After three nights in Mushara that saw us mainly explore the eastern part of the park, we proceeded to the next stop, Etosha Safari Lodge. Located outside the park’s southern entrance, Anderson Gate, it is a relatively large mid-range lodge. Food- and room-wise it was okay but nothing to rave about (plus the toilet in our room did not work properly and even though we reported this to reception twice no one bothered to fix it), and certainly not on the same level as Kambaku or Mushara, but the service was very personal and friendly, and the sundowner deck affords sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.
We spent one day just relaxing, writing post cards, playing card games, sipping Rock Shandies (a delicious southern African drink containing carbonated water, lemonade and a dash of Angostura bitter, making it a soft drink for all practical purposes) and, in my case, editing images. The next day we entered the park again, this time exploring the central section. The whole western part of Etosha used to be closed for individual exploration, only guests staying at the exclusive, state-run Dolomite Camp and those booking a tour with an officially accredited tour operator were allowed in. The area is now open to everyone, but we were not aware of that and thus went to Okondeka instead, one of the most remote waterholes and the home of a resident pride of lions. We spent about an hour carefully scanning the surroundings, but no lion showed its majestic head, and so we left. Usually it makes sense to spend some time at a waterhole instead of just speeding around, because patience often pays, but sometimes you may well spend hours in one place and nothing happens at all. In this case it is better to leave and check out another place.
So from Okodenka we went to Salvadora and Sueda. This twin pair of waterholes on the southern edge of the Etosha pan, a massive endorheic salt pan that covers a significant portion of the park and only fills with water every couple of years after very heavy rains, is known to be a preferred spot for cheetahs. Arriving at Salvadora we saw a number of cars parked, eagerly observing something in the vicinity of the waterhole. We scanned the surroundings but could not find anything until a woman in one of the other cars held an A4 sheet of paper out of the window on which she had scribbled ‘LION’. It took us another five minutes, but finally we spotted a number of lion cubs hidden in the tall grass on the edge of the waterhole. As someone would later tell us there were actually six of them, staying hidden while the mother was out hunting. Occasionally they came out to drink which was the only possibility to get some shots. The light was not particularly nice though and the perspective not very pleasing, due to our higher vantage point.
As the day drew to a close we turned around to drive back to the gate. The road wound along the southern edge of the pan, and the shadows grew longer as I spotted a lone elephant striding across the plains. I thought it would make for a nice picture and asked my father to stop. As I was focusing on the elephant my brother suddenly exclaimed “There is a cheetah under the tree!” And indeed, less than 20 m away, sitting in the shade of a tree, there was a beautiful cheetah. As I shot burst after burst we spotted another two. Considering that due to competition from lions the whole cheetah population of Etosha numbers less than a hundred specimen, stumbling across three grown ones in one place was quite remarkable. The cheetahs kept moving along the edge of the pan and we realised that they were stalking up onto a herd of springbok that we had passed earlier. We reversed until we were next to the herd and I got ready for a spectacular display of explosive speed and extraordinary agility as the fastest land animal on the planet would take down its not-so-slow-either prey, but nothing happened. Sensing that something had changed the cheetahs stopped their approach and lay down. I assume it was because the springboks had started to move marginally faster as we reversed, but we had definitely not frightened them. We waited for a bit, but as the sun neared the horizon we were forced to leave and speed back to the gate in order to avoid a hefty fine. I was initially disappointed to have missed such an amazing opportunity, but when I finally sat down and developed the image of the cheetah under the tree, eyes closed as if enjoying the breeze around his nose, my disappointment vanished and I simply enjoyed what I got.
The next day we hopped between several waterholes, always on the lookout for the elusive leopard, but only spotted animals that we had already seen before. Later we visited Okaukuejo, the rest camp closest to Anderson Gate and seat of the park’s administration. Like all the other camps in Etosha it has a private waterhole to allow visitors to observe the wildlife without having to get into a car. This is especially useful as you are free to sit on one of the benches for the whole night, when many animals are most active. As we were relaxing on a bench, a large herd of elephants approached the waterhole and indulged in a massive water and mud party. The younger ones jumped right in, wallowing in the hole’s waters, even blowing bubbles with their trunks. Suddenly a hysterical trumpeting could be heard from the left and a small elephant calf approached the waterhole in full gallop, being chased by a larger calf that might have been its elder sibling. As they arrived at the waterhole an older elephant (the mother?), slowly turned around, slapped its trunk over the larger calf’s face, and thus earned loud laughter by the crowd of human spectators.
As our last day in Etosha broke we decided to have a final attempt at spotting a leopard and improve our chances by taking a guided game drive with our lodge this time. We set out in the afternoon and drove into the park. After a bit of driving our guide was contacted by one of his colleagues who started to talk about a lion sighting, then the connection was lost. “Otto, Otto, Otto!” he called. No reply. We went on, saw some giraffes (nothing new), saw a herd of elephants (nothing new either). “Otto, Otto, Otto!” No reply. Otto had probably been mauled by the lions. Or he was just watching them with a broken radio next to him. Who knows. The drive ended without us having spotted anything really exciting.
In the end we left Etosha having seen an impressive variety of wildlife. Lions, cheetahs, oryx, elephants, even the rare rhino. Only the shy leopard eluded us. Guess I have to come back some time and have another try.
Read Part 6 here.