Etosha National Park is the biggest park in Namibia, and one of the largest in Africa. It surrounds the Etosha Pan, which is a large dried up lake bed, at least according to the most accepted theory. If it still held water, it would be the world’s third largest lake. The park is home to all sorts of wildlife, and we got to spend two days driving to water holes and through expansive landscapes looking for animals. We hoped that, with luck, we’d find a few. And indeed we did — although I think “a few” is a wildly inaccurate understatement…
Over the course of two days of driving, we saw more wildlife than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life, and not only in terms of quantity, but in variety as well. There were zebras and springbok everywhere, as well as many other species of antelope, including oryx, red hartebeests, kudu, dik-dik, and black-faced impala. We saw dozens of giraffes, with their long necks poking up above the canopies of trees, or craning downwards between splayed feet to drink. We saw whole herds of elephants as they splashed through water holes and kicked up dust trails across barren plains. Ostrich ran about, fluffing their large, useless wings. Jackals and badgers trotted through the grasses, and birds of an indescribable variety wheeled overhead. And as if that wasn’t enough, there were a few special encounters that really took our breaths away.
The first of these happened at the end of our first day of driving, as we were making our way towards a campsite situated in the middle of the park. We were on a deadline — the gates of the campground closed at 6pm, and we’d be fined if we arrived late. As the sun dropped towards the horizon behind us, we came across a couple of vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, essentially blocking the way forward. As we approached, we craned our necks out of the windows to see why. It turns out that the vehicles were themselves blocked from advancing further, and by what? None other than a small pride of lions! Two females and a young male were sprawled out in the middle of the road, while two more females lazed casually in the grass just off to the side. They watched us approach without so much as a flinch. It was clear that they intended to move whenever they felt like it, our 6pm deadline be damned. They were beautiful in their stubborn laziness, and the fact that we couldn’t get by really didn’t bother us in the least. As the growing lineup of vehicles started to inch closer and closer, the lions dragged themselves up one by one and sauntered off to one side, blending in quickly and quietly with the tall dry grass. Lions on our first day in the park! At this point we already considered ourselves pretty lucky.
The campsite we stayed at had one feature in particular that we couldn’t wait to check out. There was a water hole right nearby, which was floodlit at night, where you could go to watch the nocturnal animals as they came out to play. After dinner we made our way over, and sat in silence for what felt like an eternity waiting for something to happen. Just when we were starting to feel discouraged, we were rewarded in a big way. Slowly, and in dead silence, a large cat padded out of the bushes and down to the water’s edge. As he bent down to drink, and our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we realized with hardly containable excitement that we were looking at a leopard. There are five animals considered as “the Big 5″ in Africa: the elephant, the lion, the water buffalo, the rhinoceros, and the leopard. Of these, the leopard is supposed to be the most rare. And here we sat, watching one drink quietly at the water hole, less than 100 feet away. After a few minutes, he turned and disappeared as quickly and silently as he appeared.
About 15 minutes after seeing the leopard, we watched excitedly as a rhino trundled out of the bush to the water’s edge. It was huge! The mass of the body was at first disconcertingly out of scale with his short, stubby legs, but as he moved around the water hole he appeared to be pure strength. There was no clumsiness in the movements, regardless of his proportions. Only a couple of minutes later, a second rhino appeared, and this one was even bigger! He didn’t seem to want to share the water hole, so he went and stood directly beside the first one, and putting his head down against his rivals, proceeded to gently but firmly edge him away from the water, and then push him right back into the bush. Satisfied, he came back and drank, now alone at the water hole.
The next day we went on another game drive, and the animal sightings just kept coming. We had an encounter with a young male elephant who was blocking the road, and seemed determined not to let us past. Now elephants are big animals, but our truck is somewhat bigger, to say the least. One would think that an elephant would, therefore, yield the right of way. Not so. Every time our truck inched closer to try and pass, the bull elephant would turn and square to us, flap his huge ears, and let out an incredible trumpeting warning. He even made a few advances on the truck, although he stopped short of actually charging us (luckily). It was an impressive display. Eventually we squeezed past, but he actually gave chase for a minute or two, running along beside us and trumpeting and waving his trunk in the air. I was happy to be in such a large vehicle.
Later that afternoon, we came to a water hole where a small group of giraffes were drinking. What a sight! There was a mother and a young giraffe drinking side by side. As they drank, a whole herd of elephants came stomping out of the distance and went splashing through the water together, drinking and spraying water with their trunks. There were young ones with them too. At one point, at the same water hole, we were watching a herd of elephants, a group of giraffes, and a bunch of zebras all drinking together. It was a perfect tableau to end our visit to Etosha.
I know when I write about these places it often sounds like everything is over-the-top amazing, and you might think that I’m prone to exaggeration as a result. But I have to say, in my own defense, that all of these moments we’re having are as incredible and as memorable to us as I endeavor to convey them. This trip is quickly turning out to be a highlight-of-our-lives caliber experience. I only hope that we can manage to get our excitement across through our posts and our writing. Next we’re off to Botswana, where we’ll be visiting the Okavango River Delta. I’ll be raving about that too, I’m sure. It’s great to wake up every day and feel full of excitement and anticipation – and we’re still only scratching the surface of this leg.