Chasing Sunrise: Etosha National Park

Up with dawn we continued our journey north. Taking the much longer but more scenic route to Etosha National Park meant we had a very long driving day ahead.

The vast expanse of moon-like desert changed as we entered the northern part of Namib-Naukluft National Park, it turned hilly, but not raised hills, the only way to describe it was that it was like small hills with valleys. They were almost as far as the eye could see. Not sure we’ve seen anything quite like it. Then it opened up into big African savannah. We saw a few zebra and springboks but mainly kept seeing random ostriches.

At lunchtime we hit the coast and the large town of Walvis Bay. We found a shopping centre, did a big food shop, found some items Marie wanted – a blanket, a hot water bottle and a trowel (bush toilet) – and that Emma wanted – a frying pan. We also found a coffee shop, the coffee was just about drinkable.

We wanted to see something of Namibia’s skeleton coast so instead of heading straight inland we spent a novelty couple of hours on a tar sealed road. Long and straight it had a sea haze and the fog warnings it had were easy to imagine are a regular occurrence. We were stoked to come across one of the coast’s infamous ship wrecks as we thought they were all higher up the coastline(the rough seas caused by strong wind and currents are primarily to blame).

When we turned inland we endured a long time on a very wide but very corrugated gravel road. There was hardly any traffic. We’d lost civilisation in the blink of an eye.

We planned to spend the night in Damaraland, known for its rugged beauty, desert elephants and Himba tribes, it was exciting as flat boring landscape gave way to red earth, huge smooth boulders, rolling hills and small trees. We were very excited to pass our first elephant warning sign.

As the sun started to get low we reached the campsite we’d been aiming for. Set in amongst the tribes there would be just us so the young guy that runs it gave us the prime spot tucked up by some boulders. It was a very dark quiet night.

By lunchtime the next day we’d reached the National Park. Covering 20,000 square kilometres it is the second largest national park in Namibia.

“Etosha” means “great white place” and refers to its unique feature; a huge salt pan visible from space. it is also known for its abundance of wildlife and being a fantastic park for self drive safaris.

Despite early morning and before sunset being the times when wildlife is most active, as it was our first venture into seeing the huge wildlife of Africa we only paused to book ourselves onto a campsite outside the main gate before heading in. Our entry point was the centre of the Park. From there most people head east. So we went west.

The open savannah offered us plenty of zebra and springbok, but it wasn’t long before we were rewarded with four lionesses snoozing under a tree by a giraffe carcass with its insides all eaten. It was amazing to see them so close.

We spent the fading light of the afternoon looking at what had become almost dry watering holes but saw our first (live) giraffes, wilderbeast, couple more lions that were much further away, and finally as we were heading to leave our first elephant; a big male who got hissy at a car it stepped out in front of when it decided to cross the road. It reminded us that this is wild Africa. As did the lions that roared all through the night.

We rose early the next day to be at the Park gates when they opened at sunrise (7am). The 16km drive entry drive from the gate rewarded us with our first African elephant herd, eating breakfast by the side of the road it was complete with a playful baby which we watched smashing and dancing through the bushes for a while.

We spent the entire day in the Park, only leaving not long before the sun set. We saw heaps: wart hogs, zebra, jackals, gemsbok, eland, kudu, impala, nyala, wilderbeast, springbok, elephants, giraffes and lions. Having a bought a park map at the gate made a huge difference, it meant we were easily able to make our way through the park and pick the routes we wanted to take. The animals seem used to vehicles but there are signs everywhere reminding you to stay in your car and not get complacent. Designated picnic and toilet stops have fencing, though the few we stopped at were all in varying states of disrepair.

A few hours in and we stopped behind another parked 4×4 as it always makes sense to check out what others have spotted. They suddenly decided to reverse and despite Marie hitting the horn they drove into us – their rear driver’s side into our front passenger side panel. We’d left a good vehicle length gap and had parked staggered so we had been easily visible in their mirrors, they’d just got excited and hadn’t looked. We pulled alongside, 3 guys in a hire vehicle the driver was very apologetic. Luckily aside from bumper and light scrapes the damage was just to the panel so it was all cosmetic. We swapped all the details we could then carried on with our day. Our rental agreement requires us to report all accidents to the company ASAP no matter how minor so we duly did that at one of the Park campsites where we had lunch. It also required us to get a police report (it’s mandatory in Namibia to report accidents to the police within 24 hrs anyway). Failure to do either would result in us being responsible for the cost of the damage. The police usually at the camp couldn’t be found so we asked the police on the East gate we exited from that evening when we left the park. They couldn’t/wouldn’t do the report and directed us to the police station in the nearest town 20km away.

Despite sunset not being far away, with the police station being open 24 hours we decided to go and get it done. It had broken windows. We weren’t sure if this was a good sign. It wasn’t a quick task, the report is a long form they have to complete and the friendly policewoman needed some convincing not to ‘wait’ for the other tourists to report it and to do it there and then. It took quite some time. But finally we paid a fee and it was completed and stamped. We took photos of it and sent it to the hire company, and as the sun had now set got their approval to drive in the dark to the campsite.

As we got out of town and dusk turned to dark we discovered we’d lost our low beam lights. After pulling over and checking all switches etc we categorically confirmed that headlights or sidelights were our only options. It was a sketchy drive for a while until we found a rhythm of driving when there was no other vehicle coming, then when there was pulling off the highway and turning down to sidelights (so our back lights stayed on to be sure we didn’t get hit from behind) then do the next sprint after it passed.

It is hard enough driving in the dark with all the animals on the road (mainly small antelopes, warthogs etc). Before we lost signal we rang ahead to a safari camp we picked to stay checking they had space and telling them we would be arriving late (after dark). It was a stressful journey and we were very grateful to be finally get there.

We added getting the lights fixed to a growing list of vehicle niggles to get fixed, including tightening the bolts attaching the tent to the roof and replacing the canopy latch that had broken making the back of the vehicle insecure.

We’d stayed outside the east gate of the Park because that was the direction we are going, but we couldn’t resist delaying our departure the next morning to do one last game drive. The alarm went off at dawn and tired we’d decided to reset it and move a bit slower. This was obviously meant to be as our highlight of the morning was being perfectly timed to go around the corner and have a male lion come strutting out of the bush and flop down in front of us to bask in some morning rays before sauntering back again. He was majestic and walked like he owned his kingdom.

Over the course of our time in Etosha we also saw 7 rhino; 5 individuals and 1 pair. Despite being a fenced off protected Park the risk of poaching is still such that they ask you not to publish online information about the location of sightings. Our first one though was a pretty magical experience.

Click on any photo to enlarge an scroll through

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