My interest in Namibia began with nature documentaries. For some reason, deserts fascinated me — I think it was the utter foreignness of it. I’d never seen a place that was seemingly so barren, so devoid of life. But I quickly learned that these dry places that seem so desolate on the surface can be home to a whole host of life, hidden beneath the sands. Perhaps my favorite desert to read about was the Namib.
Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths?” — Brian Jackman
I loved learning about the Namib dwarf sand adders, tiny buggers with highly toxic venom. I was fascinated by the way they burrow down into the sand to lie in wait for prey, with only their eyes and tail tip peeking above the sand. The odd-looking antlions, neither ant nor lion, but rather an insect whose larvae digs sand traps to catch other insects on which to feed…
Needless to say, when the opportunity to go to Namibia and explore the Namib — as well as places like Etosha National Park — with Acacia Africa came up, I couldn’t say no.
Day One: Arrival in Etosha National Park
We arrived in Etosha National Park after a brief stopover in Windhoek, the country’s capital. A large national park in the north of the country, Etosha is characterized by a massive salt pan in its center, covering an area of 4,760 square kilometers. Despite the arid nature of the area, a number of water holes (one of which is directly next to Okaukuejo Camp, where we stayed) sustain the diverse population of wildlife which calls the region home.
Perhaps the most common species — at least of larger fauna — to see is the springbok, South Africa’s national animal and a denizen of my dinner plate the night before. It was midday and stiflingly hot, so the ones we saw were clustered under small trees and bushes, making use of whatever shade they could find.
We got our first up-close and non-rushed look at an ostrich as well, pausing to watch one strut away from us while fanning its plumage. Far from useless, an ostrich’s wings help it balance while it runs and are also used in courtship rituals and other displays. Now either this ostrich had something for one of those springboks, or its display was one from the ‘other displays’ category.
By the time we saw the giraffes, I was beginning to get a really good feeling about our time in Etosha National Park. Seeing several of the ‘dainty dorks’ — as my sister so eloquently calls them — feeding on the trees was awesome, as we’d mostly just seen them far off in the distance while exploring the Okavango Delta and during our river cruise in Chobe National Park.
A little closer to camp, we found one last surprise: a herd of zebra, first crossing a side road, then paralleling the main road as we drove slowly past. Several young foals regarded us warily, while more inured adults seemed barely to notice us.
We rolled into Okaukuejo Camp, at last, setting up our tents over several spots and making camp. Then it was off to the watering hole at the edge of the grounds, where we’d heard we could almost always see some sort of wildlife. There were some elephants there, but I’m going to save my pictures from the watering hole for a little later. 😉
Day One: Evening Game Drive
We left the confines of Okaukuejo and set off into the depths of the park, keeping our eyes open for wildlife. We spotted a few familiar species — kudu, oryx, and the like — but nothing much of note until Khumbu swerved off the main road and along a dusty path towards a cloud of dust in the distance. It was a trio of elephants in the middle of a dust bath.
We managed to peel ourselves away from the elephants (despite seeing so many at Elephant Sands, we still weren’t sick of them) and had only just made it back along the main road when Pili Pili’s keen eyes spotted something in the grass.
We did, and there were — three of them passed out in the middle of the open plain with nary a care in the world. A black-backed jackal lingered daringly close, digging, scratching and doing other jackal-y things while the alpha predators behind him slumbered.
We saw another jackal further on at the first of several watering holes maintained by park authorities. Zebra and springbok jostled for water as the jackal trotted through their midst. Some of the animals seemed ambivalent to its presence, but others started and bounded away in alarm.
Jackals aside, the coolest sighting of the night was our first close-up rhino sighting. It was coming towards us through the brush, plodding unhurriedly along. An oryx loitered a short distance away, content to let the bigger animal pass. That feeling wasn’t shared, however, and the rhino mock-charged the oryx, sending it fleeing through the shrubs.
Rhinos are not to be trifled with. Noted and remembered!
The drive had one final surprise for us as dusk drew near and the threat of the gates getting closed on us became more and more real. “Hyena!” someone shouted, and there one was, just to the side of the road in all its awkwardness. Hyenas have a bad rap (thanks, Disney), but they’re really interesting animals and don’t always feed on carrion. They hunt as well and are known to bring down zebras, wildebeest, and more. And, despite their stubby little back legs, they can actually move quickly — up to 60 kilometers per hour!
Just as we were about to pull away, our presence unnerved the lone hyena, and it trotted on across the road with its derpy lope, and I had my squee moment for the day.
We made it back to the compound just in time, as the gates were about half-closed already. A weary cheer sounded in the bus as we rolled through and into camp.
Day One: Around the Watering Hole
But the advent of dusk is by no means the end of a day of game watching in Africa, and we made our way to the watering hole after dinner. The atmosphere there was muted; the tension level, high. The whole viewing area was filled with tourists waiting with bated breath for animals to come for a drink. Anything uttered at more than a whisper was shushed immediately, and all you could hear was the click, click of camera shutters and the hissing of whispers when something drew near.
There were already some giraffes around the pool, but we didn’t have to wait long for something else to join them — a female rhinoceros and her calf materialized out of the gathering darkness and made their way to the pool’s edge.
Watering holes are like the United Nations of the savanna. Species of all kinds gather in one spot, for one purpose, though they are often at odds elsewhere. There is a fragile peace that exists there, balancing on a knife’s edge, the threat of violence constant.
There was none that night, but the following night would see two rhinos — normally solitary animals — dueling at the pool’s edge.
We were just about to leave when one of the giraffes — which until then had been lingering some distance away from the pool — approached, looking as if it wanted some of the luscious liquid in the pool. “C’mon, c’mon, go for it!” we whispered, urging it onward until, at last, it splayed its legs out and stooped down to sip out of the pool.
Dainty dorks, indeed.
Day Two: Morning Game Drive
Our second day in Etosha National Park was to be a long one, with a 4-5 hour game drive in the morning and a 2-3 hour drive in the evening hours before dusk. Little did we know that, despite the awesome sightings from the previous day, our second day in the park would have some of the best individual moments of the entire trip…
One of these was a huge rhino we saw moving through the brush just off a side-road. Khumbu got ahead of it and stopped the vehicle, allowing the beast to lumber past us, then cross the road just ahead.
Once the rhino wandered off, we made our way back towards a watering hole, only to be delayed by a herd of zebras filing past in single file. There were several lions lounging in the bushes nearby, and a few of the zebras stopped to — presumably — stare them to death. By the time we made it to the watering hole some minutes later, the staring zebras hadn’t moved.
But then, neither had the lions, so… mission accomplished?
The morning drive was long and seemed to drag on forever, I couldn’t even guess how much ground we covered over the course of five hours. After a seemingly endless stretch of barren landscape as far as the eyes could see, we came upon a grove of withered and dry trees. Behind them, something moved, its patchwork markings making its body difficult to make out behind the branches.
This camouflage was spoiled, however, by the giraffe’s neck and head jutting up above the tree like a watchtower as it silently regarded the humans it was definitely fooling with its top-notch concealment.
Shortly after, we experienced another one of those trip-defining moments. It started innocuously enough, with Pili Pili calling out, “Oh hey, look, some dik-diks!” Sure enough, two of the little antelopes were standing in the shade of a nearby tree as we came to a stop. “Dik-diks are very unique because when they mate, they mate for life,” Pili told us. “Very romantic.”
As if to lend credence to his words (or disprove them entirely, take your pick!), this happened…
Very romantic, indeed!
Another long drive took us to the edge of the Etosha Salt Pan, which looked for all the world like a sheet of ice stretching to the horizon. Near its edge, a herd of wildebeest grazed — our first up-close sighting of these animals.
We’d finally reached the end point of the drive, and turned back towards Okaukuejo along the long, dusty road, stopping at another watering hole on the way. There, a zebra and oryx scuffled as some springbok and ostrich scurried to get out of the way.
Watering holes really do seem like the UN, sometimes…
Day Two: Evening Game Drive
Our evening drive was just with Khumbu, as Pili Pili stayed behind to work on dinner. The drive was mercifully short compared to the beast of a drive we’d done earlier, but we spotted a pride of lions napping by the roadside, so that was okay.
At first, it seemed to be only a couple of lionesses with their accompanying cubs. One of them got up and plodded languidly in our direction before flopping down in the dust and grass for another nap. A different lioness seemed to have an uncontrollable bout of yawning and bared her fangs for us on multiple occasions.
But then someone spotted the male, a few meters removed from his pride and under the cover of some brambles. He stirred, seemed about to rise, then did so. Injured, he limped out from his lair and proceeded to defecate in plain view of us. The yawn which occurred during the proceedings was photo gold, though I like to think it was a roar of effort.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder after taking a picture.
When we arrived back at camp, Pili Pili had a braai nearly ready. Soon, the meat was crackling and spitting over red coals, and the smell of it was enough to set our bellies to rumbling.
Day Three: Departure
When we left Etosha National Park the next day, we squeezed in just one more game drive — a short affair that consisted of a small loop on our way back out of the confines of the park. It was sad to be leaving — we’d seen so much wildlife over the previous two days, it had been insane. But more adventures lay ahead, and Pili Pili assured us that the place we were headed is one of his favorite places in all of Africa… Spitzkoppe.
How about you? Have you ever done a game drive in Etosha National Park or elsewhere? What were some of the animals you encountered on the way? Did you get any awesome or hilarious photos? Share your stories in the comments below!