Southern Africa protects 80% of the remaining rhinos in Africa – and Etosha is one of the best places to see these massive tanks of the bush.
There are two species of rhino, confusingly called the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. Seen from afar they look identical, there is no black or white or pale or dark by any stretch of the imagination. The distinguishing feature is that White Rhinos have square lips and the Black Rhino have triangular upper lips, sort of coming to a point. The White Rhino is also a bit larger.
Rhinos are very rarely seen during the day and like to go to the waterholes at night. This is where you realise that the flood-lit waterholes of the restcamps are a blessing!
Where to look for them?
During the night at any of the flood-lit waterholes at the restcamps.
Interesting Fact: Everyone knows that the biggest threat to rhinos is poaching, for the horns. In China it is thought that it has medicinal properties to reduce fever and in the Middle East it is used to make ceremonial knives … all BS if you ask me! :-)
Water is life … but water is scarce in this part of the world – extremely scarce, making the animal’s battle for survival even more difficult. Here the water quickly dries up, if any falls at all, so the waterholes are the prime lifeline for many animals.
There are 5 types of waterholes in Etosha: pans, contact springs, water-table springs, artesian springs, and artificial waterholes.
Pans are simply depressions in the land that collect water during the rains. They usually dry up pretty fast, so they are just a bonus.
Contact springs are openings in rocks that seep out waters after the rains. They retain water much longer than pans, but are still dependent on the amount of rainfall in a given year.
Water table springs are those where depressions on land are deep enough to come into contact with the water table beneath the surface of the land. Water in the underground water tables is the one longest preserved as it is the slowest one to evaporate, but still the level varies.
Artesian Springs are those where water is pressured up to the surface.
Artificial waterholes are boreholes built by the park management, pumping up the water using different strategies, such as diesel or solar pumps.
Visiting Etosha is a must when you travel in Namibia. The park offers an abundance of wildlife, which obviously attracts thousands of tourists.
There are three camps within the boundaries of the park: Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni which are at 70 km intervals from one another. They all have lit waterholes where animals gather, especially during the dry season.
Visitors can enter Etosha through one of the four gates which can be reached driving along main roads from major Namibian cities. The main entrance to the park called the Andersson gate is situated near the Okaukuejo camp.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset. In the night hours visitors have to be either in one of the camps or outside the park boundaries.
The camps are open year round and each has a restaurant, bar, shop and swimming pool.
Pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles are not allowed in Etosha. If you are outside the camp you must stay in your vehicle.
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.
Of course this is the most distinctive feature of the park, the white expanse covering almost the size of Switzerland, tells a whole story about the geological history of this place. Hundreds of millions of years ago, when all continents were still joined as the super-continent Gondwanaland, the pan was submerged and flattened under a huge glacier. The sheer weight of the massive glacier, compressing the land beneath for millions of years left a depression now referred to as the Etosha Pan. The story does not stop here … over the years there have been cycles of inundation and aridity, with the depression going from being a lake to then being all dessicated again. Some debate that a river used to flow in the pan too.
As time passed, the climate changed, until it arrived to the point where the rate of evaporation was much faster than the actual rainfall. This left the soil rich of minerals … and salt. This allows for only 2 kinds of especially salt-tolerant plants to grow on this terrain.
Of course this is THE thing to do here, and there is a whole feast for the eyes – this is Africa after all, the only place in the world that you actually find what you see on TV :-) It is amazing to see such concentration of wildlife in such a seemingly hostile environment. Of course the keyword here is the waterholes. So get yourself a good map of the waterholes and prepare to be a bit patient. Just drive to the waterhole and wait … don’t give in to the temptation of just running wildly about to see all the waterholes. Just choose a few and lie in wait, I guarantee it will offer the greatest rewards. Also drive slow, for starters not to risk running down animals, but mostly to make it easier for you to spot the animals which are surprisingly well camouflaged – even massive animals such as elephants! It also helps to analyze the animals behaviour …. Animals looking agitated and looking at one spot might mean a lurking predator … circling vultures might mean a kill … animals leaving the waterhole might mean elephants are approaching …
Just a word of warning … Etosha is NOT a big-5 park … buffalos and hippos are absent for the obvious reasons of not enough water to maintain them. But they can be found further north in Namibia in the Caprivi Strip
Etosha surprisingly supports a rather large population of Elephant. They are easy to see as they always seek out the water holes at least once a day. The heard will come storming in at a great pace and push off what ever was enjoying the water hole. Look out for the babies as there seems to be at least one in every herd.
Aus water hole is usually a popular spot for elephant but you may also find zebra springbok, impala, kudu, gemsbok, wildebeest, and maybe black rhino.
Etosha has a large and varied population of antelope and other hoofed species including the rare black-faced impala, black rhino, and mountain zebra. The park service boasts 20,000 springbok; 6,000 Burchell zebra; 700 mountain zebra; 2,600 blue wildebeest; 4,000 gemsbok; 2,000 kudu; 600 red hartebeest; 250 eland, 70 roan antelope; 300 black rhino; 700 black faced impala; and 2,000 giraffe.
I really loved the diversity of antelope at the various water holes here at Etosha.
The warthogs are one of the most interesting and comical creatures in Africa. They don’t really seem to understand the pecking order of water privileges. They don’t care they are one of the smallest of the hoofed animals or they are outweighed by the zebras and other large antelope. Their tale acts like an antenna and they will just prance right into the water hole among the other animals. Albeit they get out of the way of lion and elephant, but little else stops these little guys with big balls. When they graze they get on their front knees to allow their face to be level with the ground. I guess it’s easier than bending at the neck. If you are really lucky you may see the little runts following momma.
Africa’s largest antelope is found here at Etosha National Park. The eland is as big as a cow. It can weigh up to 950 kg, and is distinct by its size and the spiral horns found on both sexes. They are brown with small white lines running from top to bottom (not to be confused with the kudu). They tend to be grazers of savanna scrub. There are not too many here in Etosha numbering around 70, but they can be found around the water holes even though they can go a very long time without water.
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.
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.
Animal-lover or not, everybody wants to see the big cats - especially the lions when in Africa right?! Sure enough, Etosha will not disappoint, provided you are patient! Lions are extremely water dependent so they can be found near the waterholes – their food is found there too, and is especially vulnerable while bending down for a drink. These formidable top-predators are huge, but one can notice their superb camouflage, they are practically invisible in tall yellowish grass. So that is why you have to be patient to see them, only movement will give them away in that case… sometimes just the flick of an ear.
Interestingly enough, even such big mighty bulldozers such as rhinos get very agitated when lions are around, especially if they have calves. No one underestimates the mighty king of the beasts!
Where best to look for them?
Floodlit waterholes at the rest-camps provide a good opportunity to see these felines, because they are mainly nocturnal. But for daytime viewing, the best spot is perhaps the Goas waterhole where there is a resident pride. Other good spots are Okondeka, Aus, Rietfontein, Kalkheuwel, Groot, Wolfsnes, Leeubron and Klein Okevi.
Interesting Fact: The king of the beasts can afford an average of 18 hours a day sleeping, no wonder they are so beautiful with all that beauty sleep and sunbathing … Long live the King! :-)
Etosha has a very healthy population of elephants … around 2500, so you will be sure to see some. They are also very water-dependent, making them easy to find at waterholes. And there isn’t another animal so fun to watch at a waterhole than an elephant! They just love splashing around in the water, and they usually do that in family groups – that means little (uhhh, relatively speaking of course!), sweet calves! Don’t expect to see any big-tuskers in Etosha though … they wear out their tusks too much digging for water …
Where best to look for them?
Elephants can be easily found all over the park, but the best places are the waterholes at Olifantsbad, Aus, Tsumcor and Kalkeuwel.
Interesting fact: In Etosha you might notice that groups of elephants are differently coloured. This is due to the simple reason that they take on the colour of the mud they bathe in, which might be of different colours.
Etosha means “Great White Place of Dry Water”. The salt pan is the bottom of an ancient lake that now covers about 5000 sq km. Over the years, the climatic and tectonic changes allowed this place to become a vast and arid desert. Occasionally, however, the rainy season might allow some water to flow from the Ekuma and Omuramba Rivers drawing thousands of flamingoes and white pelicans. The saline content of the water during these floods are quite high and when the water eventually evaporates a white crust once again forms on the pan. In the north and west the pan has a greenish shade due to clay minerals deposited from the Ekuma and Oshingambo Rivers and a green algae that forms in shallow waters. Below the crusty salt layers is an impermeable clay layer. However abundant animal life is support through water that flows from the surrounding limestone formations that provide a porous reservoir for the infrequent rains.
The Etosha lookout in southern midsection of the great pan is great place to get a feel for the vast plan and how desolate and immense it really is. The lookout is just north of the Halali Rest Camp. This is not the only place for good pan views as many of the roads border the pan and offer excellent views as well.