Into the Great White Place – In the heart of Namibia, Ron Swilling explores Etosha from its western gate…
“Watch out for lions,” my friend shouted to me as I threw the last of my camping gear into my car in Swakopmund, bound for Etosha National Park. “And don’t sleep next to any waterholes.”
It got me into a state of high alert, even if only for a few moments. It had been more than two decades since lions had preyed upon a tourist sleeping at the Okaukuejo Camp waterhole, and subsequent implementation of preventative measures had ensured it wouldn’t happen again.
By the time I reached the salt road, edged by desert and sea, which runs up the country’s western border to the famed Skeleton Coast, I no longer had lions on the brain. I had Adventure. With a capital.
Rider on the storm
Taking the gravel route in a north-easterly direction from Hentiesbaai, on the coast south of the Omaruru River, I soon left the coolth of the shoreline for the heat of the interior. I opened my window and felt the unavoidable frosting of dust begin to settle on my skin.
The plan was to pass Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, and to make a stop at the ancient hunter-gatherer engravings at Twyfelfontein – which I understood to be a cathedral of prayers to the gods – before making my way north to Etosha.
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It was only when I reached Kamanjab, where scantily-clad Himba women sauntered down the street in traditional dress, that I had a chance to look more closely at my map, and think about Etosha. The name ‘Etosha’ is said to originate from the Ndonga word for ‘Great White Place’, referring to the chalkiness of the salt pan that gives the national park its distinctive character. Incredibly, when it was established as a game reserve in 1907 in the aftermath of big-game hunters, there were no lions recorded in the park. Neither were there elephants. In 1881, the last herd had been driven into a marsh in Namutoni, on the edge of Etosha Pan, and shot. Etosha is now a thriving animal sanctuary.
Until a few years ago, its western section had been reserved for research, with only limited access allowed to Namibian tour guides. The upmarket Dolomite Camp and the Olifantsrus Campsite have now been built and Galton Gate is open to the public. Having visited Etosha many times through the alternate entrances, entering from the western gate would be a first for me.
‘Sssssssss’, my tyre swore at me as the air blew out and it quickly began to resemble a melting Dali image. It was my third puncture in a month and I wondered if the tyre demons had it in for me. Fortunately, a makeshift tyre-repair shop was conveniently situated on the roadside (with an obviously large clientele) and I waited my turn to have the tyre patched, keeping my spare for any further incidents. It isn’t wise to chance Etosha’s gravel roads without a spare. There are lions about, after all.
A timely arrival
The sun was already dipping when I arrived at the gate. I had time for a glance at the elegant Dolomite Camp perched on a hill as I passed, arriving at Olifantsrus Campsite at sunset. Leaving the chores of putting up my tent and making supper for later, I rushed along the raised walkway that leads from the fenced campsite to the hide above the waterhole to quietly plonk myself down next to an enraptured guest. As if on cue, a large ruby sun hovered over the vast landscape, and a lion’s powerful roar reverberated. My neighbour and I looked at each other wide-eyed.
It was impossible to wait for the sunrise next morning so I made my way very early, past campers starting to stir in their rooftop tents, to the waterhole. The stiff wind blew my smell to the smaller animals that waited on the edge of the water downwind, too wary to approach. But a huge elephant bull thundered forward, the dust exploding around his massive feet. Aware of our presence, yet unperturbed, he stomped forward claiming his right to drink from the land below us. His time-worn ears and sunken temples suggested his age and a long life of memories and wisdom.
It only struck home how brave the lone bull was when I walked around the campsite later on in the day in the merciless sun. I discovered that Olifantsrus had once been an elephant abattoir, a site where 525 elephant carcasses were processed from two elephant culls in the 80s, in an attempt to prevent habitat degradation resulting from the elephants’ heavy browsing.
A metal structure and large pulleys remained from what must have been a grisly scene. The small museum’s information boards tell tales of tinned elephant meat, of research undertaken and of newer approaches to wildlife management, including Namibia’s successful community-based conservation legislation that has evolved since the country’s independence in 1990.
It was with a heavy heart that I drove east, embarrassed that we had resorted to killing these intelligent mammals in the name of conservation, and encouraged by the fact that we had become more knowledgeable since then and that a place of slaughter has become a sanctuary.
Dust devils circled and then twirled off into the distance, and clouds began to gather as I made my way to Okaukuejo, Etosha’s central and largest camp. My overnight destination was just outside Andersson Gate and I planned to return to the popular Okaukuejo waterhole (yes, the one where the infamous lion encounter had taken place) later in the day after a long siesta.
Into the wild
By late afternoon, the air was thick with the promise of the season’s first rains, and distant lightning flickered. I changed my plan as the first turn-offs into the park called me to explore. A light shower brought the smell of wet earth, and I contemplated the sorrowful local legend of the origin of Etosha Pan.
According to Bushman lore, a lake was formed from the tears of a woman mourning the death of her family after her village was raided. When the lake dried up, the large white pan remained. No disrespect to Bushman fables, but I preferred to follow the more popular notion that it was an ancient inland lake fed by rivers that naturally dried up over the course of time. In years of plentiful rain, the pan fills, attracting waterbirds and flamingos that rear new generations on its white sand. I hoped for such abundance.
Several parked cars interrupted my reverie. A pride of lion was sleeping on the side of the road. I watched for a while, as a lioness got up, stretched and then moved to a more appealing spot, but then I drove off, leaving them to their laziness.
At the next waterhole, I unwittingly parked such a short distance from a lioness that I could smell her carnivorous odour and hear her panting. Her tawny colouring had made her almost invisible, camouflaged in the tall, dry grass. Slowly I raised my window and reversed. A few hundred metres later when I slowed to a crawl it seemed this Etosha sojourn was all about lions. A lion appeared from the bush, crossing the road in front of me. And then, another. I watched them move off and disappear seamlessly into the landscape, before making my way to the camp. ‘Watch out for lions’ indeed.
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And this was just the beginning. The eastern section of Etosha still beckoned, with its waterholes set along it like glistening jewels waiting to be discovered. And its abundant animal world reminding us of how the planet used to be, when it was still unfenced and wild.
- Etosha Safari Camp is just outside the park.
- Three main camps – Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni – are evenly spaced throughout the park. They all offer accommodation and camping, and have restaurants, shops and fuel stations.
- Okaukuejo is the central camp accessed through Andersson Gate on the C38 from Outjo.
- Namutoni, on the eastern side, is reached through Von Lindequist Gate on the B1 from Tsumeb.
- King Nehale Gate in the north-east provides a gateway to the northern reaches of the country.
- The more exclusive Onkoshi Lodge inside the park is near Stinkwater, north-west of Namutoni.
- The upmarket Dolomite Camp and Olifantsrus Campsite are in the western section of the park, reached via Kamanjab (C35) and Galton Gate.
- Namibia Wildlife Resorts
- Many lodges surround the park, close to the gates, giving visitors a wide variety of accommodation to choose from.
There are 114 species of mammals in Etosha. (Four of the ‘Big Five’ are represented in the Park, with the exception of buffalo, which are found in the Khaudum and Bwabwata national parks.) Keep a lookout for the Black-faced Impala, endemic to north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. The subspecies is distinguished by the obvious vertical band down its nose and is the only impala found in the park. The diminutive Damara Dik-Dik is a small antelope to look for in eastern Etosha.
Three-hundred-and-forty bird species have been recorded in the park. A third of these are migratory and are only visible at certain times of the year. Birds commonly seen are the large Kori Bustards, often seen searching for food in the savannah, and flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse at the waterholes.
When to Visit
Each season reveals its own beauty. Dry winter months mid-year are considered prime animal viewing time when wildlife concentrates at the waterholes, while the most promising birding months are at the beginning of the year during the rains. Expect the unexpected and be open to surprises any time of the year.
- When Game Reserve No 2 was proclaimed in 1907 by the far-sighted German Governor Dr Friedrich von Lindequist, it was a vast area of ±80 000km², which stretched inland from the Skeleton Coast. It became Etosha Game Park in 1958 and received national park status in 1967, shrinking considerably through the years to become the 22 912km² Etosha National Park we are familiar with today.
- It is also referred to as ‘Place of Mirages’ and ‘Place of Dry Water’ and is the traditional home of the Hai//om people.
- The 120-kilometre-long Etosha pan extends over 5 000 km².
- The gates open at sunrise and close at sunset, times which change according to the season.
- Look in the ‘Animal Sightings’ book to check for recent sightings.
- Although it appears to be a short distance, it can take the entire day (or more) to travel through the park. Do not exceed the speed limit; travelling slowly will lead to more sightings.
- Bathroom facilities are dotted through the park as are fenced-off picnic sites.
- Stay in your vehicle at all times and keep noise levels down when at the waterholes. Keep your distance and give right of way to animals.
Words and Photography Ron Swilling