Namibia’s Etosha National Park is one of Africa’s most magical game reserves - but the real action starts after the sun dips. See you at the waterhole...
Seconds after sweeping through the entrance of Etosha National Park, Namibia’s number one game reserve, we were greeted by a giraffe that stood idly by the side of the road. Standing so closely that we could study the beautiful patterns on his body and look into his big brown eyes, he was equally taken with us. Everyone on board our minibus was enthralled.
Etosha, in the north of the country, is the highlight of most people’s visit to this Southern African nation, and its wildlife is legendary. The 20,000-square-km park is home to significant populations of zebras, antelopes, giraffes and the Big Five, the only exception being the buffalo. Well-marked trails criss-cross the flat, shrub-filled land and the many watering holes scattered about attract animals from far around. Preparing to leave one such spot, we were distracted by the rustling of bushes as a dozen or so elephants bounded through, searching for water. And once found, they busied themselves drinking it, swimming in it and spraying it wildly from their trunks.
Water fight over and careering down another dusty path, the horizon shimmering in the heat, a procession of jeeps and other vehicles ahead had stopped in their tracks. As we drew nearer, we too quietly respected the zebra crossing before us. Hundreds of the striped mammals, young and old, were leisurely strolling from one area of grasslands to the other, blocking the road without a care in the world.
That evening, having eventually bypassed the migrating zebras, we gathered around the campfire as Lombard, our guide, prepared a dinner of barbecued meats, potatoes and salad. Jackals darted from under vehicles and around tents, scavenging for scraps and causing a few scares in the process. Like most of the animals here, the fearless jackals didn’t seem remotely intimidated by our presence and enjoyed the run of the playground.
We soon discovered that nightfall brings other wildlife encounters - and ones rather more rewarding than watching a jackal hunting for sausages. The waterhole at Okaukuejo camp is floodlit with mellow amber lights and makes for a magical evening of nocturnal game viewing. I had heard of this watering hole long before arriving at Etosha. Fellow travellers were full of wide-eyed wonder as they spoke of the spot. 'There’s a black rhino who pops along for a nightcap every evening,' said one lady, adding, 'He turns up at 8 o’clock. You can set your watch by him.'
And she was right. I arrived at the viewing area sometime after 8pm to see a stocky, grey shape disappear towards the dark unknown as those around me excitedly flipped through their photos of the thirsty – and critically endangered - rhino. Disappointment aside, I took a seat on one of the benches that sit behind a jagged stone wall. A section of barbed wire had also been erected to further ensure the safety of those watching but I couldn’t help but feel it was a little futile. The wall, just over waist-height, was surely no match for a sprightly cheetah or hungry hyena.
But this extra protection hasn’t always been there. The story goes that a foolish tourist decided to sleep on the wall and was, presumably, startled to be awoken by a savage lioness in the dead of night. It’s said that his grizzly demise led authorities to introduce sharp rocks to the top of the wall’s previously smooth surface to stop people from sitting – and sleeping – on it.
I had no desire to do either. Perched comfortably on my bench, I waited patiently for the show to continue. The outer area surrounding the waterhole faded to black but it was still possible to make out strange shapes and subtle movements on the plains. Out in the distance, in a parting of trees, moved a lone figure. A giraffe sloped out of the darkness and walked awkwardly and mindfully through the shrubbery to the water’s edge. Tense and constantly looking for predators, its head darted from side to side. The giraffe slowly separated its spindly legs until it was practically doing the splits and lowered its head for a drink. Clearly in a vulnerable position, the giraffe would suddenly leap upright and retreat whenever spooked by something lurking nearby.
Emerging from a dusty cloud and led by the matriarch, a parade of stomping elephants were next to arrive. The crowds cooed over the calf and watched intently as the elephants interacted with one another. Much to my delight, the rhino made another appearance and there was soon a standoff between him and one of the elephants. Everyone sat silently as the drama unfolded. The rhino kicked sand in the air as the elephant flared its ears as though preparing to charge. Sadly, David Attenborough was nowhere to be seen, so analysis of the situation was annoyingly absent, but it didn't take an animal behavioural expert to see that the rhino presented a threat. And there wasn’t room at this waterhole for both. Someone had to go. The rhino put up a brave defence and stood his ground but the sheer size of the elephant ultimately sent him fleeing into the shadows once again.
Many campsites have their own floodlit waterholes but none are as popular -with humans and animals alike - and as consistent as Okaukuejo.
The next morning we were all on a high following dramatics at the waterhole, but our glee was overshadowed. We had yet to see any big cats and time was running out. We scoured the park for hours, barely pausing to watch wildebeest sunbathe and zebras graze. Things weren’t looking hopeful.
But just when we thought all was lost, a coach and two cars parked on a side path caught our attention. There, no more than a few feet away, laid a male lion in the shade beside a prickly bush. The dozing feline was oblivious to the camera shutters going off at ferocious speed. He lifted his head eventually and revealed those piercing amber eyes. He yawned wildly, flashing his killer canines and shaking his thick mane before slumping down again.
And with that we left Etosha for the giant sand dunes of Sossusvlei in southern Namibia, telling everyone we met en route to get themselves to the Okaukuejo waterhole for 8 o’clock sharp…
Air Namibia flies direct from London Gatwick to Windhoek.
Wild About Africa offers guided tours to the country, including Etosha National Park.