Blown away by the harsh beauty of Etosha National Park, Rose Gamble recounts her adventures in this vast wilderness in northern Namibia
As the sky purpled into evening, we drew up alongside a deserted waterhole. We had barely rolled down the windows onto the warm air when eight elephants ambled out of the bush. We watched as they drank, the two tiny calves half submerging their faces in the violet water, tails in the air. The sun sank lower and Aperol-orange tendrils crept across the horizon.
After spending half an hour or so splashing and slaking their thirst, the group’s matriarch eyed our 4WD at some length, ears flapping questioningly. The octet then proceeded to march slowly back into the thorn scrub, walking a mere10m from where we were parked. My fingers hovered near the ignition keys. Once the last elephant had vanished into the darkening mopane trees we raced back to camp before night descended. The disappearing sun burnt red behind us while the hot, dusty air whipped through the open windows. I felt totally and utterly alive.
Etosha National Park, covering a whopping 22,912sq km, is the ideal place to self-drive. Characterised by a saltpan the size of Holland, Namibia’s largest government-owned park, is, in the main, bleached pale by the scorching heat and so dry that waterholes usually act as magnets for large concentrations of animals. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed, even for the most inexperienced of visitors.
The park has four points of entry, or ‘gates’, two of which are named after the European explorers, Francis Galton and Charles Andersson, who stumbled across the saline expanse in the 1850s while trekking with copper traders. Various tussles over the enormous area ensued. European settlers traded with the Ovambo for tracts of land, one swapping 170sq km for 25 firearms, a salted horse hide and a cask of brandy (tellingly, no park gate bears his name). The third entrance to Etosha recalls the governor of then German South-West Africa, Dr Friedrich von Lindequist, who, in 1907, proclaimed it a reserve (later elevated by the Republic of South Africa to the status of a national reserve) to protect the land and its seasonal migrations.
A dazzling-white pan dominates central and eastern Etosha, accessed by Andersson’s Gate. The surrounding landscape is flat and blanched with salt-dust. Driving through this otherworldly landscape, I imagined we could be on the moon. This is part of the Kalahari Basin and was formed around 60 million years ago. Once a huge lake fed by the Kunene River, it dried up and filled repeatedly over time, creating layer upon layer of green-grey clay and sparkling salt.
The name Etosha (spelt Etotha in early literature) comes from the Oshindonga word meaning ‘great white place’. The Hai//om San, the original inhabitants of Namibia and southern Africa, named the pan Khubus, which can be translated as ‘totally bare, white place with lots of dust’. An endless, desert-like expanse may seem an unlikely home for wildlife, but the park is teeming with game. As we weaved through the open plains on the edge of the pan, we saw swathes of springbok skipping through the dust. Large herds of Burchell’s zebra wandered close to our car, their striped flanks gleaming in the scorching sun. Eland and blue wildebeest formed dark silhouettes against the sky.
Making our way north, a little inland from the saline desert, the bush became denser. Here, black-faced impala, endemic to the park, appeared frequently between the mopane trees and kudu hovered in clearings before disappearing, shyly, back into the scrub. Turning a corner, we saw a roan antelope and caught a glimpse of its bright eyes as it bolted back into the bush. Later, a tiny Damara dik-dik, flushed out by the rumble of our engine, dashed across our path.
According to the literature that accompanied our increasingly dusty map Etosha is home to 114 mammals, 340 birds, 110 reptiles and 16 amphibian species. With animals appearing on every corner, it was not hard to believe. The 170km route between the centre and north of the park roughly traces the perimeter of the pan, and curls, helpfully, back and forth between bush and desert landscapes, ensuring a variety of wildlife. The loose gravel track is easy to drive and is interspersed with a series of natural and man-made waterholes. These pools, along with the well-constructed roads, make game viewing in Etosha unusually effortless. In the long dry season, you can simply stake out next to a waterhole and wait for the animals to come to you.
We developed a rhythm: we would sling on our shorts and espadrilles as the first threads of pink dawn inched blearily across the sky, and then we would race to the nearest waterhole to watch giraffe, gemsbok and oryx feeding in the cool morning. At midday we would escape from the sweltering sun before venturing out again in the late afternoon, biltong, salted almonds and bottles of Windhoek beer crammed into the side-pockets of our 4WD in preparation for sundown.
After a tip-off that a pride of black-maned lion, stars of the recent BBC documentary series, The Hunt, were loitering near the Okondeka waterhole we spent a large part of one evening parked close by. Eventually, two lionesses strolled nonchalantly out of the gathering gloom, their hides glowing rusted-orange in the rays of the retiring sun. The hairs on my arms prickled.
Etosha is also home to cheetah, leopard and the elusive caracal, along with being one of the world’s most important sanctuaries for black rhino. Numbers are strategically kept secret in order to protect the threatened species, but sightings are frequent. In recent years, about a dozen white rhino have been introduced. Two huge males, skin wrinkled like crumpled paper, crashed happily out of the undergrowth as we traversed the east of the park.
Western Etosha, 120km from the centre of the park and entered via Galton Gate, has, up until 2014, been a restricted area. Its dusty red earth and knots of dense scrubland are, correspondingly, devoid of visitors. On this side, a dazzle of Hartmann’s mountain zebra fled from us in clouds of terracotta dust. Enormous elephants emerged so frequently from the thick bush that slamming on the brakes to avoid them became a common occurrence. In among the iridescent flashes of lilac-breasted rollers, we spotted the rare violet wood hoopoe and a pink-bellied lark. Black-breasted snake eagles posed, imperious, on mopane branches. Kori bustards, black korhaans and pairs of secretary birds stalked the stretches of grassland.
Perched on a rocky outcrop at our camp one evening, miles of undulating scrubland stretched out below, I found it hard to believe this verdant terrain, so different from the lunar landscape we’d just left, was part of the same park. But perhaps, I mused, as the first stars tiptoed into the inky night sky, that was part of the magic of Etosha.
Rose’s trip to Etosha was arranged by experienced and knowledgeable travel company Chameleon Holidays & Travel. To book your Namibian adventure, visit www.chameleonholidays.com.
• Getting there Air Namibia flies to Windhoek. In the city you can hire a car through Namibia Car Rental (from £50 per day for a double cab Toyota 4WD; camping equipment is extra). Chameleon Holidays & Travel, www.chameleonholidays.com, can compile a personalised itinerary for self-drivers, including directions, maps and excellent background information.
• Where to stay There are plenty of accommodation options, including several affordable, government-owned campsites and lodges within the park (all found at www.nwr.com.na). In the east and northern Etosha, Okaukuejo Camp (doubles from £35) offers camping and wooden chalets, and Onkoshi Camp (doubles from £65), set on a secluded peninsula, has breathtaking views. In the west, Dolomite Camp (doubles from £55) provides chic tented chalets. Alternatively, you can book rooms in the new Olifantsrus Camp (doubles from £11). There are also various private lodges outside the park: Ongava Lodge (doubles from £110) holds one of the largest rhino custodianships in Namibia; The Mushara Outpost (doubles from £160) is elegant, peaceful and serves food that’s second to none; Hobatere Lodge (doubles from £150), situated on its own 32,000-hectare concession, feels wilder and emptier than most other options. In Windhoek, family-run Villa Vista (doubles from £65) provides a peaceful pit stop.
• Health Visit your travel clinic to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations. Antimalarials are recommended but not essential.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Namibia (5th Edition) by Chris McIntyre