does not even have an attached campsite, and is pretty luxurious.  This is the case with Dolomite.

Next morning, I woke early and went out on the deck.  Soon I saw a herd of antelope below, and while slowly sweeping my binoculars over the area around the herd (this can net you a stalking predator), I was rewarded with lion!  The first one I saw was a big female, who was staring intently at the herd from thick cover.  I found the rest of the pride nearby, including the male (who was still sleeping, go figure!).  After watching for awhile with no attack, I walked to the breakfast cafe for coffee.  I told the staff about the lion, and one of the young girls working there wanted to see.  Since the lion could not be seen from the main camp, I took her to my chalet and pointed them out. She was amazed.  Turns out these were the first lion she had seen in Etosha (she had just started working there).

Termite mounds dot the savanna of Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I finally dragged myself away from Dolomite and drove into the heart of Etosha.  After about 5 hours, I caught sight of the enormous Etosha Pan.  This is a tan expanse of pancake-flat dried lake bed that is 130 km (80 mi.) long and up to 50 km (31 mi.) wide.  You cannot even see to the other side it is so huge.  It is surrounded by typical African bush/savanna, peppered by large termite mounds (image above) and waterholes where animals gather.  The campsites along the southern margin of the Pan are situated near these waterholes, but they are not really that great.  They are much like Kruger’s, in that they have restaurants, pools, and simple cabins, but those that I saw were somewhat ratty in appearance as compared with Kruger.  But they do work for campers like me, and I had no problem pitching my tent at them.

A rare blue crane feeds near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

A gorgeous cheetah rests after a hot day in Etosha N.P., Namibia

Now on to more animals!  After photographing a pair of rare blue cranes (above) next to a viewpoint over the Pan, I drove toward Halali Camp and saw a vehicle stopped on the road.  I scanned the bush for what he was looking at, but realized I was looking out too far.  As I drew closer I saw them: a family of cheetah!  Woohoo!  I had finally seen cheetah!  Mom and two cubs lay at the edge of the road just chilling out in preparation for the night’s hunt.  I started snapping away, with my Canon 100-400mm f/5.6, and a crop-frame Canon 50D.  I had close to 600mm of focal length, but still could not fill the frame with the cubs.  This is because I was not parked as close as I could actually have gotten without scaring them away.

I’m conservative in this regard, and feel you must strike a balance between getting close enough for good shots, and yet keep enough distance to avoid drastically changing the animals’ behavior.  Since light was getting lower as dusk approached, it was hard to keep my shutter speeds high enough (a common challenge on safari).  I noticed the other guy there had a mount for the door of his 4×4, with his big lens attached.  That is the ticket, I thought, for my next African safari.  You will undoubtedly use such a mount more than you use a tripod on safari.

I did catch some adorable shots of the babies, who were fighting sleep.  Mom was so sleek and graceful!  The other photographer and I had them to ourselves for awhile, until an overland truck arrived.  If you don’t know, overland trucks are basically big 4×4 transports, like a mini-bus on steroids, which carries (mostly young) tourists inside.  They are popular with travelers on a budget, since they typically camp out on their long routes through Africa.  Many overland trips travel from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa.  This means being on the road for a month or more, all with other people you don’t know, and on somebody else’s itinerary.

It is likely obvious that I do not have a high opinion of the overland option.  I saw many overland trucks pull into a campsite late in the day, where the tourists proceed to hang out as a group, catching up on the internet.  They then pull out next day, usually before daybreak.  This is not my idea of a memorable travel experience.  They tend to pass through Africa without really interacting much with locals, yes doing many of the activities and seeing most of the sights, but all in a rush, and on a superficial level.  I won’t even go into the cliques and politics that inevitably take place along the way.  Ugh!  But if you are one to sacrifice quality for quantity, by all means do it.

Back to the cheetahs: the overland truck stopped in the middle of the road, startling the mother who rose and grew nervous.  Then the truck squeezed through, further disturbing the family.  The tourists, who cannot open their tinted windows, had maybe a 3-minute sighting before being ushered away to keep on their schedule.  But the family was still there in the bush by the road, and the light was getting very nice as the sun set.

A mother cheetah leads her cubs through the savanna near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

Mom led her family off in a row, stopping to scan the meadows (above).  I had brilliant photo opportunities as the setting sun hit their sleek bodies.  I did get some pretty good photos, but I am a perfectionist and next time will be certain to have the door mount for my big lens.  A gorgeous sunset led me to camp, and I had a glow about me for hours from the cheetah sighting.

A big elephant in Etosha N.P., Namibia shows how dexterous a trunk can be.

But there was more.  On my last full day in Etosha, I stopped at a waterhole on the way to the southern entrance.  While photographing very interesting-looking ducks there, I was about to leave when a herd of elephants showed up, including babies.  They proceeded to splash and spray muddy water all over themselves, making all sorts of racket. Since I was parked on the grass very close to the waterhole’s edge. I got good (not great – it was high noon) pictures and video.  They were leaving now, and the head cheese, a huge specimen, was trailing the group.  He (or she?) was looking at me now, and pulling her trunk into all sorts of contortions (showing off?).

Then the big elephant came over and stood immediately next to my open driver’s side window, blocking my retreat.  I realized he could have simply hooked his tusks under my little car’s body and flipped it into the waterhole with no effort whatsoever.  I dared not start my engine, since that can startle an elephant and cause violence.  So I just froze there, managing to grab a couple shots & a brief video.  They are super close-up!  She stared down at me, watching me.  I could not even close the window for fear of her reaction.  Finally, the big bruiser slowly meandered away, destroying small trees in the process of using them as scratching posts.  My adrenaline was really pumping.

After that, the herd of wildebeest, the close-up of the jackal, the black-faced antelope buck, they were all anticlimactic.  I reluctantly left the park, and drove back to Windhoek on a good paved highway with little traffic.  Next morning I was on an airplane heading to Jo’burg, and then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I unexpectedly was bumped and had to spend the night (not a bad thing!).  Then it was back to the good old U.S.A., and a serious case of reverse culture shock.

Africa had changed me for certain.  I had finally completed my dream trip.  I would say I had knocked off a big item on my “bucket list”, but I detest that term.  I’m really not a list person anyway.  Don’t like to list accomplishments, don’t like to keep track.  It’s too much like competing with other people, or even worse, with yourself.  Each stage of life brings new priorities in life, and my goal is to live in each moment, not fret about a bucket list.    But if Africa is in your sights, strongly consider an independently-oriented trip.  However you do it, do not let any fear of danger or crime dissuade you from taking control of your own trip.  Africans are friendly and honest people, and will welcome you with open arms.

The bush in Etosha National Park, Namibia, has abundant open spaces and few large trees. Thus they are in heavy demand for weaver bird nests.

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