Into the great Etosha National Park

We had heard so much about Etosha that by the time we arrived there we no longer knew what to expect:

“You have to just camp by a waterhole the whole day – it’s the only way to see things in Etosha.”

“All the game is hidden, nobody is seeing anything there any more.”

“Etosha has the best game in Southern Africa.”

“The campsites are awful and there are too many people.”

There’s only one thing to do when you hear such diverging opinions about a place: go there and see for yourself. So that’s what we did.

We took the road north-west from Maun, Botswana and crossed into Namibia at the base of the Zambezi Strip (previously the Caprivi strip but they changed the name a couple of years ago just to keep tourists on their toes.) The road out of Botswana was deceptive. At first we were cruising along at 120kph when out of nowhere the road disappeared into a bottomless pothole. Cheryl didn’t see it in time. Or the next one. Then I didn’t see a couple after that. We needed an alignment. It was described by the technician when we took it in as “Bad, real baaaaad.” Glad we got it fixed.

We spent a night in Rundu, Namibia where we stayed at the Kaisosi river lodge. We only pulled in pretty late so we didn’t see much of the river but we did enjoy our own shower and toilet for a change. Good place for a quick stop.

After getting the alignment in Rundu and doing a few errands we drove on to Tsumeb and stayed at a great campsite that was more of a resort called Kupferquelle. We did all of our shopping except when I needed to get propane to fill up our cylinder the next day the two shops in town were closed. It was explained to me that, even though it was indeed mid-week it was “like a Sunday” because it was a public holiday so the shops were closed. Classic. This is why we got two gas cylinders in the first place even when people said we only needed one. Stick to your guns. Cheryl did get some work done that she needed to do that day though and we were soon dashing off at full speed towards Etosha National Park.

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There was a line (read: one car in front of us) at the entrance gate so we got out and had a quick selfie with the sign.

We arrived in Etosha three things immediately stood out to us:

1. There were paved roads.

  • It turned out that just the entrance roads from the main gate were paved. Most of the roads in Etosha are dirt roads but they are extremely well maintained. The speed limit in the park is the fastest I’ve seen anywhere at 60kms an hour and there were multiple times that we found ourselves pushing this limit in order to get to a waterhole in the morning. What a difference to the flooded, overgrown, pothole-ridden, mud-filled roads we’d been driving on in other parks.

2. The staff was rather rude.

  • The staff here have to deal with a lot more people then the other parks we went to. These tourists are probably also more demanding. I guess I’m not surprised they have bad days every now and then. It was just a shock after everyone else we’ve encountered so far on our trip has been overly friendly.

3. There were a lot of people.

  • Coming from a bunch of parks where we saw barely anyone, especially when camping in the remote campsites in Zimbabwe and the Central Kalahari, it was a disturbing to see so many cars on the road. That said, it wasn’t as crowded as, say, Kruger and definitely nowhere near the Pilanesberg but there were a lot of cars. All in all though we found there was space on the roads so we didn’t have a lot of “traffic jams” except for a couple of times when we were at sightings of exceptional animals that were rather stationary (e.g. some cheetah by the side of the road.) We were often lucky enough to be at these early to get a good spot though and the roads were often big enough for everyone to see.

Overall, the positives of Etosha definitely far outweighed the negatives for us. The campsites, though quite cramped and rather uninspiring, were well kept and all had lovely waterholes with interesting game coming around. Speaking of game, we had some great sightings! Lots of lion, rhino, cheetah and a leopard. On top of all of the other great game like black-faced impala, ostrich, elephants, massive herds of zebra, a honey badger; we saw a ton. (For a list of all noteworthy sightings see below.)

Every day we got up and out the gate of the camp as soon as they were open and drove straight to a waterhole which we would choose the night before. Once there we would just wait. Two mornings we were greeted by a pride of lions when we arrived. Even on our way to the waterholes we would see lion (the big male crossing the road below is one such example), hyena and lots of other great game. The trick was to enjoy them but not for too long so you still get to the waterhole before the crowds of tourists in rental vehicles and safari buses get there. This way you stake your claim to a great spot and just sit and enjoy without having to jostle for space later on.

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Cheryl spotted this guy 100 m off the road and he proceeded to walk right in front of us. 

Our best sighting at a morning waterhole was a pride of lions clearly playing with each other. After an hour or so we even saw a live kill! Mind you it wasn’t what either of us expected a live kill to be. The adult male was going off to have a look at a crane or some other big bird but gave up and sauntered back to the pride. Out of the blue he pounced and as he came up he had a small korhan (bird that lives in the grass and makes lots of noise as you drive past) in his jaws. It was really fun to see. He definitely did not want to share the bird with the others but he kept getting a bunch of feathers stuck in his mouth. Then he played keep-away from the younger male and a female until he eventually he gave up on eating it entirely. How cool!

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Playing early in the morning

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This bird was his and he wasn’t sharing!

Besides the lions, my favorite part about Etosha was the waterhole at Okakuajo camp. It is a floodlit waterhole with a fence on one side to keep the people in the camp (and maybe some animals out.) Almost every night it is visited by rhinoceroses and elephants looking for a drink. We wound up spending two nights at this camp (due to an on-the-fly change from 2 nights in Olifantsrus to only 1 night so we could go back to the Okakuajo waterhole.) At one point on our second night we saw 6 rhino at one time at the waterhole. One of them was a bit belligerent and clearly didn’t like that some other rhinos had the audacity to drink water at the same time as him and we got to witness an intense stand-off with a lot of grunting and charging. I can’t imagine that I’ll have another opportunity to see something like this so I took hundreds of photos (most of which are extremely blurry because I had to have a long shutter speed but luckily rhino have a high propensity to stand still and play like a rock for a while) and we stayed to enjoy them for hours.

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Mama rhino and her baby.  Notice they cut off some of the rhino horns, like this female’s.  We think it was an anti-poaching method since it doesn’t hurt the rhino this way.

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Two rhinos with a lot of grunting and harumphing.  Eventually one got bored but not after a few charges. It was too dark to capture any of the charges nicely though.

Day 0:

Didn’t see much as we entered the park a bit late and had to drive back to the main gate to sort out that we reside in South Africa so are supposed to pay less then residing in ‘foreign’ which was the other option (besides, of course, Namibia). Still did see some nice plains game on the side of the tar road though.

Day 1:

Jackals playing, lots of black-faced impala, giraffe, honey badger, hyena, eland, steenbok, a couple elephants, and of course zebra, kudu, springbok etc.

Day 2:

11 lions, jackals, 3 cheetah (and a missed kill), lots of elephants, 5 rhino, lots of different birds (I’ve turned into quite a “birder by convenience” as Cheryl calls me. I’m interested in birds when there’s not something else interesting to see. Sounds about right.) and of course all of the other good stuff.

Day 3:

More rhino, hyena eating, 1 big male lion crossing road right in front of us, 7 additional lion just lazing around, leopard, and a really cool waterhole experience with giraffe, zebra and a rhino all trying to drink at the same time.

Day 4:

Tons and tons and tons of elephants, 3 more lion (another solitary male and 2 females), lots of cool kudu and herds of zebra and of course the great rhino experience I described above.

Day 5:

Got up early to head straight out of the park. Took a quick waterhole stop and saw a few jackals. No big bang hurrah to say goodbye but we left with great memories from the previous days.

Next stop: Swakopmund!