The first time I went on a game drive I got chased by an angry elephant with one giant tusk. For some reason he was called One Tusk. Our game vehicle inadvertently surprised him as he was hanging out in some thick bush and what followed was very reminiscent of a scene from the original Jurassic Park movie where a huge dinosaur chases a jeep.
The ranger attempted to gain speed out of the dense vegetation and I could feel the vibration of the elephant’s feet pounding the ground as he ran after us complete with trumpeting and snorting, although it is possible my imagination conjured those last two things but in any case it was terrifying. Elephants can run surprisingly fast and are more than capable of killing people if they are angry enough and could easily tip over a vehicle if they wanted to, so you ideally don’t want to find yourself getting chased by one you’ve upset.
It was the first of many scary encounters I’ve had with elephants and whilst I love them I prefer to admire from afar. I spent a lot of time working at Ulusaba, Richard Branson’s amazing private game reserve in South Africa. It was here that this first encounter happened and I’m afraid to say that it was followed by similar incidents. The rangers love animals and they want everyone else to enjoy them too, so one by one they would try to get me over this fear and one by one they’d agree that the elephants got a little mad when I was around. The theory we finished with was that the first encounter had so filled me with fear that during each subsequent encounter I gave off bad vibes that insulted their delicate senses, thus inducing a few charges. I think their sensitivity definitely matches their size.
This never stopped me from participating in every game drive I could and over the years I had some amazing experiences in the African bush, perhaps some of the best of my life. Ulusaba is in Sabi Sand Reserve which borders Kruger National Park. Sabi Sand is known for incredible game viewing particularly with big cats. We had a resident female leopard who was such a good mother that she rarely lost a cub and that combined with an extremely handsome and virile male we called Wallies meant the area was brimming with leopards. That alone led to some incredible experiences. I could probably write non-stop for a week and still not be finished recounting stories about the animals of Sabi Sand so perhaps I’ll do another post about that later. For now let me talk about Etosha National Park in Namibia, my first safari experience outside Sabi Sand Reserve which meant it had a high bar to meet.
Etosha National Park began life as a game reserve in 1907 and by then much of the population of large animals such as elephants, rhino and buffalo had been decimated by hunting that the colonists practiced recreationally or to protect stock on nearby farms. Many of the animals began to repopulate the region apart from buffalo and wild dog who haven’t been seen there for decades. In 1967 it finally became a national park and over the years a major Namibian tourist attraction. The area is very flat and whilst there are some patches of relatively dense trees for the most part Etosha is characterised by huge dry vistas of grass or shrub land, dramatically interspersed here and there by lone Mopane and Tamboti trees giving it a classical African look and feel.
The geography is dominated by the Etosha pan, a massive dry lakebed with a seemingly endless horizon. At 4,800 square kilometres this huge area is largely devoid of vegetation and looks like an utterly unforgiving place to walk across, not that anyone would likely try. Humans did occupy the land that is now Etosha National Park but were forcibly removed in the 1950s. They were the Hai//om, another small Namibian ethic group that are part of the San people and lived a hunter gatherer lifestyle they had to abandon when they lost their homeland.
Perhaps the government at the time thought it might be slightly awkward for a tourist to be enjoying watching animals at a watering hole only to have it interrupted by a group of Bushman killing their dinner. The conflict between traditional ethnic groups and the preservation of wildlife is a thorny issue that I’ll leave aside on this post, but if you are concerned about things like wildlife poaching, conservation and human rights then it is probably worth doing a bit of reading on the subject because those things tend to be closely intertwined when it comes to Africa’s national parks and reserves. Today the Namibian government is making inroads to repair the damage done when the Hai//om lost their home, and whilst they have virtually no chance of being allowed to live back within the borders of the National Park there is talk of resettling them in the area and the Etosha region has now been officially recognised as their homeland.
We had travelled from Brandberg in Damaraland to reach Etosha where we would spend three nights. The first two were at a marvellous campsite just outside the park and we pitched our tents close to the fence line. I woke frequently on the first night to the sound of a lion roaring nearby. Whilst they do produce the sound made famous by the MGM Lion I’ve only ever heard that when they are interacting at close quarters with other lions. The lion roar you are most likely to hear in the bush is a low-pitched yet powerful sound that travels for miles and is used for things like establishing territory or seeking other lions from the pride. Think of it as the lion version of a long-distance phone call and I don’t have anything to compare it to in order to give a good description so you can click here for a You Tube clip.
This is a truly magical sound to hear in Africa and even more so when you are camping. Our early ancestors would have heard this same roar thousands of years ago on the same continent and I believe that it ignites something in the human psyche, a kind of deep connection to nature and the land that most of us don’t realise we are capable of experiencing until it happens. Once you know that lions don’t roar when hunting it isn’t even a scary thing to hear but it may still make you break out in goosebumps just because it is so special. Only male lions call like this and the next morning I discussed it with our driver who was as excited as I was to see if we could find this guy and hopefully some of his pride too. You can self-drive around Etosha so we stuck with our truck and entered the park just as it was getting light. The best time for viewing animals is dusk and dawn because at night you’ll obviously find them harder to spot and in the middle of the day they are generally resting from a long night of either hunting or avoiding being hunted.
The driver had done this trip through Etosha several times so knew how to find the area where we heard the calling and sure enough we did find lion tracks but no lions. Like most of Africa’s national parks you have to stick to the roads when game viewing so that no matter how tempting a sighting might be you simply can’t go cross-country to get to it. Whilst people do get to see lion and occasionally leopard here you need some very good luck to spot them close to the road and therefore in a place you can easily view them from. We saw one pride of lions resting in the sun with cubs but they were so far away that they looked like small golden splodges in the grass.
The real stars here are the herbivores with an abundance of giraffe, ostrich, zebra, wildebeest, springbok and oryx. We spent a lot of time near watering holes watching these beautiful animals carefully approach the water, constantly on the look out for predators who know places like this are the bush equivalent of all-you-can-eat buffets. Once they are sure they are safe they start drinking and often they’ll eventually relax enough to get a little playful or to spend time establishing order within their herds. You’ll see male springbok sparring with their beautiful horns and zebra getting affectionate with each other. On our second morning we found ourselves amongst a virtual ocean of zebra congregating around the water which led to some great sights as the safety they felt in such a large group left them chilled out and playful.
African animals come in an incredible array of shapes and sizes but I think the varying heights of the herbivores is one of mother nature’s more clever achievements. If you were to line up all of the browsers in Africa from shortest to tallest you’d find that they have been perfectly designed so that each has access to a particular level of tree and plant growth, with the shortest only ever managing to munch on grass right up to giraffe who can reach the uppermost branches of trees.
When the universe designed giraffe it did a good job of ensuring they have plenty of food but it kind of forgot that they also need water which is generally only found on the ground that they can’t quite reach when bending their long necks. Whilst they can sit down and do so to sleep, that is not generally practical at a watering hole so instead they awkwardly assume a position that involves gingerly splaying their legs so that their entire body lowers to the water where they nervously take a drink, nervous because in this position they are pretty vulnerable. There is nothing quite like watching this happen as we got to in Etosha. The long involved process of getting their feet in the right place and the nervous glances as they quickly chug back water make it fairly comical to watch.
On our third and final night we stayed at a campsite inside the park. One of the best features of the big camps in Etosha is that each one has a large watering hole where seating and shade are provided for humans at a safe distance. At night these are floodlit and many signs tell visitors that absolutely no talking is allowed. It was at one of these that I had the most incredible rhino sighting of my life and one so rare I doubt I’ll see anything like it again. Most people know that black rhino are close to extinction due to poaching but with a good ranger and plenty of patience these special animals can definitely be found in many of the national parks and reserves of Southern Africa. I had seen them many times in the early 2000s but had been warned they were even rarer now just over a decade later and I’d be lucky to see them again. On my first visit to the water we enjoyed watching a pair of very chilled out elephants cool off in the hot afternoon sun.
When I returned later in the day I saw a female rhino with a youngster that was clearly hers. This alone was amazing and I watched them drinking for a long time. Suddenly we noticed a large male rhino appear from the bush and slowly make his way to the other two. What followed was a beautiful sight. The three of them greeted each other by gently touching their horns together, the male and female spent quite a bit of time like this with the child looking on but at one point all three of them were touching horns and just quietly stood there like that. It was a bittersweet sight because whilst beautiful it was just so rare and in real danger of being the last time people got to see rhino doing this in the wild. When I visited again hours later after dinner the mother and child were still there but the male had gone. After watching for a while I went to bed glad of the experience but with a heavy heart because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to see rhino again. Thanks to dust in the air, the distance and the position of the sun my pictures are pretty awful but I wanted to share them anyway so you too can see some of the last wild rhino on Earth.
Back in 2001 I was on game drive at Ulusaba in a small clearing where we watched a large lone bull elephant peacefully munching away on some tree branches. I was managing to stay calm even though he’d eyeball us every now and then as he chewed his dinner. Eventually he came ambling over to us and gave our vehicle a gentle nudge. He was just being curious, perhaps a little playful but due to my history with elephant sightings I was silently freaking out. Trackers sit unprotected on the front of game vehicles and are there to do just what their job title implies; they watch for tracks and other signs of animals to help the ranger who is driving find a good sighting.
The Shangaan tracker on our vehicle was an older man who had probably been doing this job since he was a teenager. I guess he didn’t take shit from anybody including elephants because he gave this one a good slap in the face. Yes that really happened. He slapped a giant bull elephant in the face. As us passengers collectively clenched our butts and took a sharp intake of breath, the elephant got a kind of sad look on his face and turned around to amble off to his tree like a naughty dog who just got caught stealing meat off the counter complete with the proverbial tail in between the legs.
Whilst that was an especially close encounter it was the type of proximity I was used to on safari. As I said earlier, I now prefer to see elephants from afar but I definitely appreciated the irony when we pulled up at our first elephant sighting in Etosha. This one was so far away that at first I thought it was a juvenile yet it turned out to be large bull that just looked small from my vantage point. It reminded me of that episode of Father Ted when Ted has to explain to Dougal the difference between small toy cows and real cows that are far away.
In Etosha I realised that Ulusaba had spoiled me and to be honest, apart from a few notable exceptions such as the rhino, the ‘zebra ocean’ and the drinking giraffe, it wasn’t the most exciting game viewing I’ve had yet I was still very glad that I went. If you want to see all of the ‘Big Five’ which means elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo then this park isn’t for you. But there is more to going on safari than just checking those animals off your list and Etosha National Park gives a good view into how life is for wildlife in the harsh desert environment along with some incredible views so it is definitely worth adding to any Namibia itinerary.
Etosha National Park Travel Tips
Whilst you can self-drive around Etosha you might want to give either the hire of a private guide or joining a group safari serious consideration. Not only will guides have extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna, but they will know the best places to go to spot the animals you want to see. Guides or rangers generally communicate with each other throughout the day to report sightings, making it easier to find the most exciting things. You just won’t get the same experience on your own.
If you self-drive try to be driving through the gates as soon as they open and one of the last to leave before they close at night. Unless you are looking for specific landscapes, flora or birds there is not much point being out between about 10am and 4pm as there is very little activity. You may as well head to camp for lunch and a snooze.
Do your homework if you are self-driving and make sure you learn key safety tips about things like dealing with elephants on the road, what to do if you get a flat tire (you aren’t allowed to get out of your vehicle) and so forth. Make yourself familiar with the park rules that are there not just for your safety but to protect the wildlife too.
If you only have a day you could experience something of the park and visit the incredible Etosha Pan but the golden rule of safari applies here as much as anywhere else; the longer you stay and the more game drives you do the more likely it is that you’ll see a variety of animals and perhaps something exciting like a kill.
I found photography challenging due to the fairly dusty desert atmosphere, the uniform colours that wildlife mostly blend into and the fact that animals were often at a distance so I could rarely photograph without a zoom. Amateurs with good equipment should be able to deal with this but the rest of us might have issues. The best times for photography are within an hour or so of sunrise and shortly before sunset, basically whenever the sun is low so that shadows give contrast, the colours are highlighted and at dawn the atmosphere is a little clearer so that the dust issue is somewhat alleviated.
Accommodation includes several great campsites in and around the park that also have rooms and chalets to fit various budgets. You will generally find a bar and restaurant, perhaps evening a swimming pool There are high-end options too and you can click here to get a list of Etosha accommodation.
The official website is www.etoshanationalpark.org where you can find a wealth of information to help with trip planning.
Our wildlife sightings included Black Rhino | Duiker | Elephant Giraffe | Hartebeest | Honey Badger (don’t care) | Impala | Jackal | Kudu | Lion | Meerkat | Oryx | Ostrich | Secretary Bird | Springbok | Wildebeest | Zebra