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Explore Namibia’s flagship park during dry season and you’ll be rewarded with incredible landscapes, waterholes teeming with thirsty animals and many chances to get up close to the Big Four.
Etosha is hard to forget
There is something about its vast ochre plains, baked earth, sun-drenched mirages and other-worldly, massive salt pan that imprints on your mind and stays with you long after you leave. And that’s just the scenery. If you visit Etosha during the dry season (April to September), you’re practically guaranteed some of the best game viewing in Africa. In winter, when surface water is depleted, Etosha becomes a giant zoo with thousands of water-seeking animals congregating around its 30 waterholes.
Driving into Etosha and catching your first glimpse of the massive salt pan in the heat of the midday winter sun makes you feel as if you’re exploring a massive wilderness on the edge of the Earth. The pan’s size is mind-boggling – it’s 4590 square kilometres, or a quarter of Kruger.
Up close, it’s baked into thick, craggy, salt-encrusted plates and from a distance it shimmers deceptively with horizon-skimming mirages. Occasionally, there’ll be a giraffe or wildebeest crossing along the horizon line (making for a great wide-angle photo), but otherwise its barrenness is interrupted only by swirling dust-devils.
The salt pan is Etosha’s iconic image, but there’s much more diversity to the park’s landscape than you’d expect, from green and gold mopane forests, waterholes shaded by makalani palms and the Haunted Forest (Sprokies-woud) of contorted African moringa trees to flat, golden plains traversed by slow-moving herds of zebra and wildebeest on the northeastern edge of the park. These striking landscapes provide photogenic backgrounds for the real stars of wintertime Etosha – the thirsty animals: rare and endemic black-faced impala, hundreds of elephants, herds of zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, lions, leopards, black rhinos, roan antelopes and red hartebeest which are among more than 100 mammal species and 340 species of birds. One of the great things about Etosha is that there’s very little work involved in spotting game – pull up to a waterhole with your camera, binocs, drinks and snacks and just wait for something to arrive (if it isn’t already there).
In our five days in Etosha, we stumbled upon a pride of lions languishing in the heat at Kalk-heuwel Waterhole while two lionesses lazily stalked a herd of impala, watched a sleepy leopard wandering through the grass to find a shady tree and came face-to-face with a black rhino as he nonchalantly ambled to within a metre of our car on a stroll to the Goas Waterhole for a late afternoon drink.
However, the most memorable moments of the trip were spent at the busy waterholes at Halali and Okaukuejo camps, watching what our guide Gabriel Nantanga from Onkoshi called ‘the best African television show’. After an eventful late afternoon game drive, we returned to Halali as the gates closed. Thinking our game viewing for the day was done, we decided to check out the waterhole on our way back to camp.
In the settling dusk we came upon hundreds of enraptured people looking at an elephant herd, complete with clumsy babies, having a bath. As night fell and the waterhole floodlights flicked on, a baby rhino and its mother sidled up to the water-hole, producing a stark silhouette on the water, as if posing for a photograph.
When we arrived at Okaukuejo in the early afternoon the following day, the camp’s waterhole was teeming with herds of zebra, springbok, impala and kudu. The smell of animals and the sound of hundreds of zebra were overpowering.
The experience of sitting metres away from a sea of snorting, fighting, eating and drinking wildlife was incredible.
We sat with beers watching all the action and, as the afternoon light turned golden and the herds departed, 20 elephants kicked up dust on their way to the water.
They bathed, drank and sprayed dust, then moved off before being replaced by another group of elephants. In the space of around an hour, 100 elephants came and went, drinking their fill, playing, bathing, even trying to mate, completely oblivious to hundreds of onlookers shooting photos and videos. Just as the night before in Halali, we were lucky to be treated to another rhino sighting as darkness fell. A rhino tried to share the large waterhole with a group of elephants, only to be shooed away by an annoyed matriarch. After sitting at the waterhole for ages, our stomachs started grumbling and we headed back to camp. As we cooked dinner over the fire, we could hear grunts and snorts of rhino and elephant and the cry of a lone jackal from the waterhole. It was a magical end to a trip through this menagerie. Even when you can’t see the animals in Etosha, you feel like you’re right next to them.
How to photograph Etosha
Park at a waterhole, preferably in the early morning or late afternoon, and wait for the animals to position themselves in front of your lens. The problem with photographing Etosha in winter is the light: it gets really bright in-the middle of the day. Use a polariser and underexpose by at least 0,3 stops when it’s bright. If you don’t have a huge lens that costs thousands, don’t worry. Just place wildlife in the context of a dramatic landscape – of which Etosha has many. Remember, composition is key – think of lines (a procession of zebra walking diagonally towards you) and shapes (a triangle formed by three giraffes drinking water). Wide-angle shots work really well in Etosha because the vistas are so vast.
Visitors must fill out the permit form at either Von Lindequist or Andersson Gates and then proceed to the nearest camp (either Okaukuejo or Namutoni) to pay the fees, which cost R60 for SADC residents and R80 for foreign visitors. It costs R10 a day for your car.
The gates to the park and to the rest camps close promptly at sunset and open just after sunrise. Leave plenty of time to get to your rest camp or to the park entrances, as they will not wait for you before they close the gates.
Book your accommodation well in advance if you’re visiting the park during the Namibian or South African school holidays and during August, which is the peak season for European visitors.
There’s a lot to cover in Etosha, a park half the size of Switzerland, especially if you’re there for only a few days. Spread out your stay – try and spend at least three nights in the park itself, or stay outside near Andersson and Von Lindequist Gates.
Leave yourself about two hours to move between the rest camps. They’re not that far apart, but the speed limit in the park is 60 km/h. The roads are in a good condition (barring a few potholes here and there) and 4×2 vehicles are suitable. Remember to buy a map at camp when you pay for your permit.
Etosha’s size means that, even during peak season, you don’t encounter many other vehicles. You’ll see lots of cars at the gates in the morning and when there’s something really exciting going on at a waterhole. Otherwise it feels like you’re driving solo through an unexplored wilderness.
The area around Namutoni Camp, near Andersson Gate, is best for game during the dry season thanks to its numerous waterholes. These are all within a short distance of each other, making it easy to spot wildlife – just pull up at a waterhole and wait for something to arrive. If nothing appears, just move on to the next one.
Is Etosha affordable for South Africans?
Etosha has a reputation tor being pricey, with expensive park fees and accommodation. However, Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) has just dropped its prices for 2011 – for some rooms the rate has decreased by 20 per cent. Camping in the park is not that expensive (it’s R100 an adult, R50 a child and R200 a site in each of the camps), but there are also some great, affordable self-catering lodges and campsites to stay in outside of the park, and many of them offer discounts to SADC residents . Food is quite expensive in the buffet restaurants and shops inside the park, so bring your own food if possible.
Guide to Etosha’s waterholes
Kalkheuwel – one of our favourites. We had a great morning here watching a lion pride. The waterhole is close to the parking area, making it perfect for photographers.
Goas – a scenic waterhole surrounded by bush. We had a fortuitous sighting of a black rhino that walked up to our car. It’s known for leopard sightings.
Rietfontein – a big waterhole in a scenic setting. It’s good for spotting a wide range of wildlife. We saw a male lion one morning. It’s far from the parking area, so unless you have a large zoom lens, you won’t get great pics.
Gemsbokvlakte - on the open plain. Good for spotting herds of zebra and lots of gemsbok in the dry season.
Olifantsbad – great for antelope, this waterhole is favoured by elephants. It’s a great one for photographers, as it’s close to the road.
Okondeka - known for the lion pride, which roams the area nearby.
Andoni – This natural waterhole is beautiful at sunset. There’s no water in the surrounding area, so it attracts a lot of animals, especially zebras, giraffes and wildebeest (and often elephants and rhinos). There’s a pride of 10 lions in the area around Andoni, so there’s a chance you’ll spot them at the waterhole.
Salvadora – scenic water-hole on the edge of the pan. Good for spotting cheetah and lion.
Chudob – great for rhino spotting.
Accommodation in Etosha
There are four camps in the park itself, which are run by NWR. Namutoni, Okaukuejo and Halali provide accommodation from camping to luxury chalets, and small shops that stock bread, meat, tinned food and beer, and restaurants, fuel stations and information centres. Onkoshi, on the eastern edge of the pan, is a luxury camp with rooms on stilts. All four camps offer morning, afternoon and night-time game drives. At Okaukuejo and Namutoni, morning and afternoon drives cost R500 a person and night drives are R600 each. At Halali, morning and afternoon drives are R450 a person and night drives R550 a person.
Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo offer buffets for breakfast (R90), lunch (R97) and dinner (RI50).
To book, contact NWR’s Cape Town office on tel 021-422-3761, email email@example.com, www.nwr.com.na
Namutoni Rest Camp
Namutoni is the most scenic camp, centred on an old German fort. The camp has two restaurants, chill lounges and a bookshop. The rooms are linked by elevated walkways.
B&B in a double room is R800 a person a night and DB&B in two-bed chalets are R1000 a person.
Namutoni has the park’s best campsite. It’s grassed and shady. Camping costs R100 an adult, R50 a child (six to 12 years; children under six stay for free) and R200 a site.
Okaukuejo Rest Camp
Etosha’s first camp is the main hub of the park and has the best-stocked shop in the park, a post office, curio shop and watch tower.
The waterhole is floodlit and has lots of benches, so bring snacks and blankets and settle down for a parade of wildlife. The waterhole attracts rhinos, elephants and lions.
The waterhole family chalets with balconies and four beds each have the best views. They’re R1600 a person a night for DB&B, and the double-room waterhole chalet is R850 a person for B&B. A family chalet, which sleeps four, is R800 a person, a two-bed bush chalet is R800 a person and double rooms are R650 a person.
Okaukuejo’s campsite is large but dusty. Its 48 sites can take eight people each. Camping costs Rl 00 an adult, R50 a child (six to 12 years) and R200 for a site.
Halali Rest Camp
The park’s quietest camp is at the base of a dolomite hill and between mopane trees. The floodlit water-hole, Moringa, has a great vantage point for leopard sightings.
There are self-catering family chalets, two and four-bed bush chalets with braai facilities, double rooms and honeymoon suites. All prices are for B&B a person. A double room is R650, four-bed bush chalets are R750, two-bed chalets are R800, the family chalet, which sleeps four, is R800 and the honeymoon suite is R900.
The campsite has 58 sites, each accommodating eight people. There are plug points and lights, braai facilities and good ablutions in the campsite. Camping rates are the same as the other camps.
Onkoshi Rest Camp
If budget is not a constraint, Onkoshi, Etosha’s newest camp, is unbeatable. Set on the eastern rim of the salt pan, Onkoshi has some of the best views in the park – the sunsets are especially incredible. To get there, you leave your car at Namutoni and are taken to the camp with a game-drive vehicle -guests are not permitted to drive themselves. The environmentally friendly camp, partially powered by solar energy, has 14 canvas-tented rooms on wooden stilts. Walkways connect the rooms to the main building, which houses the restaurant, bar, lounge, swimming pool and large deck. The staff is friendly, the food’s great and the rooms are luxurious and romantic, with large baths and outdoor showers overlooking the pan.
It costs R3400 a person, which includes all meals, selected alcoholic drinks, all game drives and park entrance fees.
Accommodation outside Etosha
Many visitors stay outside the park and travel in each day. There’s a good selection of lodges and campsites around both Andersson and Von Lindequist Gates.
Near Andersson Gate
Opened in October 2009, Taleni Etosha Village, which is one kilometre from the gate, is popular with South African families. Tented rooms that sleep two adults and two children have stoves, fridges and braai areas, and en suite outdoor bathrooms.
It costs R733 a room for SADC residents. There’s a restaurant, which serves buffet breakfast (R90) and dinner (R220), a bar and three swimming pools all set in treed grounds. Contact tel 021-930-4564, email reservations@ etosha-village.com, www.etosha-village.com.
Etosha Safari Camp
is 10 kilometres from the gate on the C38. Renovated in 2008, the camp has a great atmosphere with a township-styled restaurant and lively bar.
B&B in double rooms is R455 a person, single rooms R570 a person and triple rooms R455 a person (six to 14-year olds pay half price). Camping in the pleasant campsite, which can host 120 people, costs R85 a person. There is hot water, electricity and braai areas. South Africans can apply for a Gondwana Card (R100), which entitles them to a 40 per cent discount on accommodation and a 25 per cent discount on meals. Tip: ask for room 18 or 23 – they have the best views. Contact +264-61-230-066, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gondwana-collection.com.
Offers comfortable accommodation and camping in a peaceful garden setting.
Set 27 kilometres from the gate, the lodge has double rooms at R495 a person for B&B, luxury rooms for R575 a person and three family rooms which sleep five for Rl 130 a room. SADC residents can take advantage of a great last-minute special – book one double room during the school holidays or over a weekend and get one double room free if you book less than 30 days in advance. The small campsite has three sites, each with its own ablutions and power points, that are big enough for five people each. Camping costs from R85 a person a night.
Contact +264-67-333-440, email email@example.com, www.etoshagate-way-toshari.com.
Near Von Lindequist Gate
There’s a great range of accommodation in the private Onguma Wildlife Reserve, which borders Fischer’s Pan. The reserve is home to lions, leopards and black rhinos, as well as kudus, gemsbok and other antelope. Onguma’s fenced-off campsite, which is grassy and shaded by big trees, is very popular. It’s small, with only six sites, so even in peak season it doesn’t feel over- crowded, unlike the campsites in the park. Each site can accommodate six tents on a pitching area, and has its own ablutions with a toilet, shower and hot water. The sites have power points and campers can use the facilities at the Bush Camp, a two-minute walk away. Book three months in advance if you’re coming in peak season.
Camping is R125 a person and R95 a child (three to 12 years) and includes a bundle of wood.
The Bush Camp, which is set in a grassy, fenced-in area overlooking a waterhole, has a swimming pool, restaurant and bar. There are three thatched bungalows that either sleep two or three people in twin-bedded rooms, four in a family unit or two in the honeymoon suite. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with elegant furnishings.
B&B is R790 a person a night (children under 12 pay R400) and the honeymoon suite is Rl 250 a person. There are plans to add eight more rooms by February 2011.
Onguma’s top-range accommodation is superb. The Tented Camp is small, intimate and so close to a waterhole that one night a lion chased a buck into the lounge. There are seven double tents, a restaurant and a swimming pool.
It costs R2200 a person a night DB&B, while full board with two game drives is R2850 a person.
The Treetop Camp overlooks Onguma’s busiest waterhole. Sleep among the trees in a tent on an elevated platform. The small camp can be booked exclusively.
It costs R2850 a person a night full board.
Built at the end of 2007, the Moroccan-style Plains Camp offers incredible sunsets over Fischer’s Pan and great views of a busy waterhole. The massive rooms have fireplaces, outdoor showers and large decks which overlook the waterhole.
DB&B is R2 800 a person. Full board is R3450 a person. Guests at any of Onguma’s camps can go on afternoon or night-time game drives in the reserve. Contact tel +264-61-232-009, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.onguma.com.
For comfort in the bush and a huge range of facilities, Mokuti is great. The lodge, sprawled across lush green lawns in the Mokuti Reserve just outside Andersson Gate, offers over 100 rooms, two pools, several restaurants, tennis courts, a gym and even a reptile park. In addition to game drives in Etosha, there are guided walking trips in Mokuti’s private reserve.
B&B SADC rates, valid until 30 June 2011, start at R449 a person sharing a double deluxe room. Contact tel +264-61-388-400, email email@example.com, www.kempinski.com.
The dry season (April to September) is the best time to spot wildlife. This is also when Etosha is at its busiest. The weather is pleasant in winter – days are warm and nights and early mornings a little chilly (bring beanies, jackets and gloves for morning and night game drives). Rainy season is from around November to April. Temperatures are hot and it’s less easy to spot wildlife than in winter, but if you’re a bird-watcher this is the best time to go.
How to get there
We drove from Johannesburg through Botswana to the Caprivi Strip, which takes two days. It’s an easy drive from Divundu in the Caprivi Strip to Etosha; it takes about six hours. We entered Botswana at the Skilpadshek/Pioneer Border Post (open 06h00 to 22h00) near Lobatse and entered Namibia from Botswana at the Mohembo/Shakawe Border Post (open 06h00 to 18h00). They’re both pretty quiet. It costs R144 to import your car into Botswana and R200 to import it into Namibia. You need to pay for your car in pula in Botswana and there’s an exchange booth at the border. You can pay in rands for the border fees in Namibia.
A great stop-over in Botswana, about halfway to Caprivi or Windhoek, is Kang Ultra Stop, just outside Kang on the Trans-Kalahari Highway. It has everything you need for a refreshing pit stop – a fuel station, well-stocked food shop, takeaways, a restaurant and a tourism office. Accommodation onsite ranges from camping, which costs P40 a person and P20 for children under 12, simple wood cabins which sleep two and cost P230 a cabin, budget rooms with en suite bathrooms for P360 a room, to twin or double rooms with en suite bathrooms, air-con and televisions from P480 a room. There’s also a swimming pool and tennis court.
Tel +267-6517-292, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kangultrastop.com.
In Caprivi, we stayed at Ngepi Camp (tel +264-81-202-8200, www.ngepicamp.com), a fabulous eco-camp on the banks of the Kavango River. For more on the camp, watch out for Getaway’s feature in the January 2011 issue.
The vehicle we used
The Isuzu KB300 D-TEQ 4×4 LX has all the luxuries necessary for a comfortable long-haul trip, such as climate control, cruise control, radio with CD/MP3 player as well as loads of leg and head room for front and rear passengers. It also sports some serious safety features, such as air-bags, ABS brakes and electronic brake-force distribution. It is, however, still an egte bakkie, which was lucky as we tackled some potholed roads in Etosha.
The Isuzu KB300 D-TEQ 4×4 LX double cab retails for R394300. www.isuzu.co.za.
Onguma Safari Camps is offering Getaway readers a special 50 per cent discounted package at Onguma Plains Camp between 1 November 2010 and 31 October 2011. The DB&B package costs R1410 a person a night. This offer is subject to availability and terms and conditions apply. To book, contact tel +264-61-232-009, email email@example.com, www.onguma.com.
By Sara Duff. Article was taken from the November 2010 edition of Getaway magazine.
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