The ‘immense hollow’ of Etosha Pan is dry for much of the year, but a series of waterholes around its fringes provide a vital lifeline for its many mammal species. They are also the best places to see game, so turn off the engine and wait for the show to begin.
Gazing out over a floodlit Etosha waterhole as we ate dinner the previous night was the perfect curtain-raiser for our day spent waterhole hopping in Etosha National Park. The floodlights created a pool of light extending just beyond the water, which meant that thirsty creatures would emerge suddenly from the gloom.
We felt we’d dipped our toes into the experience of waterhole safaris in Etosha, and it gave us an insight into the key attribute required: patience.
To reach some of the more distant Etosha waterholes, we left our luxury Namibian safari lodge at daybreak. After several hot, dry days it was delightful to feel a cool breeze on our faces. Our guide explained that each waterhole has its own character, and tends to be frequented by certain species.
Other than during the brief summer rains when Etosha Pan blushes with flamingos, it’s completely dry and bone white. Natural springs and fountains plus some man-made boreholes feed the waterholes along the edge of the pan, and without them it’s hard to see how any animals could survive here.
But survive they do, advancing in long, wobbly lines through the shimmering heat mirages. The haze makes them appear to stagger drunkenly on spindly legs, like Dali’s elephant.
The first waterhole we arrived at appeared to be deserted. Our guide switched off the engine and the vast silence of Etosha settled over us. His instincts were spot on, however, and we had not been there for more than a few minutes when a small herd of impala arrived. Not just any impala, but endemic black-faced impala, each of which looks as though it has had a broad brushstroke of midnight painted on its muzzle.
They drank warily, and not all at once – there were always one or two glancing nervously around. Later that day, we would see why. They were joined by a male kudu, and we were struck by the size difference between these two species.
A black-backed jackal caused a ripple of excitement when it trotted around the far side of the waterhole, but nobody panicked.
The waterhole hopping experience in Etosha was like waiting for a bus – after a period of hanging around, everything would arrive at once. We found that there was a dilemma at the heart of this experience, and I found myself mentally singing those famous lyrics of The Clash: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’
We were happy to trust our guide as to how long we should spend at each waterhole before moving on to another of his most reliable spots. The second proved to be the most photogenic. Zebra were there in numbers when we arrived, and in their thirst, they’d waded in – no doubt muddying the waters. The reflections on the surface as they bent their heads to drink made for some of the best images of our entire safari.
After the zebra had left, only the breeze ruffled the water. For some time, there was no activity, but we never once checked our watches. Our guide told us the story of how the first European explorers had stumbled across Etosha, and some of the local creation myths that explained its existence.
At one point, he left the vehicle and walked a few paces to a nearby bush. No, not for the reason you might have expected (especially after we’d all enjoyed hot coffee with homemade rusks from the breakfast basket)! Instead, he returned with a small, bright green chameleon clinging to a twig.
The chameleon regarded all of us at the same time as it rotated its turreted eyes, then stalked back to the bush when our guide carefully returned it to the shade.
It was at our final waterhole for the morning that we had the most dramatic sighting. The day was much warmer now, and we were parked in the shade and looking forward to an Etosha Pan brunch.
Springbok were drinking calmly, without the sense of urgency that the zebra had shown. That all changed in a heartbeat – it seemed we were not the only ones intent on lunch.
As though a bomb had been detonated, there were springbok leaping and bounding in every direction. One rushed into the water, before splashing away. It took us a moment to realise what had happened.
A lioness that none of us – not even our guide – had spotted, had erupted from behind a small patch of tawny grass and burst into the herd. We couldn’t understand how she had failed to catch one, but as the dust settled and the tattoo of urgent hooves faded, she was left standing alone by the water’s edge, flanks heaving from her sudden exertion.
As though to save face, she crouched down to drink, pretending that this was what she’d planned all along…