In the dry and thirsty lands of Etosha National Park, the waterholes are where the action happens. From a secret hide with comfy seating and creative vantage points overlooking a waterhole, it’s only a matter of time before you get close to wildlife in their natural habitat, both big and small, from eye level.
On game drives and walking safaris, we’d explored the sweeping open plains of Etosha, its eerie green-and-white hued salt pan (so big it can be viewed from space) and its strange Moringa forests. The wild and rugged beauty of Etosha National Park’s diverse landscapes and distinctive wildlife had penetrated our souls, and we couldn’t get enough.
Fortunately, after exploring some 34,000 ha, our luxury Namibian lodge had a more relaxing option – a hide where we could get close to the game, unobserved and in complete safety.
Etosha is home to a variety of animals, including four of the Big Five (excluding buffalo), and rare and unusual species like the black-faced impala, Hartmann’s mountain zebra or the world’s smallest antelope, the Damara dik-dik. Though we’d seen a few of these out in the wild, we were thrilled at the idea of watching them unobserved.
Our hide had narrow, elongated windows with numerous, perfectly-positioned vantage points, as well as comfortable seating overlooking a waterhole. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there, allowing us unobstructed and uninterrupted prime viewing.
It was dawn, but the air was warm and we nibbled at snacks and tea as we watched the sun rise in a blast of citrus colours. We spoke in hushed voices, careful not to alert any cautious animals to our presence, letting the chorus of birdsong form the background soundtrack. With my field guide to Etosha at hand, my camera was lined up for the winning shot.
Watching Etosha’s wildlife from a hide is a bit of a waiting game. However, I found there was a certain kind of pleasure that comes from sitting in an almost-meditative silence. There was, of course, always the possibility that we would see little of interest, but this wasn’t likely in Etosha: a dry and dusty land that makes sure it many waterholes are a magnet for animals.
While we waited, my partner (reading from a guide book), told me that the name Etosha comes from the word Oshindonga, meaning ‘great white place’, referring to chalkiness of the giant Etosha salt pan. For most of the year, the pan is dry, and animals survive by drinking from waterholes fed mostly by man-made boreholes.
The clouds drifted by silently, casting their reflection over the still water. A southern yellow-billed hornbill, as we proudly confirmed in our field guide, perched motionlessly on a mopane tree before it raised its wings and flew off.
The longer we sat in silence, the more we noticed the finer details that surrounded us: the rustle of the grass which preceded a honey badger coming to the waterhole for a sip (an incredibly rare daylight sighting); the ripple of water as a bullfrog plops in; the trumpeting of a distant elephant. In this state of utter contentment, whether we saw this giant pachyderm in the flesh or not was immaterial.
The sudden appearance of a group of warthog was almost startling. They drank from the waterhole before wading in to cool off, while one youngster wallowed in the mud. As I was taking photos, a lion moved in. The warthog were unperturbed, and the two species peacefully shared the space.
We established that this lion was likely an old male, exiled from the pride by younger and stronger males. Our field guide revealed that they survive by stealing from other predators. There was no food to be found today, so after lowering his hindquarters at the edge for a cool sip of water (much like a big house cat), he moved off.
The waterhole grew busier as time passed … a herd of nervous impala, a mother and baby kudu, a long-legged giraffe. A while later, we heard a series of reverberations that sounded like the rumbling of the earth. My partner, dangling off the edge of the seat in excitement, whispered, ‘Elephant!’
The youngsters went in first, dashing in with joyous abandon while the adults kept a wary eye out for predators. Then they entered themselves, splashing and drinking with great sloshing and slurping noises. My camera clicked and whirred as I zoomed in for close ups of their salt-encrusted flanks and the tiny hairs that covered them, trying to capture their sheer enjoyment from every angle.
When they eventually moved off, we noticed that it was time for lunch, so we returned to our luxury Namibian safari lodge. Though we had the choice of game drives and walking safaris in the park, it was the hide that had given us the most intimate, almost voyeuristic experience into Africa’s wild heart. We’d come back for sunset, we promised ourselves.