This two-part article details our experiences as we explored Etosha National Park. I am also working on a more or less comprehensive guide on how to photograph the wildlife of the area, including ideal time of travel, recommended gear and settings for beginners, where and when to actually find the animals and additional resources. This will probably be published after the conclusion of this travelogue. Also, because we spent a lot of time in this extremely interesting place, I broke this article down into two parts. Enjoy.
After a truly enjoyable stay we left Kambaku and headed further north. Our destination for the day was the eastern border of Etosha National Park, but first we wanted to check out a couple of other places along the road. The first location, the Hoba Meteorite, had been recommended to us by Johannes. Located not far from Grootfontein, at about 60 tonnes this is the largest single-piece meteorite on the planet. Impressive, huh? We arrived, bought our tickets at the small visitor centre and then walked over to the meteorite which lies in a small depression only about a hundred metres away. To be honest, there is not that much to it. Theoretically the sight of a 60 ton piece of iron that fell from the sky with a fiery tail should be hugely impressive, but in practice it is really just that – a huge piece of iron lying around. It is interesting to have a closer look at it and compare the small, brightly polished, silvery reflecting spots with the general red oxidised layer, but even a close inspection plus an intense study of the information boards will not take you more than ten minutes or so. And as there is pretty much nothing else in the area, we left after less than half an hour.
Our next stop was Grootfontein where we intended to check out the German Fort Museum, alas it was closed, so we proceeded to Tsumeb, the closest larger settlement to Etosha’s eastern Von Lindequist gate. There we had a try at another museum, which was open – success! It primarily dealt with the geological conditions of Namibia and its native and colonial history. From 1884 to 1915 Namibia was a German colony, which is unbeknownst to many, especially Germans (“Wait, what? We had colonies?!”). The museum was small, the artefacts dated, the labels yellowed, but overall it was a very informative and interesting visit.
After we had finished our tour of Tsumeb we finally headed towards Etosha. Our stay for the following three nights would be the Mushara Bush Camp, part of the exclusive Mushara Collection which also includes a tented camp, an ‘outpost’ and the main lodge, all separate establishments. Our stay there was generally enjoyable, but I have never been so torn internally and perplexed by any accommodation I have stayed in – the camp is amazing on some aspects and horrible on another. First the positive. I have stayed in several very nice places in the past, but Mushara must have been the most outwardly luxurious I have ever seen. Extreme attention has been payed to every detail, from the traditional style safari gas lamps to the water faucets and chairs. Guests sleep in tents, but not the festival kind, but more of a luxurious canvas-wood combination, with a large mosquito net covered canopy bed and en suite bathroom in the solid, sandstone back part of the tent. The main building is spacious and open, with a traditional Caprivi reed roof and comfortable lounges, again with tastefully designed pillows and lamps. Breakfast was tasty and dinner was nothing short of amazing. Several cleverly arranged courses, absolutely delicious local antelope meats and fish – I am convinced that if Micheline came around some time, the kitchen would easily earn a star.
But this very positive impression was marred by one of the worst services I have ever experienced in my life. When the manager welcomed us she did not crack a single smile and simply recited the general information about the place in the most unenthusiastic way. The waitresses at dinner were even worse, one simply marching up to the table, grumbling “Oryx.” as an explanation of what we would have, put the plates on the table and left. When my mother exclaimed how nice it was that the camp would be booked out from the week after, the waitress simply mumbled “Not for us. Only the owners make more money, not us.” and left. After dinner we sat down at the fire-place to let the day fade away, but as all the other guests had already left the staff apparently expected to be able to turn in for the night, so they essentially killed time behind us, occasionally glancing over – at half past eight in the evening. Overall it felt like to the Mushara staff we were a major annoyance. What a weird attitude. The exceptions were the guy carrying our bags who pointed out that there was something wrong with one of our tyres, and a young waitress who actually smiled at us and joked around a bit.
But enough of the whining – we came to Etosha to see the wildlife, not smiling people. The next day we got up around 4:30 am, had a quick breakfast and drove the 10 km to Von Lindequist Gate. Friedrich von Lindequist was governor of German South-West Africa from 1905 to 1907 and founded Etosha National Park as Game Reserve No 2 with a size of 99.526 km². Since then several reductions have resulted in its modern size of 22,270 km². Everyone with a suitable vehicle can drive through Etosha by themselves, but in order to increase safety and prevent people from turning their precious wildlife into roadkill, the gates of the park open at sunrise and close at sunset, by which time everyone needs to have left or returned to camp under threat of severe fines. Because the wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk and in order to get the best light for my images we were waiting at the gate just before sunrise. We registered, then drove the last bit of tar road towards Namutoni, one of the four state-run rest camps within the park, where we paid for our permit (NAD 80 per foreign adult per day plus NAD 10 for our vehicle of less than ten seats for a total of NAD 330 per day or about €22). On the way to Namutoni we already made our first sighting, thanks to another car on the roadside which pointed it out to us – a rare black rhino in the thick scrubs along the road.
After we had paid for our permit and bought a large map of Etosha in the camp’s shop we proceeded to the petrol station to a) fill up (which is something you should do whenever you see a petrol station, even when your tank is still 75% full, because in some parts of the country the next one might be 500 km away) and b) have someone check our tyres. They guy picking up our luggage at Mushara had pointed out to us that one of our tyres looked awfully flat. And indeed, at the petrol station it turned out that the pressure was very low, kudos to a thick thorn that had pierced it from the side. The attendant simply pulled the thorn out, then summoned a thick paste such as the ones you use to repair your bicycle’s tyre and fixed the problem. Initially we were rather sceptical about the long-term reliability of this and checked the tyre pressure almost every day for the rest of our journey, but it held up. Very impressive.
With the permit in place and the tyre fixed we could finally start to explore the park. We had a look at the local waterholes on the map and decided to check out Chudob first, which is located just a couple of kilometres south of Namutoni. The majority of roads in Etosha are gravel and the speed limit is 60 km/h, which you have to take into account when planning your journeys. When arriving at a waterhole the road ends in a gravel ‘car park’, essentially just a wide space on one side of the waterhole that is marked with a line of rocks. The waterhole is usually located between 50 and 200 m away. You simply drive up to the edge of the ‘car park’, position your car side ways, roll down the windows and observe what is happening. It is strictly prohibited to leave your car anywhere in the park except for the rest camps and a couple of fenced in rest areas, so to observe the wildlife some decent binoculars and/or a tele-zoom lens are vital.
It immediately transpired that going to Chudob was a great choice. The waterhole was alive with animals – a herd of zebras, some giraffes, springbok, oryx, porcupines, ostriches … I took pictures like a maniac, marvelling at all these wild animals that before I had only seen on screen or in a zoo. Suddenly everyone was becoming nervous – the zebras propped up their ears, carefully scanning their surroundings, the porcupines vanished. And indeed, just seconds later a spotted hyena emerged from the tree line and slowly approached the water hole. The zebras observed it for some time, then, as if a secret signal had been given, spun around and bolted. The ostriches and antelopes followed suit, only the giraffes remained, safe in their towering height. It was still early in the day, the sun was low, the light beautiful and I managed to get some interesting shots. Sitting in the front passenger seat gave me a good vantage point and I managed to keep the camera steady and shutter speeds reasonable by resting it on the beanbag that I had put on the edge of the door. After about two hours of observation we left and checked out other waterholes. That first day we did not see much more than what we had already observed at Chudob, but we drove through herds of animals, with zebras occasionally strolling past the window less than two metres away. In general having to stop to let wildlife cross the road is a pretty common thing. Most mammals of Etosha are used to the human presence and only become suspicious when one stops right next to them, making it easy to photograph them.
The next day we entered the park again. Mainly on behalf of my little brother’s request the priority of the day was to find leopards. An ambitious proposal, considering that leopards are numerous throughout the country but very elusive and rarely spotted – even most professional guides can count all their leopard sightings on the fingers of one hand. We frequently checked waterholes that are known to record the highest numbers of sightings, like Goas and Klein Namutoni, but it was not meant to be and in the end we left Etosha without having spotted a single one. That day, however, we made some very interesting early morning sightings at Klein Namutoni waterhole. When we arrived we spotted a honey badger, one of the most fearless animals on the planet (if you have not seen it, check out the infamous honey badger video on Youtube with Randall’s original narration!). He was too far away to get a good shot, but I still produced a very heavy crop for a friend of mine who is a huge honey badger fan. Later a couple of Black-backed jackals showed up, playfully exploring the surroundings, even hugging it out for some time. After the early morning light was gone we left, drove towards Halali Restcamp and ended up seeing our first large herd of elephants. The African bush elephant is the tallest species of elephant and an impressive sight, at up to 4 m of height. We stopped the car and just silently observed these giants as they strode past and crossed the road in front of us. After some time they disappeared in the thick bushes and we drove on.