Etosha National Park in Namibia

Etosha is one of Africa's great national parks and the game viewing here is on a par with South Africa's Kruger, Zimbabwe's Hwange, Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti. Some 114 mammal species, 110 reptile species and more than 340 different bird species have been identified, and three well-appointed rest camps cater for the hundreds of daily visitors. Each rest camp has a floodlit watering hole, which offers overnight visitors the chance to see good numbers of game in an unusual environment. A large proportion of the park is either closed to the public or inaccessible by road, which has enabled conservationists to carry out important studies of wildlife.

The central feature of the park is the Etosha Pan, a huge depression that becomes a lake during summers of exceptional rainfall, although even then the water is rarely more than a few centimetres deep. Most of the time it is a blinding expanse of flat, white, cracked and dried mud that shimmers with mirages and is dotted with spiralling dust devils. Seeing animals pace across this surreal landscape is one of the sights that make Etosha so special. Indeed, the name Etosha is usually translated as 'great white place' or 'place of emptiness'.

There are no roads across the pan, but along the southern fringe a network of gravel roads offers some exceptional views of this natural feature which can be seen clearly from space. Another unique aspect of Etosha is the fine white dust during the dry seasons - your car will certainly be covered with it but in some cases so are the animals, so to follow a white elephant as it ambles down a gravel road is a delightful experience. A visit to Etosha is deservedly one of the highlights of any visit to Namibia.

Ins and outs Getting there

Each of the three camps within the park (Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni) have their own
airstrips
which are used by tour operators and charter companies, and most of the smarter lodges on the edge of the park have airstrips and can arrange
fly-in safaris
.

By road there are three gates open to the public, so where you enter the park depends on what direction you've come from:
Andersson Gate
is to the north of Outjo and is 17 km south of Okaukuejo;
Von Lindequist Gate
is at the eastern end of the park and is 12 km from Namutoni; and
King Nehale Gate
is in the northeast off the B1 between Tsumeb and Ondangwa. The shortest route from Windhoek, 447 km, is to follow the B1 north as far as Otjiwarongo; from here, take the C38 for Outjo and continue north to Andersson Gate. For visitors approaching from the Caprivi, follow the B8 south as far as Grootfontein; from here take the C42 to Tsumeb where the road joins the B1 north, follow the signs for Etosha, Ondangwa and Oshakati. The turn-off for the Von Lindequist Gate is clearly signposted 74 km from Tsumeb. Namutoni camp is just inside the park. If coming from the far north,
King Nehale Gate
is accessed off the B1 101 km south of Ondangwa. Bear in mind that as there is no camp near this gate you need to arrive here about two hours before sunset so there's enough time to drive to Namutoni. If you plan to travel to Namibia's far north from Namutoni, this gate will save you a 100-km drive around Etosha's eastern border.

While most people travel in their own vehicle, either self-drive or as part of a tour, it is possible to take the luxury
train
service from Windhoek to the outskirts of the park, and visit Etosha on day-trips. The
Four- day Etosha Break Away
, www.desertexpress.com.na Windhoek train station, Bahnhof St, Mon-Fri 0800-1700,
has several departures throughout the year: the train leaves Windhoek at 0900 and travels to Oshivelo, which is not far from Etosha's King Nehale Gate. Passengers are then transferred by bus to Namutoni for an afternoon game drive, before spending another night on the train and heading back to the park for an early morning game drive. The train then returns overnight to Windhoek with a quick stop in Okahandja to visit the craft markets on the morning of day four. A longer six-day trip also includes Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.

Best time to visit

The park is open year round, but there are three distinct seasons that affect the nature-viewing experience. Many regard the best time to visit the park as the cooler, drier winter months (August and September) when a shortage of natural pools draws animals to the 50 or so artificial water points, many of which are visible from the rest camps or reachable by car. The other popular time of year for visitors is during December and January (when it is very hot); this is more to do with local school holidays than any particular condition within the park. It may be difficult to book accommodation during the most popular periods, especially at weekends, and during school holidays. If visiting from overseas, consider booking your accommodation prior to your arrival in Namibia . For bird enthusiasts the best time to visit the park is during and after the rains, November to April.

Background

The central feature of Etosha is the large pan which covers 23% of the park and is 130 km long and 72 km wide; a fantastic and most unusual natural feature. The first Europeans to see the pan and write about it were Charles Andersson of Sweden and Francis Galton from Britain, who came here in 1851 en route to Owamboland. Having been told it was a large lake, they were very disappointed to find it was bone dry.

There is a San legend that tells of a group who strayed into Heiqum lands only to be surrounded by brutal hunters who killed all the men and children. One of the young women rested under a tree with her dead child in her arms; she wept so much that her tears formed a giant lake. After the sun had dried her tears the ground was left covered in salt - and so the Etosha Pan was formed. The pan is indeed very alkaline, sediment samples have a pH of higher than 10, with a sodium content of more than 3%. This attracts the local wildlife, which requires salt in its diet.

The first European interference in the region came in the 1890s when the German administration was faced with the rinderpest outbreak. To try and control the spread, a livestock-free buffer zone was established along the southern margins of the pan. In order to enforce the restrictions on the movement of cattle, two small military units were posted in tiny forts at Namutoni and Okaukuejo. The park was created in 1907 by Governor Friedrich von Lindequist, (it celebrated its centenary in 2007; the same year the three camps got extensive refits). Since its proclamation, the boundaries have been significantly changed on a number of occasions but the park has covered today's area of 22,912 sq km since 1970.

The German forts at Okaukuejo and Namutoni were converted into police posts to help establish control over the Owambo kingdoms to the north. The fort at Namutoni was made famous after it was attacked on 28 January 1904 by several hundred Ndonga warriors serving King Nehale, and was burnt to the ground. The present building at Namutoni dates from 1906 when a new and larger fort was completed. The last troops stationed here surrendered to the South African forces under the command of General Coen Britz on 6 July 1915. In 1957 the fort was restored as a tourist camp.

Visiting Etosha National Park

Gates are open from dawn until dusk. By sunset, visitors must either have left the park through one of the exit gates, or have arrived at their overnight camp. Do not stay out in the park after sunset or you may find yourself in serious trouble. The times of sunset are posted daily at each rest camp and gate. In any case, if you are staying overnight, each camp has a wonderful floodlit waterhole and three-hour guided night drives have recently been introduced. In the event of a breakdown or a puncture do not leave your car, you may be attacked; stay in the vehicle until help arrives. The distance between
Halali
in the middle of the park to both Namutoni and Okaukuejo is 70 km. The speed limit throughout the park is 60 kph, but you will probably average 20-30 kph when you factor in plenty of stops to watch the game. The roads are gravel but in very good condition and perfectly negotiable in a saloon car. It is prohibited to get out of your car except at the toilet stops, and never go off road; tyre tracks leave scars and damage the environment.

A recommended itinerary would be to spend one night in each camp entering the park at either
Okaukuejo
or
Namutoni
, and exiting the park at the opposite end. This way you will not only see all the camps, but you will avoid doubling back on your route. Alternatively, in peak season, you might enjoy exploring the routes to the west of the pan, where there are a number of man-made water points and, usually, fewer tourists.

There are countless drives and waterholes that you can visit for game-viewing purposes, they all have their different merits so it is difficult to offer recommendations. The wardens are the best source of advice as to where game is congregating and where the cats and large mammals have been spotted each day. Each camp reception also has a game-viewing book where visitors write up the location of the most recent sightings. As a tip, remember that it pays to be patient - once you have found a waterhole that appeals to you turn the engine off, keep quiet and wait. In addition to your own self-drive game drives, it's possible to sign up for a guided game drive in the early morning, late afternoon or at night. These can be booked at the reception of each rest camp and have the added attraction of being in open-topped safari vehicles with raised seating and being with a guide with a well-trained eye.

The most commonly occurring species are the animals that prefer open savannah country. You can expect to see large herds of blue wildebeest, gemsbok, Burchell's zebra, eland, giraffe, springbok and elephant, as well as hyena, warthog and the ubiquitous ground squirrel. Another good reason for visiting Etosha is to see the endangered black rhinoceros. The resident population of about 700 is reckoned to be one of the largest in Africa. While it is difficult to spot these animals in thick bush, they frequently visit the floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo. During the heat of the day they tend to rest and you are unlikely to spot them on a drive. All of the large cats are found in Etosha and there are good numbers of lion, which are frequently seen, especially around Fischer Pan in the northeast and late night visitors to the Okaukuejo waterhole maybe be rewarded with lions coming down to drink. Cheetah are most easily seen in the short flat grasslands to the north of the main road along the edges of the pan where they prey on springbok. Although there are good numbers of both leopard and caracal, they are seldom seen.

The park is home to three uncommon antelope species: the black-faced impala, Damara dik-dik and roan antelope. The roan antelope was introduced to the park in 1970. In one of the earliest cases of moving animals by aircraft, a small herd was transported by Hercules from Khaudum Game Park in Bushmanland. These are shy animals and tend to be only seen in the inaccessible western areas. The black-faced impala is easily recognized as an impala but with a distinctive black facial band. Originally from Kaokoland, a large herd was translocated and released within the park. The largest groups used to occur near Namutoni, but like all wild animals they will move to the water and pasture. The Damara dik-dik is the smallest antelope in Namibia, the adult weighs just 5 kg. They are shy animals favouring wooded areas; you may catch a glimpse of family groups, but such a small animal can hide quickly. Other small animals, such as jackal and banded mongoose, can often be spotted within the rest camps when they slip through the fence on night-time raids of the rubbish bins. Halali honey badgers can also be seen within the camp.

Of the 340 species of birds recorded in the park, about one third are migratory including the European bee-eater and several species of waders and raptors. There are several species of owls and vultures and larger birds include ostrich, Kori bustard, and greater and lesser flamingo; the latter congregate on the pan during rainy seasons. About 80% of Etsoha's vegetation is mopane trees, plus dwarf savannah shrub and grasslands, and to the west of Okaukuejo is the well known Sprokieswoud, or phantom or fairy forest; and area of unusual, lofty and slender African moringa trees (
Moringa ovalifolia
), which normally grow in more sub-tropical and hilly climates.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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