We can honestly say Etosha is one of our most favourite places on the planet. The jewel of Namibia and a place of endless wildlife spectacles. It never disappoints and we were happy to be returning for the third time. I am fairly sure this will stay true when it is the 10th or 20th time as well. Do yourselves a favour and go.
Pictures taken in Etosha are often easy to recognise because of the numbers and variety of wildlife in a single photo and the brilliant white dust in the background. Many of the animals, especially the elephants, are coated with it. These are the white elephants of Etosha. The BBC Wildlife photographer of the year always has at least two or three Etosha pictures featured. Opportunities for these pictures occur frequently and indiscriminately but you need to be sharp and quick and ready to actually capture them at the time. There are no reruns! We certainly keep trying but there remains room for improvement, an important motivation to return time and again!
There have traditionally been 3 camps in the park to base yourself but within the last few years the west side of the park, previously kept as a wilderness area, has been opened with the establishment of a camp and a luxury lodge. This was our opportunity to explore a whole new area.
One of the biggest challenges in Etosha is the time constraints set by the park. Entry and exit from the camps is on a strict time table and the gates are locked on the dot, which does not leave much scope for latecomers. Unfortunately the gate times are calculated rather arbitrarily and not in line with consideration of the light for photography, so most of the beautiful evening light is spent speeding back to camp. On this particular evening we were turning for home with about 10 minutes to spare ie on a tight schedule.
As we left the waterhole we saw the trees on the other side start to move and emerging onto the pan were a huge herd of elephants, perhaps 40 or 50, all ages, marching towards the water in a solid wall, the sun gilding them with warmth.
It was magnificent , they were perfectly coordinated in an unbroken line, the babies sheltered between the legs of the older elephants, trunks raised, thundering down on the water. You could almost see the smiles on their faces after a baking hot dry day.
All thought of the return to camp fled. We turned around to greet this amazing spectacle Tonight, at the gate, we would have some explaining to do! Mind you we had two tiny Japanese girls next to us in camp, without a word of English, who managed to come home 30 minutes later than every one else consistently so that took some of the spotlight off us!
One afternoon our attention was caught by the trucks gathered at a waterhole. We turned into the parking and saw a magnificent male lion standing next to the pan. He showed a regal disregard for the vehicles which started building up next to him. We swung around away from the other vehicles to give us a good view face on and parked on the far edge of the parking. With the long lenses it is not necessary to always be the closest. As more cars and over landers appeared the lion looked increasingly irritated by all the attention and started stalking towards us. He came right up to the beast. I was leaning on the window bean bag to shoot and he suddenly turned and roared in my face. I jumped across that car like a kangaroo. Needless to say I also dropped the camera and missed the shot!
The lion settled down in the shade of our car as if we were there to serve him, looking down his nose at all of us and using the car to shield him from the other tourists. Clearly he thought he had all day.
This was our day for lion. After we reluctantly left the King of the Car Park we moved onto the next waterhole to find 2 lionesses and 2 cubs playing by the water. The cubs played tag and would hang on to their mums tail as she swung around. They posed beautifully as the golden hour light settled around us. Another good day in Etosha. But then any day in Etosha is a good day!
One of the things we always love about Etosha is the number of owls that may be seen. In the past we have seen many different owls and we were excited this trip to see if this could be repeated.
In Halali camp there are many owls which come to roost in the morning in the trees. Previously, for a small tip, the night guards would take you in the morning and show you the places they roost. Just by the swimming pool is a tree with a knot hole where we saw an African Scops owl in 2008. We chatted to the people camping underneath the tree and told them to be on the look out. 2 days later as we drove out the owl was there in exactly the same place 8 years later! It seems they are creatures of habit like us! There were also tiny tree squirrels in the same tree and they ran around the owl without any apparent fear. No one told them they could be on the menu later!
One morning we were driving out of a waterhole when we spotted a Verreauxs giant eagle owl on the ground by a bush. His distinctive pink eyelids identified him. He was behaving oddly walking up and down next to the bush, strutting and peering into the branches.
Later we read that they will often hunt from the ground when their prey gets away from the initial pounce. ( which apparently is often!) Then they walk around the bush or shrub and shake the branches to flush out the hiding victim to complete the hunt. On this occasion, despite persistent stalking, he went hungry. He provided lots of entertainment though. I think he blamed us for his poor performance. He certainly kept darting dirty looks our way.
When we entered the west side of the park we knew it was a long drive to the camp, twice the distance between any of the other camps, so we left early planning to drop in on as many waterholes as we could on the way. Because this was a previously closed end of the park we had visited few of these waterholes before and were excited at what we would see. Many of the people we chatted to were enthusiastic about the remoteness of the west and the smaller number of cars and visitors.
The morning was dry and windy with dust and twirlies blowing sporadically and even some cloud cover extending the shooting light. Mid morning we pulled into a pan called Ozonjuitji m'Bari, surrounded by little vegetation and flat sand plains.
There were hundreds of animals gathered there, ostrich , zebra, oryx, hartebeest, springbok and a small herd of elephants. Jackals weaved in and out and the sandgrouse swooped. It was surreal. ( A real Etosha moment and one of the reasons you just keep coming back) Just as it couldn't get any better the wind picked up bringing huge banks of dust across the pan engulfing the animals in waves of dust. We looked at each other for a second knowing that to open the window to shoot would bring in the worst enemy to camera and lens gear, thick dust and aerated sand. Should we, shouldn't we? Well of course it was no contest. What's the use of good camera equipment if you are not going to use it. We opened all the windows and shot up a storm. Enough said. Some of the best pictures ever!
At each camp in Etosha there is a waterhole which is floodlit at night to allow for a very special opportunity to see the night animals. In addition they have made an effort to make sure there is a reasonable distance from the next nearest water so that the waterholes remain busy. It is one of the reasons that a visit to Etosha is so exhausting. You are primed to continue the experience from dawn to late at night and spoiled for choice.
We often take a light supper, or drinks up to the water hole and then spend hours just watching. The ultimate reality TV program. I once dropped my soup spoon and watched some invisible paw pull it into the brickwork. You are truly surrounded by nature.
All the waterholes are different. Black rhino and elephant visit every night as well as jackals, hyena, giraffe and all the buck. Sometimes,the lions come and very occasionally, if you stay awake all night, leopard.
At Olifantsrus, the camp in the west, they have built a 2 tier hide with a one way glass viewing room at ground level right on the water and an open viewing area up top. The elephants love to bathe here, especially in the afternoons. Shooting through the glass is not an option however and the upper viewing platform puts you at a very acute angle. Good for close up detail! Still it's a move in the right direction for alternate photo opportunities.
Also in the west of the park, about 30 km from the campsite, is a very fancy lodge built into the dolomite hill. Suitably called Dolomite lodge. This is where you pay top dollar for a very exclusive experience. Because we were booked in the adjacent camp they allowed us access to the lodge and pool free. We arrived after a morning drive and spent the day by the pool over looking the plains. Watching the elephants like little dots walk across the plain to the water hole from the luxury of a sun lounger. Priceless. The overflow pool attracted all sorts of little birds to wash and drink and we captured their images while reclining in comfort.
This is life on the other side. They also serve a Malawi shandy which was so fantastic I have to include the recipe here.
1 part dry lemon
1 part dry ginger ale
Lots of ice
Try it at home :)
Meanwhile it seemed the paying guests were all toiling in the midday sun game viewing while we cuckoos reaped the value. Clearly they should get up earlier from their very comfy beds!
With the beginning of the wet season there was a change in the bird life. More raptors and large numbers of European bee eaters.
After the first rain there were puddles of water all down the roads and we saw the bee eaters swooping and perching and stopped to watch. To our amazement they were diving into the water like kingfishers, immersing themselves and then popping out to flutter and dry on the branches above. At first we thought they were catching something in the water but there was never anything in their beaks. I later talked to Hugh Chittenden, bird guru, and he says they are well known to swim, especially when it has been dry and hot. Maybe they are getting rid of parasites or fleas or something. Perhaps just drunk with the joy of water after such a long long dry spell They were certainly having a ball
Capturing them on camera was a real challenge.
On the second visit we headed west where there had been no rain. We wanted to return to N'Bari where we witnessed the dust storm 2 months before. The clouds were still threatening which made the shooting light longer for the day.
On the way we stopped at Okondeka at the edge of the pan. There were cape foxes on the plains, a first time spot for us. Mind you they do look like jackals from a distance so maybe we were just lucky to recognize them. Just as we left Okondeka we came across a lioness in the road and behind her were 3 of the smallest cubs I have ever seen. They could not have been more than 2 days old. She was marching down the road with cubs in tow on the way to water at Okondeka. The smallest cub was clearly the runt of the litter. He cried and complained constantly as he stumbled along at the back. You could almost hear the mantra "are we there yet?" being repeated endlessly.
He sat down, fell down or lay down every 10 meters in contrast to his brothers who skipped along much more confidently . She encouraged and bullied them in turns, occasionally taking one in her mouth for a few meters as they jumped and skipped and stumbled over the terrain.
We followed her for about 4 km until Okondeka . She was clearly desperate for water. Her belly distended and her teats hanging down. At the water hole she looked at us, left the cubs in the shade of the truck, and went down to drink for a very long time but returned to pick them up and take them to shade and safety a little while later. I am sure she entrusted them to us for those few minutes. The smallest one looked really vulnerable. I wonder if he will survive this tough home. I hope so.
We really wanted to see the pan fill up but we were not there long enough for this to happen. It was amazing how much surface water did collect in such a short period, and some shallow collections occurred on the edge of the pan but the water birds had not yet arrived and it seemed we were not destined to see this particular spectacle.
On the last morning we set off for Fischers pan, a flamingo spotting spot in rainy season, but in our experience with little game the rest of the time. We were not hopeful but Etosha showed its generosity and found for us 7 young lions for a final photo extravaganza.
Will we be back? You bet!