Namibia (Self-Drive Safari)

In the world of African safaris, Namibia is underrated and understated––and that’s to the advantage of tourists and, most important, to the wildlife that roam this large, sparsely-populated nation in southwestern Africa.

The resurgenence of wildlife poaching in Africa, fueled by demand for elephant tusk trinkets and rhino horn elixers in Southeast Asian nations including China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and The Philippines, is a distressing and senseless destruction of animal life that if left unchecked threatens the survival of these two magnificent species. But the Namibian government’s vigorous anti-poaching programs have, at least for the time being, helped Nambian wildlife to continue to thrive.

And that’s on display in Etosha National Park, a huge enclave located in northern Namibia that’s one of the continent’s largest game parks. Etosha is noted for its abundant wildlife that’s accessible via self-drive safaris where it’s just you, your vehicle, the savannah and whatever animals cross your path.

During my three-day visit there in May 2012, I felt I was behind the wheel of a television nature show: slowing down as a herd of zebra ran in front of my vehicle for about 100 feet before they peeled off into the surrounding grassland; rounding a corner and coming upon a giraffe noshing on the upper branches of a roadside tree; stopping along the side of the road to watch two lions fight over a kill.

The park’s calling card are its roughly 50 springs and waterholes where more than 100 African mammal species congregate in droves during the dry season from May through October. The density of animals at these spots is among the highest in Africa, making Etosha an incredible place for wildlife photography. The waterholes are connected by a network of gravel roads that are accessible by 2WD vehicles, although 4WD vehicles are preferable.

The self-drive option brings affordability and independence to the safari experience, in contrast to the exclusive––and pricey––guided tours prevalent in other African countries.

Among the safari countries in Africa, Namibia generally lacks the buzz of Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa, or of its southern African neighbors South Africa and Botswana.

Kenya and Tanzania have the allure of high-end safari camps with guided tours. Botswana’s camps are aimed at the fly-in crowd. South Africa has several self-drive safaris, which tend to get clogged with traffic given that country’s popularity with tourists. Because Namibia is more off-the-beaten path, it can lend itself to a more intimate self-drive safari experience. (That said, Etosha isn’t immune to traffic congestion during the peak season.)

Self-drive safaris let you take your time, absorb the scenery, stop at your leisure and not have to travel according to anyone else’s schedule.

GATES CLOSE AT DUSK

I arrived at the Anderson Gate at the park’s southern entrance on a late afternoon after driving more than four hours north from the capital, Windhoek, on a warm day under a spotless sky. With park permit in hand, I proceeded 10 miles to Okaukuejo (pronounced o-ka-kwee-yo), one of five lodging camps within the park.

I checked in around 5:00. It being late May, or early winter in the southern hemisphere, sundown was less than a half-hour away and that’s when Okaukuejo––and all of Etosha’s camps––close their gates until sunrise.

I dropped off my gear in my chalet by the camp’s waterhole, grabbed my camera and walked a couple hundred feet to the waterhole viewing area. The setting sun cast a golden glow as a herd of zebra moseyed back into the surrounding bush and a lone male elephant emerged from the bush and bellied up to the waterhole.

Several times he stuck his long trunk into the water, curled it into his mouth and sprayed in the water. He then shook himself as dust flew off his massive head and ears. With his thirst slaked, he ambled off into the gloaming.

Okaukuejo is considered one of the best waterholes in southern Africa, and my initial taste was just an appetizer for what was to come.

It was dinnertime, and I walked over to the Okaukuejo camp restaurant, grabbed an outdoor table under the clear, starry African night sky, ordered a beer and partook of the buffet-style meal where the main dishes were freshly-grilled game meat. The gemsbok steaks (a large antelope also known as oryx) were juicy and meaty, the big rolls were doughy, and the coffee was good. The rest of the food was average, but satisfying.

Okaukuejo’s lodging is a mix of chalets––some luxury, others family-style––and a large campsite with washing stations and barbecue pits. My chalet was a small but comfortable half of a duplex housed in a round, earthen-colored structure topped by a pointy thatched roof that resembled a large native hut. The camp has a pool, a gas station, a shop, and a bar/restaurant. And, of course, its waterhole.

RUSH HOUR


The smallish, oval waterhole is surrounded on two sides by a semi-circle stone wall along the camp’s perimeter. In between the wall and waterhole is a buffer of maybe 150 to 200 feet. To the west and north lies the surrounding bush of mixed scrub, mopane savannah and dry woodland from which zebra, elephants, wildebeest, oryx, springboks, kudu, giraffes, jackals and other animals come and go.

At times, the steady stream of roaming animals going to and fro the waterhole and the vast savannah beyond resembled city rush hour traffic. It’s an incredible sight. Both nights I was at Okaukuejo, black rhinos––two one night; three the other night––came to drink at the floodlit waterhole.

People take in the scene in hushed tones, and you can hear animal noises such as the rumbling, oinking sounds of springboks and the braying and dog-like yelps of zebras. A few people had their sundowner cocktails at the waterhole, making it a watering hole in more ways than one. That seemed like a neat idea at first, but I also thought it kind of treated the experience as being like a day at the zoo.

That said, the Okaukuejo waterhole is amazing. Yet the rest of Etosha beckoned. I overheard someone at dinner say he saw three cheetahs in the early morning at one of the other waterholes. So I set out at dawn the next day looking for big cats.

GREAT WHITE PLACE

Etosha is roughly 8,500 square miles, or bigger than Massachusetts. Its name means “Great White Place,” after the huge, white mineral pan that covers about one-quarter of the park. Most of the action in Etosha is just south of the mineral pan in a stretch of about 90 miles that includes Okaukuejo and two other tourist camps––Halali and Namutoni. The three camps are interspersed about 45 miles apart with Halali sandwiched between the other two, and between and around them are numerous waterholes.

Armed with a map of that general area spotlighting the most popular waterholes and the animals that generally frequent them, I ventured out in my Daihatsu Terios 4WD vehicle hoping to find wildlife. The speed limit in the park is 60 km/hour, or about 40 mph. The white gravel roads kick up a lot of dust, so keep your camera gear covered.

It was late May which, though it’s considered peak season, is still a tad early from being true peak season when the dry period takes hold and forces animals to come out of the bush in greater numbers searching for water. That period generally begins in earnest in June. So traffic was still light in the park from both tourist and wildlife perspectives, though there was still plenty of the latter to provide thrills.

One of my favorite moments was at the Nebrownii waterhole, not far from Okaukuejo, where in the early-morning light I watched a male lion slink toward a female who was dining on a dust-coated animal carcass. After a brief tussle, the male walked away with the prize as a couple of jackals hovered nearby hoping for scraps and the female walked away dejectedly, yet remained within a short distance of the male as it devoured the carcass.

LONELY ROAD


From Okaukuejo, I drove three hours west to the Dolomite camp, a more exclusive lodging facility that opened in April 2011 and is perched upon a high, craggy dolomite hill. The western one-third of Etosha had been off-limits to tourists until recently, and it retained an isolated feel.

The drive to Dolomite veered from pedestrian to exhilarating, and from easy hardpack gravel to loose, bumpy gravel with occasional bouts of slippery driving and a couple stretches of bouncing and jolting road conditions that required slowing down and dropping my manual-drive 4WD chariot into third gear. Such bumpy conditions are jokingly referred to as an African massage.

During the entire drive I passed just two vehicles heading east, and that was during the first half of the drive. I left Okaukuejo sometime in the noon hour and figured that would be ample time to reach Dolomite before dusk. It was, but as the afternoon progressed and I traveled further west, I realized I likely wouldn’t encounter other motorists because folks heading east would’ve passed me by now to reach their next destination by dusk.

The thought of being alone in the African wild (even if it was in a national park) brought with it the fervent wish to not have car trouble at that moment in time. Although the company I booked my trip with, Windhoek-based ATI Holidays, provided me a loaner cell phone with all of the numbers of my lodging facilities pre-set, it wasn’t a satellite phone and I wondered if I’d be able to call for help if something happened in that part of the park.

WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS


But I pushed those thoughts aside and reveled in the moment. Things got particularly interesting as I neared the end of my journey to Dolomite. First, I approached a section where herds of zebra and springbok grazed by the side of the road. I slowed down as the animals scattered into the fields. On a couple of occasions, zebra to my left (the south side), ran in the middle of the road ahead of me for about 100 feet before they peeled off into the grassy terrain to my right.

Around this time on two occasions I startled giraffes resting under roadside trees––giraffes can rise pronto when they have to. And a couple of times I came upon warthogs, which sort of resemble razorbacks. One ran along the road in front of me for a brief time, its short legs scampering quickly and its body jiggling as it moved with surprising speed before it ducked to its left into the tall grass.

Not long after I passed a road marker indicating that Dolomite was 38 kilometers away, I pulled into the Duineveld waterhole entrance and witnessed a wondrous panorama of African wildlife at the waterhole and spread out across the plain––scores of zebras, about a dozen giraffes, numerous ostriches and oryx, some warthogs and wildebeest, and about 20 elephants.

I was the only person there. Indeed, I reckoned I was the only human between there and Dolomite to the west, and maybe the only person between there and Okaukuejo to the east. It was one of the most singularly amazing experiences of my life.

LION ANTICS

Dolomite was a notch above Okaukuejo in terms of ambiance, what with its infinity pool overlooking miles of open African space and two à la carte restaurant areas serving food that was a step above the buffet-style fare at some of the other camps. The chalets are spacious luxury tents with canvas walls, wood floors, A-framed thatch roofs, fabulous showers (wide head with an ample flow of hot water), and balconies overlooking miles of empty African terrain. The chalets also have their own small patio and pool.

Dolomite also has its quirks, such as you park your vehicle down below and someone comes down in a golf cart to drive you to the reception area. From there you’re driven up the steep walkway to your room in the same golf cart (with your luggage in the back).

And you’re told not to go anywhere at night without an attendant. They say the reason is because Dolomite is unfenced and in a wild area, but I wonder if it’s also partly because they don’t want people getting hurt on the steep, dark path.

Regardless, I enjoyed my one night there. The beer in the bar was cold, and my dinner of a delicately seasoned pan-fried fish (kabekjou) with roasted potatoes, green beans and cauliflower, served with a South African white wine, was delicious. Dessert was a brownie with cream of lemon sauce. I left the table a very satisfied man.

At 6:30 the next morning, I went on a guided safari tour led by Dolomite’s guide, Barnabas. Two German couples were also on board. Etosha’s western end was still new from a tourist perspective and I couldn’t find a map of its waterholes, so a tour was a good way to see the area.

We visited the Rateldraf waterhole and marveled as a handful of young lions roughhoused at the water’s edge under the watchful eyes of their mothers in the distance. But they gave way when a lone male elephant came out of the bush to get a drink. It was funny watching the youthful, rambunctious lions concede the waterhole, and then keep their wary yet respectful distance from the large pachyderm.

After the elephant got his fill, he walked toward our open-air Toyota Land Cruiser and got within about 60 to 70 feet and grunted. I looked at Barnabas, who seemed unconcerned. The elephant, his curiosity satisfied, sauntered off into the African wild.

Tourist Tips
The best time for animal viewing is during the dry season from May through October, as the park dries out and thirsty animals visit Etosha’s network of waterholes for a drink. The rainy season has its own charms, such as a greener landscape and a water-filled mineral pan that attracts thousands of wading birds such as flamingos.

Getting around
Etosha’s network of gravel roads is well-maintained and easily driven with 2WD vehicles vehicles. That said, 4WD vehicles are better suited for a rough section of corrugated road between the Okaukuejo camp and the Dolomite camp in the park’s western section. The park’s speed limit is 60 kilometers/hour. Etosha’s five tourist camps close their gates between sundown and sunrise, so time management is important while exploring the park’s waterholes.

Major car rental agencies are located at Windhoek’s main airport. I booked my trip through Windhoek-based ATI Holidays (U.S. toll free 1-888-333-3876, http://www.infotour-africa.com,). They arranged lodging and vehicle rental, and provided maps and a cell phone.

Lodging
The five tourist camps in Etosha National Park are operated by the government entity Namibia Wildlife Resorts (http://www.nwr.com.na). Reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators. The three oldest camps––Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni––underwent major renovations in 2007. Each camp has a restaurant, a shop selling basic goods, a gas station, a swimming pool, and various lodging options ranging from high-end chalets to camping facilities. They also have floodlit waterholes with viewing areas.

The higher-end Onkoshi resort camp opened in 2008 and sits on an isolated peninsula overlooking the eastern edge of the Etosha Pan, making it a prime bird watching site during the rainy season. Guests arrive at Namutoni and are driven in safari vehicles to their lodging at Onkoshi. Nightly rates per person during high season are US$336 to US$360.

In the park’s far western section, Dolomite camp is Etosha’s newest high-end option. Its thatched-roof chalets sit atop a high dolomite hill with sweeping views of the surrounding bush country, and are spaced apart among the rock outcroppings for privacy. Visitors park their vehicles at the foot of the hill and are driven up to the reception area in a golf cart. Dolomite has two à la carte restaurant areas serving food that’s a step above the buffet-style fare at some of the other camps.

All five tourist camps offer guided game drives.

There are a number of private lodges in the surrounding area outside the park. The Ongava Lodge (http://www.ongava.com), sits on a private game reserve near the Anderson Gate and is considered the most exclusive Etosha-area lodging.

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