A few months ago, I wrote about National Geographic and how it has influenced me over the years. I vividly remember seeing the NG special Etosha: Place of dry water back in 1980 and being enthralled by the scenes of wildlife congregating around the waterholes.
When we planned our second trip to Africa in 2012, I was drawn to the idea of spending time exploring Etosha National Park. My research indicated Namibia was a relatively safe and accessible country where we could drive around on our own—as long as we carried two spare tires and glass insurance. The Namibian roads are notorious for destroying tires and windshields. We flew into the capital of Windhoek, picked up a rental car, and motored north to the park’s eastern gate, Von Lindequist.
So the deal in Etosha, as in many African parks, is that you can self-drive the roads without a guide between daybreak and sunset. You cannot go off the roads, but you can stop anywhere it’s safe to do so in order to watch wildlife or take photos. Outside of the secure fenced camps and very occasional rest areas, you CANNOT—and this is the cardinal rule of independent safaris—you cannot get out of your car under any circumstances. You want to stretch your legs? Tough. You need to, um, relieve yourself? Better practice holding it in. Because if you’re caught outside your car, it’s immediate expulsion from the park and a hefty fine. Or you could be et by a lion. Your choice. Oh, and make sure you’re back at camp by sunset or it’s also a fine.
Rules notwithstanding, self-driving is an exciting and rewarding way to tour Etosha. It’s such a vast area (over 22,000 km2) that even with 200,000 annual visitors, you’re still going to have lots of space to yourself on any given day. Compare that with Yellowstone’s 9,000 km2 and 4 million visitors per year.
We spent six nights in the park, three of them in the wonderful Okaukuejo Camp. Often rated as the best waterhole viewing in all of Africa, Okaukuejo looks like nothing much if you arrive when the animals aren’t there. It’s just a big puddle with rocky banks, surrounded by a lot of dry, barren land. You wonder why you paid upwards of $300 per night to stay in a chalet overlooking the waterhole.
But that’s before the parade begins.
First, it might be a bevy of dainty springbok, nervously stepping between the stones before surrounding the water and drinking. Then, a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest, larger and heavier in body, wade straight into the pool and plunge their faces in. From a distance, you can see an organized line of oryx with their sweeping sabre-like horns approaching single file. A rhino or two might join the crowd. Majestic giraffes spread improbably long legs wide apart so their heads will reach the water. An eagle swoops down to a landing and dips and lifts her beak until she has her fill. It’s busy but calm—until the elephants barge in. Nobody argues with the ellies; most accept that their time at the waterhole is done and move off along the commuter routes, faint game tracks sketched in the hard ground. The great grey beasts own the place as long as they choose to drink, blow, play, roll, and muck up the water.
When they finally wander away, it’s the dark of night. You’ve been watching all this from the balcony of your chalet and now realize that $300 was well spent. Then a lion roars somewhere nearby and you think what it would feel like to hear that sound if you were not safe in a chalet, but camping somewhere out in the open. The whole pride—several lionesses and a number of sub-adult cubs—emerge from their hiding place and pad to the bank, standing side by side to lap in synchronicity. A hyena skulks on the fringes, wary of the big cats. Finally, a large owl glides in without a sound.
This is Okaukuejo. But Okaukuejo is only the first among many waterholes in Etosha. Your days run something like this: wake early, grab some food for the road, be in your car and ready at the camp gate when it opens at dawn. Putter down the gravel and dirt roads at a walking speed, searching, scanning the bushes, grasses, trees, skies as you go. Rainbow-coloured birds like the lilac-breasted roller and the European bee-eater could be perched on any twig and wildlife roams freely through the open country, but in the dry season, you can simply park beside any waterhole and wait for the animals to come to you.
When the heat of the day makes sitting in a car unbearable, you head back to camp for some lunch and a siesta, or, at least some shade time.
Later in the afternoon, you hit the roads again for the last couple of hours before sunset (circa 6:00 or 6:30 pm). As the sun nears the horizon and you turn the car back towards camp, intending to make the evening curfew with time to spare, you will inevitably come across some amazing sight—like giraffes in a courtship dance, or a huge martial eagle perched on a fresh kill—that you simply must stop for, such that you end up squeaking through the closing gate a few minutes after the deadline.
Apres dinner, you can stroll down to the floodlit waterhole to watch the nightly show begin one more time—from behind the safety of a large fence.
To most North Americans, Etosha seems like a remote and difficult place. “Namibia? Where is that? And why are you going there? Oh, to visit a dry salt pan. Of course….” For me, however, it was even more wondrous than the pictures I’d carried in my mind for over thirty years.
Watch my short video of Okaukuejo waterhole here.
Have you finally visited a place you dreamed about for years? Did it live up to your imagination or disappoint? Let me know in a comment.