“How exactly does this whole self-drive game viewing in Etosha work?” I felt unbelievably dumb asking this question. My traveling companion kept saying things like, “we’ll have heaps of time during the middle of the day to read, swim, nap, write, play cards.” Yet somehow we were also supposed to see hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals. To me, this made no sense. Before Etosha, my game viewing experience consisted of Mlilwane and Mkhaya in Swaziland and one day in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park. At Mlilwane, zebras, warthogs, and various antelope crossed my path as I walked and hiked. At Mkhaya, I sat in an open Land Rover driven by a guide who pointed out hippos, giraffes, tortoises, rhinos, kudu, impalas, buffaloes, nguni cattle, and more species of antelope than I can recall. At Addo Elephant, I paid for a day’s tour with the guide from my hostel. She knew which waterholes the elephants would congregate around, could identify an eland from what felt like a kilometer away, spotted a lion doing her best to blend into the ground, buffaloes hiding deep in the shade of trees, a hyena sitting in a waterhole, ostriches walking across fields, tortoises, dung beetles, zebras, warthogs, and more. Had I spent the middle of the day reading or napping, I wouldn’t have seen more than a third of what I did. So this idea that in Etosha we’d have hours of free time confused me.
The schedule, I was told, would be something like this: get up for a morning game drive, taking tea and coffee with us; return to camp and eat; while away the hottest hours of the day at the campsite’s pool, reading, writing, napping, generally doing nothing; load the car with supplies for gin and tonics and go for another drive late in the afternoon; return to camp before sunset, ideally to be viewed at the campsite’s waterhole; make dinner and then call it a day. For those who aren’t made of money, there are three campsites in Etosha: Namutoni, Halali, and Okaukuejo. We anticipated spending two nights at each so we could really explore the areas around all three. We did spend two nights in each site and although our daily schedule was somewhat as described, I never had more than 45 minutes for a swim or chance to read before I had to get cleaned up and ready for the afternoon drive. I’m not complaining as the purpose for spending so much time in Etosha was to see animals. And that we did.
March is rainy season in northern Namibia (theoretically in all of Namibia) and this year was no exception. This makes it easier to spot birds but harder to spot big game. The animals head off into the bush where there’s enough to eat and drink without seeking out the water holes that people can park beside. For obvious safety reasons, humans are required to stay in their vehicles at all times except within designated camping and picnic areas. Only twice did I see people violate that rule and in one instance, I was baffled at the man’s decision to get out of his car to photograph a bird. A black rhinoceros was only a few car lengths behind him. This particular black rhino was missing an ear and one of his horns: the result of a fight with another male rhino. I should also add that about a week before we arrived in Etosha, a black rhino ran into the road and attacked a car of tourists. Black rhinos are no joke. They are big and they are mean. But that guy got lucky, at least as far as the rhino is concerned. I have no idea if he got the photo he wanted.
Over the course of our days in the park, we saw cheetahs; elephants; giraffes; zebras; blue wildebeest; white and black rhinos; red hartebeests; kudu; oryx; blackfaced impalas; springbok; steenbok; warthogs; mongooses; one lion; black backed jackals; bat-eared foxes; scrub hares; chameleons; an anaconda; ostriches; secretary birds; korhaans (red-crested and northern black); lilac-breasted rollers; African hoopoes; martial eagles; European bee-eaters; blue cranes; Marabou storks; Egyptian geese; blacksmith lapwings; tawny eagles; grey herons; and countless other birds I failed to tick off in our handy illustrated animal and bird guide. Oh yes, and honey badgers. But those we only saw in the campsites, gnawing away at the trash. I don’t have photos of all those animals and I don’t know that any of my stories will shed light on the joy that is game viewing in Etosha. But on the off chance that someone wants to read more of this post and not just look at photos, I offer the text below. For those uncomfortable with references to animal genitalia or the bodily functions of wild animals, you may wish to stop reading and enjoy the photos instead.
Waking up for our first morning drive I kept my expectations low. It was the wrong time of year to spot much, I told myself. Yet the day before I’d seen birds so colorful they seemed like something a 6-year-old girl would dream up. I’d watched a herd of impalas line up single file, each one stepping to the same spot to urinate or defecate. I’d seen the young bucks in that same herd play fight, run around, and generally enjoy the relatively pleasant weather. I’d seen blue wildebeest walking across Fischer’s Pan. By the way, Etosha is full of these pans that rarely have water in them. The biggest one, Etosha Pan, is 4731 square km (1827 square miles).
I’d watched zebras, giraffes, oryx, ostriches, kudu, warthogs, herds of springbok, a tortoise, and countless birds I’d never heard of. Including Africa’s largest flying bird, the kori bustard. So I was hopeful that first morning as we lined up to leave the campsite minutes before the gates would open but I didn’t expect much. To explain, the campsite gates open at sunrise and close at sunset. Nighttime game drives can be arranged with the Namibia Wildlife Resorts. When I inquired about doing one, staff told me that no one had seen anything on a night drive in over a month. It was rainy season, after all.
Back to that first morning… Less than a kilometer from the gate we both noticed a few impalas at the side of the road acting a bit skittish. They were looking around and sniffing the air, clearly agitated. Suddenly they took off running. We stopped the car and looked into the bush. Sauntering through the grass was a cheetah. It stopped, yawned, stretched itself like the big cat that it is, then continued sauntering, right back into the bush. The sun had barely risen and we’d already seen a cheetah! Less than 20 minutes later we were parked at a waterhole watching zebras walk to the water individually to drink when movement to our right caught our eyes. Two jackals were closing in on a hare. Through our binoculars, we watched as the two tore the animal apart and made a quick breakfast of it. When we continued our drive, we stopped for giraffes bending down to drink from roadside puddles; a colony of banded mongooses playing in some dirt; red hartebeests gracefully blocking traffic; herds of impalas, springbok, oryx, wildebeest, and zebras; plus a flock of ostriches with more babies than adults. Some drives were less eventful but never did a day pass without us seeing something of interest.
My notes are full of references to baby elephants, baby wildebeests, baby giraffes. And to birds puffed up or engaged in a mating display like the red-crested korhaan that does this amazing landing from a steep dive. It shoots up, dives down, then appears to float back to the ground. It’s incredible. The word ‘magic’ also appears on multiple pages of my journal. Like the evening I sat at the waterhole at Halali camp, watching the sun set, enjoying the twilight. A black rhino lumbered into view, drank his fill, then stretched. He found a log and scratched himself, peed (noteworthy because the stream shoots straight back, parallel to the ground), waddled around, found a spot he deemed comfortable, and laid down for a rest. Eventually he stood, drank a bit more, and returned to the bush. Hours later, dinner eaten and cleaned up, we returned to the empty waterhole. There was no one else there, it was just the two of us. We sat for a few minutes and before we knew it, there was the rhino again. He didn’t stay long this time, just passed through. To see this huge beast move through the grass in perfect silence, to have been there at just the right moment to see him again, was magical. Beautiful and incredible and wonderful.
Less magical but thoroughly entertaining was watching an elephant during the day at that same waterhole. Between drinks, he splashed himself with water. While doing so, it was impossible to not notice that he became, for lack of a more polite term, erect. And then used his appropriately sized penis to scratch his belly. Sorry folks, I don’t have a photo of that particular moment so this one taken a few minutes before his display will have to do.
I could go on for ages sharing moments like these. There were the two cheetah cubs wrestling in the grass one afternoon. The skulk of bat-eared foxes that crossed the road and found a shady bush for a nap that just happened to have leaves parted so I could watch them settle in. The night when black backed jackals tormented the campsite and stole meat from someone’s fire and a tub of butter from our table; then chewed through assorted tent ropes, knocked over trash cans, and generally left everyone on edge or pissed off. The bull elephant that walked straight toward a car of two terrified tourists who didn’t know they were supposed to reverse slowly away. We kept our distance during that one, ready to reverse away should the elephant turn its attention toward us. Fortunately for everyone, he turned into the bush after staring down the driver of that car. We later learned that the elephant bulls were trying to mate with the young cows and most of them weren’t having much luck. Their aggression was at its peak.
Realistically, I may never return to Namibia. There are so many other parts of the world I want to see. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to return to Etosha during dry season. Having seen what I did during the rains, I can only imagine how incredible it is in the dusty hot winter.