I would venture that most foreign visitors to sub-Saharan Africa have wildlife viewing as a high priority, and I was no exception. I was hoping to see some of the icons of Africa, the living symbols of the continent, like lions, rhinos, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, and whatever else serendipity could throw my way. Most of them I had already seen many times in zoos, but we’ve all been there. They’re usually sleeping, or hiding in the corner, or sometimes just plain sad to look at. I wanted to see something wild, something to make my heart pound, and sincerely hoped that a nature reserve half the size of Switzerland could deliver. The park is home to four of Africa’s “Big 5” (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and Cape buffalo), and is often considered one of the best places to see wild animals in Africa. I was squealing with excitement!
At first glance, the park didn’t seem like much. It was quiet, dusty, oftentimes just dirt and scrub as far as the eye can see. I was concerned. It was supposedly the beginning of the wet season, but the watering holes were tiny, and lacking in activity. We saw mostly some bovine animals, like kudu, impala, and oryx. The first spotting we were excited about was the giraffes. Etosha is considered by some to be the best place to view giraffes. These animals are incredibly photogenic, especially up close.
They were beautiful, but I did have my hopes up for something more exciting. After several more animal spottings of the bovine family, a flock of ostriches, and the first of many rhinos, I was beginning to think that this was as good as it would get, at least for that first game drive. I had just about given up, when all of a sudden, the driver banged on the roof of the truck cab to get our attention. I looked up and out the window and saw a cheetah, casually strolling parallel to the road, about 30 feet away from us. The loud noise appeared to startle her. I was worried she would run away, but after the initial shock, she relaxed and continued on her stroll. She continued walking mostly parallel to the road, but slowly getting farther away. She took her time, occasionally sitting down, or seeming to pose for us, and eventually she lay down in the dirt and allowed us to shoot photo after photo. She was a pro at this! And very generous with her time. Our first game drive was a success!
The next morning, it was an early start. Too early too look at the clock, but we needed to be up before the sun, because once it is up and active, most of the more interesting animals hide to protect themselves from the heat. Almost immediately after pulling out of the campsite, someone spotted a family of lions with two cubs. We couldn’t believe our luck! Two cats in a twelve-hour period! These guys did not linger, though; they had somewhere to be. The three females, two cubs, and one teenaged male walked with purpose, crossed the road behind our stopped truck, and disappeared into the bush.
Many parts of Etosha National Park are about as flat and featureless as the Great Plains of my home country, so if there is something out there, it is relatively easy to find, compared to camouflaged animals hiding in the bushes. It was in this way that we later spotted a solo adult male lion. He was the only feature in the grass, as far as the eye could see. Strong, confident, and terrifying, he marched up the grassy plain and crossed the dirt road in front of us, pausing briefly to stare at the truck, as if daring one of us to challenge him. I couldn’t have been more grateful to be on our sturdy truck, with windows that close. To see these large and dominant animals not in a zoo, but on their home terrain, is a powerful change of perspective.
Other sightings on that day included zebra, red hartebeest, a single hyena, and three more rhinos. We were surprised that we were seeing so many rhinos, a total of six in two days. Our guide took this as a good sign in regard to rhino populations. Namibia has managed to avoid the poaching problems that have decimated rhino populations in neighboring South Africa. The park currently has the largest population of black rhinos in the world, and a restored population of white rhinos. Sources recommend waiting patiently at watering holes to spot one, however, we saw all six rhinos hiding in the bushes. My hope is that it wasn’t luck that allowed us to see so many of them easily, but that it was reflective of rhino populations improving.
Our last stop before lunch was the Etosha salt pan. This vast, empty, white expanse covers almost a quarter of the park. It’s so large, it can be seen from space (purportedly). Thousands of years ago, the pan was a lake, fed by the Kunene River. In the time since, the river has changed course, and the lake dried up, refilling only for short periods after heavy rains. Almost nothing can live in it, so it makes some beautifully empty photos with the clouds taking center stage. It’s beautiful to look at, but as you can imagine, it’s not worth spending more than thirty minutes at.
For lunch, the truck pulled into one of the park’s many campsites. When the driver was maneuvering around a corner, one of the truck tires blew out. I considered it lucky that something like that happened at a campsite, and not while driving in the park amidst the wild cats of Africa. This put a slight delay on our plans of further game drives, however, the campsite had a decent restaurant and a large, sparkling pool. Most of us ate lunch at the restaurant, and we all jumped into the pool to cool off afterwards. No one was complaining about pool time after six hours of driving through the desert.
After the three-hour tire-changing intermission, we had one remaining game drive for the day. We had already seen six rhinos, a cheetah, a male lion, a family of lions, ostriches, giraffes, and countless bovines. Most of us were pretty satisfied with that, and only half-heartedly searched for the only major African animals we hadn’t seen in the park: elephants and leopards. We never did see them, possibly due in part to our reduced enthusiasm. The following morning, on our way out of the park, we saw one final rhino, putting our count at seven. I honestly saw more than I was expecting, and could not believe how exciting it was to see some of these animals up close. Maybe going on wildlife safaris and game drives in Southern Africa is a cliché idea, an ordinary pursuit for visitors to this part of the world, but after this experience, I understand why.