As the wheels of the land rover cracked across the dry crust of the Namibian soil I gazed across the plains ahead. It was July in Namibia and the dry season was in full swing. Arriving from the lush Zambezi river my thoughts were filled with the verdant wetland smell of damp bush and water reeds, Etosha, as I was to discover, is an altogether different beast. Approaching the centrepiece of the park one sees a vast salt pan surrounded by grasslands covered in bone-white sand. The closer you come to the centre the farther you can see on all sides, beyond the painted pale shrubbery into the smoky veil of the veld. Etosha does not rise before you, it expands.
Dust rises amidst the vaporous thermals of the sand flats at the slightest whisper of wind, casting shadows across the landscape. The amount of heat generated is astounding, creating haze like I’ve never seen before. At midday the entire salt pan seems a giant unlit bunsen burner, releasing columns of clear shifting gas into our atmosphere. Through the gloaming of the horizons emerges what for me was one of the most impressive spectacles of Etosha, its elephants.
Etosha has plenty of elephants, and being used to the elephants of the denser bushland of Tanzania the Namibian pachyderms seemed larger. As impressive is the way the environment of the salt flats affected their appearance. Elephants habitually toss sand and dust over themselves. In Etosha this activity paints them white, so much sometimes that their hide resembles the color of their tusks. It can be an unearthly experience to see these white wraiths shifting through the faraway bush, wrapped in the velvet shimmer of the heated earth. Up close they lose their spectral qualities but are no less remarkable, seeming to be massive moving statues, the crunch of their feet a shot of sound in the quiet.
On my second day in the park I spotted a real treat for an East African in the bush, a black rhino. He ambled along with the land rover for at least a kilometer, with little care paid to his excited observers. After allowing for just enough time for a morning photoshoot he vanished back into the bush, surprisingly quiet for such a juggernaut. I was to find out that rhino’s in Etosha were more than a once in a lifetime spotting. To my surprise and delight I would see several more that day, at close range. By the end of my stay I had seen more than exist in the entire Serengeti. Although recently increased poaching is ramping up pressure on the animals it was still good to see such a thriving population of this ancient strider of the savannah.
A dry and parched plain Etosha provides excellent spotting opportunities as water-seeking fauna congregates upon the scattered watering holes of the park. In most cases the action was never too far away from these small pools, forming the lifeblood the entire park. The consequence for visitors of the park are useful, leading to significantly reduced search times for those fantastic viewing opportunities. In the early hours of the afternoon the number of animals approaching popular water holes was in the hundreds. The pools are quickly obscured by the massing herds of elephant, zebra, and the odd greater kudu. Here competition for space was often fierce. A shrill trumpet from the elephant herd would send the antelope and zebra scuttling for safety until the giants had drunk their fill.
As a safari experience I enjoyed my time in Etosha greatly, but it certainly had its challenges for me as a photographer. I’m quite fond of my 600mm Sigma Sport, and of the advantages it provides for capturing animals at a distance. In Etosha however it was a struggle to capture images that met the quality standard I set for sharpness due to the strength of the heat haze and the amount of dust. The best option for me was to adapt and capture scenes that embraced the environment and it’s hazy sphere.
In terms of gear maintenance it was a nightmare, with the ultra-thin and light dust getting absolutely everywhere. Even in the land rover sunlight scattered across the millions of particles in the air, swirling at the slightest movement. After just a few lens changes I would start to see artifacts and dust on the images I took. I repeatedly had to give my kit a full cleanup. The Etosha salt pans took the gold, from everywhere I’ve been, for gear cleaning time…
Thankfully, it was not all wiping and dusting however, as Etosha is a well run park with affordable accommodation and great roads. There is plenty of information available at park headquarters, and there are anti-poaching patrols visible several times a day, which is quite a comfort as many parks lack their presence so keenly. Almost as if to respond to this honor guard energy and zest for life courses through the animals of the park. I noticed many were more playful and active during the dry season, as compared to other parks I have visited. This was particularly a characteristic seen around the waterholes, much akin to the behavior I would expect in the wet season. I would make an uninformed guess that the availability of water (and resulting areas where grasslands remain) lead to less stress and survival drive, and therefore more time for goofing off. Take it with an extra large grain of salt and hold the fries, as the only experience I have with animal behavior is practical rather than academic.
I left Etosha after a stay I thought far too brief, headed back to the humid waterways of the East. Were I to come again I would choose the wet season, to see the vast difference in the experience, to see the explosion of color rise up from the comparative silence of summer’s muted and dusty palette. It would however be a very different kind of beauty. Etosha to me was the quintessential safari experience. The imagery the park can inspire, the dust, the parched earth scorched by the strength of the white-hot sun, the shimmering savannah from which the animals would emerge to drink, the trumpets and calls carried for miles across the flat plains, the memory seems drawn from the word safari itself. This is no dense bushland or endless plateau, but a theatre where the struggle for survival is distilled and played out in the tradition of life for countless millennia.
This guest post was submitted by Robert Alexander, a wildlife photographer from Tanzania, currently based out of the Netherlands and working part time alongside his studies in ecology and the environment. His images are to be found on his website where a selection of his work is on display, in addition to projects and excursions.