Namibia's Etosha National Park

The Place of Dry Water

All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight I saw that day." Those were the words of American trader G. McKeiran in 1876 when he first trekked to the land that would become Namibia's Etosha National Park.

Etosha, "the place of dry water," is one of the great, and sparsely enjoyed, wildlife experiences remaining in Africa. Covering over 8,000 square miles, the park encompasses a vast salt pan 80 miles long. Once a vast lake fed by the Kunene River, the pan dried up thousands of years ago when the river waters chose a new course. Now one can stare across the huge depression of salt and dusty clay to witness herds of wildebeest almost hidden behind the hazy heat waves. Real or Mirage?

Savannah grassland and Mopani woodland surround the Pan. The variety of Acacia here have near-deadly spikes, giving them the name umbrella-thorn trees. Weird shapes of Moringa trees pierce the sky, creating an eerie scene known as The Haunted Forest.

Salt, dust, thorns, and heat may make Etosha seem a forbidding place to human intruders. But mammal and bird species call it home by the hundreds. Etosha is big game country. Elephants and giraffes roam the land, and the rare black rhinoceros puts in an occasional appearance. Both Burchell's and Hartmann's zebras graze the park. Antelope number in the tens of thousands: springboks, gemsboks, red hartebeests, blue wildebeests, elands and kudus. Even the elusive black-faced impala. The cats slinking through the grass are difficult to spot, but be assured prides of lions and a few cheetahs and leopards are stalking their prey.

Ostriches share the grasslands with the hoofed animals. The huge kori bustard, weighing over 30 pounds, lives mostly on the ground as well, seldom summoning the strength to propel its enormous mass into flight. Yellow-billed hornbills are common and over 300 more birds have been spotted. In years of good rain, the salt pan becomes a temporary lagoon. Flamingos and white pelicans wing in to breed.

The Pan itself is strictly off-limits, but a network of gravel roads runs along its edge. Animals congregate at the waterholes left over from the rainy season. Visitors are torn between sitting quietly for hours watching the game come and go at a single spot, or moving from one to another in hopes of more species. The ecology varies greatly across the width of the forest, and a traveler must cover the full terrain from salt pan to woodland to attempt all the major species.

Around the turn of the century, Etosha witnessed a scene straight out of Beau Gest. Seven German soldiers manned the ramparts of a white-washed fortress deep in the bush. Five hundred Owambo tribesman attacked. The Germans held out briefly, then somehow engineered an escape. The original fort was razed, but later rebuilt as one of the most striking in the German empire. Today the remaining structure houses a game lodge.

Etosha's winter, also the dry season, runs from May through September. During this period, wildlife congregates around the waterholes and the temperature is considerably cooler than the summer's 44 degrees C. Most visitors, although never too many for anyone used to the East Africa circuit, arrive during this period. The zebra, gemsbok, and wildebeest return now, having summered in the lush grasslands of Owamboland southwest of the park.

Etosha lies 500 kilometers north of Namibia's capital, Windhoek, and can be reached most easily by car.

Photos courtesy David Anderson's On Safari.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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