giraffe drinking from a watering hole

Etosha National Park: Delve into the Vast Namibian Wilderness

Namibia, a country in Southwestern Africa, has some of the most extreme landscapes on the planet. It has got everything from savannas, to deserts, to oceans. These biomes not only sustain the human population but also a diverse range of plant and animal species. In fact, Namibia houses one of the largest national parks in the world, which is the topic for today’s post.

 

About Etosha National Park 

Etosha National Park in northern Namibia, a 22,270km2 enclosed area, is the largest protected saline wetland Africa.

The word Etosha in Oshindonga, a dialect of Ovambo, translates to ‘Great White Place’. In other local languages, the name has different meanings for their speakers. For example, it could also mean a ‘Place of Emptiness’. The place that they refer to is the 4760km2 Etosha pan that lies within the park. It is the largest salt pan in Africa, and it is so huge that it can be seen from space.

Etosha National Park on the map
Etosha National Park on the map. Image Credit: Africa Geographic

The salt pan, the surrounding terrain, the natural springs and man-made waterholes act like a conservatory for over 114 species of rare and endangered mammals, 400 species of birds, reptiles and fish, along with many native plant species. Currently, the park is managed by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

 

A Brief History of Etosha National Park: Discovery to Present-Day

Discovery 

The place was discovered by Europeans in 1851, when Sir Francis Galton, a scholar, and Charles Andersson, an explorer, stumbled upon the vast barren lands with the aid of local Ovambo copper traders. They first arrived at present-day Namutoni, then, they came across a giant dried-up lake. They were introduced to the Etosha Pan, by its real name, Etotha but, the Europeans found it difficult to pronounce it, so they started calling it Etosha.

This area was home to the Hai//om San people of Namibia, or bushmen, who lived their lives as hunters and gatherers, mutually sharing the land with the huge population of wildlife in the area. The lands in proximity to Etosha were inhabited by the Herero people.

Hai//om people walking through the namib savanna
The Hai//om people. Natives of the land where Etosha National Park lies today. Image Credit: This is Namibia

European Settlement

Around 30 years after its discovery, in 1885, a trader by the name William Worthington Jordan purchased a huge chunk of the land from the locals, paying the value of South African Pound (a discontinued currency) £300 in weapons, preserved meat and alcohol.

Trading activities were carried out in this area and over time, the area expanded, connecting it to the west and eastern trading routes. This opened up the path for European men to come and hunt down the wildlife, for entertainment. They hunted the animals nearly to the point of extinction, drastically reducing the population of wild animals.

In the same year, William Worthington Jorden donated a portion of his land to explorers from South Africa, returning from Angola, transforming this piece of land into the short-lived republic of Upingtonia.

In the following year, a conflict between the traders and settlers with the Hai//om people led to the Hai//om chief, Nehale Mpingana, killing William Worthington Jorden. After this event, Upingtonia was abandoned. By 1887, the region was ultimately engulfed into German Southwest Africa, as the country was colonized by the German Empire.

 

Period of German Colonization

As the Europeans settled down and began establishing farms, their livestock was being infected by a contagious virus commonly known as rinderpest. The virus affected many of the animals in Etosha too. However, back in  1896, the German government gave the order to kill all wildlife to prevent the spread of the virus to the livestock. To carry out the order, German troops took control of parts of Etosha such as Okaukuejo, Namutoni and nearby lands. By 1899, the German Police had even constructed a fort in Namutoni, to use as a post for that purpose.

A few years later, in 1904 Nehale Mpingana and the Hai//om men attacked the troops and completely destroyed the fort. The fort was later rebuilt and remains one of the major attractions in Namutoni.

white coloured namutoni fort
Namutoni fort in Etosha National Park. Image Credit: African Tourer

In 1907, the governor of German Southwest Africa declared the area a game reserve after accepting a proposition made in 1902 by one of the district administrators of a town near Etosha. This was done in an attempt to keep hunters and poachers away and protect the animals.

Some studies suggest that the area was only made a game reserve after the authorities realized the economic benefits from it by selling the meat of the wild game, producing and selling animal products.

Nevertheless, by 1907, the hunting of certain species was banned and there was a rise in the population of some of the animals that were at the brink of extinction earlier.

 

Period of South African Rule to Post Independence

The place, however, wasn’t immediately open for public viewing. Tourists had to wait another 50 years or so but, to make it more accommodating for tourists, the authorities had the Hai//om people forcefully relocated without any compensation. Taking their home and culture away from them and compelling them to lead a completely different lifestyle. It wasn’t before the early 21st century, that the government acknowledged the fact that the place where Etosha National Park stands today really belongs to the Hai//om people. Moreover, they’re devising a plan to rehabilitate them to those lands.

In  1967, the game reserve was declared a national park during South African rule. Back then, the park was 100,000 km2 in area, but it decreased to 1/4th of its size over the years.

Tourism in Etosha really took off in the 70s, attracting tourists with safaris and viewing wild animals in their natural habitat. And, even today, it is an important spot not only for tourists but also for the protection of the animals and their habitat, as the park makes immense efforts for their conservation.

 

Biodiversity 

The Etosha pan is a vast space covering around a quarter of the area of the entire park. The salt pan is said to have formed 10 million years ago. At that time, the pan was a lake and was supplied with water flowing from the northern Kunene River, in Angola. However, somewhere in the middle, tectonic plate movements changed the course of the river, cutting off the lake’s water source. Today, only remnants of that lake stretch 130km in length and 50km in width in certain places, leaving behind just a saline clay floor.

the vast barren saline etosha pan
Vast Etosha salt Pan. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This unique environment has gained the Etosha Pan a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Contrary to what researchers say, the Hai//om tribe have their own story about the formation of the pan. According to legend, a village in that area was once raided and its people were brutally murdered. Only one woman survived the event and in her grief of losing her family and people, she cried. She cried so much that her tears formed a lake. Once the lake dried, it left behind the salt pan.

When it rains, the rainwater floods the pan, creating a shallow lake. That water, however, is too saline for animals to drink. On the other hand, it acts as the ideal breeding ground for water birds like flamingos and pelicans.

wildlife near a waterhole in etosha national park
Wildlife near a waterhole. Image Credit: Namibia Tours & Safaris

The area around the pan is fairly barren but there are some patches of grass and shrubs that make an appearance after rainfall. The further the distance from the pan, the more the grass and shrubs, especially the kinds that are perennial. This sustains large and diverse wildlife such as giraffes, zebras, oryx, ostriches, springboks, kudu, elephants, black-footed cats, the native white quilled bustard, the Etosha agama and other types of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.

The rarest sort of animal that thrives in Etosha, is the black rhino, a highly endangered animal that roams freely in the vast enclosure.

black rhino in etosha national park
Black Rhino. Image Credit: Romina Facchi

Such a variety and population of animals also attract predators, so lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas also thrive close to their buffet of prey.

The animals roam around the park freely, living in their natural habitat; foraging the land for food and finding natural springs or watering holes for water. The saline environment and limited vegetation don’t make it easy for the animals, so, only the fittest survive.

 

The Etosha Experience

It is safe to say that Etosha National Park is on the itinerary of all tourists visiting Namibia as it is the number one tourist destination in the country.

The Etosha Experience revolves around the observation of wildlife in silence, photography, learning about the habitat and animals and, the stay in the park’s luxurious rest camps.

Entering the national park requires an entrance fee, which depends on the number of people in the group, the age and the type of vehicle. Here’s a link to the official website of Etosha National Park, for detailed and updated information on the entrance fees: https://etoshanationalpark.co.za/

A trip to Etosha national park could simply be a day trip, an overnight stay or a 10-day-long trip. The park has the facilities to accommodate your desired trip. They permit viewing the park from personal vehicles, or, alternatively, they offer package tours, guided tours and safaris following designated tracks.

Click here for more information on Etosha National Park safaris.

For overnight stays, they have rest camps with a variety of lodging facilities and amenities, ranging from basic rooms to luxurious chalets. They even have camping arrangements. Additionally, swimming pools, braaing spaces, restaurants, bars, a petrol station, and shops can be found in the camps.

a circular thatched lodge in etosha
Ongava Lodge in Etosha National Park. Image Credit: Africa Odyssey

The rest camps also offer tourists spaces to observe the various natural or man-made waterholes from where they can quietly watch the animals gathering to quench their thirst. The types of animals gathered around these watering holes differ from season to season. For example, in the winters (June to September), the climate is drier, thus, making it harder for animals to find water sources, so they all crowd the waterholes. However, in summer (October to March), there is plenty of rainfall, so the water is captured in the dents of the barren land, providing enough water for the animals to not make frequent appearances in the waterholes. As a result, it would be harder to spot animals. Hence, it is best to plan prior to making the trip to Etosha.

Note: Namibia, being located in the southern hemisphere, experiences summers and winters in the opposite months to the northern hemisphere.

 

Okaukuejo Camp

Located south of the Etosha pan, it is the oldest tourist camp in the national park. The main attractions are the waterhole with floodlights. After sunset, the floodlights are switched on, illuminating the waterhole and revealing the animals that gather to drink water. This camp is the best place to observe animal behaviour in the dark.

Giraffes drinking from a waterhole
Giraffes drinking from a waterhole at night in Okaukuejo. Image Credit: TripAdvisor

These watering holes in the camp are some of the best sites for viewing the following animals:

1. The Aus waterhole attracts black-faced impala, elephant, kudu, springbok, zebra and rhinos.

2. Okondeka: Located at the edge of the salt pan, it is great for viewing lions and giraffes.

3. The Olifantsbad waterhole attracts elephants, lions, black-nosed impalas, red hartebeests, gemsbok, kudu, and zebras.

Okaukuejo is also where the Etosha Ecological Research Institute is located. It is an establishment dedicated to researching the national park, the findings of which prove useful to the entire world.

 

Halali Camp

Halali rest camp is located between Namutoni and Okaukuejo and it is a place where one can find more vegetation compared to other rest camps. It is also the rest camp with the largest number of natural springs. All these advantages make it the ideal place to spot black rhinos, leopards and elephants.

The word Halali is the word traditionally used to indicate the end of a hunt, in German. This symbolizes the transformation of the park from being a former ground for hunting to being a well preserved national park.

elephants drinking water in etosha
Elephants at a waterhole in Halali, Etosha National Park. Image Credit: Flickr

Here are three waterholes perfect for viewing the following animals, in addition to the aforementioned ones:

1. Charitsaub waterhole attracts animals such as springbok, gemsbok and, if fortunate, even cheetahs.

2. Rietfontein is a preferred spot photographer. Here, springbok, elephants and lions can be seen drinking from the waterholes day and night.

3. Goas is frequented by black-faced impalas, blue wildebeests, red hartebeests, elephants, lions and zebras.

The most-visited waterholes are all in close proximity to the Halali rest camp.

 

Namutoni Camp

This resting camp is located on the eastern side of the Etosha National Park. Other than the old fort built by the German troops, it is also famous for the thousands of flamingos that come to breed in Fisher’s pan in the rainy season.

flamingos breeding in the etosha salt pan
Flamingos in the Etosha pan. Image Credit: African Wanderlust

The resting camp has several waterholes, but here are three must-visits:

1. Kalkheuwel is a busy natural waterhole great for birdwatching and photography. It is the best spot to take close-up shots of animals. Elephants, gemsboks, kudus, giraffes, various species of eagles and the yellow-billed kite are sure to look out for.

2. Klein Namutoni is a man-made waterhole a small hike south of the resting camp. It is great for viewing elephants, giraffes, kudu, gemsbok, black-faced impala, Damara Dikdik and zebra in the mornings and afternoons.

3. Okerfontein, located at the edge of the salt pan, is frequented by lions and cheetahs in the spring.

 

Importance of Visiting National Parks

A national park usually refers to a piece of public land set aside for the preservation and protection of natural habitat along with its plant and animal species. It is done to conserve biodiversity, allowing space for plants and animals to thrive in their natural habitat for the long haul. This sort of protection allows threatened species, important for balancing the ecosystem, to repopulate. The protection of native species simultaneously preserves natural resources such as keeping the waters and the air clean.

Being a protected area means that human activities like raising livestock, hunting and poaching are absolutely forbidden, leaving these areas uncontaminated.

This safeguards the country’s natural heritage and history that date back to the times of early human settlement. And, visiting these spaces is a way to connect with the land. Even as a tourist, understanding the land and climate provides underrated information about the destination.

Moreover, the conservation of animals and plants, especially, protects us from extreme natural calamities. For example, planting mangrove trees is especially effective against soil erosion.

From a more pedagogic point of view, visiting national parks is a very hands-on way to learn about nature, how the world works, science, history and the importance of the environment. It is the perfect medium to provide an educational experience in a way that benefits both the visitor and the environment.

From an economic perspective, visiting national parks that charge an entrance fee and have a multitude of activities to do are not only encouraging tourism but also raising the funds required for the conservation of the park. Plus, tourism, as we all know, provides definite economic benefits by generating revenue and creating jobs for the local people.

Speaking of tourism, national parks are the most accessible places for adventure. Many national parks provide the opportunity to do things like zip-lining, snorkelling, scuba diving, cliff jumping, rock climbing, kayaking and so on. In the case of Etosha National Park, there is the opportunity of going on a safari in the wilderness.

tourists in a jeep seeing black rhinos
Safari in Etosha National Park. Image Credit: iSafari.com

Lastly, if we consider health, both mental and physical, we can benefit from a trip closer to nature. In most cases, there is a certain amount of physical exertion in these trips, either in the form of walking, hiking, climbing or trekking for example. In the case of Etosha National Park, it is advised not to leave the vehicle unless specifically instructed to do so or, unless in a rest camp. But, that is because there is that risk of becoming prey to the wild animals living in their natural habitat.

However, like trips to other national parks, it definitely benefits mental health as being outdoors, close to nature, animals and plants can drastically improve mood. Clean air, silence and a change of landscape are proven to relax and de-stress after a tough life in the city.

To recap, we looked into the history of Etosha National Park in detail, hence familiarizing ourselves with the backstory and culture of the place. Then, we learned about the terrain, the unique geographical characteristics in which a diverse range of plants and animals strive to survive. Next, we got an idea of what it would be like to spend time in Etosha and, lastly, we discussed the importance of visiting national parks in general.

 

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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References

BERRY, H., ROCHER, C., PAXTON, M. & COOPER, T., 1997. Origin and meaning of place names in the Etosha National Park, Namibia. MADOQUA, 20(1), pp. 13-25.

Dieckmann, U., 2003. The Impact of Nature Conservation of the San: A Case Study of Etosha National Park. In: San and the State: Contesting Land, Development, Identity and Representation. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, pp. 39-88.

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