One of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth – herds of elephant, black-maned lions and the world’s largest population of rare black rhinos – roam the plains of Etosha National Park, a vast area that is home to 114 large and small animal species and 340 bird species. No trip to Namibia is complete without a visit to Etosha National Park. Etosha owes its unique landscape to the Etosha Pan, a vast shallow depression of approximately 1,930 square miles which forms the heart of the park. Once part of a large inland lake fed by rivers from the north and east, it dried up 120 million years ago as continental drift changed the slope of the land and the course of the tributaries. This white, chalky expanse colors the park, and with the waterholes, creates the characteristic atmosphere of the Etosha of today.

A series of waterholes along the southern edge of the pan guarantee rewarding and often spectacular game viewing. In good rain years the pan fills with water draining southwards from Angola via a delta-like system of shallow rivers and oshanas, drying out in the winter to become an austere expanse of white cracked mud, shimmering with mirages and upward-spiraling dust devils. Seeing vast herds of game against this eerie backdrop, referred to in the local vernacular as the ‘the place of dry water’, makes the Etosha game-viewing experience unique.

Of the 114 mammals species found in the park, several are rare and endangered, such as black rhino and cheetah, and the lesser-known black-faced impala, which is endemic to north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. Etosha’s current population of black rhino represents one of the largest growing populations of black rhino in the world.

Other large mammals in the park include elephant, giraffe, blue wildebeest, mountain and plains zebra, hyena and lion. Cheetah and leopard complete the trio of ‘big cats’. Antelope species range from kudu, gemsbok and the large and stately eland, to the diminutive Damara dik-dik. Smaller mammals include jackal, bat-eared fox, honey badger, warthog and the ubiquitous ground squirrel.
About 340 bird species occur in Etosha, about one third being migratory, including the European bee-eater and several species of wader. Larger birds include ostrich, kori bustard and greater and lesser flamingo, tens of thousands of which congregate on the pan to breed during a good rainy season. Ten of Etosha’s 35 raptor species are migratory. Those most commonly seen are lappet-faced, white-backed and hooded vultures, while sightings of the Cape, Egyptian and palm-nut vultures have been recorded. There are eight species of owl, including the pearl-spotted owlet and southern white-faced scops-owl, and four species of nightjar.

For the greater part of the year (the dry season) Etosha’s animals and birds are dependent on about 30 springs and waterholes. These provide excellent game viewing and photographic opportunities. A good policy before setting out is to enquire from camp officials what the current game movements are. During the rainy season, especially, the bird life at the main pan and Fischer’s Pan is worth viewing.

Etosha’s vegetation varies from dwarf shrub savannah and grasslands, which occur around the pan, to thorn-bush and woodland savannah throughout the park. Eighty per cent of all Etosha’s trees are mopane. West of Okaukuejo is the well-known Sprokieswoud, Phantom or Fairy Forest, the only location where the African moringa tree, Moringa ovalifolia, grows in a flat area.

Etosha is open throughout the year and is accessible by tarred roads via the Andersson Gate on the C38 from Outjo, the Von Lindequist Gate in the east from Tsumeb on the B1, the Galton Gate in the west from Kowares on the C35 and the King Nehale Gate located on the Andoni plains just north of the Andoni waterhole, which provides access from the north-central Owambo regions on the B1 from Onyati. All gates are open from sunrise to sunset and traffic in and out of the King Nehale Gate is managed on the same basis as at the Andersson and Von Lindequist gates, although visitors need to plan ahead to reach their accommodation establishments before sunset, if staying within the park.

During the rainy season this is a good option for viewing Fischer’s Pan, a birders’ delight especially for greater and lesser flamingos and even pelicans.

The park has five tourist resorts – Okaukuejo, favored for its floodlit waterhole where ‘specials’ such as elephant, giraffe, black rhino and lion can be viewed at night; Namutoni, characterized by the historic fort around which it is centered; Halali, situated halfway between Okaukuejo and Namutoni; Onkoshi Camp, an exclusive, low-impact, environmentally friendly tented camp about 16 miles north-west of Namutoni; and the newly opened Dolomite Camp situated in western Etosha. Visit Namibia Wildlife Resorts at www.nwr.com.nafor more information on accommodation and reservations.