Etosha National Park

Namibia - Etosha National Park (6)

Photo Spot Summary

Country: Namibia

Category: Wildlife

GPS Latitude: -18.855591

GPS Longitude: 16.329321

Directions

Fly into Namibia - the Etosha National Park is very easy to find, and any driver can take you there.

Photo Spot Details

Etosha National Park is a national park that is located in northwestern Namibia. Proclaimed as a game reserve in March of 1907, it has been a very popular spot among many tourists and photographers.

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 centerpiece of the park one sees a vast salt pan surrounded by grasslands covered in bone-white sand. The closer you come to the center 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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (1)
The stark colors of the zebra were well represented on this dusty and overcast day
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 450mm, ISO 400, 1/1600, f/6.3

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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (2)
Three large elephants emerge from the wind blasted wastes of the Etosha salt pan
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 320, 1/200, f/16.0

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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (3)
A dust painted ghost at a closer distance, some areas are so white that my trusty d810 simply could not capture the fine detail of its skin, regardless of exposure
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 150mm, ISO 320, 1/3200, f/5.0

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 photo shoot he vanished back into the bush, surprisingly quiet for such a juggernaut. I was to find out that rhinos 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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (4)
A close up of a black rhino taken as he was following a game trail to one of the many watering holes littering the park.
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 550mm, ISO 500, 1/320, f/11.0

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 of 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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (5)
After the elephants had sated their immediate need things calmed down and the zebra herd began to amalgamate into the chaos
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 300mm, ISO 320, 1/250, f/16.0

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 its 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…

Namibia - Etosha National Park (6)
The heat of the sun and the dust faded into moments of quiet respite near sunset. A lone greater kudu walked stately to the water’s edge for a drink joined soon by some impala
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 500mm, ISO 400, 1/1000, f/6.3

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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (7)
A young male Impala prances and springs about the waterhole in the setting sun showing off to the more stoic Kudu
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f/6.3

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.

Namibia - Etosha National Park (8)
A female steenbok carefully picks her way across the bush
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 500, 1/640, f/11.0
Namibia - Etosha National Park (9)
Blue skies as a lilac breasted roller lies in wait for its morning meal to appear
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 500, 1/1250, f/11.0

This photo spot 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.

Map

Etosha National Park

 

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Pat
    March 17, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    The 150-600 is certainly a versatile lens for a trip like this but you’d never confuse the photos with those taken with primes in the same range. If money weren’t an issue, it would be a no brainer but for most folks, 150-600 makes a lot of sense.
    I think I’d rather rent a couple primes and an extra body (if required).

  2. Sean T
    March 9, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    That was lovely, thank you. Both the photos and the poetic narrative are terrific. Good practical note too – take two bodies, weather-sealed everything, and don’t change lenses!

  3. Berto
    March 6, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Very happy to read this article of Etosha. Congratulations for your pictures.
    I’m a tour guide based in Namibia for more than seven years and I go to Etosha at least once a month sometimes even more. It is a wonderful place but not the only good one to see wildlife in Namibia. Although the country is mostly arid and desertic it is one of the only place on earth where you can find animals in such environments. Lions, rhinos and elephants (just to name a few) can be found outside the national parks especially in the North-West of the country. On the other side of the country (The Caprivi strip) we find rivers running the whole year through such as the Zambezi, the Kwando and the Okavango and it attracts a huge diversity of animals and birds. I would recommend anyone to visit this part of Namibia too.

    Regards.

    Berto

  4. Betty
    March 4, 2017 at 6:53 am

    A beautifully evocative piece of writing.
    Your comments about returning in the wet season strike a particular chord with me. Most people go in the dry season as it’s cooler, insect free and the wildlife, being forced to congregate around the remaining water, is easier to find. However, this is offset by the fact that the animals tend to be in poorer condition, there are relatively few birds (all the migrants, of which there are many, will be absent), there are no young animals (as most animals time their gestation for the start of the rains), the background is dead and leafless, it can be impossibly dusty and the light conditions range from difficult to horrible.
    There is no cloud cover so the sky remains relentlessly clear. Other than very early morning and late afternoon the light is harsh, direct and flat. This means a huge tonal range resulting in burned out highlights and blocked shadows. This in turn, leads to eyes with no detail or catchlight, hard shadows breaking the animals outline (when side lit), poor modelling (when front or top lit) and drab, desaturated colour. Unfortunately, this is the typical look of most African wildlife photography.
    That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is – unless you choose a different time – and there are downsides to that too!

  5. Alex Strazar
    March 4, 2017 at 5:22 am

    Excellent description of Etosha, and top notch photos. Just in time for my third visit, again it will be April/May. Yes, Etosha does have three distinctive “faces” and while in the winter months wildlife around waterholes is much more productive, the light in April/May, with an occasional downpour, and puffy white clouds, is what impressed me in previous two trips.

  6. Muhammad Omer
    March 3, 2017 at 2:15 am

    Thanks for the great images Mr Hoelman. Next time I would love to see you book a trip with Philip Stander and sgow us some of those desert lions. Aside from the ones in the photos. What other species did u see?

  7. Stephane
    March 2, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Thank you for sharing your experience. And thank you for remember me beautiful souvenirs. I went to Etosha twice and each time I lived new experiences. My best one is the waterhole of Okaukuejo during the sunset. The light is wonderful and animals, species by species, come for drinking in the silence of the bushveld. Terrific!

  8. Khürt Williams
    March 1, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Robert.

  9. Phasetwo
    March 1, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you, I wonder how much these safari cost ? I’m used to travelling cheap has a backpacker ( I hate that term) , altough africa seems to have a couple of backpacker friendly country when I look at all thoses nature park and reserve and safaris prices, it seems to me that safaris are all made up for rich upper class tourist in most if not all Africa’s park . How easy could it be to get around in namibia without needing an organized trip or having to break the bank?

    • Betty
      March 4, 2017 at 5:28 am

      Namibia is very ‘civilised’ with good roads and infrastructure so from that point of view is user-friendly for getting around safely. Distances are large so flying by small plane is the obvious option unless you are a seasoned traveler and have plenty of time. Namibia is not however, the best place for wildlife viewing unless you are pretty dedicated and know where and when to go. Etosha is a one off kind of place. Most of the country is desert of one kind or another and wildlife is hard to find. It does however, have some spectacular and dramatic scenery which is well worth seeing.

  10. Art Tyree
    March 1, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Exquisite work, Robert–and equally engaging commentary that shows intelligence and sensitivity. Your piece allowed me to get a bit of the feel of that very special place. If I do get to go to Africa, that would be the location to choose.

  11. George
    March 1, 2017 at 8:47 am

    First of all…impressive, great photos!
    I’m wondering if you would think of changing your gear at all if you would go again the same route? I mean, if you would replace it with some more compact and lighter gear, like M43 (Oly/Pan) or Fuji. There is so much buzz on the net about mirrorless now days, advantages in the size, and anything else that some people point to. It’s usually about traveling, because you have to carry the big bag with so much gear, all around.
    Please, comment…

    • March 1, 2017 at 9:28 am

      Hi George,

      so it’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot but it comes down to two things for me, the range of a 600mm (especially for those rare sights of more skittish fauna) and the sturdyness and amount of battering a lens like the sigma sport can take. Ive scratched and banged it against branches, thorns, car hoods etc. and barely a mark on it. I’ll take the weight and bulkyness as a cost anyday and I end up sacrificing space elsewhere. (It did take a while before I developed the strength to be able to comfortably hold the SIgma 150-600 sport upright for extended amounts of time i’ll admit XD ) As far as mirrorless goes I havent looked into that as an alternative that much. Regardless it will probably be quite a few years before I give up my current setup. Hope that helps :)

      Robert

    • Betty
      March 4, 2017 at 5:16 am

      George
      I have a lot of experience in Africa and use both Nikon and Fuji so take this as well meant.
      Mirrorless is fairly hopeless for wildlife – other than static stuff. If an animal runs or a bird flies it just can’t keep up.
      Mirrorless APSC/M43 are significantly lighter/smaller than Mirrored FX but mirrorless FX is not – you can’t beat the Laws of Physics. The bodies may be a bit smaller but that’s actually a disadvantage when the inevitably large, heavy telephoto is attached as the set up is often seriously unbalanced.
      In this arena the big beasts still rule.

      • Pete A
        March 5, 2017 at 1:25 pm

        Yes indeed, Betty!

        It is the entrance pupil of the lens that captures the object space of the scene, and delivers it to the image space of the recording medium. The size of the recording medium film/sensor and the camera is irrelevant: the front elements of lenses that are suitable for capturing wildlife-in-motion are large, heavy, and very expensive to manufacture! Actually, they become increasingly expensive to manufacture as the sensor size reduces below DX format.

        Regarding autofocus performance: phase-detect outperforms contrast-detect, not due to technology per se, but simply due to the well-estabilished mathematics of feedback and control system theory. This is the very reason why a plethora of state-of-the-art electronic systems still rely on phased-locked loops, rather than on the inherently much slower [due to the laws of our universe] techniques for optimizing other parameters, such as: contrast; resolution; or error rate.

  12. TonyE
    March 1, 2017 at 7:36 am

    A nicely written piece Robert , and a very interesting and useful introduction to this unique and fascinating area. Having just returned from the Mara I can certainly relate to the problems with heat haze, which can result in a lot of disappointing images if you’re not aware. Whilst I had next to no issues with dust, we know that it can be very difficult to deal with at times. A good quality dust bag is a sensible purchase for anyone going on his or her first safari. The next issue of course is changing lenses when out on a game drive – something that should be avoided if at all possible. Obviously, two cameras is the answer if you can, and if your weight allowance will allow. I’m also a Nikon shooter and now take two D810’s. The 200-400mm was my safari lens of choice a few years back until I decided it was a bit larger and heavier than I wanted. I considered the 80-400mm, but was put off as my wife’s copy sucked in dust every time the zoom was adjusted. I now use the new Nikon 200-500mm and cannot fault it. I used it primarily for birds in Ruaha last March, for just about everything last October in South Luangwa and again extensively a couple of weeks ago in Kenya. I’m certainly not saying that it’s better than the excellent Sigma 150-600mm Sport, but thought I’d just give it an endorsement as I know some Nikon shooters are still doubting its capabilities due to its relatively low cost. I should also note that I’ve had no issues with it sucking in dust. My go to lens when I’m not travelling light is the new 500mm f/4 PF so I know all about IQ. Obviously the prime is more reliable in terms of overall performance, particularly AF acquisition but, in good light and all else being equal, IQ from the 200-500mm isn’t far off. Okay, sharpness in the corners isn’t brilliant, but we’re wildlife photographers and most of the time we’re only concerned with the subject. The combination of what you take on safari comes down to what you own, what you could acquire and what you can actually take. Don’t have too many choices. Up to this last trip I though that the 200-500mm on one D810 coupled with a 70-200mm on another body was the answer. Plus a small lightweight wideangle in the bag. For my next trip I’m leaving the 70-200mm and the wideangle at home and putting the useful 24-120mm on the other camera. Apologies if I’ve taken this comment further than intended, but you wrote such a thought-provoking article in respect of conditions and equipment that I thought my experiences may be of interest to others. Keep writing articles like this and all the best with your website.

  13. Ron
    March 1, 2017 at 6:14 am

    My goodness, your photographic skills combined with the amazing capacity of the D810 and the excellent lens, it all comes together – in particular the image of the elephants and zebras together, if I stare at that I begin to think that at any moment the animals will start moving. The images are like an opening into their world.

    Amazing,

    Ron

  14. Glen Fox
    March 1, 2017 at 5:54 am

    Thank you for this wonderful article. The photos are terrific, but I was even more impressed with your skillful writing. Your descriptions were so vivid I could see and feel the dust! A real gift!

  15. GregB
    March 1, 2017 at 3:48 am

    Hi,
    Thanks for your report (and great captures), which really comes in handy for me as I’m travelling this year to Namibia as well. Just like you I will also be bringing my Sigma 150-600 Sport, so I’m interested in your opinions how it performed there, given all the dust, haze, working distances etc. May I know which camps in Etosha did you stay at ? I will be based in Mushara Bush Camp and Okaukuejo. Also which waterholes proved to be most productive game wise for you ? Any tips ?

    thanks
    Greg

    • March 1, 2017 at 9:34 am

      Hey Greg,

      well the biggest piece of advice I can give is to spend the first day there scouting as many waterholes as you can and looking for as much poop as you can spot (bear with me here), even if waterholes seem abandoned the turd will tell the tale so to speak. Large amounts of fresh dung around a waterhole will tend to indicate if thats a good place to head to in the peak spotting hours of the day. As this tends to change over longer periods of time there really is no one best spot to be at (from my discussion with the park rangers). The Sigma by the way was an absolute trooper, no complaints there. The dust and haze is just something you have to work around, though early mornings and evenings are the clearest from my experience there!

      cheers,

      Robert

      • GregB
        March 2, 2017 at 8:03 am

        Thanks Robert,

        Good tips concerning chosing waterholes by the dung :-)
        Keeping the Etosha’s context have you possibly made rough statistics as to what focal length was prevalent with the Sigma during your time there ? Was it mostly racked out to 600 mm or the objects were allowing (on average) to get closer and you could zoom out a bit ? Were you using any kind of support for the lens like a molar bean bag or similar ?

        thanks again
        Greg

    • Johan
      March 7, 2017 at 10:09 pm

      Greg this is something you can look at – I’m also visting the Etosha and the kgalagadi Transfrontier in July

      The Photographers Guide to Etosha National Park

  16. Anpu
    March 1, 2017 at 3:26 am

    THANK you.
    How far were you from the elephant?

  17. John Louw
    March 1, 2017 at 2:22 am

    I am interested in what 150-600 lens ( Tamron or Sigma) Rob was using in Etosha?

    • March 1, 2017 at 3:46 am

      Hey there John, I was using the Sigma 150-600 Sport Edition. Having used it for multiple trips now I’m absolutely in love with it.

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