Before coming to Etosha I had a vision of the photo I was going to take: a giraffe at a waterhole with its straight legs apart, its neck and head bent and of course its reflection in the mirror of the water. I did manage to see the sight, but the light conditions were so poor (it was at dusk), that the picture is far from being good. But now when I'm looking through my Etosha pictures I find out that my other pictures of giraffes are really great - it's not because of my photograhic skills, but the objects themselves are so graceful and interesting.
Everybody knows that everything about a giraffe is long: it is up to 6 metres tall, its legs are almost two metres long and the tongue itself is about 60 cm.
The time when a giraffe is drinking at a waterhole is unluckily the moment of its biggest vulnerability, when the risk of being attacked is much increased. But being tall has also its advantages - it helps the animal to watch for predators.
We saw just a few jackals in Etosha - always alone, always vigilant, apparently ready to hunt. Actually, jackals eat everything, even grass when there is nothing else. They hunt small mammals, also lizards and insects, but usually feed on the remains of dead animals. An interesting fact is that a jackal couple can stay together for years, even for life. They also make great parents sharing the care for their puppies. So after all, quite nice animals, aren't they?
What a strange looking animal it is! Definiteley, the least graceful of all the antelope type. It seems to consist of parts belonging to different animals: its heavily built forequarters may have come from an ox, hindquarters, which are much slender, from an antelope and a mane and tail from a horse. Its horns resemble those of a buffalo. Its square head looks like a box. But despite its frightening looks, it is not particularly dangerous.
Wildebeest is also known as gnu.
The distinguishing features of kudu are their spectacular spiral horns and from six to ten pale vertical stripes against their grey-brown body. Actually, only males have horns which can be over one metre in length. They have been used in Africa as musical instruments, honey containers or ritual objects. Male kudus often use them for wrestling and during the fight the horns may get so interlocked that it's impossible for the animals to release themselves from the grip, which may end up with their death.
Kudu have big and round ears which are very sensitive to noise. It makes these shy antelopes hard to approach. When startled, they escape with long jumps but have a habit of stopping and looking back, which often has fatal results.
Gemsbok, also known as oryx, is a heavily-built antelope which weighs up to 250 kg. Its most striking feature are sharp-pointed horns which are about 80 cm long. What's interesting, both sexes have horns and those of females are a bit longer. They can be used as weapons to scare away the enemies. In medieval England they were sold as unicorn horns and still today in many cultures they are in demand as charms. Native Africans have used the tips of horns for spear points.
Another characteristic feature of its appearance are black and white facial markings, which for me look like a carnival mask.
Gemsbok diet consists mainly of grass, but in arid environment they can even feed on roots. Their adaptation skills are remarkable. When necessary, the animal can cool down its blood thanks to an intricate network of blood vessels situated in the nose.
This probably most common animal in Etosha can be spotted everywhere in the park. The name comes from Afrikaans (and Dutch) meaning 'jump + antelope' = 'spring + bok".
Springboks are known for their ability to jump up high in the air with their backs arched and legs straight. Whatever is the function of that jump, the animal performing it looks like a playful carefree youngster. Springboks are also fast runners - they can reach the speed of 80 kmph. With their average weight of 35 - 40 kg, they belong to medium sized antelopes.
They are easy to distinguish from other types due to a dark horizontal stripe across their middle. This stripe separates cinnamon brown upper parts from white underparts. Springboks look really pretty walking in big groups throughout the park. They graze on grasses but when there's shortage of water they seek out moisture-rich roots.
The term antelope is very broad and refers to two-toe hoofed animals which are not cattle, sheep, goats or buffalo. Most of the 90 species are native to Africa. They differ in size, weight and colour but all (at least males) have horns and most have eyes placed on the sides of their heads and horizontal pupils, which gives them a broad radius of vision.
The species you are bound to come across when visiting Etosha include: eland, oryx, kudu, impala, springbok, wildebeeste and some others. When I came to Namibia I had a very vague idea of the differences in their appearance but with time I learnt to distinguish at least the most common types of these graceful animals.
Etosha Pan takes up 4 730 square km of the Etosha park area. It's a vast white saline depression. Several million years ago, when the Kunene river changed its course, the pan gradually dried up through evaporation. In years with good rainfall it may get partially flooded, which attracts flamingoes and other wading birds, changing the character of the place dramatically. For the most of the time it is just 'enormous nothing', a parched white greenish land which seems endless.
There's a nice legend about how Etosha pan was formed. Once a village was raided and all men were slaughtered. Only the women remained. They cried until their tears made a massive lake. When it dried up nothing was left apart from a huge white pan.
Etosha is big and fascinating. The following numbers taken from the brochures published by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism speak for themselves.
22 935 square km - the size of the Etosha national park
4 730 square km - the size of the Etosha Pan
114 - the number of large and small mammal species
340 = the number of resident and migratory bird species
3551 - kilometres of road in the park
86 - the number of waterholes (natural and man-made) in the park
200 000 the number of visitors to the park annually
Undoubtedly, visiting Etosha is an unforgettable experience. There are plenty of opportunities to spot the animals and some of the encounters are just amazing. So it's good to know something about the history of that great place.
Etosha was known for centuries to nomadic hunter gatherers. The first Europeans arrived here only in 1850's and they started the first wagon tracks across the wilderness. Later Etosha was the site of conflicts and fights between Owambo tribe and white settlers. The Germans built a fort in Namutoni, which nowadays serves as a tourist attraction in the Namutoni rest camp.
For years Etosha was a hunters' paradise, which resulted in the dramatic diminishing of animal population. Luckily, in 1907 a reserve of around 90 000 square km was established here to protect indigenous plants and animals. It was then the largest game reserve in the world. The size has still been reduced twice and today with its 22 935 sq km it is just about the quarter of its original area.
The population of elephants in Etosha is around 2000, no wonder that we spotted them quite frequently during our three-day visit to Etosha. They came to the waterhole at Okaukuejo camp both in daylight and at night. Usually in groups of five to eight, they came not only to quench their thirst but also socialise and play with other members of the group. We also saw elephants during our game drives, but then we had less time to observe their behaviour, stopping just to take a photo.
Those massive animals can weigh up to 6000 kg and they eat about 230 kg of food (mainly grass, fruit and tree bark) and drink to 180 litres of water per day. That's why it's so easy to spot them at waterholes. It's fun to watch how they use their trunks like hoses to spray water over their bodies or pick up some mud to cover their backs.
Elephants live in herds consisting of the matriarch, calves, youngsters and other females. There can be as many as 25 animals in one herd. An elephant's pregnancy lasts 22 months, which is a record among mammals. Usually one calf is born. It suckles with its mouth and holds the trunk over its head. When it reaches the age of 15, the male leaves the herd and joins the group of other males (although some males lead a solitary life).
The elephants are known for their social behaviour and are one of few species that can express their emotions. They like caressing one another and entwining their trunks. They are said to mourn their dead with the obvious signs of sadness such as drooping ears. They cover their deceased with leaves, twigs and branches.
Zebras are probably the most commonly viewed animals in Etosha and elsewhere in Namibia. We saw herds of them coming to waterholes, but also grazing in different places in the park and outside. They often mingle with wildebeests and antelopes. Their main predators are lions and hyenas, but what's interesting, they are usually the last to flee when the threat appears.
As for their stripes, no two zebras have the same pattern. It is said that the stripes serve as a kind of camouflage helping zebras confuse the predators.
Like horses, zebras sleep standing, but only when some neighbours are around to warn them of approaching danger.
We spotted rhinos only once. It was late in the evening at the waterhole in Okaukuejo. A couple of them emerged from the surrounding darkness and came up to the flood-lit waterhole. They slowly immersed in water presenting their horns to the audience gathered around.
In Africa there are two species of rhinos - black and white. What's interesting - they both are almost the same colour and they both have two horns. The difference lies elsewhere - the white rhino is bigger and it has wide squared lips.
The horns of rhinos are made of keratin - the same substance our nails and hair are made of. It's the horns the rhinos are poached and hunted for, as they are traditionally used in alternative medicine.
Rhinos are not very social - they usually live alone or in a small group consisting of a mother and offspring.
Game drives (with guided tours or independently ) give you an excellent opportunity to view Etosha's wildlife. Of course, you must stay in your car all the time, but animals are used to the sight and sound of vehicles and they seem not to take any notice of them. The speed limit in all the park is sixty km per hour, but if your goal is to meet animals you will go even slower, as you must be ready to stop whenever you see something interesting.
We had two game drives in our truck and on both of them spotted a lot of animals. The most exciting was the encounter with lions. Strangely enough, on the first day we only heard from some people that lions had been seen at one of the waterholes, but we ourselves didn't meet any. Of course, we were quite disappointed although the abundance of giraffes, elephants and other game made up for it a bit. On the next day, just a few km from the Halali campsite, we met a royal couple majestically striding close to the road. Then, a few km further a group of lionesses over some prey, with the marks of blood around their mouth. When a couple of minutes later we saw another group in the bush 30 metres from the road, we hardly stopped. But seeing five females near a waterhole was a real treat. We stayed there for about half an hour watching this spectacular performance with the lionesses dominating the stage, confident and proud, other animals vigilant, ready to escape any moment.
All together we saw about 25 lions on that day - quite a good result.
The main reason why visitors come to Etosha is to see the animals in their natural habitat. Before becoming part of the audience in this live theatre I had never realised how exciting and incredible it was.
The best place for me to watch animals come and go was the waterhole in Okaukuejo camp. It was never empty, even at midday, although it is said that the best time to see animals are mornings and afternoons. The place was simply teeming with life. Zebras and wildebeest came in herds, just as springboks and gemsboks. When the first elephant appeared I was speechless ... but it soon was followed by another and still another... They all slowly walked round the waterhole looking for the best place to drink from. Then, unhurriedly, quenched their thirst and waded in the water to cool down.
But the best part was to come after dawn - the camp waterholes are lit so visitors can observe the animals both during the day and night. Groups of giraffes, rhinos and elephants emerged in turn out of the darkness and came to water, unaware of the delight they aroused. The viewers sat enchanted in silence which was only broken by camera clicks on our side and animal sounds on the other.
Unfortunately, the waterhole at Halali camp turned out to be a disappointment - there were just a few impalas there. There's no rule, though - the animals are unpredictable - they can come and go whenever and wherever they want.